Gavin Bishop, autor of Patu: The New Zealand Wars, and Ataria Sharman (Image: Archi Banal)
Gavin Bishop, autor of Patu: The New Zealand Wars, and Ataria Sharman (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksOctober 26, 2023

The extraordinary circumstances that led to writing Patu: The New Zealand Wars

Gavin Bishop, autor of Patu: The New Zealand Wars, and Ataria Sharman (Image: Archi Banal)
Gavin Bishop, autor of Patu: The New Zealand Wars, and Ataria Sharman (Image: Archi Banal)

Ataria Sharman talks with acclaimed children’s book author and illustrator Gavin Bishop about his latest book.

I’ve long hungered for more on the New Zealand Wars. Growing up in 1990s Aotearoa, I learnt about the Industrial Revolution and other Eurocentric topics at high school, with a few washed-out classes on the Treaty of Waitangi. It wasn’t until university classes in Māori studies I realised how much I didn’t know, what I hadn’t been taught.

Finally, in 2023, New Zealand history (including the New Zealand Wars) is now compulsory in schools. We can’t move forward without acknowledging our past. Patu: The New Zealand Wars is a new book by children’s author and illustrator Gavin Bishop (Tainui, Ngāti Awa) – a resource for homes, kura, schools and libraries ready to take on the challenge of teaching something so integral to our history and long brushed under the covers.

To open Patu is to be greeted by the vibrant and painstakingly crafted illustrations Bishop is renowned for. Unlike the digital files many illustrators use today, Bishop still paints on paper. He makes the portraits using the scratchboard technique, where sheets are prepared with white chalk or clay beneath black ink, scratching through the ink to uncover the white base.

What amazed me most about Patu, other than the full-bodied and powerful art, was learning about Bishop’s tūpuna – his great-grandparents, Irihāpeti Te Paea Hahau Te Wherowhero, eldest daughter of King Te Wherowhero of Waikato, and John Horton McKay – and the impact of the wars on them and their descendants.

As I soon discovered, it was a series of remarkable circumstances that began the career of Bishop and the uncovering of his whakapapa and, later on, his latest book, Patu.

Ataria Sharman: Where did your journey in writing and illustration begin?

Gavin Bishop: I studied painting at the School of Fine Arts at Canterbury University. I thought I would be a painter, but soon found it impossible to live as one, so I became a secondary school art teacher. I taught art for 30 years before becoming a full-time writer and illustrator.

The writing began in 1978. I had no idea what I was doing. There was a chance comment from someone I was talking to; they asked, “Have you ever thought about writing a book for children?” In my reply, I told them it was odd that they asked that, but it’s one of the things I like the idea of.

Oxford University Press was still here in Aotearoa; they’re gone now. I contacted them and they said they wanted to see something with a strong New Zealand perspective. I thought, well, I’ll write about something local, which got me thinking about the sheep farms in Canterbury. So, I wrote a picture book about a sheep called Bidibidi.

I sent my draft to them with a few illustrations – posted by the way, as there was no internet. They said, “Oh, we like this, but it needs a lot of work.” It was a nice way of saying it was pretty amateurish, but we’ll work with you. My editor, Wendy Harrex, the first thing she said was, “It’s too long. There’s too much text for a picture book. Reduce it.”

I didn’t know how to do that. Wendy told me to take one page at a time, rewrite and reduce it by half by chopping the extra words and descriptors. I went through the book page by page and would post Wendy something on a Monday after working on it at the weekend.

In the meantime, I got an idea for another book set in Christchurch: Mrs McGinty and the Bizarre Plant. I knew more about how to write succinctly and keep the words simple, allowing the pictures to be the most critical part of the book. I sent that to them and they said this is good, much better, we can publish this. That’s why it was published before Bidibidi.

What about your interest in Māori history?

It’s something I’ve always been interested in. It was tricky back then because my granddad came from the Waikato, but it was so long ago that, as a family, we lost all connection with people there who were his close relatives. So, In the late 1980s, my brother and I decided to take a trip up north to find out about our whakapapa.

My mother’s middle names, Irihāpeti and Hinepau, were our only clues. My brother thought we’d start in Whakatāne because we knew Whakatāne was a link to our past, but we had no idea where to go and nobody to meet. So we went to the museum.

The guy behind the desk could see we were searching for something. We told him, and he asked if we had any names. We said, “Mum. Her name was Irihāpeti Hinepau.” He knew there was a lot of Hinepau around, so he sent us to Poroporo, the Ngāti Pūkeko marae and told us that in the house nearby, there was an elderly woman. We went to visit her.

When we arrived, we met Ena Chamberlain. She asked how she could help us, and we said we were trying to find family. She knew our granddad Benjamin McKay but thought he’d died without issue, meaning he’d died without having children. But he’d had five children, and the youngest was our mother. Ena was also short for Hinepau; her grandmother and our grandfather were brother and sister – a whole week of discoveries just like that.

Then we caught the bus to Turangawaewae Marae at Ngaruawāhia to the Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu celebrations. We went quietly alone and stood outside and waited. As we sat quietly, people came over to ask us who we were. We told them we were Benjamin McKay’s grandchildren; they knew the family. McKay was one of 12 children, and descendants of all those 12 were at the marae for that occasion. A kaumātua, Rua Cooper, took us to his caravan (he’d travelled from Auckland) and formally adopted the two of us into the whānau. It was incredibly moving.

On the last day, we caught the bus back up to Auckland for the flight home. I told my brother there was one more place we needed to go, Te Whare Kahurangi, The Archives of the Diocese of Auckland. We knew my granddad and his family were staunch Anglicans. So we went and asked if they had anything about Waikato and Port Waikato, and the lady there found us an old book. In it were handwritten records of baptisms in the Waikato in the 1860s, with my grandad and his siblings’ names listed on one page. It was utterly amazing.

We got on our plane and flew home. A few years later, my brother helped those we’d found on that trip organise a big family reunion for the descendants of Irihāpeti Hahau in the 1990s. Eventually, my brother moved to Hamilton, lectured in Māori Education at Waikato University, and got in touch with many whānau. We stay in touch; we know who to contact if we need to. It has inspired me to keep thinking about it.

Inside Patu, by Gavin Bishop

Patu interweaves your family history, highlighted in the whakapapa at the back of the book. Can you share your experience of bringing their stories into this book?

Most of the information at the end of Patu came to light at that reunion in the early 1990s. A big tent was set up, and you were encouraged to bring photographs, written material, birthdates and names from your family, which were scanned and returned to you to take home. Then they put together this enormous book, a vast volume containing all the material from my great-grandmother’s family.

I bought a copy each for my kids and one for myself. That book was invaluable when it came to writing those fragments at the back of the book. I kept the focus on my granddad and grandmother to show how ordinary families were affected by the events of the times.

We knew we had whakapapa Māori, but my granddad never told my mother anything other than giving her the tūpuna names Irihāpeti and Hinepau. He never explained the meaning of those names; she never knew. Later, my brother and I realised that those names were the key to discovering our whakapapa. 

My granddad spoke Māori fluently, as did his sister. Mum would tell us how she remembered them sitting outside on the verandah, speaking te reo to one another. They never taught the children because you were punished for speaking te reo at school. They were very cautious and played the Māori connection down. He married a Pākehā woman; some members of her family were so angry they never spoke to her again.

Even though my great-grandmother got some land back on the lower slopes of the Taupiri mountain after the raupatu (confiscation of land). With her close connection to the Kīngitanga, she managed to get that land returned within her lifetime; she fought long and hard to get it. As far as I know, she is buried at Taupiri Mountain with her other brothers and sisters, including King Tāwhiao.

With New Zealand’s history being taught in schools starting in 2023, Patu is a valuable resource. Why are we now bringing these historical narratives, like the New Zealand Wars, into the light after all these years?

We were taught mainly British propaganda when I was at school in the 1950s and 60s. I still remember writing “Good Governor Grey” as a heading in my social studies book. The Māori were the baddies, they did all these terrible things, and the British were these fine, upstanding people. There was no mention of taking land; we didn’t learn what raupatu was.

That’s the information we were fed as kids. They were lies, they were to make the British seem to be correct. That’s another thing that keeps me going and doing more to address that balance. To make people stop, think and look at it.

Your previous works, such as The House that Jack Built, skilfully explore the complex narratives of colonisation in New Zealand. What motivates you to tell the dual perspectives of Māori and Pākehā, and how did it inform your approach to Patu?

I couldn’t write about the New Zealand Wars without looking at both sides, although I think what the British did was awful. In Patu, at the end, I make the point that the British won the war, not because of their technology or fighting techniques but by sheer numbers. So many Pākehā came and settled they swamped tangata whenua and put legislation in place.

These laws affected my family: The Native Lands Act of 1862, The Native Schools Act of 1867, the Public Works Act of 1864 and many others. They were set up to disenfranchise Māori. To discourage them from speaking their language. That’s what I wanted to show, that Māori were punished for standing up for their rights.

In saying that, I didn’t want to use a sledgehammer to tell the story. I wanted it to be strong and slightly emotional, so I chose to finish the book with my granddad and mother to bring it back to ordinary people. Thousands of people across Aotearoa will have a similar story to theirs.

Patu: The New Zealand wars by Gavin Bishop ($40, Puffin) can be purchased from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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