Tricks Upon the Dead

The Webs of Deceit

The cynic, Voltaire gave us a bon mot about the discipline of history.  We have often had cause to mention it in the pages of this blog.  “History,” he said, “is the living playing tricks upon the dead.”  He meant that history is made up and told to serve the interests of those who write, not those they write about.  He would have known.  He was part of one of the greatest mythological revisions of Western history we have yet seen.  As one of the Enlightenment philosphes he was one of the scribblers re-writing history to glorify ancient paganism and demonise the Christian faith.  He was grinding his own axe, and he knew it.  Consequently, he was cynical about the entire enterprise of historical research.

For all serious and professional historians, a good adage is, “Beware the revisionists”.  It beholds anyone to inquire about any particular axes being ground.  Revisionist causes are alive and well when it comes to New Zealand history.  Central are contentions now trumpeted as infallible truth about the Treaty of Waitangi. 

Here is the debate in a nutshell.  Firstly, for the revisionists:

We saw this when John Key allowed Pita Sharples to sign the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous peoples in New York, giving the Māori Party a token win and then immediately undermining that by telling journalists the declaration would have “no practical effect.”  And therein lies the rub. John Key can’t actually abide by that declaration because that would mean acknowledging that the Māori text of Te Tiriti is the only legitimate and legally binding text. That would mean conceding that tangata whenua never ceded tino rangatiratanga. That the Minister of Treaty Negotiations, Christopher Finlayson, was so quick to dismiss the Tribunal’s ruling and assert the Crown’s sovereignty, prove that National won’t do this.

I am proud that the Green Party has, for many years, held the Māori text of Te Tiriti as a core part of our party’s constitutional arrangements. [Metiria Turei, Green Party co-leader.]

This is the revisionist view of the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840.  Maori chiefs signed the Treaty thinking they were entering into a power sharing partnership with the English Crown.  Not for a moment, according to the story, did they believe they were ceding sovereignty to the Crown.  The revisionists have made much about the Maori translation of the Treaty and their modern interpretation of the meaning of the Maori text.

In the opposite corner, the position of the reconstructionists (historians who wish to reconstruct faithfully what the participants actually thought and did, not what a revisionists would have liked them to have said and done).  Mike Butler is writing in response to a recent series of “revisionist” articles penned by Gareth Morgan:

Dr Morgan’s assertion that making it up as they (Crown and claimants) went along was necessary because “the original documents aren’t very useful” suggests he may not have looked closely at the texts of either te Tiriti o Waitangi or the so-called official English version – or the Busby February 4 final English draft of the treaty known as the Littlewood treaty.

Because the treaty was drafted in English and translated into Maori, the meaning and intent is clear in the source document, the original English. That source document is most likely the Busby February 4 draft that has only four words which differ from te Tiriti o Waitangi, one of which is the date.  Dr Morgan asks: “How do we help Maoridom realise the all-important aspirations encompassed in rangatiratanga (used in Article 2, te reo version) in modern day Aotearoa New Zealand?”

“Rangatiratanga” has become a celebrated word amongst the revisionists, because they translate it as “sovereignty”, arguing that the Treaty of Waitangi enshrines Maori co-sovereignty over New Zealand.  Thus, revisionists argue that Maori are co-governors of the country, and co-sovereigns with the Crown.   

Had he looked at the English source draft to see the word “rangatiratanga” translated in Article 2, he would have seen that it translated to “possession”, as in “the Queen of England confirms and guarantees to the chiefs and the tribes and to all the people of New Zealand, the possession of their lands, dwellings and all their property”.

Dr Morgan is also wrong to buy into land-loss rhetoric when he writes: “Justice and reparations have been a long time coming and, as generous as they might look to non-Maori, they’re just cents in the dollar for what Maori lost in terms of property.”  He does not mention that landowner Maori sold their land to buyers in hundreds of transactions painstakingly recorded in Turton’s deeds, which are posted on the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre of the Victoria University of Wellington’s website.

New Zealand has 26.8 million hectares of land. History records that 1.2 million hectares were confiscated during the 1860s wars.  Based on the approximately 1.47 million hectares of Maori-owned land (including customary land) and ignoring the confiscated land subsequently returned (sometimes soon after the confiscation), Maori land owners actually sold at least 24.13 million hectares.  

The key issues are these: firstly, what was the British understanding of the meaning of the words in the Treaty?  Secondly, when the English was translated into Maori, what was the Maori understanding of the Maori text?  In other words, the answer to the history revisionists that are playing deliberate duplicitous tricks upon ancestors in order to advance their political agenda, is to research what the participants at the time understood.  After all, the Treaty was discussed and debated in many Maori hui all over the land. In many of those debates those opposed argued that it would cede Maori sovereignty to the Crown; those arguing the case for ratification agreed, but argued the benefits to Maori of such a cession. 

Ironically, one tribe–Te Tuhoe–refused to sign the Treaty because they correctly understood that it ceded sovereignty to the Crown–and therefore rejected it.  But what did Tuhoe know?  They were ignorant savages.  We revisionists know them better than they knew themselves.  They were so stupid they deserve the tricks we are playing upon them. 

The revisionists would have us believe that neither those Maori tribes who signed nor those who did not, and neither those Maori arguing for signing nor those who opposed in the debates–none of them believed that the Treaty involved ceding sovereignty to the Crown.  All of them believed the Treaty preserved Maori rule and governance over New Zealand.

And if you believe that, Voltaire’s cynical observation about history stands to be amended.  Revisionist history plays tricks not just upon the dead, but the real target is the tricks to be played upon the living.  More accurately, revisionist history usually plays tricks upon the dead with the intent to deceive the living. 
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