• Tahuhu Korero

Remembering New Zealand’s Wars…and Peace

War and conflict between Māori and Pākehā currently dominate popular narratives of New Zealand’s nineteenth-century history. The New Zealand Wars in particular loom large, and rightly so. The New Zealand Wars were divisive; aside from the long scars of death and destruction seared across the landscape, post-war government land confiscation policies alienated many Māori from their homelands and effectively rendered Māori second-class citizens in their own country. Meanwhile, in Taranaki, where this year’s commemorations of the New Zealand Wars took place, Te Āti Awa are still fighting for the return of land that was unjustly taken for them as a direct result of the invasion of Waitara in 1860. [1] It’s no wonder then that the overall relationship between iwi Māori and the colonial government has never truly recovered.

It would be wrong, has been wrong, for any nation to forget such wars. As historian Vincent O’Malley explains, the history of the New Zealand Wars is crucial to understanding much of New Zealand society today. Any discussion of contemporary Māori poverty, for example, that leaves out ‘the long history of invasion, dispossession and confiscation is missing a vital part of the story. Ignoring this context leaves some observers blaming Māori themselves for their predicament.’[2]

However, the current push to reclaim the collective memory of the New Zealand Wars is gradually absolving this ignorance (among Pākehā. Māori have always remembered).[3] Just last month the third official commemoration of the New Zealand Wars was held in Taranaki, created off the back of protests organised by Ōtorohanga high school students. On top of that, the recent announcement that it will be compulsory to teach New Zealand history in schools suggests that Pākehā might finally be waking up to the legacy of colonial warfare.

However, there is a danger that the pain and suffering of warfare will continue to dominate the narrative of nineteenth-century New Zealand.

These stories of war are of course important. As the Waitangi Tribunal remarks, reconciliation cannot be achieved if Pākehā do not understand their past, for while ‘one side commences the dialogue with anger...the other side has no idea why.’[4] But I worry that if we emphasise the violence and destruction of the New Zealand Wars, we will forget that war was never inevitable in nineteenth-century New Zealand.

Certainly, the assumption that war would have broken out somewhere in the North Island is an easy one to make, and was popularised by Keith Sinclair in the 1950s.[5] However, most iwi were at peace with the government during the New Zealand Wars which suggests that war was never a given.[6] Even in Taranaki — where the European lust for land in the Waitara sparked a ‘fire in the fern’ that would soon consume half the North Island — peaceful interactions, between Māori and Pākehā were common in the years immediately preceding the conflict, characterised by trust, friendships and familiarity.[7] Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitake himself, who fought against imperial troops when they invaded Waitara in March 1860, often spoke of his desire for peaceable relations with the government and European settlers, but refused to accept that these relationships should cost Te Āti Awa their authority over their lands and people.[8]

The Battle of Waireka between British troops and a mixed Ngāti Ruanui/Taranaki force caused heightened anxiety amongst European settlers in Whanganui and surrounding areas. Although the battle was fought near New Plymouth and reported as a British victory in the settler press, Ngāti Ruanui territory was practically on Whangnaui’s doorstep. The town was warned that the defeated force might choose to raid the Whanganui out-settlements as vengeance. In response, Pākehā hastily arranged defence agreements with the local Whanganui iwi. ‘The Battle of Waireka: Defence of Jury’s Farmhouse by the Taranaki Volunteers and Militia’, sketch by A.H. Messenger, in Cowan, The New Zealand Wars, p.176. Accessed from NZETC, www.nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Cow01NewZ-c19.html#n176

In fact, even in the midst of the Taranaki War the pursuit of peace was a major motivator in the relationships between Māori, tauiwi and government officials all the way down the coast of Te Ika-a-Māui. In unsettled Whanganui, for instance, Hori Kīngi Te Ānaua (Te Āti-Haunui-a-Pāparangi ) presented to local European settlers and government officials a parawai (a flax cloak) that represented what Te Ānaua described as a ‘kawenata’, a covenant of peace.[9]

The symbolism could not have been more appropriate. Whanganui Māori had viewed the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi in spiritual terms long before the outbreak of war in 1860, and despite the government’s violation of the Treaty in Taranaki and amidst the fear that war might soon spread down the coast, here was a rangatira offering to reaffirm the promises made twenty years before. The ‘parawai of peace’ attempted to show Pākehā the potential of peace through divided sovereignty: the idea that Māori would accept the Queen’s governance over New Zealand, provided that Her Majesty’s government recognised Māori authority over their own lands and people, along with an assurance that Māori would enjoy equal rights with Pākehā.[10] It also provides a promising social and political framework for healing and reconciliation in Aotearoa/New Zealand — one that is based on shared power and recognition of indigenous identity and self-autonomy. Many Māori saw a way through the New Zealand Wars and offered strong frameworks of peace to Pākehā, should they have chosen to accept them.

Rangiātea Church (pictured) on the Kāpiti Coast embodies the political and spiritual structure that many Māori envisioned for Aotearoa. As Tāmihana Te Rauparaha explained in 1860: ‘New Zealand is the house, the Europeans are the rafters on one side, the Maories [sic] are the rafters on the other side, God is the ridgepole against which all lean, and the house is one.’ ‘Interior of Rangiatea Church at Otaki’, chromolithograph by Charles Barraud, c.1852, Auckland Art Gallery, 1993/24

It is essential to find the correct balance in commemorating New Zealand’s war and peace. To not do so risks incorporating the New Zealand Wars into the modern myth of biculturalism that, by prioritising national identity over more nuanced identities such as iwi and religion, denies the continuing colonisation of Māori land and culture.[11] Bicultural narratives also risk painting settlers as benevolent beings who have helped indigenous peoples gain equality, when often it is indigenous agency and their actions of resistance that force Pākehā to remember in the first place.[12]

But when the balance is struck, it can be extraordinarily effective. At the New Zealand War commemorations last month, Taranaki iwi used poi in their haka to remember the Parihaka prophets, Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi who ‘used the poi as a way of passing…messages over in terms of peaceful intent but being very firm on the government in resisting anything around alienation of our lands…. the poi was about, moving from that riri, that anger to a peaceful protest that is still firm.’[13] Such a narrative uses peaceful protest to emphasise survival and resilience in the face of colonisation.

Remembering the battles and horrors of the New Zealand Wars is an important step in facing New Zealand’s colonial history. But the New Zealand Wars also contain stories of survival, resilience, peace and hope. Alongside the narratives of war, these stories may yet give us the tools to pave a path towards real peace and reconciliation in Aotearoa New Zealand, should we choose to accept them.

Kia Maumahara.


[1] Leonie Pihama, ‘Let’s Start by Returning the Waitara Lands’, from E-Tangata: www.e-tangata.co.nz/korero/leonie-pihama-lets-start-by-returning-the-waitara-land; Vivian Hutchinson and Carl Chenery, ‘10 Reasons Why the Government Should Return Waitara Lands’, from The Spinoff: www.thespinoff.co.nz/atea/21-04-2018/10-reasons-why-the-government-should-return-the-waitara-lands/; Waitangi Tribunal, The Taranaki Report: Kaupapa Tuatahi, WAI 143, GP Publications, Wellington, 1996, p.2.

[2] Vincent O’Malley, The New Zealand Wars = Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2019, pp.235-236.

[3] Vincent O’Malley, The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato, 1800-2000, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2016, pp.25-31.

[4] Waitangi Tribunal, Turanga Tangata, Turanga Whenua: The Report on the Turanganui a Kiwa Claims, WAI 814, GP Publications, Wellington, 2004, p.740.

[5] Keith Sinclair, The Origins of the Maori Wars, second edition, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1961, p.11.

[6] Bailey Masters, ‘Hohou Rongo: The Preservation of Peace on the West Coast, 1860-1861’, MA Thesis in History, The University of Auckland, 2019, p.4.

[7] Rebecca Burke, ‘Maori-settler Relations in New Plymouth Before the Outbreak of War in 1860’, in John Crawford and Ian McGibbon, eds., Tutu Te Puehu: New Perspectives on the New Zealand Wars, Steele Roberts Aotearoa, Wellington, 2018 p.114

[8] Ann Parsonson, ‘Te Rangitake, Wiremu Kingi’, from Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (DNZB): www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/1t70/te-rangitake-wiremu-kingi

[9] Journals of Rev. Richard Taylor, 10 April 1860.

[10] Masters, p.47.

[11] Tony Ballantyne, ‘Mr. Peal’s Archive: Mobility and Exchange in Histories of Empire’, in Antoinette Burton, ed., Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, Durham; London, 2005, p.102.

[12] Felicity Barnes, ‘Settler Colonialism in Twentieth Century New Zealand’, in Edward Cavanagh and Lorenzo Veracini, eds., The Routledge Handbook of the History of Settler Colonialism, Abingdon, 2016 p.352.

[13] ‘Poi changes tone of Taranaki Putake O te Riri’, from Waatea News: www.waateanews.com/waateanews/x_news/MjMwMTQ/Paakiwaha/TUESDAY:--Poi-changes-tone-of-Taranaki-Putake-of-te-riri

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Bailey Masters recently graduated from the University of Auckland with a Master of Arts in History. His thesis explored the significance of peace agreements negotiated between West Coast iwi and the colonial government during the First Taranaki War. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.

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