Book Review: Waitangi, A Living Treaty, by Matthew Wright

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_waitangi_a_living_treatyLike an electrocardiograph, Matthew Wright’s Waitangi, A Living Treaty plots the peaks and troughs of the Treaty of Waitangi’s beating heart. It is the story of the living Treaty as an idea, rather than of the ink or the words on the paper.

Wright unravels the strands of the Treaty’s DNA – the humanitarian and religious response to the social upheaval of British industrialisation and the moral complexities of empire on the one hand, and the tikanga Māori that was the guiding principle for life in Aotearoa on the other.

This DNA allows us to understand the meanings the text would have had to those who wrote it, or to those who agreed to its promises. But beyond this glimpse into these webs of meaning, Wright steers clear of divining intent from the strokes of a pen. Instead, he crafts a lens for us to view the process through the eyes of those who participated.

He avoids speculation about what really went on in those chaotic few days and its impact on the final wording of the Treaty by treating these events as a momentary nexus of far-reaching trajectories, that briefly came together before carrying on along on their intertwining and divergent paths.

By setting the scene in its historical context, Wright frees us of our contemporary preconceptions. In doing so he also provides insights into the people and groups who shaped the Treaty and into the realities of early New Zealand life and politics.

Wright demonstrates that this knowledge of the background, interests, and interrelationships of the key actors, both Māori and Pākehā, is a more useful tool than hindsight. His analysis applies to the present too, making the reader reflect on his or her own beliefs about the Treaty.

Ostensibly from nowhere, in the second half of the 20th century the Treaty moved from the shadows of so-called nullity to illuminate actors, ideas, and events on the national stage. Wright describes how the Treaty principles were a logical next step as historians and the bearers of the scars of the past united to give the Treaty new force, in a global climate of righting past wrongs, and drawing on the deep roots Wright maps in this work.

This book is food for thought as the final historic settlements are concluded, as the memories that have been unearthed merge into our shared awareness. As Wright argues, as a living document, the Treaty will continue to evolve into new shapes and forms, with new applications that cannot be predicted.

Wright bears witness to the fact that the Treaty and its principles remain a seismic force. While what they have become may well have been inconceivable to the original signatories and authors, Wright shows that this has emerged from the nation-building practice of every person in this place – which is why Waitangi remains a truly living treaty.

Reviewed by Paul Moenboyd

Waitangi, A Living Treaty
by Matthew Wright
Published by David Bateman
ISBN 9781869539962

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