Scoop Review of Books

Our Great War

This is the third in a series of posts at Scoop Review of Books to remember the New Zealand Land Wars and to help mark Aotearoa New Zealand’s first official Rā Maumahara (28 October). The first was a Q&A with Tom Roa (Ngāti Apakura) about Vincent O’Malley’s book The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800 – 2000; the second a review of Witi Ihimaera and Hēmi Kelly’s book Sleeps Standing/Moetū.

Book Review
The Great War for New Zealand – Waikato 1800-2000 by Vincent O’Malley (Bridget Williams Books, $79.99)
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

bwb8126_the-great-war-for-new-zealand_lrNō te taenga ki te kōhuru i Rangiaowhia, kātahi au ka mōhio he tino pakanga nui tēnei nō Niu Tīreni [When it came to the murder at Rangiaowhia, I knew then for the first time that this was a great war for New Zealand – Wiremu Tamihana, 1865]

This is a BIG book. In size – 668 pages, several replete with pertinent photographs, colourful maps, plush paintings. In content – a heroic endeavour to encompass the Waikato wars from gestation through to finale. In ambition – to redress, once and for all, the still prevailing perception that the so-called Māori wars were merely a blip on the radar of New Zealand (military) history.

Vincent O’Malley succeeds in completely disestablishing the latter notion. The war for Waikato was a – perhaps the – key component of the ongoing physical and psychological 19th-century arm wrestle for the ultimate control of New Zealand – and everyone and everything in it. In other words, yes, the conflicts for the conquest for our nation may have commenced well before the Waikato saga of the early 1860s, such as the armed confrontations in Northland and Taranaki and – as some would have it – even the Musket tauā prior to these. Yes, there were indubitably also several serious later confrontations between Pākehā and Māori after the Waikato tumult, such as Pai Mārire raids and Ringatū ‘rebellions’.

However, O’Malley considers that,

On 12 July 1863 the biggest and most significant war ever fought on New Zealand shores commenced less than 40 miles from central Auckland, as British imperial troops crossed the Mangātawhiri River and invaded Waikato (9).

So significant, in fact that, although, “the staggering level of carnage” of the First World War,

is rightly remembered today, [but] it may have been eclipsed by the casualty rate suffered by Waikato Māori in 1863 and 1864. Cowan’s figure for the number of Māori killed in the Waikato War is more than twice as high per capita as the First World War casualties (370).

The Waikato conflict, as an integral component of the overall New Zealand Wars; the mould from which this nation lurched semi-formed, requires closer consideration and study by all Kiwis. Indeed, the New Zealand Wars are our wars, just as World Wars One and Two were never our wars. Why? By virtue of the fact that these latter imbroglios were played out well beyond our shores, across stages full of actors who possibly had no idea of our existence, until we obediently turned up at the behest of our then colonial overlord: Britain. Indeed, such global conflicts were the territorial wars of expansionist white men – faraway from our shorelines. O’Malley states this fact right upfront,

The Great War for New Zealand tells the story of what is…the defining conflict in New Zealand history. It did not take place on the Western front, or at Gallipoli, or in North Africa. Instead, it happened right here (9).

As James Belich, our harbinger revisionist historian, states so cogently on a back cover blurb, “The Waikato War was the most decisive in New Zealand’s history.”

Ae, tena koe hoki ki ngā kōtiro Leah Bell rāua ko Waimarama Anderson ki te Kāreti ō Ōtorohanga. Because of their stalwart efforts, we Kiwi – finally – do have October 28 established as our Raa Maumahara or day of commemoration of the 19th- century combat for New Zealand.  Mind you, this date needs now to be legislated a national holiday, whereby we reflect on all the lives lost, of whatever ethnicity, while we consider just how unscrupulously this country sprang into being.

In a book review, I cannot hope to cover all the bases of a book so large and replete with copious references and reports. I will not even attempt to, except to note that – after the introductory two chapters – this tome is divided into four main sections, encompassing from 1800 to 2000 and beyond. Here they are:

Part One – Before the War. Waikato Māori were peaceable, well-settled, prosperous agrarians, exporting commodities overseas.

Part Two – Te Pakanga ki Waikato – War in Waikato. A section, which I confess to finding the most memorable, relating as it does such events of the battle at Ōrākau, whereby a small combined force of iwi countered a superior force of Pākehā troops over three days and where Rewi Manga Maniapoto is attributed the famous proclamation, “Ka whawhai tonu mātou, āke ake ake!”

Part Three – The Aftermath. Both this and the following section are more dense reading, as we encounter stubborn and cynical Pākehā resistance, subterfuge, backtracking and a paper trail of the perfidious – such as The New Zealand Settlements Act of 1863 and its bastard child, the Kafkaesque and farcical Compensation Court. All as exploitative endeavours to stymie Māori from retaining and/or regaining their land confiscated by this colonial government – after its initial, “calculated act of invasion” of Waikato. For as the steadfast Wiremu Tamihana soon quickly discerned, “The Pākehā now had the land and would not return it.”

Part Four – The Long Search for Justice. Dawn finally awakened in the collective Pākehā meme late in the 20th century and the apposite overdue apology was issued to Tainui in the 1995 Raupatu Settlement. Again, this was 130 years too late and consisted of a several hundred thousand acres shortfall – for by this time the, “relentless settler hegemony” and the, “aggressively assimilationalist line” of their Wellington-based administration had served to marginalise Māori across the nation, e kāore anake ki te rohe o Waikato, nē rā. O’Malley, once again,

The Waikato War…enabled settlers and the Crown in many instances to act unilaterally, condemning the tribes to a destitute existence on the fringes of colonial society (601).

This latter statement well summarises O’Malley’s overall ambit. Indeed, his initial dedication says it all:

In memory of the victims of the Waikato War and those who founded and fought to defend the Kīngitanga.

O’Malley, then, is quite consistently clear throughout. Whilst never portraying Māori as saints, he affirms the aggressors as the Pākehā, the victims the Māori. Given that there were also some kūpapa Maori side-lining Waikato-bound tauā during some of these Waikato battles, while many others either tried to abstain from taking sides at all, or indeed sought to protect the Pākehā. Given also that yes, there were a handful of Pākehā-Māori who sided with the Indigenous.

The proponents in Waikato – and elsewhere – were White man soldiering with difficulty against Indigenous men and women – for ngā wāhine Māori also fought staunchly alongside their men in places such as Ōrākau. These Pākehā were British soldiers, as well as new settler militia standing against Māori, who themselves sought strength and solace by establishing their own Kīngitanga movement, as they saw their mana, their mien, being steadily eroded by colonialist administrators and armies.

Given also that, “many of the imperial troops involved were said to deeply resent fighting a war of conquest for the exclusive benefit of New Zealand colonists.” Indeed, as the author makes clear, many such troops were poor and often illiterate Irish men – and the ironies here are many. For not only was the Irish Pale or theoretical boundary line similar to the Māori-inspired autaki but,

both peoples had suffered extensive land confiscations, in the case of the Irish beginning several centuries before but still sharply remembered in the 1870s, and for Waikato tribes painfully fresh. The parallels did not end there either. The legislation used to confiscate the Waikato drew heavily on that earlier employed in England’s first colony – Ireland (367).

Nothing is ever starkly black and white in human affairs. Yet one indisputable fact stands tall: the establishment of the English empire was all-too-often an expansionist, violent and roughshod pogrom.

The Pākehā – most especially New Zealand-based politicians; business men such as Frederick Whitaker and Thomas Russell, progenitor of the BNZ; and the Governors Browne and then the erratic and egregious Grey prevailing – wanted complete and abiding sovereignty over Māori, insisted on a sublimating control of all the Indigenous. Put simply, the British – both nestled at home and nestling here in New Zealand – demanded and expected to be the Boss. If this also meant usurping bulk Māori lands, so be it. If this meant ceaselessly and carelessly ignoring and abnegating Te Tiriti o Waitangi – so be it. If this also meant screwing the Māori ‘Queenites’ or supporters of the British Queen by also confiscating their cultivations and crops – so be it. If this meant razing and blazing Māori women and children in heinous episodes such as at Rangiaowhia – so be it. If this meant double-crossing Māori with the white flag machinations at Rangiriri – so be it. If this then meant denying Māori a potent voice and vehicle to reclaim their massively confiscated lands throughout most of the twentieth century via craftily convoluted legislation – so be it.

O’Malley makes absolutely no bones about whom he portrays consistently as villains throughout, given that he does acknowledge some Pākehā individuals as sometimes speaking up against their mercenary peers. For example, even the not-always-impartial John Gorst in 1864 described ngā tāngata ō Tainui,

An essentially peaceful people, more concerned with maintaining their thriving economy than with wider political matters…had been drawn into a defensive war   which might be prolonged only out of desperate concern to prevent the wholesale  confiscation of their lands, and to the detriment of agriculture and commerce (374).

However, the far more symptomatically avaricious and antipathetic Native Minister FD Bell would write in 1863,

It is now settled and will be throroughly understood by the natives, that if they choose to make war upon us, we shall take their land, fill it up with military settlers, & perpetually advance our frontier…[by] an advanced guard constantly taking up fresh ground which should be filled up by civilians so as to make conquest and colonization simultaneous…we may preserve the remnant of the New Zealand race by forcing upon them a civilization which they will not accept as a peaceful offer (398).* (See coda below)

Yet, to their immense credit, the Kingite factions survived the decimation of the once prosperously peaceful Waikato territory north of their autaki and the subsequent influx of displaced Tainui into their rohe. They showed tremendous resilience in the manifestly tempestuous times directly after the 1860s and for far too many decades afterward. They have manifestly survived through to their staunch support for and stationing of King Tūheitia Paki at Ngāruawāhia today. Kia kaha, kia toa, kia manawanui ki ēnei iwi te tāima katoa.

So, thank you Vincent O’Malley. It is about time this country woke up fully and taught the truth about its often brutal history, in its classrooms and lecture theatres. This book is important. This book is overdue. This book chronicles our intertwined past and we should no longer shy away from the truths ingrained on every page.

My only caveat is that it would be excellent if Māori could also scribe their own Aotearoa and Te Waipounamu (war) histories of Waikato and beyond. Given that Witi Ihimaera and Hēmi Kelly have this year published the very fine Moetū Sleeps Standing and that Ranginui Walker did in fact touch on certain aspects ō ngā pakanga Waikato in his seminal Ka Whawhai Tonu Mātou (2004). For after the cogent concatenation of James Cowan, Peter Adams, Alan Ward, Michael King, James Belich and now O’Malley himself, it is our turn, eh.

My point? Although my own iwi was once disparaged as toenga kāinga by Tamihana, some years after Tainui overwhelmed Te Ātiawa et al in 1832, in the big picture Māori iwi do tend to support one another –  as did Ngāti Maniapoto et al in 1860 at Puketākauere. Inevitably, we share one especially pertinent whakataukī to this day in 2017, an especially appropriate epithet after navigating O’Malley’s testament.

Kei muri i te awe kāpara, he tangata ke, mana te ao, he mā.

[Behind the tattooed face, a stranger stands, he owns the earth, he is white.]

Ko te tāima mō ngā pukapuka tika me ngā tukanga tapatahi ō ngā iwi tuatahi ināianei.


The above quoted bloody bombast of F D Bell was and remains typical of the British aka pervasively English colonial mind set, not only in New Zealand, but empire-wide. Contemporary British authors such as John Newsinger (The Blood Never Dried, 2013) and Richard Gott (Britain’s Empire, Resistance, Repression and Revolt, 2011) are well worth reading. Both have identified in their stark depictions and delineations, the cruel and condescending ways the British/English conquered and all-too-often exterminated Indigenous peoples and expunged their land holdings – as well as their more latterly allying with the USA to continue this expansionist Anglo-American imperialistic surge in places such as Diego Garcia and indeed globally. See, for example, David Vine’s fine Island of Shame concerning their theft of Diego Garcia and his Base Nation concerning the proliferation of this oligarchic spread of military bases across the globe. (See also my own earlier Scoop review of Next Year in Diego Garcia.)

More than this, Britain continues to colonise today via its export and fiscal enforcement of the English language onto Indigenous peoples globally. Linguistic Imperialism (Robert Phillipson, 1992) and my own instigated and co-edited English Language as Hydra (2012) are testimonies to their deleterious and expansionist neo-colonialism into communities, which have never subscribed to English as a first language. At the same time, we should do well to recall that there is still no provision for the teaching of te reo Māori in too many New Zealand schools either – eh.

Even more worrying are those petty imbeciles in the paraiahdom of such twisted small gatherings as Hobsons Pledge and their unashamedly racist commentaries on contemporary Aotearoa. Vincent O’Malley’s excellent labour-of-love should be compulsory reading for this pathetic bunch, so that they might learn that Māori have never had a level playing field, primarily because of white men such as their ancestors incessantly altering the field markings, destroying the goalposts and digging up the pitch. That we still have such prats prating about Māori having ‘ample representation’, ‘sufficient resourcing’ and so on, sadly reminds me of 19th century colonialists such as those ignorant buffoons quoted in Angela Ballara’s seminal book Proud to be White? (1986). Pompous twits like A K Newman, who wrote,

Taking all things into consideration, the disappearance of the race is scarcely a subject of much regret. They are dying out in a quick easy way and are being supplanted by a superior race.

Indeed such imbeciles would do well to further imbibe on the magnums of English authors such as Gott, whose abovementioned work sets out to show,

how Britain provided a blueprint for the genocides of twentieth-century Europe…its past leaders must rank alongside the dictators of the twentieth century as the perpetrators of crimes against humanity on an infamous scale (cover blurb).

For me, this is all the less rationale to ‘celebrate’ New Zealand participation in any overseas ‘great wars’ whatsoever and all the more reason to focus on our own historic home grown hostilities, for us all to learn how not to behave – and in so doing to respect our manifest cultural differences across this increasingly multi-ethnic nation.

Dr Vaughan Rapatahana


Maramamātahi, 2017.