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.
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.
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