This essay has been initiated regarding the concerns of a group of New Zealand academics, teachers, historians and commentators, many of whom have held prestigious positions in relaying our history to generations of young New Zealanders, over many years. They are concerned that the history of our nation is presented to our young people in a comprehensive, truthful, unbiased and informative manner. Their aim is that a truthful presentation of New Zealand history is delivered in our schools from 2022, the date whereby a revised School Histories Curriculum prepared by the Ministry of Education, is to be taught.
The Ministry proposed a revised curriculum in early 2021, calling for submissions by 31 May. The result of over 5000 submissions on the draft reveals virtually no changes from the initial proposals. It is clear that a politically-focused curriculum is to be delivered in which untruths, distorted descriptions of recorded events and biased interpretations of the past will now be included.
This essay sets out several interpretations of the same events in New Zealand’s history as alternatives to the political orthodoxy (propaganda) now being required learning in our classrooms.
So, what is history?
It used to be that history was considered to be a factual record of past events which could be verified from a number of sources. In 21st century New Zealand however, history can literally be anything a person, organisation, cultural group, even a government, wants it to be. History today is being used as a vehicle to support social, economic, political and cultural agendas. Historians now tell us there is no such thing as “one true history” of anything, but that there are as many histories as there are people who wish that to be the case. Historiography, or the writing of history, has supplanted the presentation of verifiable facts about past events.
Let us start with a brief overview of what history is supposed to be.
The primary (factual) questions include answers to such questions as: What happened? When? Where? Who or What was involved? What was/were the factual outcome(s)?
The secondary (arguable) questions might include: Why did this event occur? What should/should not have happened? What were the perceived/claimed outcomes or results?
The issue that needs to be addressed up front is the validity and reliability of any evidence or information surrounding a past event. To ascertain how valid and/or reliable a particular version of an historical event actually is, we need to consider a range of approaches which historians now use to portray past events, some of which frankly verge upon the dishonest.
- Documented or written history - how reliable is the written evidence? Could it have been fabricated and if so by whom and for what purpose? Are there other sources which confirm or support or contradict the written account?
- Oral history. This approach is generally accepted as being provided by a living person, such as an eye-witness, who was present when the event occurred - such as the 9/11 disaster in New York. Oral history is also claimed to be valid history when relayed by successive generations in the absence of any written methodology. But inter-generational relaying of stories can quickly become distorted, even untrue.
A New Zealand example of how history can become equivocal can be found in differing versions of Hongi Hika’s visit to England in 1820. Hika travelled to England in the whaling ship “New Zealander” along with his nephew Waikato, and the missionary Rev Maunsell. Whilst there, Hika was introduced to King George 4th as a “tattooed curiosity”, presented with a suit of armour, and given significant amounts of money - which he used to purchase muskets. (Ref: Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand). However another description of the same event relayed by a Ngapuhi kaumatua in the presence of a Professor of Maori and Indigenous Studies at Auckland University, held that Hika, armed only with a taiaha, defeated three of the King’s expert swordsmen, thereby earning himself an audience with the King. (Ref: This Pakeha Life: An Unsettled Memoir”, Jones A., BW Books, 2021 at pp.223-5). Which version is the more accurate? Which version will be taught in schools? Both?
It is widely accepted that oral history, on it’s own and without some valid, corroborating evidence, is not an adequate method of obtaining reliable, factual data. (Ref: Oral History Society, UK).
- Archaeological evidence. The science of archaeology provides tangible evidence of past events and is a very reliable source of historical information - often validating written and other records. The British TV series “Time Team” is an excellent example of archaeological activity which greatly enhances histories. Archaeology is also an excellent way of discovering “undiscovered” history.
- Forensic/scientific evidence. Advancements in a range of scientific spheres such as DNA testing and radio-carbon dating also provide significant corroborative evidence of claimed historical activities. Satellite imaging is another hi-tech approach being increasingly used in validating historical sites.
- Political, social, economic and cultural factors. We are seeing in New Zealand today an extraordinary level of attempts by politicians, and social and cultural activists, to influence not only what is taught in schools as history and other ideological frameworks, but also a worrying degree of overt coercion ensuring teachers and educators include a range of socio-cultural and socio-political propaganda.
- Omissions. It is becoming increasingly common for historians and socio-political activists to omit whole elements of an established historical event, or in some cases, to deny an event actually occurred. An example is the decision by the board of the National Museum of New Zealand, during an exhibition devoted to the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands in the late 1990s, to omit any reference to the invasion of the Chathams and the slaughter of hundreds of Moriori, by two Taranaki iwi, Nati Tama and Ngati Mutunga, in 1835. Information relating to the Moriori exhibition has been removed from the National Museum of New Zealand website.
Another example of omission is the complete absence of any reference or information in the draft history curriculum to be taught in schools from 2022, pertaining to the settlement of these islands prior to 1840.
- Presentism. The late Professor William (Bill) Oliver of Massey University, in a seminal essay on this subject, denounced the use of “presentism”, (ie using today’s standards and values to evaluate past activities) as a flawed and disingenuous technique for viewing historical events. (Ref: Histories, Power and Loss”, Sharp A., and McHugh P., Bridget Williams Books,2001). Most current New Zealand historians inevitably use presentism as their basis, whereby authors judge past events using today’s standards. A classic example of the use of presentism by contemporary historians and cultural activists, is to vilify the activities of the New Zealand Native Land Court in the latter half of the 19th century. The vast majority of Maori land in this period was acquired from Maori using legal process. (Ref: Royal Society Of NZ Expert Panel’s submission to the Schools Histories draft Curriculum, May, 2021). There is substantial documentary evidence that not only did Maori themselves request individualised sales (individual title) but also that the Court had to ascertain who actually “owned”, ie “occupied” that land under take Raupatu, or conquest and subjugation by force. Having sold the land upwards of 200 years ago, 21st century cultural activists now claim these sales were “unfair” or fraudulent, because these lands today are productive farmlands. Such is the dishonesty and stupidity of presentism.
- “Argumentum ad nauseam” - Latin for repeating an untruth so many times that ordinary people come to believe it as fact. The most blatantly untrue “argumentum ad nauseam” in New Zealand today is that the Treaty of Waitangi (1840) constituted a “partnership” between Maori and the Crown. Many lawyers debunk this claim as legally impossible in the New Zealand Constitution, where the Treaty is a mere convention and is not a legal document. Such expertise has no bearing upon this myth which is repeated ad nauseam by the Prime Minister and her colleagues as well as Maori sovereignty activists. Such is the strength of this myth that the New Zealand Government is in active discussions with Maori (16% of the population) on plans to politically co-govern New Zealand with the other 84% by 2040!
- The Straw Man approach-disprove me! Some historians purposely make obviously untrue or highly-controversial claims, then wait for somebody else to prove them wrong - or dishonest. If this challenge does not occur, then the untruth is perpetuated, eventually becoming accepted as fact, not unlike presentism. An example of the “Straw Man” approach is the claim by historian James Belich that Maori “invented trench warfare” as a defensive strategy against British and colonial troops during the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s. (TVNZ Documentary, The New Zealand Wars, James Belich [online]). Trench warfare was known and used in Roman times or earlier, as any student of military history knows.
- Selective Quotations. Some modern historians base their entire output on highly focused and selective quotations from a range of other authors. The problem with this technique is their purposeful selectivity, as opposed to widening or extending the range of sources consulted.
“Desk Research” or consulting only already published and available items as the basis for a publication, whilst a well-accepted technique, is by definition limited when it comes to history. If the author was instead producing a “mega-analysis”’ of an issue, that is, all of the available published material, including forensic, archaeological and field evidence, then the very comprehensiveness of this approach would be justifiable. But when the choice is highly selective, biased and skewed, the results can well be highly misleading.
- Personal Bias. Many historians introduce personal bias into their writing or teaching. If a teacher/lecturer canvasses a wide range of viewpoints on a topic, then concludes a particular view giving their reasons, the recipient is in a position to agree or disagree with the provider’s conclusion. The problem is whether or not sufficient scope of the issue has been addressed.
An example: A prominent historian giving a public lecture on the New Zealand Wars labelled Grey a “conniving, dishonest b.....d” without really examining or offering Grey’s undoubted contributions to early colonial New Zealand. When challenged publicly on this highly-personalised view, the historian backed off and apologised. There are many examples of historians injecting their particular personal viewpoints without supporting evidence or statements.
- Academic Careerism. Many historians produce controversial or disingenuous outputs purely to enhance their academic careers. Destroying your academic opponents for career enhancement, is quite common. An example is the widely-accepted book on the Treaty of Waitangi by Claudia Orange. Orange uses several of the above techniques to enhance and promote her particular view of Treaty history. Firstly, she totally rubbishes earlier historians on the subject, particularly T. Lindsay Buick, whose widely accepted and acknowledged book on the Treaty was the standard university text for decades of history students. In her preface, Orange dismisses Buick’s treatment as “merely a collection of documents with no analysis and much error”. Orange offers no evidence or reasoning for her dismissal. Next, she narrates substantial passages as if she were present at these momentous occurrences. And finally, she omits substantial information on pre-Treaty history such as the pre-Treaty land purchases registered in the NSW courts, as well as significant other material. ( Ref: Prof Gordon Parsonson’s review of Orange’s book, ODT July, 1989). No mention whatsoever is made by Orange of the Musket Wars holocaust immediately preceding the 1840 Treaty signing, and their enormous implications for post- Treaty history.
Such then are some of the approaches to determining and teaching of history. In many parts of the world, the promotion and teaching of a nation’s history is a time-honoured and professional undertaking which adds immeasurably to a nation’s identity and future. Can the same be said of New Zealand in the 21st Century?
Henry Armstrong is retired, follows politics, and writes.