Ewan Lincoln is a senior policy analyst in the Cultural Policy Branch – Heritage Sector, at Manatū Taonga – the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, and is also a historian.
This Friday, Anzac Day, people around the country will gather around local war memorials to remember New Zealanders who served in conflicts overseas. Many of those memorials refer to fighting ‘for King and country’. But what of those who fought in this country for a different king?
Half a century before the Gallipoli landing, some 300 Māori supporters of the Māori king, Tāwhiao, defended a hastily constructed pā at Ōrākau against 1,100 British and colonial troops. This was the last battle of the Waikato War, before the fighting moved to Tauranga. Around 150 Māori are estimated to have died at Ōrākau, mainly when the defenders broke through the British cordon and headed for the Pūniu River. Seventeen died on the British side.
Until it was eclipsed by Gallipoli, Ōrākau was perhaps New Zealand’s most mythologised battle, remembered particularly for the defenders’ reply when they were invited to surrender. Usually rendered as ‘Ka whawhai tonu mātou, āke, āke, āke’ (‘We shall fight on forever and ever and ever’), this response became famous as a symbol of Māori courage and defiance.
On 1 April this year, on a baking hot day in Waikato, I joined hundreds of people at the battle site southeast of Te Awamutu to commemorate Ōrākau’s 150th anniversary. Today the site (recently registered as a wāhi tapu area under the Historic Places Act 1975) is farmland, with only a small roadside reserve and memorial to mark its importance. Fortunately, the current owners understand the historic significance of the land and made it available for the commemoration.
The outcome of Ōrākau shaped New Zealand’s development, paving the way for the confiscation of huge swathes of Waikato land. So it was appropriate that it should be remembered with passion, and that those in attendance should include the Māori king, Te Arikinui Tūheitia Paki; Sir Tumu Te Heuheu of Ngāti Tūwharetoa; Governor General Sir Jerry Mateparae; Prime Minister John Key; Ministers of Arts, Culture and Heritage Chris Finlayson and Minister of Māori Affairs Pita Sharples.
As part of the Crown party, I was privileged to witness at close quarters a series of impressive haka performed by iwi whose ancestors fought at Ōrākau (there are some spectacular photos on the ministry’s Flickr stream). Later, Tamati Kruger of Ngāi Tūhoe spoke in his address to the gathering about the famous Tūhoe haka ‘Te pūru’, composed in 1864 when Tūhoe were fighting at Ōrākau, which likens the British invaders to a rampaging and ravenous bull.
Speakers from the Māori side emphasised the importance of New Zealanders learning about the events of the New Zealand wars, and proposed a national day of commemoration for the wars. Crown speakers, including the prime minister and governor general, likewise spoke of the importance of understanding our history and resolving past grievances.
Despite the pain associated with the memory of conflict and confiscation, the atmosphere on the day was friendly and welcoming. I was struck by the fact that most of those in attendance, apart from representatives of the Crown and local authorities, were Māori.
One hundred years before, things had been quite different. The 50th anniversary in 1914 had been a predominantly Pākehā affair, despite the presence of some veterans from the Māori side. Perhaps when we commemorate the 200th anniversary in 2064 we will be able to acknowledge together that Ōrākau is an important part of our shared history in this land?