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Settler assumption of sovereignty

Early Western observers had noted with shock the ‘indulgent’ way in which Maori treated their children (Belich, 1996; Salmond, 1991). Once the missionaries arrived in 1814, Maori were repelled by the brutality demonstrated toward children in mission schools (Walker, 2004). The 1835 Declaration of Independence, in which Maori proclaimed their own sovereignty, was a strong statement of Maori autonomy, and was gazetted internationally by Great Britain. This led directly to the need in 1840 for Britain to legitimate the inevitable settlement of its entrepreneurial citizens, resulting in the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi/The Treaty of Waitangi by Britain and a large number of Maori chiefs. This treaty was unusual in its recognition of Maori rights to their chieftainship, lands, “taonga" (all things of value to them), and to be British citizens with recognition of equality of belief systems (Orange, 1987). This then, was an ethical vision for a country in which Maori, the Indigenous peoples, would live alongside the British settlers, each party respectful of the rights and responsibilities of the other.

The rapid assumption of sovereignty by the British settlers, who established their own government in 1852, and the onslaught of British emigration, coupled with the deaths of many Maori mainly as the result of introduced diseases to which they were not immune, quickly led to the situation by the mid-i85os, of Maori becoming a minority in their own country. Having assumed sovereignty and formed their independent parliamentary system, which initially excluded then later marginalized Maori, the settlers proceeded to pass myriad legislation and regulations that disenfranchised Maori from their lands, and also from their rights to their own cultural practices and language. Ignoring the undertakings contained within Te Tiriti o Waitangi that should have protected Maori independence, successive settler governments perpetrated an agenda that determined an assimilative process that would ultimately destroy parallel Maori institutions (Ballara, 1986; Orange, 1987; Walker, 2004). This was despite ongoing Maori resilience and resistance, such as was demonstrated in their response to the use of physical punishment in schools, as related by Henry Taylor, an Inspector of Native Schools in 1862:

Corporal punishments and an over-rigid discipline have done much to drive away many children from the schools. A punishment which to us would appear by no means harsh, would to a Native seem cruel and excessive. As Native parents never inflict chastisement upon an offending child, our summary mode of dealing with young delinquents must seem strange and tyrannical. It would not be unwise in future to pay some little deference to their feelings in this subject. An ineffective Teacher is soon detected by a Native, and in this respect their perception is more acute than that of a European; when once a Teacher’s inability is detected, his prestige is lost, and the school is consequently injured”. (Henry Taylor, as cited in New Zealand Parliament, 1862, p. 35)

Taylor further recognized that both Maori collectivism and the Maori language were oppositional forces to the settler colonization project that was to be imposed through schooling. In addition to their collectivist society:

The Native language is also another obstacle in the way of civilisation, so long as it exists there is a barrier to the free and unrestrained intercourse which ought to exist between the two races, it shuts out the less civilised portion of the population from the benefits which intercourse with the more enlightened would confer. The school-room alone has power to break down this partition between the two races. (Henry Taylor, as cited in New Zealand Parliament, 1862, p. 35)

These excerpts from reports to Parliament in 1862 are telling in their frank disregard for te ao Maori (the Maori world), symbolic of the colonial project, and the desire of the colonization machine to systematically dismantle the fabric of Maori ways of knowing, being, and doing.

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