History is Now

... A people without history 
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern  
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails  
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel 
History is now and England.

T.S.Eliot, 'Little Gidding', The Four Quartets.

I grew up just down the road from Burtt Rd on the northern outskirts of Pukekohe (a town now on the southern outskirts of the City of Auckland). This fact has not struck me as important until quite recently, when I discovered that in the vicinity of Burtt Rd, at Burtt’s farm, an encounter between Maori and Pakeha settlers took place in September 1863. This was about the closest the Waikato war of 1863-64 got to Auckland. Just down the road from my place, where my parents, grandparents and uncles and aunties still live, Maori and Pakeha skirmished in a fairly minor affray of the New Zealand Wars. A minor affray, perhaps, but part of the drama that unfolded when Governor Grey gave the order for troops to cross the Mangatawhiri stream in July 1863, sparking the conflict with the King Movement that took many hundreds of lives over the two years that followed. Confiscations of prime Waikato real estate followed. The New Zealand Government or Crown only came to terms with this history in 1995 when it settled with Waikato-Tainui.

Von Tempsky – Attack on Burtts’ Farm in 1863 Hocken Library, University of Otago. Reference: 12,513

But has New Zealand society come to terms with it? The year 2014 has just closed. It marked the 150 year commemorations of many of the key conflicts of the Waikato war, and thus the NZ Wars, still to see many 150 year battle commemorations over the next few years. Yet have we, as a society, remembered these foundational conflicts in our national story? Hardly. Maori media covered the series of commemorations, but Pakeha media to my knowledge was almost silent.

It betrays a serious lack of engagement with our story that wider NZ society, Pakeha society in particular, has not turned up to remember these conflicts. As it stands, Pakeha collective memory really only reaches as far as Gallipoli and WW1/2. The nineteenth century foundations of modern NZ are like a void for most NZers. How tragic.

It was not always like this. Historian Dr Vincent O’Malley recently gave a lecture that recalled the history of NZ Wars commemorations. The 50th and 100th commemorations were largely led by Pakeha  communities – when the storyline was still couched in the semi-comfortable terms of a conflict with the brave and noble Maori (who we nevertheless beat) that somehow brought us together. By contrast, the 150th Waikato war commemorations have been led mostly by Maori.

Something needs to change. Aotearoa NZ’s case of historical amnesia needs some major psychiatric treatment before we become a people truly in sync with both the good and bad realities of our national story. Of course, there is no one ‘national story’ – both the nation and a singular story are constructs. But how we construct that story, or how we remember who we are, is an interesting reflection of how we’re living out the realities of our past in our present. The past is not ‘the past’ – it is not something other than, separate from, our present.

This is a blog about how history is now. T.S. Elliot got it right for England. But where and how can history be now and New Zealand?

If you’re interested you can read an old account of the Burtt’s farm encounter here: http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Cow01NewZ-c30-1.html

Samuel Carpenter