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The Great War for New Zealand: Why political power and business interests shouldn’t mix

Buddy Mikaere reviews the historical recount of New Zealand’s wars and political climates in The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800 – 2000 and the messages it has for the future.  

I went to a small country primary school in South Waikato and one year we re-enacted the Battle of Pukehinahina/Gate Pa on the school rugby field. I think we observed Pukehinahina because our teachers admired the chivalry displayed by the Māori defenders and the Code of Conduct they fought under. But looking back I can’t understand why we didn’t instead do the Battle at Orakau. The site was only a 40 minute drive away from the school and it was surely more relevant. But during my whole childhood there was never a mention of the Waikato War bar once when I asked my Dad what the round steel structure was in the riverside park at Ngaruawahia where we regularly attended the Easter regatta.  Dad said he thought it was a part of a gunboat. That was it.

But the intervening years, particularly with the settlement of the Tainui Treaty claims  have seen a proper redress of this situation and Vincent O’Malley’s The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800 – 2000 is a sprawling summation of where we have got to. At nearly 700 pages it’s a big read too.

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The detail of what happened in the lead up to the invasion of the Waikato and prior to that the background to the Taranaki Wars is robustly told with enough facts and interpretation to blend together a coherent, but very much understated account. O’Malley writes in a very dry style which partly accounts for the understatement where startlingly facts and conclusions are revealed with little adjectival fanfare.  I found myself on several occasions mentally noting that “I didn’t know that” and the contribution that this combination to the book’s narrative of well known and obscure facts ensures interest is maintained.

The Great War for New Zealand will reward the discerning reader and any “newbie” to our history.

It would be untruthful to say that reading The Great War was an objective exercise for me. My affiliations include the Tauranga Moana iwi who largely supported the Kingitanga and Waikato in the dark days of the 1860s. It was that support that bought about our own bruising collision with the Empire’s military machine and the devious settler politicians who manoeuvred it to their advantage.

It is the political aspects of the book that stand out. I know much of the story and the machinations of the Auckland politicians and speculators (it’s hard to differentiate between their two roles) that profited enormously from the acquisition of cheap Māori land. They got another bite later when the 50- acre confiscated land grants to military settlers failed and the former soldiers either walked away or sold up for a pittance.

When thinking about the 1860’s wars I think we tend to flick directly to the battles with just a nod to the reasons and “justification”. I know that taking this “shortcut” is what fuels the continuing mamae, grief, felt by many Māori about the war and its aftermath and justifies the release of anger without fully understanding the why.  Understanding the why in the greater detail of The Great War serves to reinforce the outrage that the narrative evokes but the outrage is given a firmer footing and can provide a transition to affirmation and resolution.

There is regret at the thinly disguised racism that motivated politicians and others who clearly believed that despite the existence of a Treaty which was sealed with the words he iwi tatou – one people – it was nevertheless reasonable to treat an indigenous land owning people in this way. But on reflection this is the experience of colonialism around the world; why should it have been any different here?

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There is even more regret at the courage and tenacity of Māori Christian leaders like Wiremu Tarapipipi Te Waharoa bought in his ceaseless but ultimately wasted efforts to broker a peace. His attempts to establish a fair and proper administrative system for Māori within their own districts surely earn him a more elevated position in our history. He stands far above some of his political opponents whose Machiavellian feet of clay are ruthlessly exposed by the O’Malley detail.

I think the book would have benefitted by a more in depth examination of domestic life for Waikato Māori following the confiscations. There is a brief consideration of the Socio-economic post-war impact and the treatment of those Waikato people who attempted to return to their settlements on the outskirts of Auckland to find their properties ransacked and looted; their stock and horses long since stolen and sold; makes for poignant reading.  Amid the jeers and taunts of the settlers it is understandable that some turned to the millennial teachings of Tariao, as promulgated by the second Māori King Tawhiao, for spiritual comfort. But the book does not get down to this level probably because that requires an engagement with descendants which is one of the few elements missing from this scholarly work.

Through their Treaty settlements and the uncompromising stance adopted by leaders such as the late Sir Robert Mahuta, Tainui, after a shaky start, have established themselves as a power house in iwi politics and in the regional and national economy. You have to wonder what might have been had the promising commercial start the tribe made in the 1850s with their agriculture and horticulture activities not been overwhelmed and disrupted by the rapacious drive for Māori land that was the genesis for the wars of the 1860s.

The Great War contains many messages from the past for the future.  These include the importance of resilience and tenacity of purpose; the inherent danger of failing to separate political power from business interests and the shared development of a fair system to right grievous past wrongs and our growth as a united nation as a result.


The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000 (Bridget Williams Books, $80) is available at Unity Books.