Review: The Great War for New Zealand, Vincent O'Malley
The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800 -2000
Bridget Williams Books, $80
It is startling to discover that Vincent O'Malley's The Great War for New Zealand is the first history devoted to the Waikato War since 1879. It is a lucidly-written book which will be fundamental to our understanding the events which violently divided two peoples and whose consequences affect us today.
O'Malley's account is comprehensive and persuasive. He sets the scene by describing the reciprocity of Maori-Pakeha relations in the 1840s and 1850s. Maori farming flourished and without its marketed foodstuffs Pakeha would have starved in Auckland.
Governor George Grey changed everything. His arrogance and 'dodgy' behaviour would largely be at fault. He loathed the Maori King movement and was determined to destroy it. Grey repeatedly lied to his masters in the British Colonial Office and eventually New Zealand would come to have more standing troops than Britain.
O'Malley's revelations regarding Grey's attitudes and actions are significant. Grey has been a contentious figure for some time, but O'Malley demonstrates the depths of Grey's double-game and his ruthlessness.
The Great War for New Zealand deals with the battles and engagements to equal effect. O'Malley explains the mysterious Meremere incident where the British found themselves taking an empty fighting pa. He contentiously claims that the 1863 Rangiriri Maori defeat wasn't the surrender of an impregnable fortification under bombardment by British iron-clad gunboats in the Waikato, but a misunderstanding of the Maori request to talk terms.
O'Malley also highlights the fact that Grey could have ended the conflict in Ngaruawahia but chose to press on to take more land. The actions of the British at Rangiaowhia, near Te Awamutu, in 1864 was one of the consequences.
At dawn on a Sunday morning, armed British cavalry charged into a village filled with old people, women and children who had taken refuge there. Those who waved flags of surrender were shot. A whare containing people was deliberately set alight. O'Malley suggests the minimal 12-person casualty figure rate was concocted by the British.
Maori casualties in the Waikato War would finally be greater, on a per capita basis, than New Zealand deaths in World War I.
O'Malley also describes the consequences of the ruthless and exploitative land grabs following the war. He singles out the example of Wiremu Tamihana's pursuit of legal redress as both honourable and admirable. Taking the story to the present day, The Great War for New Zealand usefully backgrounds the work of contemporary compensation and apology.
O'Malley is a vivid writer of scenes of conflict. Political issues are clearly described. He is an engaged historian; judgements are made and there will be those who disagree with them.
The 600-page book, with its fine huia feather cover, is copiously illustrated with contemporary visual depictions from sketchbooks, magazines, diaries, government proclamations, and paintings, largely in colour. It is a fine object and an essential book of New Zealand history.