Book Review: Waitangi, A Living Treaty, by Matthew Wright

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_waitangi_a_living_treatyLike an electrocardiograph, Matthew Wright’s Waitangi, A Living Treaty plots the peaks and troughs of the Treaty of Waitangi’s beating heart. It is the story of the living Treaty as an idea, rather than of the ink or the words on the paper.

Wright unravels the strands of the Treaty’s DNA – the humanitarian and religious response to the social upheaval of British industrialisation and the moral complexities of empire on the one hand, and the tikanga Māori that was the guiding principle for life in Aotearoa on the other.

This DNA allows us to understand the meanings the text would have had to those who wrote it, or to those who agreed to its promises. But beyond this glimpse into these webs of meaning, Wright steers clear of divining intent from the strokes of a pen. Instead, he crafts a lens for us to view the process through the eyes of those who participated.

He avoids speculation about what really went on in those chaotic few days and its impact on the final wording of the Treaty by treating these events as a momentary nexus of far-reaching trajectories, that briefly came together before carrying on along on their intertwining and divergent paths.

By setting the scene in its historical context, Wright frees us of our contemporary preconceptions. In doing so he also provides insights into the people and groups who shaped the Treaty and into the realities of early New Zealand life and politics.

Wright demonstrates that this knowledge of the background, interests, and interrelationships of the key actors, both Māori and Pākehā, is a more useful tool than hindsight. His analysis applies to the present too, making the reader reflect on his or her own beliefs about the Treaty.

Ostensibly from nowhere, in the second half of the 20th century the Treaty moved from the shadows of so-called nullity to illuminate actors, ideas, and events on the national stage. Wright describes how the Treaty principles were a logical next step as historians and the bearers of the scars of the past united to give the Treaty new force, in a global climate of righting past wrongs, and drawing on the deep roots Wright maps in this work.

This book is food for thought as the final historic settlements are concluded, as the memories that have been unearthed merge into our shared awareness. As Wright argues, as a living document, the Treaty will continue to evolve into new shapes and forms, with new applications that cannot be predicted.

Wright bears witness to the fact that the Treaty and its principles remain a seismic force. While what they have become may well have been inconceivable to the original signatories and authors, Wright shows that this has emerged from the nation-building practice of every person in this place – which is why Waitangi remains a truly living treaty.

Reviewed by Paul Moenboyd

Waitangi, A Living Treaty
by Matthew Wright
Published by David Bateman
ISBN 9781869539962

Book Review: The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front, by Matthew Wright

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_nz_experience_at_galliopiMatthew Wright is a prolific writer on many subjects not just military history. Many of this highly qualified historian’s works interpret various aspects of New Zealand’s social history. And it is this interpretative skill which underpins the author’s latest work The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front.

This book looks behind the actual events and discusses the why of not only the military and political actions and decisions related to the New Zealand’s soldiers’ involvement in World War 1, but also the social, political and economic of these decisions on New Zealand.

The work is not strictly a new book. As the author notes, it is an ‘updated and expanded second edition of Shattered Glory: The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front’.

Among the important The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front updates are new numbers of the New Zealand strength at Gallipoli, which were finally reported on in 2016.

Wright views the New Zealand casualties at Gallipoli, showing the impact of these casualties on New Zealand’s then small, conservative country which was still highly motivated by the jingoism of the time – for the Glory of King and Empire. He sees the idealism of the time ‘however naïve it may seem from a twenty-first century viewpoint’ as being a device with which the country coped with the ‘shattering losses’ of the Gallipoli campaign.

However, the impact on New Zealand while known by households throughout the country having empty chairs around the dinner table, were never properly recognised in official figures. This was apparently because of bad record keeping by an inexperienced and probably under-resourced New Zealand army administration. The New Zealand government did not establish a post World War 1 war history branch, as the Australian Government did – they did after the World War 2. A semi-official history of the Gallipoli Campaign by Fred Waite was put together in haste in 1919 before many of the documents were available. In a preface, equally written in haste by Gallipoli commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton, quoted a number of “total strength landed” as being 8,556 New Zealanders with total casualties of 7,447.

Wright comments that where Hamilton got his numbers from is not really known but they stuck as being official for decades. The impact that these figures had in establishing myth and legend around New Zealand’s sacrifice is discussed in length by Wright. Apparently it was in the 1980’s that historians began to question the Hamilton figures, but it was a long search before any acceptable level of accuracy was established.

In 2016, an interim report by New Zealand Defence Force Historian, John Crawford, suggested that many more kiwis had been involved in Gallipoli than the Hamilton figures had indicated. It was now thought that “probably” more than 17,000 New Zealanders fought at Gallipoli. While not claimed as a final figure, it is apparently changing the way historians are considering the New Zealand’s role. Wright does not seem to suggest that the casualty rate of 7,447 is in doubt. Proportionally, this is in line with the casualty rate of other nations involved. Thus, New Zealand had not, it seems, made an exceptional sacrifice after all, although obviously the social impact within New Zealand, is now seen as touching many more families than the Hamilton figures suggested.

The scale of the New Zealand effort on the Western Front was much greater than at Gallipoli. More than 90,000 kiwis were involved producing more than half of the casualties in all of New Zealand’s military history. And Wright notes that there was a greater toll if the death of wounded solders after the war and the lingering effects of gas were taken into account. The battles, the victories (Messines and Les Quesnoy) and the tragedies (Somme and Passchendaele) are detailed both in terms of the political and military preparations and the actual battles, but also from the personal level with excellent references to letters and diaries of officers and soldiers. Letters from home are also well used by Wright to allow an understanding of the impact of the hostilities back in New Zealand.

Following the penultimate chapter discussing whether New Zealand was in indeed a land fit for heroes to return, Wright finishes this book with a chapter entitled ‘Myth and Memory’. In it, he explores how ANZAC day, always regarded as the first expression of a New Zealand identity, has been ‘re-framed’ around 21st Century notions of the country’s self-identity with the battles of Gallipoli and on the Western Front: viewed in a different context from when they were fought.

We are now in the year of remembrance of the 1914-18 tragedy: the centenary anniversaries of Gallipoli, Messines and Passchendaele will be held in June and September with commemorative ceremonies throughout the country. Scores of kiwis will visit the commemorations at the battlefields in Europe. The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front explains why.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front
by Matthew Wright
Published by Oratia Publishing
ISBN: 9780947506193

Book Review: The New Zealand Wars : a brief history, by Matthew Wright

Available now in bookstores nationwide.

This is a really handy little volume, particularly appealing due to the wealth of illustrations and photographs.cv_the_new_zealand_wars_a-brief_history

This book is based on an earlier work by Wright, Fighting Past Each Other (Reed, 2006) but this book seems to me to be targeted at a slightly more able reader than the first version. The New Zealand Wars has more detail and some greater depth to it, and will provide younger readers (and those not so familiar with this difficult period in our history) with a very good overview.

All of the major wars are covered, given context and background, and the main protagonists (for want of a better term!) are identified, with some interesting points made along the way.

I’d recommend this to school libraries, particularly to years 5-10, and to anyone wanting a readable home reference which won’t take up half your bookshelf!

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The New Zealand Wars: A Brief History
by Matthew Wright
Published by Libro International
ISBN 9781877514685

Book Review: Coal: The Rise and Fall of King Coal in New Zealand, by Matthew Wright


Available in bookstores nationwide.

There have been many books written about coal mining in New Zealand; however this definitive work by Matthew Wright has certainly set a new benchmark. His discussion, in considerable depth, explores the strategic importance that coal had in the New Zealand of the late 19th and early 20th century and the social reform that resulted from coal miners’ recognition of national dependence on coal. The turbulent history of coal; the exploration for it, the mining of it, the use of it and the manner in which the political system was shaped by it, is superbly illustrated with subtle epithets which give the reader a deeper appreciation of the uneven progress of our coal mining heritage and history.

The significance of the local coal mining industry to wider society is offered in considerable detail; for several generations of New Zealanders it was an essential commodity for all manner of domestic functions, it provided the power for transport on both land and sea and the feed stock for gas works all over the country, it fuelled coal-fired power stations; the development of supporting industries and the general dependence on coal in the formative years of our country.

The reader is skilfully led from the very beginning of coal formation, through the early human realisation that it actually burned, into the exploration of the West Coast coalfields by Brunner, Rochford and von Haast. Coalfields that were to become household names throughout the country – Nightcaps, Kaitangata, Grey Valley, Denniston, Stockton and Waikato – are given a thorough examination in terms of industrial upheaval and the devastating personal effect of mine disasters.

Indications of when the industry began to falter are introduced in subtle ways; ships burning oil as far back as 1914, railways converting to diesel powered locomotives, the gradual disappearance of the gas and coke works in the cities as the distribution and supply of electricity offered a more convenient, and cleaner, alternative. In addition the rise of conservation awareness, the Clean Air Act 1972, the global warming indicators, all conspired to initiate a gradual move from a society that depended on coal to one that didn’t.

Attempts at explaining mining technology and terminology got a little off track which is a shame because this detracts somewhat from the value of the book as a reference work. Longwall mining is mentioned as being the preferred mining method in a ‘majority’ of pits, but this is not the case.

Wright goes on to discuss the dissolution of the money-losing State Coal Mines operation and the creation of its replacement, the Coal Corporation of New Zealand. He recognises the significance of change from an industry that supplied a diminishing domestic market to one that became very dependent on the export markets, thus illustrating the vulnerability of the industry. The dark days following on from the deaths of 29 miners at Pike River mine following a series of explosions in November 2010, coupled with the drop in the coking coal price in mid-2012 resulted in an acceleration of the ‘fall’ of coal as a commodity.

As Wright says, ‘coal was no longer cool’.

Reviewed by Robin Hughes, Coal Mines Expert and Ventilation Engineer

Coal: The Rise and Fall of King Coal in New Zealand
by Matthew Wright
Published by David Bateman Ltd
ISBN 9781869537234