Remembering the New Zealand Wars

I was rather sorry to see that an Auckland memorial to the New Zealand Wars (1845-1872) was vandalised the other week. Those doing it, according to the reports, were protesting the act of colonial oppression that these wars represented.

And that’s fair enough; the wars were indeed colonial assertions of power, although not quite in the polemic way the protestors imagined. But they were bad enough – and the outcomes, which included confiscations of land, were unjustified. However, to me that still doesn’t justify vandalism against public property today.

Kororareka beach 1838
Kororareka beach in 1838, artwork by Augustus Earle. Earle, Augustus 1793-1838 :Kororadika Beach, Bay of Islands. London, lithographed and published by R. Martin & Co [1838]. Ref: PUBL-0015-06. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23229276
I am fairly familiar with the course of the New Zealand Wars and their historical meanings; I’ve written three books (so far) on those wars and my most technical of them – Two Peoples, One Land (Reed 2006), formed part of the corpus of work that got me elected – on merit of academic scholarship – as a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College in London.

All of the wars – which set the British, colonists and allied Maori on one side against Maori on the other – had slightly different causes in detail but there is no question that the last of the major conflicts, the ‘Waikato’ war of 1863-64, was a war of sovereignty, provoked by the colonial authorities.

These wars were not, however, the final arbiters of colonialism, nor were they pursued to the final end; that was not the way of the British Empire where policy was considerably more dimensional than we often suppose from our perspectives today. All the British required was to push Maori into a position where the real arbiters of colonial power – scale and economic forces – could be applied. That was the cheapest option in an Empire that, basically, was run on the cheap.

The last arbiter, as I have argued in a couple of my books, was not the outcome of the Waikato war but the quite calculated government decision to push the Main Trunk Line through remaining Maori strongholds twenty-odd years later.

Wars, of course, capture imagination in ways that railway lines often do not – well, not quite in the same way – and the Waikato war was mythologised at the time. Maori and colonist had fought, made up, and were now firm friends. That mythology survived for more than a century afterwards – and it is this that was enshrined in the various memorials to the war. The memorial that was damaged by the vandals was built in this context, and the problems with that approach were first explored by historians in the mid-1980s and exposed for what it was; spin by the victors.

Click to buy

But by the same token, history cannot be undone. We have to accept what happened. It is a collective past that cannot be changed  – only understood. And that understanding comes not through asserting ahistorical polemic across physical objects – but through discussion, through research, through putting that past into context of itself, and then through understanding how the journey from then to now unfolded. It is through such perspective and understanding that we can, in turn, better understand matters today.

What’s my solution to the memorial issue? These, too, form part of the history – capturing the way the wars were once seen. Let’s preserve those too, but add interpretation boards beside them to explain the context – showing that these memorials represent the way past generations saw the wars, but it is not how we see them today – and so giving an even deeper understanding of what the wars meant, and how those meanings have changed over the generations.

If you want a quick introduction to the whole thing, my book The New Zealand Wars: a brief history is published by Oratia and you can buy it from the publisher’s online store.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018


5 thoughts on “Remembering the New Zealand Wars

  1. What goes through the minds of vandals is beyond me, Matthew! If I don’t like their viewpoint, does that give me the right to vandalize their home?

    1. Quite true. What concerns me is that the first resort, it seems, is to violence (against property, but it’s the principle here). Surely it’s better to quietly discuss the issues in a civil fashion? Sigh…

  2. I am always sorry when someone resorts to violence or vandalism without exhausting all other options first. And I cannot know if those who did this perpetrated the act on impulse, or as part of some larger grievance. Alas, we will never know.

    I am predisposed to have great sympathy for the Maori. So should any person who opposes the MIGHT MAKES RIGHT approach to living and governing. After all, someone stronger took their lands, liberties, and heritage. But the winning side wasn’t the first to do so, for this has been repeated since the beginning of time. I would like to think we’ve grown beyond this, but I wonder if we are just seeing the wheel turning again.

    It isn’t popular to offer a Christian-based answer, but turning the other cheek is painful, often humiliating, and more than occasionally without external reward. But, at least we know we were true to our principals.

    As you said, Matthew, the victors write the histories. And I can only wonder what those who come a hundred or a thousand years from now will say about us?


    1. Yes, it’s always best to talk – to be reasonable, and to consider the options and issues carefully. Care for others is a virtue, and one so often forgotten in today’s world where anger and violence seem to be the first resort for so many. History offers many thorny issues which resonate today, and the only way forward is to understand and consider them. It’s certainly interesting to speculate how today’s world will be seen from a future perspective – my own take is that it takes at least two generations to get far enough away from issues and vested interests in order to get some sort of perspective on any given period. One can hardly speculate on how today’s views will change over generations and thus become ‘dated’, but the reality of the way history of works is that they will – and it would be great to have a crystal ball that reveals just how the future will view us.

  3. I’m with you. Don’t tear down the few reminders we have of our uncomfortable past – instead add interpretative panels and encourage people to remember these events and the impact they had on our country. Don’t try to airbrush them out of history.

    The recent criticism of and attacks on New Zealand Wars monuments seems to me to largely be inspired by recent events in the United States where some Confederate monuments have been used a rallying points for hate groups and where unsurprisingly the monuments themselves have become a serious point of contention. Many Confederate monuments were erected to counter the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s – and in many communities there is a clear link between the monuments and continuing racial oppression by hate groups today. In that context I can understand why removing the monuments may sometimes be the best action. Thankfully there aren’t rows of torch-wielding racists congregating around our monuments – and I like to think that any that tried would be rightfully put in their place. New Zealand is not the United States. We have our own unique problems that are in need of unique solutions. I believe that we need to continue to encourage more New Zealanders to learn about their own history and that surviving New Zealand Wars monuments can actually help to play a role in that.

Comments are closed.