By: Rachel Smalley
I learnt a lot about European history at school, but the teaching around New Zealand history was limited. (Photo Getty Images)

How would you rate your knowledge of New Zealand history? Colonialism? The New Zealand Wars? How we got to where we are today?

I’ll put my hand up and say my knowledge of New Zealand history could do with some work. I learnt a lot about European history at school, but the teaching around New Zealand history was limited.

And our former Prime Ministers Jim Bolger and Geoffrey Palmer say that’s one of the reasons behind some of our most stubborn racist attitudes in this country. We simply don’t know enough about how we got where we are today.

And knowledge is power, right? And ignorance triggers fear, and fear can trigger xenophobia. You fear what you don’t know.

I loved history at school. It was one of my favourite subjects but it largely centred around British history. Henry the 8th, the Industrial Revolution, the World Wars, a bit of colonialism in India, a little bit about South Africa and I seem to remember Genghis Khan made a brief appearance too. But New Zealand history? The New Zealand Wars? That was limited to one day on a school day trip to Akaroa.

Most of what we learnt was about the French whalers, but we also visited the remains of the Ngai Tahu Pa on the Onawe Peninsula. I remember it because my teacher told me that 1200 people died there. I think I was about 8 or 9 at the time and I didn’t know one person who’d died back then, let alone 1200. That’s why it stayed with me. I remember looking at a drawing of Te Rauparaha and wondering why he’d been such a bad man. And that’s where my knowledge of New Zealand’s history began and ended as a child.

Jim Bolger said “You can’t know who you are as a society unless you know your history.” And he’s right. How did we come to be who we are? What did we fight over? How did we get here today? Does everyone know the origins of the Treaty Of Waitangi? Or the role of the Tribunal? If they knew that European settlers took great swathes of land in return for a few muskets and blankets, maybe many of us would be less resentful. That’s an over-simplification, but you get what I’m trying to say here. Ignorance doesn’t help any of us.

And many New Zealanders are resentful. If I raise an issue about anything to do with Maori I’ll always get bombed with texts or emails, usually along the lines of “bloody Maori want everything.” Well, if we knew our history, maybe we’d realise that once upon a time those “bloody Maori” did have everything.

And so I agree with Jim Bolger who wants our school curriculum to include more New Zealand history. In order to know who we are now, we need to understand who were were in the past.  And who knows, we might become a more understanding, more harmonious society.


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