Already it is October, and October 12, 2019 brings memories of war to the fore.

It will be the 103rd anniversary of the worst day in our nation's military history when, at the Bellevue Spur, Flanders, Belgium, 846 New Zealand soldiers fell in battle, and many more were wounded.

Barely a week beforehand 340 members of their brotherhood had also been killed at another nearby site. In our national psyche, this barbarous set in the theatre of war is named "Passchendaele" and we acknowledge it, commemorate it, and talk about it freely.

Yet, on that very same date, but 50 years earlier, a perhaps even more significant event in our nation's history happened on the very doorstep of Napier, at Omarunui. It is an event that, for some, is so visceral that it could have happened yesterday. Injuries and hurt are still carried and talking about it comes less easily than tragedies in foreign lands.


For it was at Omarunui that the Pai Marire contingent, including members of Ngāti Matepu, Ngāti Māhu, Ngāti Tū, Ngai Te Ruruku and Ngāti Hineuru, came under attack by a force of approximately 200 settler militia and an equal number of local Māori in an alliance of Ngāti Kahungunu leaders including Ihaka Waaka (Ngāti Rakaipaaka), Pitiera Kopu (Ngai Te Apatu), Tareha Te Moananui (Ngāti Pārau), Karaitiana Takamoana and Te Hāpuku (Ngāti Te Whatuiapiti and Ngāti Rangikoianake), Henare Tomoana (Ngāti Hawea) and Renata Kawepo (Ngai Te Upokoiri).

What exactly happened, and why events happened in the way they did, is a matter of ongoing debate and is deserving of good scholarship. That is why the decision to implement a national history curriculum is a profoundly positive idea.

Like the upraised consciousness about climate change it is being driven by the young, impassioned students, who reject the binary divisions that have been used to explain our nation's past: bad/good; rebel/loyalist; terrorist/patriot.

In 1866, our nation was in transformation, in an emerging state, betwixt and between. The parties at Omarunui included the English Government, New Zealand Colonial Government, Hawke's Bay Provincial Government, regional Maori rangatira, and the churches, including Church Missionary Society, Roman Catholics, and the new millennial movement of Pai Marire.

Each party was motivated by its own needs and ambitions.

The governmental entities were rapacious for land and establishing their sovereignty. Settlers were intent on protecting their new settlement at Ahuriri. Local rangatira were expressing their tinorangatiratanga by force of arms, the principle of "ringa kaha", as a result of having been driven into exile after the 1824 musket war assault at Te Pakake, (the Iron Pot at Ahuriri).

For the Pai Marire followers, their encampment at Omarunui was a specific response to the fact that the world that they cherished was crumbling around them, and they felt that their very survival was imperilled.

Ultimately all war is fratricide, brother killing brother. The healing response can only be achieved through relational connection and reconnection, that process Maori call whakawhanaungatanga, building familyhood, and thus, ultimately nationhood.


So, it is timely that on September 12, the Rt Hon. Jacinda Ardern announced that New Zealand history will be taught in all schools and all kura by 2022.

She said: "The curriculum changes we are making will reset a national framework so all learners and ākonga are aware of key aspects of New Zealand history and how they have influenced and shaped the nation."

It is with a sense of cautious optimism that our national history can be told in a way that illustrates its complexity and nuance and goes beyond the simplistic labelling of perpetrator or victim.

Mat Mullany is a historian of Ngāti Pārau descent

The public is invited to join descendants of those involved in the conflict at Omarunui, and other citizens, at the MTG Century Theatre tonight at 7pm to share in the insights of four "top-flight" speakers and hear their views on aspects of the New Zealand Wars and the national history curriculum.