Friday, 14 December 2018

The New Zealand Wars and the School Curriculum

By Joanna Kidman and Vincent O'Malley

The New Zealand Wars (1845-72) had a decisive influence over the course of the nation’s history. Yet Pākehā have not always cared to remember them in anything approaching a robust manner, engaging at different times either in elaborate myth-making that painted the wars as chivalrous and noble or, when that was no longer tenable, actively choosing to ignore them altogether. More recently there are signs of a greater willingness to face up to the bitter and bloody realities of these conflicts. For many Māori, that is not before time.

If a turning point in Pākehā remembrance could be identified, then perhaps it might be the petition organised by students from Ōtorohanga College that led to a national day of commemoration for the New Zealand Wars (Rā Maumahara). In 2014, students from the school, some as young as 15, visited nearby Ōrākau and Rangiaowhia. The group was led by kaumātua who were descendants of the survivors. At each site, they recounted what took place during the invasions and the ongoing impact on hapū and iwi.

These stories had a profound effect on the students and their teachers, not least because the events in question took place in the Waikato, where they lived. Yet very few Pākehā seemed to know anything about them. These silences weighed heavily on the young people. They responded by starting a petition which called on the government to officially acknowledge the New Zealand Wars in a national day of commemoration and also to introduce local histories and studies of these conflicts into the  school curriculum. The petition, signed by more than 12,000 people and presented to Parliament in December 2015, attracted a groundswell of support from others who were also troubled by these silences. In August 2016, the government announced that a national day of commemoration would be established (although not as a statutory holiday).

The first Rā Maumahara was hosted by Te Tai Tokerau iwi at Kororāreka in March 2018. But the government’s willingness to acknowledge the wars did not extend to the school curriculum. In a submission to the Māori Affairs Committee on the petition, the Ministry of Education voiced strong and uncompromising opposition to introducing the New Zealand Wars as a mandatory part of the curriculum, going so far as to suggest that such a move could damage the entire schooling sector. Peter Hughes, the Secretary for Education, argued that the Ministry “considers that implementing the petitioners’ recommendation would be a significant and unnecessary intervention likely to result in significant, negative systemic consequences for the New Zealand schooling sector.”

Hughes’ reasoning was that New Zealand’s non-prescriptive National Curriculum provides teachers with a high level of choice in designing their own curriculum topics. While the Ministry of Education sets out broad achievement objectives in each subject, schools are not required to teach specific topics nor are teachers told what to teach. The earliest achievement objective that potentially addresses New Zealand’s difficult past, albeit tangentially, is in the Year 10 social sciences curriculum which requires students to “Understand how the Treaty of Waitangi is responded to differently by people in different times and places”. Anecdotally, we know that some teachers use this as a basis for teaching about the New Zealand Wars but there is no requirement or expectation to do so.

The situation does not improve in the senior years of schooling. History is offered as an elective subject in NCEA from year 11 onwards, although only just over 20% of students take the subject at that level.1 Those students who opt for the subject and have motivated history teachers may learn about the New Zealand Wars at this point but many others leave school without ever hearing about these conflicts. The Ministry of Education encourages the teaching of this history but leaves the decision to individual schools and teachers. No data is collected on how many schools offer this topic so the level of uptake is unknown. However, it is known that many schools do not teach New Zealand history, let alone the history of the New Zealand Wars, at NCEA level.

There are various reasons that some teachers are reluctant to teach this history. According to Mark Sheehan, schools instinctively shy away from matters seen to be contentious or controversial. Conversely, proponents of teaching more New Zealand history in schools face an uphill battle against those convinced that the topic is ‘boring’. In some cases, it is argued that history is merely about learning new skills and that the actual content is irrelevant. That may chime with modern day education philosophies but fails to take account of the fact that most children will grow up in New Zealand. Schools should be more than simply vocational training centres but equip young people to fully engage in and understand their own communities. A basic knowledge of the history of one’s own country is an essential ingredient in that.

In other cases, teachers may lack the confidence or resources to begin teaching this history or may feel they lack the appropriate connections and contacts with local iwi. These practical constraints can be overcome with the required support. That might involve professional learning and development courses or workshops tailored to teaching the New Zealand Wars, funding for a range of written, audio-visual or web-based teaching and learning resources, and facilitation of site visits and dialogue with tribal historians and kaumātua.

Although there has been much debate around the issue of compulsion, ensuring young people leave school with at least some understanding of this history is essential. This is too important to leave to the whims of individual schools and teachers. There are already aspects of the school curriculum that are compulsory. But so long as there is a requirement to teach about the New Zealand Wars, schools should be left to determine how they go about doing so. That would allow for place-based learning around the history of these conflicts.

A simple way of ensuring such an outcome might be to tweak the Treaty achievement objective in year 10 so that it is made explicit that the history of the New Zealand Wars should form part of this teaching. Doing so would ensure all children left school with at least some exposure to the topic. A more ambitious approach would embed it throughout the school years. Some primary schools already teach about the New Zealand Wars and that should be further encouraged, along with additional resources for promoting it as an NCEA option at years 11 to 13. We also need systems in place to capture data about the numbers of students who are learning this history so that future progress can be monitored. The Ministry of Education may be happy with the status quo, but many others are not and the debate is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

  1. This figure was obtained by using the number of students taking English at Year 11 in a given year as a proxy for total enrolments. The Year 11 history enrolments were 21.5% (2017) and 21.8% (2016) of the number of English enrolments in those years.

First published at

Friday, 9 November 2018

Defining Conflicts? The New Zealand Wars

In this Friends of the Turnbull Library event, Dr Vincent O’Malley, author of The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000, will present an overview of the New Zealand Wars – a series of conflicts that profoundly shaped the course and direction of our nation’s history. He looks at the origins, causes and consequences of these conflicts and discusses how the wars have been remembered historically.

Vincent has recently received a Friends of the Turnbull Library research grant to help him research his latest book project, a history of the New Zealand Wars aimed at the secondary school market.

5.30 pm, Thursday 22 November

Ground Floor, National Library of New Zealand
Corner of Aitken and Molesworth streets
Thorndon, Wellington

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

The Waikato War and Auckland

Last month I spoke at the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park seminar, held at Auckland Museum, on how the Waikato War helped transform Auckland and the wider Hauraki Gulf. Auckland, I suggested, is a city built on immense Māori contributions, even if this history is not widely known or understood today.

Watch the video of my talk here.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Teaching New Zealand Wars History

Efforts to ensure more young New Zealanders learn the history of the New Zealand Wars at school stepped up recently, with Stuff launching a campaign to support this kaupapa. As an editorial announcing the campaign noted:

"Kiwi school kids can leave the education system knowing more about Tudor England than the New Zealand Wars.  This is a ridiculous situation and a sad indictment on our commitment to partnership under the Treaty."

The series of stories included some inspirational examples of schools which had taken up the challenge, including one Hamilton primary school. The New Zealand Wars, I explained in one interview for the series, could best be understood as a clash between two competing visions of what the Treaty of Waitangi represented.

I also spoke about this issue on TVNZ's Breakfast show. Over the past month or so I have been giving a series of talks in schools around the country on New Zealand Wars history, with more to come. I spoke about how young people have been engaging with this history with Dale Husband the other day. Students, I noted, really get why this history matters for them and their communities.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Learning the Trick of Standing Upright Here

Stuff recently ran a great series of stories as part of a special project called NZ Made/Nā Nīu Tīreni that included information about every modern Treaty of Waitangi settlement, maps of Māori land loss and explanations about how had this occurred. As

"New Zealand has not done well at grappling with its past. The unsettling truth about how this country was made is still not well understood. It has not been adequately taught in our schools. Our popular culture hasn't reflected it well enough. And our media has failed to tell it loudly and clearly.
The Treaty of Waitangi, and its subsequent betrayals, is the heart of how New Zealand was made. We need to reckon with what happened in order to understand the Treaty settlements process that continues today."

Tūrangawaewae – a place to stand. For me Allen Curnow's immortal lines 'Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year/Will learn the trick of standing upright here' are the starting point. Has that child been born yet? I hope so. I think so. Perhaps they come from Ōtorohanga, where a school trip back in 2014 led to a petition, and big things grew from there.

And what is that trick? Well, I would suggest a big part of it is reconciling ourselves with the history of this country. Not the imagined history of a plucky wee nation at the bottom of the globe, punching above its weight, egalitarian and forward looking. I'm talking about the messy, complicated history of how Pākehā colonised this land. Then-Prime Minister John Key's 2014 insistence that New Zealand was settled peacefully was widely ridiculed at the time. But the sentiments that underlay that statement retain an enduring appeal for some. Those people haven't learnt the trick.

A mature nation takes ownership of its history, not just cherry-picking the good bits out to remember but also acknowledging the bad stuff as well. Moving confidently into the future requires a robust understanding of where we have come from and been.

Auckland Museum Hall of Memories New Zealand Wars Alcove

Reconciling ourselves to the history of this land – finding a place to stand – is not just about supporting the settlement of historical Treaty of Waitangi claims. That's part of the story but not the whole solution. It's about ordinary New Zealanders taking the time to acknowledge and even own this history. Learn about it, respect it, pass it on, make sure your children and their children learn these stories too. Not so they can feel guilty or ashamed about the actions of their ancestors. But so they can be big enough, and confident enough, to say, 'yes, this is part of our history too' (alongside the things we feel good about today, like all those people who stood up against injustices in the past when they saw them).

Read the rest of the article here

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

He Whakaputanga and Te Tiriti

Some time ago I was interviewed for the He Tohu exhibition that is located at the National Library of New Zealand.

He Tohu is a permanent exhibition of three iconic constitutional documents that shape Aotearoa/New Zealand. The documents are:
  • 1835 He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni — Declaration of Independence of the United Tribes of New Zealand
  • 1840 Te Tiriti o Waitangi – Treaty of Waitangi
  • 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition – Te Petihana Whakamana Pōti Wahine.

The full version of my interview (around 16 minutes long) has recently been released online. It traverses He Whakaputanga and Te Tiriti, but also the wider context of Māori and Pākehā relationships from the eighteenth century through to today.

Many more videos with a wide range of experts and commentators can be viewed on the He Tohu website

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Learning (and not learning) about the New Zealand Wars

By now many people know something of the story of the small-town petition from which big things grew. In December 2015 students from Otorohanga College and their supporters presented a petition signed by over 12,000 people to Parliament.

Some eight months later the government announced that a national day of commemoration for the New Zealand Wars would be established. Rā Maumahara was born.

Less well-known is that the Otorohanga College students had a second objective. They wanted the history of these conflicts to be taught in all schools. We are still waiting on that one.

The Ministry of Education strongly opposed this aspect of the petition in a 2016 submission to the Māori Affairs Committee, while admitting it had no idea how many students studied the New Zealand Wars.

Anecdotally, many people have told me they learned nothing of these wars. But I was curious to know more. So I took to social media. Last week I put up a Twitter poll with a simple question: Did you learn about the New Zealand Wars at school?

The response was phenomenal. 1484 people of all ages responded in the three days the poll was running, many leaving comments about their experiences of learning (or not learning) about the New Zealand Wars at school. They were thoughtful, frank, sometimes heart-warming and at others outright depressing.

Read more at The Spinoff

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Auckland's 'Founding Father'

I was asked recently, during the course of an interview with the New Zealand Herald on the fortieth anniversary of the end of the Bastion Point/Takaparawhā occupation, about who Auckland’s ‘founding father’ was.

My first response was that I don’t like the term ‘founding father’ as for one thing ‘it’s very patriarchal’. (Where are the ‘founding mothers’?).

But if we had to name one, I added, then the Ngāti Whātua rangatira Āpihai Te Kawau had stronger claims than John Logan Campbell, who is usually described as the founding father of Auckland. 

Āpihai Te Kawau (source:

It was Āpihai Te Kawau who invited Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson to found a new settlement on the shores of Waitematā Harbour in 1840.

Ngāti Whātua subsequently gifted the Crown over 100,000 acres in the area. They did so, I suggested, in the expectation of an ongoing reciprocal relationship of mutual benefit to both Māori and Pākehā.

Instead, as the Waitangi Tribunal described at length in its 1987 Orakei Report, Ngāti Whātua were stripped of their last remaining lands, becoming landless and destitute while a prosperous new settlement grew around them.

It was this troubled history that led ultimately to the 506-day occupation of Bastion Point, beginning on 5 January 1977. The scenes of police and the army dragging the occupiers from their makeshift camp on 25 May 1978 came as a shock to many Pākehā brought up to believe that they lived in a country with the greatest ‘race relations’ in the world.

In response to my comments, the Herald published an editorial suggesting that there was room for two ‘founding fathers’, Āpihai Te Kawau and John Logan Campbell. I don’t have a problem with that. 

John Logan Campbell (source:
After all, the concept is one that in my view is problematic to begin with. But at the same time, I would suggest that Ngāti Whātua’s contribution to Auckland has been infinitely greater in historical terms than the gift of a few hundred acres for a public park, generous though that might have seemed at the time.

As I have explored elsewhere, Auckland is a city that owes much to Māori, even if this fact is often overlooked today.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Grey Street Must Fall: The Waikato Garrison Towns in History and Memory

In December 2017 I had the pleasure of addressing the two-day 'Garrison Towns in the Nineteenth Century Empire' symposium hosted at Victoria University of Wellington as part of the Marsden Fund project Soldiers of Empire.

My contribution considered the garrison towns of the Waikato district along what became the boundary between the area conquered and seized by invading British and colonial troops after April 1864 and the Kīngitanga territory to the south of this, beyond the Puniu River. A particular focus was the town of Kihikihi, which continues to have a disproportionately large Māori population today in comparison with other settlements in the region.   
Corner of Whitaker and Grey Streets, Kihikihi. Named after Frederick Whitaker and Sir George Grey respectively
Today, the street signs pay silent homage to the Pākehā politicians and soldiers responsible for its conquest and later confiscation in the Waikato War of 1863-64. Grey, Cameron, Carey, Whitaker and other streets in the small Waikato town of Kihikihi taunt its many (34%) Māori residents with daily reminders of the devastating effects and consequences of that conflict felt over many generations. The settlement that prior to 1863 was principally known for being the home to Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Paretekawa rangatira Rewi Maniapoto became one of many military settlements along the new frontier that separated the Kīngitanga and Crown in its aftermath. Beyond lay the Puniu River and the unsubdued area henceforth known as the King Country. 

This paper considers the changing social and political dynamics of these Waikato garrison towns in the mid-nineteenth century – from their surprisingly important role in the development of the New Zealand (and Māori) economy prior to the war, through to the quite contrasting experiences of the military settlers in its wake. It asks, beyond street signs, what other remnants of this history remain and how else is the painful legacy of local (and brutal) conflict at nearby Ōrākau and elsewhere marked and recorded?


As I concluded in my address, the legacy of the Waikato War is everywhere, not just in the names of Kihikihi’s streets but also arguably in the socio-economic status of many of the region’s Māori residents. And as we enter a post-settlement phase in our history and we contemplate how best to remember and commemorate this history, it’s worth pondering what this might mean for former garrison towns like Kihikihi. That requires more than a change of street signs. It needs a wholesale shift in the way that Pākehā New Zealand engages with the history of the wars fought on our own shores.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Questioning the Canon: Colonial History, Counter-Memory and Youth Activism

'Questioning the Canon: Colonial History, Counter-Memory and Youth Activism', co-authored with Dr Joanna Kidman from Victoria University of Wellington, was recently published in its online version in the journal Memory Studies.


Social memory is inscribed by power relations that both produce and contain canonical state narratives. In settler nations, where indigenous and state relationships remain unresolved, tribal memories of violent colonial histories that are passed on to successive generations expose ‘official’ silences in foundational stories about a nation’s origins.

In this article, we examine a public debate that occurred when a group of secondary school students took a petition to the New Zealand Parliament calling for formal recognition of the difficult history of the New Zealand Wars – a series of nineteenth-century clashes between British imperial troops and their colonial allies against indigenous Māori.

Drawing on Hirsch’s concept of postmemory, we show how the young activists’ public acknowledgement of difficult histories exposed simmering tensions between competing historical narratives throwing light on how political struggles over representations of the colonial past are shaped in many settler nations.


Dr Kidman also spoke about the Otorohanga College petition that is discussed in the paper at the Te Putake o Te Riri symposium held at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi in October 2017. A recording of her talk recently played on RNZ's Te Ahi Kaa programme. Listen here. The symposium was also livestreamed and the video recording can be viewed in full here.

Friday, 9 February 2018

'The Great War for New Zealand' at the New Zealand Festival

The Great War for New Zealand to feature at the New Zealand Festival Writers and Readers weekend:

This country’s most significant and traumatic conflict, crucial in shaping the nation, was the 1863–64 war between Māori and British troops in the Waikato.

In his ground-breaking, monumental work The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800–2000, historian Vincent O’Malley explores Māori and Pākehā relationships from first contact to settlement and government apology.

He discusses his research with “artivist” Moana Maniapoto, musician and writer for e-Tangata.

Where: New Zealand Festival Club, 17 Cable Street, Wellington 6011

When: 4.15-5.15pm, Saturday, 10 March 2018

Ticketing and more information:

Friday, 19 January 2018

NZ Historical Association Mary Boyd Prize 2017

It was a great honour to have been announced as the 2017 winner of the Mary Boyd Prize at the New Zealand Historical Association’s conference in Auckland in December.

Named in memory of the Pacific historian Mary Beatrice Boyd (1921–2010), this award is for the best article on any aspect of New Zealand history published in a refereed journal. The prize covered articles published between April 2015 and April 2017.

My winning article, ‘“Recording the Incident with a Monument”: The Waikato War in Historical Memory’, was published in the open-access Journal of New Zealand Studies in 2015.

The article charts changing perceptions of the Waikato War in national memory and consciousness and formed the basis for a chapter on this topic in my subsequent book The Great War for New Zealand.

Read the wining article here.