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Fanciful Tales of History

July 28, 2020

Have we become a little too sensitive about our history? Riding in on the coat tails of an ill-informed public stoush over monuments to New Zealand’s colonial past Sir William Gallagher has again pushed the fury buttons of a few people when he claimed there were humans in New Zealand at the time of the last Taupo eruption, estimated at about 2250 years ago, and that there had been several civilisations in New Zealand here before Maori. It is not the first time he has made such statements and probably won’t be the last.  

Such fanciful tales about ancient peoples from China, Norway and Ireland have been circulating for almost a hundred years. The reality is that the further back into history we delve the more blurred the line between reality and myth becomes but most tribal histories, particularly those of the Waikato region, refer to people who were here before them, the people they called Tangata Whenua, the people of the land. Even more intriguing are the stories of the pale-skinned, fair-headed Patupaiarehe, the so-called fairy people of Maori mythology who were said to have lived high on heavily forested mountains and often captured Maori women. The language of the Patupaiarehe seems to have been a dialect of classical Maori and could be readily understood but their songs were very difficult for Maori people to remember. One melody however has survived and is recorded in Nga Moteatea by Aprirana Ngata and Pei Te Hurinui. It is a sad song of farewell and includes references to people and events now long forgotten.

Adding to the mystery of early arrivals was the discovery, in 1877, of a ship wreck on the coast between Raglan and Aotea harbours. Mariners of the time, who were experts at vessel identification, described the wreck as not of British design, large but ancient. The heavy five layered decking was held together with wooden, copper and iron fastenings. The wreck was exposed again in 1893.

There have also been recent claims of giants was even a book written in the past forty years about the very early Polynesians which credited them with everything short of the ability to fly.   

Sir William also claimed the Maori were “boat people just a little ahead of the Europeans”. Taken at face value those comments are no doubt accurate. There is no doubt that the ancestors of todays Maori people did arrive here by sea. It was the only way to get here. There is equally compelling evidence that the first permanent Polynesian settlers arrived about 800 to 1000 years before the first Europeans. So what?

The reality is that we don’t know who those first people were, exactly where they came from and precisely when they arrived. However reliable science, and there is a lot of it, clearly indicates the first people to settle here were Polynesians from the eastern Pacific. There is also ample evidence to show Polynesian migration probably happened intermittently over a couple of centuries. If there had been other ethnic groups before them they either did not stay or did not survive.

None of this speculation makes any difference to the undeniable fact that Maori were here and in possession of the land when the first Europeans arrived and it is completely irrelevant and pointless to make wild guesses about who might or might not have been here earlier. It also makes absolutely no difference to the official status of Maori as the Tangata Whenua, people of the land today. It was Maori who allowed the first European migrants to settle here and it was Maori who initially welcomed and assisted British colonisation and the establishment of British law here. That they had good cause to regret those decisions are facts of history that mirror the histories of many other colonised nations.

It should also be clearly understood however that claims against the Crown for recompense for the mistreatment and dispossession of Maori by colonial authorities have nothing whatever to do with who was here first. Those who attempt to suggest otherwise are engaging in myth-making and have a very poor understanding of our history.

While we may not agree with the speculation and opinions of those who enjoy myths and legends about strange people they should always be allowed to express those opinions without being shut down or labeled racist. We don’t have to take them seriously or even listen to them as they are relatively harmless if somewhat annoying for some.  

Sir William’s claims can be called wrong, ill-formed and even provocative, but they are not racist in the true sense of the word.  Playing the race card is never going to result in a good outcome from any debate.