Axver (axver) wrote,

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On historical ignorance

Over the last semester of university, I had the good fortune to be able to write a number of essays on New Zealand history. What has struck me quite strongly over the course of this work are the contradictory attitudes New Zealanders take to their own history. We are simultaneously proud and dismissive of it. We like to emphasise our achievements (I personally take particular pride in New Zealand being the first country in the world to give women the vote, and the only country to do so before the 20th century), but at the same time, we don't know a terrible lot about them. As a country, we are stunningly ignorant of our history. I am willing to bet that the average New Zealander cannot name New Zealand's first Prime Minister. I am willing to bet that the average New Zealander has no idea who Henry Sewell was. (He was the first Prime Minister. Lasted all of 13 days.) I bet names such as Donald McLean, George Grey, Julius Vogel, James Macandrew, or John Ballance are meaningless to most New Zealanders - yet Julius Vogel is the closest thing I have to a political hero, a Keynesian before John Maynard Keynes was even born.

There is certainly no trace of hero worship of our formative political leaders, nothing like the American idolisation of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or anybody like that. Names like James Busby and William Hobson are almost unknown, while Robert FitzRoy is remembered much more for his meteorological work and association with Charles Darwin than for his role as New Zealand's second Governor. What I find absolutely striking is this brief statement from Keith Sinclair's A History Of New Zealand:

"Julius Vogel [was] the first politician in New Zealand whose talents were at all remarkable ..." (page 152 of the fourth revised edition)

Now, this isn't from some esoteric work of academic scholarship that roughly five people other than myself have even heard of, let alone read. It is from one of the most (one of the very few!) popular and widely read histories of New Zealand. Vogel came to prominence as Colonial Treasurer in 1870 and as Prime Minister 1873-75 and again in 1876; beforehand, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, the provinces founded in 1853, and national self-government first achieved in 1855. So in one single sentence fragment, Sinclair basically dismisses over thirty years of politicians as untalented and unremarkable. They were the very people who founded the political entity we know today as the New Zealand state! It is fair enough to criticise the lack of resources available to figures such as Governor FitzRoy, but to claim this was due to a lack of political talent is, I think, both insulting and misleading, and a complete misrepresentation of the circumstances at the time. To put it mildly, New Zealand's earliest political figures operated in considerably trying conditions. The lack of appreciation for New Zealand's formative decades and the figures who shaped them is considerably disappointing.

But really, that's the way it is in New Zealand. Coaches and captains of the All Blacks are better known and more revered than the people who actually made the bloody country. We may tout some of our national achievements as a way of inflating our collective ego, but good luck getting us to give a damn about what actually happened. All we want is some easy tidbit that we don't have to put much effort into remembering. Who cares if it's wrong, like all of the absurd myths about the Moriori that academic research has thoroughly debunked? Wait, academic research? We've rugby to watch, bro ...
Tags: academia, new zealand, new zealand history

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