The Day That Decolonisation Became Personal

Re-authoring my inherited narratives of colonisation in Aotearoa New Zealand

am a Pākēhā New Zealander. For the benefit of those reading from outside of New Zealand, what that means is that I am a Kiwi of European or non-Māori descent. In my case in particular, a half-Swiss, half 6th generation New Zealander of English and Irish ancestry.

This heritage means that by and large, most of the stories and narratives that I inherited about the European colonisation of Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand) while I was growing up were told through an overwhelmingly Pākēhā lens. They discount, cancel, and suppress the stories of those who were here before the Europeans came — the Māori who first arrived in the 13th Century. It’s a pattern that is repeated the world over, and a fate all too well known to Indigenous peoples everywhere.

It is a life-long process to un-learn those stories, or to at least hold them up to intense questioning. I’ve been doing that in a general sense for a while now, and it’s been a journey that has been at times uncomfortable and humbling, while also enlightening as my life is enriched with so much more nuance and understanding of the past and the harmful effects of colonisation that persist. It’s a great start to look at these issues in a generalised and intellectual way, but for me, the real work began when I was forced to unpack things in a much more personal way.

A couple of years ago I was writing a story on the innovation scene in Ōtautahi/Christchurch and specifically about a group of Fellows who had come to Aotearoa New Zealand on an impact-based fellowship programme. Some were social entrepreneurs, some more grassroots activators, some were impact investors, some were filmmakers, some were regenerative farmers — but what they all shared was a desire to make positive change through their work.

I had written the bulk of the article, and was looking for an interesting hook to open the story. I settled on drawing comparisons between these international entrepreneurs and innovators as pioneers of systems change work in New Zealand and the early settlers of the Canterbury region, who arrived when the first four ships of English, Irish, and Scottish settlers landed in 1850. I hadn’t fully thought it through, but was attempting to draw parallels between nineteenth century voyagers sailing across the world to unfamiliar lands, and the modern-day pioneers of new technologies, systems, ideas, and ways of thinking that could address big global challenges.

Once it was published and shared with the fellowship community, it quickly became clear that some of the Fellows didn’t appreciate being compared to New Zealand’s first major wave of colonisers. Looking over what I had written and published, I felt somewhat mortified. I considered myself someone who was pretty aware of the legacy of harm that colonisation has left on these islands. To realise that I had made such an obviously offensive comparison, reinforcing the Euro-centric story of the colonial settlers as brave pioneers and leaving untold the uncomfortable truths surrounding the theft of land and coercion over local Māori communities, made me want to crawl into a hole. I unpublished the article and re-wrote the opening, and then spent the next few days wondering how on Earth I had made such an obvious mistake. It did not fit in with who I thought I was, it was not a narrative that I thought was in line with my identity.

Except that it was.

After some reflection, I realised that the story of those four ships was indeed intricately woven into my personal identity. One line of my mother’s family on her father’s side emigrated to New Zealand on one of those ships. From an early age I had heard the stories, spoken with pride, of how the family of eight had travelled across from England on third class tickets on the Cressy; the father a shepherd, the mother the bearer of six children aged 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, and infant. She was also pregnant with a 7th.

As a child, I would read their names etched into a plaque in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, tracing my fingers over the etchings in the cold metal and imagining the months-long sea voyage with six young children. I wondered what sort of life they had lived before and why they had chosen to undertake such a journey. I heard how they had spent several months living in a tin shack in the port town of Lyttelton before making the journey over the Port Hills to settle on the fertile Canterbury Plains just north of Christchurch.

What I realised in those few days of reflection was that despite learning a fair amount about colonisation and land wars in New Zealand, I had yet to reconcile the story of that part of my heritage with the new information I had been receiving. I had understood on an intellectual level that the Pākēhā colonisation of New Zealand had seen the systemic crushing of Māori sovereignty and blatant disregard for the Treaty of Waitangi which the Crown of England had signed with more than 500 Māori rangatira (chiefs) in 1840, and I knew that it was not a part of our history that I felt particularly good about. But I had yet to do the deep, personal work of closely examining the story of my ancestors that I had been told my whole life, and questioning the legitimacy and legacy of that narrative. I hadn’t taken the time to understand how my perpetuation of that story was contributing towards the continuation of systemic racism and the effects of colonisation that are still very much alive in Aotearoa New Zealand today. I realised that a part of me had yet to shed the pride thatI had felt from a young age at my family being amongst the first Europeans to come. I still held the narrative of them as brave adventurers, ready to abandon all that they knew in favour of an unknown life.

The problem is not so much that this narrative didn’t hold truth, but rather that it was incomplete and overwhelmingly one-sided.

My ancestors weren’t exactly the epitome of the landed gentry; they were just poor shepherds looking to escape the brutally oppressive British class system and have a better shot at life. They were possibly quite naïve about the extent to which land around the country was being confiscated from Māori communities. But their naïvety and prior history of oppression doesn’t change the fact that they were also colonisers who later gained much at the cost of great harm to the Indigenous people of this land. When I was born 130 years later, I inherited that gain and the privilege that comes with it.

Long before there were those four British ships, there were seven pioneering waka — canoes used by early Māori navigators to reach Aotearoa New Zealand. Both stories are true, but one has been dominating our national narratives and the history that is taught in our classrooms for many generations. It is sometimes challenging but ultimately necessary work to try to reconcile them, or at least to recognise how much the story has been skewed for close to two hundred years. I am grateful to those who spoke up when I first published that story and pointed out the problematic aspects of my narrative, as they forced me to question my own relationship to the story I was perpetuating, and encouraged me to learn more about the alternative stories of this part of our nation’s history. It was a painful lesson for sure, but the process of decolonisation requires us to sit with discomfort.

The waka Haunui floating on a rippled ocean with a small inflatable boat in the background. The waka is a replication of the style of canoe that early Māori may have used to voyage to Aotearoa New Zealand.
The waka Haunui floating on a rippled ocean with a small inflatable boat in the background. The waka is a replication of the style of canoe that early Māori may have used to voyage to Aotearoa New Zealand.
The waka Haunui — a replication of a style of canoe that early Māori might have used to arrive in Aotearoa New Zealand. Image credit: Michael R Perry
A faded metal plaque with inscriptions of passenger names on the Cressy ship. It reads: “Baker, James 33 (Shepherd), Mrs Sarah 31, Matilda 10, Mary A 8, Richard 6, James 4, Edward, 2, Sarah Infant”
A faded metal plaque with inscriptions of passenger names on the Cressy ship. It reads: “Baker, James 33 (Shepherd), Mrs Sarah 31, Matilda 10, Mary A 8, Richard 6, James 4, Edward, 2, Sarah Infant”
The names of my ancestors who arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand many centuries after the first Māori

Many of our stories of identity begin long before we are born. They are the stories of our ancestors and the stories of our culture, passed down from generation to generation. Some are clear, tangible, and repeated often enough to become family legend or national folklore; others are invisible, inherited accounts of the past that guide our assumptions and identities. We inherit intergenerational triumphs and traumas, to which many we are oblivious, and our lives may turn out very differently depending which of these two feature more prominently in our ancestral histories. If we are to look back twelve generations, which is only 300 years or so, each of us have 4,096 ancestors. That’s a lot of stories passed down through the ages. A lot of triumph and a lot of trauma.

These are the stories that are embedded into the foundations of our identities and our culture. They influence the way we have built our societies, and they often dictate whose stories get heard and whose don’t. They influence which stories we tell about ourselves, and which ones we tell about others.

The story of my ancestors making the three-month sailing from England is still part of my story. It always will be, but that doesn’t mean it should be a story that I hold up without scrutiny, without careful and humble investigation. I did not engage personally in the colonisation of this land, but I do continue to reap the benefits of it at the ongoing cost to Māori, many of whom have instead inherited generations of trauma, the suppression of their language and culture, the theft of their land, and raids upon their communities by settlers and Crown troops alike.

While I cannot change the past, I can act in the present and in the future to help shed light on the stories that have been hidden from popular culture for so long. Not necessarily to tell these stories, as they are not mine to tell — they are the stories of Ngai Tahu, the iwi (tribe) with sovereignty over Ōtautahi, the place that was re-named Christchurch. But I can elevate the voices of those who they belong to, read alternative accounts of the settling of the region, and learn the histories of Ngai Tahu as told by themselves. I can constantly examine the stories of my identity and do the work of re-authoring them to better take into account the perspectives that have been lacking from inherited narratives. I can choose to change my relationship with these stories, my understanding of what happened and how it happened. It’s not to say I discount the story of my ancestors making a long, rough sea voyage in steerage conditions— I am grateful for the journey they made and am somewhat in awe of them (especially the mother, Sarah). But I recognise that the domination of their story and those like them in this country’s historical narratives, over the stories of the people that were here before them, is not something I am comfortable in perpetuating.

One thing that is clear to me is that this work is an ongoing journey. I still have a lot of work to do. The collective work of dismantling systemic racism and re-writing the narratives that underpin it is long-term and wide-reaching. While it is hard, it is ultimately liberating — for both the oppressors and the oppressed. I am reminded of the words of Robyn DiAngelo in her book White Fragility:

“I know that because I was socialised as white in a racism-based society, I have a racist worldview, deep racial bias, racist patterns, and investments in the racist system that has elevated me. Still, I don’t feel guilty about racism. I didn’t choose this socialisation, and it could not be avoided. But I am responsible for my role in it. To the degree that I have done my best in each moment to interrupt my participation, I can rest with a clearer conscience. But that clear conscience is not achieved by complacency or a sense that I have arrived. Unlike heavy feelings like guilt, the continuous work of identifying my internalised superiority and how it may be manifesting itself is incredibly liberating. When I start from the premise that of course I have been thoroughly socialised into the racist culture in which I was born, I no longer need expend energy denying that fact. I am eager — even excited — to identify my inevitable collusion so that I can figure out how to stop colluding! Denial and the defensiveness that is needed to maintain it is exhausting.”

In re-authoring the stories that have been handed down to us and changing our relationship to them, we take a step to stop colluding with the harm that they cause. It is by no means the only step that we need to take, but by re-writing these stories we make way for ones that provide more nuance and understanding, and pave the way to healing.

This article is adapted from the draft of the book I’m writing on storytelling, narrative, and systems change. For updates on the book, you can sign up to my newsletter. Thank you!

Storytelling | Narrative | Systems Change | Spoken Word | Author of “A Future Untold”, a book on story & narrative to change the world | www.afutureuntold.com