Synergeo: For the Sake of our Tamariki....Let us Remember.

“They made history, we forgot it,” James Belich.[1]

I recently took a group of Social Science Education students down to the Waikato. This was my fourth such journey through our history. This event is completed by teachers in training at Laidlaw as part of their coursework. We began in Pokino (Pokeno)[2] and ended in Rangiaowhia, which is close to Te Awamutu. Read on and you will perhaps be prompted to go on that journey yourself.

“The defining conflict in New Zealand history” is how historian Vincent O’Malley describes the Waikato Wars of the1860s.[3] The stories of our New Zealand Land Wars, up until quite recently, have not been adequately acknowledged.[4] It is never easy to remember events that have caused wounds that are difficult to heal. It has never been straightforward to uncover stories that have been swept aside because of uninvited ignorance. It takes courage. It is also somewhat difficult, in peaceful, twenty-first century Auckland, to fathom that our Land Wars took place less than forty miles from the centre of this city. This is perhaps a worthwhile incentive to find out more.

In 2013 and 2014, Aotearoa New Zealand commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Waikato Wars. For some in Aotearoa, it was the first time they had encountered these events. Yet these wars took place between our own people, both Māori and settlers, who all suffered loss. They did not take place in Europe. If they had, perhaps we would know more. Early on the morning of 12 July 1863, the Waikato Wars were sparked when war-seasoned British imperial troops crossed the Mangatawhiri Stream (near Pokino). This was done on Governor George Grey’s command, who had purpose-built Great South Road to invade the Waikato. This stream formed the last boundary of defence for Waikato tribes, some of whom had slowly been expelled from South Auckland. Potatau Te Wherowhero of Waikato, who became the first Māori king had not signed the Treaty of Waitangi.[5] He had not pledged allegiance to Queen Victoria. Grey had given Waikato, now under King Tawhiao, an ultimatum to submit to the authority of the Queen or have their land taken. Grey’s offensive was made viable by rumour-mongering and clever politics.[6] The people of the Kingitanga had not asked for war but would defend their territory at all cost.[7]

The results of this war were catastrophic for Māori, particularly socio-economically. During the 1840 and through to the 1860s, Māori in the Waikato area had quickly developed into flourishing agronomists, providing Auckland with much of the fresh plant and animal produce, and flour required for this burgeoning area.[8] When the Waikato was invaded, 1.2 million acres of rich, pastoral land was confiscated. Villages were looted and burned. Crops were destroyed. With the loss of rangatira (chiefs), Māori leadership lay depleted. People were reduced to poverty. They were landless. Politically, the invasion led to Waikato Māori being labelled rebels for defending their land. Physically and emotionally, many were left bereft, scores maimed. All were devastated, dislocated and disenfranchised.[9] A small, flourishing village named Rangiaowhia is just one example of these horrific losses (more about this below).

Some healing and redress was felt when in 1995, an apology was made to Waikato-Tainui in person by Queen Elizabeth II. Part of the documentation accepted that Māori of this region had deleteriously been named rebels and that their land had been unjustly confiscated. This recognition was perhaps the start of redress; an important step in ensuring social justice for Māori of the Waikato.

So how can we pay tribute to these things well today? We remember! We acknowledge our stories. This is a start. Even the Waitangi tribunal recognizes that “while only one side remembers the suffering of the past, dialogue will always be difficult. One side commences the dialogue with anger and the other side has no idea why.”[10] Theologian, Miroslav Volf of Yale University, has firsthand experience of anger, hatred, and of skewed readings of history. His horrific treatment as a Croatian during the 1990s Balkan conflict led him to seek answers based on forgiveness and reconciliation. He writes about moving forward to what he calls “embrace.” Volf speaks about “adequately naming what transpires between people” as a pathway to “embrace” and forgiveness.[11] For us today, this means moving away from a colonial view of our national story and calling things as they are. Daring to do this enables openness, trust, and an understanding of one for the other. In other words, it enables real relationship to form. For me, this brings to mind the woman at the well in John 4, and the way in which Jesus created a relationship with this outcast woman and then gently named things as they are, ultimately leading to forgiveness and salvation.

Volf also speaks about “remembering rightly.” [12] So how do we do this when it comes to our story here in Aotearoa? How can we remember the war events of the Waikato, from Auckland to Rangiaowhia and more in a way that is honouring?

First, let’s name one part of our history adequately; the story of Rangiaowhia. The attack on the thriving village of Rangiaowhia was one of the final incursions of the Waikato region. It was not a fortified pā but a village of refuge where Māori women, children, and old men and women waited for their fighting men to return from nearby Pāterangi. The imperial troops were aware of this. Their Sunday morning strike on this village was planned and stealthily executed. With old men being burned alive in their whare, and others being shot trying to flee, Māori called this attack what it was: murder.[13] So now that we know a fragment of this one story, how can we acknowledge the anguish and devastation of our Land Wars in a meaningful, national way? Here are some thoughts.

On Saturday, 28 October 2017, 154 years after the misery that engulfed Waikato, Aotearoa finally recognized its first national commemorative day acknowledging this history publicly. In despondency and sometimes in silence, these events, unknown to much of Aotearoa New Zealand, have been commemorated for years by Māori in the region. But not by all New Zealanders. This changed when a group of high school students from Otorohanga College visited Rangiaowhia and learned its story.

In December 2015, these students marched on parliament to present a 12,000-strong petition asking for a remembrance day for the Land Wars. Otorohanga students Rhiannon Magee, Tai Jones and Leah Bell must be commended for their relentless effort.[14] Because they thought these events both moving and worth remembering, Aotearoa commemorated our first Land Wars Day on 28 October 2017. Hopefully, this explains why I take my Social Science students on this circuit. We begin in Pokino. We travel on to Meremere and then to Rangiriri and Orakau. We end in Rangiaowhia, in the tiny church of St Paul’s, where some from Rangiaowhia sought refuge after that dreadful offensive. I encourage you to take the trip yourself. It is accessible and has a supporting app which can lead you through.[15] I hope you will be inspired to take some time to learn more about the Land Wars using the resources referenced below. Above all, “Me maumahara tatou” – we must remember.

Wendy Fowler has been a primary and high school teacher and head teacher and has been involved in tertiary education for 10 yeasres. She is part of the Education team in Laidaw's School of Social Practice. Wendy's interests lie in Recociliation Studies and New Zealand history. 

Other Helpful Sites and Resources

Healy, Susan Mary., Ingrid Huygens and Takawai Murphy, Ngāpuhi Speaks: He Wakaputanga and Te Tiriti O Waitangi. Whangarei, New Zealand: Te Kawariki and Network Waitangi, 2012.

Healy, Susan Mary and Ingrid Huygens, Treaty of Waitangi, Questions and Answers. 4th rev. ed. Christchurch: Network Waitangi Otautah, 2015.

[1] James Belich. “The New Zealand Wars, Episode 1, The War that Britain Lost,” YouTube Video, November 26, 2014, see video below

[2] Queen’s Redoubt Trust. “Queen’s Redoubt in New Zealand History.” Queen’s Redoubt. Pokino is the correct spelling of this area. It was a Ngati Tamaoho village and was deserted at the start of the Waikato War.

[3] Vincent O’Malley. The Great War for New Zealand, Waikato 1800-2000 (Auckland: Bridget Williams Books, 2016), 9.

[4] Robert Consedine and Joanna Consedine, Healing our History: the Challenge of the Treaty of Waitangi (Auckland: Penguin, 2012), 150. Robert Consedine, long a proponent of teaching our history effectively and holistically, reminds us that “Many New Zealanders have not been taught the colonial history of this country or the truth about the Treaty of Waitangi, or where they have been taught, many appear to have a poor, often negative understanding of it.” He adds … “the failure historically of the history and social studies curricula to each both sides of our national story has left a legacy of Treaty illiteracy, where people often remain ill-informed …”

[5] Waitangi Tribunal. ‘Publications and Resources, section 3: The signing of The Treaty of Waitangi.” (accessed November21, 2017).

See also: Danny Keenan, “The New Zealand Wars.” (accessed November 21, 2017).

[6]James Belich. “The New Zealand Wars, Episode 3, The Invasion of the Waikato,” YouTube Video, November 4, 2015, see video below

See also: O’Malley. The Great War for New Zealand. 150, 191 and 195. George Grey had used unsubstantiated rumours of an imminent attack on Auckland by the Kingitanga, to acquire substantial military forces and supplies from Britain. His intentions from the start of his second term of office had been clear; remove those in the fertile Waikato, so making way for settler expansion.

[7] O’Malley, The Great War for New Zealand, 229.

[8] There were nearly forty Maori flour mills in the Waikato supplying settlers and Maori alike with flour between 1846 and 1860. R.P Hargreaves, “Maori Flour Mills of the Auckland Province,” Journal of the Polynesian Society 70 (1961): 227-32.

See also: O’Malley. The Great War for New Zealand. 55.

[9] O’Malley. The Great War for New Zealand. 9˗11.

[10] Ibid., 13.

[11] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness,

and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 261.

[12] Ibid., 131.

[13] Vincent O’Malley. “Inglorious Dastards: Rangiaowhia Raid and the ‘Great War of New Zealand’. Noted, February 20th, 2017.

[14] Elton Rikihana Smallman and Vernon Small. “Otorohanga College Students Deliver Land Wars Petition to Parliament.” Waikato Times, December 8, 2015.