New Zealand Wars

Page 4 – Choosing a date to commemorate the New Zealand Wars

Posted by Steve Watters, Senior Historian/Educator - 15 September 2017

The decision to introduce a national commemoration of the New Zealand Wars was announced at a ceremony at Tūrangawaewae Marae, Ngāruawāhia in August 2016. The Crown returned ownership of the Rangiriri pā site to Waikato-Tainui, and Deputy Prime Minister Bill English acknowledged the need 'to recognise our own conflict, our own war, our own fallen'. English conceded that ordinary people had lost their lives at Rangiriri 'fighting for principle in just the same way as New Zealand soldiers who lost their lives fighting on battlefields on the other side of the world'.

Iwi had previously made representations to the Māori Development Minister, Te Ururoa Flavell, and his predecessor Sir Pita Sharples, about setting aside a date to commemorate the wars. After consultation, the date settled on for the first Rā Maumahara National Day of Commemoration was 28 October 2017. This is the same day as the signing of the 1835 Declaration of Independence of New Zealand (He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tirene). Funding to the tune of $4 million will be spent over four years to support these commemorations. Te Tai Tokerau tribes in Northland will host the inaugural event. After that, the commemorations will move from year to year to recognise battle sites around the country.

Not all of Te Tai Tokerau support the date chosen. Ngāpuhi’s Kingi Taurua believed that the commemoration of the wars would overshadow the signing of the Declaration of Independence,

We will always hold that day for the signing of the Declaration by the Confederates. If there are to be further discussions on this subject then we will make sure to be part of those discussions, but October 28 will never be agreed to.

Other Ngāpuhi, however, support holding the commemorations on this date.

The historian Danny Keenan (Ngāti Te Whiti Ahi Kā, Te Āti Awa) also questioned aligning the commemorations with the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration, a date which has no direct link to these conflicts. Pākehā historians like James Belich have argued that the wars were ‘wars of sovereignty’, and 28 October, in Keenan’s view, ‘clearly buys into that argument, by foregrounding the issue of Māori sovereignty’. He suggested alternative dates for commemoration: 17 March (the commencement of fighting in Taranaki at Te Kohia, near Waitara, 1860), 20 November (the British attack on Rangiriri, 1863), or 5 November (the invasion of Parihaka, 1881), the date on which, some argue, the wars actually ended. Keenan believes the chosen date represents not a sense of history, but

modern Māori political realities, representing the state of Crown-Māori relations today which are centred on still outstanding issues of Māori autonomy, or sovereignty. The date seems less about the wars, and more about Māori seeking constitutional or political leverage. A date more reflective of the Māori experience of those wars, with all of the hurt, dispossession, loss and devastation has been by-passed, and that is a great shame.

That choosing a suitable, universal date is problematic is demonstrated by the alternatives presented by Keenan. As they were not a single conflict but multiple conflicts spread over time and place, selecting one date or event of significance as the focus for a national day of commemoration risks ignoring other events and dates of local/iwi significance connected with these conflicts.

It will be interesting to see how the wider public receives this inaugural event. Will it be viewed as an attempt to muscle in on Anzac Day? As evidenced by the outburst from 12-year-old James Broome-Isa when confronting two peace activists during an Anzac Day service in Wellington in 2017, Anzac Day is not easily ‘messed with’. Or will it, in comparison with Anzac Day, be seen as an irrelevancy, a token gesture? Will it in any way alter our understanding of how war has shaped our sense of who we are as a people or nation?

Some believe the day hasn’t been given sufficient status to really amount to anything more than a token gesture. Our challenge as educators is to ensure that the opportunity to critically examine the significance of these events is not missed.

How to cite this page

'Choosing a date to commemorate the New Zealand Wars', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 11-Dec-2019

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