A new book on the land wars in Waikato in the mid 1800s reveals casualty rates among Māori were far greater than previously thought.
Every couple of years Tom Roa takes his whānau on a pilgrimage through the Waikato.
“My father’s tūpuna fought at Rangiriri,” he says. "My mother’s great grandmother was at Rangiaowhia. Her tupuna were also at Ōrākau. We have a lot of family history there.
“Every second Christmas anybody in the family who is interested we go and visit these spots, visit these spaces and I tell them what my parents, uncles, aunties, grandparents told us. We continue that family tradition. Then in the hapu and iwi, every tangi, every hui, you’re more than likely to hear some reference to those times, especially with the song ‘E Pā tō Hau’. That song commemorates in particular what happened at Rangiaowhia.”
What Roa and other Tainui people have never forgotten – one of the most formative events in New Zealand’s history – has by comparison been a gap in the country’s collective memory.
New Zealand is in the midst of fulsome commemorations of World War I, the conflict that supposedly gave birth to its national consciousness, but the invasion of Waikato by British troops 50 years earlier is arguably at least as significant.
Historian Vincent O’Malley’s new book The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000 may help to fill the blank in New Zealand’s narrative about itself.
O’Malley says there are complex reasons New Zealanders have preferred one war over another in constructing national myths.
“The appeal of Anzac Day and the commemoration of World War I is obvious because it’s a source of patriotic pride for us – we stand together united as a nation to remember our fallen. Whereas the New Zealand Wars, being a series of internal conflicts, I think creates an uncomfortable silence. We don’t really know how to deal with these issues.”
O’Malley was doing research on Ngāti Maniapoto for the Waitangi Tribunal when he got the idea for the book. The King Country iwi became host to thousands of their Tainui relations who fled before the invasion by one of the largest British armed forces ever assembled outside India during the Victorian period.
The research territory was fertile ground for several reasons. Because Waikato-Tainui had negotiated directly with the Crown for its settlement instead of going through the Waitangi Tribunal, its substantial history had not been fully explored in a public way.
Historian Vincent O’Malley on Checkpoint with John Campbell:
The advent of the internet had also made sources that were previously difficult to find available at the click of a mouse. And some primary sources were available for the first time.
One of them was a census of Waikato taken in 1858. Alongside calculations of the casualty rates in the major battles it helped O’Malley reach a stunning realisation. The often-cited high World War I casualty rates of New Zealanders were actually dwarfed by those of the Waikato War.
“The fact that Māori might have had higher casualty rates on a per capita basis than New Zealand troops suffered in World War I, I found that extraordinary. Extraordinary that no one else was aware of these things.”
O’Malley also discovered that these realities were no surprise to generations of Tainui. In particular, the massacre of women, children and the elderly at Rangiaowhia was sharply remembered.
“Tainui has never forgotten things like the atrocities that were committed against their women and children at Rangiaowhia, for example. Or what really took place at Ōrākau. Those memories have been carried on down through the generations. They’ve even been reflected in the names people are given. For example, a common name for many women in Tainui was Mamae, or pain, across many generations to carry the remembrance of those events.
“The story for Pākeha is a more complex one. There was this period of myth-making followed by complete silence.”
The Bombay Hills are still regarded as dividing Auckland from another country. The dairy country of the Waikato basin is wrapped in its own myths – that sturdy yeoman farmers tamed the untouched wilderness and created the export economy that is the backbone of the country.
O’Malley’s book tells a different story.
The Great South Road that was the original route over the Bombay Hills was first built as a supply line for military invasion. That invasion was instigated by political manipulation that excluded Māori from any meaningful say and largely benefitted wealthy Auckland speculators.
The British troops weren’t bringing civilisation when they crossed the Mangatawhiri River. They were about to wreck it.
The people who were invaded were immensely wealthy by any standard, Pākeha or Māori. The land was filled with crops and orchards so abundant that the surplus was exported to Auckland and Australia.
After defeating Māori at various points on their march south the troops would torch flour mills and loot cattle and horses. The Māori who were massacred at Rangiaowhia were probably more literate than many of the soldiers who shot and bayoneted them. Many died in a church where they had previously received a level of schooling out of reach for many in Britain.
But events like Rangiaowhia have been glossed over in the received version.
“The official casualty rate for the number of people killed at Rangiaowhia is only 12,” says O’Malley. “Some other sources suggest it may have been over a hundred. Rangiaowhia was a place of refuge for women and children and the elderly. So in other words the British weren’t really going to be that keen to highlight the number of civilian casualties.”
For years after confiscation, the military settlers granted plots of land were either too isolated and scared or too under-capitalised to make a go of it, and many bailed out. They often sold cheap to businessmen like Frederick Whitaker and Thomas Russell, who had been heavily involved in justifying the war and then sat on their spoils until they could sell at a massive profit. In the interim the land fell into rack and ruin while the original owners were destitute refugees in the King Country.
While settler society hankered for Waikato lands, the British-commissioned soldiers sent in to do its bidding were often less enthusiastic. Many grew to admire their Māori opponents in arms. A large proportion of the rank and file were Irish who saw parallels with the English oppression of their homeland over centuries.
The parallels were very real. The confiscation legislation that had been an expected part of the invasion was lifted virtually verbatim from precedents the English Crown had imposed on the Irish. And Governor George Grey had only recently imposed similar measures on the Xhosa in South Africa during a stint as governor there.
It wasn’t just the foot soldiers who got the picture. Chief Justice William Martin was among those in both New Zealand and England who were highly critical of the confiscation laws because of the sense of injustice such laws had created in Ireland.
But political expediency prevailed and the confiscations were pushed through.
Tainui never accepted their validity, and the protests and petitions started immediately.
“There’s an auction that takes place in about September 1864 of confiscated lands at Ngāruawāhia,” O’Malley says. “A woman stands up and asks for the auction to be stopped because she has an interest in those lands as a Tainui woman. She’s basically mocked and told to sit down and shut up. This carries on for many years in different forms.”
The Treaty of Waitangi settlement with Tainui in 1995 was ground-breaking. The apology by Queen Elizabeth – delivered in person – caught global attention.
But O’Malley says the settlement process since then could have been better handled by politicians by involving New Zealand as a whole in the conversation.
“Successive governments in my view have done an appalling job about informing New Zealanders in general about the history that lies behind the Treaty claims. So we’ve really had this process going on between iwi and the Crown with other New Zealanders not really being aware of what the history is… If we are to move forward as a nation then the dialogue needs to not be just between Māori and the Crown. Other New Zealanders need to be part of that as well. Even if it’s just knowing a little bit about what took place.”
He says New Zealand history should be a core subject in the school curriculum.
“I understand the counter-argument that schools make those decisions themselves. But there are core subjects and I think this is important enough to form part of the core curriculum because it’s part of who we are as a nation of people.”
Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger, who farmed in the King Country and signed the Treaty settlement with Tainui, echoes O’Malley’s views.
“Like most New Zealanders brought up in the education system in the 40s and 50s we were essentially taught nothing on the colonial, land war period. There was little if any if I recall on the injustice that Māori had suffered from having their property stolen. There was a period in our education where we just didn’t teach that aspect.
“I’ve been arguing for the last few years that we need to write an honest and complete history of the colonial period, including the land wars. I’ve made that point on many public occasions, most recently at the Anzac service in Waikanae this year where I gave not the Tainui experience but the invasion of Parihaka, which is where I really grew up, in coastal Taranaki.”
The book arrives at a moment when the ground appears to have shifted in the debate about the history it explores. When a group of Otorohanga school girls launched a petition to officially remember the New Zealand Wars, Prime Minister John Key initially brushed it off by saying New Zealand had been settled peacefully. Since then the government has returned certain sites to Tainui and endorsed the idea of a national day of commemoration.
Tom Roa says the book will publicly validate what Tainui has always known and remembered as an iwi. He hopes it will engage wider New Zealand in a deeper conversation.
“Vincent’s work reminds us that if we don’t know our past then how do we know how we got to where we are today? We should know our past, we should embrace it, we should commemorate it – and then in knowing it we can use that as a guideline into our future.”