Editorial: Pride of colonial fighters worthy of at least a sigh

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National holiday for a battle such as Orakau may be too much but sites where blood was spilled are sacred

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / NZ Herald
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / NZ Herald

The Prime Minister is probably not correct to say few New Zealanders know what happened at Orakau. As the site of the last battle of the Waikato war, the name at least is familiar to those at school when New Zealand history received sketchy attention. But John Key is probably right that few of us know where Orakau is.

The site of the battle, fought 150 years ago this week, is on a dairy farm 15km southeast of Te Awamutu. It will be signposted from main roads like many historic places around the country but few will go to see it. At many of these places there is nothing but farmland to see. But at others there are remnants of redoubts and trenches where it's possible to stand in the country silence and imagine the tension, fury and bloodshed the earthworks have seen.

After a commemoration at Orakau, attended by the Governor-General, the Tainui King and iwi leaders on Tuesday, King Tuheitia's spokesman, Tukoroirangi Morgan, rued the fact that "these battles were in effect New Zealand's own civil war, yet most New Zealanders would know more about Gallipoli than they would know about Orakau or Gate Pa".

It is easier to mark a military experience in which all New Zealanders were on the same side. The colonial conflicts remain so sensitive that historians do not know what to call them. "Maori wars" was dropped long ago, "land wars", if that was all they were, became too prosaic. "New Zealand wars" was the title James Belich gave them when he revised the historical record to declare most of them a military draw and moral victory for the Maori side.

Let academics argue about that. The Gallipoli campaign is proof that the result can be immaterial to the pride of those who fought and their descendants. Nor does the strategic wisdom of generals or the quality of decisions in the field matter very much in a lasting commemoration.

A suggestion was put to the Prime Minister that Orakau was worth a national holiday. That might be taking it too far. It would be a mistake to give any of the battles a status to rival Waitangi Day, as Anzac Day does in the eyes of many. From any point of view, the colonial wars were a failure of the Treaty and they did nothing to revive it. The Treaty was declared a legal nullity a decade or so later and had to wait another century for a revival, marked by a new national holiday.

Thanks to the Treaty's observance today, Waikato Maori have received an apology and compensation for land confiscated after the war, and recognition of their interest in the river and the region. This and other settlements, so many in recent years that the end is in sight, are more worthy of celebration than any battle.

But it's human nature to remember acts of war more than peace. Those who put their lives on the line in a common cause at Rangiriri, Orakau and other battlefields have made those places sacred. There should be something at all of them to remind today's casual visitor that parts of New Zealand were violently contested. In the peace and silence of the surrounding countryside it will seem like all of 150 years ago.

- NZ Herald

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