(First published in the Manawatu Standard, Nelson Mail and Taranaki Daily News, November 29.)
We New Zealanders are not very good at celebrating our unique and turbulent history.
This was brought home to me last week when, during a trip through Taranaki, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit an historic site with a connection to my family.
Te Ngutu o te Manu (“the beak of the bird”) was the scene of an attempt by colonial forces to seize a fortified South Taranaki pa occupied by the formidable Ngati Ruanui chief Titokowaru in 1868.
It didn’t go well for the colonials. A first attack was abandoned and four soldiers were killed in the second skirmish. But Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas MacDonnell, perhaps unwisely, persisted.
On the third attempt, MacDonnell and his 350 men were lured into a trap. Although outnumbered six to one, Titokowaru’s defenders, many of them concealed around the edge of a clearing in front of the pa, mowed the attackers down.
When the smoke cleared, 20 of the attacking force lay dead or dying. They included the colourful Prussian adventurer Major Gustavus Von Tempsky, the leader of an irregular force known as the Forest Rangers.
Among the wounded was my great-grandfather, John Flynn. Irish-born, he was not a regular soldier but a member of the Taranaki Volunteers. Shot through the left thigh, he was carried to safety by his comrades during an arduous seven-hour retreat through the dense bush, harried every step of the way by Titokowaru’s Hauhau warriors.
Flynn eventually made a full recovery and went on to spend many years driving the mail coach that ran between Hawera and New Plymouth. Paradoxically he got on well with local Maori and spoke the language.
Some might think it unwise to admit having a forebear who was, not to put too fine a point on it, part of a military force whose job was to enforce the seizure of Maori land, but I feel neither proud nor ashamed of my great-grandfather and refuse to judge him. He was acting according to the prevailing values and beliefs of his time, just as we are free to see the actions of that era through a different lens.
The battle site is marked by a memorial listing the names of the dead soldiers. There is no mention of the Maori casualties, confirming Winston Churchill’s famous statement that history is written by the victors.
Although in this case Ngati Ruanui won the battle, their story is invisible. The bigger war was ultimately won by the Crown, and part of the reward was to lay exclusive claim to the account of what happened.
But what struck me most was that you can drive past the site of the Te Ngutu o te Manu memorial and not know it exists. The stone cross stands in a large grassy clearing surrounded by native bush, concealed from the road.
There’s no sign at the entrance, nor at the nearby turnoff, and there’s nothing back on the main highway to indicate that you’re just five minutes’ drive away from a significant battleground. I found it only because I was given precise directions by a helpful woman at the Hawera information office. (For the record, it's not much more than a stone's throw from the Kapuni natural gas treatment plant.)
The same is true of another historic Taranaki site. For most motorists speeding along the Surf Highway between New Plymouth and Opunake, the AA road sign marking the turnoff to Mid Parihaka Rd would flash past in a blur. But it’s up this quiet country road that 1600 troops invaded the pacifist Maori settlement of Parihaka in 1881 and arrested community leaders Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi.
I have a family connection of sorts with Parihaka, too. My uncle, the left-wing historian Dick Scott, published The Parihaka Story in 1954 and followed it up with Ask That Mountain in 1975.
It’s fair to say that Dick brought the Parihaka affair to the attention of a Pakeha public that had previously known nothing about the Parihaka community’s campaign of non-violent resistance to European encroachment on Maori land.
The story is pretty well known now, but there are no signs directing travellers to the place where it unfolded. That may be the choice of today’s Parihaka residents, since it’s still a functioning community and they probably wouldn’t appreciate their rustic tranquility being disrupted by streams of cars.
Still, it strikes me as sad that we do so little to cultivate awareness of our own fascinating history. It wouldn’t happen in Australia, where Ned Kelly and the rebellious gold miners of the Eureka Stockade are feted in the public memory, and where the former convict settlement of Port Arthur, Tasmania, is a major tourist attraction.
It’s not just in Taranaki that historic sites are overlooked. I wonder how many people drive past the obelisk commemorating the Battle of Orakau, near Te Awamutu, without realising it’s where Rewi Maniapoto made his famously defiant last stand in the Waikato Wars. And who notices the memorial marking the scene of the Battle of Boulcott's Farm, in which six soldiers were killed and two more died later from their wounds, in the heart of what is now Lower Hutt?
Is this, I wonder, another manifestation of the so-called cultural cringe – the self-deprecating New Zealand conviction that nothing of interest has ever happened here?