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Q&A: Historian Vincent O’Malley

Interview
Q&A: Vincent O’Malley
Interviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

Kia ora Vincent.

Tēnā koe mō tāu pukapuka. Ka nui te pai tēnei mahi.

Vincent O'Malley (source: BWB Books)

Vincent O’Malley (source: BWB Books)

VR: Let’s start at the top. The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800 -2000 is a massive book and a mighty indictment of the ways in which Pākehā grabbed the land off and of Māori; a systematic snatching that of course has had and continues to have serious ramifications for many Māori today. What are the positive flow-on effects stemming from this important book, that you are experiencing yourself?

Vincent: The response to the book has been phenomenal right from the day we launched it back in October 2016. That was at the Waahi Pā poukai in Huntly. I handed over the first official copy to Kīngi Tuheitia and wandered around the back of the whare where a big crowd was gathering. I wondered what was happening. It turned out they were already queuing to get their own copies of the book and so I spent the next three or four hours signing hundreds of books. It was a huge privilege to be invited to launch the book on such an important date in the Kīngitanga calendar and to see the way in which it has been embraced by Tainui has been amazing. I also really hoped the book would speak to Pākehā about the need to own their history and again the reception has been remarkable. At times it has felt less like a book and more like I’m part of some kind of social movement.

bwb8358_tgw_cover_01At a personal level, I guess my profile as a writer and a historian has increased and I’ve done dozens of public talks over the past couple of years in all kinds of different places and forums. And my message is always that the New Zealand Wars were defining conflicts in our history. They are part of our story and we need to know this history, and ensure our rangatahi learn it at school. I have done lots of school visits myself in this time and I know young people really get why this history matters to them and their communities. In some respects they are leading the way for their elders.    

VR: As a corollary, what are the bad effects – if any – arising from both the ongoing publicity surrounding this book, as well as from those who may have read it? Do you still sight ignorant comments, encounter any racist epithets? If so, how to handle suchlike?

Vincent: The backlash to the book itself has mostly come from predictable quarters. One of the Hobson’s Pledge crowd said I couldn’t be trusted to write an objective account of the Waikato War because of my Irish Catholic ancestry and the fact my wife is Tainui. Two strikes apparently. We had a good laugh about that.

There is quite a lot of ignorance of the basic facts of New Zealand history because so few people learn anything about it at school and that is fully evident whenever anything on these issues is published in the media, such as Stuff’s wonderful recent series about the Treaty. Why they still allow comments on articles is beyond me.

I like to think most New Zealanders are fair-minded enough that if they are exposed to some of the history they will get why it matters. But there are some bigots out there who will never be persuaded by hard facts or evidence. I try not to waste my time debating with such people.

VR: Of course, the history you describe in this book, as well as your earlier ones, is complex, sometimes contradictory: a facet of history per se. For example, we had Kūpapa Māori fighting for the Crown and some iwi preventing other iwi from supporting the battle at Ōrākau. I also believe some of the Irish troops absconded and ended up skirmishing in support of Kīngitanga. What are your reflections on these variations to the essential theme of Pākehā ripping off Māori at that time, especially concerning those disaffected Irish?

Vincent: Something like a third of the soldiers who fought in the Waikato War were Irish Catholics. And one thing that fascinated me was to try and find out just how they felt doing to Māori what had been done to their own people. After all, Ireland was really the blueprint for British imperialism. The problem is many of the rank and file soldiers were illiterate so they didn’t leave behind letters and diaries outlining their thoughts. But there is enough evidence of other kinds to indicate that many of the soldiers became increasingly disillusioned with what they were being asked to do, and that they saw it as a war of conquest and dispossession for the exclusive benefit of New Zealand settlers. And as you say, there were deserters and even rumours of Fenian gun-runners seeking to join forces with the Kīngitanga. At the same time, the Irish were heavily implicated in the British imperial project and that’s something we need to be upfront about. So it’s a complex story and the wider history of Māori and Irish contacts is something that is still to be fully unravelled.   

VR: Some interrelated questions. Why isn’t New Zealand history – particularly concerning the nineteenth century – taught in a more widespread fashion in all Aotearoa New Zealand schools, even in 2018? What fundamentally is the problem? Is the country still subject to the neo-imperial Gaze of predominantly monolingual politicians and administrators?

Vincent: A basic knowledge of the history of one’s own country is something that any half-decent education system in the world should deliver. Ours is currently failing to do that and no one should be happy about it at all. Our young people certainly aren’t. It is not widely know that the Ōtorohanga College petition that led to a national day of commemoration for the New Zealand Wars also sought for this history to be taught in all schools. We are still waiting on that. And the Ministry of Education actually made a submission against the petition, arguing that to implement this would result in ‘significant, negative systemic consequences’ for the schooling sector. So apparently the entire edifice of New Zealand’s education system is in danger of collapse if young people are exposed to New Zealand history. I didn’t realise it was this powerful!

VR: Is this educational abstention the cause of the persistent ignorance of large segments of the country’s populace, who have never – for example – heard of the slaughter at Rangiaowhia or at Handley’s Woolshed in Taranaki?

Vincent: Yes, absolutely. So many people have told me they learned nothing at all about the New Zealand Wars at school. And once you do learn the details of some of those terrible incidents they are difficult to erase from the memory. Understanding, mutual respect and dialogue will bring us together not tear us apart. It’s about reconciliation, not recrimination. But so long as our education system continues to fail our young people we are condemned to future generations growing up in ignorance. Is that what we really want as a nation?

VR: Similarly, do you see New Zealand Wars Day on 28th October, ever being accorded the status of a national day of reflection, a national holiday?

Vincent: I think that will happen in time and hopefully it will become, like Anzac Day, a time for reflection and maybe even visits to nearby historical sites related to the wars. We need to put more resources into protecting and promoting those sites and creating more resources for people generally, and not just school students, to engage with this history. I also think there are other things we could be doing to promote awareness of this history. Why not swap out our current regional anniversary holidays – most of which mark something like the date on which the first boatload of Pākehā turned up somewhere – for dates that are more meaningful, so Parihaka Day becomes the Taranaki regional holiday and so on. That doesn’t need to be instead of the 28th October but could be in addition to it. And while we are at it, maybe the wars fought here could also be acknowledged on Anzac Day itself.   

VR: Finally, what is next for Vincent O’Malley in terms of future incisive, especially valuable books and commentaries, please?

Vincent: Well, I’m going to continue talking about the need for this history to be remembered, acknowledged and taught in our schools. One of the arguments that is sometimes heard against that is that the resources are not there. So my next two book projects are at least partly aimed at addressing that. The first is a short history of the New Zealand Wars to be published sometime in the first half of 2019 and the second is a reader of first-hand Māori and Pākehā accounts of the wars that will follow sometime later. I’m also one of the Principal Investigators on a Marsden Fund project on remembering and forgetting difficult histories in New Zealand that will be getting underway next year. 

Tēnā koe e hoa.

Vaughan Rapatahana

November, 2018.

Editor’s note: Read Vaughan’s review of The Great War for New Zealand here.