Vincent O'Malley is a New Zealand historian who, over the last 20 years, has been focusing on how Māori and Pākehā have been getting along. His research has led not just to a PhD from Victoria University but also to articles in scholarly journals, blogs, and a series of influential books. The latest of those is The Great War for New Zealand, which has just been launched. In this book, Vincent presents a compelling case for New Zealanders to recognise the huge consequences of the invasion of the Waikato by Crown forces in 1863. That, he argues, has shaped New Zealand history in ways that too few of us have understood — and too many of us have been ignoring. Here he talks with Dale about his background, his work and his concerns.
Vincent, tēnā koe. Let’s start, please, with you telling us something about the O’Malleys and about your childhood. Your schooling, too.
I grew up in a working-class Irish Catholic family in Christchurch. A state house kid in a large family. The ninth of nine children. We were part of the Irish Catholic community down there. My father worked at the Addington railway workshops and my mother was a cleaner. I’m the one from the family who’s gone off into a different world through becoming a historian, which is not something I could’ve imagined as a child.
We lived in Riccarton so I went to Ilam Primary School and Kirkwood Intermediate, and then high school at St Thomas of Canterbury College. There I had a really good history teacher, although he was of the view that nothing interesting ever happened in New Zealand. And he refused to teach us New Zealand history.
So we did pretty much nothing but European history — like the English civil war and the Russian revolution. Which I really loved. And, after that at university, I enrolled in a number of European history courses and continued to be unaware of New Zealand’s story. It was only when I was looking for a filler course in my degree that I came across our own history. So I did that course — and it blew me away. I haven’t looked back since. The notion that nothing happened here, and that it was all very dull, couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Irish Catholic community that you’ve been part of know all about being maligned. Like Māori, they’ve had more than their fair share of being put down, haven’t they? Especially in the early days.
Yes, they have. Actually, a huge number of the British troops who fought in the Waikato War were Irish. Probably at least a third of them. They were ambivalent about what they were being asked to do — fighting a war of conquest for New Zealand settlers.
I guess that some of them could see parallels with the history of their own country where there’d been invasions, land confiscations and so on. In fact, the Irish blueprint was really something that was rolled out in New Zealand where you have this programme of invasion and confiscation that go hand in hand.
Even some of the legislation that was used in New Zealand, like the Suppression of Rebellion Act 1863, is taken word for word from legislation that’s used in respect of Ireland and the so-called rebellions that took place there. So there are these interesting connections when you take a look.
And what about the arrival of the O’Malleys?
The earliest came out from Ireland to Christchurch in the early 1860s. That was the point at which the Canterbury province dropped its longstanding opposition to immigration of Irish Catholics and provided assisted passages for them. So my ancestors came out as part of the first wave of assisted migrants to Christchurch and they lived in the Addington area, which was kind of a cultural hub for the Irish Catholics.
How were they viewed when they settled in? Perhaps there was some disdain from the English and from the Scottish Presbyterians?
Of course, there were quite derogatory views of the Irish. There was an infamous newspaper cartoon in the 1860s, in Punch magazine, that compared the Irish with gorillas. On the Victorian racial hierarchy, they were considered very, very low indeed. Those who were brought out to Christchurch at that time were there only because there was a desperate need for labourers and domestic servants and so on.
What about the relationship of those Irish migrants with the tangata whenua?
Well, there are clearly some cultural similarities between Irish and Māori. And there may well have been a certain degree of empathy. In the Waikato War, there was talk, for instance, of Irish gun-running on behalf of the Kīngitanga. And some troops deserted from the British army and went to fight for the Kīngitanga.
But the wider story of the relationship between the Irish and Māori is still waiting to be told. It’s a fascinating subject though. At the same time, I think you’ve got to be careful to avoid romanticising it because the Irish were still part of the wave of colonisers to New Zealand, at the same time that they were victims of those processes in their own country. It’s a complex story.
Now what about your time at university when you got your first real taste of New Zealand history. Obviously somebody inspired you during that New Zealand history paper. Who was that?
One of my very first lecturers was Ann Parsonson — and she was terrific. She’s now a member of the Waitangi Tribunal. Another lecturer I had at the university was Tipene O’Regan. He was a very good person to learn from about the complexities of the relationships between Māori and the Pākehā migrants. And he was another person with the Irish-Māori whakapapa as well.
What should New Zealanders know about our history that most don’t know now?
I think that’s the story of Māori and Pākehā relationships from first contact onward. And one of the aspects that isn’t widely understood is just how much, in the very early years, how entirely reliant Pākehā were on Māori to feed and protect them.
European settlement in New Zealand is entirely founded on Māori willingness to engage with Pākehā, to welcome them to this country and to look after them. That phase lasts for a while into the 19th century until Pākehā became stronger and their numbers became ever larger.
Then it starts to change. Pākehā assert increasing independence and the desire to dominate Māori. And, in the 1860s when the Waikato War erupts, it’s a manifestation of that desire for Pākehā to assert their authority and their dominance over the country. That’s a story that I think people need to know about.
As you’ve come to grips with that and other significant New Zealand stories, no doubt you’ve been influence by a number of other historians.
A couple come straight to mind. One is James Belich. His various works, including his book on the New Zealand Wars, have been hugely influential. Jamie has a gift for getting straight to the heart of the matter. Another one is Alan Ward who wrote A Show of Justice in 1973. To me, that’s one of the best works of New Zealand history that’s ever been written. It’s a landmark book in the way it talked about Māori and Pākehā relationships in the 19th century.
Then there’s Michael King’s work. His biography of Te Puea has been a really useful work for my research on the Waikato War. Michael’s background was in journalism and I guess that’s why he had that gift of being able to communicate very clearly.
Over the years I’ve tried to de-clutter my own style, write more simply, and with more of a sense of the audience you want to reach. And they are general readers — people who might not have any prior knowledge of the topic but have the ability to engage with what you’re writing. You want it to be accessible. You want to make it a basis for conversations. But if it’s convoluted, that won’t happen.
In the course of your research and perhaps particularly when you’ve been working on Treaty claims, I imagine you’ve been moved by the stories you’ve heard from the old people, the kaumātua and kuia. And you’ve seen the tears flow at the final reading of their settlements.
Yes, it’s incredibly moving. Some people focus on the settlement as a source of commercial redress. But there’s an element of catharsis too. That’s important in starting the healing process. And, when the settlements are signed, you can see just how moving it is. And it’s also a reminder that those kuia and kaumātua have carried that history and those grievances over many years.
For me, it’s a privilege to be part of this process and to engage with these wonderful people. And what always amazes me is the good grace and patience and welcome that you receive from iwi around the country. I’ve learned so much from these people. It’s something I could never have envisaged when I was a little Irish Catholic kid growing up in the 1970s. It’s another world. And it’s a remarkable experience and journey to be part of.
I suspect that some of your Pākehā connections have been surprised or intrigued by your interest in this side of New Zealand.
Yes, I suppose so. For some family and friends back in Christchurch, this is something that’s sort of foreign to them. Having said that, Māori have married into the family. So there are those connections. But, when I was growing up, the last thing that anybody could’ve imagined is that I’d enter this world of history and have these everyday encounters in te ao Māori.
Reo Māori ? Have you made an effort to go along that path?
He iti noa iho. I’ve tried over many times — and I’ve got a sort of basic ability. I can read enough to spot where there’s something significant enough to be worth translating. It’s something I’m trying to work on. It’s something I need to do. But it’s always a challenge finding the time.
With your most recent book, The Great War for New Zealand, you’re carrying on with your efforts to help New Zealanders understand our country’s story. And a good deal of that understanding is coming from all the research that’s being done in the course of the Waitangi Tribunal claims, isn’t it?
That’s true. That process is really the coalface of New Zealand’s history, and everyday people are making amazing findings about what happened within particular areas and to particular iwi and hapū. But, beyond the claimant community and a bunch of lawyers and the Tribunal, very few people hear those stories. They’re not widely known or understood. But it’s really important that we get those stories out there.
Our governments have done a pretty bad job of that over the years. And so I’ve spent a lot of time, nights and weekends after the day job, trying to convert this stuff into a format that’s accessible to a wider audience. Through books or articles in scholarly journals. And a blog that I’ve set up and that’s attracting a lot of school kids.
My impression is that one area where there’s an especially bad job being done is in our schools because so few of our kids are learning New Zealand history.
One of the problems is that history as a subject is only introduced in Year 11. And then probably fewer than one in five kids chooses history as an option. And, of that number, probably less than half do New Zealand history.
In other words, you’ve got 90 percent of our kids leaving school without any real exposure to New Zealand history. So it needs to come earlier. Probably in Years 9 and 10. Possibly as part of the social studies curriculum.
I understand the argument about the importance of schools and teachers having autonomy. But these subjects could be taught without sacrificing local autonomy. If we’re looking at stories about the Treaty, about the New Zealand Wars and so on, you can find local examples of that in just about every community.
Even, for example, in the South Island, with the Parihaka prisoners who were taken to Christchurch, Hokitika and Dunedin. There are local stories throughout the land that really resonate. To me, it’s critically important that our young people have access to these. We saw from the petition from the young wāhine from Ōtorohanga College that students are keen to be taught this stuff. When they do get exposure to it, they’re surprised and shocked by what they come across.
Let’s focus now on the book that’s consumed so much of your energy. It’s The Great War for New Zealand. And it’s clear that you believe that war in 1863–64 has played a huge part in shaping New Zealand society.
Well, I argue in the book that the Waikato War was the decisive war in New Zealand’s history. I’m not arguing that World War One or Gallipoli aren’t important. Of course they are. And of course they should be commemorated and remembered. But my argument is that the Waikato conflict had more profound influences on the long-term history of New Zealand.
It marked the point at which the North Island and Auckland started to become dominant over the south. And it marked the start of a period that lasted for at least a century when Māori were completely marginalised and the Treaty was basically thrown out the window. So, from the 1860s through to at least the 1970s, you’ve got massive and indiscriminate land confiscations and the long search for justice that follows from that.
It’s also important, not just in New Zealand terms, but in world terms. At one point in the 1860s, there were more British troops in New Zealand than there were almost anywhere else in the empire outside India. So, it’s not just a local event. It’s an event of world scale. And it’s not widely appreciated.
What are you hoping the book will do about that?
I hope the book helps to ignite a conversation and a debate about the ways in which we acknowledge and recognise all the wars fought within Aotearoa. And not just the Waikato War, although that’s the focus of my work here.
I hope it also serves as a reminder of the need to recognise and protect the actual battle sites because a number of them are in pretty dire condition. If this was an American Civil War site, it would have gold-plated protection. There’d be museums and all kinds of facilities.
But, here, you could drive by many of these sites and not even be aware of them. They’re not even signposted. In fact, some have roads running through the middle of them. That’s how little we care about them. As a nation we could do better than that.
So, I hope that my book might serve as a reminder of why these sites matter and why we need to protect them. But, to me, getting this conversation going is really important. As I say in the book: Without dialogue, you can’t have reconciliation.
One aspect of the Treaty claims process is that it just involves the Crown and iwi. Non-Māori are kind of left out of that. But to have a genuine reconciliation, there needs to be not only a Crown-Iwi process, but one that engages other New Zealanders as well. And Pākehā need to take some time to learn a little bit about the history of their land. Then we can move forward together as a nation.
There was, as you explain in your book, all this massive land confiscation. Māori aren’t expecting Pākehā to get off the land and give it back, are they? But it’s not unreasonable of Māori to assume that Pākehā could be a little more appreciative of what Māori lost in order for Pākehā to advance.
For many Pākehā, this is a sort of troubled history that they’d prefer to forget. Or ignore. But my argument is that acknowledging this history doesn’t require feelings of guilt. It just requires a willingness to recognise the history and its importance. I don’t think that’s a difficult thing for us to be doing as a nation. Iwi have carried these stories for long enough on their own. I think it’s time that others acknowledge the significance of this history.
So do I. I’ve been kind of hoping that, with a better understanding of the history, perhaps Pākehā who haven’t had much contact with tangata whenua over the years might be more supportive of Māori. Do you think there’s a potential for that?
I hope so. For many Pākehā, not understanding the history makes it difficult to understand the contemporary world. Māori poverty, for instance, is difficult to understand if you don’t know the historical context.
But, for example, when you look at the Tainui story, you can see that Waikato Māori were basically the lifeblood of the New Zealand economy before the 1860s. Settlers in Auckland recognised that, without Tainui feeding them, they would’ve starved. They were building up a tremendously rich economy there. Which was taken away, virtually overnight, with the invasion of 1863.
Not only was the land confiscated but all of their resources were destroyed or pillaged. Including, not just in the Waikato but in the south Auckland area as well. You have a very large Tainui population around Māngere and beyond. And many of their horses were stolen by settlers. Their lands taken. Buildings ransacked and pillaged.
That thriving economy was destroyed overnight and thousands and thousands of Māori were rendered landless. And that has a legacy that lasts over many, many generations and it’s reflected today. I think people need to be aware of that.
And I think the other aspect that people need to be aware of, is just how small the settlement has been in comparison with what was lost. In the Waikato Raupatu Claims Settlement Act 1995, it says the lands that were confiscated were valued in 1995 at $12 billion dollars. And the value of the settlement? That was $170 million dollars. That’s 1.4 percent.
So Māori aren’t receiving anything like 100 percent compensation for what they lost. They aren’t. In this case, it’s less than two percent. And that’s not unusual. That’s fairly typical for iwi around the country. And that’s something that would surprise many Pākehā because they don’t have exposure to this information. They don’t know the history. They don’t know these stories.
See here for an extract from Vincent's book The Great War for New Zealand.