“New Zealand doesn’t have any history.”
Do you know how many times I’ve heard that since moving here?
“New Zealand was the last major landmass to be settled; it’s too young for anything interesting to have happened.”
It’s not just immigrants that say it. It’s a sentiment shared by many born-and-bred New Zealanders. It’s repeated so often that people simply believe it.
When I moved here, I bemoaned the lack of interesting history and – perhaps as an act of homesickness – began to obsess over British history.
I watched every documentary and read every book I could get my hands on. The Britons, the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, the Normans, the Plantagenets, the Tudors, the Stuarts, the Georgians, the Victorians… and then, at the twentieth century, I lost interest.
I scoffed at New Zealand’s comparatively pathetic past.
School didn’t help.
The way New Zealand history is taught in schools seriously needs overhauling. Every year, we got the same old sanitised version of how the Treaty of Waitangi went down, the mythologised version of what happened with the ANZACs at Gallipoli, and… well… not much else. (I remember doing something about Victorian colonists’ journeys to New Zealand at primary school, and something about the Maori migration route through the Pacific in Year Nine Social Studies.) We were practically taught to believe that New Zealand history was boring. Even when I got to Seventh Form, my History teacher said, “Well, we can either do the New Zealand module or the Tudors and Stuarts module, and the New Zealand module is boring as f**k.” (He may not have used those exact words.)
One of the reasons I didn’t do History at university was I didn’t want to have to slog through all the New Zealand stuff before I could get to the interesting stuff. I kind of regret that now. (Except not really, because I did Classical Studies instead, which I absolutely adored.)
Then I started writing this blog.
I was no longer just living in New Zealand – I was analysing it. Really thinking about it. Whenever I visited somewhere, I wasn’t just looking at it and going, “Oh, that’s nice,” I was actually making an effort to learn about it.
I remember – it was nearly three years ago, before Tim and I went to Europe – I visited Rotorua with my parents. We’d been to Rotorua many times before. We’d even been to Rotorua Museum many times before. But never before I had engaged with Rotorua’s history quite so dramatically. I was fascinated.
It was honestly a turning point in my life. I came back from Rotorua renewed, with a newfound appreciation for New Zealand history. I wanted to find out more.
If you’re one of my regular readers, you might have noticed a certain obsession with New Zealand history of late. Now, whenever I hear someone parroting the view that New Zealand doesn’t have any history, I excitedly reel off a list of places they can visit. I even wrote an article about it on my new website, trippla.nz, where I provide holiday inspiration in the form of New Zealand travel itineraries. The article is called A Magical History Tour of the North Island, and you should definitely check out at least some of the places I mention.
Of course New Zealand has history! Maori people have been living here for a thousand years, give or take three hundred. Yes, it’s all oral history (and a bit of archaeology) until the Europeans arrive, but that doesn’t mean it’s non-existent. And the Europeans arriving unleashes a whole host of “interesting” historical events! Perhaps one of the reasons New Zealand history isn’t taught in detail is quite simply white guilt.
Over the years I’ve heard a few people, mostly older white New Zealanders, say things like, “Leave the past where it is. We don’t want to be stirring up old grievances,” and, “We should be promoting unity, not pointing the finger.”
Don’t you just hate it when people can’t separate history and politics? What’s wrong with looking at the simple facts, saying, “This is what happened,” and learning from it, instead of getting angry and trying to deny it when, really, it had nothing to do with anyone alive today? I mean come on! Everyone was a dick to each other in the past. Oh, hell, not just in the past – everyone’s a dick to each other today – just look at the world!
And, yes, people use history to suit their own purposes all the time. That’s why you have to look at multiple histories of the same events, told by different people, to get a balanced idea of what really happened.
New Zealand may not have any medieval castles, but it’s got hill forts. Its history includes war, discovery, hardship, bravery, natural disasters, social triumphs, cannibalism, frontier towns, true love, miracles… (Well, okay, the last two are from The Princess Bride, but you get the point.) Plenty of interesting historical events have happened in New Zealand, despite its relative youth as a country. Obviously nowhere near as many as somewhere like England or China, but enough that New Zealand’s history shouldn’t be scoffed at.
Although I may still scoff at it as a joke sometimes. I am English, after all.