We have settled on 28 October as our new New Zealand Wars Day, with preparations underway around the country to commemorate these past conflicts. However, the choice of the date – 28 October – was surprising, having had little to do with the actual wars themselves. The date was chosen by a gathering of tribal leaders held in early 2016.
Why this date chosen? It’s the day, we are told, that the Declaration of Independence was signed, in 1835 in the Far North, between the tribes of Ngā Puhi and a British Resident Agent, James Busby.
Pākehā historians like James Belich have long argued that the wars were ‘wars of sovereignty’. This date, 28 October, references that argument by foregrounding the issue of Māori sovereignty, rather than choosing an actual wars date.
Māori historians, by contrast, have argued that, for Māori, te tino rangatirantanga lay in the land, and was indistinguishable from the land, and the continuing possession of it. Tribes fought, and died, to protect this.
An over-arching ‘sovereignty’ sounds fine, but for Māori it was something always grounded in the land. October 28 denies to Māori the devastating costs of those conflicts, fought for their te tino rangatirantanga, embedded in the tribal estates.
A better date might have been 17 March, when the wars started at Te Kohia, near Waitara. The Taranaki Daily News has recently published an excellent article about the Te Kohia Battle site, you can read it here : Te Kohia Battle Site .
Another date is 20 November, when Rangiriri was attacked by British forces. Rangiriri was the defining battle of the wars, where, for Māori, the wars were lost. You can read more about Rangiriri, and the Waikato Wars, here – the Battle for Rangiriri.
Or, 5 November when, say some historians, the Land Wars finally came to a close. On 5 November 1881, Parihaka was invaded and its leaders arrested. You can read more about this here – Invasion of Parihaka.
What’s in a date?
Everything. If anything, 28 October represents, not a sense of history, but modern Māori political realities, representing the state of Crown-Māori relations today which are centred on still outstanding issues of Māori autonomy, or sovereignty.
The date seems less about the wars, and more about Māori seeking constitutional or political leverage. A date more reflective of the Māori experience of those wars, with all of the hurt, dispossession, loss and devastation has been by-passed, and that is a great shame.