When sorry is the right word

Should the Queen be apologising to the Maoris? History suggests that real good may come of it; It is an appropriate and imaginative gesture to accept the role of the crown in a sad story
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When yesterday's Independent on Sunday reported the Queen's decision to apologise for the theft by Britain of Maori land, it could not refrain from ridicule. A jocular editorial urged the crown: "Never apologise, never explain" and speculated upon an endless list of occasions for apology, starting with Bannockburn and ending with Royal It's a Knockout.

Apologising for historical events in the remote past seems incongruous. Who is the royal We doing the apologising? Is it the Queen as successor to the 19th-century imperial state which fought the Maoris and negotiated peace directly with them? Is it simply the Queen herself, on behalf of her great, great, great grandmother Queen Victoria, whose identification with the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi led the Maoris to accept it as the personal pledge of an absolute monarch? Or is it as the Queen of New Zealand that the apology is offered, as the head of a state whose white settler governments had done most to undermine what protection to Maoris the treaty was supposed to have given?

Furthermore, what is the point of such an apology? It can do nothing to lessen the pain experienced by 19th-century Maoris as a result of a massive expropriation of land or the destruction of a way of life. Conversely, is it really the case that the history of the Treaty of Waitangi is responsible for the contemporary condition of the Maoris?

The decimation of native Americans from the time of Columbus, and of the aboriginal populations of the Pacific, was not mainly the result of wars of conquest or the breaking of treaties. It was primarily the impact of European diseases on previously unexposed populations; and then the corrosive effects of international commerce on the societies and economies of the indigenous inhabitants. From the viewpoint of the people afflicted, distinctions between the different ways in which this demoralisation, decline or extinction occurred seem beside the point.

Yet from the position of those now called upon to bear moral responsibility for the world created by the European empires, some discrimination is essential. It is pointless to identify those who carried influenza on their bodies, debatable how far it is useful to assign blame to traders, but arguably quite appropriate to assign full responsibility to states which engaged in conquest, plunder and enslavement.

There is no reason in principle why their political and historical apologies should be considered absurd. Since 1945 some major political leaders and even one or two heads of state have made apologies for past actions for which they can only be considered symbolically responsible. But the effect has generally been positive.

The main point about apologies is that the good they can bring about is mainly to the benefit of the perpetrator, not the victim. For the victim, the effects of an evil action are manifold: it affects not just one set of individuals, but their families, their descendants, their friends, neighbourhoods, regions and nations. The benefit that victims can receive derives not from the apology, but from the actions that substantiate that apology.

One way of thinking about these questions derives from medieval Christian theology, with its distinction between contrition, confession and penance. The perpetrator first achieves a thorough awareness of the wrong done; if that awareness is real, it must be spoken aloud. Once confessed, some restitutive action was needed to manifest a full acceptance of responsibility, but also to realise the intention if absolution was to be achieved. This absolution could only be granted by God's representative, the priest, through grace.

In a modern and secular world absolution is unattainable. But new evidence of the benefits of the process of contrition, confession and penance have emerged. The clearest example is the acceptance of responsibility for the Holocaust by the Federal Republic of Germany. For Jews, what most mattered was not the confession but the penance that followed, in the form of a plethora of restitutive actions and reparations which at least secured the livelihoods of survivors and their families.

For Germans, on the other hand, the benefits of confession have been inestimable. The acceptance of responsibility was not hastily muttered half out of hearing of the local population, but loudly and clearly enunciated by Willy Brandt and his successors in Jerusalem. The educational system and the media also largely accepted the necessity of self-examination, and school textbooks were rewritten in its light. As a result there is nowhere in contemporary Europe where the return of fascism and toleration of racism is less to be feared. It is only necessary to contrast the situation in the old Federal Republic of Germany with that of Austria, or even more blatantly the former GDR, where official propaganda prolonged the convenient myth that Germans had been the victims of fascism.

Or take Japan, where the refusal of the government to make sufficient apologies to the wartime allies or to its Asian neighbours means that even 50 years on, VJ Day cannot refer to a process of reconciliation.

According to Peter Adams's Fatal Necessity: British Intervention in New Zealand 1830-1847, the main policy debate which preceded the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 hinged on whether the Maoris possessed a juridically recognisable conception of property, which might enable them to conclude a treaty enforceable in international law. Strangely, perhaps, it was High Tories who believed that Maoris possessed such a conception. The radicals on the other hand believed the Maoris still to be at the savage stage of social development, and thus lacking in notions of property and law. Their strategy was based on the hope or conviction that the Maori race would die out. To further this end, Maori territory was to be diluted by white settlements and intermarriage was to produce a mixed but loyal race of "greater Britons".

In this debate the Conservatives represented the interests of Westminster government, conscious of the cost of fighting expensive wars in the Antipodes, while the radicals were closely associated with white settlers and saw in New Zealand a rare opportunity to create a homogeneous middle-class society once Maori resistance was overcome. The Treaty of Waitangi represented a triumph for the principles of the Conservatives and the church. But the formal clauses of a treaty proved no match for the land hunger and constant political pressure of the settlers. As Britain in the course of the Victorian period withdrew from direct rule of the Antipodes, so the Maoris were left to the mercies of the settlers. The result was a large-scale expropriation of Maori land.

The lines of responsibility are reasonably demarcated here. A treaty concluded by the crown was infringed, and subsequent ministers of the crown connived at its continuing infringement. It is now not only an appropriate but also an imaginative gesture on the part of the Queen to accept the historic role of the crown in what is a sad - and still continuing - story. But whether this gesture stands for a nation's state of introspection and contrition is doubtful, and quite a different story.

The writer is reader in modern history at Cambridge University and Fellow of King's College.