A Sovereign Act
We were taught that in 1840 Maori willingly exchanged their sovereignty for the benefits of becoming British subjects. What if we were taught wrong?
The night is still thick with stars when we rise to make our way to the flagpole. It’s five in the morning of October 28, 2o13, and there are about two dozen of us clustered in the corner of a paddock next to Te Tii marae, at Waitangi. We are in a place called Te Tou Rangatira, the seat of chiefs. We’re here to celebrate Independence Day.
“Usually it’s just a couple of old fellas here to fly the flag,” Nuki Aldridge, a kaumatua from Whangaroa, tells me. Not so many years ago, barely anyone attended. In a short korero to the gathering, Aldridge mentions an old blind kaumatua who looked after the marae. Sometimes he was the only one who commemorated the day that Ngapuhi signed their Declaration of Independence. “Pita Apiata—all alone on his marae so he could keep the 28th of October,” Aldridge says.
We sing a couple of verses of “How Great Thou Art” in Maori, and an eager tui starts calling the dawn in the nearby trees, still just smudges in the darkness. The only light is a half moon, the street lights on the Paihia–Waitangi road, and a torch being shone resolutely on the flagpole.
“OK, let’s fly it,” says Aldridge, and the flag is pulled slowly upwards. The torch beam follows it as it rises. At the top of the pole a breeze catches it and the flag unfurls to show two red stripes, making the St George Cross, and four white stars on four blue quadrants in the top corner. It is a handsome design, chosen by Ngapuhi chiefs in 1834—one of their first internationally recognised acts of nationhood.
“Haere mai, te kara!” a few voices say—literally, “Welcome, the colour.” The flag, known officially as the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand, is referred to by Maori as te kara, te haki (the jack) and te paki, the rain cape, signifying its role as a protective covering, a symbolic shelter for the people. We’re facing south, and as the ceremony concludes, a shooting star scribes an arc near the Southern Cross. Later, some people say it was a tohu, a sign, a cosmic endorsement of Ngapuhi’s radical claim: “We never ceded sovereignty.”
Every New Zealander has heard of the Treaty of Waitangi. Many even have a rough idea what it says, in its English translation, at least. But perhaps only one in a thousand has heard of the Declaration of Independence. The majority of New Zealanders would be surprised to learn that we have one. There’s a simple reason for this knowledge gap. According to the conventional story of the country’s early years, the Treaty is our founding document, and in the Treaty Maori relinquished their political independence when they ceded their sovereignty. So whatever a Declaration of Independence might have meant in 1835, when it was written, it became irrelevant in 1840, and remains so today.
That is not Ngapuhi’s view.
In October 2010, the country’s largest iwi commenced hearings before the Waitangi Tribunal over a claim known as Te Paparahi o te Raki, the lands of the north—‘Wai 1040’ on the tribunal’s docket. Wai 1040 is not a land claim, or a claim for compensation for past injustices. Rather, it asks the tribunal to examine the basis of the New Zealand government’s authority to govern. Did Ngapuhi cede their sovereignty, or was it usurped?
Opening the first week of hearings, chairman Pita Tipene called the claim “the most important constitutional inquiry in New Zealand’s history”. Central to Ngapuhi’s case is the Declaration of Independence. Ngapuhi believe that it, not the Treaty, should be the constitutional foundation for the country. They state emphatically that the Treaty did not revoke the declaration; it confirmed it.
These are big, far-reaching assertions, and they are light years away from the conventional understanding of the place of the declaration in New Zealand history. According to the history books, the Declaration of Independence was a misguided venture cooked up by the British Resident, James Busby, largely for the advancement of his own political agenda; the confederation of chiefs who signed it were induced by Busby to do so, and never met again to enact the declaration’s provisions; and in 1840, the document and its chiefly confederation were rendered impotent.
Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong, say Ngapuhi. And this, to me, is the really surprising thing: no historian seems ever to have asked Ngapuhi for their understanding of the declaration. Why not, I wondered? And so I found myself shivering at dawn in front of a flagpole, to learn what I could of Ngapuhi’s story.
The day after the flag-raising ceremony, Nuki Aldridge takes me to a high point east of Whangaroa Harbour. Just offshore, the Cavalli Islands lie like floating hills on a glittering sea. Kupe is said to have made his first landfall on this stretch of coastline, and ever since the great navigator’s visit, Whangaroa has been a place of arrivals and departures for voyaging waka. One of the features Kupe named in this area is Te Au Kanapanapa, the flashing current. On a day like today you can see why.
This high spot would be a good vantage point to watch for a tsunami, and it’s a good place to discuss the human tsunami that Ngapuhi faced in the 1800s. “They could see what was coming,” Aldridge says. “A wave was forming on the horizon— the old people called it te ngaru—and it threatened to swamp them.” The old way of thinking—every hapu for itself—would not be able to cope with the new reality, the flood of immigrants, ‘he waipuke Pakeha’.
A new approach was needed: an assembly of chiefs that could make decisions for the hapu collectively. Through the initiative of the Bay of Islands chief Te Pahi and other rangatira, such an assembly was formed in around 1807. It became known as Te Whakaminenga o nga Hapu o Nu Tireni—the gathering of the hapu of New Zealand. Some Ngapuhi give it a slightly grander translation: the General Assembly of the Tribal Nations of New Zealand. This was the body that declared its sovereignty to the world in 1835.
It would be incorrect to think that collective action was something new for Ngapuhi, Aldridge tells me. “There had always been short-term alliances between hapu for trade, for defence, for conserving resources,” he says. “The whakaminenga arose from the need for a permanent alliance, a united hapu authority.”
The alliance had its first meeting at Whangaroa. Aldridge takes me to the very spot, Te Ngaere, where a sluggish stream feeds into the corner of a superb crescent of white-sand beach. In the 1800s, waka could be paddled right into the stream the chiefs could get out without even getting their feet wet— but today, a sand bar blocks the entrance.
We linger among the reeds and stands of flax and overhanging pohutukawa, reflecting on some of the great names of Ngapuhi who stood where we stand—Hongi Hika, foremost of all. Hongi is one of Aldridge’s tupuna, and Aldridge lives not far from where he died. More than any other rangatira, Hongi set the tone of mutual respect and reciprocity that marked the early engagement between Maori and the British Crown—the “conversation”, as Ngapuhi like to call it. It was a conversation that started quite literally, with greetings between Hongi and King George IV that supposedly went like this:
“How do ye do, Mr King George?”
“How do ye do, Mr King Hongi?”
And that exchange, in a nutshell, was the foundation of the next 20 years of the relationship between Ngapuhi and the Crown: two rangatira recognising each other’s status and sovereignty, and also recognising that each had something the other wanted. Britain wanted resources, and Ngapuhi wanted security. Both of these interests are prominent in the text of the Declaration of Independence.
The 1820 visit to England by Hongi, in the company of the young Bay of Islands chief Waikato, was a remarkable event by any standards. Not many Pakeha can say they’ve spent a semester at Cambridge University; Hongi and Waikato did. They lived in Queens’ College for three months, working with a linguist on the first Maori lexicon.
Just as remarkable was the reception they had from British officialdom. Manuka Henare, a Ngapuhi academic who teaches on economic development and management at the Auckland Business School, told the tribunal: “Hongi and Waikato were treated as ambassadors. They met every member of the British cabinet, had lunch with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and met with the councils of the city of London. All of the commentators who were present in these meetings remarked on the sagacity and insight of both these chiefs.”
But it was more than a meet-and-greet between foreign leaders. It was a high-level diplomatic mission. “What they were saying to the Crown,” said Henare, “is, ‘You do this for us—you look after our interests internationally—and we’ll look after your people in our country, and your people can live here in peace’.” A relationship was being forged: a new political engagement between two disparate regimes.
These were rapidly changing times for Ngapuhi. “Ka nukunuku, ka nekeneke,” one speaker said—moving and changing. And for Ngapuhi’s economy, booming. Ngapuhiowned ships were circumnavigating the world. Ngapuhi crops were feeding the convicts and colonials of New South Wales. By 1840, as many as 1000 Ngapuhi had travelled to 69 countries. As those traders and travellers returned home, they held wananga to share information and experiences with their hapu. “Ngapuhi were becoming increasingly familiar with the non-Maori world,” said Aldridge.
They were also becoming familiar with that world’s threats.
British sloops and French corvettes, bristling with firepower, were becoming a regular sight in Northland waters, their presence underscoring a global power structure in which Maori were clearly vulnerable. On land, lawless Pakeha flouted tikanga and ignored tapu, triggering violence and eroding social stability.
Frustrated by Britain’s failure to control its wayward subjects, in 1831 Ngapuhi rangatira sent King William IV a message: deal with the troublemakers or “the anger of tangata Maori will be upon them”.
The king responded. He sent Busby.
Te Puhipi—The Busby—is portrayed as one of the more hapless figures in New Zealand history. Sent as a combination of peacekeeper, race relations conciliator and homeland security chief, he was provided with no means of enforcing his authority. He had no powers of arrest, and his nearest military back-up was in New South Wales. He was mocked as the “man o’ war without guns”. But as the official British Resident in New Zealand, he had a hand in three defining events in Ngapuhi’s political journey: the flag, the declaration and the Treaty. And for this, many Ngapuhi hold him in high regard. Manuka Henare certainly does, and we talked about Busby and his relationship with Ngapuhi as we walked through Busby’s former home and around his property—now the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, the place where both the declaration and the Treaty were signed.
Busby was a Scot, and Henare believes his nationality gave him insight into and sympathy for Ngapuhi’s situation. Busby would have seen similarities between Te Whakaminenga and the Scottish parliamentary tradition of decentralised decision making. “Wherever the Scottish clan leaders gathered, that was the parliament,” Henare said. “They met in little marae-type places for hundreds of years: here, there, all over Scotland. The leaders made decisions for their clans and also on behalf of all of Scotland. Like Maori, they were moving from the hapu model to a collective capacity.”
Although Busby was enthusiastic about Te Whakaminenga—he even wanted to build a parliament house for its meetings—he appears not to have appreciated either its long history or its ongoing activity. In his reports, he implied that he, Busby, instigated the confederation, and that his efforts were needed to maintain it. It suited Busby’s agenda (and career prospects) to be seen as the linchpin in Ngapuhi’s political development, the one who would instruct them in the art of acting in concert.
After organising the flag, Busby turned his attention to helping the chiefs declare their autonomy. This project became urgent, in Busby’s eyes, when the grandiose Baron Charles de Thierry, signing himself “Sovereign Chief of New Zealand” and “King of Nuku Hiva”, advised the British Resident that he was on his way from Tahiti to set up an independent state in Hokianga. Busby considered the baron a threat to national security and took immediate steps to thwart him.
Ngapuhi were less alarmed than Busby was—after all, they owned the land on which de Thierry planned to establish his colony—but they were well aware of the disastrous impact of European colonisation elsewhere in the Pacific. The time was right to assert their authority against foreign interference. A formal declaration was in order.
Here, in a modern translation, is what the Ngapuhi chiefs proclaimed:
We, the absolute leaders of the tribes of New Zealand north of Hauraki, declare our sovereignty over our land in the name of the Confederation of Tribal Nations of New Zealand. The supreme authority and mana from the land of the confederated tribes are here declared to belong solely to the leaders of our gathering, and we declare that we will not allow any other group to frame laws or establish a government in our lands unless they are appointed by us, and act in accordance with our laws. We agree to meet each autumn in Waitangi to enact laws to dispense justice, sustain peace, put an end to wrongdoing and foster fair trade, and we invite tribes from the south to join our assembly. We agree to send a copy of this declaration to the King of England, thanking him for his approval of our flag and asking him to be a mentor and protector for us during this formative period of our statehood, lest our sovereignty be negated.
Thirty-four rangatira signed the declaration on October 28, 1835, along with a young man named Eruera Pare, fluent in English and Maori, who, Ngapuhi believe, helped write and translate it. Four Englishmen signed as witnesses: two missionaries and two merchants. Over the next four years, 18 more chiefs signed, including two big names from the south: Te Hapuku, from Hawke’s Bay, and Te Wherowhero, from Waikato, who would later become the first Maori king. Signatures continued to be added until as late as 1890, when 40 Hauraki chiefs endorsed the declaration.
Like the Treaty, the document signed by Maori is written in Maori; the English version Busby circulated and sent back to England is a translation. The title in Maori is He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni.
Whakaputanga is an interesting word. Often translated as ‘declaration’, it can also be translated as ‘emergence’, and this is how I have come to think of it: a proclamation that emerged from Ngapuhi’s engagement with the European world.
Ngapuhi had not needed to address that world in a collective way before. This whakaputanga was their manifesto, a Te Rarawa leader, Haami Piripi, told the tribunal. “They were putting it out there, that we are an independent nation. We want other people around the world to recognise it, and we certainly want Pakeha in Aotearoa to recognise it.”
Ngapuhi’s declaration has sometimes been compared to the United States Declaration of Independence of 1776, but the purpose and context of the two documents differ. While other declarations sought to end the tyranny of an existing oppressor, Ngapuhi’s whakaputanga fired a warning shot across the bows of any would-be usurper.
Perhaps a better comparison for He Whakaputanga would be the Declaration of Arbroath, made by 51 Scottish nobles in the year 1320, asserting Scotland’s right to exist as an independent kingdom. “As long as but a hundred of us remain alive,” the earls and barons declared, “never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom—for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”
Busby, being Scottish, would have known the Arbroath declaration well and made a connection between Ngapuhi’s fierce commitment to autonomy and that of his forebears. At the Waitangi Tribunal hearings, many Ngapuhi matched the Scots’ stirring oratory from seven centuries ago with their own, claiming that it was “culturally incomprehensible” that their tupuna would have willingly given up their sovereignty in 1840.
Erima Henare, the Maori Language Commissioner and son of the revered Ngapuhi leader Sir James Henare, didn’t mince his words. “The fact that Te Tiriti was signed and the foreigners were not annihilated is the best evidence that no demand on the sixth of February was made to cede sovereignty,” he said. “Had the demand to cede sovereignty been made, it would have been the ultimate insult, requiring the ultimate sanction, delivered by experts in warfare, resulting in a consequential failure to make a Treaty. In other words, the retention of Maori sovereignty guaranteed the existence of Te Tiriti.”
There is a parallel between the Scottish noblemen and the Ngapuhi rangatira in the way they sought support from an external power. In the Arbroath declaration (which takes the form of a letter to the Pope), the noblemen wrote: “We beseech your Holiness… that you will look with the eyes of a father on the troubles and privations brought by the English upon us and upon the Church of God. May it please you to admonish and exhort the King of the English, who ought to be satisfied with what belongs to him since England used once to be enough for seven kings or more, to leave us Scots in peace, who live in this poor little Scotland, beyond which there is no dwelling-place at all, and covet nothing but our own.”
This language is very close to the request the chiefs made to King William in He Whakaputanga: that he act as matua, a parent, “to their infant state”—as Busby put it in his translation. The parent–child metaphor has been interpreted by some as displaying subservience on Ngapuhi’s part, and an indication that they might well have been disposed to surrender their sovereignty five years later when they signed the Treaty.
Did the Scotsmen’s request that the Pope act as their father mean those bravehearts had turned into milquetoasts? Hardly—it was an emotive appeal asking a powerful leader to support a just cause. So, too, was Ngapuhi’s request, said those who spoke to the tribunal on the subject. “Maori did not see themselves as children looking up to an authority figure,” said a tribunal witness in Panguru. “They used the word ‘matua’ as recognition of the king’s mana—with the expectation that the respect would be reciprocal.”
James Busby called the Declaration of Independence the Magna Carta of New Zealand: a statement of sovereign authority that set limits on the power of outsiders. Many Ngapuhi hold the document in a more sacred light: it is “te kawenata tuatahi”, the first covenant, Te Tiriti being the second. In their eyes, the chiefs who signed the declaration were binding themselves for all time to each other, to the British monarchy, to the land that was the source of their authority, and to future generations who would share their mana whenua.
For those descendants, giving evidence at the tribunal hearings endorsed that sacred compact. Many brought photographs of their ancestors to the hearings, and spoke as much to them as to the tribunal. One speaker said: “I am compelled to give voice to their truth.” Some brought taonga—treasured possessions charged with the spirit of their former owners. Such objects have a whakapapa as clear, precise and cherished as any person. At the end of a session, they would be ceremonially removed for safekeeping. At Panguru, I watched a boy proudly carry a cardboard box with the handwritten words, “Dad’s medals”. Two men carried—‘escorted’ would be more accurate—an anchor stone slung in a flax kete. Women—many dressed in black because of the tapu of the proceedings—clutched framed photographs, the faces turned inward, near to their hearts.
The hearings were as much about reliving Ngapuhi history as they were about documenting it. The marquees and meeting houses where the tribunal presided became sites of communal remembrance, where spoken narratives and sung waiata blurred the distinction between past and present. The past became present, and it did so forcibly. At times, if the ihi of a speaker’s testimony seemed to call for it, women took to their feet and fluttered their hands in empathy.
In part, the tapu surrounding the declaration and the Treaty arises from the fact that many of the rangatira placed their moko marks on the documents. When I grew up, the standard conception was of illiterate Maori chiefs laboriously drawing their squiggles because they couldn’t sign their names. But now I see that even had those rangatira possessed a perfect command of the written word and the pen, they would still have drawn marks from their moko. Those designs were the equivalent of the seals of royalty. No greater commitment could a rangatira make than to affix his seal, the quintessence of his identity, to a document.
Some chiefs signed with the ngu moko, the tattoo pattern on the nose. In Maori tradition, the head is the most sacred part of the body and the nose the portal of the breath, te hau, that fundamental element of life. To use the ngu moko, one witness told the tribunal, is to make oneself permanently present, as in a face-to-face meeting.
It is for this reason that the darkened, windowless, vault like Constitution Room at the National Archives in Wellington, where the originals of Te Tiriti and He Whakaputanga are on display, has a basin of water and a sprig of greenery at the door, in accordance with the protocols of tapu. When you enter that room, you stand on holy ground.
This endowment of the document with tapu has caused 170 years of heartache for Ngapuhi, because you cannot violate tapu without consequences. And for 170 years, Te Tiriti has been violated. The physical treatment of the document alone attests to that. There it lies—water-damaged and rodent-eaten—the “founding document”, almost lost to the ravages of neglect.
More than anything else, it was the loss of regard by the Crown for the Treaty that wounded Maori. It was as if one partner in the conversation simply stopped talking. But more than that: it curled its lip, spat out an expletive and walked away. By 1860, the government was demanding of Maori “submission without reserve”, and 20 years later, the Treaty was written off as “a simple nullity”.
Yet the Maori “Treaty partner”, as the modern anodyne political narrative puts it, has consistently upheld the Treaty covenant. It had no option. In terms of its world view, to disrespect the Treaty was to disparage its signers.
The covenantal relationship Ngapuhi feel they have with the Crown was expressed movingly by Erima Henare at one of the hearings. He told the tribunal that prior to writing his submission, he had travelled to urupa around the Tai Tokerau region and seen many gravestones bearing the inscription “He kaihapai i Te Tiriti o Waitangi”—an upholder of the Treaty. Every cemetery in Tai Tokerau has such inscriptions, said Henare. “They went to their graves waiting for you to come. And they all say, ‘Honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi.'”
How will the Waitangi Tribunal find on Wai 1040? What recommendations will it make to Parliament? How will it speak to the “sovereign” about its sovereignty? The outcome could still be years away, but the tribunal’s report will be watched for with anticipation tempered with realism about the workings of political power. One speaker at Panguru told the tribunal: “The declaration is the Father, the Treaty is the Son, and your report will be the Holy Ghost.”
Much will depend on whether the tribunal accepts Ngapuhi’s view that the two documents fit hand in glove with each other—that the sovereignty declared by He Whakaputanga was affirmed by Te Tiriti. Pakeha history has vigorously denied that interpretation, portraying the declaration and the Treaty as something like a before-andafter advertisement. “This is you in 1835, with sovereignty, and this is you in 1840, without it.” How to lose generations of mana at the stroke of a pen.
That entrenched view will not be easily budged. At the tribunal hearings, lawyers for the Crown were unequivocal that the Treaty “brought an end to Maori sovereignty and independence” and that “any exercise of chieftainship was to be within the rubric of an overarching national Crown sovereignty”. This statement is the opposite of what He Whakaputanga declared—that any exercise of national government must be within the rubric of an overarching Maori rangatiratanga.
Rangatiratanga—that vexing word, promised in Te Tiriti and, Maori would say, never kept. Erimana Taniora traced its origins in his testimony at Panguru. ‘Raranga’ means to bind or weave; ‘tira’ is a group, such as a hapu. A rangatira is one whose role is to lead and unite a hapu and maintain its mana, and rangatiratanga is the process by which that happens. Rangatiratanga releases human potential—and for Taniora, this was a crucial point. If you are prevented from exercising your function in life, what chance do you have to flourish as a human being?
The Waitangi Tribunal has heard this line of argument before, and has spoken strongly in its favour. In its report on the Wai 262 claim concerning Maori traditional knowledge, the tribunal wrote about the failure of governing structures in New Zealand to recognise the iwi role of guardianship or kaitiakitanga, one of the functions of rangatiratanga. The tribunal wrote: “If iwi and hapu are unable to exercise their kaitiaki obligations, they are deprived of a core aspect of their culture… Without kaitiakitanga, Maori are lost.”
In his covering letter for the Wai 262 report, then chairman of the Waitangi Tribunal Justice Joe Williams laid down a gauntlet when he wrote: “
What we saw and heard in sittings over many years left us in no doubt that unless it is accepted that New Zealand has two founding cultures, not one; unless Maori culture and identity are valued in everything government says and does; and unless they are welcomed into the very centre of the way we do things in this country, nothing will change.
Maori will continue to be perceived, and know they are perceived, as an alien and resented minority, a problem to be managed with a seemingly endless stream of taxpayer-funded programmes, but never solved.”
Solving the problem, say Ngapuhi, involves a question of honour. In 2010, when the Wai 1040 claim began, the fiery Ngapuhi matriarch Titewhai Harawira told the Waitangi Tribunal that her tupuna were bound by rules of ‘kupu mana’—your word is your bond—and they signed Te Tiriti believing the Crown would honour its word, too.
“The Crown, however, has acted with deceit and dishonour, seeking to suppress us and take what it wanted, even those things we agreed to share,” she said. “We don’t want to stand here and argue about which Crown or what Government. We don’t need to. Every single one of them has been part of a lie that festers within our history.”
If those words sound like anti-Pakeha fanaticism, consider this statement made in 1847, a mere seven years after the Treaty was signed, in a letter to the British Colonial Office: “I am grieved beyond the power of expression at the attempted violation of the Treaty, and must never again plead the honour and integrity of Her Majesty’s Government. This appears to have been lost or never to have been possessed.”
Who wrote those words of damning disappointment? The Rev Henry Williams, the missionary who translated the Treaty into Maori, explained it to the Ngapuhi chiefs, and acted as the Crown’s intermediary in persuading the chiefs to sign.
At this moment, New Zealand is in the midst of a constitutional review. Unlike most countries, we do not have a single constitutional document, but several, of which the Treaty of Waitangi is considered foundational. Ngapuhi assert that the country picked the wrong foundation, and that it is He Whakaputanga, not the English-language Treaty with its assumption of ceded sovereignty, that should be the constitutional footing on which this country rests.
To write this story, I needed to go back to the north, to the place where the foundations were laid. I suspect that to resolve the sovereignty question will require us all to ‘go back’ in some way—anathema though that is for many non-Maori, whose mantra is to “put the past behind us” and who, by those words, align themselves with the discarders of history. The view from the other side of the Treaty page is, “Ma te tika te he ka tika”—we need to right the wrong.
What would it mean if the tribunal were to find in favour of Ngapuhi’s claim? I cannot begin to guess, but I suspect that things would look very different in Waitangi at dawn on Independence Day.