Chris Trotter: Sleeping ghosts don't need to be woken

A national holiday will be created to remember the New Zealand land wars of the 1800s.

A national holiday will be created to remember the New Zealand land wars of the 1800s.

OPINION: It had to come, this official recognition of the dead of the New Zealand Wars. After four decades of constant revision, our nation's story has reached the point where even those who fell in the battles that made it are summoned forth from the shadows. In recognising these ghosts, however, we must not deceive ourselves that the causes for which they fought and died will somehow remain unrecognised.

In announcing the Government's intention to set aside a day to commemorate those who fell in the battles of one-and-a-half centuries ago, the Deputy Prime Minister, Bill English, declared that the time had come "to recognise our own conflict, our own war, our own fallen, because there is no doubt at Rangiriri ordinary people lost their lives fighting for principle in just the same way as New Zealand soldiers who lost their lives fighting on battlefields on the other side of the world".

And what principle would that be, Mr English? The principle of dual sovereignty? – because that was what the Kingitanga represented. The principle of tino rangatiratanga? – in recognition of which the sovereign rights of Maori chiefs had been deemed inviolate under the Treaty of Waitangi? Or, was it the more general principle, recognised then, as it is now, that the military invasion and seizure of territory occupied by people who have not struck a blow against you is an international crime?

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When teachers are asked to explain why 12,000 Imperial troops invaded the Waikato and the Bay of Plenty in 1863-64, how would Mr English have them reply? Should they tell their pupils that the Maori fighting force, against which this massive army advanced, struggled to maintain a muster of four-figures? And what should they say about the million Maori acres confiscated by the Settler Parliament? How should that be justified?

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Perhaps these questions should be left for the Minister of Arts Culture and Heritage, Maggie Barry, to answer. She was, after all, the person who described the invasion of the Waikato, and the Battle of Rangiriri, as: "a deeply regrettable time in our history". Speaking to those gathered to witness the repatriation of the Rangiriri battle-site to the Kingitanga on Friday, 19 August, she emphasised the significance of commemorating the New Zealand Wars: "It is important to us as a nation. At least as important as our World War I commemorations, if not more so."

Much more so, Ms Barry. The formation of the New Zealand State was predicated on the full and final subjection of its indigenous people. In the two decades separating the signing of the Treaty, in 1840, and the invasion of the Waikato, in 1863, tens of thousands of mostly British immigrants had poured into New Zealand. In 1852, the British Foreign and Colonial Office responded to this influx by granting a large measure of self-government to the burgeoning settler population. The Maori tribes of the North Island interior countered by establishing the Kingitanga. While the Maori King's writ ran, no more land would be sold to the Pakeha. To the London investors and Auckland land speculators who were chafing at the bit to turn this British "possession" into a paying proposition, such defiance was intolerable. New Zealand's restless natives needed to be taught a lesson. General Duncan Cameron and his 12,000-strong army would be the teachers.

So what, exactly does Ms Barry find "regrettable" about the New Zealand Wars? That the Pakeha won them? That the confiscated lands of the Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Taranaki tribes went on to form the foundation of New Zealand's economic prosperity? That the victory of the colonial forces, by removing the risk of further warfare, prepared the way for the breakneck development of the colony in the half-century that followed? Are these the consequences of the New Zealand Wars that the Minister of Arts Culture and Heritage regrets? Probably not.

So what, exactly, will Maori and Pakeha talk about on this yet-to-be-announced day of commemoration? Will the victors tell the vanquished how damned decent it was of their ancestors to let their ancestors kill so many warriors and steal so much land? Will the vanquished shrug their shoulders and say, "No worries, Bro, it was a long time ago"? And will the victors smile indulgently, slap the vanquished on the back, and say: "Quite right, Mate, it was, and we're all New Zealanders now."

We shall see. Of one thing we can be certain, however: the dead who have slept for one-and-a-half centuries beneath the disputed soil of Aotearoa will have a very different story to tell.

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There is a reason why so many of the signposts to old battle sites are weathered and overgrown; why lichen has been allowed to obliterate the names of those who fell.

Sleeping ghosts, like sleeping dogs, should never be needlessly awakened.

 - Stuff


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