The Black Lives Matters movement has brought the debate about memorials to colonial-era Europeans back into sharp focus.

Yet it's also nothing new here in New Zealand. Attacks have been made - at least once - on nearly a quarter of the 123 statues of historical figures standing on public land, a study by the University of Otago has found.

People have attacked statues with everything from an axe and concrete cutter to a hammer.

Six statues have been decapitated a combined 11 times, while three were completely destroyed in attacks, lead researcher professor Nick Wilson said.

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"The statue of King George V in Matakana has been decapitated five times. A statue of World War I military leader Field Marshal Kitchener in Auckland was decapitated, probably with an axe, in 1931, and was then taken down and never replaced," he said.

With that in mind, here is a brief look at some historical figures commemorated around the country.

Captain James Cook

‘Why is it even coming here?’ Gisborne residents weigh in over the Captain Cook commemorations. Video / Leon Menzies

Captain James Cook's voyages of discovery helped set New Zealand and Australia on their paths to modern nationhood.

However, protests and attacks on one Captain Cook statue - erected at Gisborne's Tītīrangi Hill in 1969 - led to it last year being moved to the local museum.

Its former site on Tītīrangi Hill overlooked the coastline where Cook's crew met Māori, killing nine iwi members following a misunderstanding.

Another Cook statue still stands in Gisborne, at a reserve on Awapuni Rd, and was vandalised last week.

Cook spent a total of 328 days along New Zealand's coastline during his three voyages between 1768 and 1779.

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"Cook's relations with the Māori were frequently taut and ambivalent. He made every effort to avoid bloodshed and yet Māori were killed on all but the third voyage," the Te Ara Encyclopaedia of NZ says.

The New Zealand History website agreed, calling Cook's record "ambivalent" because despite his restraint, violent encounters still took place.

Yet Cook has also been praised for his humanity, as well as his "concern for the health of his crews and his efforts to fight off scurvy and other diseases", the Te Ara Encyclopaedia of NZ says.

Sir George Grey

Sir George Grey's Auckland statue was also doused in red paint last week. Photo / Dean Purcell
Sir George Grey's Auckland statue was also doused in red paint last week. Photo / Dean Purcell

Sir George Grey is among the most influential figures in New Zealand's colonial history.

He twice served as New Zealand's Governor from 1845-1854 and from 1861-1868 and as Premier from 1877-1879.

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His statue in Auckland's Albert Park was last week doused in red paint in a vandal attack.

Grey - who was New Zealand's third Governor - was said to keep company with Māori chiefs.

According to historian Michael King, Grey "learned the Māori language and persuaded Māori authorities to commit their legends and traditions to writing, some of which were subsequently published".

He also oversaw a scheme in which about 30 million acres of South Island land and three million acres of North Island land were acquired by settlers from Māori.

However, this led to increasing friction.

Not only did some Māori contest the process by which the land was bought, by 1858, settler numbers had climbed rapidly so that their population of 60,000 was equal to that of Māori, the Te Ara Encyclopaedia of NZ said.

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The Māori population, meanwhile, was in decline, thought to have fallen to about three-fifths of the population when Captain Cook visited.

In Grey's second term as Governor, the New Zealand Wars also reached their height.

He ordered the invasion of the Waikato to attack the heartland of the Māori Kīngitanga independence movement and brought more than 10,000 Imperial British troops into New Zealand.

The invasion led to the confiscation of 12,000sq km of Māori land and set the tone for many of the grievances Māori feel to this day.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield

A drawing of Edward Gibbon Wakefield in 1823. Photo / Supplied
A drawing of Edward Gibbon Wakefield in 1823. Photo / Supplied

Edward Wakefield's bronze bust stands atop Wellington's Mt Victoria, but is also potentially in line for removal by Wellington City councillors.

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His family is sometimes honoured as Wellington's founding citizens.

Wakefield "masterminded" the large-scale British settlement of New Zealand and also played significant roles in the settlement of South Australia and Canada, the New Zealand History website states.

His ideas and political connections played a key role in the forming of the New Zealand Company.

The company sent early settlers to Wellington and founded New Plymouth, Nelson and Whanganui. It was also involved in the settlement of Christchurch and Otago.

Wakefield earlier developed his theories of "civilising" southern colonies in Australia and New Zealand, while serving three years in a London prison for kidnapping and marrying a 15-year-old English heiress.

The New Zealand Company also ran into repeated controversies.

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It deceived and pressured Māori into selling land, and acted at times without the backing of the British Government.

"Considering its dubious practices, it is easy to disparage the New Zealand Company, but it had a remarkable impact on immigration to New Zealand," the Te Ara Encyclopaedia of NZ says.

"Of the 18,000 settlers who came directly from Britain between 1840 and 1852, about 14,000 were brought in by the company or its successors."

Richard John Seddon

The statue of former premier Richard Seddon adorned with a pro-Civil Union Bill party balloon in 2004. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The statue of former premier Richard Seddon adorned with a pro-Civil Union Bill party balloon in 2004. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Richard Seddon was New Zealand's 15th and longest serving Premier (Prime Minister).

Seddon spent 13 years in office from 1893 to 1906, and his statue stands outside Parliament Buildings in Wellington.

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Often referred to as "King Dick", women won the right to vote during his time in office, while New Zealand also implemented the world's first taxpayer-funded pension scheme.

Seddon was also regarded as a populist ruler, who praised British imperialism.

After New Zealand followed on from California and Australia in imposing a tax on every Chinese person entering the country, Seddon's Government raised it from £10 per head to £100 per head.

In doing so, Seddon compared Chinese people to monkeys, and used the term "Yellow Peril" to promote racist politics in New Zealand.

University of Otago professor Tom Brooking said the popular impression of Seddon was that of an anti-intellectual populist, who did a successful sideline in demagoguery, racism, jingoism and misogynism.

But his character was more nuanced than that.

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On his relationship with Māori, Brooking called it complex and uneven.

He rewarded loyal iwi, but failed with others, doing his best "to help improve the lot of an indigenous people whom he truly admired", Brooking said.