Wrighting it, Chris Hilliard

Two Peoples, One Land: The New Zealand Wars
Matthew Wright 
Reed, $39.99,
ISBN 079001064X

Military fortifications, like oceanic navigation, the archaeology of New Zealand, and the commercial and maritime policies of the early modern Spanish and Portuguese empires, are a subject that Pakeha men master easily and argue vehemently about. So when, in his 1998 television series on the New Zealand Wars, James Belich made much of the provocative contention that Maori had invented trench warfare, he was asking for trouble. Writers of letters to the editor duly obliged. In his landmark 1986 book, Belich had lamented the lack of serious attention to the wars. “Pitifully enough,” he said, the closest thing to a historical debate had turned on which member of the garrison at Orakau actually said, “Ka whawhai tonu matou, ake ake ake!” Now, pitifully enough, the public debate about his documentary was dominated by details about bunkers and artillery.

These matters were not trivial – the “modern pa system” had been an important element of Belich’s interpretation – and, to my unsoldierly eye, it seemed that his critics had a point. Whatever its factual basis, giving such prominence to the claimed link between Maori fortifications and the trenches of WWI helped hand the subject of the wars over to “military history”, obscuring their political and economic consequences – subjects Belich treated powerfully in his book. The Taranaki and Waikato Wars delivered two productive dairying regions to a settler society that would, after refrigeration, owe a good deal of its export revenues to butter and cheese. It would have been a very different debate if the op-ed pages had been occupied by the question of what modern Pakeha prosperity – and the growth of Auckland – owed to the outcome of the wars.

Anyone writing a history of the New Zealand Wars must both reckon with Belich and decide how much attention to pay to the conflicts’ political and economic contexts and consequences. In Two Peoples, One Land, Matthew Wright takes care to spell out the significance of the wars for the colony’s development. He explains how the Vogel infrastructure projects of the 1870s were a “native policy” as well as a settlement scheme; the main trunk railway line, he writes, was an “opportunity to literally push settler economics and society into the Maori heartland”. Wright also surveys the wars’ political setting – the tensions between governors, the army, and the Colonial Office; the conflicts between settler politicians in North Island provinces and those in the South not keen to pay for wars on the other island. His treatment of the politics is capable but doesn’t go beyond that: it is the military history proper that is Wright’s chief concern.

Wright’s book comes with a prefatory commendation by the eminent military historian Chris Pugsley, now of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, who conducted a long-running guerrilla campaign against Belich’s interpretation of the wars in the pages of the New Zealand Defence Quarterly. Two Peoples, One Land is an extended argument with Belich’s work, which it is presumably intended to supplant as far as a general audience is concerned. Sometimes Wright pays Belich the compliment of quietly reiterating him, as when he discusses the primacy of the regiment in British soldiers’ consciousness or points out that the introduction of the potato did more to enable the Musket Wars than the arrival of muskets themselves. More often, Wright is critical of Belich, though the text seldom refers to him by name. Belich is usually the referent lurking behind the word “revisionists” or, more abstractly, “revisionism”. On page 56, for instance, the statement “Revisionism obfuscates the point” is followed by a footnote fingering “revisionism” as a passage in Belich’s book.

The point so obfuscated is that Kawiti did not really win the battle of Ohaeawai in the Northern War of 1845-1846. In Belich’s version, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Despard occupies the pa at Ohaeawai after Kawiti has abandoned it; in Wright’s, Despard eventually learns from his mistakes and relies on bombardment, as a result of which Kawiti’s forces are “blown out of the pa”. (Wright says that Kawiti “effectively admitted” this afterwards. His evidence is a speech by Kawiti reported in James Cowan’s 1922-1923 history of the wars, a remarkable piece of New Zealand historical writing but not something I’d want to rely on.) For Belich, Maori agency was hard to disentangle from Maori success; in his defence, it might be said that the fact Wright can assume the existence of the former without insisting on the latter probably owes at least something to the achievement of Belich and others who “revised” New Zealand history in the 1980s.

As the Ohaeawai matter shows, Wright’s disagreements with Belich concern not only specific Maori tactics or innovations, but also the outcomes and wider significance of particular engagements and campaigns. He disagrees with Belich’s assessment of the result of the Northern War as only a “paper victory” for the British. He is soberer about the threat Titokowaru’s War posed to settler power. At the same time, Wright makes a case for the importance of other lesser campaigns such as the East Coast War and the Wanganui fighting.

Wright describes the action of the battles lucidly, with the occasional Cowanesque archaism for effect, such as “fleet-footed toa”. Writing well about battles isn’t easy. Prose is not ideally suited to keeping track of the various participants or coping with the different rhythms of combat on the one hand and logistics on the other; narrative privileges sequence. Illustrations can go some way towards compensating. There are some fabulous plates on the wars in the Bateman New Zealand Historical Atlas – the one on the Waikato war is positioned so that the viewer’s line of sight follows the path of the invading forces – but they are at campaign level rather than on the scale of individual battles. The maps in Two Peoples, One Land are clear and helpful, though less imaginative than those in the atlas, and these too deal with regions and campaigns rather than individual battles. In making that criticism, I’m aware that it’s easier to wish for graphics of battles than to imagine just what they might look like. Unfortunately, many of the landscape paintings and engravings in Two Peoples, One Land are reproduced too small for the reader to get much from the scene, while other images are blown up so big that they show the flaws in the reproduction.

The book design is a little disappointing; blocked quotations are italicised, which looks amateurish. Nor is the editing very stringent. On page 13, there are two references to illustrations on “p. xx”, but there are no pages with roman numerals, and nor are these images on page 20: someone clearly forgot to insert the correct page numbers after the book had been typeset. Still, non-interventionist editing is not all bad: the publisher has not scrimped on the endnotes, as many do, and has permitted Wright to engage in methodological and historiographical discussions. Reed deserves credit for letting Wright produce a serious as well as accessible book.

Wright’s preferred voice in Two Peoples, One Land is that of the commonsense arbiter who weighs others’ bold claims against logic and the available evidence. This umpire persona serves Wright best when he is talking about fighting and logistics. It is less well suited to making sense of politics and ambitions, including Sir George Grey’s, but especially those of some Maori protagonists and movements. Wright does not find a convincing register for making wider judgements at the very end of the book. Invoking Niall Ferguson’s cheerleading history of the British empire, Wright says that in the mid-19th century, at least, British imperialism did not correspond to “the stereotype imagined by some post-colonial idealists”. In fact, the British “never really fitted the pattern. And, in the end, they knowingly sacrificed their empire to halt true imperialism, standing alone in quiet desperation and faded glory against the jack-booted might of Nazi Germany”. The phrase “jack-booted might” is embarrassing, and incorporating a Pink Floyd lyric from Wish You Were Here (“Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”) only makes the sentence odder. Britain’s negotiations with India during WWII were not a product of charity, and the idea that anything less than Nazism doesn’t count as “true imperialism” is dubious. Wright says that while Maori suffered many injustices in the 19th century, “this does not diminish the fact that the New Zealand experience stands in contrast to that of many other colonised lands”. Given Wright’s accomplishment in the rest of Two Peoples, One Land, I was surprised to see this trite excuse for the colonisation of New Zealand rear its head. I thought that debate about our past had outgrown this cliché, but apparently not — pitifully enough.


Chris Hilliard is the author of The Bookmen’s Dominion: Cultural Life in New Zealand, 1920-1950 (reviewed in our October 2006 issue).


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Posted in History, Maori, Non-fiction, Review and War
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