National | NZ Land Wars

Increased interest on land wars remembrance day

Celebrations for the reopening of the recreated Rangiriri trenches.

Today is the annual observance of Te Pūtake o te Riri – He Rā Maumahara, the National Day of Commemoration for the New Zealand Wars.

Tauranga is the host this year, in what is the sixth year of officially commemorating a part of New Zealand’s history that for decades had been put to the side and, for many, forgotten about.

The New Zealand Wars took place between 1845 and 1872, with a series of skirmishes and battles at various sites around the North Island. The impact was extensive, with nearly 3000 fatalities and millions of acres of Māori land confiscated as a result.

A petition organised by a group of Otorohanga College students and presented to Parliament in 2015 was instrumental in getting a national day of recognition across the line.

The first year of official commemorations took place in 2017 in Russell, 145 years after the wars ended.

Now, six years on, historian Vincent O’Malley says Aotearoa is turning a corner in terms of how we view and recognise this dark and controversial chapter in New Zealand history.

“I think that there is a greater interest in understanding these difficult aspects of our past and people understand that we can’t turn away from these events. Even though a lot of our history is stuff that many people would prefer not to remember, we need to be big enough to remember those aspects of the past that are bloody and brutal,” O’Malley says.

In Tauranga, where the commemorations this year are being held, local New Zealand Wars historian Buddy Mikaere (Ngāti Pūkenga, Ngāti Ranginui) says more people than ever are taking an interest in the wars.

“I run a number of events every year to commemorate two of the battles that took place here, and I have noticed that the numbers have just continued to grow.”

Mikaere says this is partly down to the change in the school history curriculum.

“So many more schools come. We would probably see somewhere near 2000 kids every year coming to visit the sites and hearing the stories.”

He says the evolution of New Zealand society has also played apart, something he calls Māori becoming more mainstream.

“It’s just an ongoing reflection of things. Like everybody says kia ora these days and nobody thinks twice about it. So we have all these little things across the board and I think this is just one of the outputs of that.”

O’Malley says a number of factors influenced the lack of keenness to acknowledge the New Zealand Wars previously.

“One is that huge numbers of New Zealanders were denied an awareness of New Zealand history in their school years, or if they did learn anything about New Zealand history, it was a rose-tinted version of it.

“There was also a disjunction in terms of how Māori and Pākehā remembered these wars for a long time. For example, Pākehā often referred to the commemorations as celebrations because they thought that battles like Orakau had brought Māori and Pākehā closer together. So while Pākehā publicly celebrated this history, Māori privately grieved it.”

This is why, O’Malley says, having an official day of commemoration for the New Zealand Wars and learning about the history of them is important to help end what he calls historical ignorance around the wars.

“There was this view that talking about these conflicts was a recipe for division, and it made people feel uncomfortable. I think my message has always been that having that dialogue is actually a basis for genuine reconciliation about our past and allows us to come together as a nation if we have that basic sheer understanding of our history.”

Mikaere agrees and says that to understand why things are as they are now, you have to understand how the past was, so the same mistakes are not repeated.

“Even though the war was over 150 years ago, it came to have an impact on the way things are for my family and how things are in Tauranga,” Mikaere says.

“Our land got taken off us because we were assumed to be in rebellion. That pushed us all out to the outer edges of the city. But now, the city is expanding, it’s coming to us. So it does continue to impact today.”

Despite the success of the annual commemorations and the fact New Zealand history is being rolled out across all schools for the first time, O’Malley says there are still things we can do to recognise the significance of the New Zealand Wars.

For O’Malley, this starts with the battle sites themselves, many of which have been left in a state of disrepair and neglect.

“The way we’ve marked them historically is to demolish the pā and run a road through the middle,” O’Malley says.

“We’ve got to work on protecting the sites and promoting them. For example, wouldn’t it be great to have an app so that people who were driving by these places were alerted that a historical site was coming up so that they could make a decision as to where they wanted to stop and investigate it.”

O’Malley says the development of the Rangiriri and Ruapekapeka pā sites and plans for a New Zealand Wars heritage centre on the site of the Gate Pā battle in Tauranga are just some of the positive things being done at the sites so far.

He also hopes in the future the official day of commemoration for the New Zealand Wars could become somewhat akin to Anzac Day in the consciousness of the New Zealand public.

“I think our understanding will grow over time. As I say, I think we’ve started to turn a corner in the last four or five years. There’s still a long way to go, but I’m hopeful for the future,” O’Malley says.

“I know there’s been some debate around whether it should be a public holiday or not. I think at the moment, that’s probably not the really important point. The point is to get the day well established and for awareness of it to grow over time.”

Mikaere says Tauranga is a great example of how far New Zealand has come in terms of growing awareness of the New Zealand Wars and people beginning to engage more with this history.

“I’m particularly encouraged by what I see in Tauranga. We’ve got lots of new businesses coming to town, and I’ve just been so impressed by how those businesses embrace the whole thing. The attitude I am seeing is ‘we are in Tauranga now, we had better find out a bit more about what happened here’.

“We also have lots of business groups wanting to do the historical tour. We go around and do the history of the city, which, of course, a big part of it is going to the Gate Pā battle site and talking about what happened there. So it has been a very interesting development but one I am very pleased about.”