Translating the Treaty of Waitangi

D. F. McKenzie

D. F. McKenzie, "Oral Culture, Literacy & Print in early New Zealand: the Treaty of Waitangi," pp. 41-42.

In all the English versions of the treaty the chiefs 'cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England, absolutely and without reservation, all the rights and powers of Sovereignty'. The question here is what the English meant and the Maori understood by the word 'Sovereignty'. Did it mean that the chiefs gave up to the Crown their personal power and supreme status within their own tribes, or was it only something more mundanely administrative, like 'governorship'? In fact the word used by Henry Williams to translate 'Sovereignty' was precisely that: kawanatanga, not even a translation but a transliteration of 'Governor' (kawana) with a suffix to make it abstract. Such was his translation for the order of morning service: 'that all our doings may be ordered by thy governance'. What he significantly omitted in translating 'Sovereignty' (which the Maori were being asked to surrender) was the genuine Maori word mana, meaning personal prestige and the power that flowed from it, or even the word rangatiratanga, meaning chieftainship, the very words used in 1835 to 1839 to affirm Maori sovereignty over New Zealand. He had used both words in translating Corinthians chapter 15, v. 24 with its references to the 'kingdom of God' and 'all authority and power'. By choosing not to use either mana or rangatiratanga to indicate what the Maori would exchange for 'all the Rights and Privileges of British subjects', Williams muted the sense, plain in English, of the treaty as a document of political appropriation. The status of their assent is already questionable enough, but (since he did not read) had any Maori heard that he was giving up his mana or rangatiratanga he could never have agreed to the treaty's terms. Williams's Maori version of Hobson's composite English one set the trap which King Lear fell into when (in a version published in 1608) he said to Albany and Cornwall:

I doe inuest you iointly in my powre,
Preheminence, and all the large effects
That troope with Maiestie, . . . onely we still retaine
The name and all the addicions to a King

where 'addicions' implies mana, the attributes of ultimate personal prestige and sovereignty as distinct from merely delegated authority.

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Last Modified: 15 March, 2002