The Waikato: A History of New Zealand's Greatest River

by Ann Beaglehole / 23 August, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - The Waikato History Paul Moon

From mountain to sea: the Waikato River. Photo/Getty Images

Paul Moon tells the history of the Waikato River as a source of mythology, conflict, commerce and hope.

At 425km, the Waikato is New Zealand’s longest river. Its starting point, writes Paul Moon, author of The Waikato: A History of New Zealand’s Greatest River, is “the thawing ice and snow on Mt Ruapehu at 2800m above sea level”. The end point is at Port Waikato, where, according to legend, someone in the Tainui waka, observing the river entering the Tasman Sea, coined the name “Waikato” (wai/water; kato/flow).

Moon is an Auckland University of Technology history professor and author of 26 books. His latest is a dispassionate survey of the trade-offs made between exploitation and caring for the environment, which is timely and relevant.

Critics of Moon’s previous work have argued that while his research is soundly based on Pākehā sources, he does not make as good use of Māori perspectives.

Is the book overly slanted towards the white colonist point of view? In my opinion, it is not.

Māori leaders, such as Ngāti Tūwharetoa paramount chief Te Heuheu Tūkino IV, jostle for attention with prominent Pākehā such as George Grey and Ferdinand von Hochstetter.

The Waikato is impressionistic, a historical scrapbook, touching on a great range of topics. But it is a neatly structured work, one that follows the river’s course and how its shape has changed as a result of earthquakes, volcanoes and human actions.

Numerous entries relate to harnessing the river and the region’s resources for the “good of the nation”, with little regard for the impact: swamp draining, milling, fishing, mining and farming feature prominently. The freezing works at Horotiu, “crucial to the local and national economy”, had, by 1960, a daily killing capacity of 40 cattle, and 12,000 sheep and lambs. By the early 1970s (apart from Hamilton), Horotiu freezing works was the biggest contributor to effluent being discharged into the river.

There is no shortage of statistics about water degradation and its main culprits, such as Fonterra and the Auckland Farmers’ Freezing Co-operative (Affco). As for coal mining, in 1902, about 10 trains a day, with 90,000 tons of coal, left Huntly’s coal mine.

The supply was seen as “simply inexhaustible”. The mine’s first owner was Anthony Ralph, who fought in the Waikato War and acquired the land as his allocation for militia men.

Rivers were dammed and power stations (hydroelectric and geothermal) built, despite protest about “acts of vandalism” on the landscape.

By 1943, Arapuni Power Station was producing more than half the electricity being used in the North Island. The Maraetai Power Station, started in 1947, went on to become the largest hydro power station on the Waikato River.

Today, many are proud of our energy from renewable sources; however, these developments were carried out with little consideration of adverse consequences and no attempt to involve Māori.

Several vignettes focus on the river’s sanctity for Māori. A rich source of mythology, the Waikato was the link that bound many hapū and iwi along its length. The Kīngitanga (Māori King movement), in collision with a Government determined to open up the Waikato to European settlement, occasionally appears. A poignant entry is on the battle at Rangiriri, the deadliest of the land wars.

After the Waikato War, 485,000ha of land was confiscated from Māori.

Even if you don’t have the energy to make the whole trek from mountain to sea in one go, The Waikato is well worth a dip into.

THE WAIKATO: A HISTORY OF NEW ZEALAND’S GREATEST RIVER, by Paul Moon (Atuanui Press $69.99)

This article was first published in the August 11, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

Norah Jones’s new beginning and return to New Zealand
104817 2019-04-21 00:00:00Z Music

Norah Jones’s new beginning and return to New Zeal…

by Russell Baillie

The jazz songstress is staying inspired by writing with others.

Read more
Bill Ralston: Only fundamentalist Christians should be hurt by Israel Folau
104814 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Social issues

Bill Ralston: Only fundamentalist Christians shoul…

by Bill Ralston

Israel Folau’s social-media post might condemn the Wallabies to Rugby World Cup hell, but the rest of us should ignore him.

Read more
What happens next with the Mueller report?
104863 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z World

What happens next with the Mueller report?

by Noted

Did Trump “corrupt” with intent?

Read more
The Heart Dances: Lifting the lid on the culture clash behind ‘The Piano’ ballet
104740 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Movies

The Heart Dances: Lifting the lid on the culture c…

by Russell Baillie

Documentary offers an intriguing look at the clash of artistic sensibilities behind adapting The Piano into a ballet.

Read more
How this remarkable native insect is being saved
104836 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Planet

How this remarkable native insect is being saved

by Jenny Nicholls

Principles of bird conservation are helping to save another remarkable native you’ve never heard of.

Read more
Environment Ministry 'unashamedly proud' of bleak report's honesty
104868 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Planet

Environment Ministry 'unashamedly proud' of bleak…

by RNZ

The Secretary for the Environment Vicky Robertson said she was proud of the report's honesty and it was an important stocktake for the country.

Read more
The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke than demonic
104712 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Television

The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke…

by Diana Wichtel

Diana Wichtel reviews a new American TV series based on the hit Kiwi comedy.

Read more
Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gender and identity
104230 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Books

Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gend…

by Brigid Feehan

In her latest novel, Julie Cohen traces the parallel male and female lives of a single character.

Read more