New Zealand's relation toward Britain in primary school syllabi and history textbooks 1877-1937

Term Paper, 2002

15 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)



History and Geography under the 1877 syllabus

History and Geography under the 1904 syllabus

History and Geography under the 1928 syllabus

Three history textbooks between 1925 and 1937


Primary Sources
Secondary Sources


One way to find out what a country thinks about itself and its relations to other countries is to look at what it tells its school children. This essay examines what New Zealand pupils were to learn about their country and its relation to Britain. For this the two subjects history and geography are taken into account, because they tell most of all about New Zealand’s ideas of the past and the present world. The essay is based on three syllabi and several history textbooks. Syllabi reflect what the children were supposed to learn, textbooks give a further indication of what the contents of lessons actually were. The timespan covered reaches from the first national curriculum in 1877 to the last history textbook published before World War II from 1937.

History and Geography under the 1877 syllabus

For the first time since the foundation of the colony, the Education Act of 1877[1] constituted a national curriculum, directly after the abolition of the provinces in 1876. Since it also made the attending to primary schooling for Pakeha children compulsory for the first time, the impact was great. In the first four years after the introduction of the curriculum, over a hundred new schools were opened, and close to seven hundred teachers employed.[2] In all New Zealand schools, from Standard I to Standard VI the pupils were now supposed to learn the same contents in each subject. The syllabus contained mainly four subjects, i.e. language, mathematics, history and geography. The latter two determined most of all the views that the pupils would have of the world. History would tell them about the past, geography about the places that it occurred at. But a closer look at the curriculum of 1877 reveals surprising disparities between the past and the places.

The curriculum prescribes history from Standard III, the third year of primary education.[3] The subject’s name was ‘English History’, not New Zealand, nor British, nor Empire history, but a history that centred all events and periods around the houses of English sovereigns. In Standard III 9-year old pupils would begin their study of English history with ‘knowledge of the chronological order in which the following periods stand: Roman, Saxon, Norman, Plantagenet, Tudor, Stuart, Brunswick; and of a few more interesting facts connected with each period.’[4] In Standard IV, the curriculum prescribed ‘the succession of Houses and Sovereigns from 1066 A.D. to 1485 A.D., and the leading events of the period known in connection with the reigns and centuries to which they belong […].’[5] The period from 1485 to 1714 would be treated in the same way in Standard V, and in the final year the previous years would be summarised with an extension until the present. A successful history series published by Whitcombe and Tombs in 1898 were the Southern Cross Histories.[6] These books, which were advertised as ‘specially written for New Zealand Schools’,[7] contained 11 pages on James Cook and 9 on New Zealand as a British colony.[8] Cook’s first voyage was positioned at the beginning of the first part to give the pupils a faint relation to why they studied English history: ‘Our Country is a British Colony. This means among other things that people from the British Isles have come to settle in it.’[9] The pupils would not hear of New Zealand anymore until they learned about the Brunswick Period, under which the present state of Britain’s colonies were treated shortly. The Southern Cross Histories placed New Zealand between the Australian and African colonies, and they were given the exact same importance. In short, from the introduction of the national curriculum, New Zealand pupils learned history from an English perspective, as though they lived in Yorkshire or Devon. Their special situation in the South Pacific was not given any relevance.

In contrast to history, the curriculum provided a very different conception for the geography classes. One year earlier than history, geography was taught from Standard II, beginning with ‘knowledge of the meaning of a ground-plan and of a map […] and of the position of the continents, oceans, and larger seas.’[10] In Standard III, when a pupil learned about the chronological order of English periods in history, he gathered ‘knowledge of the chief town of New Zealand, and of the principal features of the district in which the school is situated ; of Australian Colonies and their chief towns ; of the countries and capitals of Europe ; and of the principal mountains and rivers of the world’.[11] In Standard IV the general knowledge of surface features of the world was extended,[12] and the knowledge of New Zealand deepened, by drawing outline maps. The first and only closer look on Britain was provided in Standard V, when the geography contents were ‘places of political, historical, and commercial importance in New Zealand, in Great Britain and on the European Continent’[13] and maps of these areas had to be drawn. In Standard VI places in Asia, North America and the British possessions were treated in the same way.

Whereas pupils learned history from an English viewpoint, their geography knowledge centred around New Zealand, starting in their district, extending via the Tasman to Europe and the whole globe. When they left primary school after six years, they had learned about all English reigns and wars over the past 1000 years. Their past was British, as was their country. In history lessons, their geographical distance from London was simply ignored. New Zealand politicians, who had designed the 1877 syllabus perfectly reflected New Zealand’s status as a British colony; for the school children, in history lessons she was as British as the British Isles. In geography lessons Britain was far away and less important than Australia. Geography also did not concentrate exclusively on British possessions but gave a wider picture of the world. After all, under the 1877 syllabus, which was valid for almost 30 years, New Zealand viewed itself as an English outpost that was cut off from the mother land and distinct from England only by its geographical position.

History and Geography under the 1904 syllabus

The new and long awaited syllabus of 1904, mainly a work by George Hogben,[14] brought considerable changes in both subjects history and geography. History was not called ‘English’ anymore. It was organised in two courses, A and B, of which A was compulsory and B additional, depending on the capacities of each school. Course A followed a clearly outlined chain of compulsory and optional events. The named events contained a little but in contrast to the previous syllabus mentionable amount of New Zealand history. New Zealand history topics were almost completely compulsory, whereas no history before ‘Magna Charta’ had to be taught as well as ‘French Revolution’ and ‘Union of England and Scotland’ could be left out.[15] Yet New Zealand history was bound to ‘Cook and his discoveries. […] Colonisation and early government of New Zealand. Abolition of the provinces. […] New Zealand and other forms of colonial government.’[16] Course B comprised leading events from the Roman period to the present time, but remarkably ‘the history of New Zealand may be substituted for any of the above periods.’[17] New Zealand was still presented as a British colony, but it was no longer subordinated into a line with other British colonies; it was the colony, which deserved a treatment of its own. By 1904 the perspective from which history was taught had slowly shifted from Britain towards New Zealand.

The new syllabus brought very significant changes in geography. The subject became much more important than in the previous curriculum, now being divided into three courses, of which two, A and B, were compulsory. The pupils were to be educated in natural phenomena that were essential for successful navigation, farming and trade. Course A comprised the use of a map and compass, knowledge of surface characteristics such as hills, plains, valleys, rivers, lakes, bays and gulfs, soil categories like clay and sand, weather phenomena like winds, rain, clouds and the ability to forecast the weather. They also had to draw reliefs of the North and South Island, observe the behaviour of ice in water and they had to measure the altitude of the sun, the phases of the moon and the movement of the stars. Course A was thus perfectly designed to teach all New Zealand pupils a comprehensive knowledge of land surveying and navigation in ‘waste land’ and how to use the land for farming. Another basic element was an introduction to navigation by stars for sea trade. Course B aimed to show ‘the connection between natural conditions on the earth’s surface and the civilisation of man.’[18] Indeed it spent some time with climate zones and their characteristics, the connection between races and where they live, and the ‘geographical causes of the rise and importance of the British Empire.’[19] But it is striking how strong emphasis was laid on economical circumstances. In Course B New Zealand was treated in the focus of ‘its natural productions of geographical or commercial interest’ and the ‘influence of the position, soil, climate, and natural productions of New Zealand upon the occupations, trade and general life of the people.’[20] The course further described major zones of production, e.g. chief wheat-producing countries, occurrences of raw materials and chief trade and communication routes. The main contents of the 1877 geography lessons, i.e. so-called ‘capes and bays’ geography, in which pupils had learned shapes and names, were widely disregarded. This part of geography was now placed in the optional Course C, and again New Zealand and Australia played the biggest role here, while Britain was subordinated. Even Course C was now coloured by the economic focus, so that of Great Britain and Ireland pupils had to learn ‘great ports and other chief towns , leading industries, imports and exports.’[21] By 1904 New Zealand policy makers obviously placed a massive weight on New Zealand’s economy. The pupils were trained to be good farmers, naval navigators or tradesmen. The whole education in geography led that way.


[1] Statutes of New Zealand, 1877, no.21, p.109

[2] Ewing, Development of the New Zealand primary school curriculum 1877-1970, p.2

[3] ‘Regulations defining Standards of Education, and for Inspection of Schools’, NZG, 1878, p.1310

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] Within the first six years of their publication each volume had sold about 35,000 copies. See Price, School text books published in New Zealand to 1960, p.117

[7] Southern Cross Histories, front cover

[8] Southern Cross Histories, Part I, pp.7-17 and Part III, pp.174-182

[9] Southern Cross Histories, Part I, p.7

[10] ‘Regulations defining Standards of Education, and for Inspection of Schools’, NZG, 1878, p.1310

[11] ibid.

[12] In the 19th century geography was taught after a ‘capes and bays’ scheme, in which the pupils had to learn vast amounts of shapes and names by heart. See Price, School text books published in New Zealand to 1960, p.80

[13] ‘Regulations defining Standards of Education, and for Inspection of Schools’, NZG, 1878, p.1310

[14] Ewing, Development of the New Zealand primary school curriculum 1877-1970, p.102ff

[15] ‘Regulations for Inspection and Examination of Schools’, NZG, 1904, p.296f

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid.

[18] ibid., p.285

[19] ibid.

[20] ibid., p.284

[21] ibid., p.285

Excerpt out of 15 pages


New Zealand's relation toward Britain in primary school syllabi and history textbooks 1877-1937
Victoria University of Wellington  (Robert Stout Research Centre)
MNZS 510 Making New Zealand
2,0 (B)
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ISBN (eBook)
File size
502 KB
Zealand, Britain, MNZS, Making, Zealand
Quote paper
David Glowsky (Author), 2002, New Zealand's relation toward Britain in primary school syllabi and history textbooks 1877-1937, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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