Making history

Is it just me or is there something strange about the day of remembrance we have chosen for the Land Wars?

It’s not the remembrance part that I can’t understand. It’s the date. After all, October 28th is the day 34 Maori chiefs signed a Declaration of Independence and subsequently became the United Tribes of New Zealand. That was in 1835. The Land Wars were hinted at from the 1840s and really began in the 1860s.

The strange selection of dates is the sort of thing that niggles because it feel like the politicisation of our history and, as we all know, there is no greater battleground than the one for our history. That’s because, as George Orwell pointed out, “he who controls the past controls the present”.

Don’t get me wrong. I think a day commemorating the Maori land wars is a fantastic idea. Learning about what happened between Maori and the Crown, Maori and the New Zealand Company, Maori and Maori, The New Zealand Company and the missionaries, the missionaries and the Crown is important.

It’s important to understand that our history is not black and white in any sense. No historical issue ever is. There is always a story behind the story. There is, for example, the story of the Musket Wars where iwi battled iwi, which spilled over into the Land Wars and saw Maori shift affiliation between the Crown and back depending on which iwi the Crown was fighting. There were kupapa, Maori soldiers who fought for the Crown, and there were the heroes of the rebellion against the Crown, like Titokowaru.

Where the British are concerned, the story was just as complex. It is full of greed encouraged in organisations like The New Zealand Company, full of heroes like missionaries who spoke out against the land grabs and were subsequently shunned by society or character annihilated, even as their peers in Britain (inspired by Christians like William Wilberforce) fought for the rights of indigenous peoples to be enshrined in treaties. The history of our land is about as straightforward as the Waikato River.

And that is because it is the history of humans, and we are all of us full of bends and twists in character and beliefs that are unexpected. We are the products of our experience and our choices. We hold views thanks to the limited information every one of us possesses, because we simply can’t know it all. We are diverse in our views and beliefs today, as the people during the Land Wars would have been diverse in their views and beliefs.

All of this is important to remember, because we too easily fall into the trap of filling the stories of our past with good guys and bad guys. And that is dangerous. Yes, they existed, just as good people and bad people exist today. But the vast majority are those who are doing the best they can with the knowledge they have of the world, and it would have been the same in 1860.

By remembering that we keep our own fallibility in sight. If we know that the people who made the mistakes we are studying were just like us – humans capable of good and bad, full of mixed motives, able to see the world only through the lens of their time – we are kept humble and made wary in our decision-making.

After all, as my father always tells me, those who forget the past or think we are now “better than that” are prime candidates for repeating it. But if we want to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again, we must remember rightly.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

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