Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Fear of history

Over the last few weeks I've been asked, by several visitors to this blog, whether I'm worried by the prospect of taking up a job at a school in a 'place like Tonga'. According to my interlocutors, Tonga is a 'backwater' where 'superstition' rules, and where lessons offered by sociologists and historians must fall on deaf ears.

It is true that serious obstacles confront tertiary educators working in Tonga.  Instruction and assessment is in English, which is the second language of students. Libraries are tiny, and laboratories are ill-equipped. Students often lack the funds to buy coursebooks.

I find it amusing, though, that Pakeha New Zealanders would consider Tongan society intellectually backward, and implicitly contrast it with their own enlightened realm.

Tonga's churches may have a grip on the country's imagination, and on many of its primary and secondary schools, but organised Christianity need not be inimical to the cause of scholarship. Religion has helped to foster a reverence for books amongst Tongans, and given its people a set of stories and symbols which they can use to understand the world. Religious instruction does not necessarily inculcate conservative values. In a famous essay for the History Workshop Journal, Raphael Samuel showed that many of Britain's radical political thinkers and socialist historians grew up in nonconformist churches, and drew on the Bible's narratives and imagery.

Most Pakeha Kiwis lack the religiosity which is common in Tonga, but they also lack an affection for books and learning, and the habit of thinking about the world in an orderly way. In their efforts to explain the world, a lot of them have adopted conspiracy theories gleaned from dodgy internet sites.
And many Pakeha Kiwis suffer from a disorder that is peculiar to settler societies. Troubled obscurely by a  history of colonisation in which their great grandparents were protagonists, they are reflexively hostile to historians and archaeologists who have the temerity to talk about nineteenth century battles and indigenous civilisations. Like the unfortunate characters in Kurt Vonnegut's story 'Harrison Bergeon', who are prevented from thinking about sensitive subjects by a device which transmits high-pitched noises directly into their brains, a lot of Pakeha Kiwis are simply incapable of thinking and talking about their colonial past. (I'm generalising here, of course. The history departments in our universities do a good job of curing young men and women of their postcolonial disorder, and turning them into thoughtful adults. And the increasing numbers of Pakeha Kiwis who have no direct link with the nineteenth century often lack the old hangups about history. One of my cousins was raised in the Catholic community in Northern Ireland, and emigrated to this country when she married into our old colonial family. She has an instinctive understanding of colonialism.)

Last August I was involved in a discussion about New Zealand history in a comments thread at Kiwiblog, one of New Zealand's most popular websites. I thought I would post that chat here, because the Kiwibloggers I was talking to seem to me to exemplify the fear of history which is so common in Pakeha New Zealand, and which is so refreshingly absent from Tongan society.

longknives wrote:

A hell of a lot of New Zealanders have an aversion to their kids being force-fed Maori language and culture in school. Not to mention the completely new and rewritten versons of New Zealand history (Maori lived at peace and ‘at one with nature’ until the evil White man came..) that seem to have become part of the Cirriculum.

Scott wrote:

I see this complaint about New Zealand history being rewritten a lot on right-wing blogs, but the complainers never explain which texts they object to. Which scholar of pre-contact Maori society has been guilty of misrepresentation, longknives? I’m not aware of any of the major figures in the field denying features of pre-contact society like social stratification, fragmentation into iwi and hapu, and inter-iwi violence. In fact, I think some of the key works in the field in recent decades – Ballara’s Iwi: the dynamics of Maori inter-tribal organisation, for example – emphasise these things, in a way that older works did not.

It was older, Victorian ethnographers who sometimes tended to come up with patronising pictures of Maori as noble savages living in static, unstratified societies.

longknives wrote:

I suggest you speak to any primary or secondary school student and ask them what they have “learned in school” about Maori. The concept of the ‘Noble Savage’ is alive and well in our education system…

As for History on a more academic (Tertiary) level- It has been a while since I was at University but I do distinctly recall a History lecturer (Pakeha- wearing a Greenstone Pendant) bursting into tears as he told the tale of those “racist” New Zealand Police and their shoot-out with the “Peace-loving” and “completely innocent” Rua Kenana…

Even as a young (and left-leaning in those days!) University student I could smell the bullshit a mile away.

Scott wrote:

If you make a bold claim about the rewriting of history you ought to be be able to back it up with a reference or two, rather than ask those who doubt you to go out and do your research for you.

I was hoping for something a bit more specific than an unnamed lecturer you remember from university. And the anecdote you mention is irrelevant, because you were making claims about pre-contact Maori society, not post-contact conflict between Maori and Pakeha.

Have you read a single scholarly text about pre-contact Maori society? Ballara, Sutton, Groube, Barber, Kirch? All I’m asking for is a single text from recent decades which claims that pre-contact society was unstratified, united, and peaceful.

Nasska wrote:

If it weren’t for the exponents of a new world order trying to rewrite history in a way that makes Europeans into aggressors against peaceful natives Mr Crimp’s ravings would never get oxygen. Those who won’t drink the Koolaid prepared for us by the social engineers instinctively know that the truth probably lies closer to Crimp than Harawira.

Just another example of unintended consequences caused by the dishonesty of those who know what is good for us.


Who are the scholars rewriting the prehistory of New Zealand to make traditional Maori society a peaceful egalitarian paradise, and what are the trusty old texts we should be reading?

The truth is that you’ve got it completely backwards. The fashion for the Maori as noble savage was a Victorian phenomenon, and the scholarship of professionals over the past ninety years has emphasised the stratification, fragmentation, and conflict in pre-contact society.

Nasska wrote:

I’m not an historian. The brain washing of NZ is being done in the classroom by underhand socialist teachers probably twisting the curriculum to breaking point in order to instil ‘newspeak’ into their vulnerable charges. Listening my grandchildren spouting the crap their marxist pedagogues have drummed into them is all the proof I need.

Scott wrote:

Well, presumably these sinister brainwashers have some texts to work from? How about a reference? And since you know the difference between the faux-history of today and the robust scholarship of the past, can you explain what books we should be reading to get the real deal on New Zealand history? So far none of the conspiracy theorists here have been able to name a single text they object to and a single work of scholarship from the past that they think we ought to be reading.

Griff wrote:

Mr Hamilton The tone of the nz history on air website definitely downplays the impact of the musket wars The consensus among historians such as king etc is for a death toll of 25000 as a starting point and as many as 60000 at nz history its up to 20000 when nz history talks of the treaty it down plays the holocaust of the previous generation as a reason for sighing the treaty

Scott wrote:

Have you actually read any of the literature on the Musket Wars? I don’t see how the book-length texts on the subjects, Crosbie’s Musket Wars and Matthew Wright’s Guns and Utu, can possibly be said to downplay the significance of the conflict. Both present it as apocalyptic. Wright’s book, which was published last year, likens the Musket Wars to the Thirty Years War which devastated Germany.

The quote you offer from the New Zealand History website hardly adds up to a reprise of the noble savage thesis. It’s quite true that the Brits were concerned about French turning up in New Zealand – mad De Thierry’s attempt to start a colony in the Hokianga prompted the Declaration of Independence which preceded the Treaty – and that the behaviour of many of the early settlers was anarchic. But of course there was no government, white or brown, over NZ in 1840. Maori nationalism did not then exist (it only developed in the 1850s, as a response to land sales and large-sale settlement); British sovereignty meant nothing, when colonists existed as guests of local chiefs. Matthew Wright makes this point very clearly in Guns and Utu, and I can’t think of any New Zealand historian who would disagree with it. Read Judith Binney’s first book, her biography of Thomas Kendall, and you’ll see it comes through very clearly. Read Angela Ballara’s study of Maori sociology in the late pre-contact and early contact period and you get the same emphasis on fragmentation. Read Patrick Kirch’s classic works on Polynesia as a whole and you’ll see him contrast the relatively decentralised society of Maori to the highly centralised proto-states of the Hawaiians and Tongans.

What I don’t find, in any modern scholarship, is a characterisation of Maori society, either in the pre-contact or post-contact periods, as unitary, peaceful and unstratified: as an egalitarian paradise, in other words. And yet folks on Kiwiblog and elsewhere continually complain that Kiwi historians are presenting Maori society in this way.

Griff wrote:

That was the preamble about the treaty as taught to kids in school. It fails to mention the contemporary holocast of the musket wars were one in four where killed and most of the population exiled from their traditional Territory’s by fellow maori. Instead it talks only of the wrongs of colonialism and the depravity of the settlers. In short its pure bullshit when it comes to the motivation of those presenting the treaty and of those sighing. If you read the accounts of the time the most pressing problems facing NZ was the continual warfare and violence The maori wanted to insure more settlers to buffer against more raiding and warfare and also some tribes where interested in protecting themselves from utu as a result of previous raids.The large areas of land being brought was empty and uninhabitable by moari due to the wars. Yet all nz history says is a big scary French boat with a hundred or so frogs on it was going to take over the country and unruly settlers where a problem. Its not history being taught its colonial guilt
Scott wrote:

I don’t think the scholarship backs you up, Griff – and nor does your own earlier point. Take a look at the very detailed timeline of the Musket Wars that Crosbie provides in his book – the wars had petered out by the late 1830s. They reached their zenith in the 1820s, but once parity in arms was achieved there was little to be gained by new armed expeditions (the unarmed Chathams were an exception). Hongi Hika died a rather pathetic figure within Nga Puhi, because he couldn’t let go of his warring ways.

And as you seemed to point out earlier, the Brits had no power in NZ in 1840. The notion that they could have protected weaker iwi from stronger iwi is absurd – they couldn’t even defend themselves. As Matthew Wright points out in Guns and Utu, the Maori chiefs who signed the Treaty would have had little idea what British sovereignty really meant. Most of them were after increased trade and expertise, and thought that the Treaty would facilitate these things. The idea that they were so weak they had to turn to the tiny Brit population and say ‘we give up our sovereignty – you take over’ isn’t tenable, and doesn’t come through even in the work of ‘pre-revisionist’ historians like Keith Sinclair and James Cowan. It’s a fantasy created for political reasons by right-wing outfits like the One New Zealand Foundation.

I do agree with you though that the Musket Wars were very important events and that they should be taught in schools and commemorated by monuments.

Griff wrote:

I just posted a link to the resource recommended by the education department re the treaty for year nine study and critiqued its content When it comes to brain washing i guess yours is pretty clean...

Scott wrote:

When do you think the fact that the Treaty of Waitangi was caused by the Musket Wars was pushed into the background by some sort of conspiracy?

Your view conflicts with a lot of facts. If Maori were militarily exhausted and happy to be rid of their sovereignty in 1840, why did they initiate armed conflicts with the Brits in Wairau, Wellington, and the north over the next few years? If they were so weak, how were they able to draw a major war with the Brits in the late 1840s?

I’ve repeatedly asked the conspiracy theorists in this thread when they think a conspiracy to distort New Zealand history began, and which historians from the days before the conspiracy they would have us read. Nobody seems to be able to answer.

I assume, though, that Keith Sinclair, who was the doyen of NZ historians back in the good old ’50s, isn’t counted as one of the conspirators. Here’s his take on the Treaty of Waitangi, taken from his 1957 book The Origins of the Maori Wars:

In order to prevent the exploitation of the Maoris by land-sharks, the chiefs yielded to Her Majesty the exclusive right to purchase their lands. It was a genuine attempt the elementary conditions necessary for a humane colonization. That, however, was all the Treaty was, a noble start, never unimportant for the future, but never dominating it. It was the fundamental act for the foundation of a binational people, and, like such other acts, it had always to be ‘interpreted’. (pg 28)

Obviously there are important differences between what Sinclair has to say about the Treaty and what later historians like, say, Claudia Orange have had to say. But the notion that older historians like Sinclair attributed the Treaty to the Musket Wars and believed that without British intervention Maori would have died out is without foundation. The idea that the Treaty Of Waitangi was about the Musket Wars and represented the complete surrender of autonomy by Maori has come in recent years from conspiracy theorists linked to organisations like the National Front and the One New Zealand Foundation. Those folks are the ones who are departing very radically from the consensus of generations of Kiwi historians.
Nasska wrote:

do you want to continue to infer that I’m a liar because I formed an opinion about the bias showed by our shitless socialist teachers? Bear in mind that this occurred because of what my nine year old (intelligent) grand daughter told me she had learned at school about the terrible things that happened to Maori because of European settlement.

Scott wrote:

So your unnamed nine year old grand daughter told you she’d learned about some unnamed allegedly negative aspect of nineteenth century colonialism at some unnamed school, Nasska, and therefore there’s a massive, intricate plot being overseen by something you called the ‘New World Order’ to brainwash all Kiwi kids about our country’s history? Am I missing something, or is that your argument?

I think that the self-appointed defenders of Western civilisation in this thread should defend the West by trying to find out something about reason, critical thinking, and empirical inquiry.

Nasska wrote:

Rule 1 in the socialists’ book of mind control is always ask for references & texts. This way they can deflect the argument for long enough to assemble enough red herrings to drag the debate into safer ground.

For the benefit of the brainwashers, I’m not an historian nor is my grand daughter & neither of us have written books on the subject at hand.

Scott wrote:

‘Rule 1 in the socialists’ book of mind control is always ask for references & texts’

I think you’ll find that’s rule one for most historians, today and a thousand years ago. Without references there’s no way of checking whether something is true.

You obviously think New Zealand history has been rewritten in recent decades. How can you know this if you don’t know what historians said earlier? I’d guess that you’ve heard someone say on some website that Marxists/Muslims/the New World Order/Reptilian Creatures are brainwashing us all. If you read some New Zealand historians you might be able to decide for yourself whether history-writing in this country has actually changed in the way you claim.

A lot of folks here believe that New Zealand's colonial history was some sort of triumphal progress, and that nineteenth century Pakeha behaved impeccably towards Maori. They also think historians broadcast this view of the past up until the last few decades, when a sinister conspiracy took hold and history was rewritten. They’ve never read the classic works of the past like Sinclair’s Origins of the Maori Wars, which came out in the ’50s, and James Cowan’s The New Zealand Wars, which arrived in the ’20s, or Gorst’s The Maori King, which appeared way back in the 1860s, so they don’t realise that historians have never had the balmy view of nineteenth century history they hold. It’s hard to know what to do except urge them to use their library cards.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


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