Kim and Khloe Kardashian’s visit to Armenia this month is important. On the 24th of April this year the country will remember the 100th anniversary of the 1.5 million Armenians killed by the Ottomans during World War One, a genocide which Turkey continues to deny. Images of the sisters laying red tulips at the Armenian Genocide Memorial on Instagram has inevitably attracted global attention. It’s important because their carefully planned trip to pay homage to their heritage reflects a world wide spirit of remembrance this year and the implications of what we choose to remember.
In the grand scheme of things, 100 years isn’t a really long time. Tortoises can live longer than that. But it is also the dawning of a new age. For the contemporary “Kiwi”, the royal family have become celebrities featured in Woman’s Day rather than glorified political figureheads. War is protested and the idea of reducing millions of men’s lives to a trench in the ground of some country they don’t belong to is no longer glorified as heroic. We have new allies. New threats are triggering new battles with new weapons. The idea of an empire, let alone two battling each other, no longer applies to us. Instead our interaction with the royals is through Instagram accounts dedicated to the outfits of Prince George. A century is almost beyond living memory.
Yet we also know that our history is important. We remember historical events such as war to locate ourselves within a particular context, to reflect upon our identity and pay respect to lives sacrificed for shared values. Successes or obscene mistakes made in the past, such as Gallipoli, teach us lessons about the directions we should be going in now and in the future—say, a cautious approach towards involving Kiwi soldiers in another foreign war. How we remember is often collectively, through national days of remembrance and memorials. But, what we choose to give historical importance is also a political choice.
World War One is frequently described as the event that forged our identity as a nation. With our national population at just over one million at the time, of the 100,000 soldiers who served 18,000 were killed and nearly 41,000 wounded. It was the biggest loss of lives per capita in the Commonwealth. The events that took place from 1914-18 had an effect on nearly every New Zealand family and community. A photo emerged on Facebook a while ago of a chubbier 12-year-old me sitting amongst a group of girls all dressed in tartan at Tamaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum. Nearly everyone in my class had some form of ancestral connection to a soldier who died in World War One.
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The Government has invested $17 million through the Lottery Grants Fund into a four-year initiative called WW100, which commemorates the impact of the war upon New Zealand. $10 million is for large-scale commemoration projects. The remaining $7 million is for “activities and events which will bring New Zealand communities together”, like an art exhibition and a snazzy website. The Auckland Museum re-created the 1915 Gallipoli landscape using Minecraft (downloadable after 25 April), 24 Kiwi youth ambassadors will travel to Gallipoli for Anzac Day with the New Zealand Defence Force, and the world’s biggest poppy is being created in the Auckland Domain. 25 April is a nationally condoned opportunity to remember, reflect on and learn about your history.
The same could not be said for the 150th anniversary of the destructive campaigns that raged on our own soil. The New Zealand Wars are what Danny Keenan, Associate Professor at Massey University, describes as a “difficult memory”. Anzac Day remembers a war we heroically fought for an Empire against a remote enemy on the other side of the world. The New Zealand Wars were fought for reasons to which it is easier to stay blind; the conflicts erupted over Māori land and sovereignty and ended with the destruction of many Māori communities. Acknowledging the mistakes made in the Wars means subverting the legitimacy of the current status quo.
There is a well-known battle raging between the year 13 History subjects. Henry VIII’s sex life versus Hone Heke chopping down the New Zealand flag. The reign of the Tudor-Stewarts 500 years ago or the contentious establishment of the bicultural nation we live in today. Henry and his mistresses tend to win attracting two-thirds of history students nationwide.
For those who might have missed out here’s a short, hopefully informative but in no way conclusive history lesson. It’s complicated. Even settling on a name that reflects the nature of the wars has been difficult. Various names used in the past included the “Māori Wars” (the British have a tendency to name wars after their enemies), the “Land Wars”, the “Sovereignty Wars” and the “Anglo-Māori Wars”. The “New Zealand Wars” was settled on as the most historically accurate representation of the balance of power between British and Māori at the time, after historian James Belich found most battles were a military draw.
The campaigns lasted 27 years from 1845 to 1872 and by the end one million hectares of Māori land had been seized by the British. Around 1800 Māori and 800 European lives were lost during the Taranaki and Waikato campaigns alone. 2500 Māori were killed in total with the Māori population just exceeding 33,000 at the time. More Māori died per capita in the New Zealand Wars than New Zealand soldiers in World War One.
The Waikato experienced the largest military campaign. The Māori had formed the Kingitanga Movement in the 1850s with the belief that Pakeha would recognise their mana if they had a Māori monarch to rival that of the British Crown. The Europeans interpreted this move as a direct challenge and the Governor at the time, Sir George Grey, was determined to stamp out the threat to British authority.
The invasion of Waikato commenced in 1863 to combat the Kingitanga forces. The British had 20,000 men at their disposal; the Kingitanga 5000. Transporting these troops into the region to fight Māori is the genesis of the Great South Road in Auckland. After various armed engagements across the region the Waikato War ended at Orakau on 2 April 1864. This war alone was responsible for 1000 Māori and 700 European deaths. Māori lost 1.3 million hectares of land.
To somehow better acknowledge the bitter fight between Māori and British forces on a national scale Keenan has called for either more recognition of the wars during Waitangi Day celebrations or a New Zealand Wars Day. The best date would be 11 March, when Māori and British forces first fired on each other at Kororareka. But Attorney-General Chris Finlayson doesn’t believe one is “really necessary” and points out that “we could spend all of our lives commemorating things, so we have to focus on what’s very important”. John Key commented that a national holiday is “not impossible but it’s not something that is on the agenda”.
To remember the “forging of our nation” in the aftermath of the Treaty of Waitangi, of which the New Zealand Wars is a key part, threatens the idea of our “national unity”. Yet greater unity would be achieved by greater mutual understanding.
17 March is locally remembered in Taranaki as the day the British first fired upon the Māori. Commemorations for the New Zealand Wars are held locally, close to the battle sites where Māori and British clashed. At Te Ranga more than 100 Māori and 13 British soldiers died in the final skirmish in the Waikato and Tauranga campaigns.
In June last year various commemorations for the event were held at Orakau. The event drew large crowds with Key, Finlayson and the Governor-General attending. Key acknowledged the importance of the New Zealand Wars as part of our history, commenting that the confiscation of thousands of hectares of land had left generations of Māori impoverished economically, socially and culturally. In spite of the acknowledgement, the financial burden of the events was left to local iwi, with none of the $250,000 dedicated by the Government to the 150th anniversary coming their way. Our Prime Minister also admitted that little of the country would know where Orakau even is.
It would be unusual to visit a New Zealand small town bereft of a world war memorial. Their ubiquity reflects the deep and harsh effect of the war on so many communities. They also reflect a sense of pride. There are over 500 public World War One memorials on New Zealand’s memorial register, and countless more church and school windows, plaques and honours boards dedicated to remembering. In 2014, a new war memorial valued at $300,000 was opened in Katikati, built as part of the tangible commitment requested by the RSA for WW100.
Only 60 memorials are dedicated to the New Zealand Wars and not all of them are public. The Wars are an event Pākehā have preferred to forget. For the memorials that do exist, many are now either dilapidated or highly contentious. One, the Zealandia War Memorial, sits inconspicuously on Symonds Street in Auckland with an inscription saying “in memory of the brave men belonging to the Imperial and colonial forces and the friendly Māoris who gave their lives for the country … Through war they won the peace we know.” “Friendly Māoris” refers to those who fought for the British. There is no recognition of those who dared challenge the Empire.
Another memorial sits on Te Puni Street in Petone, Lower Hutt. In 1845 tensions were rising in the Wellington area between Māori tribes over the increasing arrival of European settlers. The memorial commemorates Honiana Te Puni, leader of the hapū Te Ātiawa. Te Puni supported the new settlers and even helped the Europeans defeat a raid at Boulcott’s Farm. This ultimately protected the Hutt Valley from further conflict. Today the memorial is hard to identify, run down and covered in moss. Those who fought on the other side remain forgotten.
The Government’s main World War One memorial project has been the $120 million Pukehau National War Memorial Park. I still frequently waste five minutes trying to re-navigate after remembering too late that turning right at the end of Tory Street is no longer an option. The park is heralded as “the national place for New Zealanders to remember and reflect on this country’s experience of war, military conflict and peacekeeping, and how that experience shapes our ideals and sense of national identity”.
For inner city Wellington, it is a serene and beautiful space. Designed by Australian architects Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art design studio, the tall red sandstone columns are a memorial to our military relationship with Australia. Each column is inscribed with the names of the operations in which New Zealanders and Australians fought together, including in Afghanistan. This work and the park generally acknowledges tikanga Māori. Three granite panels created by New Zealand artist Jacob Manu Scott are embedded within the columns representing wairuatanga (the embedded spirit), whanaungatanga (ancestral and spiritual connections) and kaitiakitanga (guardianship). There is no direct acknowledgement of the New Zealand Wars, despite the park being intended to remember our country’s military history as a whole. A tiny statue dedicated to Parihaka sits inconspicuously in the corner.
In 1864 the Kingitanga Māori serving under Rewi Maniapoto were fighting two thousand British troops at Orakau. After being shot at for three days and with no water left the general asked them to surrender. The Māori warrior’s reply was “Ka whahai tonu ake! Ake! Ake! [We will fight on forever, forever, forever].” The battles have continued today, indirectly, in the form of land tribunals, Treaty claims and court cases. The millions of dollars spent on Treaty claims and their documentation intrinsically recognises historical grievances (although the media is somehow obsessed with the potential threat to “taxpayers’ dollars”). The problem is that the process is often difficult for the public to understand. A memorial or national day of remembrance is not.
In most people’s minds, the Waikato is now a frankly depressing chunk of motorway. Many push through it to get somewhere else, somewhere more inspiring and more relatable. Maybe stop for some decent doughnuts in Huntly. A reliable meal can be found at a McDonald’s in every small town. And thank God you can avoid Hamilton. Which is a shame since the Waikato hosts many historic battle sites from the Government’s biggest campaign against Māori. Meremere, which acted as a Māori defence post in 1863, now boasts the country’s only permanent drag racing track. Pas and battle sites are bypassed for the sake of a speedy road trip.
Driving through Huntly and Ngaruawahia a few weeks ago, on the way to somewhere else (guilty), giant poppies filled many fields. Banners on street lights declaring “We remember them” were endless, in every small town we passed through. Seeing the spirit of Anzac Day so proudly represented in the heart of the area where hundreds of Māori, and British, lost their lives felt tragic. Chief historian for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage Neill Atkinson justifies the scale of the WW100 commemorations by saying “history is a responsibility we carry with us now and into the future.” Surely this responsibility extends to the New Zealand Wars too.