Messaging: My experience of Learning and Teaching History in a former British Colony

I was educated in New Zealand and I expect my history education was the same as for most of my contemporaries. In primary years history was included as part of Social Studies which included both geography history. Apart from learning about Abel Tasman and Captain Cook, and a little about the whalers, sealers, missionaries and early settlers culminating in the Treaty of Waitangi history, most of what we learned was the history and geography of far off countries. I was fortunate in my school in a small rural town to have a Maori teacher in Year 6 who taught us about Kupe and the Great Fleet and a little of Maori life before the white man came, but nothing thereafter

At secondary school the picture was little different. Our study consisted of British history, the kings and queens, famous buildings and landmarks, famous victories and heroic general and admirals were underpinned by more details of Normans and Vikings and the Blitz and Battle of Britain. It was all jolly marvellous!  In our Year 11 examinations there was no New Zealand History only European and British history and the same in our Year 13 examinations. We knew so much more about British history than we did about our own, and what we did know of our own country was filtered through a prism that extolled the sterling qualities of early settlers and missionaries in turning the country into a modern nation state.

University turned out little different. I spent five years studying history and my first experience of any New Zealand History was in my 4th (post-graduate honours) course. Prior to that it was British history delivered through the prism of eminent Oxbridge historians, like G.O.Sayles or Christopher Brooke. It was only in the final year, in writing a Masters thesis on the Great Depression in New Zealand did I come to understand some part of the history of my country.

Of all the exports Britain gave its empire, its own sanatised and romanticised view of its own history is perhaps the most enduring. It was a patriotic history that wasn’t only peddled for New Zealanders, but was taught in one form or another in all its former colonies. The story of Great Britain as a virtuous country with right on their side, spreading civilization throughout their empire, championing valiant leaders and explorers like Nelson and Wellington, Churchill and Cook. Britain was just a small island, like us, and had turned the world map pink not by conquest, but by civilizing. And we bought it.  This indoctrination. Despite the fact that many of the colonies had their cultures, religions and languages ruthlessly stamped out and a growing suspicion that there was a darker narrative with quite different motives and that we were being told only one side of the story.

It was a narrative that ran deep.  In 1917, exactly 103 years ago to the day as I write this, 843 New Zealanders died within a few hours at Passenchale. Of a population of just over one million, 100,000 New Zealanders served overseas in a war that had its origins in european in-fighting, dynastic power struggles and fuelled by suspicion, ignorance and arrogance. We were there because of the narrative, the old links, loyalty to the ‘Mother Country.’  The Second World War, of course, had a different narrative, but the country was there also in Korea, in Malaysia, in Vietnam, in Iraq, just as it had been in the Boer War, driven by the narrative about serving king (or Queen) and country. And the country wasn’t even ours. 

Twenty years later, when I first taught history at Year 13, there was still only one course available in New Zealand; Tudor-Stuart England. I still know more about this period than any other. Then around 1993, finally, a new course was introduced  – 19th Century New Zealand- and we were able to teach that our own history was something altogether different.

Coming out, as New Zealand history has done over the past fifty years, reclaiming its own narrative, has been painful and protracted. Slowly we started to take responsibility for what the European had done, what the British Government had done. We renamed the Maori Wars, first the Anglo-Maori Wars and then, the Land Wars, to describe the battles over the seizure of Maori land (in the same spirit of transparency as the renaming of the Indian Mutiny as the Indian War of Independence).  We started to look again at battles, land claims, the Treaty and the injustices of the past. We started to see history as contested knowledge. We started to look at the other side.

It was a shock coming to England to find that the teaching of history was much the same: inward looking, a mixture of myth and narrative, focused on the highlights and topics that reflected British values and sensibilities. That was their choice. But it can be no surprise that the revisionism taking place throughout the former colonies has not been so complimentary of the trick historians from the old country played on them. 

By Peter Tait

A retired teacher and head for 17 years, now focusing on writing, both on education and further fiction and non-fiction (previously having published two novels and a non-fiction book on Thomas Hardy's wives and other women, a biography, poetry and numerous articles on education).

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