Michael Belgrave: Balanced view of NZ wars will be well-received

Waikato Wars. Photo / NZ Historic Places Trust
Waikato Wars. Photo / NZ Historic Places Trust

Michael Belgrave is a professor of history at Massey University, Albany.

Have we really forgotten the New Zealand Wars? A new book has been launched on the history of Waikato wars, with its author claiming that the New Zealand Wars have been forgotten, neglected in our history, in preference to Gallipoli and New Zealand's involvement in foreign wars.

This is just not true. Over the past 150 years the New Zealand Wars have always been central to New Zealand's history and even its popular culture. Keith Sinclair's 1959 A History of New Zealand devoted 41 pages to the New Zealand Wars and their causes and less than three to World War I.

James Cowan's The New Zealand Wars, published in 1922, remains a must read on the wars. He talked to both Maori and Pakeha veterans and the two volume work is arguably the best book written on New Zealand history before 1945.

The campaign histories of World War I, published alongside Cowan's history, were almost unread by comparison. More recently, James Belich's The New Zealand Wars and Judith Binney's magisterial account of the life of Te Kooti Te Turuki are among the most influential books on New Zealand history ever published.

Every year or so over the past few decades, a new book has emerged. It is not as if the historians have been just talking to themselves. From almost the end of the war New Zealanders were fascinated with their recent history.

When Rewi Maniapoto went to Auckland in 1879 he was mobbed by a crowd of a thousand people who had waited for hours in the rain to see the "hero of Orakau".

Perhaps the two most important New Zealand films before the 1960s were Rudall Hayward's silent and talkie versions of Rewi's Last Stand.

When Rewi Maniapoto went to Auckland in 1879 he was mobbed by a crowd of a thousand people who had waited for hours in the rain to see the "hero of Orakau".

Television NZ's New Zealand Wars is the most substantial historical documentary produced in New Zealand and The Governor, the 1977 biography of George Grey, was the most lavish historical drama ever undertaken. Available online, and still worth watching, it explores Grey's role in the wars of the both the 1840s and the 1860s.

We can only look back with regret on the demise of public television and lament the limited commitment to our history in our schools. But the problem with the New Zealand Wars is not that they have been forgotten, but that we think we already know everything about them.

Young people are being turned away from studying New Zealand history with the belief that they will be taught only about dastardly colonists and heroic Maori resisters. Students want to know about the past to understand it, but they should not be expected to atone for it: this is the job of the Treaty settlement process.

The best historians and the best teachers can show that the New Zealand Wars are every bit as complex as the Wars of the Roses and have even more influence on the way we live here.

But to understand our history, we need to get beyond the idea that all the villains are white and all the heroes brown.

I just hope that Vincent O'Malley's new history of the Waikato War does just that.

- NZ Herald

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