I’ve spent much of the last week reading Vincent O’Malley’s recently published book “The Great War for New Zealand” which tells the story of Imperial Britain’s 1863 invasion of the Waikato and its aftermath.
Unlike other histories which deal more narrowly with the conflict itself, this book puts the invasion in a 200 year context – from the early 1800s when Waikato was a highly productive market garden for the settlement of Auckland through to the 1995 signing of the Waikato-Tainui treaty settlement agreement.
Through this broad sweep of history we see the events unfold in the context of the motivations of the main protagonists – motivations revealed and exposed in greater detail than before.
The lies and propaganda of war, so familiar to those who follow international conflicts, are all there.
In the case of the Waikato Governor George Grey hyped up a fictitious threat of imminent attack on Auckland by supporters of the Kingitanga. The most recent parallel example might be the 2003 invasion of Iraq orchestrated by the US, UK and Australia based on fictitious missile threats and “weapons of mass destruction” to justify war.
Before the invasion and at each stage of the conflict Maori sought peace but the colonial government wanted land, not peace – not dissimilar to Israeli motivations today as they steal land by waging endless war on Palestinians. The invasion of Waikato was prosecuted till the imperial army had extended its reach to the Puniu river and subsequently confiscated 1.2 million acres of New Zealand’s most valuable farmland in the Waikato region.
So what have we learnt? We all know that the history books we grew up with and which described the “Maori wars” were a lie but we don’t see this conflict as the “great war for New Zealand” which it was. Neither is it acknowledged for the devastating impact it had on Maori.
We are currently riding a wave of centenary events from the First World War. We have reached Passchendaele with plenty more to come. Millions have been spent by the government to remember what is described as “heroic sacrifice” by New Zealand soldiers in a war on the other side of the world on behalf of the British empire. As a proportion of our population we sent more troops a greater distance to fight a war than any human society in the history of the planet.
1.7% of the New Zealand population were killed in WWI – a devastating number recalled on memorials in every small town and city through the country. Waikato Maori lost 4% of their population killed in the invasion of Waikato – a far greater level of sacrifice and suffering by a people fighting a defensive war against an invading army and yet this is largely unknown and unrecognised.
It would be much more appropriate for New Zealand to scrap ANZAC DAY (25 April – dated for the landing at Gallipoli in World War I) and shift our national remembrance of war to 12 July – the day in 1863 that imperial troops crossed the Mangatawhiri River and the great war for New Zealand began.