Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Statues are a window to our history

George Grey served two terms as governor between 1845 and 1868. Pushing over his statue is not going to change that. Illustration / Peter Bromhead
George Grey served two terms as governor between 1845 and 1868. Pushing over his statue is not going to change that. Illustration / Peter Bromhead

Stranded in the wastelands of weekend morning TV, I suspect current affairs show The Nation's attempts to topple Governor George Grey and Colonel Marmaduke Nixon from their respective pedestals in Albert Park and downtown Otahuhu will die a rapid death.

It must have been a very slow news day that persuaded editors to take the recent student "Rhodes Must Fall" campaigns against statues of the 19th century imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Cape Town and Oxford universities, and scratch around in Auckland for possible targets for similar expunging. The programme even sniffed around at the base of the huge obelisk erected in 1948 at the top of One Tree Hill by the John Logan Campbell Trust, in salute to the Maori people, hinting that Sir John's motives in bequeathing the monument, seen through 21st century eyes, were suspect.

With the civilised world newly aghast at the extent of the deliberate destruction of ancient monuments by Isis religious fanatics at the Syrian city of Palmyra, worrying about the fate of a couple of monuments to British war-makers from the mid-19th century New Zealand land wars might seem rather trivial.

But as historian Jock Phillips forcefully argued on the programme, despite both men having "blood on their hands" he opposed "evidence of the past [being] obliterated". Comparing it to book-burning, he said it was important to understand and document how past generations thought about things.

I've never been a great fan of memorialising contemporaries in stone or metal and was delighted when the hysteria for a waterfront mausoleum for yachtsman Sir Peter Blake, following his murder up the Amazon, was channelled into something more practical - the purchase of Kaikoura Island off Great Barrier as a living memorial.

Back in 2000, when politician Mike Lee and historian Graham Bush launched a campaign for a statue to former mayor Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, to acknowledge his campaign to stop Auckland's raw sewage being poured into the Waitemata Harbour, I favoured a water fountain instead. I admit I was wrong there. Toby Twiss's life-sized bronze has become a hit with tourists and locals alike. Visitors wrap themselves around him for selfies, while at night, I've spotted the odd tramp engaged in earnest conversation with him.

There are even a dwindling number of us who walk past and actually remember the cantankerous, single-minded trouble-maker who fought Auckland's Establishment to a standstill, and left for us a modern drainage and sewage treatment system. Cities need such touchstones.

George Grey served two terms as governor between 1845 and 1868 and served as an MP from 1874-1893, including a period as premier. Pushing over his statue is not going to change that. As for Colonel Marmaduke Nixon, the now, it seems, totally unknown warrior of Otahuhu, he was a retired British army officer who settled in Mangere in 1852. When the Waikato War broke out he formed the settlers' Mounted Defence Force and led a raid on a village at Rangiaowhia, full of defenceless women and children. Many died, including Nixon himself, who, mortally wounded, lingered on for three months before expiring. Phillips calls the raid "an appalling act of genocide," but argues the monument should remain as a vital link to our past.

The shame is that very few Aucklanders knows what that link is. Yet when he died in May 1864 Nixon was universally mourned by fellow settlers. The Daily Southern Cross details the public meeting in Auckland soon afterwards, attended by the Governor's private secretary, high military officers and local worthies to plan a monument to the hero's memory.

A fountain was suggested, and a scholarship. The Governor proposed "a small or plain monument" with the bulk of funds raised being given to Nixon's two sisters "who were in somewhat straitened circumstances". There was argument over whether it be erected in Remuera, Newmarket or on a site on Queen St near where Robbie now stands.

The end result was the existing 14 metre high obelisk in Otahuhu, subsequently to be joined by a World War I memorial. It's a link to our past that too few know or care about. Bowling it over would just contribute to this collective amnesia. We need more reminders of our past, warts and all, not less.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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