Monday, April 24, 2006

Nigel Prickett: Forgotten conflict that made us who we are today

On Anzac Day we remember New Zealanders who gave their lives for this country and the life we enjoy. We pause for a while to remember that our freedoms and way of life have been bought at a cost.

For many, this was the cost of life itself; for others it has meant the loss of loved ones.

Commentators have drawn attention to the increasing numbers turning out for Anzac Day services in recent years. There will be many reasons for this, including a realisation that the young men and women who took part in World War II are now reaching the end of their lives, and that by recognising those who remain we acknowledge them all.

Also, in a changing world it is a chance to assert our identity as a community and to come together in things that we share, forgetting for a moment things that may divide us.

It is not original to say that New Zealand found itself as a nation through war. The particular New Zealand expressions of courage, independence, mateship and sacrifice of tens of thousands of young men on the battlefields of South Africa, Gallipoli, Palestine, France, Crete, north Africa, Italy, the Pacific, Korea, Malaya and Vietnam have helped define us and create for us our place in the community of nations.

But in making our country what it is, another war has also been important. The 19th century New Zealand Wars between Maori and European played a big part in changing this country from being mostly Maori in character and ownership to one dominated by Pakeha.

Right now we are engaged in renegotiating, through the Waitangi Tribunal process and in the political arena, a relationship that has been very unequal since then.

Behind the renegotiation is a growing knowledge and understanding of how the past has shaped the present. Research for the Waitangi Tribunal has given Maori communities a chance to have their stories heard.

The fighting that took place over much of the North Island from the 1840s to the early 1870s was hugely important in making our country what it is. The story of the wars deserves to be known.

Like the overseas wars we remember on Anzac Day, the New Zealand Wars also have stories of pride and courage, dreams and sacrifice.

For the small population at the time there was a considerable loss of life, possibly as many as 3000, or more if we include those who died as a result of war-related privation and misadventure.

Which raises the question of remembrance. It surely is time we recognised the commitment and the hopes for this country for which so many Maori and Pakeha gave their lives. In recognising this sacrifice we will learn important things about our past, which can only help understanding in the present.

There has been discussion of a Vietnam War memorial. A good argument is made that it is needed not just to remember sacrifice but also to heal wounds. This can only be supported.

But the New Zealand Wars are the forgotten wars. There is nowhere we can remember and pay respects to who lost their lives, and think about what was happening at that time, in the way all such memorials give an opportunity for reflection as well as remembrance.

Thousands of people gave their lives in our own country, in places we see every day. But we drive past not knowing what happened there. A conflict which created the country we know and which took place for many years over much of the North Island plays little or no part in our national identity.

A national memorial would remember the loss, add to understanding and help to heal wounds.

It is the aim of the Queen's Redoubt Trust and Ngati Tamaoho Trust and other partners to create a New Zealand Wars Memorial at Pokeno, South Auckland, where we can remember all those Maori and Pakeha who lost their lives, and learn where, when, how and why this happened.

This is to be associated with a proposed New Zealand Wars Interpretation Centre at the restored historic site of Queen's Redoubt, where British troops prepared for the July 1863 invasion of the Waikato.

We believe this is an important national project.

* Nigel Prickett is chairman of the Queen's Redoubt Trust.

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