Moana Jackson is a Wellington-based lawyer with a Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Porou whakapapa.
For many years he has been one of the country’s leading thinkers, especially on the subject of the relationship between Māori and the Crown.
So he’s not easily won over by the Crown’s recent undertaking to “commemorate” the 19th century wars when it wrested so much land from Māori and assumed a sovereignty that was never agreed.
History always promises opportunities for truth. The debate generated by the petition from students of Otorohanga College to have the wars of the 19th century commemorated has led to the possibility of one such moment. The Crown announcement that a day will be set aside for commemoration appeared to indicate that the moment might be grasped, but unfortunately, that may not be the case.
The announcement noted the day would be a chance for “retelling of new histories that we have not heard before”. Yet the histories are not new to most Māori. The costs and consequences of the Crown decision to wage war against iwi and hapū have been a living history for generations.
The fact that there will, at last, be some other commemoration is welcome. But how will the wars actually be remembered?
Will there be an honest accounting of their brutality? And will there be any questioning of the power and wealth which the Crown acquired because of them — and which many Pākehā now take for granted?
Or will there simply be a revisionist and incomplete accounting that leaves the current power structures unchanged and unchallenged? What (or whose) history will the commemorations represent?
The history of war is never a simple remembering, because its truth always jostles uneasily with what people think about themselves and their past. This is especially the case in the wars of colonisation because they were merely the most extreme expression of the violence needed to take over the lands, lives, and power of others.
Colonisation is an inherently brutal process and, in New Zealand, warfare was an inevitable part of the colonisers’ need to establish their power in a land where they had never had any before. It was the raw acting out of a colonising will to dispossess — an unwarranted assault against innocents whose only offence was wanting to defend their homes.
In the Māori remembering of those wars, it is that defence of home which gives context to the never forgotten rape and aggression of every assault and every whim of the Crown’s aggressive intent. It is the love of home which also gives meaning to the defence as both the expression and protection of tino rangatiratanga. It is found in a remembering in the land that still calls if people care to listen.
At Parihaka, it floats in the mist when it hangs low and hides the face of the maunga Taranaki, which the people there love so well. It sounds in the waiata which they still sing, and in the soft tapping of their poi or the steady beating of their drums. Each one remembers the promise of Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi to cherish peace, while never forgetting that being peaceful in the face of invasion was a noble act of resistance.
Not far away, near Tauranga Ika, the remembering lies in what is now a quiet field and the terror-filled stories of playing children cut down by the colonisers’ guns and sabres. Wi Te Tau Huata, who had been a chaplain in the Māori Battalion and knew the dread of war, once called that place “he whenua pōuri”: the land still wracked with grief because of what was done there. The field is now covered in soft grass, and the past has been furrowed deep in the land with each new planting. But the histories remain.
The same sad honesty and unequivocal defiance is found in other stories too.
In Whakatōhea, the people do not flinch from the hostility of the wars, nor from the reality that they fought for the mana which they had been entrusted to hold for their mokopuna.
The original text on the memorial they erected at Te Tarata did not speak of someone else’s nation building but of the stark facts of what happened there: “In memory to the 45 Ngāti Ira and others who were tragically slaughtered by cannon, the blade of the sword in the only cavalry charge in Aotearoa under the direct punitive scorched earth policy of the Crown during its raupatu and confiscation in October 1865.”
The painful courage of that honesty is now commemorated in nine pou embedded deep in the earth, as if they are drawing the stories up into the light.
Yet such stories are a recapturing of truth as much as a statement of record. For, once the wars had been fought, and written history replaced experience as the vehicle for understanding them, the colonisers tried to silence whatever iwi and hapū knew. Their causes and costs became a mere footnote in a story about building the new New Zealand nation and the new Kiwi identity. It did not suit the colonisers’ interests to question the unjustness of the wars, or the grievances they caused to iwi and hapū in terms of human suffering and the confiscation of millions of acres of land.
It suited them even less to question the overarching grievance of colonisation because to do so would have questioned the legitimacy (and the ethics) of both the wars and their claim to power.
Instead, truth and history were collapsed into a self-proclaimed innocence in which the takeover of the Māori world eventually became a takeover of historical memory. As a result, a strange silence fell over the wars, which clouded the truth like the smoke that had long faded over the battlefields.
Sometimes that silencing is described as a “social amnesia”, in which the past has slipped from the mind in the kind of almost accidental and blameless forgetting that occurs with the passage of time.
However, the wars never just wilted away as if by chance or a simple forgetting in the haze of long ago.
Like the other great misremembering, in which the Treaty of Waitangi is characterised as a voluntary giving up of iwi and hapū authority to the Crown, the stories of the war were consciously redefined in a way which flew in the face of Māori political and social realities.
Ceding mana or sovereignty in a treaty was legally and culturally incomprehensible in Māori terms — and the stories that eventually became the dominant narrative about the wars were similarly at odds with every belief iwi and hapū ever had about their authority and the grounds upon which they would take up arms to defend it.
There was no amnesia at play but a deliberate misremembering and renaming.
The renaming began with the “Māori Wars”, as if Māori were the belligerents and the colonisers were the aggrieved. Māori were described as “rebels” or mocked on memorials to those who upheld “law and order” against the forces of “fanaticism and barbarism”. The fanatics and barbarians were the “non-friendly” Māori who opposed the Crown, of course, and the “law and order” was the authority the Crown wished to impose by destroying the law and order implicit in tino rangatiratanga.
The term “land wars” then became popular, which unwittingly recognised that the taking of land was fundamental to the taking of power. However, it simplified the conflicts into the colonisers struggle to become “settlers” without acknowledging that in settling the land they were unsettling the people to whom it belonged.
But even the most persistent renaming could not entirely remove the reminders of what had been done, because the descendants of those who had been slaughtered were too close at hand. Renaming the past is best done when no one is around who lived the truth and most suffered its consequences.
Trying out the new Kiwi identity was thus a wayward and uncertain affair that always seemed caught between the cultural cringe of looking back to England as home and the nagging cringe of knowing what had happened here in someone else’s home.
But with the invasion of Gallipoli in 1915, a morbid ANZAC fantasy provided a distant and safer source of identity. The sacrifice of a far-away battle became a sad but more comforting expression of “Kiwi-ness” which was different from Englishness and unencumbered by the fatal proximity of the wars fought here. Gallipoli, of course, became a misremembering too, but its obsessive romanticism further silenced what had been done to Māori.
It is unfortunate that the recent commemoration discussions are based on the same misremembering. Their violence is less easily marginalised now because our people are more open to sharing the experience of a great wrong and less willing to accept the pulp fiction of those who committed the wrong. However, while the Crown now acknowledges and “regrets” the wars, it is also naming them as “the wars which shaped the nation”.
This is just another misremembering because the assaults on iwi and hapū were always an attack on their political authority and thus their sense of independent nationhood. Just as the term “settler” misrepresents the reality of dispossession, so the claim that the wars shaped the new nation ignores the fact that they purposefully misshaped the nations that were already here.
A proper commemoration of the wars means acknowledging all those different realities and accepting that they were neither the “Māori Wars” nor the “Land Wars” nor even “the wars that shaped the nation”.
As some have noted, they were “sovereignty wars”, which more aptly recognises them as colonising wars to take power. To properly name them in that way is recognition that, in the end, any remembering of the pity of war is necessarily a political and historical act as well as a deeply human one. It requires an honest and even moral reckoning with the past, and a context which explains why certain things happened, and the consequences which flowed from them.
Because colonisation is the context, then dealing with the wars must also be part of dealing with all that it has done, including the constitutional and political power structures which it imposed. If a commemoration merely expresses regret for the painful wrong of the wars without having the courage to address those structures through a process of constitutional transformation, it is not a commemoration at all. It will simply be a deceit, rather like a burglar regretting the wrong but keeping the spoils.
It will not be easy to find that more honest commemoration, because historical truth can be discomfiting and seem impossible to change. It may even raise concerns about waking up dangerous sleeping dogs, but because the wars have never slept in the collective Māori consciousness, there is a greater risk in not addressing the need for a just remembering that seeks conciliation and an easing of the fretful reminders of a land that is not yet properly healed.
The Treaty held out an ineffable hope for such conciliation — and the memory of all those who suffered in the wars certainly deserves nothing less.
Only a commemoration which honourably remembers the past and paves the way to dealing with all that it has wrought can help us achieve that longed-for goal. Without it, the country will have forfeited this chance for truth in a history that is still with us.