Book Review: The Great War for New Zealand Waikato 1800-2000, by Vincent O’Malley

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_the_Great_war_for_new_zealand.jpgEmotion is probably something to be avoided when preparing to review a book. However, having grown up in the King Country, learning next to nothing about the New Zealand Wars, caused a considerable pang of emotion for me when reading The Great War for New Zealand Waikato 1800-2000 by Vincent O’Malley. Because the story O’Malley tells is one that provides a comprehensive understanding of the foundations of modern life in New Zealand which many Kiwis, both Māori and Pākehā, would not know they were missing.

The King Country derives from the Kīngitanga Movement, which established not only a Maori King but also a defined geographic region south of Pūniu River in the Waikato.
As defined in Wikipedia: ‘The King Country (Māori: Te Rohe Pōtae or Rohe Pōtae o Maniapoto) is a region of the western North Island of New Zealand. It extends approximately from the Kawhia Harbour and the town of Otorohanga in the north to the upper reaches of the Whanganui River in the south, and from the Hauhungaroa and Rangitoto Ranges in the east to near the Tasman Sea in the west. It comprises hill country, large parts of which are forested.

‘The term “King Country” dates from the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s, when colonial forces invaded the Waikato and forces of the Māori King Movement withdrew south of what was called the aukati, or boundary, a line of pā alongside the Pūniu River near Kihikihi. Land behind the aukati remained native territory, with Europeans warned they crossed it under threat of death.’

O’Malley answers the question of ‘Why the King Country?’ with great detail on the politics of colonial greed, the savagery of warfare and land confiscation that led to the final retreat of the many different hapū of Waikato Māori into this area as war refugees.

At the very beginning of the book, O’Malley notes that the country is currently in the middle of commemorations of the centennial of World War 1 battles fought in by New Zealanders at Gallipoli, Sinai and the Western Front. However, he argues, as many do, that these battles were not the defining of New Zealand as a nation. Rather, on ’12 July 1863 the biggest and most significant war ever fought on New Zealand shores … as British imperial troops crossed the Mangatāwhiri River and invaded Waikato.’

O’Malley later notes that ‘the Waikato War does not fit within a comfortable nation-building framework. Accordingly, our nation was born at Gallipoli not Ōrākau’. This rings true to me: I had heard of Gallipoli as a school kid in Ohakune, but not Ōrākau.

Once he has laid the foundations of his book, O’Malley then describes ‘early Waikato’ from 1800-1852, a largely peaceful and prosperous region with a ‘confident Māori world’, embracing British style commerce, including international trade, and Christianity within a framework of Māori traditional beliefs and practices.

No doubt, the different views of sovereignty and land ownership were the crucible from which war between Māori and Pākehā eventually poured with savage heat. Waikato Māori were reasonably happy to sell land for small-scale or individual settlement, while the Colonialists saw the Treaty of Waitangi as providing the means by which large tracts of land could be bought by the Government, carved up and then on-sold to settlers. And the New Zealand Constitution Act of 1852 could only have exacerbated the situation, particularly as it was designed to allow only the then minority of Pākehā the vote, an intolerable situation for Māori.

The descriptions of the subsequent battles, including bush warfare, are extensively detailed, inclusive of lists of iwi and hapū involved in each, along with complete information on the colonial regiments and militias. This creates an opportunity, particularly for Māori today, to understand the connections their ancestors may have had with particular battles and incidents.

One thing we kids in Ohakune did come away with from schooldays was an understanding that Māori had fought with huge skill, courage and, in many cases, Christian chivalry. Using contemporary material, eyewitness accounts and records, O’Malley provides us with a clear view of what lies behind this understanding. And he pulls no punches, with much of the honour belonging to Māori and much of the treachery and dishonour belonging to the Pākehā side.

The battles are meticulously described and this 600+ page book, extremely well published by Bridget Williams Books, contains superb reproduction of photographs, maps and documents.

After the battles comes the land confiscation (raupatu) which is probably what motivated the Government to invade Waikato in the first place. This is a really messy period of venality and double-dealing, which of course has a considerable impact on the late-20th Century and 21st Century New Zealand politics and economics. Some may say that Māori have been compensated, with the millions of dollars spent on settlements with iwi plus settlement back to Māori of land and public buildings, fishing rights and similar. That this isn’t a widespread view among Māori is backed up by the 2015 petition to parliament calling for a national memorial day for the victims of the New Zealand Wars, delivered by Honey Berryman of Otorohanga College.

Because I spent all of the ’70s and early ’80s away from New Zealand, my knowledge of the various mid 19th-century conflicts was from a 1950s-60s perspective – not very enlightening. Michael King’s History of New Zealand and James Belich’s The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict were very important in improving my understanding of what really are the foundations of New Zealand. The Great War for New Zealand extends that understanding greatly.

Obviously the book is a tome which could be used as a text at university level. But it should also be available in some form or another at secondary school. Bridget Williams Books are good at publishing short texts. It would be very helpful if they were to come up with a means to make this important history more accessible.

For this book not to be in the shortlist for the Royal Society of New Zealand Award for General Non-Fiction at the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards is a mystery.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

The Great War for New Zealand Waikato 1800-2000
by Vincent O’Malley
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9781927277577

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