Legacy of Taranaki land wars still lingers 157 years on

Hoani Eriwata feels the legacy of war still hangs over Taranaki but there is hope for reconciliation.

Hoani Eriwata feels the legacy of war still hangs over Taranaki but there is hope for reconciliation.

It has been 157 years since the first shots in the New Zealand land wars were fired in Taranaki but the conflict's legacy still hangs over the province. Deena Coster reports.

For decades, one of the most significant sites in New Zealand's history has been home to cows and sheep.

If you didn't know its back story, the fenced-off paddocks could be easily mistaken for another scene of rural life.

Te Kohia Pa is arguably one of the most significant sites in New Zealand history.

Te Kohia Pa is arguably one of the most significant sites in New Zealand history.

But Taranaki's Te Kohia Pa is so much more.

National day to remember the New Zealand Wars to start in 2017
Historian says land wars day should be held in Taranaki, where the wars began
Taranaki leaders happy with Maori land wars national public holiday

This is where, on March 17, 1860, the first shots were fired in the New Zealand land wars. Now, 157 years later, its future promises an opportunity to move beyond the battle, to a place of reconciliation.

Hoani Eriwata, who organises an annual commemoration of the Taranaki land wars, prepares the ceremonial fire for ...

Hoani Eriwata, who organises an annual commemoration of the Taranaki land wars, prepares the ceremonial fire for Friday's dawn ceremony.

Every year to commemorate March 17, Taranaki man Hoani Eriwata visits the Devon Rd pa site. He lights a ceremonial fire and chants a karakia.

It's a prayer to all those lost in the battles, which began in Waitara and ended 21 years later in Parihaka, when 1500 British troops stormed the peaceful settlement and pushed its people out.

Not confined to Taranaki, the New Zealand land wars claimed about 3000 lives and the ongoing fall-out for Maori has been devastating.

Historian Danny Keenan is an expert on the topic of the New Zealand Wars.

Historian Danny Keenan is an expert on the topic of the New Zealand Wars.

Interest in finding out more about Taranaki's war history is growing, Eriwata says.

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This weekend, about 50 people are attending the Riri me te Raukura or War and Peace event he has organised since 2010.

The group visit significant sites connected to the Taranaki land wars and hear the korero of what happened there.

Puke Ariki director Kelvin Day says the region has all the resources people might need to find out what happened during ...
Cameron Burnell

Puke Ariki director Kelvin Day says the region has all the resources people might need to find out what happened during the 1860-1881 land wars.

On Saturday and Sunday, they stay at Parihaka, a visit which coincides with the monthly homage given to the prophets of passive resistance, Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, who were arrested after the November 1881 invasion, put on trial and then imprisoned on the South Island.

"I think people should always remember history, especially to do with human conflict," Eriwata says.

"It's probably the worst abuse that humans can do to one another."

Gathering around the fire at Te Kohia always hits people in the heart, Eriwata says. So does hearing a list of the 99 names of people who lost their lives on Taranaki battlefields.

"It makes people reflect on the past and get a feel of what happened and the consequences. Because that's what we're still dealing with, the consequences," he says.

The biggest of those in Taranaki was the widespread confiscation of Maori land by the Crown.

By force or legislation, tangata whenua were forced from their ancestral lands. Life as they knew it changed forever, Eriwata says.

The wars stripped Maori of their social, cultural and economic base, a legacy which still haunts Taranaki today, he says.

* Growing interest in remembering Taranaki's land war history
* Will a national Land Wars Day build unity?
* The Land Wars were a civil war

However, he feels the general public is still blind to this.

Eriwata says the land wars have been "forgotten on purpose", superseded by New Zealand's participation in the World Wars.

That's what tends to dominate New Zealand's war history, not what happened in our own backyard, Eriwata says.

"It's not part of the education system either," he says.

"But you can only have amnesia for so long."

A historical awakening

New Zealand historian Danny Keenan concedes the land wars have not "been part of the grand narrative of our history".

"This is because their memory was an uncomfortable one - there was very little about the wars that affirmed us as a nation," he says.

"The wars were launched for reasons which still remain controversial - the taking of land and sovereignty from Maori by force of arms."

Keenan says the Maori death toll as a result of the land wars across Aotearoa was about triple of that suffered by the British. He says one estimate put colonial losses at 735, while 2250 Maori perished.

And the hurt didn't stop there.

Keenan says the widespread land confiscation "simply exacerbated the social, economic and cultural position of Maori affected by the conflicts".

* Calls for park to be established to remember both sides of land war conflict
* Pa at centre of Taranaki Wars bought by New Plymouth District Council for $715,000
* Editorial: Bring NZ Wars out of the shadows

He is happy there appears to be a growing awareness of the land wars and a government acknowledgement of the role it had in shaping the country's identity.

On October 28, the first national day of commemoration to remember the New Zealand land wars will be hosted by the Te Taitokerau tribes in Northland.

"But New Zealand society at large, I would say, has some way to go before the wars, with all their hurts, dispossession and loss, can be really understood and accommodated in our national stories of development and identity," he says.

Keenan says if people had a deeper appreciation of what happened, the state of the country's race relations might also improve.

"If the conflicts of the 19th century were better understood then I think Pakeha at large would be more accommodating of Maori aspirations, rather than being so threatened by them."

He says the "rhetoric" bandied about during the 2015 debate over a Maori ward in New Plymouth is one example of this.

Slogans like "we are all one nation" or "Maori do not deserve special treatment" were similar to what was said during the 1860s, despite rights being enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi, Keenan says.

Getting to grips with history is not alway easy and does take time, he says, so the opportunity Te Kohia Pa could play in helping re-tell the region's war stories is "amazing".

Last June, the pa site was bought by the New Plymouth District Council for $715,000 and talks are ongoing with iwi regarding a plan for how it will be used, which could include opportunities like cultural tourism or educational tours.

A shared bond

Puke Ariki director Kelvin Day literally wrote the book on the region's war history.

Contested Ground Te Whenua i Tohea: The Taranaki Wars 1860-1881 charts the 21 years the province spent, albeit with pockets of peace, in battle.

Day describes the awareness of the region's residents about its early history as being a "mixed bag".

Editorial: Commemoration of New Zealand wars is long overdue
* Maori history largely ignored, say top historians
* Cathedral moves land war tributes

But understanding the origins of Taranaki's war provide the best explanation for the challenges Maori face as a people today, he says. This includes a loss of language and, for some, a lack of cultural identity.

"All of those things really can be traced back through those times, whether it be through battle or the power of the pen," Day says, referring to legislation which suppressed Maori culture during the period.

Consider how you might react if someone forced you out of home, away from your land and prevented you from speaking your language, he says.

"That's a big thing for people to have to deal with generation after generation."

A better understanding of Taranaki's own civil conflict could be the tonic for enhancing relationships between Maori and Pakeha too.

"We actually have a shared history," Day says.

It's a sentiment Eriwata shares.

His vision for Te Kohia's future is that it becomes a space for Maori and Pakeha - "a place of healing" or reconciliation.

"The only way we can do that is, as a community, work together," he says.


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