History is Not Inevitable — and That Matters for Today

History is not inevitable. Perhaps this is something they go over with history majors (although I will say I never encountered the idea in the several history courses I took in college), but for me and I think for the general populace, it’s an unusual idea. After all, events unfolded the way they did and now we are here, so how could it have been otherwise? It’s like a kind of Q.E.D. — it happened, therefore it is proven; it happened, therefore it must have been meant to happen. I know that this shows up in several religious schools of thought, like determinism in Christianity, and also in general ideas about fate. But it’s a poor approach to history.

This way of thinking sees history as static, and usually consisting of political, military, and economic events rather than a synthesis of these with social, religious, artistic, and scientific events and movements. But history is a living, breathing thing that we are creating right now. If we view ourselves as not only part of the history we know but also the part of the history future generations will learn about, it becomes easier to see past historical events as not inevitable or fated, but part of a series of individual and communal decisions made in constantly shifting circumstances. That’s not to say that I can quite wrap my linear-focused brain around the Australian Aboriginal concept of Dreamtime (in which you are here now but also in the past and the future, all at once) or the physics concept of nonlinear time. All that fluid space and time is nifty but makes me dizzy. But I can grasp the interlocking moments, motivations, and actions that make up our history, as opposed to the clear-cut line from Cause A to Effect B.

Understanding history as more complex than a straight series of inevitable events is crucial to understanding the ways we interact now — legally, socially, personally. For example, the colonization of New Zealand by the British is often seen as something that was bound to happen. The British had more efficient killing machines and more of them, they had thousands more people to populate the land, and they had the backing of an entire empire. But even if colonization were inevitable, the way it happened was drastically different from, say, the colonization of Australia. The British imported convicts to Australia and swept aside the Aborigines as if they were only a small obstacle to populating a continent, rather than the original inhabitants of that continent. In New Zealand, however, they found the Maori not only ready to fight for their land (as many Australian Aborigines were), but organized in a way the British could better understand, with recognizable leaders and specific land boundaries. So the British decided the Maori were more advanced than the Aborigines, and much more likely to respond well to being “civilized.”

Because the British saw the Maori as more civilized and basically more human than the Aborigines, they gave the Maori more consideration when taking their land, and that different historical approach has repercussions today. Unlike Australia, which was declared terra nullius (“empty land”) despite the very obvious presence of Aborigines, the British negotiated for land sales with the Maori of New Zealand. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed by the Pakeha Lieutenant-Governor and most Maori chiefs on February 6, 1840. The document was written in English and immediately translated so the Maori could know what they were signing, but the translation has some key differences from the English version. Notably, the treaty states that New Zealand is part of the British Crown, and only the Crown has the right to purchase land from Maori – or at least, one version states that. Another states that the Crown does not have this right of pre-emption. All versions were introduced with Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson stating, “We are one people.” As Philippa Mein Smith says in A Concise History of New Zealand,

Did ‘one people’ mean all the same, including one law, which in British thought meant civilising and assimilating Maori? Or did it endorse the idea of a new community of Maori and Pakeha, two ethnic groups henceforth defined in relation to each other? (p. 47)

Did the treaty mean Maori chiefs were giving up their sovereignty, or did it mean they were ruling alongside the British monarch and Pakeha governor?

These questions reverberated through the next century and a half, as first the Pakeha poured into New Zealand and bought up Maori land at ridiculously cheap prices (after the Crown bought them at even cheaper prices; an insulting way to get around that provision of the treaty) and later Maori asserted their land rights and citizenship rights. The Waitangi Tribunal in the latter half of the twentieth century resulted not only in recognition of Maori as an official language of the nation and the recognition of the importance of environmental considerations in indigenous rights, but in actual money settlements for breach of treaty (p. 231-236). Central to the arguments for money settlements and land renegotiations in the 1980s and 1990s were questions of not just what had taken place in 1840 but what kind of future both Pakeha and Maori were envisioning when they signed that treaty.

I find it fascinating that the New Zealand national government actually had a public discourse about what its intentions had been 150 years previous, and what effect those intentions and actions had on its citizens subsequently. The government recognized a breach of treaty and redressed that breach to the descendants of the wrong party. It’s all very proper Western legal action, but it’s also a bold step in acknowledging history as a living thing with no inevitable outcome and no fixed endpoint. Just because New Zealand is now a part of the British Commonwealth and overwhelmingly run by people of European descent doesn’t mean that that’s how it has to stay. Maori have regained some fishing and land rights, and they have also gained seats in parliament due to proportional representation measures, so they have more of a voice in the shaping of history going forward and not just looking back. Asians, instead of being legally shut out of the country and considered a threat to New Zealanders, are now being welcomed and encouraged to settle in New Zealand.

Certainly New Zealand has its share of bigots and racist policies, but I do find it heartening that a country that had a strong “White New Zealand” movement for decades (much like the “White Australia” movement that has unfortunately not died out as quickly it should) has made conscious efforts to not erase that history but to repudiate it and build a better one. Of course, it took the tireless efforts of thousands of ordinary citizens, activists, and politicians to bring about these changes, and I find that even more encouraging. The more people recognize history as living and evolving, the more we can build a just and peaceful history for ourselves and those who come after us.

7 thoughts on “History is Not Inevitable — and That Matters for Today

  1. This issue of the inevitability of history is one that comes up a lot in evolutionary biology. We talk about a thing called “sampling bias” which means that what you happen to see influences the conclusions you draw even if it is not fully representative of what you *could* see. As far as evolution goes, we have a huge sampling bias because we only see the current tip of a string of causal and random events. Really there are an uncountable number of possibilities. The current situation is where we are but certainly not the only way the world could be. This is why people do digital evolution experiments to try to understand what is fundamental about evolution by allowing a lot of different possibilities to unfold. I suppose fiction is the analogous way to examine human history.

    • Beth, this is so great! I didn’t really think about evolution, but it is the scientific part of our history. I like this idea of sampling bias. And I think it’s such a good way of seeing history as a vital study and an important approach to current events. If you’re looking at history as an examination of the world beyond the sampling bias, you’re looking at other opportunities that weren’t taken, possibilities that were never realized, etc. You can then take the parts of those opportunities and possibilities that still apply today and use them for current problems and issues. How did the first suffragists frame the debate on women voting, and how does that apply to today? What methods did anti-slavery activists use and which ones did they reject as unworkable, and what can we take from that for current struggles for equality? History is far from dead; it’s so very much alive!

  2. Building off the mention of fiction at the end of Beth’s comment, the question of inevitability is one of the reasons I really enjoy alternate history novels. Sometimes they might simplify things a little too much (and there are way too many focused on WWII), but just the act of asking “what would the world look like if this had happened, instead of that?” is, I think, an important act. Also, some alternate history novels seem to emphasize differences outside of human control (what if the Black Death killed off 99% of the European population rather than 60%? – The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson), rather than “the tireless efforts of thousands” of people, which is both more complicated and more interesting.

    I love that New Zealand revisited those treaties and publicly/legally acknowledged they had done wrong. (Reminds me of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa and Peru.)

    • Yeah, when I read about the Waitangi Tribunal (and good point about the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions), I immediately wondered how that would work in the States. (Can’t help centering things back here, I guess?) What would it look like if, instead of brushing off descendants of slaves seeking reparations as selfish and unrealistic, our government actually addressed those concerns and the possibility of monetary and similar recompense? What if it did the same for Native Americans? What if, instead of literally rewriting history (http://race.change.org/blog/view/texas_moves_to_rewrite_history_says_there_was_no_slave_trade) to make the privileged feel more comfortable, we demanded even more critical readings of our collective past because we knew it would make for a stronger present and future?

      • Well, I think considering another country’s political events to better understand that country AND considering that political event within your own context are both necessary, and don’t need to be kept separate.

        Ever since I first read about the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions I’ve thought it would fundamentally change the U.S. to have any sort of similar initiative, where people’s stories are told in a societally-recognized forum, whether related to the history of conquest in the U.S. and the relationship to the Native American populations, the history of slavery, past and ongoing racism, immigrant experiences–so many options. I think if we had done something similar, it would form an extremely powerful narrative to counteract the various rewritings and softer versions of history offered in school classrooms now. (And to counteract those things that have simply been forgotten–I’ve been reading bits and pieces of Sundown Towns by James W. Loewen, which is all about the history of the white-only towns that sprang up outside of the south after 1890, continuing, in some cases, until the present day.)

        On the other hand, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions seem to have generally been used in response to very specific structures or events–the system of prejudice in the U.S. might be so diffuse at this point they aren’t the best model. (And it sounds like the Waitangi Tribunal, as well, was focused on something specific–the treaties.) (Though we could still revisit our past treaties.) I still like the principle though (as I’ve always been attracted to/interested in restorative justice initiatives and programs, once I started hearing about them), and I think it would be amazing if we could find a way to apply it here and now. Unsurprisingly, I think the telling of stories would be very powerful in counteracting prejudice and bigotry.

  3. And I also really like the idea that “fiction is the analogous way to examine human history.” Both alternate histories and “regular” historical fictions — even the regular ones are teasing out voices we don’t hear in textbooks.

  4. Pingback: A Rainy Weekend Away in Paihia | Stowaway

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