Written by Sarah Johnston
The first Waitangi Day radio broadcasts are the Centennial celebrations of 1940 and Sir Apirana Ngata’s famous speech about what was on ‘the mind of the Māori’ at that point. Other historic recordings include feature the first ‘modern’ protests in 1971, when Ngā Tamatoa made their presence felt at Waitangi.
More recently, an impromptu speech by the Bishop of Aotearoa Reverend Whakahuihui Vercoe at the 150th Sesquicentennial celebrations in 1990 is a stand-out example of the power of speaking from the heart.
This week I presented a selection of ‘Sesqui’ sound recordings, including an excerpt of Bishop Vercoe’s speech, on RNZ’s Jesse Mulligan show. You can hear them here on RNZ’s website, or read more about Bishop Vercoe’s powerful oratory below.
New Zealand was on a “Sesqui” high 28 years ago. 1990 had kicked off with the Commonwealth Games in Auckland which were hailed as a great success, and then the focus turned north. Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh arrived in Auckland to close the Games and they then headed to Waitangi on February 6th, the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty.
As a special 1990 project, many iwi Māori had carved new waka taua for the event, and the Bay of Islands was an amazing spectacle with over 20 waka rowing ashore at Te Tii beach below the Treaty Grounds on the morning of the 6th, accompanied by visiting tall sailing ships. The late Hēnare Te Ua Here described the sight for listeners in this excerpt of the Radio New Zealand commentary of the event:
Hēnare Te Ua – Waitangi Day 1990 commentary in He Rērenga Kōrero, ID 41755 Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision
As had become the custom by 1990, there were also many visitors who had come to Waitangi to protest the Crown’s response to the Treaty, and as the Queen came ashore in her launch, a wet t-shirt was thrown at her.
The stand-out speaker on the day, was the Bishop of Aotearoa Reverend Whakahuihui Vercoe (Ngaitai, Ngāi Tuhoe, Te Arawa and Whakatōhea.) In an interview several years later in Anglican Taonga magazine, he recalled “I’d been seeing what a lot of our people in the North had to endure, living in derelict houses and milking sheds and so on. It was terrible. Something came upon me and I knew I had to say something.”1
In a stirring address, he went off-script and in the presence of Her Majesty began to speak his mind as protestors heckled, chanting “Honour the Treaty!” But as his speech continues and his words sink in, you can hear the heckles turn to cheers and applause:
“One hundred and fifty years ago, a compact was signed, a covenant was made between two people… But since the signing of that treaty… our partners have marginalised us. You have not honoured the treaty… Since 1840, the partner that has been marginalised is me. The language of this land is yours, the custom is yours, the media by which we tell the world who we are, are yours…” 2
Bishop Whakahuihui Vercoe – speech at Waitangi 06 Feb 1990 in He Rērenga Kōrero, ID 41755 Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision
According to Anglican Taonga, the Queen leant forward and asked her neighbour Governor-General Sir Paul Reeves, “Is Bishop Vercoe a radical bishop?” He replied, “No Ma’am, but he’s doing pretty well.”3
There was much support for his impromptu address from Māori and some Pākēha. While he was denounced in Parliament (and no doubt on talk-back radio), business leader Hugh Fletcher sent him an encouraging note and a gift to acknowledge the controversy he had stirred up – a hot water bottle. You can hear the immediate reaction – and an interview with Bishop Vercoe – in this episode of RNZ’s Morning Report from the following day, 07 February 1990.
Later in his career Bishop Vercoe continued to attract controversy, for his stand in opposing the ordination of women and his views on homosexuality. But on February 6 1990, he spoke from the heart about his hopes for Aotearoa
“What I have come here for is to renew the ties that made us a nation in 1840. I don’t want to debate the treaty; I don’t want to renegotiate the treaty. I want the treaty to stand firmly as the unity, the means by which we are made one nation…
The treaty is what we are celebrating. It is what we are trying to establish, so that my tino rangatiratanga is the same as your tino rangatiratanga.
And so I have come to Waitangi to cry for the promises that you made and for the expectations our tupuna (had) 150 years ago… And so I conclude, as I remember the songs of our land, as I remember the history of our land, I weep here on the shores of the Bay of Islands. May God give us the courage to be honest with one another, to be sincere with one another and above all to love one another in the strength of God.”4
1, 3. The making of a ‘radical bishop’ Lloyd Ashton, Anglican Taonga magazine, Spring 2006. Retrieved fromhttp://manaonline.co.nz/bishop_vercoe/index.htm (c) Anglican Taonga Magazine.
2, 4. Bishop Whakahuihui Vercoe, Waitangi speech 06 Feb 1990 in He Rērenga Kōrero, ID 41755 Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision