This is a re-post of an article originally published on pundit.co.nz. It is here with permission.
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
The quotation illustrates one of the struggles writing history. Just as you want to be sensitive to differences when you are travelling – unless you are an ugly imperialist – you need to recognise that, say, a history of New Zealand is also a story of a foreign country.
Allow me an example from my recently published Not in Narrow Seas: The Economic History of Aotearoa New Zealand. One paragraph reads
‘The treaty signed at Waitangi is formally about the governance of New Zealand; but land was at the heart of it. English common law on ownership of land is based on William the Conqueror’s feudal doctrine that the sovereign was the absolute owner of all land and all others held interests directly or indirectly from her or him. The Saxon regime had been allodial (absolute) ownership; those who owned the soil had no obligations to any higher authority; Maori ownership may have been allodial. The feudal doctrine, still applicable in today’s New Zealand, is that the Crown is the owner of all land with tenure being granted to subjects who, in turn, can transfer it.’
The chapter goes on to relate the early land transactions between Maori and European had completely different understandings about what was happening. (I follow the findings of the Waitangi Tribunal.) Not only is this a foreign country to us but the transactors came literally and figuratively from foreign countries.
Notice that I am careful to avoid saying the Maori notion was ‘allodial’. It is a better parallel than the English notion of ‘feudal’ which underpins New Zealand law today. Some years ago before the Muriwhenua hearings of the Waitangi Tribunal, Joe Williams – who currently sits on the Supreme Court – argued that the traditional Maori land tenure involved a kind of eternal trust and the iwi of the time were the trustees. That is a kind of allodialism but not the Saxon one,
Today land law is dominated by feudal underpinnings. However, there are exceptions: for instance, the ‘ownership’ of the Whanganui River is a special trust. What strikes me, however, is that Maori claimants in land ownership disputes invariably talk in terms of the current (i.e., feudal) framework. So historical claims are being made but the historical framework is not how it was.
In fact, much of our historical discussion is loose with history. Like the ugly imperialist tourist, we impose our views and ignore the natives. In this case they cannot protest – they are dead, but the documentary evidence speaks for them.
From a historical perspective the kerfuffle over the statute of John Hamilton is slightly weird. Hamilton’s significance is such that he did not even make the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. He was in New Zealand for less than a year commanding troops and died in the battle at Gate Pa. He never visited the region which includes Hamilton; I imagine the person who gave the township that name never expected it to become a metropolis.
Most New Zealand cities with non-Maori names hardly deserve their names and I shant be surprised if over time each of them adopts a Maori name which gradually replaces the European one, as has already has happened with Taranaki (a.k,a. Mt Egmont). There are many more such examples; some are shown on Plate 33 of the New Zealand Historical Atlas.
Sometimes the exercise gets bizarre. One university wants to replace its name of ‘Victoria’ with ‘Wellington’. They explained that a nineteenth century monarch was unsuitable. Had they consulted their history department, they would have learned that the proposed name of an earlier British military commander was even more unsuitable. (Apparently, the rebranding has been so expensive that the university has asked staff to forgo some salary to pay for it.)
(There is a lesson from its Maori name, Te Herenga Waka. If it is too long people wont use it. Some Maori have suggested that Hamilton should be renamed ‘Kirikiriroa’ which was the name of a local Maori kainga. My guess is the city may settle on the shorter ‘Waikato’, which resonates more with its status and region.)
The attack on statues of Cook have involved accounts with only tenuous connections with the James Cook of history. They seemed to being treating him as if he was Christopher Columbus. Very often, trying to understand some pseudo-history you have to go to a misunderstood overseas event.
For much of our public thinking is so colonial. A bizarre case was a young Maori radical movement in the 1970s which started adopting the analysis of American black radicals. Excuse me, Maori are indigenous peoples; American blacks are not. (Later they took interest in Native Americans.)
Of course we should listen carefully to what is going on overseas but adapt their insights, not imitate them. (My history tries to do this, but it is hard when the rewards go to the imitators.)
The government is proposing that New Zealand history be a core part of the curriculum. No bad thing but I hope we do it properly. If so, there are going to be a lot of disappointed people because their ideas of history has only a tenuous connection with reality.
Keynes said, ‘I do not know which makes a person more conservative — to know nothing but the present, or nothing but the past.’ Worse still is to have a distorted account of both the past and the present.
Brian Easton, an independent scholar, is an economist, social statistician, public policy analyst and historian. He was the Listener economic columnist from 1978 to 2014. This is a re-post of an article originally published on pundit.co.nz. It is here with permission.