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Vincent O’Malley: Why we need to open up about past Māori and Pākehā conflict

A painting depicting British troops from HMS North Star attacking the coastal Ōtuihu Pā in the Bay of Islands in 1845. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library/A-079-032

Calls are growing for us to take a more honest look at our past, particularly the wars over land and power that shaped the country.

It began with a single musket shot, fired perhaps by accident, in Wairau, near Nelson, in 1842. It ended with desultory gunfire in a steep and sodden gorge south of Waikaremoana in 1873.

Bookended by these two inglorious events, the New Zealand Wars claimed the lives of an estimated 2250 Māori and 560 British and colonial troops. Records are far from complete, but, including the wounded, the number of casualties could be more than 6000. The result was the transfer of nearly 1.5 million hectares of land into European hands, most commonly through the 1863 New Zealand Settlements Act. They changed the social, economic and political landscape forever.

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Still, says Wellington historian Vincent O’Malley, we barely talk about it. Commemorations are few, many of the war sites are degraded and unmarked, the myth of a chivalrous and noble battle, sowing the seeds for the “best race relations in the world”, has been shattered. Today, students can go through school without learning any New Zealand history.

“Which is staggering to me,” says O’Malley. “This is our story, our history. It happened here, in this place, relatively recently, and it had profound consequences for what New Zealand would become. These were defining conflicts of New Zealand history and, as a nation, we need to take ownership of them.”

He argued the point in his 2016 book, The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000. The defining conflict in New Zealand history, he wrote, “did not take place on the Western Front, or at Gallipoli, or in North Africa”, but rather, in Waikato, 1863-64, in a premeditated war of conquest and invasion on the part of the Crown.

Vincent O’Malley at the Boulcott’s Farm New Zealand Wars memorial. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Listener

A bloody trail

Now, in his new book, The New Zealand Wars: Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa, he walks us through the causes, course and consequences of the New Zealand Wars as a whole. It is a story played out on a ragged map, zigzagging across the North Island and the top of the South, from Northland, down to Wairau, Wellington, Whanganui, up to Taranaki, over to the Tauranga, then to the North Island’s West Coast, back to Tairāwhiti, then to South Taranaki and finally into the dense bush of the central North Island, where the hunt for Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki was finally abandoned.

It is a bloody trail of little-known place names: Ruapekapeka, Wairau, Oākura, Meremere, Rangiriri, Ngāruawāhia, Waiari, Rangiaowhia, Gate Pā/Pukehinahina, Te Ahuahu, Ohautahi, Tūranga, Parihaka, Matawhero. Through these names, O’Malley charts a pathway of revenge, greed, inter-hapū rivalry, changing allegiances, fear, frustration, suspicion – of the new Pai Mārire or “Hauhau” faith; of the Kīngitanga movement – and lies.

Even now, says O’Malley, some still believe the Waikato War was a necessary response to a plot to attack Auckland, although Rewi Maniapoto, the alleged warmonger, was returning from a tangi in Taupō when the war began and Auckland was the key market for Waikato Māori produce. “So, why would they destroy their market? The source of their power and independence is their economy and Auckland is the main market for that.”

The attack on Rangiaowhia, east of Te Awamutu, in 1864. Photo/Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-C2

Land, power and ideology

The obvious impetus for the New Zealand Wars was land – Māori had it, the British wanted it, the New Zealand Company overpromised on it. But land was not the sole cause. For a start, imperial troops were not always sympathetic to settlers’ land hunger. In 1855, Governor Thomas Gore Browne complained that many of the settlers were “insatiably greedy for land”, and when land could not be procured honestly, “still they desire to have it”.

The wars were also about power and hierarchical ideologies. The increasing number of settlers – by 1858, their population equalled that of Māori – arrived in New Zealand with deeply entrenched Victorian assumptions of racial superiority. They were certainly not willing, says O’Malley, “to defer to a bunch of people they dismissively called ‘natives’”.

At the heart of this was the tension inherent in Te Tiriti o Waitangi/The Treaty of Waitangi itself. In the English version, the British Crown proclaimed sovereignty over New Zealand. The Māori version stopped short of ceding sovereignty, referring instead to “kāwanatanga”, commonly translated as “governorship” or “governance”. Māori communities were promised “tino rangatiratanga” (chiefly authority) over their lands and resources.

A cannon used by Māori during the Battle of Ruapekapeka Pā. Photo/Alamy

“So, on the one hand, you have the Crown idea that we are supposed to be in charge now. On the other hand, Māori are promised partnership and the ongoing right to govern their own affairs.”

Hōne Heke chopping down the flagpole at Kororeka/Russell that flew the Union Jack, in protest at the increasing interference of the British government in Māori affairs, is an enduring symbol of the Northern War, which was part of the wider conflict.

The wars tipped the scales. The government did not achieve the total victory it wanted, but in the battle between two competing ideas of what the treaty stood for, it was the Crown’s version that won. This envisaged a treaty of cession and unbridled sovereignty, notes O’Malley, not mutual partnership and dialogue.

Like most Kiwis, O’Malley, now 51, went through school without learning any of this history. After all, his teacher assured him, “nothing really interesting ever happened here.” But when he took a New Zealand history course as an easy filler at university, “I was blown away – the idea nothing interesting ever happened in this country couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Hōne Heke. Image/ATL/C-012-019

Taking ownership of our history

That truth is remembered by Māori today through waiata, haka, whakairo [carving], whaikōrero [oratory], art, even the names given to children such as Mamae (pain), Muru (plunder). It is found in the reams of dense documentation compiled for Waitangi Tribunal claims. It appears in the names of streets and parks.

But O’Malley is making an urgent call for this history to be more widely known. “It is about taking ownership of our history, binding us together as a nation that can honestly confront its own past. We need to own this history. Doing that is not intended to sow the seeds of division or disharmony. It is actually the basis for genuine reconciliation.”

First, he says, we need to mark and preserve the sites themselves. He recalls his first visit to Ōrākau, just off State Highway 3, south of Hamilton. Even with huge logging trucks rumbling past, and even though some archaeologists now think the battle site may be 70m away, it is an incredibly powerful place to visit.

“It makes the history real – you can stand on that landscape and imagine the events that took place there. These are places of immense historical significance that many people would drive past every day without even realising they are there. People who have been to Gettysburg [National Military Park in Pennsylvania] say it is incredible. We have our Gettysburg in the Waikato and it has a road going through the middle of it. That is why it is so important to look after these sites – they are links to this history.”

Governor George Grey. Image/ATL/G-623

Many do have roads running though them. He points to Gate Pā near Tauranga. Tauranga Māori have since erected a number of large pou, but the site had previously been cut through by Cameron Rd, named after the commander who led the invasion of the district.

Many more are hard to find. On a recent visit to Hawke’s Bay, O’Malley searched for the battle site at Ōmarunui. “There’s a sign for the rubbish tip and one for the B&B and one for something else, but nothing at all for the battle site that was there. I am supposed to be an expert on this and I get lost.”

A deliberate act of amnesia?

“It has to be more than coincidence. It speaks to an attempt to obliterate the physical remnants of that history as if it never happened.”

A model for how a site could be restored can be found in Rangiriri in north Waikato. It was here, in 1863, that Governor George Grey sent more than 1400 British soldiers to attack the pā. Following a fierce battle, the remaining Māori raised a white flag, which they believed was a request to negotiate, but the British assumed it indicated surrender and took them prisoner. As a result, the British moved deeper into the Waikato. Where once State Highway 1 ploughed through the Rangiriri site, the new Waikato Expressway, a collaboration between Waikato-Tainui and the New Zealand Transport Agency, now guides traffic west of the redeveloped battle site.

Street names, too, could be altered to better reflect the real history of the New Zealand Wars. “Imagine if you are a kid growing up in Kerikeri, living on a street named after somebody who killed your ancestors. How would you feel about that? To me, it’s a small thing, but they speak to our willingness to really front up to the history.”

A naval camp next to the Mangatāwhiri River. The crossing of the river by British troops in July 1863 began the invasion of the Waikato. Photo/M. Higginson/Auckland War Memorial Museum

Acknowledging the dark episodes

For many New Zealanders, this is uneasy territory. O’Malley recalls the strong backlash to the 1998 TV documentary version of James Belich’s “tour de force of scholarship”, The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict. “Some segments of the public were saying, ‘how dare you say this stuff’, or that it was ‘politically correct nonsense’. People weren’t willing to hear those stories. You can see parallels with what is happening in Australia and the debates about the recognition and non-recognition of the frontier wars. The Australian War Memorial Museum acknowledges all the conflicts Australia has fought in apart from those that took place in its own country.”

More recently, however, interest in this history is growing, particularly among young people.

“They really get why this stuff matters in a way a lot of adults don’t. They accept the fact we need an honest and open reckoning with our past, that we can’t just pick out the bits that we like from our history, that we need to acknowledge the dark episodes as well.”

In 2014, students from Ōtorohanga College were taken to battle sites in Ōrākau, arguably the most famous battle ever fought in New Zealand, and Rangiaowhia, a refuge for women, children and the elderly attacked at dawn on February 21, 1864, by armed cavalry and foot troops. The students were so moved by what they saw and heard, they drafted a petition calling for a statutory day of recognition for the New Zealand Wars. The government agreed, announcing a national day of commemoration (but not a public holiday) to mark the wars. After a false start in October 2017, the first Rā Maumahara [day of remembrance] was held on March 11 last year. Future commemorations are scheduled to be held on October 28 each year, on the anniversary of the signing of He Whakaputanga, the 1835 Declaration of Independence.

Since then, more than 3040 supporters have signed a History Teachers’ Association petition calling on Parliament to make compulsory “the coherent teaching of our own past across appropriate year levels in our schools”.

The government has not been supportive. Education Minister Chris Hipkins has said although some schools could do more to educate students about the New Zealand Wars, he doesn’t favour making the wars a compulsory part of the curriculum. But O’Malley, now working on a new three-year Marsden Fund project with Victoria University of Wellington’s Joanna Kidman, to understand how the New Zealand Wars are remembered or ignored, is optimistic.

“In the past couple of years, I think we have turned a corner. As a nation, we’re staring at ourselves in the mirror and seeing the wrinkles. People are starting to say, yes, it is okay to talk about this history. There will always be resistance to things people see as slightly threatening, but I think there is a shift in that. There is a greater willingness to engage in this history. Making sure our kids learn this history and looking after those sites is not going to bankrupt the nation, but now more than ever we need to know this history and be honest withourselves.”


This article was first published in the May 25, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.