New Zealand Wars – Getting The Truth

19th century history in the spotlight

By Roger Childs

Fighting at Rangiaowhia in 1864

Otorohanga College students Leah Bell and Waimarama Anderson came up with the idea of a day of remembrance for the New Zealand Wars.

This was taken up and the first commemoration occurred on October 28.

The girls felt that the public needed to have a better understanding of the conflicts of the 19th century and that all students should learn about them as part of the school curriculum.

In fact the wars have featured in history courses since the 1960s and 1970s, and most Social Studies teachers today cover the Treaty of Waitangi and interactions between Maori, the Crown and settlers that occurred before and after. However, obviously Leah and Waimarama wanted more.

In 2016 two books were published covering this key period in New Zealand history:

  • The Kingite Rebellion by John Robinson
  • The Great War of New Zealand Waikato 1800 – 2000 by Vincent O’Malley

The big book gets the accolades

O’Malley’s book at 690 pages is a big one and it is expensive at $80.00. The New Zealand Herald called it their “book of the year”.

It has been widely reviewed and well known historians have sung its praises.

The Waikato War was the most decisive in New Zealand’s history, but has long been overshadowed by bigger wars overseas. Now, in a fine new book, Vincent O’Malley gives the traumatic conflict its due. James Belich, Beit Professor of Imperial and Commonwealth History, University of Oxford

Vincent O’Malley has produced a hugely impressive work of history and a powerful story that should be read by all who care about New Zealand. Jock Phillips, former General Editor of Te Ara –

Vincent O’Malley

The Encyclopedia of New Zealand

The Maori “king” is delighted with it and it has been well received by iwi around the nation. Not surprisingly, the two Otorohanga students have received a copy.

Sadly, the book, which is generally well-researched, shows a clear pro-Maori bias. For example, to support his contention of “atrocities” at Rangiaowhia in 1864 his source is “Maori oral histories”. He ignores eye witness accounts from both sides.

O’Malley nails his colours to the mast in the initial book dedication.

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

Much the better book

The Kingite Rebellion is definitely the superior book, as John Robinson bases his research around eye witness records, and government documents.

He has no axe to grind and provides excellent background on the outbreak of the Taranaki War in 1860. Key points are made related to mistakes made by the authorities, notably Governor Fitzroy’s foolish decision to overturn a legal ruling by Land Commissioner William Spain related to Maori land claims.

This reversal, which had ruled out absentee owners making claims, allowed Wiremu Kingi, who was living in Kapiti, and the Waikato tribes, to meddle in Taranaki land issues.

Other historians have emphasised that the attempted sale of land in Waitara by its owner Chief Te Tiera Manuka, was the catalyst for war.

However, Robinson details the in-fighting among iwi prior to this “transaction”, which created  a volatile situation in the “province”, and the development of pro-sales and anti-sales factions.

Avoiding black and white

Author John Robinson

A major strength of Robinson’s book, is his emphasis on seeing the unfolding opposition of some Maori groups to the Crown, as being a changing scene. There are no simple explanations and there was plenty of shifting ground.

He avoids simplistic generalisations, unlike O’Malley who stated in a talk on his book:

  • Settlers … were not prepared to play second fiddle to a bunch of natives.
  • the Pakeha wanted unbridled power.
  • The settler government was hostile to Maori interests.
  • The Waikato War was a deliberate war of conquest.

Robinson quotes the protagonists – chiefs, politicians, missionaries, officials and other observers – at length, to show that the development of the Kingite movement was complicated and had many opponents, even in the Waikato.

Also some of the early proponents, such as Tamihana Te Rauparaha and Matene Te Wheiwhei, quickly abandoned the cause when they saw it being taken over by iwi bent on going to war.

Te Wherowhero wanted peace

Another critical point that Robinson emphasises, is that the first Maori “king”, the elderly Waikato chief, Te Wherowhero, wanted peace with the Crown and the European settlers, from the start.

He also shows that the often maligned Governor George Grey spent much time and energy trying to persuade “king” Tawhaio that a Maori monarch, with claims to sovereignty, could not exist alongside the British sovereign, Queen Victoria.

The majority of Maori in the country acknowledged her as their overall ruler, and over 200 Maori chiefs pledged loyalty to the government, at the Kohimarama Conference in 1860.

Rebels and peacemakers

Robinson emphasizes that the defiance and threats of the Kingite groups was a rebellion against the Crown, which had sovereignty of the nation granted in the Treaty of Waitangi.

Rewi Maniapoto

Claims by many historians, including O’Malley, that the Waikato was invaded in 1863 are ridiculous. Governments don’t invade their own territory.

The Kingite Rebellion also makes it clear that the king movement only ever had the support of a minority of iwi, and in the end even some of its staunchest supporters, such as Rewi Maniapoto of Orakau fame, gladly accepted peace.

Robinson is of the view that if there is to be a day to remember the so-called New Zealand Wars, it should be when Rewi and Governor Grey met near Waitara in June 1878 to declare peace.

Most Maori chiefs, including devoted supporters of Tawhaio, thought the “king” would also agree to formally making peace with the Crown, but he refused. There were a number of later offers to the Waikato leader to return much of the confiscated land, but he would not accept.

Getting to the truth

O’Malley’s book has been favourably received and reviewed up and down the country, but one wonders how many reviewers actually waded through the nearly 700 pages.

His approach is clearly pro-kingitanga, whereas Robinson is intent on teasing out the realities and the changing allegiances, without taking sides.

The Kingite Rebellion should be widely read and reviewed. If it has any weaknesses, it is the lack of maps and an index.

(It is published by Tross Publishing and can be purchased at Paper Plus.)