Tutu Te Puehu: New perspectives on the New Zealand Wars edited by John Crawford and Ian McGibbon (Steele Roberts, 2018) 524pp, $49:99; New Zealand and the Sea: Historical perspectives edited by Frances Steel (Bridget Williams Books, 2018) 384 pp, $59:99
Basically, there are three types of history book. The poorly researched, opportunistic kind knocked off for the general reader. The well-researched, scholarly kind, written for the general reader. And the well-researched, scholarly variety, written for specialists. Tutu Te Puehu is definitely scholarly and well-researched, but I am not sure if it comes into the second or third category.
These twenty-two long and heavily end-noted essays arose from a seminar held at Massey University’s Wellington campus in 2011. The aim was to consider the New Zealand Wars primarily in terms of warfare, and the editors of this large and well-illustrated volume are both respected military historians. In his foreword, Sir Jerry Mateparae declares that the nineteenth-century New Zealand Wars ‘have arguably had a more lasting impact on our country’ than the two World Wars, regardless of the Gallipoli legend. Quite so. The twenty-two essayists are all aware of the social and cultural impact of the New Zealand Wars. The essays are arranged in five sections, beginning with four essays on the origins of Māori–Pakeha conflict in the 1840s, and ending with six essays on the international and cross-Tasman impact of these wars.
Even so, it is the technique and style of warfare itself that dominates the five essays corralled together under the heading ‘Operational Aspects’. Denis Fairfax gives a minutely detailed account of the role of the navy, including gunboats on the Waikato River. Andy Dodd talks about coastal steamers being the main line of supply for imperial troops. Cliff Simons discusses military intelligence (basically supplied to imperial officers by scouts, traders, missionaries and allied Māori), and Peter Cooke explores how compulsory military service worked out in armed and drilled civilian militias. And in another section of the book, Peter Dennerly gives almost blow-by-blow military accounts of three major engagements in the ‘Northern War’ of 1845-46. As scholarly essays, these are all excellent. But they are also more likely to be consulted by specialists than by a wider readership. The same could be said of specific essays on the attitudes of the New Zealand press and the Australian press, war memorials relating to the New Zealand Wars, and comparisons between the New Zealand Wars and the Zulu Wars or Australia’s (frequently exterminationist) ‘Frontier’ Wars.
In fairness, though, if a very patient reader puts together all these specific topics, a broad panorama of the New Zealand Wars does emerge.
Reviewing a diligent and worthy joint enterprise like this one, I know it is bad form for a reviewer to pick out essays as ‘favourites’. Other readers will make other choices. But reading my own patient way through Tutu Te Puehu I discovered five essays that had particular resonance.
Vincent O’Malley’s essay, ‘Assembling a Case for Invasion’, tells us something that historians already suspected – that Sir George Grey wilfully falsified information about a fictitious Māori threat to Auckland in order to justify sending troops into the Waikato in 1863. However, O’Malley assembles the evidence in such detail that this view is now irrefutable. Rebecca Burke’s essay is on Māori–settler relations in New Plymouth before hostilities broke out in 1860. It adds much nuance to the general understanding of the New Zealand Wars by showing how much cooperation there was between Māori and settlers before settlers’ hunger for land forced conflict. The essays by Frank Glen and Carl Bradley both deal with religious aspects that are often ignored in general New Zealand history books. Glen argues that Anglicans in Taranaki were more ready to see themselves as ‘protectors’ of Māori rights to land, while Wesleyans were more likely to argue for the surrender of Māori land to British sovereignty. Bradley contends that Titokowaru’s adoption of Te Ua’s syncretic Pai Mārire religion retained more Christian concepts and symbols than is usually admitted.
And then there is the essay that really grabbed me by the throat, because it presents a viewpoint that is hardly ever represented. Monty Soutar is Ngāti Porou. In his essay ‘He Iwi Piri Pono’, he rejects vigorously the demeaning term ‘kūpapa’ that is often (even by some of the essayists in this book) applied to those Māori who chose to fight alongside the imperial forces in the wars of the 1860s. Painstakingly, Soutar points out how raids by musket-armed Ngāpuhi early in the nineteenth century wrought havoc on the Ngāti Porou and led to their lasting enmity with other iwi. He also points out how Ngāti Porou had, in the main, sincerely embraced Anglican Christianity. Even if some defected to the Kingites in the 1860s, the Ngāti Porou would have no truck with people who had dealings with the followers of syncretistic Pai Mārire. Consequently Ngāti Porou, along with Te Arawa, were willing to fight and act as scouts for the Pākehā in the 1860s. They had very good reason to.
History is always filled with contradictions and paradoxes like this. Despite its emphasis on military technique, Tutu Te Puehu’s examinations of the New Zealand Wars do deliver the nuance that a good work of history should.
While armed conflict has loomed large in New Zealand history, it is only one aspect of this country’s formation and provides only one template for examining our past. Think about demographic and immigration history, political history, labour history, gender roles and feminist history, religious history, cultural history, local history and other specialisms. Perhaps the most fundamental history involves human interaction with the physical environment. This is the focus of New Zealand and the Sea.
Nobody in the New Zealand archipelago lives further than 130 kilometres from the sea. Sixty-five percent per cent of us live within five kilometres of the coast. Vast seas surround us. Some much smaller islands in the oceans were still uninhabited when New Zealand was already settled; but, apart from Antarctica, New Zealand was the last substantial piece of land to receive human beings. The sea is now, and has always been, important to us.
All this is fairly obvious, but in her Introduction to the fifteen essays that make up New Zealand and the Sea, Frances Steel tries gamely (and somewhat verbosely) to create a new paradigm through which we may look at our relationship with the sea. I’m not sure that she succeeds in this enterprise. But like a number of other contributors to this volume, she does note how often New Zealand’s ‘nationalist’ writers, in the 1930s and after, tended to define the Kiwi character in terms of the land, the farm, the mountains and the bush; and to ignore our continuing formation by the sea.
This book divides into three loosely-defined sections. ‘Horizons’ consists of six essays basically dealing with how people came to New Zealand in the first place. This includes really stimulating essays by Damon Salesa and Tony Ballantyne, acknowledging how readily Polynesians adopted European methods of sailing once they were available. It also includes Angela McCarthy’s shocking account of how English and Irish immigrants reached New Zealand in the nineteenth century.
‘Lifeways’ has five essays on how the sea and the coast continued to be important once our ancestors were settled here. Alison MacDiarmid uses archaeological proof to show that most pre-European Māori sites were on the coast. Michael Stevens, David Hines, Jonathan West and others examine the ongoing occupations of fishing, being cross-Tasman sailors, being watersiders, etc.
Finally, ‘Edges’ (a rather odd title) looks at how New Zealand’s seas and coasts have been presented imaginatively in cruises (Frances Steel), old magazines (Susann Liebich) and amateur photography (Julie Benjamin). There are many illustrations and they are good and relevant.
After reading my way through these essays, I was on the point of making a general critique of New Zealand and the Sea when I that found my work had been done for me. Professor Jonathan Scott’s twelve-page Epilogue is, in effect, a review. Scott states: ‘This collection of essays is multi-disciplinary. That gives it a range and an interpretative thrust which is distinct … The coverage is uneven in space and time. In the first respect there is a predominance of local, regional and global, rather than national, accompanied by a conspicuous tendency to loiter in the south of the South Island’ [emphases added]. This is a fair summary. New Zealand and the Sea is uneven because it does not give a national overview of our interaction with the sea, but tends to focus on the local and often the minute. It also has an awful lot about the Otago and Southland coasts as opposed to the coasts of other parts of the country.
Having noted this, though, I can’t resist awarding some prizes to the essayists.
- Potentially Most Controversial Essay: Atholl Anderson’s essay on pre-European Polynesian navigation techniques, in which he argues that we should be more sceptical of traditional oral accounts and more reliant on archaeology and empirical testing of ancient vessel designs.
- Most Eccentric Essay: Peter Gilderdale’s charming account of how pre-First World War postcards depicted New Zealand’s seas and seacoasts.
- Most Over-Thought Essay: Chris Brickell’s examination of old photos of seamen and watersiders, in which he sometimes appears to read more into the photos than there is to see.
- And finally, Most Forthright (or Angry) Essay: Michael Stevens’ account of Māori communities in and near Bluff, which tells us that New Zealand history has usually been written from a ‘nation-centred, secular, middle-class, Pākehā, male point-of-view’.
All in all, an interesting, if lop-sided, collection.
NICHOLAS REID is an Auckland poet and historian. He writes the book blog Reid’s Reader.