Remembering the wars that never ended

The New Zealand Wars were fought over a generation from 1845 until the early 1870s. Despite the tendency to pin their closing curtain on the last pot-shots fired after the fleeing terror leader Te Kooti A Rikirangi Te Turuki in 1872, reality was not so sharp.

The cover of my next book.

The cover of my latest book on the New Zealand Wars.

New Zealand of the early 1870s was in a state of turbulent peace. The war in the Waikato of 1863-64 had been a sharp British victory against the Waikato/King Country from a military perspective – but had not been pursued to a final conclusion. The reasons were largely political and economic. Wars were expensive. In order to attack and defeat around 2000 Maori toa (warriors), the British had deployed 10,000 men of their best regiments, gunboats, artillery, naval forces and marines. From the perspective of the Imperial government in London, New Zealand was a sideline. By late 1864 they had taken the declared territory. Maori were unwilling to continue fighting; and even at the height of their Imperial power, the British did not fight wars of annihilation. And so both peoples stood aside.

But they were not at peace, and that was as true in the early 1870s as it had been a decade earlier – even though the separate brush-fire wars of Te Kooti and Titokowaru had essentially ended by then. That was why Matamata resident Josiah Firth built a concrete tower on his property. Today, we know the wars were over. At the time, Firth didn’t.

What happened? My take on it is that Maori switched the focus of combat from the battlefield to the courts and parliament. The drive was led by Ngati Kahungunu, the people of Heretaunga (Hawke’s Bay). It was warfare of a different kind; an acknowledgement that the colony was there to stay – but that there were still ways of resisting the intrusion. That left the King Country as a semi-independent state; but the government resolved that too. By the early 1880s, key King Country leaders, including  Tawhiao, were prepared to talk peace. But the real enforcement of it did not come until later in the 1880s, when the Main Trunk Line was quite deliberately pushed through the King Country.

I first published that interpretation in 2006, and you can read my latest discussion of it in The New Zealand Wars: A Brief History. Available now.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Announcing my next book on the New Zealand Wars

I’m pleased to announce my first title for 2014. It’s being published by Libro International on 29 July. Here’s their media release. I’m quite excited, and I hope you will be too.

The cover of my next book.

The cover of my next book.

The New Zealand Wars – a brief history tells the tale (briefly!) of the thirty years of sporadic fighting that marked New Zealand’s mid-nineteenth century.  Two of these wars played out at the same time – and with much the same technologies – as the US Civil War being fought on the other side of the Pacific.

It’s an era that had had its share of controversy and its share of myth-making. Late twentieth century historians reversed the way the wars had traditionally been seen. But were they right? And what was the actual story – in brief – behind the dramatic events of the day?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

New Zealand and the American Declaration of Independence

I am often intrigued by the unlikely ways history has conspired to make the world we know today – the connections, often unlikely, that link the world.

John Trumbull's painting, of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

John Trumbull’s well known painting of the authors of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Take the US Declaration of Independence, for instance. I figure that it was thanks to a combination of this document and the fact that too many Englishmen were caught poaching that we have Australia and New Zealand as we know them today.

Let me explain. The British lost the War of Independence – and with it, one jewel in their Imperial crown, America. It had a significant ripple effect – and in ways nobody could have predicted. You see, Britain didn’t have a state prison system as such. After 1717, most poor criminals who weren’t hanged were banished to America. By 1776 some 40,000 had been bundled off across the Atlantic, where they were usually put to work as labourers.  That door closed with the revolution – just at the moment when, as far as anybody in Whitehall could tell, places to exile petty criminals were needed more than ever.

Pickpocket in action. Picture by Thomas Rowlandson, from his 1820 book Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders. British Library, public domain.

Pickpocket in action. Picture by Thomas Rowlandson, from his ‘Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders’ (1820). British Library, public domain.

The problem was that the American Revolution came just as Britain also fell into the Industrial Revolution. That brought social upheaval on unprecedented scale. Authorities responded by tightening punishments on those dispossessed by the change, who had been reduced as a result to petty crime. But there were a lot of them, and by the early 1780s there was nowhere to put them, except the rotting prison hulks anchored around Britain’s harbours. Home Secretary Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney, summed it up. These places were so crowded that ‘the greatest danger is to be apprehended, not only from their escape, but from infectious distempers, which may hourly be expected to break out amongst them.’

The prospect that they might also become a focus for uprising was probably not lost on authorities. There was only one answer; and at the end of August 1786, Sydney ordered the Admiralty to get moving on a scheme to set up a new prison colony on the other side of the world in Botany Bay, on the south-eastern coast of Australia.  The first fleet of eleven ships, led by HMS Sirius, left Portsmouth in May 1787.

Botany Bay, New South Wales, around 1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore, collections of the State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public domain.

Botany Bay, New South Wales, around 1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore, collections of the State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public domain.

The prison colony at Botany Bay soon expanded; other prisons were set up – all with the aim of becoming nuclei of proper settlements. And they began leaking. Prisoners who had no idea where they were took to small boats, thinking they might reach Tahiti – or home. Actually, many ended up in New Zealand, where there was virtually no European presence at the time. Others went across on ships – men given their parole who found work on sealers and whalers. All lived riotously, and they soon gave New Zealand a repute for wild lawlessness.

New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Maori, were disgusted with the behaviours they saw playing out before them – and complained, on occasion, to authorities in Sydney.

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

It was largely to curb this bad-boy behaviour by British subjects who were out of reach of the law that the British finally angled towards setting up a Crown colony, formally, in the late 1830s. But there was no money available, and prevailing mood in the Colonial Office was tempered by the Church Missionary Society. A colony, the Colonial Office insisted, could only be set up with free agreement of Maori.

The Treaty of Waitangi followed – a three-clause document hastily written and signed for the first time at Waitangi in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands in February 1840. Today it is regarded as New Zealand’s founding document, much as the US uphold the Declaration of Independence. And – by the path laid out here – likely wouldn’t have happened if the American colonies hadn’t decided to do something about the problems they were having with the British.

History, as I say, has some funny connections. Do you ever think about the way events conspire to connect – and create the world we know today?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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Remembering Jutland – and a double family connection

It is 98 years, this weekend, since the Battle of Jutland – the only fleet action of the First World War. My great uncle – H. C. Wright – was in the thick of it, on board the super-dreadnought HMS Orion.

The battle was fought over a hectic afternoon and night on 31 May – 1 June 1916; the last shots came as the sky turned grey with the loom of dawn, and a British destroyer torpedoed and sank a German battleship.

HMS Orion during the First World War. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

HMS Orion during the First World War. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

Uncle Bert was 19 years of age, serving with the Royal Marines. Like most Marines he was assigned a place in fire-control, one of thirty-odd people in the forward transmitting station, the link between the fire control director in the foretop and the Dumaresq plotter and Dreyer Fire Control Table. Between them, these mechanical computers produced a firing solution – all with 1900-era clockwork tech. The Dreyer FCT didn’t quite work in real time, but it was an astonishing machine.

Uncle Bert couldn’t see anything down in the depths of the ship behind 12 inches of armour. For him the battle was lit by the yellow-white glow of electric lamps and consisted of enemy bearings shouted from above via his Graham Pattern 2463 Navyphone, duly passed on to the half-dozen Dreyer operators – all punctuated by the thud and rumble of the ship’s ten 13.5-inch guns, which discharged 51 rounds during the battle.

The fleets only came to blows briefly, but it was a hands-down British victory. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commanding the British Grand Fleet, out-manoeuvered the Germans twice and was only prevented from re-engaging next morning because of disastrous reporting failures by his scouting cruisers. But it didn’t matter in the longer run because the Germans ran for home – and on the grey  morning of 1 June, the British had total possession of the North Sea.

Sir John Jellicoe, as Governor-General of New Zealand, picnicking on Ninety Mile Beach in January 1924. Northwood, Arthur James, 1880-1949. Lord Jellicoe picnicking at 90 Mile Beach. Northwood brothers :Photographs of Northland. Ref: 1/1-006355-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Sir John Jellicoe, victor of Jutland, picnicking on New Zealand’s Ninety Mile Beach in January 1924. Photo: Northwood, Arthur James, 1880-1949. Lord Jellicoe picnicking at 90 Mile Beach. Northwood brothers :Photographs of Northland. Ref: 1/1-006355-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

That was what counted. Jellicoe’s priority wasn’t sinking enemy ships, it was keeping control of those waters – which he did, and without major damage to his fleet. It was a masterful effort.

Unfortunately the general public had been conditioned to expect a second Trafalgar – to them, only the annihilation of the German High Seas Fleet counted as victory. Incredibly, despite having won the battle in every practical sense, Jellicoe found himself under a cloud and was soon ‘booted upwards’ to become First Sea Lord, while the dashing and popular Admiral Sir David Beatty took over command at sea.

The other family connection to the battle? My wife’s grandmother worked for Jellicoe when he came to New Zealand as Governor General after the war. He was, by the family account, a very kind man – modest, quiet, caring. In some ways it was curious that someone of his stature should come half way around the world to a government position. But from the British viewpoint it got him out of the way – this man who was still being blamed, even in the glow of Allied victory, for not giving Britain its second Trafalgar.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

It’s true. New Zealand Moa once flew. Cool.

The latest science suggests that the Moa, New Zealand’s giant and extinct flightless bird, may not always have been flightless.

A conjectural picture of a Moa drowning in a swamp by early New Zealand settler Walter Mantell - son of the man who first discovered the Iguanadon, in England. Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant (Hon), 1820-1895. [Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant] 1820-1895 :Moa in a swamp. [1875-1900]. Ref: C-107-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.  From the collection of the New Zealand National Library,

A conjectural picture of a Moa drowning in a swamp by early New Zealand settler Walter Mantell – son of the man who first discovered the Iguanadon, in England. Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant (Hon), 1820-1895. [Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant] 1820-1895 :Moa in a swamp. [1875-1900]. Ref: C-107-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. From the collection of the New Zealand National Library,

Yup, Moa once flew. Setting aside the prospects of what might happen to anybody caught underneath one of these giant ratites at the moment when they decided to release one of their commensurately plus-sized dollops of Moa-guano , it also raises the question about what they might have been called. Flymo, perhaps?

Moa died out very soon after humans arrived in New Zealand. We’re lucky enough to have specimens of moa tissue – mummified skin and feathers, found in dry caves. I still recall being able to examine some of these, close up, behind the scenes at the Otago Museum. A great privelige. Anyway, the latest DNA analysis suggests the likely closest relative, which definitely still flies, is the South American tinamou.

We’ve already discovered that Kiwi probably also flew – in fact, may well have flown here after New Zealand broke away from Gondwanaland, near the end of the Cretaceous period.

Both they and moa lost the power of flight, once here, because there were no predators – no need to keep flying, in fact. Along the way, moa split into several distinct species. Not as many as we once thought; they seem to have also had extreme dimorphism – what settler-age analysts thought were separate species, we now know, were actually males and females of the same species.

It’s pretty cool. We’re learning more and more about these extinct creatures every year. And it is also, I think, time to put one issue to rest. The debate over whether they died out for natural reasons – or because they were hunted to extinction.

The actual answer is that they were hunted to extinction. And fairly quickly. The archaeological evidence is extremely clear. New Zealand was the last large land mass in the world reached by humans. They arrived late in the piece from Polynesia – the Cooks and Marqueses islands, mainly – around 1280 AD, probably at the Wairau bar. And a biota that had been largely stable for hundreds of thousands of years suddenly changed.

It was the last great collision between humans and Pliestocene megafauna – and the result was the same in New Zealand as it was elsewhere. Moa, in particular, were unafraid of humans; had no evolved response to them.  And they were slaughtered. Hunting parties would roam the high country, snacking on moa eggs and killing the birds. Often they would partially butcher them on the spot, then carry the choicest cuts downstream to great ovens near the coasts.

All of this is very clear in the archaeological evidence. And the hunters didn’t have to kill the last moa. All they had to do was reduce the population below breeding viability. It didn’t take long. By the fifteenth century at the latest they were largely gone. It is possible that relict populations may have survived a little longer in places like Fijordland, but soon they too were gone.

The fact that this happened has been ideologically difficult to accept; the arguments have raged back and forth, mirroring the way that indigenous populations have been re-invented in post-colonioal vision as greener and more eco-friendly than our own. Which they were, to a large extent. But that doesn’t reduce the clear evidence of an orgy of slash-and-dine in fourteenth century New Zealand. We have to accept the point. Moa died out not because their population was much in decline, not because of sudden climate change – but because they were delicious.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 


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Don’t forget to watch TV this Sunday

The first episode of the four-part history documentary Making New Zealand, for which I was interviewed, will be screening nationally on Prime TV in New Zealand this Sunday, 18 May, at 8.30 pm.

The remaining three parts are showing at the same time next week, the week after and so forth. I don’t know how much of the interview I did will be shown, but we’ll see.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Figuring out when a non-invasion happened

I don’t often discuss some of my historical work on this blog – that’s what my books are for.

But today I thought I’d share a snippet – the arrival of Ngati Kahungunu in Hawke’s Bay. A story usually typified by their arrival at the strongest defensive point in the district, the massive double pa Otatara-Hikurangi.

Close-up of the reconstructed palisades at Otatara, Taradale.

Close-up of the interpretative palisades at Otatara-Hikurangi, above Taradale.

A pa (pronounced ‘paa’ with a long ‘a’, which should be shown with a macron, except the symbol set on this font doesn’t have one) is a protected structure. Over 6000 have been identified from when the age of pa building began around 1500, to its end with the ‘rifle pa’ of the 1860s. They range from look-out posts to large fortresses enclosing villages. Technically, all are field fortifications – wood and earth structures, and Otatara-Hikurangi was a classic ditch-and-bank structure built on a discontinuous scarp.

The pa at Otatara-Hikurangi (pronounced ‘Oh-taa-ta-ra’) was one of the biggest in the Ahuriri district, likely built in the late sixteenth century, sited on the hill above Ahuriri harbour for a reason. You can see everything coming.

Otatara pa with reconstructed elements of palisade, Taradale, Napier. Click to enlarge.

Otatara-Hikurangi pa with reconstructed elements of palisade, Taradale, Napier. This is the upper pa, Hikurangi; the adjacent Otatara pa was quarried out of existence from 1925. Click to enlarge.

The oral record tells of an ‘invasion’ of Hawke’s Bay by Ngati Kahungunu, who had been living at Mahia, a peninsula 100 km distant. They arrived under their rangitira (chief) Taraia to settle. Although portrayed as an ‘invasion’ by settler-era ethnographers, it was more a process of heke (migration) followed by settlement and intermarriage with Ngati Mamoe and other inhabitants of Ahuriri and neighbouring Heretaunga.

The thing is, nobody knows when this happened. Maori oral tradition is geared to preserve – accurately – details important to Maori. From it they can determine the relationships required to identify land right and status, among other things.

That did not suit scholars of western tradition,who were looking for dates. Such as when Taraia arrived. That was one thing the tradition did not supply, and early western guesses – based in part on genealogies – put the ‘invasion’ anywhere from 1570 to 1650.

View from Otatara looking northeast. Now Napier city.

View from Otatara-Hikurangi looking northeast. Now Napier city.

Archaeological work has helped, and although little has been done directly on Otara-Hikurangi, other areas have been examined. But even then, carbon dating carries built-in uncertainty which doesn’t much narrow the date of Taraia’s arrival. But I think it’s possible to get a more precise figure – deductively at this stage. I think it’s likely to have been around 1600-1603. Without detailing the calculations I made, the logic runs:

View from Otatara looking southeast - now a wine growing region.

View from Otatara-Hikurangi looking southeast – now a wine growing region. Click to enlarge.

1. My calculations from the genealogical record (using multiple lines) put the heke at 1600-1610.
2. Oral tradition makes clear Ngati Kahungunu moved for resource reasons; they were jammed into the Mahia region after moving from East Cape.
3. Those resources were constrained in 1601 by a double whammy; an earthquake dislocated local mussel beds, and fallout from a well documented volcanic eruption in Chile that year disrupted the growing season.
4. These pressures likely prompted the disputes over resources, documented in the oral record, that prompted the move to Ahuriri. Exactly when is unclear, but my estimate is that it must have been within a year or two.

The knock-on effects were significant – as I explained in my book Old South (Penguin 2009)the intrusion by Ngati Kahungunu pushed Rangitane south, with knock-on results that rippled through New Zealand into the South Island. The echoes helped push southern Maori together, a process still under way in the mid-eighteenth century when James Cook turned up and New Zealand’s history changed forever.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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Does writing military history mean I must have read war comics?

twopeoplesIt’s coming up for eight years since my main book on the New Zealand Wars, Two Peoples, One Land, was published. It’s a book about relationships between colonists and colonised, and I’m still finding thoughts from readers and reviewers about it.

In the latest – published a while back, but new to me, a New Zealand arts commentator said he had the impression I was drawn into military history through a childhood spent reading war comics.

Me, on the Bridge over the River Kwai.

Me, on the Bridge over the River Kwai – yes, THAT bridge. Neither a Commando comic nor Alec Guiness in sight.

Two Peoples isn’t really a military history, but picture the scene! Wright, the malleable child, so shallow he was helplessly conditioned into a life of military enthusiasm by stupid one-dimensional caricatures? Donnerwetter!

Of course I’d prefer people asked me for the facts instead of inventing ideas about me that fit their own prejudices.What did I actually read during my childhood? Physics texts. I kid you not. I’ve never actually read any war comics.  Though I did write a book once on the psychology of military heroism, the antithesis of schoolboy glorification.

heroesI mention all this because it reminded me that when I was a student at Victoria University, the arts faculties were filled with the breathlessly indignant youth of the post-Vietnam, post-Colonial generation, desperate to demonise warfare and any interested in it. Not warfare as it was, but warfare as they imagined it from their position of sanctimonious ignorance and emotyive anger; a shallow, polarised, cartoon caricature of the realities. A polemic that became their truth.

It was, I suppose, how this generation defined themselves – half-educated kids, away from home for the first time, raging at their powerlessness before a world they could neither understand or control. Blucher! And so they pursued their causes with the intolerant zeal of the self-righteous. Any who showed a hint of what they demonised was instantly classified with the whole of their stereotype, whether it was true or not. I suppose most of them grew up and got jobs. Für Sie ist der Krieg vorbei.

I found it curious to see the logic echoed, thirty years on, in the reviewer’s fantasy about the supposed origin of my interests. War comics – blokishness – shallow military enthusiasms. Of course. They all go together.  Essen Stiefel, Fritz!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 


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Essential writing skills: five tricks to clarify your writing

I don’t know about everybody else, but for me one of the problems with the classic ‘bad first draft’ is that the stuff sometimes isn’t in the right order.

MJWright2011Of course, that’s the intent of the first draft – it’s to get the words down on the page. Then, thanks to the miracle of the word processor, they can be reorganised.

On the other hand, it’s better to get something approximating the right order of ideas in the first place. That old adage of the bad first draft being better than no first draft is very true. My take? Try these tricks. You’ll need some paper, pen scissors and sellotape (yes, writing IS a craft :-)).

1. Jot some notes down before writing anything else. Use two pieces of paper. Write the ideas down in any order, as they come to you, on the first. Then look at them, figure out if they work better in a different order, and write them down that way on the second page. Fifteen minutes planning can save hours of revision. You already have your large-scale plan (you do have a plan…don’t you?) – but that works on smaller scale during drafting.

2. Print the draft out. Spread the pages around on the floor. Paper has more area than a monitor – you get to see the whole of your writing, in a block. Skim-read it. Can you see patterns emerging? Do some parts go better in one place than another?

3. Mark the printout in pen-and-ink to give it those directions. Use arrows, stickies, whatever works, to highlight which blocks go where. Or maybe cut the pages up and tape them together in the different order.

4. Carefully carry the taped pages to the computer. Now transfer those amendments to the version on your computer. OK, yes, that might take some time.

5. And now – the final step. Re-style it again. The cut-and-paste swap around usually leaves jagged edges in the text – they’ll need fixing. Then read it again. Does it still make sense?

I find this approach works pretty well for me. Do these methods work for you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

How I ended up on national TV without noticing

The night before last, and all day yesterday, people were telling me I’d been on TV.

MJWright2011They didn’t mean last week’s interview slot on TV3’s breakfast show. This was something else. Apparently I was part of a programme promo. Which, inevitably, I missed, because I don’t actually watch TV. I mean, I really don’t. It’s taken me a decade to discover the Battlestar Galactica re-boot.

The cover of Big IdeasStill, the surprise promo means only one thing. About fifteen months ago I was interviewed, fairly extensively, for a four-part series on New Zealand’s engineering history. I’ve written books on it, one of which - Big Ideas (Random House, 2009) hit the New Zealand best seller charts and stayed there for several months.

I always thought I’d missed the series – after all, as I say, I don’t watch TV. But a few days ago I was advised it’s coming, and now it seems a clip from the interview is part of the national promo.

I really should make a point of watching this one.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014