Today is Waitangi Day. It is the day New Zealanders commemorate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. The photo above is from the website created by the Waitangi National Trust Board, their mission is to “illustrate the ongoing promise of Waitangi to the world”. One of the ways they do this is by caring for the Waitangi Treaty grounds – an incredibly significant place in our nation’s history. Today many people will have gathered there to commemorate this day.
Waitangi Day is a day that can bring much reflection for the people of Aotearoa, New Zealand. It signifies a moment when the ideas of sovereignty and self-determination were at best misunderstood and at worst deliberately miscommunicated to procure land. Often the day is marked by protest and it is sometimes seen as a litmus test for our political leaders. Without trying to skirt the issues, we will revisit some of them in future posts, today I want to introduce you to some histories of New Zealand that you may enjoy.
The Penguin History of New Zealand by Michael King, published in 2003, the year before his tragic and untimely death in a car accident, is acclaimed as ‘the best general history of New Zealand to be published in a generation’ by reviewer Kerry Howe, of the New Zealand Herald. Michael King was one of New Zealand’s leading historians. In the early 1980s when I was studying history at Otago University one of my professors observed that it was still possible to read every book written in English about New Zealand history. I am sure Michael King was not in attendance that day but when you look at his literary legacy you could be forgiven for thinking that he decided to personally make that goal harder to achieve. He particularly wanted to explore local history and began making friends with the ones who were keepers of the stories, local Maori. He wanted to bring many elements of cultural history to readers, one of his books is about moko – the art of Maori Tattoo. He was a historian who was trusted to present the whole story.
What I love about the Penguin History of New Zealand is how readable it is. A particularly fun chapter is The great New Zealand myth which unravels the widely held belief that New Zealand was founded by a Polynesian voyager named Kupe. King, even identifies how this particular piece of misinformation came to be so widely believed – through the Department of Education’s School Journal published in 1916. I have so much respect for the writer who then continues the story with the more complex history of the people who did first come to New Zealand. The fact that Penguin has republished this book and that it has sold more the 50,000 copies shows how many other people respect this work as well. If you want a comprehensive history of New Zealand this is the go-to book.
In 2018 illustrator Gavin Bishop won the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year award as well as the non-fiction prize for his book Aotearoa: A New Zealand Story. The book is an illustrated history of New Zealand for children and invites the reader to attend to details of the drawings as well as the text. Gavin Bishop is an amazing illustrator whose distinctive drawings have won many awards and international recognition. Below is Gavin Bishop speaking at the Auckland Writers’ Festival about the writing of Aotearoa: A New Zealand Story.
These histories, as is true of any history written ever, were guided by scholarship, creative skill, as well as the author’s own interests and treasured events. Any of them will bring a greater understanding of our history, the good, the bad and the problematic.
Amanda Bond is a New Zealand ex-pat currently working as Teacher Librarian in an international school in Istanbul, Turkey. Her twitter handle is @kiwionthego