Let's Teach New Zealand History – All Of It!



Written by Dr Don Brash



A few weeks ago, the Government announced that as from 2022 teaching New Zealand history would be a mandatory part of the school curriculum, at both primary and secondary level.

As somebody who was an historian before he was an economist, I was delighted. It is important that all New Zealanders, whether born here or born overseas, have an understanding of where we have come from as a nation – including the things we can be proud of and the things which, with the wisdom of hindsight, we could have done better.

At the same time, I’m filled with foreboding.

My foreboding started with the way in which at least some media reported the announcement – with constant description of our country as “Aotearoa New Zealand”. Of course, there is no such country as “Aotearoa New Zealand”. And though there is a wide-spread belief that Aotearoa is the word Maori gave to New Zealand, in fact this appears not to be historically accurate. The word Aotearoa does not appear at all in the Treaty of Waitangi, in either the English or Maori language versions. (The words Nu Tirani are used for New Zealand in the Maori-language Treaty.) Indeed, the disparate Maori tribes which inhabited the country we now call New Zealand had no name at all for the whole country, and it appears that the word Aotearoa was first used in print decades after 1840 by William Pember Reeves.

The announcement made me more uneasy by referring specifically to the need to teach about “the New Zealand Wars”, which today appears to refer quite exclusively to the wars between some Maori tribes on the one hand and the government of the day and other Maori tribes on the other, in the period between 1845 and 1872.

Months ago, I listened to a lecture about the so-called New Zealand Wars and was asked by the person chairing the meeting whether I favoured teaching school children about those wars. And I said I did, but with the important proviso that if we were going to teach children about the wars which took place after 1840 – wars which killed fewer than 3,000 people, on both sides – we should also teach them about the much more bloody wars which took place between Maori tribes before 1840.

Too often we are told, at least by implication, that before European settlers arrived in New Zealand life in New Zealand was all sweetness and light, with Maori living in peaceful coexistence with each other and with nature.

But we know that before the arrival of European settlers life in New Zealand was tough. Slavery was widespread, as was cannibalism. Property rights in the sense that we know them today did not exist – you owned what you and your tribe could defend against neighbouring tribes.

And once some Maori were able to get their hands on muskets, the slaughter of Maori by Maori was horrendous. Nobody knows precisely how many people died in the so-called Musket Wars but estimates suggest that more people were killed in inter-tribal warfare in the four decades prior to 1840 than all the New Zealanders lost in World War I – perhaps one-third of the total population. Some tribes were almost completely wiped out.

There is no doubt that the arrival of European settlers in New Zealand in the middle of the 19th century totally upended traditional Maori society, and that would have involved real trauma for the Maori of that time. But of course it also freed many Maori slaves, reduced and quite rapidly removed the threat of inter-tribal warfare, put an end to cannibalism, introduced Maori for the first time to a written language, and had a great many other benefits.

Yes, there were some regrettable incidents. Tariana Turia has described the invasion of Parihaka in Taranaki in 1881 as New Zealand’s “Holocaust”. This is not the place to get into a debate about the rights and wrongs of what happened at Parihaka, but whatever it was it was not a Holocaust – most accounts suggest there was no loss of life at Parihaka at all.

Some 20 years earlier, in 1864, during the height of the conflict between Tainui and the Government, there was a battle at Rangiaowhia, and lives were lost. But the story that 144 women and children were burnt to death in a church there when government troops set fire to it – a story which motivated a couple of horrified high school students to petition Government for a day of remembrance when they were told of it recently – is pure myth, sometimes called a lie. There were only two churches in Rangiaowhia in 1864, one Anglican and the other Catholic, and years later both were still standing.

Much more recently, a former Minister of Maori Affairs in the Clark Labour Government, Dover Samuels, argued that the Government should apologise for the fact that decades ago Maori children were strapped for speaking Maori at school and that this “had been a deliberate policy on the part of the Crown to disempower his generation”. But this conveniently overlooks the fact that a great many Maori parents decided that it was necessary that, even in so-called “native schools”, all instruction should be in English and no Maori was to be spoken.

At least two petitions were presented to Parliament by Maori urging the Government to ensure that their children learnt English. One such petition was the 1876 petition of Wi Te Hakiro and 336 others that “there should not be a word of Maori allowed to be spoken in the [native] school”. Those Maori parents were so keen that their children learn English – rightly regarded at the time as the route to modernity – that they asked that the Government prevent the use of Maori at Government-funded schools. It would surely be absurd for the Government to apologise for responding to such pressure from Maori parents themselves, over 140 years later.

There are clearly real dangers of allowing the teaching of New Zealand history to be distorted by grossly inaccurate or incomplete anecdotes, sometimes exaggerated to justify the payment of financial redress by means of Treaty settlements.

Finally, the Government’s announcement that teaching New Zealand history would be mandatory as from 2022 talked about the importance of teaching students about the Treaty of Waitangi. I certainly have no quarrel with that, provided that what students are taught is what the Treaty actually provided for – the acceptance of the Queen’s sovereignty, and in return the guarantee of Maori rights to their property and to the same rights and duties as those enjoyed by all other New Zealanders. Not a single word implying “partnership”.


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