Travelling around New Zealand, historian Vincent O'Malley is always baffled at how some of our most significant historic sites are treated.

Ōrākau in Waikato, where one of the most important battles in the New Zealand Wars was fought, has a highway through the middle of it.

Dozens of other places across the land, where Māori and colonial forces died in battle, can be more difficult to find than a bed and breakfast.

"A lot of New Zealanders live close to these sites and are completely unaware," O'Malley said.

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"It is as if we are a bit embarrassed and not sure how to deal with our history."

That is where O'Malley's latest book, The New Zealand Wars: Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa, comes in. His previous book, The Great War for New Zealand, focused on the Waikato War, 1863-64, in great detail across its 700 pages.

O'Malley said in comparison his latest work was more "accessible", for both young and old.

It gave short overviews of the wars, fought between 1845 and 1872 and stretching from the Far North to Wairau - near Blenheim - in the south, alongside contemporary context.

"Any discussion of contemporary Māori poverty that fails to acknowledge the long history of invasion, dispossession and confiscation is missing a vital part of the story," as O'Malley writes.

New Zealand had "turned a corner" in addressing its collectively bloody history, which had gone through various stages of recollection, O'Malley said.

In the early 20th century there was a "burst of nostalgia for the pioneering period" among Pākehā, which saw the wars reframed as "chivalrous and heroic conflicts between two worthy foes".

That mythology was used to sow the seeds that New Zealand had the "best race relations in the world".

But O'Malley said that version of history was always one-sided.

"The reality is they were far bloodier."

The New Zealand Wars: Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa, by Vincent O'Malley. Photo / Supplied
The New Zealand Wars: Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa, by Vincent O'Malley. Photo / Supplied

Best estimates put Māori casualties at 4250, including 2250 killed, during a period when Māori numbered about 59,000 across the country.

The death rate was far greater at local levels, including in Tūranga where in one week 10 per cent of the male population were killed.

It is estimated 560 British and colonial troops were killed, and 1050 wounded in the wars.

The Crown also confiscated 3.7 million acres of Māori land over this period, including 1.2 million in Waikato and another 1.2 million in Taranaki.

O'Malley said it was important New Zealand confronted that history, as difficult as it was, and he was buoyed on by a recent increase in awareness.

He looks to the petition started in 2015 by students at Ōtorohanga College for a national day of remembrance, which culminated in Rā Maumahara, announced the following year.

The first Rā Maumahara took place on March 11 last year, commemorating the first battle of the New Zealand Wars at Kororāreka on March 11, 1845.

The next Rā Maumahara would take place on October 28, to acknowledge the signing of He Whakaputanga, the 1835 Declaration of Independence of by Māori chiefs.

O'Malley said there was still a long way to go, and he was pushing for more New Zealand history to be taught in schools.

"Schools tend to shy away from conflict, and put this in the too-hard basket. There needs to be some clear direction from the Ministry of Education."

He hoped his latest book could be used as a resource to kickstart the process.

Other ways to raise awareness included observance days, as suggested by historian Malcolm Mulholland last year.

O'Malley said it could even be as simple as changing existing anniversary days in appropriate places, such as Taranaki Anniversary Day to Parihaka Day.

He would also like to towns and cities share more of their true history through heritage trails.

"Let's remember, understand, embrace and own our history, because it is a big part of who we are as a nation."

The New Zealand Wars

• Fought between 1845 and 1872, from the Far North to Wairau - near Blenheim - in the south.

• The sacking of Kororāreka on March 11, 1845, in the Bay of Islands, seen as the start of the New Zealand Wars.

• An estimated 2250 Māori died during the wars and another 2000 were wounded. An estimated 560 British and colonial troops died and 1050 were wounded.

• On December 8, 2015, Ōtorohanga College students presented a 12,000-strong petition to Parliament calling for a national day of remembrance.

• The first Rā Maumahara (day of remembrance) was held in Northland on March 11, 2018, commemorating the sacking of Kororāreka.

• The next Rā Maumahara will take place on October 28 this year in Taranaki, the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence by Māori chiefs in 1835.