“Oh so there is history in New Zealand” replied my hostel room-mate, a young Belgian woman, after I told her I’ve returned from the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. I was stunned and felt dumbfounded. It reminded me of my first trip to New Zealand, 7 years prior when a German tourist was surprised, if not shocked after I told her that Auckland does not make up one fourth of the landmass of New Zealand’s north island. We went to a language school in Auckland together and were talking about what we wanted to do after we were done with our language school when she revealed her knowledge of a country she planed on staying for several months.
Before coming to New Zealand in 2016, I’ve written my Master’s thesis on New Zealand identity and Postcolonial Studies by examining Alan Duff’s novel Once Were Warriors and its movie adaptation by the same title directed by Lee Tamahori. While the Treaty of Waitangi was not directly an aspect of my thesis, it resurfaced again and again as a key point in New Zealand history and New Zealand identity during my research. Sure, not every tourist is interested in New Zealand as much as I am, but this ignorance was shocking.
Why is the Treaty of Waitangi significant for New Zealand history and identity formation? The Treaty of Waitangi, named after the location where the signing took place, is the founding document of New Zealand. Signed first on Feb 6th 1840, nowadays a national holiday in New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi is to this day a document of political significance and controversy. The Treaty was agreement between the British crown and 540 Maori Chiefs and, according to the New Zealand government’s official history homepage, the Treaty came to be because:
“Growing numbers of British migrants arrived in New Zealand in the late 1830s, and there were plans for extensive settlement. Around this time there were large-scale land transactions with Māori, unruly behaviour by some settlers and signs that the French were interested in annexing New Zealand. The British government was initially unwilling to act, but it eventually realised that annexing the country could protect Māori, regulate British subjects and secure commercial interests. ” (Source: nzhistory.govt.nz).
Looking at New Zealand culture and identity formation was, and still is, a significant part of my academic research. So yes, I’m very well aware that my interest in and knowledge of New Zealand is not common among tourists and work & holiday visitors in New Zealand. Still, the statement from my Belgium hostel room-mate was shocking because you cannot escape history in Paihia. When you left our hostel near the main street, you would walk past a historic monument or plaque referring to a historic place after another on your 5 minute walk towards Paihia’s main shopping and tourism area. You walk past a plaque on the main street, for example, explaining how on that very location, a ceremony took place that was the “precursor to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi seven years later”. You don’t have to visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, nor do you need to research New Zealand history in order to stumble upon history in Paihia. Yet, somehow, that Belgian girl managed to ignore New Zealand history even though it was staring right in her face.
To express “Oh so there is history in New Zealand” is to deny a people’s legitimacy as scholars Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin observed:
“The question the human sciences had to face in the nineteenth century was: what does it mean to have a history? […] Clearly, what it means to have a history is the same as what it means to have a legitimate existence: history and legitimation go hand in hand; history legimates ‘us’ and not others.“ (Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin p 355).
The suppression of a people’s history is linked with the suppression of a people’s cultural practices and language. In other words, a country’s and people’s history, or a lack thereof, become a political tool to exert power.
I don’t think that girl alone is to blame for her ignorance. Education in Europe is predominantly Eurocentric. “Of course it is, duh!” you might reply. Still, how can the education system in Germany and other European countries ignore or neglect the history of colonisation when the European economy was influenced and sometimes dependent on the exploits of colonisation? In Germany, for example, a brief overview of ancient Egypt is the only non-European historic overview pupils receive. Well, at least when I went to school anyway. At university, during my degree in English and American Studies, a mix of linguistics, Bristish and American culture studies, and British and American literary studies, the information we received on the American slave trade and British colonial history was meagre and depended heavily on whether a lecturer decided to offer seminars on that subject or not. There were no mandatory seminars on colonisation, the slave trade, and the history of Native Americans before, during and after the settlement of Europeans in North America students had to take even though it was a degree party focused on American history.
A Eurocentric view in education teaches students that history outside Europe is either of no importance or simply non-existent. So when an ever increasing number of young people start exploring the world, history is denied even if it stares them right into the face. How can you learn something about a country you decided to explore when you can’t even acknowledge that history exists in said country. On that day, the Belgium girl didn’t express that exploring history during travels is of no interest to her, she revealed a denial of history. Not being interested in exploring a country’s history is not the same thing as denying a country’s history. To deny a country’s history, is to deny a country’s present struggle.
The Treaty of Waitangi consists of three articles which served as a “political compact to found a nation state and build a government in New Zealand” (Source: nzhistory.govt.nz). Differences between the English version of the Treaty and the Maori translation caused decades and centuries of misunderstandings and debates, resulting in marches and protests in the 1970s, a tribunal to inquire breaches of the treaty in 1975, million dollar settlements, and political legislations as recent as 2004.
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds are on the Bay of Islands, a 3 hour drive north of Auckland, near Paihia. A 25 minute long coastal walk, or 2km long drive, from the Paihia town centre brings you to the Treaty Grounds and Museum. For a day pass, costing $40 for adults, $20 for NZ residents, and free for children below the age of 18, you will get the full experience: the entry to the Museum, admission to the Treaty Grounds, a guided tour, and a Maori cultural performance.
So when you return home to your native country, you can truly say that you got know New Zealand. Having seen every bar east of the Tasman Sea or having explored every action sport activity alone cannot teach you New Zealand identity. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds alone, cannot do such thing either, but a visit is a good start to get to know this country on the other end of the World.
For more information on the Treaty of Waitangi and the Waitangi Treaty Grounds please visit:
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. Ed. The Post-colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge. 2003.