Waikato War 'a profound influence' in shaping NZ

A ceremony to mark the return to Tainui in August of the Rangiriri Pa, site of a major battle in 1863 in the Waikato War.

A ceremony to mark the return to Tainui in August of the Rangiriri Pa, site of a major battle in 1863 in the Waikato War.

The battle of Orakau in 1864 ended with a massacre in a swamp. The Maori defenders, out of food, water and ammunition, fled the pa and ran into a hail of British bullets. The survivors escaped into the bush and a nearby swamp, where soldiers killed many of them, including women.

A fortnight later the swamp still had a foetid smell that "too truly told that many bodies were rotting there", according to European eye-witness William Race.

These were not the only atrocities of the Waikato war. Ten days earlier in Rangiaowhia, also near Te Awamutu, British soldiers attacked an undefended village of women, children and old men. Six men and a boy holed up in a raupo whare and shot a soldier who approached.

Vincent O'Malley, author of a new book on the Waikato War.
MONIQUE FORD/FAIRFAX NZ

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

The whare was then set on fire, and a man who came out and lifted his hands in surrender was "riddled with bullets" from British guns, Race wrote later. The six inside the whare were burned alive.

It was at the time of the "murder" at Rangiaowhia, the Waikato chief Wiremu Tamihana later said, that "I knew for the first time that this was a great war for New Zealand".

Wellington historian Vincent O'Malley's new book on the Waikato War argues that this was indeed the most important war in New Zealand's history.

"The war had a more profound influence on the shaping of New Zealand as a nation than World War I did," says O'Malley.

But the Waikato war, he says, is largely forgotten.

World War I commemorations are everywhere and are heavily funded by the government, he notes in The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000.

The contrast with the recent 150th anniversaries of the Waikato War "could not be greater".  At the anniversary of the battle of Rangiriri, one of the major Waikato battles, the only MP to turn up was Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell.

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The bloody conflicts of the Waikato have left little trace in the national memory. In 2014 Prime Minister John Key said New Zealand was "settled peacefully" by the British.

"Peaceful settlement" is true for some of our history, says O'Malley, tactfully omitting to name the prime minister.

"But certainly in this defining conflict of New Zealand history was a bloody and horrendous moment marred by multiple atrocities, and for much of the 20th century there is a kind of myth-making around this.

"Orakau, for instance, has been seen as a glorious and noble and chivalrous battle. The reality is that female prisoners were being bayoneted to death.

"I think what this requires is no guilt or shame or any of those other feelings on the part of Pakeha but just an acknowledgment of the history.

"Because without dialogue we can't have reconciliation and dialogue requires two parties. For too long Tainui have had to carry this history alone."

One of the most shocking things he discovered, says O'Malley, was that the number of Waikato people killed in the war was much higher per head than the number of New Zealanders killed during World War I.

About 17,000 Kiwis were killed in World War 1, or around 1.7 per cent of the population – a "staggering level of carnage  [which] is rightly remembered today", O'Malley says.

But he estimates that the 400 Maori killed in the Waikato War was at least four per cent of the Waikato population. The long-term effect on the tribes was "devastating".

Governor George Grey was the man most responsible for the war, warning the British Government in London that there would be a "general rising of the native population" against the settlers.

But O'Malley says Grey's case for war in July 1863 was "a dodgy dossier". He forwarded letters purporting to show that Auckland was under threat of imminent attack by the Waikato Kingitanga.

But most of this was dismissed by the very people writing the letters, says O'Malley.

"People said, 'I feel obliged to send you this rumour but it seems to me there is no foundation in it whatsoever'."

Grey was obsessed with the "threat" posed by the election of the Maori King – the first, Potatau Te Wherowhero was elected in 1858 – but O'Malley says there was no such threat. Rather, Tainui-Waikato were reacting to the move to set up a Pakeha system of government that would largely exclude Maori. Tainui were simply trying to protect their rights.

But Maori rights and power were largely lost as a result of the Waikato War. Pakeha victory meant that "the Treaty of Waitangi was thrown out the window for at least the next century", O'Malley says.

A new Native Land Court was set up to separate Maori from their land, and native schools were established aimed at assimilating Maori into Pakeha society.

Waikato's thriving economy – its celebrated orchards and flour mills kept Auckland from  starvation – was ruined. The tribes retreated to poverty and despair in the fastness of the King Country.

The government confiscation of 1.2 million acres of Tainui land meant settlers finally got access to the coveted grasslands of the Waikato, although there was no immediate bonanza.

Many soldiers who were given confiscated land lacked any farming ability and quickly sold out. Prices crashed and large areas of land were swallowed up by Auckland speculators like Thomas Russell, Minister of Colonial Defence in the crucial years of 1863-64.

Tainui "could have been our Fonterra", says O'Malley. Instead, it had to wait till 1995 for a Treaty settlement, signed by Queen Elizabeth, giving the tribe $170m for the loss of lands worth an estimated $12 billion.

The war changed New Zealand forever. It established the future of Auckland as the country's main city, says O'Malley. It helped the speedy introduction of the telegraph, the 19th century's version of the Internet. It helped the spread of pastoral farming. Grey's Great South Road, designed to take his war machine into the heart of the Waikato, helped open up the North Island.

The war pitted a tiny civilian population against "the world's sole superpower of the time", says O'Malley. The Maori canoes faced armour-plated steamers. They had no artillery or cavalry, and were outnumbered four to one.

"Really it should have been no contest," O'Malley says. "Under the circumstances, Maori did incredibly well just to survive."

 - Stuff

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