The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000
by Vincent O'Malley
(Bridget Williams Books, $80)
It is a sad commentary on New Zealand's interest in its own history that the most recent previous book-length account of the conflict in the Waikato, which had such a huge impact on the development of this country, was written in 1879 by John Featon, an artillery volunteer in the war who later became a journalist.
However, Vincent O'Malley's epic volume almost justifies the wait. This is a great book in every way. It is massive in size; its 688 pages printed on high-quality paper weighing in at a mighty 2.5kg (so heavy it is awkward to read in bed).
The only real flaw in the production is that the index is not up to the standard required of such an important work.
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It is impressive in its scope, embracing not only the actual fighting in 1863-64, but also
the much more important causes and consequences.
O'Malley's tale starts with the first contacts between Europeans and Waikato Maori in the early 1800s; describes the halcyon days of the 1840s and 50s when trade and security provided by Waikato made iwi prosperous and Auckland settlers complacently well-fed; traces the rise of the King Movement and the very different ways it was perceived by Maori and European; follows the aftermath of the fighting, with its disastrous impact on Maori and unfavourable consequences for most settlers; and concludes with the signing into law of the Waikato Raupatu Claims Settlement Act in 1998 and the beginnings of recognition by Pakeha that the full story of the war deserves to be understood, acknowledged and properly commemorated.
For a book of such importance it is a remarkably easy read, a process helped by good design and the superb use of illustrations depicting the main characters and places referred to in the text. And, for a work on such a contentious topic, it is also refreshingly even-handed.
There is no doubt O'Malley's sympathies lie with Waikato, but that is because the overwhelming weight of evidence points to their being the victims of undeserved aggression, and he acknowledges those Europeans who behaved honourably and those Maori whose actions contributed to the tragedy.
Of course, it is in the nature of our time that commentary on this book will focus on who was to blame for starting a war that reshaped New Zealand's story in a nasty and by no means inevitable way.
But O'Malley points out there are many directions in which to point an accusing finger: the remote and ill-informed British Government in whose name the war was fought; the duplicitous and ambitious Governor Sir George Grey; colonial politicians eager to profit from land speculation; settlers hungry for cheap land and happy to believe the worst of Maori; even some Maori who seemed only too willing to provide the settlers with an excuse to invade.
The best answer, as O'Malley writes, is that at this point in time blame is not really the issue - mutual understanding is far more important - and that is why The Great War for New Zealand deserves to be Book of the Year. It is not just an exceptionally good piece of work, but one that should help us come to a better recognition of how New Zealand arrived at where it is today and, therefore, how to work towards a better and more honest future.