Colonisation-violence link debunked

By John Robinson

A report titled Every 4 minutes: A discussion paper on preventing family violence in New Zealand, by Ian Lambie of the office of the Prime Minister’s science advisor, which claims that Maori experienced little violence before colonisation, does not survive academic analysis.

The report, which says Maori are now highly exposed to violence and should be given culturally appropriate solutions informed by science, has been widely reported, as in a Herald article, New Zealand lacks comprehensive strategy to counter family violence – new report at

The assumption, that the problem was created by colonisation, is emphasised several times in the paper.

In section 8, page 5: “Despite the well-reported relative absence of whanau violence before colonisation, Maori are now highly exposed to it. The trauma of colonisation has had an intergenerational effect on Maori, who experience disproportionate rates of family violence, combined with other negative social effects of racism, discrimination and dislocation, alongside strengths and resilience factors that endure.”

Section 47, page 14 says: “The trauma and losses associated with colonisation have continuing impacts over generations, increasingly appreciated as a contributor to the intergenerational transmission of trauma.  There is historical evidence of respectful whanau relationships, collective obligations and responsibilities, including for the care and protection of children (and their mothers), and the absence of violence within whanau, prior to colonisation.”

We need to know the evidence supporting this claim.  This is always the case in serious scholarship, where nothing is accepted on trust, and any argument must be supported by concrete evidence.

The reference given to the last point is Transforming the normalisation and intergenerational whanau (family) violence by Denise Wilson, in Te Rau Matatini (the Journal of Indigenous Wellbeing) 2016; 2(2): 32-43.  I found and downloaded this in order to learn of the proof for this assertion.

Here it is: “It is hard to imagine how Maori (indigenous peoples of Aotearoa [New Zealand]) went from a society where tane (men), wahine (women) and mokopuna (children and grandchildren) all had important roles, which maintained the strength and wellbeing of their whakapapa (genealogy) to many living amidst violence in their whanau.

Wahine and mokopuna were highly valued members as the bearers of future generations and represented their future.  Of particular note was the nurturing role and communal obligations that tane and the wider whanau (comprising of grandparents, aunties, uncles, and cousins) had to protect its members and raise healthy mokopuna.  

Our matauranga (knowledge) contained within purakau (stories myths and legends), waiata (songs), karakia (ritual chants or prayers), moteatea (traditional laments or chants), and oriorio (lullabys), for example, provide evidence of traditional values and practises.  These indicate whanau and its members obligations held central the care and protection of mokopuna (Eruera & Ruwhiu, 2015), as well as their mothers.  

Our historical documents confirm the absence of violence within whanau and hapu (sub-tribe), particularly that inflicted against wahine and mokopuna, sometimes to the dismay of the authors of these accounts (Taonui, 2010).  Any violence against wahine and mokopuna was unacceptable, and indiscretions addressed both swiftly and harshly – viewed as transgressions against whakapapa (Kruger et al., 2004; Mikaere, 1994).  The impacts of colonisation destroyed our traditional ways of life for many whanau. The importance of respectful and complementary relationships and the collective obligations and responsibilities held by whanau and hapu members eroded. Instead, the new ways of our colonisers replaced traditional values and practices.”

It is said that Maori learned the lessons of colonisation so well that they came to outdo the colonists (with their assumed defective culture, which included maltreatment of women and children [is this proved here?], previously – it is said – unknown to Maori), until they outnumbered them in a long list of negative statistics, measures of reprehensible behaviour.  This is truly mysterious; in the words of the quoted reference, “It is hard to imagine”, and so is never explained.

Note that the claim is for “the absence of violence within whanau and hapu” – that is within the tribe.  The history of warfare, cannibalism and slavery makes it clear that people outside the tribe were ‘the other’, non-people who were attacked, killed, eaten or taken as slaves (many of whom would later be killed and eaten).  Taken as a whole, this was an extremely violent society/culture. 

These claims are general.  It is said that songs, myths and the like “provide evidence of traditional values and practises”, which protect women and children.  It is all so familiar, and many Christian precepts call for similar decency, but that never guaranteed universal good behaviour, not in any society.  What are the facts, the actual actions?

There is much evidence in the historical accounts of the very opposite.  This was very much a class-based society, where commoners had lesser rights than chiefs, where slaves had no rights at all.  There are many accounts of the hard labour of most women, who became bowed down and crippled before reaching middle age.  Female infanticide was also a common practice. 

Observations and conversations with Maori at the time tell a very different story, as reported by an early settler and writer, Joel Samuel Polack, during his residence in New Zealand between 1831 and 1837.

“On taxing some females with having committed infanticide, they laughed heartily at the serious manner in which I put the question.  They told me the poor infants did not know or care much about it.  One young woman, who had recently destroyed a female infant, said that she wished her mother had done the same to her, when she was young;For why should my in­fant live?’ she added; to dig the ground! to be a slave to the wives of her husband! to be beaten by them, and trodden under foot!  No! can a woman here protect herself, as among the white people?’”

There are problems to be faced, now, with considerable differences between different groups, for the most part across class groups, requiring an honest understanding of why this should be so.  The first cultural change from traditional Maori ways was well under way when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, having been led by Maori chiefs following their observations of the new culture and their discussions with missionaries.  That brought an end to most inter-tribal war, slaves were freed, and the new security allowed many groups to return to the lands from which they had been driven.

One clear reason for the social disruption of the late twentieth century was the massive shift to the cities around the time of the Second World War, continuing for the following decades.  Certainly, the move, from Maori villages, with the many accessible relationships, to city suburbs, removed much of the support for young families.  And just as surely, this was no consequence of the colonisation of more than a century before.

This brought many Maori into the working class, and they did well while the economy was growing but not so much when growth faltered.

The past, of war and disruption, was never so blissful as the new picture would have us believe.  The absurd rewriting of history and constructions of myths of a “noble savage” Maori society is a diversion from the causes of social inequality.  Only when these are recognised can the country move to solutions of the many problems that are listed in the report.

But the report does pass the main test of today’s New Zealand.  It is politically correct – and wrong.

John Robinson, who has a PhD in maths from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote The Kingite Rebellion, Tross Publishing, 2016, and The Corruption of New Zealand Democracy, Tross, 2011.