“The ‘great war for New Zealand’, as Wiremu Tamihana had described it in one of his petitions, shaped the future of the nation in many ways, both obvious and less noticeable,” writes Vincent O’Malley, in his new book The Great War for New Zealand.
Here, he discusses why we need new narratives for the Waikato War — and the path towards settlement.
Remembering and forgetting the Waikato War
In the early decades of the 20th century, something strange started to happen. After nearly 50 years of neglect, Pākehā New Zealanders began remembering the wars fought on their own shores.
In part that could be seen as nostalgia for the pioneering period that had passed. And as veterans of the wars aged, there was a real desire to capture their stories before it was too late. As Chris Maclean and Jock Phillips have noted, these years witnessed “an outpouring of pioneer memoirs and local histories as the younger generation was told about the hard struggles of the noble pioneers”.
But there was more to it than that. Now that Māori were no longer viewed as a threat — and the dark days of the New Zealand Wars had receded into distant memory — settlers could afford to be nostalgic about them too, even appropriating Māori motifs for symbols of nationhood and placing colonial literature in romanticised “Maoriland” settings.
Remembering the New Zealand Wars, or at least a mythologised version of them, heavily laced with tales of mutual chivalry and heroism but devoid of more disturbing elements, became a core part of this process.
Yet thanks to more militant Māori voices, aided by a new generation of historians, the Pākehā version of the wars was becoming harder to sustain, and had been all but discredited by the 1970s.
The problem was that no new narrative of the wars emerged (or at least, no new narrative with popular support), and so we were left with an uncomfortable silence. “Don’t mention the war” became a kind of unspoken agreement, consistent with broader Pākehā discomfort at the level of Māori unrest manifested in annual Waitangi Day protests, the Māori Land March of 1975 and the dramatic Bastion Point occupation of 1977–78.
When the silence was challenged in ways that were difficult to ignore, significant controversy arose. The Governor, a highly ambitious six-part drama series that screened on TV One in 1977, presented the Waikato War as an unsavoury land grab, while continuing to laud Māori bravery at Ōrākau.
The series was attacked by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, supposedly for its excessive expenditure, though his criticisms probably reflected deeper unease at its troubling depiction of the colonial era. From the perspective of many Pākehā, it was easier to just forget the Waikato War had ever happened.
One historian threatened to upset this view. James Belich’s book on the New Zealand Wars was hailed as a tour de force by scholars when first published in 1986, but the wider public response to a five-part documentary series based on the book that screened in 1998 was decidedly more mixed.
It drew a huge audience, but also attracted the ire of many talkback radio callers and authors of letters to newspaper editors. Representative of the flavour of the newspaper correspondence was a letter whose author took exception to the portrayal of Pākehā as universally “wicked, or stupid or cowards, or all of those”, compared with “noble and clever and brave” Māori.
While some dismissed Belich’s work as “politically correct” nonsense — “part of continuing propaganda by an elitist neo-liberal ... academic grouping which wants to change society to reflect its own ideology”, as one correspondent put it — others seized on a particular issue which they claimed undermined the credibility of the work as a whole. How dare Belich suggest that Māori might have contributed to the invention of modern-day trench warfare, these critics complained.
After this brief bout of excitement, the war was quickly forgotten again. There was to be no new narrative based on recognition of Māori military achievement (far less on a frank acknowledgement of British atrocities committed at Ōrākau, Rangiaowhia and elsewhere).
However, there has been one positive development. The sesquicentenary of the Waikato War saw local iwi take a prominent role in ensuring that the key battles were remembered in a culturally appropriate way. They emphasised that their intention was not to demonise the troops who fought on the British or Crown side, but to honour the memory of all those who fell in the conflict.
At Rangiriri, a Tohu Maumahara (symbol of remembrance), consisting of a carved gateway made of recycled tōtara, had been unveiled a year earlier, on the 149th anniversary of the battle there. At Rangiaowhia, in February 2014, a new monument that described what took place there as “atrocities” was unveiled.
The 2014 commemoration at Ōrākau was part of more ambitious proposals to acquire the battle site and to construct a living memorial, including a visitors’ centre where the history of what took place on the land would be explained. In May 2015, the government took a giant step towards making this vision a reality when it announced that it had purchased the Ōrākau site from its private owners.
No doubt the formal apology to Waikato-Tainui for the Crown’s invasion of Waikato, signed into law by Queen Elizabeth II in 1995, has contributed to a greater Māori willingness to engage in these public acts of remembrance.
Yet important as the Treaty settlements process is, it is not an excuse for the rest of New Zealand to simply forget. For better or worse, we still need to take ownership of our history. In 2014, there were no special trains from Auckland, no mass school closures. Just a kind of awkwardness.
The Waikato War does not fit within a comfortable nation-building framework. According to the legend, our nation was born at Gallipoli, not Ōrākau. Who wants troubling introspection when we can have heart-warming patriotism instead? That, fundamentally, is the reason for the historical amnesia.
It contrasts markedly with the Ōrākau “celebrations” of 1914, which could be seen as a kind of pre-Gallipoli foundational narrative, based around the mythical notion of 50 years of peace and the greatest race relations in the world.
Those ideas continued to exert a powerful influence on the way in which the Waikato War was marked half a century later. But much has changed since the 1960s. Today, when it is no longer possible to celebrate the Waikato War, the challenge is to find new narratives that at least allow us to remember it.
Towards a settlement
Tainui’s long search for redress culminated in the Waikato Raupatu Claims Settlement Act 1995 and an apology, signed into law by the Queen, for the Crown’s breaches of the Treaty in the 1860s.
Waikato-Tainui negotiators had asked that the Queen personally deliver the apology. But that was too much for Crown officials (and without constitutional precedent). The compromise was that she would sign the Waikato Raupatu Claims Settlement Bill, which included the apology, into law while she was visiting New Zealand to attend a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Auckland in November 1995.
The settlement, including compensation valued at $170 million, represented a tiny fraction (1.4 per cent) of what had been lost to the tribes through war and confiscation.
The confiscated lands alone were estimated to have a minimum value of $12 billion as at 1995.
Unlike the 1946 deal, it did, however, include the return of a small portion of the confiscated lands still in Crown ownership (around 15,553 hectares). Those lands were to be vested in the name of Potatau Te Wherowhero, the first Māori King, effectively making them inalienable. And the sum eventually agreed represented a considerable advance on the amounts being floated by Crown officials when direct negotiations first got under way in 1989, when around $20 million was considered likely.
Waikato-Tainui had taken a considerable risk in agreeing a deed of settlement with the Crown (signed on 22 May 1995) in advance of other iwi. The deal that was finalised, chiefly between Waikato lead negotiator Robert Mahuta and Minister in Charge of Treaty Negotiations Doug Graham and their respective advisors, reflected this through the inclusion of a relativity clause. This provided for an additional 17 per cent to be paid once more than $1 billion was expended on the settlement of historical Treaty claims nationally. The same “top up” provision was made when Ngāi Tahu signed their own deed of settlement in 1997, and the first supplementary payment was made to both iwi in 2012.
Meanwhile, the 1995 settlement saw a major overhaul of Waikato-Tainui’s governance mechanisms, with the old Tainui Māori Trust Board that was answerable to ministers replaced by new bodies accountable to whānau, hapū and marae.
Queen Elizabeth’s agreement to personally give royal assent to the 1995 settlement was enough to spark calls from other victims of British imperial expansion around the globe to receive similar apologies. Meanwhile, some of those groups not covered by the 1995 settlement (including Ngāti Maniapoto) are still seeking to resolve their own historical claims.
And thanks to a petition organised by students from Ōtorohanga College calling for a national day to commemorate those who lost their lives in the New Zealand Wars, a conversation is under way about how conflicts like that in Waikato are remembered or forgotten at a national level. In these ways and many others, the Waikato War continues to resonate across generations, its legacy a powerful, profound and little understood one.
The “great war for New Zealand”, as Wiremu Tamihana had described it in one of his petitions, shaped the future of the nation in many ways, both obvious and less noticeable.
In the former category, the costs of the war plunged the colony deep into debt, sparking a South Island separatist movement that for a time seemed to stand a real chance of success.
On a more profound (and persistent) level, the Waikato War set back Māori and Pākehā relations for generations. With the main Māori opposition to settler governments sidelined after 1864, Pākehā politicians no longer felt obliged even to pay lip service to Māori interests. Instead, a more aggressively assimilationist line was adopted (symbolised by the Native Land Court established in 1865, and the native school system set up in 1867) and Māori aspirations were given short shrift.
In the decades before 1863, Crown claims to absolute sovereignty under Article One of the English translation of the Treaty of Waitangi had coexisted uneasily with Māori expectations that the tino rangatiratanga promised them in Article Two would be respected. After 1864 there was no doubt as to which of these competing visions of the nation’s future would triumph. There was to be no talk of partnership and precious little protection of Māori interests for at least the next century.
For those who had borne the brunt of the onslaught, such as the Waikato iwi, survival alone was no mean feat. And the painful legacy of war and confiscation would be a source of hurt and anguish for the next 130 years.
The Waikato War had other less immediately evident, but nevertheless profound influences on the nation’s course. Although it was not until 1901 that the non-Māori population of the North Island finally exceeded that of the South Island on a permanent basis, British victory in the Waikato War, together with Premier Julius Vogel’s scheme of immigration and public works in the 1870s, paved the way for eventual northern dominance.
The war also helped to secure Auckland’s future and made possible its later status as the largest city. It facilitated the spread of farming and encouraged the speedy introduction of the telegraph — the 19th century equivalent of the internet. And with the building of the Great South Road and the eventual construction of the North Island Main Trunk Railway through the confiscated lands, it also helped to transform travel around the North Island from predominantly maritime to overland.
Without the war, many of these things might have taken place on a negotiated basis over time. Waikato iwi might have shared in the colony’s growing prosperity. The Waikato War instead enabled settlers and the Crown in many instances to act unilaterally, condemning the tribes to a destitute existence on the fringes of colonial society.
The old era of the “middle ground”, based on a kind of rough and ready balance of power between Māori and Pākehā, in which the path ahead was decided through ongoing dialogue and negotiation, gave way to relentless settler hegemony.
Wiremu Tamihana was right. This was not a small regional conflict of marginal relevance outside Waikato. It was not just a great war for New Zealand. It was the great war for New Zealand, with consequences that continue to be felt — if not always remembered — in multiple ways today.
This is an edited extract from The Great War for New Zealand by Vincent O’Malley, published this month by Bridget Williams Books
Book draw winners
Bridget Williams Books kindly made available two copies of Vincent O'Malley's The Great War for New Zealand for e-tangata readers.
These are going out to Tricia Soundy of Mount Maunganui and Michaela von Sturmer of Baywsater, Auckland.
Thanks to everyone who entered the draw.