Graham Adams: Don’t mention the Musket Wars!

Graham Adams: Don’t mention the Musket Wars!

Dr Michael Bassett has been banned from writing for the nation’s biggest media company. Graham Adams argues it is vital that his damning criticisms of the “sanitised” new school history curriculum be heard.


The bar for being qualified to write for the NZME group was raised vertiginously last week. It was announced that the writing services of Michael Bassett — CNZM, QSO, senior cabinet minister in the Lange government, MP in the Kirk government, eminent academic historian, author of 15 books (including biographies of Prime Ministers Peter Fraser, Gordon Coates and Joseph Ward) and a member of the Waitangi Tribunal for 10 years — would no longer be required.

The cause for the learned Dr Bassett’s permanent dismissal from all NZME platforms was a column that editors at both the Northland Age and the NZ Herald’s own website had deemed fit to publish and then decided belatedly it wasn’t after it had been denounced by someone who threatened to take a complaint to the Press Council.

The column, titled “Racism on a Grand Scale”, was expunged from the electronic record — ironically after it was alleged to be “racist”.

What was truly weird about the cancellation was that Bassett had been asked by the editor of the Northland Age — owned by NZME — if he could publish the column, which had appeared earlier on Bassett’s own blog.

The historian says he agreed readily but — as he related on the Bassett,Brash&Hide blog this week — the next he heard about the column was when a Herald editor sent him “a terse note telling me that my column ‘didn’t meet NZME’s standards, shouldn’t have been published’, and had been removed”.

The editor added: “I also wanted to let you know that NZME won’t be publishing any more of your columns.”

Bassett says he didn’t even know the column had been republished on the Herald website. So he has been banned from an entire media group after one regional publication had specifically requested his column before the flagship paper, unbeknown to him, happily republished the same column and then insisted it didn’t meet their standards and threw him out — with a lifetime ban to boot.

In a final bizarre twist, the Herald then published a letter attacking him but, as Bassett noted, “The website now carried an attack on me for reasons that no reader would be able to work out since my column had been removed.”

In the offending column, Bassett criticised what he thinks is likely to be a “black armband” view of New Zealand history to be taught in schools from next year; lambasted what he described as a “cultural cringe” that he predicted would see the name of the nation changed to “Aotearoa” without a referendum; ridiculed a decision to add, at huge cost, Maori names to already named streets in New Zealand; and complained about RNZ reporters being encouraged to introduce themselves in Te Reo.

The views expressed will undoubtedly have been offensive to those who immediately detect racism in any criticism pertaining to Maori culture but they obviously didn’t offend the editors at the Northland Age or the Herald website when they decided to publish the column; and neither would they have offended much of New Zealand’s population if they had read it.

The real problem — as the ban in perpetuity indicates — is not any particular column but the fact that Bassett is a heretic; he offers views and analysis that makes the academic establishment, political elites and mainstream media very uncomfortable because he repeatedly points out very inconvenient historical facts that social progressives are trying very hard to ignore.

Prominent among these is the lack of attention Bassett reckons will be given to the Musket Wars (and the carnage they created before the Treaty was signed in 1840) in the new compulsory history syllabus.

It is a topic he has mentioned in several of the columns published on his website over the past few months.

In the column published in the Northland Age and Herald website, he pointed out: “We can say with certainty that a skewed version of New Zealand history will be devised [for schools], one that leaves out things like the Musket Wars where Maori did irreparable harm to their own economy and society. Instead, there will be much concentration on ‘evil’ colonial land purchasers and settler governments, and excessive Maori land confiscations at the end of the wars of the 1860s.

“About the last of these, of course students must be told. The confiscations came on top of the damage that Maori had already done to themselves and helped further depress the Maori economy and damage Maori society. But what is taught to modern students should not exclude everything that reflects badly on Maori themselves.”

In another column he warned: “Students [under the new curriculum] will be given a lop-sided picture of our early history if the curriculum ignores or romanticises the pre-1840 period where several Maori tribes went on annual marauding exercises to settle old scores. They killed between 40,000 and 50,000 Maori — approximately 25 per cent of the total number of Maori in the country at that time.”

Citing fellow historian Michael King, Bassett added that the wars “disrupted Maori society to such an extent that the interpretations of which people held mana whenua status over which piece of land produced resentments that still linger today”.

These columns were published before the draft curriculum appeared in early February but once Bassett had read that document, he decided his fears were justified.

In a column titled: “Labour’s History Curriculum”, published on February 4 — a day after the draft appeared — he castigated the Ministry of Education for producing an “assemblage of mumbo-jumbo” and for being “woefully ignorant of historical facts”.

“For example, far from rushing to add New Zealand to the British Empire, Britain was extremely cautious before dispatching William Hobson; the Colonial Office was seriously worried that the Musket Wars between Maori had reached the stage where nothing short of military intervention would protect Maori…”

He remarked that while the curriculum recommends coverage of how “colonists’ power exerted over the years has invariably inflicted damage, injustice and conflict on Maori” there will be “nothing about economic development which lifted New Zealand after the Treaty from a state of anarchy where 25 per cent of the entire Maori workforce between 1810 and 1840 had been killed and eaten, and others enslaved.”

The only possible explanation for the Ministry of Education avoiding these topics, Bassett suggests, is that “the government is intent on sanitising our history.”

The total number of deaths in the Musket Wars are disputed but even if the figures Bassett offers are higher than some of those suggested by other sources, no serious historian could deny that the scale of destruction was catastrophic — and unparalleled in any other period in these islands’ history.

One government history website estimates a total of 20,000 were killed in the wars, while “thousands more were enslaved or became refugees”, at a time when the country’s population — nearly entirely Maori — was around 100,000.

That’s a death rate among Maori of about 20 per cent. (The tally was higher than that of New Zealanders in the First World War, when 18,000 died — and that was from a population of one million in 1914-18.)

To teach New Zealand’s history without explicitly assessing the effects of this iwi-versus-iwi slaughter on Maori society and their economy is even more egregious and wilfully blind than someone attempting a history of the USSR without assessing the effect of that nation losing between 12-15 per cent of its population in the Second World War.

Or, for that matter, trying to write a comprehensive history of the US without including the impact of their Civil War, which killed around two per cent of their population between 1861-65.

Whatever rough figures are settled on, it is clear the Musket Wars were a devastating and epochal event that are absolutely fundamental to understanding why the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, as well as some of the motivations driving the Land Wars of the 1860s.

As Bassett reminded readers in a column published last December: “Kids need to know that up to 50 per cent of Maori in the country in the 1860s sided with the Crown. And they need to be told why…

“Kupapa Maori [who fought on the British side] — during and after the wars of the 1860s — were often people with grievances against tribes who had destroyed their homes and stolen their land [during the Musket Wars] before there were many colonists in the country.”

Anarchy and mass slaughter, and almost half of Maoridom supporting the Crown in the Land Wars of the 1860s, are inconvenient facts no responsible historian should ignore or gloss over. In fact, it requires a collective amnesia of colossal proportions to achieve such a feat — which on the face of it looks like it might be the Ministry of Education’s aim.

Certainly, in the draft document there is no mention of the Musket Wars (although there is possibly a nod to them in one topic — “How was mana expressed in the responses of Moriori to challenges from other iwi and Pākehā?”)

On the other hand, specific references are made to the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s, including the Taranaki and Waikato Wars, and “attacks on Rangiaowhia and Orakau”.

It is true, however, there is no conclusive evidence in the draft curriculum that the Musket Wars won’t be taught as part of different modules, even if they are not explicitly mentioned in that document.

For that reason, I asked Bassett why he was so sure that coverage of the Musket Wars would be absent.

I suggested, as an example, that one module recommends raising the question of “What was motivating the parties to the [Declaration of Independence and Treaty of Waitangi]?”, which presumably might mean the Musket Wars would be canvassed.

Bassett replied: “The problem about whether the Musket Wars will be discussed at all is that the whole thrust of the curriculum, as far as I can see, is to beam a kindly light on Maori and a dark light on colonisers. The fact that by 1840 Maori had killed off 25 per cent of their total population — disproportionately young men of fighting age who could have done much to rebuild the Maori economy — is unlikely to feature as it should.

“If I read the proposed curriculum correctly, teachers will be imbued with the anti-coloniser story to the exclusion of any realistic assessment of the state of Maori society at the point where systematic colonisation began. The thrust of the proposed curriculum is endless grievance, and that won’t lead to balance, nor to racial harmony, because it ignores the reality of what happened.

“The Musket Wars should be discussed in the motivation section that you mention. They were a major issue in Colonial Office thinking of 1835-40. The question is will they be discussed, given the slanted thrust of the three “big ideas” [governing the curriculum]?

“I think it unlikely.”


Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.