Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Waikato Times - - Opinion - Tom O’Con­nor

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.

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