Reimagining our history: Two young scholars discuss the New Zealand wars

Reimagining our history: Two young scholars discuss the New Zealand wars

Today is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Te Ngutu-o-te-manu. This was a major battle in the third Taranaki war, also known as Tītokowaru’s war.

Having tried to defend Māori land rights in South Taranaki using peaceful means, in July 1868 Riwha Tītokowaru (Ngāti Manuhiakai o Ngā Ruahine, Ngāti Ruanui) authorised an attack on the redoubt at Turuturumōkai, five kilometres from Waihī.

In retaliation Lieutenant Colonel Thomas McDonnell launched an attack on Tītokowaru’s village, Te Ngutu-o-te-manu, but was convincingly defeated.

Tītokowaru emerged as ‘arguably the best general New Zealand has ever produced’ although in February 1869 his army suddenly collapsed and he was forced to retreat.

Through the 1870s and 1880s Tītokowaru continued to defend against the confiscation of Māori land through non-violent resistance.

Here, history curator Katie Cooper speaks to two new members of the Te Papa whānau – Caitlin Lynch and Ben Manukonga – about the importance of commemorating the New Zealand wars and the power of objects.

Caitlin and Ben smiling
Caitlin Lynch and Ben Manukonga, 2018. Te Papa

Katie: Caitlin, you came to Te Papa as a Summer Scholar, and you spent your summer holiday researching the W.F. Gordon collection of portraits related to the New Zealand wars. What drew you to the project?

Caitlin: It stood out to me because I believe that New Zealand is at a crucial moment in reimagining its history. Across the board, both in the public and in academia, there’s been a push to learn more about the New Zealand wars and to own them.

A lot of the people depicted in the [W.F. Gordon] portraits are people’s ancestors, and I think that creates quite a nice way to approach this – a personal way to start engaging with these conversations.

Katie: Ben, have you found that as well? Do you think that working with objects can help us to talk about historical events?

Ben: I absolutely believe that. For me, being able to work so closely with taonga, it does help to create that connection… Just being in [the storeroom], it’s a very spiritually-charged place, and I don’t think I’ve felt more connected to my history as a Māori person than when I first entered that space.

Katie: Caitlin, were there particular stories that jumped out at you while you were doing your research?

Caitlin: I think for me it was getting a sense that historical objects aren’t just collected in one moment – they have this whole history of where they’ve been and who’s collected them and why they’ve been held. They have different meanings at different times.

And when we come to look at the history of the New Zealand wars, some of these items have been collected in a colonial mind-set, so I had to ask myself how do we use them now as useful pieces of history, but without re-perpetuating the same colonial ideas? For me that is the importance of tracing the lifetime of objects.

Caitlin Lynch
Caitlin Lynch, 2018. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

Katie: Ben, you grew up in New Plymouth and are affiliated with Ngāti Ruanui, so I wondered if you had learnt about Tītokowaru when you were growing up?

Ben: Not when I was growing up… but when I got to high school and particularly when I did my undergrad degree is when I really got the chance to get stuck into those histories.

In high school, I was very fortunate to have teachers who were really passionate about making sure that these stories were told. And they made a point of saying “These are the things that happened in our area. These are the stories that don’t get told in a lot of depth, or very well, but it’s important that you know them.”

In my last year of high school I got stuck in to actually doing research about [the New Zealand wars] and that was when I started falling in love with the work of James Belich and Claudia Orange, who I got to meet the other week!

Katie: Why do you think it is important to commemorate events such as the battle of Te Ngutu-o-te-manu?

Ben: The thing is, these are stories that are so emotionally charged that people don’t like talking about them – they make them feel guilty or they don’t want to think about it because it was so long ago. But these are issues that are still very alive, particularly for my people, because we’re still facing those repercussions now.

These are the kinds of stories that we need to be commemorating and accepting [that they] happened. And we need to actually tell the whole story so that we can learn from that past.

Ben Manukonga smiling
Ben Manukonga, 2018. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

Caitlin: I think it’s easy to think that the Treaty settlement process finished all these conversations but really the point of it is to open them up again.

Katie: I think that’s why we’re lucky to have objects that give people something to engage with.

Caitlin: And it’s not often you find an object that’s that old! To discover something that was made 150 years ago, used 150 years ago, in such intense human moments, is really powerful.

Related objects

Further reading

  • James Belich. ‘Titokowaru, Riwha’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
  • ‘Tītokowaru’s war’, Ministry for Culture and Heritage.
  • Danny Keenan, ‘New Zealand wars’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
  • James Belich, I Shall Not Die: Titokowaru’s War 1868-1869 (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2010).
  • Tony Sole, Ngāti Ruanui: A History (Wellington: Huia, 2005).

1 Comment

  1. Could you please tell me when Te Ngutu O Te Manu be on display

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