Friday lunchtime at the 2019 Auckland Writers’ Festival and the ASB Theatre was packed out to hear Vincent O’Malley talk about The New Zealand Wars. He challenged us from the very start. We are still a nation in shock from the Christchurch massacre, so you could feel the attention of the audience focus on the speaker when he said this wasn’t an unprecedented event. The change of mood was tangible. Māori lost their lives in a similar way. O’Malley’s message is a simple one. We need to grow up. We need to act like grown-ups and own our history, warts and all. In the past we have chosen to ignore the story, in the same way we tossed aside the Treaty of Waitangi for over a century. Now we must recognise the profound influence that The New Zealand Wars have had on us all.
O’Malley spoke eloquently for an hour, filling in the gaps in our knowledge, helping to educate his audience. Two of his recent books have been very influential in moving our understanding forwards, first the massive The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000 in which he states that our defining conflict did not take place on the Western Front or at Gallipoli, but in the Waikato from 1863-64. A war of conquest and invasion by the Crown. His latest book, The New Zealand Wars: Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa, was launched just before the festival. At 270 pages against the almost 700 pages of the earlier book, this seeks to be a digestible guide, something that can be read and used in schools as a basic text book.
O’Malley’s talk was full of facts, many of them surprising. For example, two-thirds of the British army during the New Zealand Wars were Irish, and many became disillusioned with what they were doing. There were too many parallels with the treatment of Ireland. Many of the soldiers ended up marrying the Māori women from the iwi they had conquered. They had been fighting against people who had no standing army, people who were fighting for their lives and their lands.
In the 1850s there was a brief time of peace and prosperity. O’Malley reminded us that at that time Māori were driving the economy and the country’s exports. They were producing enough food to feed large cities like Auckland as well as themselves. It was in the 1860s that peace was shattered, war broke out in Taranaki and it appears that Governor Grey was determined to destroy the Kingitanga. ‘There was nothing noble about the massacres,’ O’Malley reminded us, and the execution of hundreds in Gisborne is ‘a stain on our history’.
We are still living with the consequences of that time of war today. Three million hectares of land were confiscated, and those confiscations were indiscriminate, with those who did not fight or sided with the crown also losing their land. 20% of Māori in Gisborne were killed, compared to the 5% of the population that were killed in the First World War.
O’Malley’s call to action is that we teach our own history in our schools and look after our battle sites. We must make sure our children know about this and we must get around the hang-ups that the Ministry of Education still has about the whole subject. Only by doing this will we break some of the intergenerational problems that have built up. We need to lobby both local and central government for more to be done. The sites that relate to our history are often neglected and hard to find. We need to make people aware and interested, create trails and history that we can follow on the ground.
The talk ended with rapturous applause for O’Malley and all he is trying to do.
Reviewed by Marcus Hobson
The New Zealand Wars | Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa
by Vincent O’Malley
Published by Bridget Williams Books