Friday 9 July 2021

The New Zealand Wars Matthew Wright


The New Zealand Wars (2021)

Matthew Wright

Oratia, 100 pages

Paperback, NZ$29.99

ISBN 978-0-947506-93-3


The New Zealand Wars is a good book. It is a well-written and well-illustrated account which will be welcomed in schools and libraries. It will be an important and useful text book for several reasons. First it provides a clear account of the conflicts and their causes. Secondly it looks at the various ways the wars have been (and continue to be) interpreted. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, it is readable.

In the narrow space of 100 pages, Matthew Wright manages to sketch in the main figures involved, both

Maori and Pakeha, and to show the issues which brought them to open warfare. Matthew Wright’s introduction sets the tone for his account. “Few people at the time – and few historians since – have agreed on what the wars meant.” Not only does he describe the fighting, he also shows the ways in which it has been interpreted.

Ranging from the 1840s to the 1870s, Wright’s account outlines the origins and the events of the wars, as well as providing answers to contentious questions. (Did Māori invent anti-artillery bunkers? Did Māori invent trench warfare?) There are also useful explanations of technical terms – redoubt, sap, mokomokai - when they occur in the text. Useful examples of eyewitness accounts are also included.

The descriptions of the main figures are brief but sharp. As an exemplar for young historians, this sentence doesn’t waste a word: “Then von Tempsky – the popular commander, New Zealand’s own action hero and a household name at the time – was shot dead.

The pictures are certainly well-chosen but, more importantly, they also have well-written captions. In fact some captions are tiny essays explaining the significance of what is shown. So young historians are guided to take a searching look at how an event is depicted by an artist, or the significance of a feature in a photo. (He points out that the Ōmarunui battle monument wasn’t erected until 1916 and was later damaged. Thus his photo of the topless edifice demonstrates that “… the battle remained controversial.”)

The selection of the pictures is wide-ranging. There are photos, such as the 1863 image of the construction of the Great South Road. Well reproduced, it shows not only the amount of labour involved but also how effective this road would be in moving troops and supplies. Then there are contemporary paintings and sketches, some reproduced in colour. Hamley’s 1864 watercolour of pipe-

smoking soldiers weaving gabions (protective baskets) is a double-page delight.

There is a useful index and booklist. This is an open-ended resource encouraging readers to look further into each topic mentioned. There are plenty of maps, as well as sketches and photos of the terrain that was fought over, thus making, say, the importance of roads and river in the Waikato campaign vividly clear. Fact boxes abound, several of them giving guidance to some of the surviving battle sites.

The New Zealand Wars is a good book.

 Trevor Agnew

8 July 2021

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