Sorry seems to be the hardest word
Many historic tragedies originated from the twin assumptions that British law and government were superior to all others and that Christianity was superior to all other philosophies.
With those arrogant assumptions, tragedies were – and are – inevitable, as one self-appointed uninvited missionary found recently, when indigenous people killed him with arrows.
That lesson came home to New Zealand, and specifically the Bay of Plenty, this week.
For centuries, English authorities and their camp-following clergy imposed both ideologies, often with brutal force and guile, on many indigenous peoples in what became the extensive British Empire.
The British were not alone in those activities. From before the rise of the Roman Empire, powerful nations have preyed upon and oppressed others. Some, like the Inca of South America, did not survive the onslaught. Those nations which did survive often took centuries to fully recover. By then, much of their original culture and folklore had been irretrievably lost.
This practice was euphemistically called bringing European civilisation and Christianity to the heathen nations of the world.
These nations were no less savage than the so-called civilised nations of Europe and much less so in many cases. In reality, these actions were nothing more than thinly disguised land grabs, with a little looting and pillaging thrown in.
In New Zealand, this included fierce competition between British Protestant and French Catholic missionaries to convert Maori to their particular denominations. There was as much rivalry between them as there was between the French and British governments to claim New Zealand for themselves. What Maori might have thought of both ideas was of little importance to all but a few.
In spite of the best, if misguided, intentions of some British colonisers and missionaries, the New Zealand Land Wars were therefore inevitable. Many missionaries were complicit, knowingly or otherwise, in the wars and subsequent retribution and land confiscations which followed. Several were spies for the British forces in a cruel betrayal of trust and others were land-grabbers and traders.
Only in the last four or five decades has there been any genuine attempt by colonised nations to recognise the tragedy imposed on indigenous peoples. In New Zealand, this recognition has taken the form of Treaty of Waitangi-based financial recompense to the direct descendants of dispossessed iwi. These settlements, which remain misunderstood and resented by many, are accompanied by a formal apology on behalf of the British Crown.
Just a week ago, after a lapse of 152 years, the Anglican Church announced there would also be a formal church apology to Maori for the actions of early missionaries who breached a promise and dispossessed Ngati Tapu and Ngai Tamarawaho of Tauranga of the 540 hectares on which the City of Tauranga sits today.
The land was purchased in 1838 by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) on the understanding it would be used for the ‘‘benefit of the native race and the church’’. Those benefits included building schools and other shared facilities, none of which ever eventuated.
There was also a clear understanding that if those conditions were not met the land would be returned to Maori. It never was.
At the conclusion of the Land Wars, the missionaries gave four-fifths of the land to the Crown and the remaining fifth was sold a few years later.
Archbishop Emeritus Sir David Moxon, who will issue the formal apology, is to be commended for making such a decision, as apologies from churches, until recent times and for other betrayals of trust, are rare. Although enormously wealthy, the Anglican church has, however, not offered financial compensation for the loss of the Bay of Plenty land.
Hopefully, more church apologies will follow, as missionaries were responsible for much more than breaches of land sale agreements. In their attempts to convert Maori to Christianity, they systematically unraveled the complex web of Maori society with no understanding of what they were destroying and deliberately undermined the role and authority of rangatira.
Ancient beliefs and practices which had held Maori society together for centuries were discouraged, outlawed and eventually discarded, to be replaced by an equally ancient and largely failed philosophy.
All the missionaries really accomplished was to remove the traditional checks, balances and protections of Maori society so that they became vulnerable to deceitful land sharks, other exploiters and eventually armed invasion.
There is, figuratively speaking, as much Maori blood and tears on the hands and consciences of churches as there is on the hands of British forces. There is still much for churches to acknowledge and atone for, but Archbishop Moxon has shown the way with a very good start.