What to do with markers of our colonial past?

Page 1 – Introduction

The ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests that flared here and in other parts of the world in mid-2020, following the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, raised wider issues of systemic or institutionalised racism.

In many places, including New Zealand, the focus of these protests widened to consider ‘the meaning and relevance of statues, memorials and place names from a racist, imperial past.’

Here, the Māori Party, among others, called on the government to set up an inquiry into colonial monuments, statues and names from our colonial era. University of Canterbury History professor Katie Pickles argued that these sort of memorials presented a ‘special challenge to Aotearoa-New Zealand’. They dealt not only with ‘the memorialisation of unsavoury historical figures’, but ‘they were imported from elsewhere.’ How we reconsider such monuments and place names ‘challenges the very foundations of settler societies and the evolution of race relations’. The imperial past, she concluded, ‘really is a different country.’ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, argued that concern about racist place names and statues ‘sit at a much more localised level than it does at central Government level’.

Statues of Confederate leaders and the explorer Christopher Columbus were torn down in the United States as pressure grew on authorities to remove monuments connected to slavery and colonialism. US President, Donald Trump, via his preferred medium of Twitter, described it as ‘sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.’ He continued; ‘you can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!’

Trump’s defence that you ‘can’t change history’ was repeated elsewhere. In August 2020, activists in Montreal, pulled down the statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A Macdonald. Remembered by some for his nation-building policies, Macdonald is also remembered for creating the residential schools system which for more than a century forcibly removed some 150,000 indigenous children from their homes and sent them to state-funded boarding schools. A government report in 2015 called the practice ‘cultural genocide’. Nevertheless, key political figures were united in their opposition to the attack on the Macdonald monument. Prime minister Justin Trudeau described it as ‘vandalism.’ François Legault, the premier of Quebec contended that in fighting racism ‘destroying parts of our history is not the solution.’ He concluded that ‘vandalism has no place in our democracy and the statue must be restored.’ Montreal’s mayor, Valérie Plante, stressed the importance of placing problematic historical figures ‘in context’ rather than simply removing them from our history.’

Belgian protesters defaced statues of King Leopold II due to the deadly legacy of his rule in the former colony of Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo). A Belgian of Congolese descent, highlighted how in walking ‘in a city that in every corner glorifies racism and colonialism, it tells me that me and my history are not valid.’ Others commented on Belgium ‘waking up from a sleep’ and describing such events as ‘a reckoning with the past.’ A petition calling for the removal of Leopold II’s statue from the Royal Palace in Brussels reached 74,000 signatures. Those opposed to these proposals defended these monuments as ‘part of our history.’

Similar debate was sparked in the United Kingdom when a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down and dumped in Bristol harbour in June 2020. Colston’s case was complicated for some by what they saw as the risk of judging him by today’s moral standards.  His legacy can be seen on Bristol's streets, memorials and buildings. On his death in 1721, Colston left his considerable wealth to a range of charities causing some to describe him as a ‘philanthropist’. Others pointed to the fact that he had accumulated his riches as a slave trader.  Home Secretary Priti Patel called the tearing down of the statue ‘utterly disgraceful’. Historian, David Olusoga disagreed believing the statue should have been taken down long ago’, observing that statues proclaim, 'this was a great man who did great things.' After a London statue of the slaver Robert Milligan was removed, mayor Sadiq Khan initiated a review of all of London’s monuments.

French historian Pierre Nora calls statues (and other monuments, plaques, place names, and so on) ‘sites of memory: places and objects through which a society decides to cast in stone (or in bronze) its collective memory, which of course is never really collective, but simply society’s preferred version of events at a given time.’ He contends that they showcase a dominant set of values and ‘enshrine these so anyone bold enough to question them or offer an alternative view, an alternative memory, might think better of it.’

Statues are designed to reinforce community and group identity. As a form of art, they may move those who look at them. Some may serve a social purpose as a place to congregate (as, for example, on Anzac Day), but do they educate? Those opposing their removal, characterising such actions as a ‘prelude to burning books’, are, according to Giacomo Lichtner of Te Waka Herenga - Victoria University of Wellington, wrong – ‘statues do not teach; teachers teach.’

Daphné Budasz, approached this debate by reflecting on the relation between commemoration, national identity and the social role of history. ‘As many historians claim, statues are not history. Nor are they material sources, archaeological artefacts fortuitously preserved through time. They instead are objects of commemoration: the political constructions of certain narratives from the past, and an expression of the ruling power who decided to put them there.’ Budasz highlights how many of the public statues now under scrutiny date from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century. This was a time when history was ‘first and foremost the story of ‘great men’ credited for nation-building.’ They highlight the ‘notion of nation grounded in a claim of a shared past, with members allegedly connected by a common history, or, rather, by the collective memory of it.’ The memorials in question promote a shared identity which ‘tended to exclude minority memory.’ War memorials are common examples of monuments designed to promote the ‘notion of nation grounded in a claim of a shared past. They are typically one-sided, erected by the victors to commemorate their dead. Until the modern period, such as the centenary of the First World War, they have rarely mentioned or acknowledged the ‘enemy’.

Nixon memorial, Ōtāhuhu


Inscription on the Marmaduke Nixon memorial, Ōtāhuhu.

The reigniting of this debate about the place of such memorials in our history in 2020 caused me to reflect on a piece I had written for the NZHistory Classroom in 2017. Shane Te Pou (Ngāi Tūhoe) had questioned the appropriateness of a New Zealand Wars memorial that had stood on a triangular reserve at the junction of Auckland’s Mangere and Great South roads since 1868. In my piece I asked whether removing such memorials would achieve anything. How could the debate around what to do with them deepen our understanding of our past?

The memorial in question in Ōtāhuhu acknowledged ‘the brave men who served their Queen & Country in the Maori War, Waikato Campaign 1864’. It is primarily dedicated to Colonel Marmaduke Nixon, a local settler and Member of the House of Representatives. Nixon died in May 1864 from a wound he had received at Rangiaowhia during the invasion of the Waikato. It is one of three memorials erected in this country during the New Zealand Wars (1845–72). The others are the Moutoa memorial in Whanganui and the memorial to the 57th Regiment at Te Hēnui Cemetery in New Plymouth. More were put up later. More information on New Zealand Wars memorials can be found on this map.

Many of our New Zealand Wars memorials have a lot in common when it comes to the broad narrative of these conflicts they express. They amplify Pierre Nora’s assertion that such memorials represent society’s preferred version of events at a given time.

Moutoa memorial, Whanganui

Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Moutoa monument, Whanganui.

Moutoa Gardens (Pākaitore) in Whanganui contains two war memorials that highlight the complexity of these debates. Both were erected by Pākehā communities to honour Māori who fought for the Crown against other Māori. The first of these monuments, erected in 1865, acknowledged 15 kūpapa (Māori fighting on the government side) and one European, killed at Moutoa Island, 80 km upriver, the previous year. 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

These gardens also include a statue erected in honour of the local Pūtiki chief, Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, or Major Kemp as he was known to many, and honours his victories over Te Kooti. While Te Keepa is lauded as ‘a brave soldier & staunch ally of the N.Z. Government’, Te Kooti is described as a ‘murderer of women and children’.

These wars profoundly shaped the country we have become. From the more obvious obelisks to the names of towns and streets, there are many signposts to our colonial past that for iwi and hapū remain as painful reminders of hurt and loss. But how much do we collectively think (or care) about such markers and their impact on us today? Do these pieces of metal and stone only have the meaning we give them? Are they to be revered or reviled; honoured or ridiculed; or co-opted for a new purpose? Are the Bryce Streets scattered around New Zealand no more than a point of navigation, or are they permanent reminders of someone who was known to many Māori as Tangata Kōhuru – ‘The Murderous Man’. As I asked in 2017, what difference would removing these memorials or changing place names from our colonial past make?

Historical markers such as monuments and memorials create a link between three different situations: the event or person being memorialised; the building of the monument itself; and the ‘now’ – you standing in front of the marker and ‘learning’ from it.

I have broken this discussion into two parts. The first focussing primarily on the New Zealand context, and expands on some of the thinking associated with the piece written in 2017. In the second part I look at some international comparisons with a focus on the markers and monuments from the US Civil War and its aftermath.

Skills section

Visit the skills section of Te Akomanga to find some ideas as to how we can interrogate the memorials and monuments from our past to support a social inquiry approach to learning and support teachers and students to engage with issues and ideas critically.

Steve Watters, Senior Historian-Educator, 2020

How to cite this page

'What should we do with markers from our colonial past?', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/te-akomanga/contexts-activities/markers-from-colonial-past, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 25-Jan-2023

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