Guest Post: Compulsory History in Our Schools

A guest post by Hon Dr Michael Bassett:

If modern New Zealand History is to be taught to all students in schools the curriculum should not start in 1840. By then Maori had been 500 years in Aotearoa, the last forty of them in a state of almost perpetual warfare. One historian, Angela Ballara, has noted that warfare “was endemic in Maori society; it was an integral part of the Maori political system”. Once chiefs acquired muskets wars were waged with a new intensity. Between 1800 and 1840 most traditional iwi were raked fore and aft, and between 40,000 (Keith Sinclair’s estimate) and 50,000 (Ron Crosby’s estimate) Maori were killed, eaten or enslaved. This was approximately 25% of all Maori in the country at that time. More lost their lives during the Musket Wars than all the Kiwis killed in World Wars One and Two combined. Lands were pillaged, iwi borders changed, and livelihoods disrupted on a huge scale.

As the late Michael King observed in the introduction to Ron Crosby’s The Musket Wars: A History of Inter-iwi Conflict, 1806-45, applying the 1840 rule for starting New Zealand history “has as much logic and fairness” as the application of a 1940 rule would have for Europe after Germany had over-run much of the Continent. The Waitangi Tribunal that I sat on for a decade was required to examine Maori grievances dating back to the Treaty of 1840, but not before that. In reality, as I soon discovered, many of the grievances had an earlier origin. This became clear when inquiries were made into disputes over the Crown purchase of lands in the 1840s and 1850s that led on to the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s. Historian Ray Fargher has shown in his biography of Donald McLean, the Crown’s Maori-speaking chief land purchaser, even at his most scrupulous in earlier times where he tried hard to ascertain which iwi owned what before buying, McLean ran into conflicting claims. They often came from Maori who had been dispossessed of their land by other Maori during the Musket Wars. The large number of Maori who supported, or fought alongside the Crown in the 1860s – Kupapa (or friendly) Maori – were often people with grievances against other tribes which had destroyed their homes and/or dispossessed them of their lands before 1840. Many were happy to see General Cameron and his forces deliver rough justice to their old enemies.

What this all means is that bleeding heart versions of our history (Australia’s John Howard called it “black armband history”) need to be treated with great caution. Those who push the line that everything was lovely in Aotearoa until the colonists arrived, and that they were responsible for depriving Maori of their ancestral lands, are telling selected and often misleading bits of our story.  In reality, Maori society was in a parlous state when colonists arrived in significant numbers in the 1840s and 1850s. Yes, governors, politicians and settlers wanted access to Maori land. Some cut corners acquiring it. But even the most scrupulous land purchasers found many parts of Maori society a minefield of ancient hostilities and were worn down by conflicting assertions about historical ownership. It needs to be remembered that while the wars of the 1860s did terrible damage to what remained of the Maori economy, much damage had already been done to it by other Maori before the colonists arrived.

Choosing textbooks for students will be difficult. One current contender I’ve read provides no detail about the Musket Wars and fails to mention either Ron Crosby’s or Ray Fargher’s books for “further reading”. Students will get an unbalanced version of our history from texts of this kind. The current craze for painting all Maori as innocent victims of dishonest Europeans also needs to be evened up with stories about how welcome were the new traders, settlers and Pakeha authority amongst Maori in areas like Auckland. By 1840 Maori numbers in what we now call the City of Sails had been reduced to barely 800 people inhabiting one million acres between Kaipara and east Tamaki because of the depredations of Ngapuhi over the previous twenty years.

Teaching a fair and accurate version of New Zealand history won’t be easy unless the Ministry of Education seizes control of the process and ensures that it doesn’t become the preserve of single-minded fanatics claiming to be historians but with axes to grind. They have the potential to stir unwarranted racial animosity in a country which, for much of its existence, tried to be fair to all people according to the norms of the day.

Dr Bassett taught New Zealand history at the University of Auckland, Georgetown University and the University of Western Ontario and sat on the Waitangi Tribunal 1994-2004. He was a Cabinet minister in the 1980s.

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