It’s Taranaki Anniversary Day tomorrow, but what exactly is it celebrating? In this essay about the nature of memory and forgetting, Taranaki writer vivian Hutchinson unpacks the meaning behind the day — and delves deep into his own forgotten family history.
“ . . . some songs were written to remind you you weren’t born to live and lie and die in embers of a cold old fire nobody remembers.”
— from Lankum, “Cold Old Fire” (2014)
I’m really not the best person to give a pep talk about Taranaki Anniversary Day.
There are many years when I’ve looked up from my writing desk in the middle of March and thought: It’s quiet out there. I’ve been completely oblivious to the fact that it is the Anniversary.
I’ve been a self-employed community activist for most of my adult life, and that’s the thing with self-employed people, or the unemployed, or the many people who are working in precarious contract jobs, or existing on zero-hours arrangements in the hospitality industries.
We don’t really have public holidays. That’s for people who have the privilege of a real job, or are earning enough from all these contracts to make ends meet.
For the last 20 years, the main thing that I’m doing on Taranaki Anniversary weekend is cleaning the house and making beds. That’s because the anniversary weekend is almost always on the weekend before WOMAD, our annual festival of world music and dance that is held at the Bowl of Brooklands. And I’ve almost always got a house full of visitors, especially now that I live within a short walking distance of our civic treasure that is Pukekura Park.
But for most people in Taranaki who have jobs, and are not expecting visitors for WOMAD, Taranaki Anniversary is basically a day off. It’s a long weekend. You can sleep in on a Monday morning. You can spend a late day of summer with your family.
Most people would struggle to tell you exactly what this is an anniversary of. But they love the idea of a day off work.
And in a culture where the average working person is putting in many more hours than our parents did in the 1950s and 1960s, a public day off is a very welcome idea indeed.
The thing about Taranaki Anniversary Day is that it is terribly vague as to why it even exists.
Or why it is set for the second Monday in March.
New Zealand got rid of its provinces in 1876, but we’ve hung on to these annual public holidays to celebrate our different regions. There are 12 of them and these various long weekends are still held on different dates depending on where you are around the country.
Our anniversary is generally thought to commemorate the first settlers arriving at New Plymouth. By this we mean the William Bryan, carrying a boatload of immigrants from the New Plymouth Company, and arriving on March 31, 1841. The William Bryan was the first of seven “pioneer” ships that came here between 1841 and 1843.
Some of my own people were part of these earliest settlers, as I have genealogy going back into the Williams family who were miners from Cornwall.
They came out in the Blenheim, which, according to the memorial obelisk at the end of Pioneer Road in Moturoa, was the sixth ship that came at the end of 1842.
But March 31 is not a second Monday in the month, and this is what I mean by keeping things vague and let’s not get in the way of a decent holiday.
But I should point out that our local history in North Taranaki has several dates of important things that happened in March.
If you drive out to Waitara early in the morning on March 17 you might notice a bonfire burning in a farm paddock near the Brixton crossroads. This is the site of what was once Te Kohia Pā, and every year the iwi leaders of Te Ātiawa light this fire to commemorate the first shots fired when the land wars broke out at Waitara in 1860. At that bonfire, you will hear the names read out of the many Māori who died defending these lands during this war.
This fire is the only memorial I know of to those names, and to the hapū from which these defenders came. It is a living act of tribute from a people who are determined not to forget.
March 28 is the date of the another significant battle fought in the establishment of New Plymouth — the Battle of Waireka. This took place just 11 days after those first shots of the Taranaki War were fired at Te Kohia.
The Waireka battle itself became a useful propaganda victory for the new settlers, and yet, to this day, there is still “much discussion and debate” as to what actually took place.
Nevertheless, when it came to celebrating the anniversaries of the first ships that brought settlers to New Plymouth, remembering the Battle of Waireka was often included as part of the commemorations — and veterans were rolled out to have their photographs taken.
All our anniversaries are supposed to be about remembering. We try to remember what happened, and what our intentions were when it happened. But when it comes to the settlement of Taranaki and the establishment of New Plymouth, this opens up a whole can of worms.
If we were telling the truth, then we would have to concede that ours is a province founded on war and confiscation, and on the doubletalk of politicians and land speculators.
And that’s not just my opinion. You can go down to the Puke Ariki Research Centre and read all about it. Chapter and verse. If you are a descendant of these events, it’s a mixed bag. The story of the foundations of this province is not something we can be totally proud of.
So perhaps there’s a definite reason after all about why our anniversary day is kept vague. We can’t let the memory of this sort of history get in the way of having a decent day off.
And so our anniversary becomes a performance of both what we remember, and what we choose to forget.
I’ve been spending a bit of time recently on this question of remembering and forgetting. I’ve come to believe that our province has been shaped as much by our amnesia, as by our memories.
And I’m still discovering the role that this forgetting has also been playing in my own family, and my own life.
I’m starting to understand that amnesia may well be one of the main organising principles of colonisation. A selective forgetting is an important part of how power maintains its privileges.
And, over time, our collective amnesia means that the blood and dishonour and injustice in our history just becomes part of the structural architecture of the next normal.
If our anniversaries were really about remembering, then we should each be able to answer some fairly simple questions — particularly if we are also descendants of the pioneer settlers of our city.
These questions might be:
Why did our people come here to make their home and their communities?
What did it cost for these families to come here?
What was the cost to the people who were already living here?
So as we unfurl our towels and lay out our picnics on the beaches at Ngāmotu or Fitzroy, are these the sort of questions that cross our minds?
I suspect not.
But I can already see that this is starting to change.
In my teenage years in the early 1970s, I began an unusual friendship with the Taranaki kuia Matarena Marjorie Raumati Rau-Kupa. She was a local elder who was also known as Aunty Marj.
She had known my mother’s family over many decades, and, when we met, we had an instant sense of connection. This led to a close interest in what each other was up to, and we stayed good friends for the next 40 years.
In the 1970s, Aunty Marj was one of the few Māori elders supporting the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, and she became a good friend and mentor to many of the early directors.
She had been just as involved in the New Plymouth Library and the Taranaki Museum, and she had a curiosity and a talent for turning up whether people liked it or not. And she’s still here because her large portrait hangs by the stairs as you walk into the entrance of our library building.
Anyway, I was a young Pākehā boy still at high school when our friendship started. It became, for me, an introduction to an entirely different view of what it was to live and belong in this place called Taranaki.
At that time, Aunty Marj was leading a major restoration project out at Parihaka where the locals were turning an old dining room, Te Niho o te Atiawa, into a new meeting space. I’d regularly go out to the pā — which at this time was largely a ghost town — and help her with various projects involved in this restoration, or in hosting people who were visitors to the marae.
My schooling had taught me nothing of the land wars or the confiscations, or of the inspiring stories of non-violent and mass passive resistance led by the Parihaka prophets Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi. So this time at Parihaka was something of an alternative education.
And an interesting thing happened when I started to share some of what I was learning with my mates at school at New Plymouth Boys’ High. I was surprised that quite a few of them just refused to believe me. Some of them told me that I was just getting too carried away with the Parihaka stuff and that “Mrs Rau” was filling my head with some very far-fetched stories.
I remember one response from a school friend who was from a prominent Taranaki farming family — and therefore a direct inheritor of the benefits of the land wars and the confiscations that I was talking about. He said to me: “It can’t have happened, or else we would’ve been told about it already.”
Which, I suppose, had its own circular logic.
It was nearly a decade later, in 1981, that the Parihaka community was preparing to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the soldiers marching on the village of peace.
I decided to seize the opportunity to make sure people would be told about this history. I worked with Aunty Marj, and also Ron Lambert and others from the Taranaki Museum, to put together what amounted to be the first audio-visual presentation of the history of Parihaka.
It’s important to recognise that this was a community initiative, and that it was not commissioned by any academic or civic authority.
We didn’t have access to video resources at a community level, so it was a slide show of historical photographs and drawings with a half-hour commentary recorded by Aunty Marj and myself.
Our narrative had been based on the oral history of Parihaka that Aunty Marj had been presenting in Te Niho o Te Ātiawa, as well as the documentary research of historians such as Dick Scott and Michael King.
The slideshow documentary had its unveiling at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery on October 29, 1981 as part of the Parihaka Centennial Exhibition and Art Auction. The curators seized upon this new resource as a way to quickly explain to people what their exhibition was all about.
The presentation was successful and, as an instrument of our remembering, it has held its value over the last 40 years. It has since been digitised and you can still see it today at Puke Ariki as part of the ongoing Ko Taku Poi Te Manu exhibition on the first floor of the museum. You can also look at it on YouTube.
At that time, back in 1981, I got some funding which enabled me to take the slideshow around all the high schools in Taranaki. In some ways, I was addressing the me of 1971, the same boy who’d sat in his Boys’ High history class wondering why we weren’t being told about these local historical events which had occurred only half an hour from our classroom.
What was interesting for me was the continuing moments of denial of this history that I experienced while doing these presentations. I even heard from a couple of the teachers the same circular logic that had been given to me from my schoolfriend a decade earlier. They told me that if my presentation was actually true, they would already know about it.
One time, I remember being invited to go for a walk in the grounds of St Mary’s Church by one of the elder parishioners, a woman I had known for years — and I was friends with her children.
She wanted to tell me that these Parihaka stories were things that should be left in the past. Actually, she looked me straight in the eye and told me that these things were Māori affairs, and not something that I as a Pākehā should be getting involved with.
So I learned something there. The amnesia is not a mistake. It is not a by-product of something else. It is a living thing and it is a defended space.
And awakening to our history means interrupting the current stories that you might be telling yourself, and interrupting the privileges that come on the back of those stories.
I’m pleased to say that a good deal of this has now started to change. You can’t imagine how big the smile was on my face when my goddaughter came home from school one day whingeing to her parents about how many times she was being told about the story of Parihaka. And I’m pleased to report that she was complaining about New Plymouth Girls’ High.
St Mary’s Church, now called the Taranaki Cathedral, has been on its own journey of awakening and coming to terms with its colonial and military history. It’s reinventing itself as a new icon of peace and reconciliation which is acknowledging its “good, bad, and ugly” past. And it’s doing this in collaboration with Māori.
But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. There are still too many people in Taranaki who know very little about their own local history and how their lives have been shaped by it. And this ignorance continues to have its consequences.
Earlier last month, I was at the small village of Panguru in the Hokianga, attending the unveiling of a statue to honour the extraordinary leader, Dame Whina Cooper, and to commemorate her most famous act of public protest — the 1975 Māori Land March on Parliament.
I had been one of the organisers of the march. By 1975, I’d left school and moved to Auckland to study journalism and take a job in a small inner-city newspaper. It was through this work that I got to meet Whina Cooper.
Meeting Whina was like meeting a force of nature. She was already nearly 80 years old at this stage, and had been a catalyst for social change over several generations. I, on the other hand, was young and very naïve and completely in awe of her. So it was a surprise and honour to be asked to help out with her next project.
She explained to me that this was not a project that was going to focus on historical grievances, however unresolved they might be. Her new group would be protesting about the ongoing alienation of Māori land that was still taking place in the 1970s — through the many reinventions of land-grab legislation like the Rating Act, and the Public Works Act, and the Town and Country Planning Act. Her purpose would be summarised in the cry of “Not one more acre!”
It turned out that I was the only Pākehā on her organising group, which she had called Te Roopu o te Matakite, a title which can be interpreted as “The people who can see ahead”.
The Māori Land March has since come to be regarded as a pivotal moment in modern New Zealand history. But it’s important to point out that the march itself wasn’t just an idea or an event. It was a strategy.
It was a strategy to address the forgetting. And it was a strategy for awakening. The important thing wasn’t the marching in itself, but what the marching hoped to produce in the minds of all New Zealanders.
By walking through the rohe and lands of so many hapū and iwi, and by stopping each night at different marae, we had a strategy that said: “Wake Up! We need to work together and address these issues.”
And by having a sustained walk that took it beyond a one- or two-day media event, it was also a strategy to awaken the Pākehā mind. By the time the march got to Wellington 30 days later, all eyes were on the largely forgotten issue of Māori land. Pākehā were awakened from our organised and defended amnesia. We were awakened from all those fairy tales that told us we had the best race relations in the world, and that all the land rights issues were dead and buried in the past.
Whina had written a song that was to be sung along the progress of the march. The first verse of it goes
Na te kore mohio i haere wehewehe
Noatu ai tatou ara tawhitiwhiti
Haere ana i te roanga
Haere ana i roro i nga taua
Ka whakairo noa tatou
An interpretation of the full song is that it speaks to people who are separated and divided:
All we do is sleep, and the important things are not understood. Te Roopu Matakite is about awakening and listening. Its aspirations are yet to be fulfilled . . . but they would be of benefit to all mankind.
The Matakite song was partly inspired by an old poem, Not Understood, by Thomas Bracken. Bracken was an Irish immigrant to New Zealand in the 1870s who also penned what later became the New Zealand national anthem, God Defend New Zealand.
Not Understood was probably just as well known among the poetry readers of his day. It starts off like this:
Not understood, we move along asunder;
Our paths grow wider as the seasons creep
Along the years; we marvel and we wonder
Why life is life, and then we fall asleep
Not understood, we gather false impressions
And hug them closer as the years go by;
Till virtues often seem to us transgressions;
And thus men rise and fall, and live and die
My interpretation of the full poem is that it is about the amnesia that creeps into our lives and enables us to be unkind to one other. Perhaps Thomas Bracken was anticipating the curtain of forgetting that was already lowering at the time of the land wars.
As Whina was writing her own verses nearly 100 years later, she knew that one of her jobs was to pull that curtain up again and awaken the current generation to the ongoing dispossession of land.
In the end she did much more than that: She unleashed a renaissance.
The statue that was unveiled a few weeks ago at Panguru shows Whina Cooper in one of her most famous poses: starting out on the Māori Land March at Te Hapua in the Far North, while holding the hand of her three-year-old granddaughter Irenee Cooper.
The statue is a magnificent piece of art by Jimi Hills, of Ngāti Porou and Tūhoe. It is modelled on the iconic photograph taken on the first day of the march by Michael Tubberty of the New Zealand Herald.
There were only about 40 marchers there at Te Hapua on that first spring morning of our journey. I’d been travelling around the North Island and campaigning with Whina and her family and supporters for the six months before the march started, but it was almost impossible to gauge the level of real support. Those 40 marchers leaving Te Hapua marae seemed a very modest contribution to a national debate.
But that photo of Whina and her granddaughter taken on the first day became our most significant instrument of awakening.
In effect, Whina was telling everyone who looked at that image: We haven’t gone away. I’m still here. There’s still work to do. And while I’m at it, I’m passing on this kaupapa, this mission, to a new generation.
And by the time the marchers reached Auckland City, there were thousands of us walking over the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
And yes, it achieved an awakening in the New Zealand mind, Māori and Pākehā. For Māori, many of the key land-rights activists met each other or deepened their existing friendships in what was essentially a month-long wānanga of awakening.
And, for us as Pākehā, we now had to definitely rewrite the stories we had been telling ourselves about our past, about race relations, and about the ongoing theft of Māori land.
After the unveiling of the statue and the speeches and songs at Panguru marae, the various dignitaries at the occasion gathered in the dining room for lunch. About a third of the coalition government cabinet had turned up to join in the celebrations on their way to the Waitangi Day commemorations in the Bay of Islands.
After the lunch, a large framed version of that iconic photograph of Whina and her granddaughter was brought out and presented to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. The portrait was handed over by Whina’s granddaughter, now Irene Matila, and the two of them posed and smiled for the cameras.
It dawned on me later just how much this was in itself another intergenerational and iconic moment. It’s been 45 years since the Māori Land March, and Irene is already nearly a decade older than our country’s impressive young leader.
And, with this gift, the Cooper family may well have been saying: We haven’t gone away. There’s still work to do.
Despite my background, you may well be surprised to hear that it took me until my 40s before I started to wake up to the very personal connection I had to our collective amnesia.
I really have no excuse, except to concede that I am as woven into the fabric of this forgetting as much as I have been commenting on it.
In many ways, it is a privilege of Pākehā people not to know our own histories, or even our own family participation in events that have led to historical trauma.
Forget-and-move-on is also a deep part of European culture. It can both be a strategy for survivors, and a smokescreen for victors and perpetrators. The vagueness becomes another way of hiding from the consequences.
These days, I’ve been wondering: if Māori have been lifting up the curtain and going through their own renaissance of remembering and connections and creativity over the last 40 years, then what is it going to look like when the Pākehā population starts to do the same?
I used to be part of hosting a series of gatherings called Heart Politics, which were run for nearly 30 years at the Tauhara Conference and Retreat Centre in Taupō.
They were gatherings of active citizens and their families and were a way in which we could collectively make sense of the changes taking place in our world, and how we could make a creative contribution to community issues.
It was at one of these gatherings in the mid-1990s that I got a wake-up call about my own roots.
We had invited the historian Tony Simpson to speak to us and, at that time, he was working on a new book called The Immigrants. The book looks at what it was like for the 19th-century settlers to New Zealand, the harrowing experiences of the 110-day journey that it took to get here, and what it meant for them to begin a new life in this country.
Tony’s view was that most of the immigrants were fleeing from the economic conditions of Great Britain at that time, and they were wanting to get away from the famine and overcrowding and class hardships that were part of the business-as-usual of Victorian society.
In his speech, Tony argued that the New Zealanders of the 1990s were heading back to the same economic conditions that our ancestors had fled. He was referring to the neoliberal economic reforms that were then in full swing under both Labour and National governments. This was the beginning of the increase of market fundamentalism, precarious employment, housing shortages, and widening gaps between rich and poor that are now part of the business-as-usual of 21st-century New Zealand.
I was sitting in the audience and listening to him, when something very odd occurred to me: I realised I knew next-to-nothing about my own ancestors. I barely knew the full names of my grandparents. I could not have told you where the original settler forebears of my grandparents had come from, why they had come, and what the conditions were that they were leaving behind.
I was the great-grandchild of a forgetting. And I was at a loss as to how this had been achieved.
The most surprising thing to me was the realisation that I hadn’t even been curious. Forget-and-move-on had not just been the personal decision of my forebears — it was somehow woven right into my own bones.
So I began the long process of putting together a family tree and piecing together the surviving footprints of family stories that could still be discovered in public research and in newspapers, and by talking to my surviving elders.
On my father’s side, I knew we had come out to New Zealand with the British Army, and therefore had a history of military service. But I really knew little more than that. My family held no memories of what battles this ancestor fought in, or where. And even the oral history of what regiment he was in was wrong.
So the journalist in me started digging. And checking the facts. And discovering more about the context of their lives.
Robert Foster Hutchinson had come to New Zealand with the 18th Royal Irish Regiment, landing in Auckland at the Albert Barracks on July 4, 1863. He’d brought his wife, Harriot Kernick, and their arrival was tinged with grief. Their young son Alexander had died amid the cramped conditions of the long sea passage to the new colonial outpost.
Robert Hutchinson had been born in the Fermanagh borderlands of what is now Northern Ireland. He was brought up on a tenant farm just a few miles away from the township of Clones (which is also where Thomas Bracken had been living).
Robert’s upbringing was marred by famine and hardship and a landscape of conflict between Catholic and Protestant communities. When he became an adult, his decision to join a local militia, and later the British Army, was a matter of survival and livelihood.
Of course, he had no say at all as to where that army was sent. He rose to the level of sergeant, and upon arriving in New Zealand he became part of Sir George Grey’s plans for the domination of the Waikato.
You may imagine my reaction as I read of Sergeant Robert Hutchinson’s direct involvement in the atrocities at Rangiaowhia, where General Duncan Cameron’s army attacked an unfortified village of women, children and old men, and several people were burned alive in their homes.
The 18th Royal Irish were also at the siege of Ōrākau, a battleground made famous by the call of Rewi Maniapoto that he would not surrender.
I’d been walking through these same battlefields with Whina Cooper during the Māori Land March of 1975, and was completely unaware of my own family connections to what had taken place.
There were disagreements between the British Army and the Colonial Government almost from the start of the troops landing in New Zealand. General Cameron felt that he had been sent to the country under the false pretences of Governor Grey’s machinations, and the general conceded that they were just being used to facilitate a land grab.
The army became determined to leave the colonists to it, and there was a gradual withdrawal of British forces as the New Zealand government “took greater responsibility for its own defence”. And, in the meantime, General Cameron was replaced with a more belligerent leader, the Irish-born General Trevor Chute.
Sergeant Hutchinson was part of the military campaign in Taranaki that was controversially described as a “holocaust” after the release of a Waitangi Tribunal report in 1996. General Chute had led his troops on a “scorched earth” campaign by destroying seven fortified pā and 21 open villages around Taranaki mountain. His soldiers completed the devastation by stripping these communities of all they could get their hands on. These same soldiers were given a hero’s welcome into New Plymouth, which, by then, had become a settlement dominated by its military.
One of the last engagements of the British Army under General Chute came as he was leading this fighting force on the coastal route back to Whanganui. They attacked and destroyed the village of Waikoukou, near Warea. The defenders here had included the two religious leaders Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, who later moved their families and supporters inland to what would become known as the village of peace, at Parihaka.
Sergeant Hutchinson returned to England with the army and continued to serve in the colonial conflicts in his home country of Ireland, and later in India. He and his wife had four children, but only one had survived the life of an army family.
When he retired from the military, Robert Hutchinson emigrated to Australia and then headed back to New Zealand to rekindle his friendships and connections with other members of the 18th Royal Irish who had also taken their discharge from the army and settled here.
For many years, this group of old soldiers observed their own anniversary of the day when they first arrived in Auckland on July 4, 1863.
They would meet up at the site of the old Albert Barracks, now turned into the Albert Park of the central city, and gather beneath the statue of the royal matriarch, Queen Victoria.
After a few speeches and tributes, they would march off to the tune of “the British Grenadiers” and head for lunch with their families at a café in the Strand Arcade.
My mother’s family comes from the Scottish clan of McIntyre, who were part of a community of tenant crofters living on the island of Barra in the Scottish Western Isles.
The most memorable stories I heard in my childhood about my mother’s family were about the Highland dancing and marching competitions that she and her sisters participated in as teenagers.
I’ve become better connected with members of my mother’s extended family thanks to the internet, and also to recent scientific developments such as DNA testing. And a few years ago, one of my distant McIntyre cousins sent me his own research into the specific history of our family that had migrated to New Zealand.
It was here that I read that our family had been forcibly removed from Barra in 1851 as part of the clearances of that island to make way for more profitable sheep.
It was obviously a very traumatic event that had affected everyone in our family who had lived in those islands for generations. And again, my first response was: How come I didn’t know about this? Why has no memory of these events been passed down?
But by now, I was already asking a deeper question: How come we had not been curious?
The Clearance of Barra was done on the instructions of the new owner of the island, Colonel John Gordon, of Cluny Castle in Aberdeen.
The colonel called all his tenant farmers to a meeting to “discuss rents” and threatened them with a fine if they did not attend. In the meeting hall, over 1,500 tenants were overpowered, bound, and immediately loaded on to ships bound for Canada and America.
One eyewitness reported that “people were seized and dragged on board. Men who resisted were felled with truncheons and handcuffed; those who escaped, including some who swam ashore from the ship, were chased by the police”.
Many crofters did escape to Glasgow. When officials in the city complained to Colonel Gordon about Barra’s homeless wandering their streets, he stated: “Of the appearance in Glasgow of a number of my tenants and cottars from the Parish of Barra — I had no intimation previous to my receipt of your communication. And in answer to your enquiry — what I propose doing with them — I say ‘Nothing’.”
When I read this account, I was initially astounded that it had taken place in 1851. That was 11 years after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed here in New Zealand.
And the irony did not escape me that, at the same time as my father’s military ancestor was involved with the destruction of homes and villages around Taranaki mountain, my mother’s people were being cleared from their homes by their wealthy Scottish overlords.
Of course, I had heard before of the Clearances in Scotland, and knew that they were a major driver of emigration and the modern Scottish diaspora around the planet. But I thought they were something that took place many years before this date. I had no idea that there were Clearances happening right up until the 1850s, and even to the end of the 19th century.
Our own McIntyre elders of Barra ended up in Glasgow where they died in conditions we can only imagine. It was their children who found passage to New Zealand.
They landed in Wellington and made their way up the coast to their new home — the community of Turakina that was just getting established on the Rangitīkei Block south of Whanganui.
When they arrived in New Zealand, English was not their first language, as they had been raised in the Scottish version of Gaelic. Thankfully, Turakina at that time was one of several Scottish immigrant communities where Gaelic was still a predominant tongue.
Turakina also became renowned as the home of New Zealand’s oldest annual sporting event — the Caledonian Games that have been held there every January since 1864.
The echo of these games had survived over the generations, right down into my mother’s teenage life.
But, along the way, so much more was forgotten. It was not only the Gaelic tongue that became lost to our own McIntyres.
As they became citizens of a new country, and fought for it in two World Wars, they lost the threads of the many stories and connections that could remind them of who we truly once were.
It is 2020, and I am five generations on from Sergeant Hutchinson and the McIntyre elders. But all of our genealogies are exponential — and, by the time you get back five generations, there are dozens of people who have an equal claim to your blood.
I am equally descended from the Williams family, who arrived in New Plymouth in 1842, as well as from other families with names like Blackie, Morley, Williamson, Cassidy, Jaques, Hudspith, Brown, Ronaldson, Inch, Tyndal, and Shute.
I’m not only descended from soldiers and crofters but, over those five generations, my ancestors have included coal miners and gold miners, tailors and dressmakers, agricultural labourers, cooks, servants and housewives, artists, engineers, plumbers, town councillors, builders of railways, fence-makers, dentists, stamp collectors and booksellers.
All of these people and their occupations have made their contributions to making this country what it is, warts and all.
Once you start digging and remembering, the stories can become overwhelming. They can be both binding and humbling, because they tell of achievements and because they’re also cautionary tales.
The forgetting of these stories and connections comes at a definite cost. If we don’t know how our histories are affecting the present, then we can’t fully judge the justice of our current actions, and the responsibilities we still have to our neighbours.
In 2016, I found myself on another hīkoi — this time with another generation of activists. We started our hīkoi from Te Kohia Pā in Brixton and walked through the disputed lands of the Pekapeka Block, and across the Waitara River to Ōwae Marae.
I am a trustee of Community Taranaki and we were part of the Peace for Pekapeka network that was trying to see the disputed Waitara leasehold lands returned to the people from which this important asset was stolen.
I won’t go into all the details here, because you can read more about it elsewhere. But suffice to say that I feel that the present-day freeholding and sale of the Waitara leasehold lands is just another piece of the notorious land grabs in the 1860s. This isn’t history. It is still happening in slow motion right before our eyes.
When I first heard about the New Plymouth District Council plans, I was initially full of disbelief. How could it be — after the 40 years of progress with apologies and settlements following the 1975 Māori Land March — that the Taranaki councils and our government were still planning to sell the very lands over which the land wars of the 1860s first broke out?
But I was not disillusioned. I already knew that they were relying on a widespread amnesia in which to seal the deal.
The hīkoi on Wednesday September 21, 2016 was organised by the Taranaki Māori Women’s Network. The protest turned out to be happening on the same day that the legislation for the Waitara Lands Bill was introduced into parliament. As the people weaved their way through the streets of Waitara, their steps were definitely echoing in the debating chamber in Wellington.
While the hīkoi participants were predominantly Māori, there were also many Pākehā walkers from throughout our province who wanted to push for change on this issue. I was able to speak to this when appearing on behalf of Community Taranaki at the Māori Affairs Select Committee hearing held later that year at the New Plymouth Novotel.
“For many Pākehā who live here in Taranaki, our desire for peace and reconciliation is not driven by being ‘politically correct’, or just being ashamed of our past and the actions of our grandparents. It is not even driven by an ideological desire to be better ‘allies’ to Māori, or better Treaty Partners.
It is driven more simply by the realisation that, after all this time, and despite the troubled history, a great many Māori and Pākehā have become friends. We live as neighbours. And in some cases, we are now relations.
And yet, in this context, we also know that the art of our friendship, the craft of our community-building, and the tone of our intimacy . . . are constantly under the shadow of these old injustices and the ongoing privileges and the disadvantages that have resonated in our shared lives right through to the present day.
After six generations, there are many Taranaki people who understand that none of us can build authentic communities here on the back of the unresolved grief that is still surrounding the stolen Waitara lands.”
At the end of 2018, it was clear that we were not going to achieve the goal of the New Plymouth District Council giving back this land to the Waitara hapū of Manukorihi and Otaraua. The dial on the negotiations had shifted a little way, but not to the extent of real justice being delivered to the people who most deserved it.
There is grief in this, and, for many in the local hapū, a continuing sense of struggle and betrayal. In the context of the recent and very clear public apologies for historical events that had been made by representatives of the Crown and the New Plymouth District Council, there are still many Taranaki people who are left with a feeling of doubletalk and dishonour.
The Waitara Lands issue — in our time — has been yet another missed opportunity to step up to the acts of peace and reconciliation that are still needed.
During the Waitara campaign, I was interviewed by a reporter on Radio New Zealand about the nature of collective amnesia and how our selective forgetting has consequences for modern-day settlements and negotiations, such as what we were trying to see happen in Waitara.
My belief is that we would have a completely different outcome in the Waitara case if there were more Pākehā people who cared about this history and the responsibilities that they still had in the context of that history. In other words, if there were enough Pākehā who gave a damn.
Actually, it has been my experience that Pākehā are very good at giving a damn — once they’ve woken up to the facts of the history and can see how it might be connected to choices being made in the current day.
Pākehā culture is steeped in the notion of a fair go. It is a characteristic that is deeply woven into our national culture. This is one of the reasons a great many of our ancestors came right across the world to live in New Zealand — because they weren’t getting a fair go in Cornwall, or Devon, or in Scotland or Ireland or wherever else they were migrating from.
I’ve found that whenever I’ve been able to explain to my relations the history and circumstances of a particular issue, they usually end up on the side of trying to give people a fair go. Or at least they become much more determined to treat someone else as they themselves would like to be treated.
But I also found it almost impossible to try and get someone in the mainstream media to print my articles on the Waitara Lands issue. Almost every submission to the local newspaper was refused, except for a letter which they published on the day the Waitara Lands legislation was passed.
I had to make do with distributing things on Facebook, which for some of the time, was actually being read by more people than would’ve read it in the local paper.
The difference here, of course, is that with Facebook you’re speaking to your own bubble. It’s a very sophisticated way of reinforcing the things you already believe in. It’s not at all like having a community conversation with your neighbours and with people who may not be as “woke” as you.
When I did publish my articles on the Waitara lands, I was often taken to task by people who disagreed with me. And that’s a good thing. It makes me think.
One time, I was given a dressing down in a public place by a woman who had different views from what I’d been writing. She was a leaseholder in Waitara, and I imagine she stood to gain from a considerable rise in the value of her property if the legislation was passed which enabled it to be freehold.
But that wasn’t what she was arguing about. She had taken particular exception to the fact that I was writing about Waitara, and lived in New Plymouth. She was angry, and she told me, in no uncertain terms, to keep my “sticky beak” out of what was the business of Waitara people.
It seems to me that all of us living in Taranaki have something in common. We are all living under the watchful gaze of one mountain. Whether we like it or not, we are neighbours. That’s just the nature of community. And it’s long past time when we should have figured out how we want to live together.
Pākehā do have cultural responsibilities as neighbours. These old land disputes are our responsibility, and our silence and avoidance and shutting-each-other-up is part of an old and ongoing architecture of injustice.
Pākehā have responsibilities because we have the numbers. And in a democratic society, it’s the majority culture that has the privilege of making choices. If we want those choices to reflect our deepest notions of a fair go, then we’ve certainly got some remembering and some learning to do.
In recent years, our political leaders have delivered some modest financial settlements along with some very full public apologies for the historic actions of our ancestors. But it won’t be until everyday Pākehā families also step up and accept our own difficult histories that we can begin to have real peace in, and on, this land. The craft of reconciliation is based on much more personal acts of acceptance.
It’s also based on everyday citizens waking up to the specific contributions they can make to creating a better future.
THE HISTORY WE’RE MAKING
Each year, as we approach Taranaki Anniversary Day, we regularly hear calls for it to be redesigned or for the purpose of it to be revisited.
I should say that I’m not unhappy with the way that things are right now. I do think there may be some wisdom in keeping the anniversary a bit vague, because it also gives more of us the space to put our own stories into it. And that’s what I’m doing right now.
But the community activist and social entrepreneur in me would like to see something change. I’d like to see the whole month of March be declared Taranaki History Month.
We don’t need the government to give us permission to do this.
I just think that Puke Ariki and the Len Lye Centre and Govett Brewster Gallery should join with their public and private and community counterparts all around the mountain and simply declare the month of March to be Taranaki History Month.
It should look at our shared histories here in the widest sense. Not just the stories of the things that have already taken place, but also of the history that we’re making right now as we live here together.
This is because we also need to tell the stories of how we’re fixing things that are not fair, and how we’re discovering fresh solutions to some of our most stuck challenges.
And yes, in the context of our history, we need to keep talking about the acts of peace and reconciliation that are demanded of our time.
So a Taranaki History Month might become a time when we tend the old fires of our own peoples, and remember the stories that can point us towards the better angels of our own nature.
I really don’t mind making beds on Taranaki Anniversary Day. WOMAD has been the perfect festival with which to remind us all of our better angels.
Many of the music groups that come to this festival from around the world are singing songs of their own struggles with colonisation, of the theft of lands and resources, of war and abuse. And their songs are also about the joys of love, the duties of kindness, the struggles of friendship, and the challenge of building communities in a fracturing world.
Amid the chaos of people and the cacophony of sounds at this festival, I often just find myself standing beside an old brick chimney which is close to the Brooklands Stage. This chimney is all that remains of a grand house that once stood on this land. It had been built in 1842 by Captain Henry King who was one of those early pioneer settlers to New Plymouth.
But his house was built on land whose ownership was in dispute, and the building was torched in 1861 during the land wars, leaving us with just these standing bricks.
It just seems oddly fitting that the whole world has now come to this very place, in our month of March — not just to entertain us at WOMAD, but also to encourage us to think and discover and remember.
When it comes to any celebration of the region that is our home, it shouldn’t be the least bit odd to see Taranaki locals doing the same.
This essay was written for the 50th anniversary of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, Taranaki. It’s based in part on a speech vivian gave at the gallery on February 22, 2020, as part of a community conversation on the meaning of Taranaki Anniversary Day.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.