Vincent O'Malley: Land Wars neglected orphan of New Zealand's history

150th Anniversary commemoration of the battle of Orakau, the most famous battle of the NZ Wars, which took place in 1864. Photo / NZ Herald
150th Anniversary commemoration of the battle of Orakau, the most famous battle of the NZ Wars, which took place in 1864. Photo / NZ Herald

Vincent O'Malley is the author of The Great War for New Zealand, published in October 2016 by Bridget Williams Books.

When the 150th anniversary of the battle of Rangiriri, one of the most important clashes in New Zealand history, was commemorated in November 2013 just one MP (Te Ururoa Flavell) showed up.

Overall spending on the Waikato War sesquicentenary (2013-14) has been estimated at no more than 1 per cent of government expenditure on World War I centennial activities.

I mention these facts in The Great War for New Zealand not to argue against marking World War I, but to make a case for paying greater attention to the wars fought on our own shores. The assertion that these conflicts have always been central to New Zealand history (Professor Michael Belgrave in the Herald on Tuesday) is at odds with this official neglect and naive in its assumption that evolving historical and public understanding are one and the same.

For much of the 20th century Pakeha New Zealanders remembered a heavily mythologised version of the New Zealand Wars, full of stories of mutual heroism and chivalry (such as the tale of "Rewi's last stand"). But when darker, more truthful accounts began to emerge from the 1970s on, the backlash was swift. Just ask James Belich. Or Tainui and other iwi.

They have never forgotten. And they have carried this history for too long on their own. It is time for other New Zealanders to embrace these difficult aspects of our nation's past.

It would be genuinely concerning if young people were fleeing from New Zealand history as Belgrave alleges. Instead, led by students from Otorohanga College, Gisborne and elsewhere, many are pleading with education officials to be taught it warts and all. Perhaps it is time their elders listened.

This has little to do with Treaty settlements. It is just about being mature enough as a nation to own our history, rather than existing in a collective state of denial and historical amnesia.

Nothing speaks more powerfully to how little New Zealand has cared about the wars fought here than the almost total neglect of some of the battle sites. If these were American Civil War heritage sites they would have gold-plated protection and recognition. Here? We put roads through the middle of them.

Fortunately, things are getting better. Part of the Rangiriri site, formerly part of State Highway 1, was recently returned to Tainui. A national day of commemoration for the New Zealand Wars has been announced, with iwi leaders emphasising that this will be an opportunity to remember all those who died, be they Maori or Pakeha.

And the response to my own book on the Waikato War suggests a public desire to learn more about this defining conflict fought on Auckland's doorstep.

These are all encouraging signs from a wider public that clearly understands the need for genuine reconciliation and debate about national identity.

Moving confidently into the future as a nation requires a robust understanding of where we have come from. For the New Zealand Wars this is not a case of "lest we forget" but rather "Me maumahara tatou - we must remember".

- NZ Herald

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