The potential for the new history curriculum to end widespread amnesia about difficult Aotearoa histories is cause for celebration, writes Dr Liana MacDonald. “It will give many Māori, particularly those who weren’t raised with a deep understanding of their Māori whakapapa, answers to personal questions about who they are and how they belong in our society.”
But what should we do about the contested, one-sided histories that continue to be told by monuments embedded in our everyday landscapes?
Twenty minutes by car from Wellington city sits a large grey boulder on the side of the road.
I’ve driven down this Lower Hutt street several times in the years I’ve lived in the Wellington region, but the presence of the boulder hadn’t registered with me.
It’s a monument to one of the two main clashes of the Wellington Wars fought in 1846. In May that year, Ngāti Rangatahi and their allies launched a surprise attack on a British outpost at Boulcott’s Farm, in retaliation for the bogus purchase and sale of their lands. Eight British troops were killed.
The underwhelming memorial to this event melts into the grey tarmac of the road, and many locals don’t know it’s there or what it represents.
I visited the boulder while working on a large-scale research project called He Taonga te Wareware. The project took me to several sites associated with the New Zealand Wars to record how those battles are remembered today. A lack of public acknowledgment about the significance of those events amazed me, as did the inscriptions on the memorials. There are silences in the stories they tell — holes and gaps where I know difficult history lies.
At the Boulcott monument, I read the plaque and took some photos. It was muggy, and a constant stream of noisy cars moved past the site. The details of the battle on the plaque are sparse. It’s inscribed in memory “of men of the imperial and colonial forces who fell in the Maori War”. It’s as if Māori were the villains, the ones responsible for war, who just came along and killed people.
But the fighting in this region followed duplicitous attempts by the New Zealand Company in 1839 to purchase vast amounts of land stretching all the way from northern Taranaki to North Canterbury.
Hutt Valley mana whenua, Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Rangatahi, weren’t part of any land sale agreement. However, the pressure to house thousands of settlers who had purchased lands from the company in good faith gave Governor George Grey a reason to bring military reinforcements to Wellington. In February 1846, he decided to assert “the Crown’s authority over the Cook Strait region”. His intention was to destroy Māori independence. Iwi in the district were effectively driven from their lands.
On May 16, Te Mamaku and 200 other Ngāti Hāua-te-Rangi warriors retaliated. A taua attacked the garrison of troops stationed at Boulcott’s Farm. The British were overpowered and Māori withdrew unhampered.
Standing in front of the boulder memorial, I move on to read the references to Māori involvement in the battle.
Here 200 Natives on the 16th May under Rangihaeata’s orders and led by Te Karamu of the Ngati-Haua-te-Rangi Upper Wanganui were repulsed by a garrison of 50 men of the 58th Regiment.
There’s no mention of land as the cause of battle. No mention that the land belonged to Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Rangatahi, nor that this whenua was in Te Karamu’s whakapapa, too.
This memorial was created a hundred years ago and has never been updated. It doesn’t even mark the burial place of the dead, which remains a mystery. The significance of the boulder itself, dragged from the Hutt River, is a mystery, too.
So many monuments like this have been sitting, uncontested and in public view, for decades. Can there ever be a consensus about what occurred that morning, and should it be inscribed on a new monument?
As we begin to teach our difficult histories in schools, these memorials and monuments will appear increasingly out of place and one-sided to many more of us, and there will be more and more questions about what we do with them.
The potential for the new history curriculum to end widespread amnesia about difficult Aotearoa histories is cause for celebration. It will give many Māori, particularly those who weren’t raised with a deep understanding of their Māori whakapapa, answers to personal questions about who they are and how they belong in our society.
I should know — I was one of them.
My own schooling in Blenheim during the ‘80s and ‘90s left me confused and uncertain about race relations in New Zealand. My father, who had Ngāti Kuia and Rangitāne whakapapa, was killed when I was seven. I was raised by my Pākehā mum who helped me to navigate my Māori heritage as best she could. Back then, though, it wasn’t cool to be Māori at school. In fact, if you were brown and had a dissenting voice, it was a downright hostile place to be.
It wasn’t until I was conducting research as an adult that I first learned about the history of Wairau on my dad’s side. That history was brutal, unfair, and robbed my tūpuna of their land. And it happened after the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi — which guaranteed Māori full, exclusive, and undisturbed rights of possession.
Gaining this knowledge helped me to feel more connected to my tūpuna, and also helped to explain why this connection was severed when I was a child.
I started to realise that withholding histories of colonial violence makes it much easier to continue to assimilate Māori into the dominant culture. Moreover, breaking the silence of difficult histories directly challenges the ideas that underpin many celebrated notions of what it means to be Kiwi. It exposes the symbols and daily practices that reinforce the myth of an equitable and harmonious bicultural society.
Across the road from the Lower Hutt monument are several more references to Boulcott. I could see a sign for an upmarket retirement home, Boulcott Village, and another sign that points to Boulcott Farm: Eatery and bar. Even the hospital has been gifted the Boulcott name.
When I was there, I saw a couple walking on the other side of the road and wondered if they knew much about the history of the area. I asked them if they knew who Boulcott was.
The woman said she knew a little about him. “There was a farm — I think he owned it back in the 1800s. All the locals got together and helped him secure the farm because of all the raids the Māori were doing.”
“Where did you learn about that?” I ask.
“I researched my family history. Do I know who he was? He just owned the farm.”
For some reason, maybe because of her prosaic response, we both laugh.
Later, I visit Boulcott’s Farm golf course.
At a café overlooking a lovely view, I ask a woman if she knows much about the history of the place.
“No, I just know it’s very new. And the clubhouse used to be over that way somewhere.”
I press on. “Do you know who Boulcott is?” I make sure I’m smiling but I can see she’s a bit nervous.
“No.” She directs me to an administration area around the corner.
There, I’m given a Boulcott Farm booklet that tells me that the club, in its early days, had a hole called “Massacre”.
I later learn that there is still recognition of a kind at the golf course. At Hole 5, there’s a sign titled “The Threat of Battle” that reads:
On the morning of 16 May 1846 clubs were used for the first time when 200 Maori Warriors of the Te Rangihaeata Tribe confronted 50 men forming the Imperial and Colonial Forces 58th Regiment Guard.
I do a double-take at the pun “. . . clubs were used for the first time . . .” I guess we can always do with a side of flippancy next to a big serving of ignorance.
It’s possible there are soldiers buried at the golf course, but no one seems to know, or mind. It’s a particular kind of forgetting at work. A way of quietly erasing the memory of what happened, of neutralising our violent colonial history.
When preparing for the Boulcott site visits, I become fascinated by depictions of Bugler Allen, the bugler boy who raised the alarm at Boulcott’s farm.
Several illustrations present his Māori attacker as ferocious, savage, and seven feet tall, looming with raised tomahawk. Bugler Allen is depicted as small but heroic, brave and self-sacrificing, with his back to the attack as he attempts to warn others. He is sometimes presented as 12 or 13, although he was actually 21 at the time of his death.
Not long after the battle, settler newspapers reported that Bugler Allen continued to warn of the attack, even after he was said to have been fatally injured. I see this as a move to reframe the settlers as the victims and erase the issue of land as the source of conflict.
Learning about colonial history can be as much about uncovering the silenced or hidden narratives about the past as understanding how contested histories are embedded in our everyday landscapes. It gives us the opportunity not only to question whose history counts but also what counts as history.
How are these different perspectives of our histories going to be managed in a critical way given that the narratives have been one-sided for so long?
Should learning about the New Zealand Wars continue to encourage visitors to bask in the glory of the Signs of a Nation exhibition at Te Papa Tongarewa, which asks us to imagine a Crown-Māori partnership that never came to fruition?
Or should we confront our failures explicitly, and look closely at the mechanisms that allow colonial violence to continue? These are big questions that face our schools as they begin to figure out how they will teach the new curriculum.
An intellectual understanding of Aotearoa New Zealand history is important, but equally, so is comprehending the multiple and diverse ways that government institutions like schools are shaped by historical narratives that conceal the mechanisms of colonial domination.
Curriculum change by itself will not be enough to challenge unequal power relations between Māori and Pākehā in our society.
But the deeper we dig to unearth stories of our colonial history, the more we will notice monuments like the Boulcott’s Farm memorial boulder, instead of just driving past them.
More of us may start to feel uncomfortable and disturbed by the way they misremember our past. They will hold up a mirror to our evolving sense of national identity, and our ways of forgetting that are designed to uphold the status quo.
Such discomfort must be addressed and worked through if Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories curriculum is to make a start at reconstituting a genuinely equitable settler-Indigenous partnership.
So perhaps these monuments should stay as they are. Rather than remove them, it may be that we start to feel them as thorns in our side, lest we forget whose stories they celebrate and whose they erase.
As told to Connie Buchanan, and made possible by NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
Dr Liana MacDonald (Ngāti Kuia, Rangitāne o Wairau, Ngāti Koata) is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Victoria University of Wellington. She is interested in how racism, whiteness, and settler colonialism manifest in national institutions. Her current research explores possibilities for decolonial transformation in schools, particularly through land education.
This article draws from a new book, Fragments from a Contested Past, which Liana co-authored. The book is part of a Marsden Fund-supported research project, “He Taonga te Wareware?: Remembering and Forgetting Difficult Histories in Aotearoa New Zealand”, led by Professor Joanna Kidman and Dr Vincent O’Malley.
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