In March 2014, a group of Ōtorohanga College students went on a school trip to nearby Rangiaowhia, a few kilometres from Te Awamutu in the King Country, where they learned for the first time of the massacre that had taken place there in 1864.
With them were kaumātua, who wept as they told their ancestors’ stories. The women, children and the elderly who’d been killed when Imperial and colonial soldiers attacked their undefended village. Some of them burned alive as they sheltered in their whare and the village church. Others killed as they fled for their lives or tried to surrender.
Their stories had a profound impact on the students.
For Leah Bell, a 14-year-old Pākehā student, it was a call to action. She and Waimarama Anderson (who was 16 at the time) started a petition calling for a day of commemoration for the New Zealand Wars, and for New Zealand history to be taught in schools.
Their petition garnered 13,000 signatures and was presented to parliament in 2015.
As a result, in 2016, the government announced the introduction of Te Pūtake o te Riri, a national day of commemoration for the New Zealand Wars, marked annually on October 28. And, last year, the prime minister announced that New Zealand history would be taught in the school curriculum from 2022.
At the centre of the Ōtorohanga teenagers’ campaign was a desire to see New Zealanders move beyond their “harmful ignorance” of the country’s history.
But, for New Zealanders with Pākehā ancestry, that can be a confronting and complicated exercise — as Leah herself found out late last year.
(This piece is adapted from a speech Leah gave at the 2019 New Zealand Historical Association conference, held last November.)
I’ve always said that guilt and shame are useless emotions to bring to history.
But on Monday, November 25, last year, that was all I felt.
I was due to speak at the New Zealand Historical Association conference later that week — and I’d already written the introduction to my speech.
I began with the historian Giselle Byrnes, who suggests that the desire to reconcile with our history is a symptom of “loss” — that it comes from a need “to make an intelligible story out of the past as a way of soothing an anxiety and lack of confidence about the present”.
I’d gone on to write that, for many Pākehā, understanding our history manifests in a kind of identity crisis, perhaps a fearful arrogance.
The campaign to petition the government to have a national commemoration day for the New Zealand Wars, and advocating for the New Zealand Wars in the national curriculum, has required the shedding of paralysing shame and guilt.
But that was before Monday, when I was under the illusion that the wrongs of the wars couldn’t be traced to my family.
On Monday, I was confronted with the fact that engaging with the New Zealand Wars inevitably demands a personal reckoning.
To go back to the beginning, this story began with a school trip and a group of rangatahi from Ōtorohanga College.
In 2014, we stood in a little dusty road in the middle of a sacred site of an unprovoked massacre — 186 of us pressed against each other in the dry heat, choking on the dust of Rangiaowhia. We listened to the kaumātua in silence, their stories beating in our ears.
Two of us, Waimarama Anderson and myself, felt compelled, first and foremost, to question our ignorance, and to rise to the call of our kaumātua to do something. We became co-signatories to a very formal national petition.
We wanted to develop our country’s historical consciousness — and, in a way, we did. For each of the 13,000 signatures in our petition, there’d been a face-to-face conversation about what we were trying to do.
It’s bizarre that in a campaign to commemorate the New Zealand Wars, we ourselves had only ever talked hypothetically about our ancestors — to the media, and with each other.
As petitioners, we had veiled our whakaaro with words like “unity” and “pride”, as the outcome of this newfound, hoped-for historical consciousness. We couldn’t walk up to a Pākehā family on the street and tell them that they’d forgotten that they are the beneficiaries of genocide and stolen land. “And can you please sign our petition so the whole country can realise that, too?”
We saw many activists we admired shout on social media, and rightly so, about injustice and ignorance. We couldn’t afford to take a polarising route. Not if we wanted statutory change. We were non-partisan and it worked in our favour. Our youth, innocence, and neutral language protected us. Whenever someone hissed at us in the Stuff comments, five other people replied: “How dare you! They’re children!”
But, at some point, I’d forgotten my mother’s words.
“Don’t believe your own myth.”
You can’t be Pākehā and believe that you’re not personally responsible for the colonial oppression of Indigenous peoples. No matter who your ancestors are.
To this day, when I give a speech about colonisation and historical amnesia, I get sick. My whole body aches and burns. On that Monday last November, drawing on the strength of my ancestors became far more complicated.
I knew who my ancestors were on my father’s side.
There’s William Colenso, well-known for the courageous act of questioning the legitimacy of the translation of Te Tiriti o Waitangi to Māori, on the very day of signing.
William Wilberforce, who helped abolish the transatlantic slave trade.
And Elizabeth Colenso — the first Pākehā woman born in New Zealand — and her daughter Fanny, for whom te reo Māori was their first tongue and first love.
Elizabeth took her children to England during the 1860s to escape the heightened conflict and bloodshed in New Zealand. In England, she advocated for Māori who were there during the Jenkins party tours, and translated for Queen Victoria. Fanny wrote English letters in big baby script, but in te reo Māori, her writing was tight and cursive. Fanny greeted Māori in England during those wars with karanga: E te manuhiri e . . .
I knew where I stood. I was proud of my Pākehā ancestors. Even despite the anguish I’d felt as a four-year-old learning the implications of the word “confiscation”, as I helped to paint my mother’s protest signs against the 2004 foreshore and seabed law.
My overwhelming desire to be Māori, at four years old, to not be responsible, felt remedied by understanding the activism of my ancestors.
That Monday changed a few things.
There’s a record series in the National Archives called LS69 — Naval and military Land Claims Commissions, 1886 and 1910. Thanks to having the privilege of a summer research scholarship, I’d been tracking the land claims of the Imperial soldiers after the New Zealand Wars. What I didn’t know was that I’d find the files of two of my ancestors, outlining their entire military careers.
One of them was Joseph Jones, 14th Imperial Regiment, who wrote:
I went on a special service under Captain Ross to Opotiki to avenge the death of Reverend Volkner . . . We took 70 to 100 Maoris prisoner . . . I was there for four or five months of engagement.
He also wrote of volunteering under Von Tempsky.
I grew up with the legendary story of Reverend Völkner and Kereopa Te Rau. Kereopa was said to have eaten Völkner’s eyes, as utu for the death of his family — his wife and two daughters — at Rangiaowhia.
Rangiaowhia, the place that triggered our whole campaign.
What irony that one ancestor would shed blood as punishment for the death of Völkner, when my other ancestor, William Colenso, the one I grew up with, rallied to halt the hanging of Kereopa Te Rau — to no avail.
Last year, on October 28, I was in Waitara, Taranaki, for the second annual commemoration of Te Pūtake o te Riri. Until Monday, I had no idea that I was directly involved in the mamae witnessed at the commemoration. A bitterly poignant demonstration of privilege.
My ancestor John Edward Wright Hussey scorched the gardens of hundreds of Taranaki mana whenua, but when his house was burned down by “rebels”, it was immediately built again and he was gifted 66 acres at Kakaramea by the Crown. Mana whenua in Taranaki still seek to build their houses again. Not knowing our history shrouds ignorant privilege, insidious at its core.
After the announcement that Aotearoa history will be in the curriculum in 2022, I had a fight with my uncle. He told me that we can’t keep focusing on “the idea” that history is a source of hurt. We can’t pretend as a country that we’re unique from anyone else.
I told him that you can’t alienate history to be only that — just a story. Not when it’s the lived reality of so many.
My friend and I have discussed over and over how the confiscations and uproar from the killing of Völkner have left her community and people impoverished today. Until that Monday, I didn’t know that my ancestor had helped disenfranchise her people. That’s privilege. That’s selective historical amnesia.
“So tell me,” I said to my uncle, “how can you separate history from hurt?”
The history of colonial New Zealand is not just a story where tangata whenua are reduced to having no agency. It’s a story of lies and deceit, greed and dishonour, and rat-chewed agreements. It’s a story pulsing with connection, love, and whānau across war-drawn boundaries. It’s a story of colonial regiments yelling to their enemy to duck as they fired ahead, and their enemy doing the same. Of wāhine toa cloaking the enemy that shot them down. Of interracial families holding each other tight as war forced new loyalties on them.
The New Zealand Wars can be examined and taught as social history in which the human story of land, language, love, and loss are viewed through enduring relationships.
Judith Binney wrote about the courage of Pākehā female teachers resisting the violence of military men at a Native school in Waikaremoana — a story that exemplifies what can be found beyond the dispute of our history. She said:
It is a fragment — a tiny chip — in the vast mosaic of narratives which, when brought together, reveal light and dark co-existing in our colonial history.
Our history is that and more, for it is our story. One that deserves to be accessed fully, freely and easily. We need to be able to make informed decisions for our future, based on our past, so that we can move beyond harmful ignorance.
And, however difficult and uncomfortable our histories, we must let our children learn.
Let them trace the battle sites,
hand in hand,
Plant a peach tree where
bullet-pips are buried in the ground.
Settle the dust
with their tears
to mingle with,
the blood drawn there.
Let them write treaties.
For the future.
For the past.
Debate what words
should have bound us then.
Debate what words
should bind us now.
Let them build match-stick land courts.
Paint each panel
The stories of
Pākehā me Māori.
Glued together with Shared honesty.
Me Maumahara Tātou.
Leah Bell (21) is studying towards an honours degree in history at Victoria University in Wellington.
This piece is adapted from a speech she gave at the New Zealand Historical Association conference, held in November 2019. A version of it was published in the May 2020 edition of the New Zealand Journal of Public History.
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