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New Zealand Wars and the Victorian…

New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict

by James Belich

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861220,215 (4.13)None
The New Zealand Wars is a powerful revisionist history. Revealing the enormous tactical and military skill of Maori, and the inability of the 'Victorian interpretation of racial conflict' to acknowledge those qualities, this account of the New Zealand Wars changed how the country's history was understood. Belich undertakes a complete reinterpretation of the crucial episode in New Zealand history and the result is a very different picture from the one previously given in historical works. Maori, in this new view, won the Northern War and stalemated the British in the Taranaki War of 1860-61 only to be defeated by 18,000 British troops in the Waikato War of 1863-64. The secret of effective Maori resistance was an innovative military system, the modern pa, a trench-and-bunker fortification of a sophistication not achieved in Europe until 1915. According to the author: 'The degree of Maori success in all four major wars is still underestimated - even to the point where, in the case of one war, the wrong side is said to have won.' Here, Belich sets out to show how historical distortions have arisen over time and revises our understanding of New Zealand history by using fresh evidence and a systematic re-analysis of old evidence.… (more)



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In general Pākehā seem to have a ‘collective amnesia’ about the New Zealand Wars. This was challenged by Rhodes Scholar Belich in his ‘revisionist’ history, originating as a thesis but published in 1986 as The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict. It ‘helped reframe the wars - sometimes known as ‘the Māori Wars’ (with its ‘native-quelling’ connotations) - as ‘the New Zealand Wars’. The book sold an impressive 20,000 copies’ (Botes, 2009, para. 4) and impacted on the reshaping of national identity. Contrary to popular opinion at the time Belich pointed out ‘just how often the Māori were successful in battle and how near they came to winning the war’ (Wattie, 1998, p. 568). Jones (1989) explains that ‘Literature is an institution within a society, and as such it both reflects and projects an image of that society’s cultural identity’ (p. 187).

Coincidently, it is the white marble frieze on Rāwiri Puhirake’s memorial at Mission Cemetery, Tauranga, that features on the cover of Belich’s book. Therefore, whether people know it or not, they are familiar with this enduring image from the Battle of Gate Pā. Wood (2010) describes the book as a ‘revisionist history because it embodies a changed outlook free of any earlier imperial mindset or trappings’ (p. 22). As Belich (1998) himself states ‘the one thing contemporary explanations of the British defeat had in common was the lack of emphasis on the role of Māori skill and forethought’ (p. 186). Literature is one vehicle people use to explore their identity as a nation. ( )
  DebbieMcCauley | Aug 13, 2011 |
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This book rewrites our understanding of the wars between Maori and Pakeha, and of colonial warfare in general. It is the inspiration for a five-part documentary series of the same name written and presented by the author James Belich.
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