Editorial: How we should remember our civil war

Vincent O'Malley author of new book on the Waikato War.

Vincent O'Malley author of new book on the Waikato War.

NEW ZEALAND still hasn't come to terms with its civil war. Wellington historian Vincent O'Malley, author of a splendid new book about the war in the Waikato, points to our confusions. New Zealanders flock to Gallipoli every Anzac Day, and large crowds attend  dawn services everywhere. But the New Zealand wars are largely forgotten.

We seem to want to forget them, although historians keep jogging our memory. O'Malley's book shows the horror and the long shadow left by the Waikato War, arguing plausibly that it had even more influence on our country than World War 1. A generation ago James Belich spotlighted the wars in two fine books and a television series.

And still it doesn't seem to have stuck in many minds or prompted us to commemorate it. Partly, no doubt, this is because the memory is embarrassing. British soldiers committed atrocities. There was no good cause for war: the Maori had not risen up against the settlers. They had organised politically to protect their land and their rights of self determination or tino rangatiratanga, guaranteed under the Treaty of Waitangi but threatened by the rise of settler government.

Perhaps this is why the official commemoration of the wars at their 50th anniversary was sentimental and dishonest. Byt 1914, O'Malley notes, the battle of Orakau, with its massacre of prisoners, had somehow turned into a noble but doomed gesture of Maori valour. We saluted the fallen and praised their fighting spirit. That version was played out in two early films about Rewi's Last Stand.

After that, though, most of the country simply forgot about Orakau and all the other battles. Today many of the battle sites are run down or neglected. O'Malley rightly calls for a new approach.

We should be big enough as a country to face these half-buried demons, he says. Think of how the United States remembers its civil war, for instance. The battlefield at Gettysburg, where the confederate troops reached their northernmost point, is crammed with memorials.

That battle took place in early July 1863, when Governor Grey was in the early stages of his invasion of the Waikato. Gettysburg is famous throughout the United States. Here, the Waikato battles really are "little noted nor long remembered."

We can commemorate Gallipoli and Passchendaele without forgetting Rangiriri and Rangioawhia. But first we have to find about them. New Zealanders, notoriously, know little about their own history. Schools need to teach much more about it, starting well before high school.

This shouldn't be pious history, either, a kind of self-congratulation about what great progress we have made. The Waikato War actually raises some extremely difficult questions. Governor Grey had no right to go to war. But could 19th century New Zealand really have maintained a treaty partnership and allowed a large measure of self-government to the Maori, especially when land-hungry settlers formed a majority in the country?

Or was the civil war really unavoidable?

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