Account of the war comprehensive and insightful

The Waikato war of July 1863 to April 1864 was the defining conflict in New Zealand history.

The Waikato war of July 1863 to April 1864 was the defining conflict in New Zealand history.

The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000 
by Vincent O'Malley
Bridget Williams Books, $80
Reviewed by Alister Browne

Civil war, colonial war of conquest—however the invasion by the British of the Waikato in 19th century New Zealand is looked at, it was a conflict whose significance seems to have been woefully underplayed ever since.

Historian Vincent O'Malley's account of the war is at once comprehensive and insightful and it leads to him wondering in print more than once why it has been such a neglected part of our history, given that its outcomes and consequences have rippled down the years to the present day.

Was it simply a matter of the perceived need for a Maori challenge to the authority of the country's colonial overlords to be crushed? Or might other steps have been taken that wouldn't have led to so much bloodletting and destruction of the Maori way of life?

O'Malley's central argument is that the Waikato war of July 1863 to April 1864 was the defining conflict in New Zealand history. Not Gallipoli, not Cassino, but something that happened in our own backyard between our people that saw atrocities committed, a flourishing economy ruined. One historian, Jock Phillips, calls what happened at Rangiaowhia, one of the battles that shaped the conflict, an act of genocide for the killing of women and children that took place.

Estimates of total casualties ranged from 500 to 2000 on the Maori side, while the British had about 111 killed and 200 wounded, according to O'Malley.

Maori did not forget and a battle of a different kind has since raged for compensation and apology. But what really narks O'Malley is the great forgetting on the Pakeha side, epitomised by the anodyne remarks of Prime Minister John Key in 2014 when calls were heard for there to be a national day of memorial to those who died in the New Zealand wars.

O'Malley records Key as saying in dismissing the idea that most New Zealanders knew little about what occurred. He may, of course, be right—but isn't that rather the point?

O'Malley has set out to fill the knowledge vacuum, if there is one, although others, such as Keith Sinclair, have also researched and written on the subject. It is a story that needs knowing and debating—and, dare one suggest, memorialising.

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