Monumental blunders: Should NZ get rid of its controversial statues?

by Paul Little / 09 January, 2018

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The obelisk on Maungakiekie-One Tree Hill, a sacred site for Maori.

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As protests over US Confederate monuments spread to other Western countries, Paul Little asks Maori and Pakeha pundits if our controversial historical landmarks should stay or go.

Around the world, statues and monuments celebrating the more lamentable landmarks of history have become the focus of increasingly violent protests.

In August, demonstrations for and against monuments to the Confederacy in Charlottesville, Virginia led to the death of 32-year-old protestor Heather Heyer. Elsewhere in the US, statues honouring the likes of General Robert E. Lee have been attacked or removed in the dead of night – in at least one case by the local council.

Such protests have been going on for some time. At the University of Cape Town in 2015, protestors successfully agitated for the removal of a statue honouring imperialist brute Cecil “Rhodesia” Rhodes. Back in Rhodes’ homeland last year, a movement calling for the removal of his statue at Oriel College, Oxford, failed.

Closer to home, right-minded people may have been congratulating themselves that, thanks to our exemplary race relations in New Zealand, we don’t have people threatening to knock down statues here. Except we do.

“Someone came along, did not talk to us, and put up a monument to de Surville, close to the place where his boat came ashore [at Doubtless Bay in Northland],” says Auckland University professor of Maori studies Margaret Mutu. “When somebody stumbled upon this and came down and told us, we decided to pull it down because it was grossly offensive.”

The French explorer Jean-François-Marie de Surville is remembered with bitterness by the Ngati Kahu people, explains Mutu, because after they helped nurse his sick crewmen back to health, he took offence at a perceived slight and retaliated by laying waste to their whare and kidnapping a tribal leader who died at sea shortly thereafter.


Students march past Oxford University’s Oriel College and the statue of Cecil Rhodes, which they were campaigning to have removed.

For an example of how cultural filters change the way monuments are viewed, read no further than this commentary, from the Auckland-Waikato Historical Journal, in 2002: “The inscription on the plaque reads: ‘J-F-M de Surville anchored his ship Saint Jean Baptiste in Doubtless Bay 17-31 December 1769 to refresh his men. He visited a pa on this headland 30 December.”

Apart from the ubiquitous memorials to the fallen of two world wars, we’re not big on monuments in general. This is perhaps a reflection of the still-low level of (Pakeha) interest in our own history. Auckland University anthropology professor Dame Anne Salmond regrets the ignorance, if not the absence, of monuments. “We don’t tend to put people on pedestals,” she says. “We talk about the tall poppy syndrome and in Maori culture there is whakahihi [arrogance], which is not greatly admired. It reminds us most of us have feet of clay.”

Mutu points out that Maori have their own idea of how to show respect: “In our meeting houses, we raise people up. We have carvings of ancestors we revere, but the carvings will also depict their foibles.”



Tape surrounds a statue of Captain James Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park after it was defaced in August.

Salmond is an advocate for honouring, if not the people, at least the history that is everywhere we turn. “Making our history more legible would be great. When you get to know the stories lodged in our landscape, it makes the place more remarkable.”

Maori, of course, have erected monuments of their own, but that hasn’t made them impervious to controversy. A conspicuous example is the obelisk at Waitangi, erected around 1880, which carries the full Maori text of the treaty on its four sides.

“The day it was unveiled,” explains Waitangi Marae chairman Ngati Kawa Taituha, “a Ngapuhi prophet, Aperahama Taonui, warned our people not to put the British flag over it but to cover the monument with a Maori korowai for the official unveiling ceremony. The people did not listen, so Taonui conveyed his legendary prophecy that our ancestral house will be full of spiders.”

Taituha says he’s seen tribal members pull out sledgehammers intending to deal to the obelisk and its curse.

However, his own response to it is coloured by the fact that “my tupuna, Ihaka Te Tai, who was the Northern Maori MP in 1884 and an avid supporter of the Te Kotahitanga Movement, was treasurer of the committee who erected the commemorative stone”.

It has in common with all monuments the capacity to “memorialise an event, invoke prophecy, link national figureheads, honour descendants, balance negative perceptions with positive energy, instil hope and despair, attract conspiracy on an international scale and remain a total mystery for future generations. In my opinion,” says Taituha, “it perfectly represents the diverse and dynamic historical significance of Waitangi.”

Generally, it’s monuments to or by Pakeha that have caused offence. Colonel Marmaduke Nixon led the colonial Defence Force in a savage attack on Maori at Rangiaowhia in 1864. He’s remembered with a statue in Otahuhu, south Auckland.

Auckland University anthropology professor Dame Anne Salmond. “We don’t tend to put people on pedestals.”

At Whanganui’s Moutoa Gardens, a statue of Premier John Ballance, whose 1890s “land reforms” cost Maori dearly, was twice beheaded before, as the Heritage NZ website drily puts it, “the statue was… removed in 1995. Only the plinth of the memorial now remains.”

But such destructive instances are rare. The statue of Governor George Grey in Auckland’s Albert Park, for instance, still stands proud, seemingly oblivious to the troubled legacy of his relations with Ngati Whatua. “Someone can look at the statue of Sir George Grey and say, ‘This person was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of members of my hapu,’ and that is distressing,” says AUT professor of history Paul Moon.

So, what’s to be done in such cases? “Talk to the mana whenua, talk to everybody who’s been affected by these people, to see what they have to say and ask them what is appropriate,” is Mutu’s straightforward solution.

Ngati Whatua Orakei spokesperson Ngarimu Blair has “mixed feelings” about more monuments than just Governor Grey’s, citing: “The Surveyors Monument on the summit of Maungawhau-Mt Eden that said ‘The land before you was bought from the Maoris in 1840’ – well, it was gifted by Ngati Whatua, not sold by the Maoris; the monument on our most sacred site, Maungakiekie-One Tree Hill, commemorating John Logan Campbell’s admiration for our ancestors; Michael Savage buried on Kohimaramara-Bastion Point with another obelisk marking his resting place; the monument on Wakefield St celebrating the brave Pakeha soldiers in the Land Wars and the ‘friendly Maoris’.”

But Blair does not want these demolished. Instead, “they should be balanced with access for all to the other side of the story, through our education system and supported by how our public spaces are designed in future”.

Virginia state police in riot gear stand in front of a statue of General Robert E. Lee after the Unite the Right rally was declared an unlawful gathering in August in Charlottesville.

There’s a prevalent view among commentators that statues have two stories to tell: the one on the surface – the great person’s biography – and a less visible story about past attitudes and what references to, for instance, “friendly Maoris” represent.

“It strikes me that a war memorial, like any memorial, reflects a certain place and a time and a context,” argues military historian Chris Pugsley. “In the case of the New Zealand War memorials and John Ballance, it saddens me when I go around Taranaki and see those monuments being defaced. If you put it up today, it would be totally insensitive, but it tells you, certainly in the New Zealand War memorials, how the victor felt. It’s a doorway into a different time and a different relationship, which we need to be reminded of. We might get some satisfaction in removing or defacing statues, but it doesn’t change what happened.”

Historian Jock Phillips believes we must at least acknowledge any disagreeable subtext. “Memorials were specifically set up to ensure people were remembered,” he says, “so we can’t ignore the fact that some people who we now consider unacceptable and some sentiments which are objectionable remain in public places, continuing to communicate unfortunate messages.”

For Paul Moon, “it’s not a case of ‘You’re living in the modern era, get over it.’ There are legacies people suffer from, but getting rid of the piece of stone won’t change that for them. In fact, there’s a risk that it removes a reminder and makes it easy for people to forget.”

“Where do you start and where do you stop?” asks writer Peter Wells. “I’m not in favour of the destruction of any historical statue. They should be tapu. They represent the past and speak of the past, who was honoured at what particular time, if only by one section of the community.”

Wells ponders the possibility of stripping statues of their power by removing them “for their own safety” to museums, to take their place alongside other relics. “Destroying the evidence of the past is a sign of barbarism,” he says. “Think of the extermination camps of Europe – their sheer physicality reminds us of what happened.”

The monument on Wakefield St, Auckland, celebrating the “brave” Pakeha soldiers in the New Zealand Land Wars and the “friendly Maoris” who fought beside them.

However, the preservation of the camps, even as memorials, has not gone uncontested.

For Anne Salmond, even if statues are “a standing provocation”, their point is they endure, staying in one place but travelling through time. “They will go through all kinds of ups and downs because history gets understood anew every generation, and sometimes the way the narratives are recrafted makes their presence uncomfortable.”

But not as uncomfortable as those in countries where the historic views they represent are alive and well. “There’s one thing axiomatic that separates us from the US,” says Moon. “I don’t think there’s been a group of New Zealanders who’ve gone up to one of our memorials and said, ‘We espouse the values represented by the person in this statue.’ That’s a big difference. Most New Zealanders look at them and cringe, and think that as bad as race relations are now, they’re not as bad as they were then.”

“There isn’t a deliberate movement to uphold George Grey as the great founder of New Zealand,” says Auckland University history and theology lecturer Hirini Kaa. “I might be overly optimistic but I think we’re a bit more aware of our history here, particularly with the work of the Waitangi Tribunal in recent years. We don’t celebrate the glorious deeds of our colonial ancestors as the US does. We’re more aware of their sins.”

The south Auckland statue honouring Colonel Marmaduke Nixon, who led an attack on Maori .

Not that it’s all good. As cultural commentator Hamish Keith observes, “What we do have is a very one-sided, monocultural view of our 19th century. We need to acknowledge the Maori dimension – instead, we drive motorways across battle sites.”

And monuments don’t just reflect the past accurately, according to Gisborne indigenous rights advocate Tina Ngata, they reflect the present as well.

“The common denominator of the monuments being challenged around the world is that they are white and European,” says Ngata. “Some are white explorers, others are white militia. The white supremacy in this issue rests not only with the neo-Nazis marching in objection to the removal of these statues, but in the roles of these very statues in maintaining white supremacy over our history and visibility.”

And in the white explorer pantheon, no one is godlier than Captain James Cook, a statue of whom on Kaiti Hill at Gisborne has been repeatedly accessorised with red paint on the face and crotch. After one such attack, a culturally deaf and blind council spokesman bleated plaintively: “Seriously, this is getting out of hand now, guys.”

Notoriously, the statue is not even a likeness of the explorer but a repurposed likeness of an Italian admiral.

“How do you judge a person like Cook?” wonders Anne Salmond, who, as a historian, has thought about him more than most. “At what stage in his career do you get final judgment? Is it even appropriate, because the legacies keep changing? That’s what the life of communities is like – we are always revisiting the past and reconsidering what matters. What things were fantastic? What do we wish had happened?”

It rankles Ngata, who has campaigned against the Cook statue, that the discussion is treated as historical from a white perspective when every day Maori face the ongoing consequences of colonisation in the form of horrendous statistics in so many aspects of life. “The monuments are simply one more reminder of this ongoing crime against us,” she says. To argue for the retention of these statues “under historical grounds is a profound demonstration of entitlement. I do not require reminding of the colonial machine in my world – it saturates my every day, othering me on my own lands from the moment I wake up.”

Hamish Keith.

Ngata believes achieving indigenous justice will require “a re-education of the nation that re-casts the ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’. We can look to these statues as an opportunity for real action: a symbolic but important step in this direction.

“However, if white entitlement can’t see past its need to enshrine its own crimes and continue to characterise this as history (or worse, biculturalism) and impose it on the descendent victims of that crime, then we will not even get off the starting plate.”

As Ngata implies, that cultural shift isn’t looking likely in the current climate. So, what else can be done to deal with the problem of imperialist monuments that stand as proud reminders of brutal and tragic historical crimes?

The tradition of people taking matters into their own hands in the case of John Ballance has been mentioned. Salmond cites a similar case: “There is a wall at Auckland University that was put up to keep out the Maori – built by friendly Maori to keep out hostile ones. There was a plaque that said that. We used to walk through it all the time, and at some point the plaque disappeared.” And with it, the plaque’s acknowledgement of “the union and comradeship of Pakeha and Maori during the Great European War”.

Many argue that a simple editing job to put the person and/or events being commemorated in a more up-to-date historical context is all that’s needed. 

“My preferred response,” says Jock Phillips, “is that memorials expressing unacceptable sentiments are given a frame and context by an accompanying notice. A good example is the Moutoa memorial in Whanganui, which honours those who fought for ‘law and order against savagery and barbarism’. But those named on the memorial were all Maori; they were locals who fought for the Crown, and I cannot believe that their descendants would want the memorial removed. So keep the memorials, but give them an accompanying modern interpretation that would tell people why those who put up the memorials did so.”

Phillips notes that “pacifists would legitimately remove all war memorials”, but “the better solution is to put up memorials to pacifists like Archibald Baxter”.

Easier said than done. There’s been a right to-do in Dunedin over the question of a memorial to the anti-war hero – only adding strength to the argument than when it comes to monuments, the past is the past and should be put behind us.

A Whanganui statue of Premier John Ballance, whose “land reforms” cost Maori dearly, was twice decapitated before being removed in 1995.

In 2015, Dunedin’s Archibald Baxter Memorial Trust called for proposals for a sculpture in honour of our most famous pacifist and other conscientious objectors. Designs were submitted and finalists chosen. Finding a site proved more difficult. Anzac Ave was ruled out on sensitivity grounds.

The museum reserve seemed a good compromise. “The Otago Museum and the other major stakeholders, the university and the Dunedin City Council, all supported the memorial. Until they suddenly didn’t,” according to Lisa Scott’s investigation in North & South last year. Council support for the site was withdrawn. An inconclusive blame-go-round ensued before an alternative site was agreed upon: a small triangular area at a busy intersection. Hardly the space for quiet contemplation that had been envisaged.

Monuments and their place in our lives represent a complex and continuing issue, and clearly it’s impossible to reconcile the conflicting views expressed here. Perhaps the best way forward is expressed, appropriately, by the author of Between Two Worlds. As Anne Salmond says: “We have to revise the way we tell the stories from time to time, but that’s a good thing, reconsidering where we come from and where we might want to go. Links with the past remain vital and having living links with ancestors is no bad thing.”

Auckland University history and theology lecturer Hirini Kaa stands by the statue of Governor George Grey in Albert Park.

A place by any other name

Auckland University history and theology lecturer Hirini Kaa is equally if not more concerned about the way place names are used to honour and memorialise historic misdeeds and their doers than he is about monuments.

“Every little town has these celebrations of empire that we are far less conscious of because we use them in everyday language,” says Kaa, citing deliberate renaming as a “potent form of colonisation”.

For a prominent example in Tamaki Makaurau, look no further than the contiguous areas of Sandringham, Epsom, Balmoral, New Windsor, Mt Albert and Cornwall Park. It’s no doubt who’s in charge there.

“In Taranaki,” says Kaa, “they are still arguing over choosing place names and refusing to accept Maori names for them. We have a long way to go. You could even apply it to the Victorian buildings we see around us that we treasure and see as heritage – they are monuments as well. Looking out my window, we could be in any Western city.”

But he sees some evidence of progress. “Take the Land Wars commemoration coming up in October; driving to Hamilton, all I used to see was loss, and I’d think about Great South Rd as George Grey’s great plan for the invasion. Now I see some pou and the mana of Waikato being upheld. So we are trying, but there’s a long way to go.”

Auckland University professor Anne Salmond also acknowledges that, although it might be convenient to demolish statues, the legacy they celebrate will remain in those imperial street and place names.

White names, that is, according to indigenous rights advocate Tina Ngata. They “dot the landscape, affording white colonisers immortality and simultaneously replacing indigenous names, which drift into ambiguity. This issue is compounded when the white name, in particular, has played an active role in the removal and replacement of indigenous people. Of course, in dominant white history, these people are cast as heroes, and every aspect of the story – its structure, bias, values, language – is that of the white settler.”      

This was published in the November 2017 issue of North & South.



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