Sovereignty not surrendered - and not asked for

by Morgan Godfery
Thu 27 Nov 2014
3 min read

There’s no point in exhuming the sovereignty debate – or so we’re advised by right-wing politicians, and various commentators. They say there’s no need to flog that miserable, decomposed creature again. Their view is that, if we can say anything with certainty, it’s that the debate is “settled” that the Crown exercises sovereignty in fact, and that digging any deeper is “divisive”.

It is a remarkably common view. Yet it’s also remarkably wrong. The truth is that history is open to contest. The past is rarely settled, and the best we can hope for is consensus. But, according to Chris Trotter, there is a settled history and it says, in particular, that “the Māori chieftains who signed the Treaty… knew exactly what they were agreeing to at Waitangi on 6 February 1840”. They were agreeing to surrender their sovereignty. 

Apparently. Yet that view cannot stand. History depends on context. And that context, at least as far as the signing of the Treaty is concerned, is very clear: the English and Māori texts exist at cross purposes. While the English version demands the cession of sovereignty in exchange for certain property rights and the civil rights of British subjects, the Māori version promises something else entirely. In the Māori version, as Keith Sorrenson notes, the signatories surrendered “rather less” – kāwanatanga – and retained “rather more” – tino rangatiratanga.

Kāwanatanga is a sloppy biblical transliteration meaning governorship. As Margaret Mutu and many others have noted, kāwanatanga is used in the preamble in relation to British subjects. From the very beginning it’s a relational concept – governorship over British subjects – and the subsequent use of kāwanatanga must have been understood in this light. Yet the closer translation to sovereignty – tino rangatiratanga – is used to describe the rights Māori retain rather than the rights they surrender. Thus, while the English version demands the cession of sovereignty, the Māori version declares that sovereignty is retained. Governorship is ceded instead.

The Treaty, then, is arguably a victim of self-serving translation. Lord Normanby made the Crown’s acquisitive intentions clear in his instructions to Hobson, but Hobson was shrewd enough to take the advice of those who knew rangatira would refuse to part with their rangatiratanga – something they affirmed only five years earlier in the Declaration of Independence 1835. Thus the Māori text – which the vast majority of rangatira signed – obscures the full effect of the English text.

Which is why scholars like Ranginui Walker write that “the real meaning of the Treaty was concealed by imprecise translation” and this creates “grave doubts… as to whether the chiefs signed with their free and intelligent consent”. Yet even if the rangatira resolved the contradictions in the two texts – few would have had the chance given most rangatira debated the Māori text – it’s important to consider the oral assurances offered to rangatira.

Those assurances, as Judith Binney notes, created the notion that the Treaty meant rather less than what was written in English. Chiefs at the Waikato Heads were told that, seeing they retained their land as long as they wished, the Crown’s right to the land was triggered only when they wished to sell it (pre-emption).The missionaries of the time misled the rangatira by omission – they conveniently forgot to mention that the right of retention was still subject to the Crown’s overriding sovereignty.

And many rangatira put their trust in missionary assurances. The Māori communication system was, at the time, still overwhelmingly oral. Given this context, oral assurances – especially from missionaries immersed in the community – would carry more weight. Now to say that sovereignty is what the rangatira understood they were signing away, and then to go a step further and say this is settled, is not only wrong, but is as a good a reason as any to exhume the sovereignty debate and correct the record.