A conversation about New Zealand’s past

Over the last several days, my understanding of New Zealand’s history of British colonialism has been severely tested by events that have unfolded in New Zealand, and which may be linked to the recent unrest in the United States. With the rioting having subsided, massive protests pushing for a racial reconciliation have been breaking out.

In New Zealand the events in the United States have brought a necessary focus on our own race relations. How do we teach colonial history in schools? Are we teaching the right history? Is that history being taught without bias? Clearly we have an issue when in a matter of days, we can go from not even thinking about doing so, to toppling a statue of a person whose history am going to guess most New Zealanders knew nothing about.

When I think about my knowledge of the New Zealand Land Wars, following the Treaty of Waitangi and the Musket Wars prior to the treaty signing, I find quite significant gaps in my basic knowledge about the events, the timeline over which they happened and who was involved. These are very significant events in understanding the relationship between settlers and Maori, and the Musket Wars for example cost many more lives than I was aware of – I thought they had cost a couple of thousand lives and not the estimated 20,000-40,000, with perhaps as many as 30,000 more made to emigrate.

I did not even know what John Hamilton’s first name was prior to Thursday, when the first rumblings that the statue of him in Hamilton was going to be removed began to surface. I certainly knew nothing of his past, that the statue stood on the spot where Cook’s crew killed nine Maori.
At the same time I feel like my knowledge of Captain Cook has failed me. I knew nothing about the incident involving H.M.S. Adventure crew members, or that 8 Maori were killed by crew when Cook first anchored in New Zealand waters. I feel like my schooling has failed me. As Graeme Lay notes in a column for The Listener in 2019, some interactions were very cordial and productive, whilst others ended in violence.

But I am not the only one. My parents said that they were taught none of this either. My mother who grew up on a farm near Pukekawa in rural Waikato for example says that her school learnings were about the invasion of Waikato by the British in 1863, following the refusal of Maori to take an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria. This was one of the major conflicts of the New Zealand land wars and easily the deadliest. Both Maori and the British invested significant forces and resources in this. The British called up 10,000 troops for the campaign. The Maori built more than 22 kilometres of fencing which had about 1,500 troops manning it.

So, it is for these reasons I totally support the compulsory teaching of these events as basic New Zealand history. Improving our understanding of the events that happened and how they came to happen will go some way towards a sort of reconciliation between non Maori and the tangata whenua. Given the  12,000km² confiscated in Waikato following the 1863 invasion are now worth billions of dollars, the $171 million that was paid to Tainui in 1995 is barely 1% of its current value.

The best thing we as New Zealanders can do is learn from our colonial past. The best thing the education system can do is make sure that that history gets taught in schools.

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