Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Teaching history about early New Zealand


The piece in the Herald on 21 December about teaching New Zealand history to all students confirms the fears of serious historians that the project risks becoming mere propaganda by those with axes to grind, rather than a teaching of the facts. Students will be given a lop-sided picture of our early history if the curriculum ignores or romanticizes the pre-1840 period where several Maori tribes went on annual marauding exercises to settle old scores. They killed between 40,000 and 50,000 Maori, approximately 25% of the total number of Maori in the country at that time, eating some, and enslaving others. What we historians refer to as the Musket Wars have been written up graphically by Ron Crosby in his The Musket Wars: A History of Inter-tribal Conflict 1806-45. The late Michael King noted in his preface to Crosby's book that those wars, which occurred before there were more than a handful of colonists in New Zealand, disrupted Maori society to such an extent that the interpretations of which people held mana whenua status over which piece of land, produced resentments that still linger today. Moreover, as Ray Fargher has shown in his biography of Donald McLean, the Crown's chief land purchaser of Maori land in the 1850s and 1860s, even his earlier scrupulous attempts to ascertain which iwi owned a particular piece of land, ran into conflicting claims, often from those Maori who had been dispossessed during the Musket Wars. The large numbers of Maori who supported and fought alongside the Crown - Kupapa Maori - during and after the wars of the 1860s were often people with grievances against tribes who had destroyed their homes and stolen their land before there were many colonists in the country.

In other words, "bleeding heart" versions of our history which push the line that everything was lovely in Aotearoa until the colonists arrived, and that the newcomers were responsible for depriving Maori of their livelihoods, are telling dubious bits of the story. Maori had killed more Maori between 1810 and 1840 than the total number of Kiwis killed in World Wars One and Two combined. And in the process, they complicated the relationships with settlers when they arrived in substantial numbers between 1840 and 1860. Yes, the wars of the 1860s did terrible damage to what remained of the Maori economy. But not as much as Maori had done to themselves before colonists had set foot in Aotearoa.

Can those who are devising a curriculum for our schools please ensure that there is some balance to what is taught in our schools? The current craze for painting Maori as unwitting victims of dishonest Europeans needs to be evened up with stories about how welcome the settlers were amongst Maori in areas like Auckland where their numbers had been reduced to barely 800 in 1840 covering one million acres between the Kaipara and east Tamaki because of the ravages by Ngapuhi over time.

(Dr Bassett is a New Zealand historian who has both taught at universities in Auckland, Canada and the United States and served on the Waitangi Tribunal 1994-2004)