Paul Moon: The past must be remembered - for us all

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Tuhoe at the Mataatua Marae in 1905, with Te Whenuanui at front left. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library
Tuhoe at the Mataatua Marae in 1905, with Te Whenuanui at front left. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

Sometimes, history can reveal itself as having a rough face - the sort which no amount of post-mortem polishing can ever quite smooth out. When confronted with a truly gruesome historical visage, the inclination of many people is to avert their gaze, in the hope something unseen becomes unknown, and then eventually forgotten.

But such history tends not to remain concealed permanently, no matter how unpleasant its appearance. So when parts of an interview I gave for TV3's 3rd Degree programme were broadcast this week, I was deluged with email and calls from incredulous viewers, most challenging my statements about the degree of suffering that Tuhoe experienced at the hands of the Crown from the 1860s. And quite rightly, too.

Despite the magisterial research of the late Judith Binney into Tuhoe's history, and indeed my own more modest ventures detailing aspects of its past, I suspect most people remain oblivious to the full horror of some of the events that unfolded there - horrors perpetrated by New Zealanders against New Zealanders.

If anything, my observations on 3rd Degree retreated slightly from disclosing the full abhorrence of this period in our not-too-distant history. From 1869 to 1871, the Crown carried out what became known as the "scorched earth policy", in which Tuhoe were held in the incendiary grip of rapacious Crown tactics. The designation "scorched earth" was a reference to the Crown's policy of setting fire to houses, livestock, and corn, while crops such as potatoes and kumara, which could not be burnt, were dug up by Crown troops so that they would be exposed to the frosts and die.

The starvation of the Tuhoe that followed swiftly from the systematic destruction of crops and livestock, the looting of anything troops could carry away, the burning of homes, and the confiscation of land, went unchecked by the Crown, which in effect had turned on a group of its own citizens with the intention of annihilating their presence in certain regions.

Starvation was not a side-effect of the wars of the era. Rather, it had become one of the Crown's weapons of choice. This was even when most of the Tuhoe population had been so pummelled into submission that they offered practically no resistance to Crown incursions.

The result was a people ethnically cleansed from many of their traditional territories and facing being wiped out altogether. But what do you do when you are caught in the middle of such hellish circumstances? One answer is contained in the poignant accounts that have survived of some elderly Maori from the affected areas. As they were among the most vulnerable to starvation, many would walk off to a chilly, damp crag to die, so as not to burden the rest of whanau or hapu. Well into the 20th century, farmers clearing scrub would occasionally come across the skeletal remains of these people - a mute testament to the Crown's earlier savagery.

Yet, this history has slipped from view, and so understandably, there are howls of bewilderment when it resurfaces, unannounced, like someone rude intrusion on our cosy perceptions of the past. There are also doubts even as to the veracity of such accounts. "Surely", people reason, "if it was so terrible, we would have been told about it?"

How do we account for this selective ignorance of our past? Jabbing the finger of blame at the education system for this and other blind spots in our historical vision is the reflex reaction, but in this case, it also happens to be fully justified. Most probably this appeal will be dismissed as anachronistic in modern New Zealand schooling.

Edward Gibbon's misanthropic assertion that history is "little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind", seems to have been displaced in our present schooling system by an inverse formulation, in which history has become little more than an inventory of anecdotes and social cant, compartmentalised for ease of assessment, and sanitised lest anyone be offended. At the very least, we owe it to the victims of history - our own ones especially - to do so much more.

Paul Moon is a professor of history at AUT University and the author of several books on New Zealand history.

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- NZ Herald

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