If history teaches us anything, it’s that there’s no single “true” account of the past. What people believe happened is usually at odds with another version of events. How do we sort these contradicting recollections out? We can’t.
The version of New Zealand history I was taught at school differed wildly from James Belich’s account of the New Zealand Wars.
So I was intrigued when a colleague showed me an email claiming Tukoroirangi Morgan had embellished (“This is not true”) and was loose with his facts (“It is not accurate”) in an opinion piece on what he saw as the new coalition Government’s attempt to suppress Māori people and annihilate their culture.
History, as we know, is written by the victors, so it would be less than surprising if accounts of colonial wars had been sanitised. Absolute truth is difficult to find outside registries of births and deaths.
The official settler account holds that Tainui Toa were driven into the swamp at Rangiriri and shot. If rape or shooting of prisoners happened, as was passed down through Tainui waiata and haka, it is unlikely the perpetrators (the British forces) would have later admitted to it.
At Parihaka, where peaceful opposition to land grabs led to a siege in 1881, there was no mention of rape by the European troops until the Sim Report in 1920. There it was claimed children had been conceived as a result of those rapes.
Do troops tend to rape and murder prisoners during wartime? (Hint, that’s a rhetorical question.)
So, what do we have in opposition to the settler accounts? Only oral histories, scorned by those who believe recorded history is absolute truth and scientific fact.
The Battle of Te Ranga in 1864, following the Māori victory at Gate Pā, is generally considered an overwhelming victory for the British troops. But to Tauranga iwi, it was an act of treacherous murder.
I heard the Ngāi Te Rangi version during a visit to Mauao (Mount Maunganui) for an AUT noho marae at Tahuwhakatiki Marae in 2011.
In this account, Māori were surrounded by the British troops while they held an open-air church service and massacred. Should we doubt this version because it’s based on oral history and doesn’t appear in the official, colonial record?
Nineteenth-century businessman and amateur archaeologist Heinrick Schliemann decided he could find Troy by reading Homer’s Iliad, basically oral history that, after centuries, had been written down.
He discovered the ancient Hittite city of Hisarlik, generally agreed to have been the Troy (or Ilium) of legend. Oral history can be correct, and written history, as anyone who has read Herodotus knows, can be fanciful.
Frederick Maning, a settler of Kohukohu, Hokianga in the the 1830s, wrote that a Māori chief claimed to be descended from a giant lizard. This was almost certainly a mistranslation of taniwha, which, according to the dictionary Te Aka Māori, means “water spirit, monster, dangerous water creature, powerful creature, chief, powerful leader, something or someone awesome”. Cultural context and knowledge of reo Maori is everything in this instance.
So the Tainui whakatauki “He piko, he taniwha, he piko, he taniwha, Waikato taniwha rau” doesn’t mean there’s a giant lizard at every bend in the river, it means there’s a power.
Tukoroirangi Morgan is a latter-day Tainui taniwha. It would be unwise to dismiss his account, passed on by generations of his iwi, as untrue or inaccurate.
James Mahoney is Ngāti Pākeha who learned te reo Māori and an award-winning journalist who retired to Waiheke Island, where drives a taxi.