The Land Wars were a civil war
Before we decide on which day to commemorate the conflict now known as the Land Wars, we need to define exactly what we are commemorating.
The armed conflict known variously over the years as the Maori Wars and the New Zealand Wars was, in fact, about much more than land and those involved were not strictly Maori on one side and Pakeha on the other.
While the spark which ignited the conflict on March 17, 1860, was the forced sale of land at Waitara, there were also serious misunderstandings about the meaning of sovereignty and longstanding intertribal conflicts in the mix.
The wars came three decades after the intertribal conflicts known as the Musket Wars and memories of past battles were still raw. These issues flowed back and forth in priority throughout the conflict.
Not all Maori were victims of the wars and not all Pakeha were aggressors or land sharks. For a number of tribal groups, particularly along the North Island East Coast and in the Far North, who had longstanding and mutually beneficial trading relationships and intermarriages with Pakeha, there was too much to lose in a civil war. Even though Maori had a newly established king, there was no single united Maori political entity. The first two Maori kings, Potatau Te Wherowhero and his son Tawhiao, who succeeded him, both advised their people to keep out of the fighting and to try to live in peaceful harmony with Pakeha.
The Maori king was not intended to be an all-powerful ruler. Instead, his main function was to try to unite Maori against land losses and to preserve the traditional way of life. In spite of having their own king, the loyalty of all tribal leaders was to their own people first. Many remained neutral during the wars and many fought alongside the British.
On the other side, not all Pakeha supported the wars and many, particularly clergymen who had worked in Maori communities for several decades, were very outspoken against the New Zealand Government. Other disaffected Pakeha, most notably Kimble (or Kimball) Bent, joined with and fought alongside Maori.
The British Government also expressed alarm and concern as the conflict spread from a minor confrontation in Taranaki in 1860 to a full-scale invasion of Waikato three years later. Many leading British politicians of the time demanded an end to hostilities. Wars, however, are easier to start than finish and the fledgling colony was almost abandoned by the British before it was over. The Land Wars were, in fact, New Zealand's civil war and should be remembered as such.
The history of this important phase in the development of modern New Zealand has never been comprehensively taught in our schools and, with each passing generation, fewer people seem even remotely interested in what they were all about.
At the height of the conflict in the 1860s, about 18,000 British troops, supported by artillery, cavalry local militia and Australian volunteers, fought an estimated 4000 Maori (both men and women) and a few Pakeha in a massive imbalance of manpower and weaponry.
Over the course of the Taranaki and Waikato campaigns, 1800 Maori and 800 Europeans were killed and total Māori losses over the course of all the wars may have exceeded 2100. Today, only a few battle sites have been preserved and only a few monuments and gravesites are known, while the names of most of those who fought and died have all but been forgotten.
By contrast, there are numerous memorials for another war, fought on the far side of the world, at the same time. The American Civil War, fought between the Confederate armies of the southern states and the Union forces of the north between 1861 and 1865 was about much more than the abolition of slavery, although that became the main cause for which the conflict is remembered. Most American battle sites are now public parks or reserves and American schoolchildren grow up with a thorough knowledge of their civil war, the names of those who fought and died and what it was all about.
Apart from historians and academics, the New Zealand Civil War is something few people want to know about. The commemorative day should not be about winners or losers or even rights or wrongs. Those matters are for other times and places. But we should remember the time in our shared history when people fought and died for what they believed in during the birth of our nation. We owe them that if nothing else.