Marmaduke Nixon's statue isn't the problem, it's how we overlook Maori history

by Maria Slade / 08 September, 2017
Noted Opinion.
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The monument to Marmaduke Nixon on Great South Road. Photo / Maria Slade

Moves are afoot to remove a monument to a man who led a deadly raid on a Maori village. But Maria Slade argues, since the statue has been there for 150 years - maybe the real issue lies elsewhere.

Auckland has had its own confederate statue moment this week.

With America still reeling over the Charlottesville white supremacist protests sparked by plans to remove a confederate statue, South Auckland man Shane Te Pou has taken a closer look at our own colonial history.

Thousands of Aucklanders drive past the monument to Colonel Marmaduke Nixon on Great South Road in Otahuhu every day and never give it a second glance.

One day Te Pou did, and was shocked to discover it is a memorial to a citizen soldier who led an 1860s attack on an unfortified Maori village at Rangiaowhia inhabited by old people, women and children, killing 12.

Nixon was nothing more than a thug, and the monument has to go, he says.

Whether statues commemorating confederate generals should be culled from town squares and parks is an ugly open wound running right across the southern United States.

The deadly scenes in Virginia sprang from moves to take down a statue of General Robert E Lee, who wrote to his wife in 1856 that enslavement of African Americans was  “necessary for their instruction as a race”.

To us down here in the South Pacific where the Waitangi Tribunal has been going about its business since 1975 it seems unsavoury at best to venerate a losing, slave-owning general. Americans as a population seem well behind the eight ball in coming to terms with their past.

The attack on Rangiaowhia. Photo / Auckland Libraries

And yet the attack on the village of Rangiaowhia is an inglorious moment in our history we have apparently yet to own.

It’s hardly a secret. A quick Google reveals the Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand entry on the incident. Nixon was a British army officer who had served in India and emigrated to Mangere in 1852. He bought a farm and became an advocate for South Auckland landowners who were demanding access to Maori ‘waste land’ in the Waikato. By the time the British invaded in 1863 Nixon was commanding a volunteer militia which included 200 local farmers.

In 1968 Nixon’s remains were moved from Grafton Cemetery and reinterred there. Photo / Maria Slade

In February 1864 the British ordered an attack on the Maori supply base at Rangiaowhia, near Te Awamutu. Nixon’s colonial cavalry led the action and fired heavily on one building where the villagers had gathered. Nixon was shot; his troops reacted by killing Maori who attempted to surrender or escape the burning building.

In his History of New Zealand respected historian Michael King says the attack occurred on a Sunday when Christian Maori would not fight, and the sacked building was a whare karakia or house of prayer.

Seen in the full light of the facts, a memorial to someone who led a cowardly attack is distressing. But while many of the confederate statues were created in the early 20th century as a revisionist view of the American Civil War, the monument to Nixon was erected by his fellow farmers in the 1860s and has sat there on the Great South Road, the route the soldiers took to war, ever since.

The small triangular park is a busy corner. A First World War memorial was added in 1928, and in 1968 Nixon’s remains were moved from Grafton Cemetery and reinterred there.  A sundial in memory of the Otahuhu Railway Workshop men who lost their lives in the First World War was relocated to the site in the 1990s.

So everyone has had a good 150 years to have a think about this.

It is eyebrow-raising that much more recent Auckland Council signage marking the site as part of the First World War heritage trail makes no reference whatsoever to the losses suffered by Maori. It simply describes the Nixon monument as a memorial to him and all the soldiers who fell during the New Zealand Wars.

It’s not like Auckland Council is averse to supporting greater understanding of the area’s Land Wars history. In 2015 author Scott Hamilton was the inaugural winner of the Auckland Mayoral Writers Grant for his multimedia project, Fragments of the Great South Road.

But sometimes history gets left to enthusiastic amateurs. Only through the persistence of a dedicated group of residents was the early colonial heritage of Waterview preserved under the towering pillars of the enormous new motorway interchange.

In the second decade of the 21st century we can do better. Shane Te Pou has started an online petition to have the Nixon memorial removed.

At the very least a discussion needs to be started about how to include Maori in this overlooked piece of local history.

 

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