Honesty is the best policy. Old proverb
National institution slants our story
By Roger Childs
A country’s history is a key element of its culture.
Consequently it is vital that our young people understand what has gone before and fully appreciate the heritage they are heirs to.
However, the messages must be as accurate and objective as possible. Our history is too important to be sanitised to suit a particular agenda.
So why is the National Library doing just that?
Highlights and lowlights
All nations and cultures have highs and lows in their past.
We need to know and celebrate great events like being the first nation where women gained the right to vote, the heroic exploits of the Maori Battalion, and having a Kiwi climb to the top of Everest in 1953.
At the other end of the scale, we also need to be aware, for example, of the early 19th century inter-tribal slaughter, discrimination against Chinese immigrants, the mistreatment of women seeking abortions in the late 19th century, and war crimes on the western front.
Essentially any representation of our history should take a warts and all approach.
Sanitising the story in national exhibitions
Unfortunately two of the most important repositories of our heritage – the National Library and Te Papa – are giving out some inaccurate and biased messages to New Zealanders and overseas visitors. (More on the Te Papa New Zealand Wars exhibition in the later article.)
Regrettably, much of the twisting of our history relates to the 19th century interaction between Maori and settlers from Britain and Europe.
The He Tohu (The signs) exhibition at the National Library, contains plenty of attractively presented resources, but many of the messages are a distortion of the truth.
A Maori nation in 1835? No
The 1835 Declaration of Independence (DOI)…may be small in size, but is hugely important. It was how rangatira (Maori leaders) told the world, back in 1835, that New Zealand was an independent Maori nation.
This is nonsense. The DOI was arranged and written by British Resident, James Busby, to prevent a possible take-over by the French, or, an individual such as Baron de Thierry.
Only a few Maori chiefs outside Northland signed it, and the wording did mention that it was just representatives from north of Hauraki.
It never set up a national authority, as rangatira were not prepared to give up authority over their individual tribes.
The exhibition also states that in the DOI … the words used also have a deeper meaning of a land at peace under its rightful owners. It doesn’t mention that between 1800 and1840 there were hundreds of battles in the inter-tribal wars, with over 40,000 men, women and children being killed, many of them prisoners.
The British government did acknowledge the DOI, as it asked King William IV for “protection”. If Britain did later takeover New Zealand as a colony, they would need to negotiate with Maori chiefs.
But it was ultimately a failure. In Historian Paul Moon’s words, the DOI was the impulsive result of a few hours work by a minor official with the misplaced view that the New Zealand chiefs would soon come to share some exalted ideals of government as he did.
Treaty of Waitangi 1940
Sovereignty over all of New Zealand was granted to the British monarch, Queen Victoria. There was no mention of principles or partnership.
What does the He Tohu exhibit say? Among other things:
It recognizes that they (Maori) have tino rangatiratanga (absolute authority and sovereignty) over their lands, resources and taonga (treasured possessions.)
It affirmed and still affirms the rights of Maori to live as Maori and to participate fully as New Zealand citizens in partnership with the Crown …
- Absolute authority was not granted to Maori chiefs; sovereignty of the entire country was handed over to Queen Victoria and her successors.
- Taonga in 1840 meant possessions. The definition “treasures”, was dreamed up by Hugh Kawharu in the 1980s.
- Partnership did not feature as a concept in the 1840 treaty.
- The 1840 Treaty did not affirm the rights of Maori to live as Maori. Certainly tribal society could continue much as before, but brutal elements of pre-1840 days such as cannibalism, killing prisoners, slavery and female infanticide were outlawed. (These five aspects of traditional Maori society are not mentioned in the exhibition.)
Women’s suffrage 1893
This was hugely important and granted voting rights to all women, regardless of their ethnicity.
However, the He Tohu exhibit claims this about Maori women in the 1800s.
Some Maori women were powerful leaders in hapu and iwi. They fought in battles, owned property and retained it after marriage and were political decision makers.
However back in the inter-tribal warfare period before 1840, thousands of women and girls were slaughtered and eaten; and thousands more were abducted and taken into slavery. The loss of female Maori at this time held back the population recovery of the people for a number of decades.
Unfortunately the accurate second paragraph doesn’t feature.
As regards the first paragraph, some high born women no doubt had some influence, but powerful leaders is an exaggeration. Political decision makers? There were no women at the large Kohimarama conference in 1860 and none of the influential Young Maori Party were women.
Can’t we be honest about our history?
Maori who are descendants of the early Pacific immigrants have played an important part in the nation’s history. However, like all peoples, their development has had its very positive, as well as highly negative elements.
We should not be constantly trying to sanitise New Zealand’s past, and pretend that inter-tribal warfare, the slaughter of prisoners, cannibalism, human sacrifice, female infanticide and slavery didn’t happen.
Maori have had some great and inspiring leaders like Apirana Ngata, but also some brutal and treacherous warrior chiefs such as Te Rauparaha.
The He Tohu exhibition puts a positive slant on Maori history with plenty of emphasis on how they were hard done by in the processes of European exploration, British government and colonisation.
Here is a final example of the selectivity of information in the exhibition.
Tribes in the North had been wary of France since 1772 when hundreds of Maori were killed in a conflict with the crew of French explorer Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne.
There is no mention that these killings took place in a battle, after Maoris ambushed and murdered du Fresne and more than twenty of his crew. Most historians put the figure of native casualties at about 250.
He Tohu: impressive, but flawed
This exhibition in one of the capital’s cultural hearths, is doing people a disservice.
New Zealand citizens and especially children, not to mention tourists, are being fed a sanitized slant on New Zealand’s history.
There are some impressive features to this multi-media show, such as
- plenty of accurate information in English and Te Reo
- graphic facsimiles of sketches, maps and cartoons
- the enlarged photographs
- a timeline wall
- the opportunity to hear different viewpoints on the three documents.
Unfortunately, the material presented is highly selective, and fails to provide a comprehensive coverage of our country’s past.
Visitors are entitled to get a balance view of New Zealand’s fascinating history.