New Zealand's three most important documents are united at last

by Sally Blundell / 01 July, 2017

Help us find and write the stories Kiwis need to read

The United Tribes Ensign flies in this fanciful 1960s illustration of a ceremony choosing the “first National Flag of New Zealand, by the Maori chiefs”. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library/82-419-01

The nation’s three most important documents, which now reside together at the National Library, tell human stories.

Liz Hibbs had heard stories of her great-grandfather John Castle, founder of one of Wellington’s earliest pharmacies. But she was amazed to find his name among the 31,872 signatures on the 1893 petition for women’s suffrage that convinced the government of the day to grant women the right to vote.

“I knew he had been keen that his daughters should have a proper education, but to think of him in those times taking that leap … He was quite a prominent businessman with a strong reputation to uphold, so he not only felt it was worthwhile to sign and fight for women to have the vote, but also must have known there would be a reputational risk and some backlash,” said Hibbs, who works for the Department of Internal Affairs.

Making such family connections is one of the aims of He Tohu (the signatures, or marks), a $7.2 million permanent exhibition of what have been identified as our three most important foundational documents: He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni, the Declaration of Independence of the United Tribes of New Zealand, signed in 1835; Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the Treaty of Waitangi (1840); and the Women’s Suffrage Petition, Te Petihana Whakamana Poti Wahine (1893).

The Treaty of Waitangi; the United Tribes Declaration; the Suffrage Petition.

As many as 100 documents were considered for the exhibition, “but we needed just a few to tell a really rich story and present them in a way that reflected their significance”, says Peter Murray from the Department of Internal Affairs’ information and knowledge services.

“It was the collective view of the people involved that these three were the most iconic national treasures in the archive, covering the big events of the 19th century that pretty well define us as a country. Thousands of people signed these documents. They were making a statement that has influenced the way New Zealand was shaped.”

On April 22, just before dawn, these three documents were ceremonially transferred from their previous home in Archives New Zealand to the new Documents Room in the National Library, itself a symbolic location. “It is directly opposite Parliament – that’s legislature; opposite the Beehive, the executive; and right next door to the Court of Appeal, the judiciary, so it is right in the epicentre of New Zealand democracy,” says Murray.

The new location is also over the road from two cathedrals, Anglican and Catholic, he says. “If you look at the history of these three documents, there was a tie-in with the religion of the day.”

Famous lithograph of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, published on the cover of the NZ Journal of Agriculture in 1949. Photo/ATL/A-242-002

Searching for the past

In the exhibition, John Castle – along with his mother and his wife – steps out from the shadows of history. The display includes an interactive, searchable database on the identities of the signatories. Already, visitors can read biographical information on all 58 Declaration signatories, including the flourished name of Eruera Pare Hongi, the famed scribe of the Maori version of the document; 450 signatories and 52 witnesses of the Treaty of Waitangi; and more than 700 of the 31,872 people, mainly women, who signed the suffrage petition.

The exhibition, a close collaboration between the Crown and iwi, is the result of thousands of hours of work by historians, history students and genealogists, drawing on the records of the Waitangi Tribunal and a range of institutions to tease out often illegible handwriting and the mystifying identities of numerous Mrs Smiths, indecipherable Xs and names written in archaic Maori. But taken together, says National Archives curator Stefanie Lash, the signatures present a slice of the whole of New Zealand society.

“These were real people living in times really different from ours, so learning about their lives is fascinating in so many ways.”

All three documents include the names of prominent figures from New Zealand’s history. The signatories of the Declaration and Treaty, says Lash, were for the most part aristocratic, highly educated and often wealthy leaders of their hapu. About half of them later played public roles in the 19th century, but others were more obscure and “teasing out some of those stories, figuring out who they were related to, what they did, has been really rewarding.”

Rangi Topeora (Ngati Toa). Photo/ATL/E-296-q-180-2

She points to Ngati Toa rangatira Rangi Topeora, one the 15-17 women found so far to have signed the Treaty. “She led an extraordinary life. She was a warrior, a peacemaker, a waiata composer. She was so powerful that when she took a Pakeha name, she took Kuini Wikitoria [Queen Victoria], and for one of her four husbands she chose Arapeta [Albert] – Queen Victoria and Albert. She was politically connected, but you also get a feeling of her personality when you think of the things she had seen, the times she lived through.”

The suffrage petition, in contrast, includes many women lost to the public record – ordinary working women, some illiterate, some still frustratingly anonymous.

“We know the famous suffragists like Kate Sheppard, but 19th-century women didn’t have much visibility in the public record. Much of the information is filtered through the experiences of the men in their lives. That is where talking to their descendants can be so interesting; that is where these women are remembered.

“So with the signatories, it is a bottom-up story, looking at the people who created the documents rather than coming down from on high. Sheppard was really important, but so was Emma Blencowe from Te Aroha, who signed the petition. So it is looking at not just the people on our five- and 10-dollar notes, but people like us, who do a little bit every day to make change happen.”

Public participation

This research is now being opened up to the public, as descendants are asked to add what they know about the signatories of these three documents.

“My dream would be to have information on all these people,” says Lash, “but we are custodians of the information. We are not here to tell people, ‘This is the story of your grandfather.’ Rather, it is ‘How about you tell us the story of your grandfather?’ That is what people mean when they talk about living documents – whether it was rights for women or partnership or the Treaty, it is the people who created them and who created that legacy for us.

“The more you learn about the people, the more you start to feel a responsibility to them, even if they are not your own rellies. These are all different documents from different times, but all three present an insight into the hopes and aspirations of the signatories, not just for themselves but for their families, for their descendants, for us.”

Historian Thomas Hocken. Photo/ATL/1/2-004542-F

Paper trails

It has been a long and often precarious route for the three documents to reach their new home in the National Library.

On October 18, 1835, the Declaration of Independence of the United Tribes of New Zealand, He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni, was signed at Waitangi by 34 northern chiefs. The Declaration remained there until 1839, by which time it had 52 signatures. The two sheets of paper were then moved to the fledgling government offices in Auckland, in a small wooden cottage in Official Bay, adjacent to present-day Mechanics Bay. When this building was destroyed by fire, the Declaration was rescued and moved to the Colonial Secretary’s office, later the Department of Internal Affairs.

During World War II, the document, along with Te Tiriti o Waitangi, was transferred to the Masterton Public Trust office for safekeeping. In 1940, both documents were taken to Waitangi, where they were exhibited as part of the centennial celebrations.

In 1989, the Government bought the former Government Printing Office in Mulgrave St, Wellington, for the National Archives’ first permanent home under one roof. He Whakaputanga, Te Tiriti and other constitutional documents were displayed in the Constitution Room.

After the signing of the Treaty, its nine documents – two on parchment and seven on paper – were held in an iron box in the Official Bay offices. As with the Declaration, it was saved from the flames that claimed the building and transferred to a safe in the Colonial Secretary’s office. In 1865, the Treaty was moved to the new capital of Wellington and promptly disappeared from view until historian Thomas Hocken unearthed the documents in the basement of Government Buildings (opposite the present-day Parliament) some 40 years later. Water, rodents and age had taken their toll. After some inept attempts at restoration, the documents were transferred to a strongroom in the Department of Internal Affairs. From there, the Treaty was placed in the care of the Alexander Turnbull Library, where it was eventually put on public display.

Following further inspection in the 1960s, the documents underwent more extensive conservation treatment, and in the late 1970s, the Treaty was on the move again, this time to the National Archives, a branch of the Department of Internal Affairs (it was held in a secure vault at the Reserve Bank while the display was built). In 1991, it was moved to the Constitution Room in the new Archives House.

The 1893 suffrage petition has had a far less peripatetic route to public display after it was first dramatically unrolled down the aisle of the Debating Chamber on August 11 of that year. Until 1975, both the 1892 and 1893 petitions were stored in cellars in Parliament. From here, the 1892 petition was transferred to the National Archives. After public display in 1985, it was clear the 1893 petition was at risk from rats, dust and the lack of temperature control. As part of the conservation treatment, the sheets of paper, previously glued together by Kate Sheppard, were carefully separated, revealing more signatures. The petition was then microfilmed and displayed in the Constitution Room at Archives New Zealand.

He Tohu is a permanent exhibition at the National Library in Wellington. Its opening was supported by three new books, one about each document, from Bridget Williams Books.

This article was first published in the June 10, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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