Right Day, Wrong Date?

Oakura Marae, Oakura, New Plymouth.We have commemorated 28 October 2017 as our inaugural New Zealand Wars Day. But the date was unfortunate because, strangely enough, the day has nothing to do with the New Zealand Wars. A gathering of tribal leaders decided last year that commemorations for the New Zealand Wars would be held on 28 October.

But why was that date chosen? It’s the day, they said, that the Declaration of Independence was signed, in 1835 in the north between the tribes of Ngā Puhi and a British Resident Agent, James Busby. But the date has no direct reference to the New Zealand Wars. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to; the date was chosen, not for historical reasons, as you would think, but for political reasons.

The Beehive, New Zealand's Parliament, Wellington.There are other reasons why the date was unfortunate. Pākehā historians like James Belich have long argued that the wars were ‘wars of sovereignty’. This date, 28 October, clearly buys into 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.

The church at Rangioawhia. Better Dates – 17 March or 20 November ?

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, written by Deena Coster  – 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.

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 is 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.

Young Jadyn exploring the Ruapekapeka Battlesite, Northland. Photo by Bryn Thomas.