New Zealand Wars

Page 2 – In the too-hard basket: have we ignored the New Zealand Wars?

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

At the end of 2015, students from Otorohanga College presented a petition to parliament  calling for a National Day of Remembrance to acknowledge the ‘Land Wars’ and for the government to mandate the teaching of these wars in schools. This petition with more than 12,000 signatures sparked considerable debate and contributed to the decision to declare 28 October 2017 as the first Rā Maumahara, National Day of Commemoration of the New Zealand Wars.

Linda Campbell, the mother of one of the Otorohanga College students, and a teacher at the school, contrasted the hype associated with the commemoration of events in Turkey 100 years earlier with the apparent lack of interest in those wars fought on our own shores. She described ‘our youth as being ripped off’ from learning their history, asking why we could remember our foreign wars but not those fought on our own shores. Brian Rudman chimed in in the New Zealand Herald, pointing out how the official response of the government in commemorating the centenary of the First World War was in stark contrast to its reluctance to teach our children about the ‘ugly side of our past’. Rudman described the majority of New Zealanders as being so ‘ignorant of our past that they have nothing to forget.’ Morgan Godfery was another to ask, ‘why do we ignore the New Zealand Wars?’, maintaining that while Anzac Day ‘represents a kind of retrospective nationhood, the New Zealand Wars more accurately represent actual nationhood.’

Joanna Kidman, Associate Professor in Te Kura Maori in the Faculty of Education at Victoria University of Wellington, suggests that ‘public silences around the New Zealand Wars are deeply ingrained’.  Like a number of other commentators, she maintains that to achieve genuine reconciliation, ‘it is important to acknowledge our nation’s difficult past, and own it’. Others have echoed this sentiment, seeing the ability to commemorate the wars as ‘a sign of our maturity as a nation’.

Our national narrative mythologises our experiences of war. It is a central element in many discussions around themes such as national identity. For evidence of this, we need look no further than the considerable time, money and effort spent in acknowledging the First World War and its impact on us. To be fair, there is an international dimension, expectation, and set of obligations to the commemoration of the First World War that isn’t there with our internal wars. That said our internal wars of the nineteenth century have had a dramatic impact on us then and now. In comparison with the First World War, they are more controversial and more confronting. They don’t sit easy with our perception of who and what we are as a people and a nation. Are they our ‘inconvenient truth?’ We speak of Gallipoli, Passchendaele or Cassino, but rarely Rangiriri, Gate Pā or Ōrākau. The latter were struggles not about an accepted ‘us’ and ‘them’ but more an ‘us’ versus ‘us’. While some New Zealanders have a view on who was dying ‘for glory or good’ in our overseas conflicts — a collective sense of loss — this is much less clear when we examine our wars at home.

While tens of thousands of Māori died in the intertribal wars of the early 19th century, usually referred to as the ‘Musket Wars’, it is the acknowledgement of the fighting that occurred in the decades after New Zealand became part of the British Empire in 1840 that was the focus of the petition. Several thousand people died in total, the great majority of them Māori. For some Māori the wars were only the beginning, with land confiscation the fate of many of the survivors.

So does the decision to commemorate these conflicts in 2017 represent a turning of the tide, a ‘maturing of the nation’? With the commemorative date looming I must admit to feeling nervous about how little I am hearing from many teacher friends and colleagues as to how — if at all — they plan to incorporate these commemorations into their programmes. In fact, I have heard little discussion about the national commemorations full stop. With the centenary of Passchendaele only a few weeks earlier, it will be interesting to compare the two events, especially how the media treat them.

While Te Ururoa Flavell acknowledged that iwi had made representations to him, and his predecessor Sir Pita Sharples, about setting aside a date to commemorate the wars over a number of years, the role played by a group of young New Zealanders to convince the powers that be to do something about this issue suggests an acceptance of, and willingness to learn more about these aspects of our past. The efforts of the Otorohanga High School students and their supporters are a great illustration of social action in practice.

The Otorohanga petition was greatly influenced by the fact that the fighting of the 1860s in particular had had local relevance. This might be the case in your own area. Sometimes it is a case of knowing where to look or who to ask. Whether this is the case or not (are the New Zealand Wars as relevant in Southland as in Waikato?), using these conflicts as an opportunity for place-based education is an important way of highlighting the fact that these wars have left their mark on our landscape. Two published sources I would recommend here are David Green’s Battlefields of the New Zealand Wars: A Visitor’s Guide and Nigel Prickett’s Landscapes of Conflict: A Field Guide to the New Zealand Wars. There are also useful online guides.

There are a number of issues we will seek to unpack in considering the significance of these wars to New Zealand and its people. There is still confusion or disagreement over what to call them, as well as what they were about. How do we commemorate what was not a single conflict but multiple conflicts spread over time and place? Which date is most appropriate in focusing our collective attention for the purpose of commemoration? The memorials to these conflicts typically reflect the characteristics of a colonial society as illustrated by the inscription on New Zealand’s first war memorial, at Pākaitore, near the Whanganui River. This memorial, erected in 1865 by the grateful European citizens of the district, honours their Māori allies, reads: 

To the memory of those brave men who fell at Moutoa 14 May 1864 in defence of law and order against fanaticism and barbarism. 

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'In the too-hard basket: have we ignored the New Zealand Wars?', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Sep-2017

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