New Zealand Wars

Page 6 – Will removing New Zealand Wars memorials achieve anything?

Posted by Steve Watters, Senior Historian/Educator - 17 October 2017

In September 2017, Aucklander Shane Te Pou sparked a debate that gained national attention regarding the place of a New Zealand Wars memorial in the Auckland suburb of Ōtāhuhu. Primarily dedicated to the fallen commander of the Colonial Defence Force Cavalry, Colonel Marmaduke Nixon, the memorial also acknowledged ‘the brave men who served their Queen & Country in the Maori War, Waikato Campaign 1864’. Following his investigation, Te Pou declared that Nixon’s actions during the invasion of the Waikato made him unworthy of such a public memorial. He challenged Auckland mayor Phil Goff and his council to begin a conversation about its removal from its current site.

It could be interesting to compare this discussion with a similar, albeit more vociferous, and at times, violent debate that has unfolded in the United States following the decision by local officials to take down a statue of the Confederate General Robert E Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. A ‘Unite the Right’ rally to protest against its removal was described as one of the largest white supremacist events in recent US history. Marchers descend on the University of Virginia carrying torches and chanting slogans such as ‘white lives matter’ and ‘blood and soil’. These events broadcast around the globe were reminiscent of Ku Klux Klan or Nazi rallies of a bygone era. White supremacists clashed with counter-demonstrators and in one incident 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed and 19 others injured when a car was deliberately driven into a crowd of counter-demonstrators. Similar protests had erupted in 2015 following the killing of nine black church members in Charleston, South Carolina, by self-professed white supremacist Dylann Roof. When pictures emerged of Roof posing with the Confederate flag it sparked fresh debate as to the appropriateness of the flag continuing to be flown from the dome of the state capitol building in Columbia. Lawmakers, activists and citizens put renewed pressure on the government to take down a flag universally recognised as an enduring symbol of the ‘old south’. The flag had flown from the capitol building since 1961 in what Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson described as a ‘symbol of massive resistance to racial desegregation.’

Watching these events unfold in the United States got me thinking about what parallels might exist with regards to attitudes to our memorials to the New Zealand Wars. A particularly good opinion piece by Lawrence A. Kuznar, professor of anthropology at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne, is a useful way of approaching some of the more uncomfortable reminders of our past. In reference to the events unfolding in the States over their Confederate memorials Kuznar declared- ‘I detest our Confederate monuments. But they should remain’. While maybe not on the same scale as the US Civil War the memorials to our own internal wars represent conflicts that have left an indelible mark on our people and landscape. Their consequences profoundly shaped the country we have become. From the more obvious obelisks, to the names of towns and streets, there are many signposts to this part of our past, even if they may not be readily recognised. But how much do we think (or care) about such markers to our past and their impact on us today? Certainly it is a good opportunity to explore historical perspectives

Historical monuments represent particular views – usually those of the powerful - of a community’s past and present. They can convey a sense of who is important and who isn’t. They are, typically, a powerful expression of the perspectives of the politically and socially powerful. They can impose a sense of who were the aggressors and who were the victims, or more crudely – the ‘Good Guys and the Bad Guys’. The Matawhero memorial just outside Gisborne, with its inscription dedicated to ‘the memory of those massacred by Te Kooti’ in 1868 , immediately conveys such a simple right and wrong in understanding what occurred there through the use of ‘massacred’.

Moutoa Gardens (Pākaitore) in Whanganui contains New Zealand’s first war memorial, which commemorates 15 kūpapa (Māori fighting on the government side) and one European who were killed at Moutoa Island, 80 km upriver, on 14 May 1864. The text on the reverse face of the memorial makes for interesting reading:

To the memory of those brave men who fell at Moutoa 14 May 1864 in defence of law and order against fanaticism and barbarism this monument is erected by the Province of Wellington

There is no mention of the 50 or so Hauhau warriors killed in this battle.

These gardens also contain further evidence of Te Kooti as the ‘bad guy’, in the form of a statue erected in honour of the local Pūtiki chief, Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, or Major Kemp as he was known to many. This statue honours his victories over Te Kooti. Te Keepa’s memorial confirms Te Kooti as a ‘murderer of women and children’ while lauding Te Keepa as ‘a brave soldier & staunch ally of the N.Z. Government’.

Back in Ōtāhuhu it is worth considering what it was about Nixon's actions during the Waikato war that led Te Pou to call for the removal of this monument. In June 1863, Nixon – a veteran of the British Army in India – became commander of the Colonial Defence Force Cavalry, recruiting 200 volunteers from among the young farmers of the Ōtāhuhu area. Known as 'Nixon's Horse', this cavalry force joined Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron's invasion of the Waikato in July 1863. In February 1864 Cameron bypassed the Māori position at Paterangi and ordered an attack on the Māori supply base at Rangiaowhia, a village near present day Te Awamutu. The settlement was virtually undefended as most of its fighting men were at Pāterangi. The inhabitants ran for cover. Some took refuge in the village’s two churches while many ran for their whare. The small garrison of aged and youthful warriors and women offered fierce resistance. Nixon's men dismounted and poured concentrated fire into a single building in which the last defenders had gathered. Nixon led an assault on this position and was shot at the entrance, suffering severe chest wounds to which he would eventually succumb on 27 May. Nixon's troops reacted to his shooting by killing Maori who attempted to surrender or escape from the building, which was either set on fire deliberately or ignited by sparks from musket fire. The troops lost five men, either killed outright or mortally wounded, while the Māori lost around 12 men and women.

Te Pou believes the memorial should be removed from its current location ‘but not totally’. He acknowledges that it is part of our past ‘but it needs to be put in a museum and we need to have a debate and discussion about it’. I’m not sure how placing the memorial in a museum would facilitate the sort of discussion Te Pou thinks is necessary. Given what we know about who uses such cultural institutions, would locating it within the walls of a museum simply make it less accessible and therefore reduce the chances of its relevance and significance ever being critically debated?

Ngāti Āpakura and Ngāti Hinetū kaumatua Tom Roa – a descendant of the survivors of Rangiaowhia – didn’t support the call to remove the memorial. His belief that such an action would not improve New Zealanders’ understanding of our past was echoed by Professor Paul Moon, who likened it to ‘burying our heads in the sand’. Moon stressed the danger of judging the past by today’s standards, arguing that while Nixon was directly involved there's no evidence he committed any ‘atrocities’. While repugnant to people now, this was ‘how things were done’ at that time. The memorial should serve to spark curiosity as to why it was erected in the first place.

Auckland mayor Phil Goff has responded by convening a council team that will consider how best to ensure the concerns of all parties are represented and addressed. One suggestion has been the placement of a plaque or interpretative panel giving an iwi view of the events at Rangiaowhia.

This suggestion met with widespread approval, including from a descendant of Nixon. Tainui historian Rahui Papa ‘applauded’ it but recommended taking advice from Māori on the wording, to ensure ‘that the other side of the story is actually told.’ Nixon’s descendant disputed accounts which alleged the deliberate burning of a church at Rangiaowhia but acknowledged ‘it was war for sure.’ This story seems to be part of the iwi’s oral traditions, but there is ample contemporary evidence that neither of Rangiaowhia’s two churches was burnt down in 1864. The descendant believes that iwi should decide their account of events for the memorial. It is worth noting that a memorial plaque unveiled at Rangiaowhia in 2014 includes the word ‘atrocities’. Is Otahuhu the right place to tell this story? For Tamaki Makaurau MP Peeni Henare, the issue extends beyond Ōtāhuhu and the conversation should be nationally led, ‘because I dare say there are other statues like this across the country.’

So how should we approach such memorials? Ewan Morris, in a blog entitled Controversial monuments: doing the maths, suggests applying the ‘language of basic arithmetic’: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. One simple response is to remove or subtract contentious monuments from public places, ‘on the grounds that they celebrate past oppression and so help to entrench injustice in the present’. Morris questions such an approach, as destroying evidence is not the historian’s mission – and nor is ‘sanitising the past’.

If attitudes and historical scholarship have moved on since a memorial was created, why not add to the existing text and imagery? A new plaque on the memorial itself or an information board nearby could provide missing context and new information, including alternative perspectives on the past. Addition appears to be the path the Auckland City Council is embarking upon. It could also be achieved digitally, allowing for ‘new layers of interpretation without destroying the old ones’.

Alternatively, Morris wonders if we could think about multiplication, ‘creating new works of public art that tell different stories from those represented by older memorials.’ What these new memorials could look like would be an interesting task to set a class. At Pukeahu National War Memorial we frequently employ this approach, asking visitors ‘if the National War Memorial fell down tomorrow, would we rebuild it and if so, what would it look like?’

Another useful framework for these discussions can be found in The Historical Thinking Project directed by Professor Peter Seixas at the University of British Columbia. With six distinct, but interrelated historical thinking concepts, the Historical Thinking Project argues that to think historically, students need to be able to:

  • Establish historical significance
  • Use primary source evidence
  • Identify continuity and change
  • Analyse cause and consequence
  • Take historical perspectives, and
  • Understand the ethical dimension of historical interpretations.

In applying this to a consideration of New Zealand Wars memorials (or indeed any monument), the ethical dimension is of particular relevance as it asks us to consider what responsibilities historical events impose upon us today. We should expect to learn something from the past that helps us to face the ethical issues of today.

Mark Hatlie refers to historical places, monuments, memorials and museums as ‘created sites of historical memory, places where people have constructed reminders of past events, usually tragedies. Such places were constructed as reminders of the past and in many cases still serve their original function’. Hatlie explores the way in which ‘historical markers create a link between three different situations’: the event or person to which the marker refers; the building of the marker itself; and the ‘now – you standing in front of the marker and “learning” from it. All three of these layers or situations have a wider context which is important for the monument.’

Hatlie advises the visitor to a historical marker such as a memorial to question it and not ‘accept, passively and without even being aware of it, some intended or unintended “message” offered by that marker.’ The monument’s builder had an intent intent which we should question. These markers occupy ‘overlapping and complex places in history, not just places in public space. They become most interesting when we actively consider that space’.

Given what people perceive as the solemnity of many war memorials in particular, there can be a reluctance to interrogate such spaces. This is something I have observed in working with students at Pukeahu National War Memorial. People are fearful that questioning is in some way disrespectful. But it is important to ‘step outside ourselves’ and accept that such interrogation is not ‘disrespecting the dead, scorning the tradition, or being impious’.  

Michael Harcourt considers another set of criteria in interrogating such places or memorials to determine their geographical significance. These criteria are:

  • Power – Is it a place which reveals power relations in society? Its meaning for some people might have been silenced or marginalised in the past. Perhaps some people felt or continue to feel a sense of belonging there while others feel excluded.
  • Legendary – The place is ‘storied’. People tell legends there and it is used to sustain myths.
  • Affected by change – How has the place changed over time, whether physically or in terms of how it is used or viewed?
  • Contested and connected – Was this place argued over? Is it still a source of debate? People may feel a strong sense of connection to it, often for different reasons.
  • Evocative – The place is one where you can ‘feel’ history.

Whatever strategy you employ, take the opportunity to consider how such memorials can be an opportunity not only to examine an important aspect of our past but to develop historical thinking skills around perspectives and to also, as Hatlie describes it, ‘engage the monument in a dialogue’.

How to cite this page

'Will removing New Zealand Wars memorials achieve anything?', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 24-Oct-2017

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