On “Facing Up” To The “Whole History” Of NZ Pre-1840

By   /   February 7, 2019  /   5 Comments

TDB recommends Voyager - Unlimited internet @home as fast as you can get

I see Don Brash was quoted in yesterday’s Herald calling for broader education about New Zealand history, and in particular history here prior to 1840. This .. was somewhat unexpected, but the next few lines gradually made clear what he was on about:

I see Don Brash was quoted in yesterday’s Herald calling for broader education about New Zealand history, and in particular history here prior to 1840. This .. was somewhat unexpected, but the next few lines gradually made clear what he was on about:

Quoth Brash:

“My worry is that if we focus only on post 1840 history we’ll ignore the fact that there were some awful things done by Māori tribes to other Māori tribes. […] Let’s face the whole history. I’m in favour of doing that.”

He said the number of people killed in the Land Wars on both sides was “quite minor compared with pre-1840 inter-tribal war.””

Or, in other words, I suspect the actual idea here is to try and implicitly push a metanarrative of pre-Crown Sovereignty NZ being some kind of absolutely barbarous Dark Ages, followed by the extension of British (and later NZ-Crown) rule making everything .. if not perfect, then at least so inarguably better as to render any subsequent conversation around Crown misdeeds towards Maori effectively moot.

Perhaps I am being unfair to Brash. Maybe he was quoted out of context. And possibly, there is no essentialized connection between what he’s advocating, and the implicit motivation I’ve ascribed to it. Although I somehow doubt it.

However, what I can say with greater certainty is that despite Brash’s explicit enthusiasm for adding greater ‘context’ to New Zealand history, and discussions around the Treaty in particular …

… adding a list of inter-Iwi atrocities to the New Zealand school-curriculum is not the way to go about this. Indeed, if that’s *all* Brash et co are after, then the only thing they’ll be accomplishing is, if anything, a further *decontextualization* of these threads of New Zealand’s history.


Well, consider these three rather glaring historiographical issues.

First up, while it is definitely true that the Musket Wars of the early 1800s [which, for the record, I definitely seem to recall having learned a bit about at school, so I’m not quite sure why Brash seems to think it’s not taught?] featured significant inter-tribal conflict, and some luminous examples of that much-vaunted phrase: “Man’s Inhumanity to Man” … it’s not like Maori had a monopoly upon armed conflict in the first few decades of the 19th century.

At about the same time that the Musket Wars were getting going in earnest here in New Zealand, much of the Continent of Europe was busy tearing itself apart at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. This might seem of questionable relevancy to New Zealand history itself – but a) it helps establish that no, no there isn’t something uniquely barbarous about the inhabitants of New Zealand pre-Treaty, simply because they, too, engaged in acts of conquest and enslavement; and b) the ongoing geopolitical developments back in Europe which the Napoleonic Wars formed a particularly bloody manifestation of, would have considerable effects upon the actual processes by which New Zealand came into existence in the first place [viz. British reactions to the French, and putative desires to head the latter off from colonial acquisition].

I’d also append here that while Brash *is* technically correct about the Musket Wars having a far higher death-toll associated with them than the later Land Wars/New Zealand Wars – this is only to be expected. After all, the Musket Wars stretched over a period of nearly forty years, covered almost the entirety of the country [and the Chatham Islands, rather infamously], and featured a pretty huge degree of technological and therefore military disruption to pre-existing norms.

It is therefore entirely unsurprising that the relatively shorter Land Wars/New Zealand Wars, which featured a vastly smaller number of combatants on all sides and which raged over significantly smaller areas of the country and spans of time, would produce a much reduced death-toll in comparison.

The second point to be raised, of course, is that the enhanced bellicosity that characterizes the period of the Musket Wars, was only made possible in the first place via the introduction of technological improvements (most prominently, the eponymous weapon of the conflict) brought by Europeans.

This might sound something of a glaringly obvious self-evidency; yet it matters in the context of Hobson’s Pledge’s preferred metanarrative – as far and away from “proving” that European colonization was what made all the magical(thinking) difference between pre-Treaty “barbarism” and post-Treaty “civilization” , it instead shows that the European contribution to peace and prosperity here in these lands is, at best, *decidedly* more mixed.

To attempt to insist otherwise – that large-scale losses of life numbering in the tens of thousands (admittedly, again, over a period of nearly forty years) amidst Maori in the early 1800s, is something that is *only* the result *of* Maori, as if in a vacuum … is again, to endeavour to decontextualize an important series of threads of New Zealand history, in service of an overarching yet fundamentally a-historical pro-colonial meta-narrative. t

Yet it is the third point, that I am about to make, which is arguably the most significant.

As I have stated above, it came as quite some surprise to me that Brash appeared to believe that New Zealand history teaching doesn’t entail anybody learning anything about the conflicts which dominated much of the pre-1840s landscape here. I well remember reasonable tracts of classroom time spent upon it; and a pretty common currency for these in broader life.

When a law-lecturer of mine made a joke about the … difficulties of introducing herself at various Maraes in certain parts of the country, due to her being Ngapuhi, and muttered occasionally only somewhat-joking comments about the alleged aggressions an outrages committed against her hosts’ ancestors, by the folk of her forebears … I don’t think much of the room required this being explained as if it were entirely new information we were coming into contact with?

But I digress.

Maybe there have been some seismic shifts in the NZ education system over the past few years (and, as a side-note, it has ever been an endemic problem when it comes to commentary upon education matters – we all just blithely presume, unless we’re teachers, that things are still fundamentally the same as “when we went through”); but unless this has been the case, I do not think that there is a total lack of teaching or of broader awareness about the Musket Wars et al.

I *do* however think that there is quite a chronic *under-teaching* and more than infrequent *lack of awareness* about the *other side* of proceedings.

Insofar as, while we *might* learn about some of the broad trends inherent in the Musket Wars; and some of the pretty impressive leadership figures like Hongi Hika … pretty much everything else that’s non-military related seems to fly under the radar. A QED proof of which can be found in Brash’s own words pertaining to his own view that ‘lifting the lid’ on NZ history pre-1840 simply means confronting “the fact that there were some awful things done by Māori tribes to other Māori tribes”.

But even though names like Ruatara are somewhat known today (a very forward-thinking Ngapuhi chieftain – who, amongst other things, sought to introduce European agricultural elements to his people, with a view to improving both their own self-provision of sustenance and the economic trading facility which greater output would bring – tellingly, stating his interest in wheat-cultivation due to a significant shortage in a neighbouring offshore market), you have to do a bit of digging to find mention of the remarkably active and intentional role which Maori were carving out for themselves in the flax, timber, sealskin, potato, and other industries.

Admittedly, as a side-note, pretty much all of these *do* directly relate to the military-history angle of things – insofar as the agricultural advancements of the period enabled far greater military actions due to freeing up manpower, and all these economic windfalls facilitating the additional purchase of armaments.

But that’s just the thing. The “the pre-Treaty era was just barbarous atrocities carried out in the name of inter-tribal conquest” perspective doesn’t even acknowledge the sheer ingenuity and societal effort which went into making those three thousand plus raids and battles which make up the Musket Wars *possible*. Even though the same sorts of people pushing that line probably still quietly pat their own forebears on the back for “the advancements of Industrial society” which eventually produced the technological capabilities of World War One, or the Second World War, or the Nazi-derived rocketry which both took Man to the Moon and furnished endless rows of atomic missile-silos at the height of the Cold War.

I suppose that’s the metaphor I’m going for here, come to think of it – the notion that attempting to characterize or teach pre-1840s NZ history as a series of inter-tribal aggressive outrages … makes about exactly as much sense as attempting to reduce everything that happened during the span of the Cold War down to escalating tallies of missiles pointed at each other, and Vietnam in there somewhere as well.

Anyway, again I digress.

Part of the reason why I find the economic developments which characterized New Zealand prior to the Treaty so worthy of reiteration here, is because contrary to the rather popular subconscious view of Maori trading activity with the wider world basically being exchanging a few minimally-above-subsistence surplus primary industry gleanings with whalers or sealers … the actual truth of the matter is that ferrying the *literally thousands of tonnes* of flax, or the *literally thousands of pounds* [in the currency of the day] worth of other exports to Australia or elsewhere … weren’t just European trading ships. But Maori-owned vessels as well.

I shall phrase this again more succinctly: Maori prior to 1840 included within their number, quite some perspicacious and enterprising figures who saw fit to operate within the European-dominated international economic system of the day … and compete very successfully on an equal footing.

Indeed, the success of Maori-owned and run international shipping operations is a key part of the story of how New Zealand acquired arguably ‘our’ first flag – that of the United Tribes, promulgated officially in 1835. This being necessitated due to the requirement of ships trading in British controlled ports overseas having a flag of nationality to register under.

There’s another intriguing story to be written on how things “went wrong” economically over the course of the subsequent decades; but we shall, I think, leave that for another time – as this piece has already marched on far further I had initially intended.

The last point I’d raise (for now) about the pre-1840 ‘New Zealand’ story, which is not raised in the ‘litany of atrocity’ metanarrative, is that the actual genesis of ‘New Zealand’ identity can very much be said to properly lie in those times.

In the occasionally confusing, sometimes deadly, but *always* interesting not just ‘encounters’ – but ‘engagements’, ‘assimilations’ (going both ways, to be sure), and ‘enjoinments’ of individuals and communities which took place well before the ‘overwriting’ of much of this by successive waves of “we’re British” that took place with subsequent, post-Treaty migration and cultural-legal enshrinements here.

In the course of researching this piece, I happened across some several accountings of the prominent Missionary personage – Thomas Kendall. Now apart from the fact that the notion of missionary-linguist-teacher-arms dealers is a pretty … almost ‘pulp’ level of interesting characterization, or the direct role which Kendall played in the international diplomacy of the day by facilitating Hongi Hika and Waikato’s trip to England (the net outcome of which being hundreds of muskets and one suit of armour for Ngapuhi), it is the story of his eventual booting out of the Church Missionary Society that particularly interests me.

The ‘official’ reason, of course, was his affair with the daughter of a prominent Maori Tohunga [Priest]. Not due to any great opposition to the idea of interracial relations – but rather because Kendall was already a married man, thus making him an adulterer. Evidently, in those days, ‘conduct unbecoming of the Clergy’ was supposed to mean something.

Yet I don’t think that’s the actual motivation for his expulsion. Not entirely, anyway.

Instead, you look at Kendall’s correspondence and other such sources – and it rapidly becomes abundantly clear that he’d effectively almost stopped thinking like, or for that matter thinking of *himself* as , a good English Christian man.

To quote his own words on the subject : due to the “apparent sublimity of [Maori] ideas” – “I have been almost completely turned from a Christian to a Heathen”.

Where am I going with this? With a few notable and largely self-declared exceptions, we are not, truthfully speaking, simply “South Seas British”, over here in the “New Zealand European” census-category. (Not least because of all the decidedly *non*-British Europeans who’ve migrated here over the centuries – my French and Swedish ancestry proudly wave their respective flags, and Dannevirke has its big Viking sign)

Instead, the ‘encounter’ with what has been here before (or what is coming here after), and the adjusting, the adaptation to these ‘new’ circumstances and *without* the comforting double-buttressing of cultural, political, and economic hegemony … is something which has characterized both the pre-1840s span of New Zealand history, as well as the post-1970s [particularly the 1967 British entry into the European Economic Community] space of our seeking to define our *own* National Identity here in this little country of ours, upon our *own* terms rather than meekly blithely accepting the imposed identi-forms of others (whether British then, or McWorld today).

But again, I have digressed – albeit for rather important and significant reasons, given the customary introspection upon New Zealand National Identity which has come to characterize Waitangi Days year in and year out.

The point I have been making, is that I completely agree with *some* of the words uttered by Brash earlier at Waitangi.

“Let’s face the whole history. I’m in favour of doing that. […] but I don’t want our history to be taught in a biased way.”

It’s just that this means *so* much more than simply rattling off a list of death-tolls from Musket-raids. And, in point of fact, will probably go quite some way to *disproving* the sorts of insistent cognitive terrain that the Hobson’s Pledge types often like to propagate around the place.

There’s so much to celebrate and to be impressed by with pre-1840s NZ history. And so much ‘additional context’ to some of the more grisly or negative parts.

The discussion and accompanying explorations around these areas is far too important, to reference me some Clemenceau, to be left simply to the sorts of people who pronounce the “ch” in “Racist”.

Want to support this work? Donate today
Follow us on Twitter & Facebook

About the author


"Part Apache; Part Swede. Part Attack Helicopter; Part Kitset Furniture."


  1. Mike the Lefty says:

    Don Brash is such an ignoramus that he makes a village idiot look wise by comparison.
    So the British rescued NZ Maori “rescued” the heathen Maori from the dark ages did they?
    So who was it who sold muskets to the Maori so they could slaughter each other more effectively?
    It wasn’t the Chinese.
    it was those lovely Christian British traders.

  2. Ngungukai says:

    The acquistion of the Musket in the early 1820’s definitely gave the balance of power to Ngapuhi who were ruthless in the slaughter of other tribes. Hongi Ika ventured as far south as the Hawkes Bay attacking various tribes.

    Like wise Te Rauparaha was equally as brutal in his dealings with tribes in the Manawatu/Horowhenua areas and the South Island tribes.

    We need to teach NZ History warts and all, however it needs to be taught professionally without bias from either a Maori or European Settlor perspective.

    • Johnnybg says:

      Well said, the warts & all approach is the only way to go. Only by being brutally honest with ourselves & each other about the actions of our ancestors can we clear the air & move forward.

  3. Aaron says:

    Brash is trying to give permission to Pakeha people to say – “well, the Maoris (sic) used to fight amongst themselves so they can’t complain about us fighting them (and winning).

    The main problem with this upturned might-is-right line of logic is that it also follows that Pakeha couldn’t complain if Maori decided to take up arms against Pakeha some time in the future.

    The real question is; what sort of society do we want to be today?

  4. Kerry Farmer says:

    What an extraordinary limited and biased argument. Where did you get the idea that history in general is a whitewash? I would like to see Maori history include the first 200 years of raping the land and the next 400 years of warring because there was no longer enough food to go around. Then we might discuss the fact that Maori chiefs were not democratic and did not even begin to understand about women’s right. they owned slaves. They did not give anyone in any other Iwi any rights at all. they were cannibals who harvested people to kill and eat. And in total rejection of your story, Te Rauparaha was probably responsible for the death of 60,000 people nearly all Maori. Yes, history of all nations and tribes need to be taught warts and all please.

Authorised by Martyn Bradbury, The Editor, TheDailyBlog,