New book blows Treaty of Waitangi debate wide open


(see new related story here)

By Ian Wishart

“Had Captain Hobson been able to conceive what was entailed in the piece-meal purchase of a country held under tribal ownership, it is difficult to think that he would have signed the Treaty without hesitation.

“He could not, of course, imagine that he was giving legal force to a system under which the buying of a block of land would involve years of bargaining, even when a majority of its owners wished to sell; that the ascertainment of a title would mean tedious and costly examination by courts of experts of a labyrinth of strange and conflicting barbaric customs; that land might be paid for again and again, and yet be declared unsold; that an almost empty wilderness might be bought first from its handful of occupants, then from the conquerors who had laid it waste, and yet after all be reclaimed by returned slaves or fugitives who had quitted it years before, and who had been paid for the land on which they had been living during their absence.

“Governor Hobson could not foresee that cases would occur in which the whole purchase money of broad lands would be swallowed up in the costs of sale, or that a greedy tribe of expert middlemen would in days to come bleed Maori and settler alike.”

As an opening shot in the war that has become the Treaty of Waitangi, those words just quoted are hard to beat. They encapsulate all the cynicism, doubt and eye-rolling frustration that have surrounded the Treaty in recent years.

So which perceptive commentator made that statement? Hone Harawira? Don Brash? Rodney Hide?

None of the above is the correct answer. The passage was written way back in 1898, while the ink was still ‘wet’ on the 1840 Treaty in a legal sense, and the massive treaty settlement upheavals of the 1990s and today were but a distant dream. The man who wrote it was William Pember-Reeves, a former New Zealand journalist turned cabinet minister, historian and lifelong socialist, in his book The Long White Cloud, a brief history of New Zealand.

There’s been a lot of revisionist history written in New Zealand in more recent years in my view; politically-correct stuff or agenda-laden texts from social and political change merchants who could be regarded as posing as historians or researchers. What I wanted to capture in this book was something different, what I consider to be the “authentic” voices from New Zealand’s past without being filtered through the pen and prejudices of academia. Naturally, and I can hear the screams already, some will say this book is filtered through the prejudices of a journalist. Perhaps. You can be the judge of that. But I think you will find this book plays the issue with a straight bat. I report it the way I found it, and provide references all the way through if you want to read the source documents for yourself.

I have no particular dog in the ring, except for my support of a written constitution to provide certainty moving forward. I am married to a woman of Maori-Italian extraction, and my children proudly share a slice of Ngati Whatua heritage – a couple have enough of the “tar brush”, as their Maori grandfather so quaintly puts it, that Maori mums at school or daycare have wondered which local hapu they came from. Under the strict terms of the Treaty of Waitangi Act, my children are officially “Maori”. They are also Scot and Irish, direct descendants of John McGechean who arrived in Wellington on the Bengal Merchant on 20 February 1840, literally 14 days after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, and also of the Allison and Laurie families onboard Auckland’s “First Fleet” of migrants in September 1842 – the ships Duchess of Argylle and the Jane Gifford. In that extent, my family is typical of many in New Zealand today – blended ethnicities, authentic Kiwi ‘mongrel’. As Captain Hobson predicted at Waitangi all those years ago, ‘He iwi tahi tatou’ – we have indeed become one people.

One hundred and fourteen years ago, in 1898, William Pember-Reeves already had a pretty good handle on why the Treaty had turned into a legal minefield, and it seems little has changed. There have been a number of “full and final” treaty settlements since then involving the same portions of land and tribes, and somehow what was once deemed “settled” suddenly turns out not to be quite so.

Behind it all lies a labyrinth of cultural differences – fundamentally the Maori concept of land ownership was collective, whilst Europeans were used to individual title. The assumption that was often made – that those Maori currently occupying the land in question were its owners – was not always the case.

So who were these two “Treaty Partners” that modern legislation and court rulings talk of? What did each bring to the table, and what did they expect to gain or lose? Does a document essentially drafted on the equivalent of a café napkin in 1840 have legal relevance, and if so how should we look at it as we move towards a new Constitution?

To answer these questions, we need to set the scene; to go back in time and re-live some of those early moments of New Zealand history through the eyes of those who were there. It is only after hearing their voices that we can arguably put in context the arguments of modern Treaty commentators and advocates.

History doesn’t come alive until it lifts off the pages in front of you, and what I’ve tried to do in this book is give you the major waypoints on New Zealand’s journey to nationhood, in living colour. Some of what you read will challenge what you’ve read in other popular history books.

My preference has been to use original texts wherever possible – eyewitness reports – and commentaries as close to the events in question as possible, in order to give readers a feel for how people more intimately connected to those events interpreted them. I’ve quoted liberally from old texts and books long out of print, deliberately, so that readers can get the full context of what’s being said, rather than mere snippets dropped in to reinforce a point.

The downside to that is you can see some examples of what we would now call racist attitudes, but we’re all smart enough to make allowances for writers speaking to us from 100 to 300 years ago as creatures of their times. You will also notice archaic spelling, which I have not changed either given the context.

There is a difference between items of factual reportage, and items of opinion. All of us, including the voices from the past, are entitled to our opinions however outrageous. The facts however can speak for themselves. You can judge for yourself the merits of this approach, setting New Zealand’s past free from what I see as the biases of its cultural and political gatekeepers.

It is the experiences of real people, on all sides of an event, that define how the event is seen in history. The story of New Zealand is not some dry, dusty compendium of old parchments written by a collection of fusty academics; it is a story of life and death, of triumph and tragedy, of two peoples meeting for the first time in history – with wildly different backgrounds – struggling to find balance, honour and a new way forward.

It is the story of change, of how things never stay the same no matter how much we wish them to, and how ‘adapt or die’ is the overarching driving force that has filled humanity’s sails since the beginning of time. It was the wind of change that drove the first humans from the warmth of the tropical Pacific down to temperate New Zealand, and the same wind that blew European explorers onto our shores either hundreds of – or as little as 300 depending on who you believe – years later.

History was not forged by the politically correct. It was forged by people with strong beliefs, strong prejudices and all the passion you’d expect from people at the earth’s last civilisational frontier.

Maori or Pakeha, the making of New Zealand is a story we can all be proud of, something we can and should celebrate.

It’s our story.

THE GREAT DIVIDE: The Story of New Zealand & Its Treaty by Ian Wishart
RRP$ 36.99
Available from Whitcoulls, Paperplus, Take Note, The Warehouse, Relay, Dymocks and all good bookstores

Also available as ebook


  1. Certain to cause hot discussion….and based upon the quality of research and thinking and the authors strong capability in the midst of subjective hearts and minds to find objective realities and parameters of certain truth it is sure to be a Good read…..

    Another University text book/required reading in the making???

  2. Kiaora. Tēnā koe.

    He tika te korero o te koroua tipuna , “tar brush” He is a beautiful Black Pearl, no doubt.

    The ‘written word’ is just that, ‘written’. Through the eyes of a stranger.

    I don’t give a toss about your claim of original texts, because like Te Tiriti…a crafted worthless contract ‘ ‘penned’ by He tangata ‘Manene’ (stranger) in favour of the strangers.

    There is no “story of change”, journalists of the “stranger” kind still pen biased articles.

    We two peoples will never be ‘ONE’ Paul Holmes, Michael Laws, Don Brash and racist horrible people like them will never allow it to occur, because they have the eyes and the ears of the country listening to them via the airwaves and it is people like them who espouse their hatred with blessings from their employers that dictate how people in our communities behave towards each other.

    Yes, you would all probably cite, Tama iti and Hone Harawira…they are the Rua Kenana and the Hone Heke from days past, nga mokopuna.

    To be born into a unique Hapu, that is the Kaitiaki o te maunga Tapu ko Hikurangi, my claims are that no ‘stranger ‘can ever take and sell for it is unobtainable, rare and priceless. They are my:

    Te reo tuturu
    Toku ahua – Au Natural Tanned
    Toku Mana – Self Respect
    Toku Wairua Tapu Māori – My spiritual Māori being

    The RRP $ 36.99 for your written book, I’m afraid is Cheap, which to me clearly indicates that the contents contained therein are Cheap as well.

    @M Beattie Another University text book/required reading in the making???

    Uni text books are expensive, the one advertised above is not.

    I shall conclude with this passage that I took from the first chapter of a book and the chapter’s name is called ‘Genesis’…

    “The dominant and most deep-dyed trait of the journalist is his timourousness. Where the novelist fearlessly plunges into the water of self-exposure, the journalist stands trembling on the shore in his beach robe.”

    – Janet Malcolm, Author, THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER

  3. Kia ora Siena…thank you for your words regarding my tamariki.

    However, I had to smile at being accused of timorousness.

    The book takes a crack at both sides in this debate, through the eyes of Maori, and through the eyes of Pakeha, who were there. It is not about writing from the perspective of a coloniser….although Blind Freddy and his dog will be able to see examples of colonial thinking in the old documents. But they will also see examples of the grace and wisdom of Maori leaders post Waitangi whom, I suspect, would be shocked to see where things have led.

    There are two sides to every story, and the story of New Zealand is not exclusively the story of nga tangata Maori, nor nga tangata Pakeha. The truth is both sides had reasons for signing the Treaty, genuine reasons, and thats what the book explores, then compares their expectations against the current debate.

    I can tell you this much: what is often now asserted as “Maori belief” at the time of the Treaty was not. And that in itself is an eye-opener.

    Likewise, the shortcomings of the Colonial administration are reflected in this conclusion from the book: “These were the things, then, that chipped away at Maori/Pakeha relations, chipped away at trust. After steering two peoples almost onto a common purpose, the winds of revolution and stupidity in the sixties blew them off course for more than a century. Where Maori had sought Pakeha men with spirits in the image of God, they found instead ordinary, fallible men with feet of clay. If the Pakeha bureaucracy had acted on a more principled basis, history might have turned out differently.”

    Neither side emerges from The Great Divide unscathed. Everyone will have something worthwhile they can take from this book, and it’s priced so everyone can afford it, not just the elites.

  4. Kiaora Ian. 🙂

    You know exactly where I got that passage from and it wasn’t from King Jame’s version chapter 1 ki roto ‘Te Paipera Tapu. GENESIS

    More like The Old Mongolian Yak Trick[s] of the Manene, still alive and kicking today.

    …and they live by the motto…All that Glitters is a ‘Retail Deposit Guarantee Scheme’ recommended by the Almighty Billy and implemented in haste by one of his inept desciples…Treasury.


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