New views on NZ Wars well worth dipping into

Mike Houlahan reviews Tutu Te Puehu: New Perspectives On The New Zealand Wars, edited by John Crawford and Ian McGibbon. Published by Steele Roberts.

There has been intense scrutiny of New Zealand and war in the past four years, as the centenary of various World War 1 battles have been marked.

Some commentators have argued the 1914-18 conflict marked a milestone for the country towards a sense of nationhood.

However, in the previous century, a series of wars which, arguably, had a far more profound impact on the sense of what it was to be a New Zealander, were fought.

From the 1840s to the 1890s a series of clashes, which ranged from skirmishes to fully engaged battles, unfolded, mostly across the North Island.

As former chief of defence and governor-general Sir Jerry Mateparae points out in his introduction: before Maori and Pakeha fought together overseas, they first fought each other in Aotearoa.

However, as this collection of essays on what are now known as the New Zealand Wars highlights, ‘‘sides’’ and understanding of for whom and for what one was fighting could be a very fluid concept — especially for iwi who sided with the Crown.

Tutu Te Puehu collects 22 essays on the wars, divided into five broad categories: origins, the war in Taranaki, military history, Titokowaru and Te Kooti, and international aspects of the war.

As you might imagine in a collection of new perspectives, the standard works in the field — most notably those of James Belich — come under considerable scrutiny.

While the historians here do not always find themselves in agreement with his conclusions, they do recognise the debt owed to the historian who achieved the improbable feat of putting this part of our history on TV.

While they were New Zealand wars, one facet well explored here is their international aspect: Kristyn Harman, Lyndall Ryan and Jeff Hopkins-Weise in particular illuminate how closely linked Australia was to the war.

Many operational aspects of the war have been considered in depth elsewhere, but the lesser-appreciated role of the Royal Navy is highlighted by Peter Dennerly, Denis Fairfax and Andy Dodd.

Perhaps the most provocative contribution is that of Monty Soutar, a former Ngati Porou chief executive whose account of his iwi and its role in the wars is fascinating and challenging.

While the essayists have explored some obscure corners of New Zealand history, that does not make this collection an exercise in the arcane.

Ignoring what study of this difficult part of the New Zealand’s past can teach us, is to miss clues in understanding what shaped historic race relations — factors which continue to shape race relations to this day.

It is seven years since the conference at which these essays were originally presented as papers.

Hopefully, their compilation in this volume will act as Crawford and McGibbon intended, as a catalyst for further discussion of pivotal moments in New Zealand’s history.

This is a fascinating, entertaining and frequently enlightening collection which is well worth dipping into.

- Mike Houlahan is an ODT health reporter.

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