The Maori dictionary current in 1840 was the 1820 Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language of New Zealand by Cambridge University professor Samuel Lee.
Lee’s linguistic consultant was no honky with an axe to grind.
It was none other than the great Ngapuhi chief Hongi Hika.
(He loved axes too — tomahawks, to be precise — but was in England looking to upgrade to muskets.)
And Hongi defined taonga as property procured by the spear, etc.
It was purely physical
Hongi Hika’s down-to-earth definition of the 1820s could hardly be more removed from the ‘sacred relic’ status conferred by the Treaty negotiators of the 2010s.
To that corrupt one-eyed kangaroo court the Waitangi Tribunal, taonga now means anything our tribal clients can get their hands on.
Physical or metaphysical, doesn’t matter. If it can turn a dollar, it’s a taonga.
But to Hongi Hika, and Hone Heke and the other 511 chiefs who signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi, their taonga was their stuff.
It was any tool that could give a tribesman an edge in a massively hostile environment where both man and nature were doing their best to kill him.
It was any weapon that could give a chief an edge over the cannibal communist dictator down the road, who might at any time spring from the bushes, hack his head off and swallow his eyeballs.
Remember, these were the times of the Musket Wars.
Between 1807 and 1842, between 20,000 and 60,000 — up to half of all Maori — were slaughtered in an orgy of inter-tribal utu.
And Hongi Hika, who finally got his muskets in Sydney, was the chief slaughterman. (Rivalled only by Te Rauparaha.)
It wasn’t Te Reo or te radio
I just very much doubt that Hongi Hika, or Hone Heke, Te Rauparaha and the other 510 chiefs who put their marks on Te Tiriti, spent much time thinking abstract thoughts about saving their language (which was hardly under threat) or the electromagnetic spectrum.
If they did, they didn’t tell the guys who wrote the dictionaries.
Now maybe you think the 1820 Dictionary might have been out of date by 1840. Maybe you think taonga might have evolved by the time of the Treaty to mean what it means now.
I thought so too. So I got a second opinion. From the second Maori dictionary.
This was the Dictionary of the New Zealand Language by William Williams, published in 1844. (Four years after the Treaty.)
Here’s its entry for taonga.
Still property, but no mention of spears this time.
But on that subject, look what I found a few lines further up…
Now I don’t pretend to be any scholar of Te Reo.
But I do believe nga is the plural of the.
I also thought the nga always came before the noun, so I’m probably wrong, but…
Could it be that taonga started out meaning spears?
I’m expecting to be ridiculed by a Ranginui Walker type for jumping to a false conclusion here.
But I thought I’d ask.
Why does it matter?
Why does it matter what taonga meant in 1840?
Because the Treaty was signed in 1840. Not 1975, not 1987, not 2012 — 1840.
So it’s only fair that we understand not so much what the words mean, but what they meant. In 1840.
Words change their meaning over time. According to my dictionaries, taonga has evolved in four stages:
- Property procured by the spear, etc.
- Property, treasure.
Once it meant solely property. Now it means solely treasure.
But in 1840 it meant property.
And that makes Treaty claims for such things as radio waves grossly dishonest.