Louise Smith as Keita, the kuia that defied the Crown's surveyors. Image: RNZ

‘The Māori trouble’ at Waitara: Revisiting the Taranaki wars and myths set in stone

A new documentary by Mihingarangi Forbes and Great Southern Television for RNZ tells of the first conflicts over the fertile lands of Taranaki. 

A re-enactment shouldn’t be this touching. In the opening scenes of NZ Wars: The Stories of Waitara, a young wahine methodically plants her kūmara crops in the fertile Taranaki soil, unaware of the horror about to be brought on her people by the colonial government. Western history has a habit of tagging people as groups, dates and statistics. It allows the descendants of invaders to demand that those who have inherited a legacy of loss should “move on”. She may be an actress but in that moment she’s someone’s tupuna and I feel a very real fear in the pit of my stomach for what is about to happen to her.

Following on from the incredible 2017 documentary on the Battle of Ruapekapeka, creator and presenter Mihingarangi Forbes dives into the trenches once more at Waitara, and the first conflicts of the Taranaki wars. Forbes is tasked again with running up countless damp hillsides in service to the journey, and as usual she steers the waka with grace and gravitas.

Like Ruapekaka, it’s not just a story about people who were victims of invading forces. It’s about peaceful resistance, military strategy, the magnificent engineering of fortified pā and the bravery of those who fought. But most importantly, it’s Te Āti Awa’s story. Aside from NZ Wars historian Vincent O’Malley, all of the storytellers are iwi historians, leaders and descendants. It’s their voices that call through the mists of time and summon, with the help of modern filmmaking tools, the lived stories of their ancestors.

Through Te Āti Awa’s narrators, we learn that the story starts with a meeting of Taranaki chiefs at Manawapou in 1854. Among them, Te Rangitāke, the great diplomat, Te Matakātea, the infamous military strategist, and Hapurona, the fearless leader. There they discuss the growing appetite of the British for land and decide that what is being offered to iwi is of no value. They make an oath that there will be no more sales. Instead they will retain and develop their own lands.

This of course was unacceptable to the Crown land agents, representatives of a growing settler population that couldn’t stomach the idea of living in economic thrall to Māori. They embarked on a divide and rule mission, enticing one young Waitara chief, Te Teira, to sell them land without the permission of other rangatira. This is handled with great delicacy and kindness by the documentary. The Waitara land is contested to this day and recognised as the first spark in the wildfire of loss and degradation for Taranaki. Narrator Rāwiri Doorbar of Otaraua hapū instead acknowledges the pain of Te Teira’s descendants and places the blame with the land agents. It’s a masterful expression of compassion.

The great military leader, Hapurona. Image: RNZ

Another re-enacment shows a last ditch attempt at diplomacy, a hākari for iwi and government to meet and negotiate. Taranaki iwi make plain their desire not to fight with the settler government, with Hapurona delivering his famous karakia o Te Maungarongo, advocating for peace. Iwi historian Dr Ruakere Hond recites the words of the famous karakia over images of Hapurona delivering the same. It’s a moment filled with hope and ultimately, sadness.

The portrayal of the three ensuing conflicts is where the use of digital animation and AR really brings the story to life. We’re shown, overlaid on the actual landscapes, where pā stood, their scale and how they were used defensively. Drone footage is often overused by documentarians but here, used alongside the animations, it shows in stunning detail the very thing Te Āti Awa were fighting for.

The story is of course about the bravery of women too – from those who fought alongside the men on the front lines, to Keita, the kuia who pulled the surveyors pegs out of the ground in sight and defiance of British soldiers, to the young girl sent to climb the tallest peak in the mountain ranges to light a fire sending a message to the south that war had begun.

Even though a shaky ceasefire and a time of confusion for the settler population followed these battles, within 18 months Governor Grey would amass 18,000 troops and invade Waikato. In 1863 they would return to Taranaki with a scorched earth policy laying waste to the area over an 18-year period, after which the Crown would confiscate 1.2 million acres of land from Taranaki for defending their home.

Of course the real price was paid by Taranaki iwi over the next 160 years. In a particularly heartbreaking scene, Forbes and O’Malley visit the graveyard at the Taranaki cathedral. The headstones read: “Killed by hostile Maoris”, “those that fell in the Maori trouble of 1861” and “cruelly murdered by the rebel Maori at Waitara.” At a far corner of the church grounds, a single headstone lists a handful of rangatira. We learn from O’Malley it was considered offensive to let them be buried alongside British officers in the cemetery.

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This seems as fitting an illustration as any of how New Zealand history has been presented to date – the Crown were fighting a just war, Māori were rebels, these are truths set in stone. Initiatives to teach our history in schools will hopefully start to chip away at those ‘truths’ and let New Zealanders ask of themselves ‘what would I do if someone wanted to take my land and my identity? What wouldn’t I do to protect my family and community?’ The fields where Te Kohia and Puketakauere pā stood bear no markers whatsoever, no signs or plaques to indicate two of the most important conflicts in the country took place there. They are paddocks populated by cows that know nothing of the ghosts in their midst.

A headstone at St Mary’s, Taranaki Cathedral. Image: RNZ

Māori don’t remember their dead by gravestones though, they know the names of the ancestors that stood and fought through song and story. Documentaries like these expand our capacity for remembering, allowing Māori to share their oral histories after centuries of being made to read the books and headstones from the other side’s perspective. Surely that can only make us smarter and braver as a country.

There are some great extended interviews available too. I especially enjoyed the explainer by Ngamata Skipper about the three Te Āti Awa waiata poi that mark different chapters in the documentary. These are also stories of Waitara and deserve to be witnessed as much as the spoken retelling. They remember the sadness and celebrate resistance and peace, living history for ngā uri o Taranaki and a celebration of their continuing bravery.


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