The draft histories curriculum

This is an edited and abridged version of my submission on the draft Aotearoa New Zealand histories curriculum.

I welcome the inclusion of Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories in the New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa. My comments focus on the draft New Zealand Curriculum content, but I have also reviewed the draft content for Te Marautanga o Aotearoa and looked at related material (particularly the local curriculum guide for Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories). In addition, I have read the report of the Royal Society’s Expert Advisory Panel on the draft curriculum.

A key challenge for any national history curriculum is striking the right balance between prescription and flexibility, and between national and local contexts. The introduction of a national histories curriculum represents an overdue recognition that local histories need to be placed in a larger context. In addition, while students should be encouraged to explore and interpret histories for themselves, they will struggle to do so if the curriculum does not provide them with some basic intellectual and factual contexts within which to understand these histories. I therefore support the overall approach of the curriculum, in seeking both to equip students with the skills of historical inquiry and to ensure that they understand some key concepts and contexts.

The structure of the draft New Zealand Curriculum content is based on an ‘Understand, Know, Do’ model.

Understand: big ideas

I agree with the Expert Advisory Panel that an additional ‘big idea’ should be included in the curriculum to recognise that Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories are connected with histories beyond these islands. It is impossible to understand events in Aotearoa New Zealand without understanding how people, ideas and technologies have moved between Aotearoa and the wider world. Adding this idea to the curriculum also helps to address concerns that focusing attention on Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories could be parochial and nationalistic.

I am unconvinced by the big idea ‘The course of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history has been shaped by the exercise and effects of power’. As currently described, this idea is so generic as to be almost meaningless, and would be true of any society. I suggest that it be either deleted and replaced by the new idea about New Zealand and the world, or given greater focus and more specific reference to Aotearoa New Zealand.

Know: topics and themes

The draft curriculum content is meant to provide an overarching structure and can never cover all historical topics. There is also a limit to how much can realistically be covered when history is just one part of a much bigger curriculum. However, I agree with the Expert Advisory Panel that many key aspects of Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories are largely missing due to the compression of the histories curriculum into a short and high-level document.

While historians and others would no doubt argue about the seven topics included in the Cabinet paper and announcement of the national histories curriculum in 2019, these provided a good starting point for discussion. They have been widely picked up in the media, because they are easy to understand and cover a range of issues within Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories. However, these topics are only partially apparent in the draft curriculum.

Instead, the draft curriculum has eight themes that appear under the three national contexts in ‘Know’. Most of these themes are useful for understanding New Zealand history. However, I am concerned that the ‘international conflicts’ theme gives undue attention to New Zealand’s participation in overseas wars. I would prefer to see this topic treated as one small part of a focus on New Zealand’s relationships with the wider world. The last two themes (the state and the people, and the state and the Pacific) also give too much attention to the state, at the expense of relationships within communities and between people(s).

I endorse the comments of the Expert Advisory Panel about major topics that are missing or lightly covered in the draft curriculum. As the Panel’s report notes, the inclusion of these topics ‘has the potential to create a more lively curriculum for many students and young people’. I am particularly concerned about the limited coverage of gender, class, and the diversity of New Zealand’s communities.

I am also disappointed that the draft curriculum almost completely ignores the history of those things that bring meaning and pleasure to people’s lives, including the arts, sport, popular culture, religion, food, clothes, and social beliefs and practices. Topics such as these could be a great way of catching the attention and interest of students, while still illustrating bigger themes: for example, the history of sport can reveal much about gender, class, racism, national identity and international relations.

Do: inquiry practices

Learning how to investigate and think critically about the past is fundamental to understanding history. I am pleased that students will be expected to develop skills of critical inquiry as part of the history curriculum.

The first of the three inquiry practices in the draft curriculum is identifying and using sequence. They will also learn that stories can be told in different ways, ‘depending on the frame of reference used in sequencing’. I worry that the emphasis on ‘frames of reference’ could lead to an approach which sees all interpretations of history as being equally valid, regardless of the evidence. Historical narratives and interpretations should always be grounded in evidence, and the evidence will be stronger for some views than for others.

The third inquiry practice is interpreting past decisions and actions. This involves taking account of the attitudes and values of the time, and the situations in which people found themselves, when students are interpreting the past. Students in later years are also expected to ‘make ethical judgements concerning right and wrong’ about people’s actions in the past.

Understanding people’s actions and motivations in the past on their own terms is an essential part of historical inquiry and explanation. Making moral judgements about the past, by contrast, is not a necessary part of history. I do not agree with those who maintain that historians should take no view on whether past actions were right or wrong. However, when historians express an opinion about the morality of people’s behaviour in the past, it is because historians are human beings grappling with the complexity and challenge of being human, not because moral judgements are central to an understanding of history.

I suggest that the inquiry practices also need to provide students with an understanding of how we can know about the past, and how what we know changes over time. Students should learn about the many types of evidence that help us to understand what happened in the past, including:

  • people’s oral or written recollections of events that they experienced
  • stories passed down orally from previous generations
  • documents written at around the time of the events being investigated
  • visual evidence, such as paintings, whakairo or photographs
  • waiata and songs
  • places, structures, objects and other material remains from the past.

In addition, students should be introduced to reasons why our understanding of the past changes over time. These reasons include new evidence being discovered, new methods and types of evidence being used, and new questions being asked about the past.

Finding inspiration and excitement in our histories

My biggest worry about the new histories curriculum is that students will find history dull and dispiriting, while my greatest hope is that they will be inspired and excited to learn more about the past, and will carry this excitement through into their adult lives. A lot will depend on how the curriculum is taught and how it is made relevant at the local level by bringing in rohe and local contexts. But the national curriculum itself has a role to play. As historian Charlotte Macdonald puts it, the curriculum can ‘open the door to the excitement, wonder and discovery in the study of history for school pupils.’

At present, the draft content for the New Zealand Curriculum feels somewhat dour and depressing. By contrast, the draft content for Te Marautanga o Aotearoa includes more to inspire and excite ākonga. I am a strong believer in facing up to the confronting and uncomfortable parts of our past, including histories of dispossession, discrimination and marginalisation experienced by Māori and by other groups within Aotearoa New Zealand. However, if students do not find history interesting, providing information about past injustices and struggles will fail to motivate students to address the legacies of injustice today. I am not arguing for a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of difficult histories go down more easily. Rather, I want to see a curriculum that will engage students’ imaginations with the drama and the dreams, the strangeness and the familiarity, the triumph and the tragedy of Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories in all their diversity.

Boulcott’s Farm

Boulcott’s Farm memorial, Lower Hutt

Today is the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Boulcott’s Farm, which took place in what is now the city of Lower Hutt, where I live. Yesterday’s Dominion Post reported that the Deputy Mayor of Lower Hutt, Tui Lewis, is working to address the one-sided nature of the memorial to the battle that stands in a prominent position on the corner of High Street and Military Road, near Hutt Hospital. The memorial commemorates ten members of British and colonial forces whose deaths were associated with the battle, and describes the Māori attack on the British outpost at Boulcott’s Farm solely from a Pākehā perspective.

The news article, written by journalist and historian Nicholas Boyack, begins with the comment: ‘If someone does a PhD on war memorials and civic racism, the stone commemorating the Battle of Boulcott’s Farm would make a great case study.’ I can’t claim to have done a PhD on the subject, but I have written about the changing ways in which Boulcott’s Farm has been commemorated and mythologised by Pākehā, and how those stories have started to come under challenge in more recent decades.

The battle was part of a wider conflict in Te Awakairangi, the Hutt Valley, which subsequently spilled over into the Porirua area. The cause of the fighting was conflict over land, arising from the flawed New Zealand Company ‘purchase’ of the Wellington area and the Crown’s confirmation of the Company’s claims at the expense of Māori rights (for more detail, see the Waitangi Tribunal’s report on the Wellington region).

On 16 May 1846, a large Māori taua (war party) attacked the British military garrison at Boulcott’s Farm. After several hours of fighting, the taua withdrew, leaving several British soldiers dead. It is unclear how many Māori, if any, died in the fighting.

This relatively minor skirmish came to loom large in Pākehā public memory, largely through the repetition of one particular story: that of Private William Allen, more commonly known as Bugler Allen. Allen supposedly blew a warning blast on his bugle to alert the garrison to the attack, and continued sounding the alarm even as he was being killed by a member of the taua.

This story first appears very soon after the battle, and has been repeated up to the present day. It’s impossible to know if there is any truth in it, although it’s notable that it doesn’t appear in the official report on the skirmish from the British officer in command. Throughout its many retellings, the consistent themes in the story are Allen’s youth, bravery and self-sacrifice. Although Allen was actually a 21-year-old, he is portrayed in the stories as a boy, perhaps as young as 12. This misrepresentation of Allen’s age heightens the contrast with his attackers, who are depicted looming over him as he gallantly plays on.

Illustration by Alfred Pearse, Young England, 50th annual volume, 1929, p. 25 (also published in Young New Zealand, 9th annual volume, 1929, p. 25)

The story of Bugler Allen reinforced two common themes from the popular literature of British imperialism. On the one hand, the willingness of Britons to ‘do their duty’ by sacrificing themselves for the greater good; on the other, the ‘savagery’ of indigenous peoples, who are depicted as an undifferentiated mass, with no motivation beyond anger and vengeance.

This cultural context explains the popularity of the Bugler Allen story and the way in which it elevated the significance of Boulcott’s Farm. But the Boulcott’s Farm monument also had more local origins. By the 1920s, Lower Hutt was developing rapidly, and was being promoted as a thriving and progressive place in which to live and work. At the same time, the pioneering phase of Pākehā settlement in the Hutt was passing out of living memory and into nostalgia, forming a romantic prelude to the development of a modern city.

This local context helps to explain why, in 1922, the then Mayor of Lower Hutt sought to have a commemorative tablet from Bolton Street Cemetery in Wellington re-erected in the Hutt. The tablet had been erected in a Wellington church in 1846 by soldiers of the 58th Regiment, in memory of their comrades who died at Boulcott’s Farm. The Mayor’s request for the tablet was granted, but its removal from Wellington was opposed by the Early Settlers and Historical Association of Wellington. An agreement was reached whereby the New Zealand Government, the Lower Hutt Council and the Early Settlers and Historical Association would jointly fund a new memorial, which was erected in 1925.

As it turned out, however, the historic tablet was never returned to Wellington, but was instead re-erected in 1933 at St James’ Anglican Church in central Lower Hutt. For several years in the 1930s, and on the battle’s centenary in 1946, commemorative services were held at the church on the anniversary of the battle. The memorial tablet was subsequently accidentally knocked down and destroyed, but the wording of the original still appears on a stone in the churchyard.

Boulcott’s Farm memorial stone re-erected at St James’ Church, Lower Hutt. Evening Post, 12 August 1933. Ref: EP-New Zealand Wars-Wellington, Evening Post collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.
Current Boulcott’s Farm memorial stone, St James’ Churchyard.

From the 1970s, the Boulcott’s Farm story as been reassessed and rewritten, as part of the wider revision of our understanding of New Zealand’s colonial past. Boulcott’s Farm appeared in works by Pākehā writers, such as Keith Aberdein’s script and book for the 1977 TV series The Governor and Lloyd Jones’s 1988 novel Splinter, which took a more critical or satirical view of colonisation. More recently, Boulcott’s Farm has been re-imagined from the perspective of Māori combatants in Witi Ihimaera’s novel The Trowenna Sea (2009) and Jenny McLeod’s opera Hōhepa (premiered 2012). Both of these works focus on the story of Hōhepa Te Umuroa, one of a number of Māori transported to Van Diemen’s Land for their alleged involvement in the Battle of Boulcott’s Farm. In Ihimaera’s and McLeod’s accounts, Boulcott’s Farm was the tragic result of injustices committed against Māori by colonial authorities.

The current reconsideration of the Boulcott’s Farm memorial is not the first time questions have been raised about the monument. When The Governor was broadcast in 1977, an article in the Hutt News commented that ‘In the spirit of the times, the memorial commemorates only the white soldiers who were killed. More modern thinking might suggest that the Maoris [sic], too, should have their memorial.’ The Hutt Council received a few letters in the 1970s and 80s asking it to do something about the memorial’s one-sided perspective. At the time, however, the Council decided to take no action.

Aotearoa New Zealand has come a long way since then, and it’s good to see that the Hutt Deputy Mayor is now taking the lead on working to publicly acknowledge the Māori side of the Boulcott’s Farm story. I’m also encouraged that Tui Lewis is planning to take the time to ensure all those with an interest are consulted before making change. As I’ve written previously, there is value in taking a considered and consultative approach to contentious memorials. In the case of Boulcott’s Farm, the issue is further complicated by the fact that the Māori who fought against the British and colonial forces were expelled from Te Awakairangi, so they live elsewhere and are not among the tangata whenua of the valley.

There are also other places where Māori perspectives on the Hutt War could be acknowledged, including at St James’ Church and at Boulcott’s Farm Heritage Golf Club. The Golf Club is located near the memorial and in the vicinity of where the battle was fought, and may be where the British dead of the battle are buried. It would be good to see some accurate historical interpretation at or near the golf club – and in the meantime, the appalling nonsense on this sign at the club should come down immediately, if it hasn’t already.

Further reading: Ewan Morris, ‘The Boulder and the Bugler: The Battle of Boulcott’s Farm in Public Memory’, Journal of New Zealand Studies, ns 20, 2015, pp. 51-71; republished in slightly revised and updated form as ‘The Boulder and the Bugler: Boulcott’s Farm and Public Memory’, in John Crawford and Ian McGibbon (eds), Tutu te Puehu: New Perspectives on the New Zealand Wars, Wellington, Steele Roberts, 2018, pp. 32-56.