Unsettling history, or else the settler’s history

Responding to the call for Aotearoa’s multiple histories to be taught to ākonga (students) in schools and kura, the Ministry of Education has proposed a new history curriculum to be taught from 2022 onwards. It covers a wide range of topics, from the arrival of Māori, early colonial history and encounters with Māori, the Treaty of Waitangi, the New Zealand Wars, the country’s role in the Pacific, and the development of national identity. Promptly, the conservative National Party’s education spokesman Paul Goldsmith criticised the proposed new curriculum, saying that it ‘focuses too much on identity and not enough on economics and institutions.’

This response instantly turned Goldsmith into an unfiltered mouthpiece for settler-colonial ideology. But putting aside for now the omissions and tensions of the proposed topic overviews – including but not limited to pre-colonial Māori histories of trade, politics, law and sociality over a timespan three times longer than the settler colonial nation of New Zealand has existed, any mention of He Whakaputanga, an obsession with the ‘early encounters’ between pākeha and Māori, and a telling fixation on a mythical ‘national identity’ – Goldsmith may unwittingly have a point: although the binary posed between what he calls ‘identity politics’ and ‘economic history’ is inane in its implication that race and capital are distinctly opposed, bridging the gaps of the history curriculum could in fact look a bit like teaching the political economy of settler colonialism.

As it stands, the proposed curriculum may perhaps disturb the historical amnesia that is a condition for the possibility of settler colonialism, but not go far enough to truly unsettle it. Achieving that is a different task altogether. It requires prying history from the realm of the discursive and putting it back firmly in the realm of the material. What we teach of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history is, after all, as important as how we teach the history of a settler-colonial nation.

History is not solely the account of events that happened in the past (the way things were): it’s a blueprint to the architecture of our moment. Grounding history in this understanding would help us to teach what revolutionary psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon describes of the relationship between colonial history and economic reality. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon writes:

When you examine at close quarters the colonial context, it is evident that what parcels out the world is to begin with the fact of belonging to or not belonging to a given race, a given species. In the colonies the economic substructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.

That is why, for Fanon, the question of Marxism must ‘always be stretched’ when it comes to the colonial situation. Marx had written of the relationship between social existence, consciousness, and economic reality in his Critique of Political Economy some 100 years earlier:

in the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

Fanon’s call to stretch Marxist analysis for the colonial situation is the product of considering the racial qualities of the relations that produce the economic structure of society. Any critical analysis of economic reality should be able to reveal this racial quality at the heart of settler colonialism, in order to understand fully the relationship between race and capital.

This is obviously not what Paul Goldsmith had in mind. In the same article, he is quoted arguing that the current curriculum is unbalanced as it doesn’t ask the right questions, which are apparently more like: ‘we are one of the oldest democracies in the world – how did those institutions develop, where did they come from?’

Firstly, the appeal to democracy here signals both its emptiness as a signifier – what’s democratic about settler colonialism? – and an implicit justification for colonialism and imperialism. It resonates with its more explicit counterpart, namely a discourse on colonialism that glorifies the west for bringing civilisation to the world. Goldsmith’s question is only one step short of such glorification. Secondly, his interest in connecting our democracy to the history of empire more generally renders the settler anxiety of losing the tether to the colonial motherland apparent. After all, it would be too easy otherwise to admit Aotearoa is an unjustified settler colony built on the appropriation and exploitation of Indigenous land and labour.

Fanon anticipates this when he warns of the relationship the settler has to the construction of history. He writes:

the settler makes history and is conscious of making it. And because he constantly refers to the history of his mother country, he clearly indicates that he himself is the extension of that mother country.

What Fanon shows here is that one of the ways in which settler colonialism is upheld is by the settler’s possessive ownership of history: a history of empire that universalises itself as the history of the world. It tells the story of how the World came to be, a narrative form that justifies empire spreading like a cancer across the globe. What is omitted here is the story of power that can only be told from history’s underbelly. A story that the settler’s history cannot account for.

Settler-colonial ideology is dangerous: it is both informed by and reproduces the most violent qualities of settler colonialism. It obscures the reality of our moment and discourages that which might unsettle or outright change its structural foundations. It wants things to stay as they are, no matter the violence. Perhaps, the proposed new curriculum will inspire coming generations to engage more meaningfully with the history of colonialism in Aotearoa. But wedged between the settler anxiety it invokes, and the lengths it still needs to go to inspire real change, it really has its work cut out for it.


Image: ‘Erebus’ and the ‘Terror’ in New Zealand, August 1841 by John Wilson Carmichael

Anisha Sankar

Anisha Sankar is a Chennai-born, Awakairangi-raised PhD student based in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa/New Zealand. Her work explores the contradictions of colonial capitalism.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Great read! I wonder if the author looked at the actual draft however rather than the summaries being touted by news media. The actual draft (in the ‘Understanding’ section) includes the following:

    – Māori history is the foundational and continuous history of Aotearoa New Zealand.

    – Colonisation and its consequences have been central to our history for the past 200 years and continues to influence all aspects of Aotearoa New Zealand society.

    – Aotearoa New Zealand’s history has been shaped by the exercise and effects of power

    I’m not saying this is perfect or that I disagree with the author, but it does open space for the very things put forward in the article. The key will be whether teachers themselves step into that space (or are pushed there by their students and others).

  2. As one who once ascribed to a similar viewpoint, I am not sure if Fanon and his tired old Marxist ideology is an appropriate authority on the nature of Colonialism in New Zealand. The experience of Algeria under the French was so much harsher and a world away enough that his sort of revolutionary jargon was entirely more resonant (especially with a European audience in mind) than the NZ experience could sustain, and his presumption that ‘…you are white because you are rich’ is so obviously unbiological as to be laughable.
    ‘Wretched of the Earth’ was also a call for violent revolution which would have been a disaster for NZ, as it has proved to be for Fanon’s native land.
    A stirring read to be sure, but one that now belongs in the dust-bin of History.

  3. Hello Wayne – You state that Algeria’s expereince under the French was so much more harsh than that of the Maori under British conquest. I would be interested to know what Maori historians think of that assertion. Do you know the extent of bloodshed, starvation, rape, disease and dastardly deeds done dirt cheap?

  4. Yes Victoria, I am sorry that I should have made more clear that I do feel that oppression is an absolute rather than a relative condition. I just feel that the historical and geographical circumstances under which Fanon made his assertions – magnified by support from people such as Jean-paul Sartre and films like ‘The Battle of Algiers’ – have made the plight of Algerians seem so much more immediate than that of the Maori. Of course the Maori may disagree with that, but from an objective viewpoint I would say that the life of a Maori living in NZ today is entirely more agreeable than that of the average Algerian.
    I certainly know where I would rather live.

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