Sunday, September 16, 2018

Mike Butler: Gate Pa and the need to look ahead

Gate Pa and Te Ranga – the full story seeks to put fighting that took place in Tauranga in 1864 within a wide historical narrative that includes Maori history back 360 years, the impact of British settlement in the 19th century, and the reaction to that settlement.

The Battle of Gate Pa on April 29, 1864, has been described as a humiliating defeat for the British although the Battle of Te Ranga seven weeks later resulted in Maori defenders being routed and their commander killed.

At Gate Pa, 31 Government troops were killed and 80 wounded despite vastly outnumbering the rebels. At Te Ranga, more than 80 rebels were killed or fatally wounded. The book corrects a few myths:

1.The Battle of Gate Pa was a victory for Maori rebels and a defeat for the Government. The rebels made a stand and gave Government troops a bloody nose, but ultimately the rebels fled and the Government took vacant possession of the pa.

2. Gate Pa and other battles of the 1860s were a “race war”. The 1860s conflicts were a rebellion by a minority of tribes in parts of the North Island.

3. At Gate Pa, Ngaiterangi and their allies were fighting for land. Under law, Ngaiterangi like all tribes had guaranteed security of land ownership. But all tribes were warned that if they took up arms against the Government, they put themselves at risk of having their land confiscated. By joining the Kingite rebellion, Ngaiterangi had a small area of land, 50,000 acres, confiscated as a consequence. In those days, 50,000 acres would be the size of a farm, and not an extremely large one.

4. Maori invented trench warfare. The Western Front trench systems of the First World War can be traced back to 15th century Europe.

5. In making the two land purchases in Tauranga, pre-1840, the Church Missionary Society was merely holding the land in trust for Ngaiterangi. On October 30, 1838, the Reverend Alfred Nesbit Brown recorded in his diary that “we purchased today the [30-acre] site on which the mission stands” . . . it seems in the present excited state of the native [fearing war with hostile tribes] to show them by this act that we have no present intention of leaving them”. The second transfer, of 1334 acres, took place on March 30, 1839, and payment was made in goods.

The narrative is plain and direct, with battles described in the style of legendary historian James Cowan’s work in the early 20th century, capturing the gruesome drama and chivalry in both battles.

The final chapter, “Reconciliation and progress”, has a call to action when it says: “In the 21st century all New Zealanders need to look forwards and not backwards – as the tribal elite does to imagined grievances of the past which they pursue for present financial enrichment at the expense of the rest of society.

“This constant harking back to the past is creating unnecessary and undesirable separatism and ill-will. As Winston Churchill said: ‘If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future’”.

Gate Pa and Te Ranga – the full story, John McLean and John Robinson, 160 pages, illustrated, Tross Publishing, $30

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