Historical amnesia over New Zealand's own wars

New Zealand's commemorations of battles on its own soil, such as the 150th anniversary of  Rewi's last stand pale ...

New Zealand's commemorations of battles on its own soil, such as the 150th anniversary of Rewi's last stand pale besides those for Gallipoli.


Anzac Day is fast approaching.  On Saturday the lucky few who won places in a ballot will get to commemorate the centenary of that fateful landing at Gallipoli in April 1915 alongside a horde of politicians and government-funded dignitaries and officials. 

It is all part of a five-year plan of commemorative events marking various World War I anniversaries, much of which is being coordinated out of a specially established government agency.

Research suggests that as much as $25 million in lottery and other state funding is being pumped into the commemorations. Across the Tasman it is more than $140 million.

Many would say it is money well spent. It is an opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices of those who went before us. And after all, as the old cliche goes, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

Except that it turns out we are selective about what we remember.

When the 150th anniversary of the battle of Rangiriri, one of the largest and most significant engagements of the Waikato War, was marked in November 2013 just one politician was present for the ceremony. Te Ururoa Flavell later admitted that he was "a little bit embarrassed that I'm the only MP here today because people from Parliament should understand about days like this".

But it is not just our politicians who apparently need a history lesson. A whole series of major anniversaries of conflicts fought on our own shores, stretching across much of the North Island, recently passed by most New Zealanders largely unnoticed.

Maybe that is hardly surprising given the Government spent about $250,000 in total marking them. By contrast, it will be difficult to escape the many World War I centenaries that lie ahead.

Some might suggest that it is a question of significance. But consider the Waikato War fought between 1863-64.

At the time New Zealand had more British troops stationed here than almost anywhere else in the British Empire outside India.

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The conflict had a profound influence on the future shape of New Zealand society, allowing the government to begin to assert the kind of real control over the country that had eluded it since the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840.

It marked the point at which the North Island's dominance over the south was secured. It also sealed Auckland's future. In many ways it helped to define what New Zealand was and would eventually become.

For Maori, any real prospect of power-sharing or partnership went out the window for at least the next century.

Land confiscations and a long search for justice followed. And casualty rates might actually have been higher on a per capita basis than the horrendous losses suffered by New Zealand troops during World War I.

So why the historical amnesia with respect to New Zealand's own wars?

One obvious answer is that they do not rouse nationalist pride. According to the legend, our nation was born at Gallipoli not Orakau or Gate Pa. Who wants troubling introspection when we can have heart-warming patriotism instead?

But that is not consistent with a mature nation facing up to its own history, warts and all. And remembering does not require guilt or shame. It just needs honesty and a willingness to confront difficult topics. 

We could start by better protecting and promoting the historical battle sites scattered across our land, ensuring the history of the New Zealand Wars is taught in our schools and maybe giving thought to a national day of memorial. Small steps that would mark a big leap in our maturity as a nation.

Remember our brave troops who fought in foreign wars by all means. But let us not forget those who fell on New Zealand soil.

Their cause is just as worthy of remembrance.

*Professional historian Vincent O'Malley's  most recent book Beyond the Imperial Frontier (Bridget Williams Books) re-examines the impact of the Waikato War. His book The Waikato War  will be published next year.

 - Stuff


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