For nearly a century an unusual and shocking war memorial has sat on the corner of Wakefield and Symonds Sts. It's unusual because it remembers the New Zealand Wars (1845-1872), and because Zealandia - the nation's spirit depicted in life-size bronze as a beautiful, bare-breasted woman - is not raised on a lofty pedestal. Instead, she stands among us mere mortals and faces the inscription.

The inscription is the shocking part: "In memory of the brave men belonging to the Imperial and colonial forces and the friendly Maoris who gave their lives for the country ... Through war they won the peace we know." The eye-catching, patronising phrase "friendly Maoris" is wince-worthy but worse is the lack of remembrance for those who fought against the Empire. And the peace those brave men won, like Pax Romana, has been a desert for many. (I once saw a woman kissing Zealandia passionately, glue bag in hand.)

Historian Jock Phillips says the monument was immediately out of date: planned before World War I by the Victoria League, who aimed to rustle up colonial troops to defend the motherland, it was only unveiled in 1920. A generation earlier, New Zealand war memorials were rare; Pakeha wanted to forget the wars. Unlike today, it was not because many thought the wars were unjust, but because winning them had been so ruddy difficult, thanks to (literally) ground-breaking Maori military innovations.

Zealandia has had a rough time: during the 1981 Springbok protests, she was tarred and feathered, then beheaded. She had to be given a new pate, and remodelled using photographs.


More recently the monument gained a replica olive branch, after the original had been absent more than 50 years. Admittedly it looks like a cross between a bedraggled nikau branch and a huge feather, and it hovers just by Zealandia's outstretched fingers, as if she is dusting cobwebs off the ledge. The flag she held in her other hand will return soon.

But is the monument so offensive that instead of being restored it should be pulled down, or perhaps left to decay, headless, its decline a reflection of its faded attitudes?

Absolutely not, says Phillips. Instead, an "interpretive panel" should be placed beside it, to explain its origins: "It's important that people confront the attitudes of a previous generation ... It's easy to condemn the past, and more important to understand."

Ngati Whatua geographer Ngarimu Blair agrees the monument should be looked after, as an extremely rare and therefore valuable public reminder of the New Zealand Wars, whatever its inscription. For him personally, the monument is a reminder of the loss of Maori economic and civic power as well as land.

Given the educational neglect of the New Zealand Wars, Blair is open to the idea of an interpretive panel. But, trusting the public's judgement, he "wouldn't want to go overboard" with explanations that might diminish visitors' own memorial interpretations.

Unintentionally, Zealandia's olive branch challenges us to look at a painful past; long may she cause unease.