25 Nov 2014

'Peaceful settlement' view challenged

5:57 am on 25 November 2014

Historians say the Prime Minister is misrepresenting New Zealand's past by saying it was settled peacefully.

Prime Minister John Key

Prime Minister John Key Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

John Key told an iwi radio station last week that the country was one of the very few in the world that was settled peacefully and yesterday adamantly stood by that comment.

Mr Key said one of the defining and unusual factors about New Zealand is that Maori and the Crown signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 during what was for the most part a peaceful time in New Zealand.

"What is absolutely true is that during the period of colonisation, during the period of 1845 to 1875, there was obviously significant conflict in the New Zealand wars and everyone understands that but that was a period of colonisation [as opposed to settlement]."

Mr Key said he defined settlement as the point at which the Treaty was signed.

But a lecturer in history at Waikato University believes it was too simplistic to say that New Zealand was settled peacefully.

Nepia Mahuika said the broader narrative of New Zealand's history had to be considered - not just micro-moments.

"There's certainly moments of peace and there are times where Maori and Pakeha come together, but to just think of New Zealand being settled peacefully is a bit misleading.

Aroha Harris

Aroha Harris Photo: RNZ / Laura Bootham

"I think from my perspective as someone who teaches history to see that come from the Prime Minister is disappointing. It makes me worry about what the mainstream in New Zealand think about New Zealand history, if they believe what the Prime Minister is saying then we have some problems."

Aroha Harris is a senior lecturer in history at Auckland University. She's also one of the authors of the recently published Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History.

Dr Harris said there were certainly peaceful times during the settlement process, but conflict and tension were also major characteristics of that time as well.

She said had never heard the Prime Minister's distinction between settlement and colonisation made before.

"Maybe there is a book I haven't read yet or a historian I haven't heard yet - as that's new to me that definition.

"I'm quite interested that settlement is what happens up until 1840 because of course that's the low point in terms of European settlement [in New Zealand] and the major settlement phases happened throughout the rest of the 19th century particularly from the 1860s to the end of the century."

Dr Harris said she suspected John Key did not want to have to admit he was wrong when he initially made the comments.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs