Review: Waitangi: a Living Treaty

This week marked one hundred and seventy-nine years since New Zealand’s foundational document was signed on Busby’s lawn at Waitangi. It was peddled by a frail Royal Navy officer, influenced and interpreted by other Europeans, each with their own agendas, and the signatories also had their own individual motives. Matthew Wright’s ‘Waitangi: a Living Treaty’ tells the story of the treaty from its origins to signing, but this story doesn’t stop in 1840, it follows the journey of the treaty as its importance and interpretation evolves throughout New Zealand’s history.


Much has been written about Te Tiriti o Waitangi – the Treaty of Waitangi, but rarely has the historiography of the treaty been analysed in such depth. The publication is also timely – with a renewed interest in New Zealand’s nineteenth century history – particularly the recent push for the New Zealand Wars to be better commemorated – and with some big bicentenaries approaching in the next few years and decades.

The introduction compares the length of the treaty to other foundational documents – the treaty has just 176 words in Te Reo Māori and 226 in English, compared to 1337 words in the United States Declaration of Independence, 4543 in the United States Constitution and 4478 in England’s Magna Carta. This comparison is startling. Our treaty is unique – both in its brevity and backstory. Wright argues that the importance and interpretation of those couple of hundred words has evolved alongside our society – changing as we change. An intriguing concept.

“A key theme is that the changing vision, meaning and social place of the Treaty has been a mirror of shared attitudes, beliefs, values and – inevitably – power balances, as they have evolved through New Zealand’s history.”

So don’t expect this story to stop with the packing down of the ad-hoc marquee at Waitangi (which incidentally, was made from sails by the crew of the HMS Herald, I never knew that), that’s just the beginning. Wright tracks both the evolution of our society and the evolution of the meaning we place on the treaty, in tandem, throughout the history of our young nation. The way we ignored and then revered the words of our foundational document is also mirrored in the treatment of the physical treaty – nearly burned, ignored, lost, rediscovered in a basement, neglected again, rescued, finally preserved, and now on display in a $7.2 million purpose-built facility. Just this week it was announced that a DNA test has proven that a missing part of the treaty has been rediscovered. The story of the treaty is never over.

On a side note on ‘missing treaties’ it was an absolute delight to see Wright absolutely eviscerate the ‘Littlewood Treaty’ movement, and also denounce some of the pseudo-history nonsense that is spouted far too often nowadays and challenged far too infrequently.

One of Wright’s most notable strengths is his ability to provide social, political and, especially, international context to New Zealand history. I’ve been particularly looking forward to this book for that reason and haven’t been disappointed. He deep dives into the ethnography of Māori and Pākehā, giving insights into the differences between their cultures and the key factors that influenced their leaders – and how that changed for subsequent generations.

Wright’s grasp of New Zealand history is well-established – he has previously written books about the early relationships between Māori and Europeans, notably ‘Guns and Utu’ and ‘Convicts: New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past’, and he has previously written a biography of Donald McLean and tackled the New Zealand Wars in ‘Two Peoples, One Land’, in which he dismantled the assertion that trench warfare had been invented on New Zealand battlefields. ‘Waitangi: a Living Treaty’ draws on some of his experience from those previous works, as well as others, and as usual he isn’t afraid to challenge some of the arguments made by other historians. Some might consider this to be akin to throwing the ngeru among the kererū, and I’m sure it will ruffle a few feathers, but an informed debate about the historiography of our foundational document should surely be encouraged and the insights that Wright brings to the discussion are invaluable. I very much doubt that this will be the final word on the treaty – but that is also kind of the whole point of the book.

‘Waitangi – A Living Treaty’ is published by Bateman Books and is available for purchase here. If you are lucky enough to still have a bookshop in your town then go buy it from them instead.

© Lemuel Lyes

8 replies »

  1. Thanks, Lemuel — that’s a very useful review and certainly provides good reasons why we should acquire a copy… I’d been thinking that I already have half a shelf of books on the Treaty, do I need another one? The answer is yes! ka kite ano, Penny

  2. The false concept that it is ‘a living Treaty’ is one of the things that has got us into this destrcutive and devisive current stage’.

  3. Hi Lem – thanks for your kind words, much appreciated! I came home from giving a public talk on the Treaty and saw you’d just posted. Yes, the story of the Treaty and the place it has with us is very much a discussion – one requiring reason, civility and tolerance, and one that I hope I’ve been able to contribute to along the way.

    • It was a great read! Fantastic to see you giving lots of interviews and talks as well. So important that New Zealanders have these discussions.

  4. I’ve read a number of Matthew Wright’s books and have always found them to be informative and interesting. This one should prove the same. I’m glad to see more information for this episode of your history, as people of the West know very little about it.

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