Like many UoA students, I have walked towards the main campus down Symonds Street too many times to count. You most likely have noticed the statue on the corner of Wakefield and Symonds Street – a bare-breasted woman laying a fern frond across the stone monument. However, if you’re as unobservant as I am, you may have failed to read its somewhat uncomfortable inscription.
“In memory of the brave men belonging to the imperial and colonial forces and the friendly Maoris who gave their lives during the New Zealand Wars 1845 – 1872. Through war they won the peace we know.”
‘Imperial and colonial forces?’ ‘Friendly Maoris?’ These awkward words hint at the monument’s uncomfortable history. I decided to do a little further research, mainly because I was embarrassed it had taken me so long to read a sign I had been walking past for five years straight.
It turns out the memorial, known simply as the New Zealand Wars Memorial, was commissioned by the Victoria League with the aim of preserving the memory of Queen Victoria and the deeds of British soldiers in early New Zealand. The inscription commemorates the British colonial soldiers, along with the government-allied Maori, who fought in the NZ land wars against Maori and Maori-allied settlers. Fighting was sparked initially in retaliation to large-scale land confiscation and disputed land purchases, which saw Maori lose 16,000 km squared of their land. During the wars, the colonial government also deployed troops to quash the Kīngitanga (Maori king) movement in order to make Maori pledge allegiance to Queen Victoria. Land was eventually confiscated from ‘rebel’ and ‘loyal’ Iwi alike.
Many believe that New Zealand’s race relations are too good for us to ever need to worry about protestors tearing down statues. The United States is practically littered with confederate and otherwise controversial statues, such as the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville which was the subject of heavy debate in 2017. However, the New Zealand Wars Memorial was the target of vandalism in 2018 by a self-described ‘anti-colonial activist group.’ The group issued a statement, saying ‘the ‘Zealandia’ war memorial is an ode to the violent and brutal occupation of Māori lands. It celebrates the ongoing colonisation of Aotearoa, its lands and its peoples.’ Another statute was targeted for similar reasons in the same year – that of Colonel Marmaduke Nixon. Nixon led colonial troops into Rangiaōwhia where a dozen people were killed in 1864. Parties on both sides met with Mayor Phil Goff to discuss moving the monument to a museum, however the council is yet to take any action.
The New Zealand Wars Memorial is not the only controversial figure to be immortalised in stone on campus. A statue of the infamous Governor George Grey stands in Albert Park. Grey lead the invasion of Waikato in order to dismantle the Kīngitanga movement. In 1864 Grey and his ministers resolved to confiscate almost 3 million acres from the ‘rebels’ in Waikato and elsewhere. His monument was erected in 1904 in commemoration of one of the colony’s ‘great men.’ Despite having his head cut off in a Waitangi Day protest in 1987, Grey still stands today (the statue’s head has since been replaced).
“Someone can look at the statue of Sir George Grey and say, ‘This person was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of members of my hapu,’ and that is distressing,” says AUT professor of history Paul Moon. It is in many ways upsetting to see these figures celebrated, particularly when their actions caused intergenerational heartache. But whether to deface, destroy or preserve controversial monuments is a decision no one seems able to reach. On one hand, statues like this present a very one-sided and Eurocentric view of New Zealand history. The comparative lack of memorials from a Maori perspective make this even more true. However, on the other hand there is a case for preserving historical relics whether they evoke positive or painful memories. For Paul Moon, “it’s not a case of ‘You’re living in the modern era, get over it.’ There are legacies people suffer from, but getting rid of the piece of stone won’t change that for them. In fact, there’s a risk that it removes a reminder and makes it easy for people to forget.” As one writer notes for The Listener, the key distinction to make is whether we commemorate or celebrate. These monuments are a time capsule from a different perspective. We do not need to look back on figures like Governor Grey with admiration, but we should remember that they existed. Rather than erase painful memories, we can learn from them. We might even wish to add a modern explainer in order to give frame and context to historical figures. At least in this scenario, readers would be given the whole story rather than a rose-tinted view of the past.