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    • Document type
      Review (monograph)
      Reviews in History
      Author (Review)
      • Fisher, Martin
      Language (Review)
      Language (Monograph)
      Author (Monograph)
      • Belgrave, Michael
      Dancing with the King
      The Rise and Fall of the King Country, 1864-1885
      Year of publication
      Place of publication
      Auckland University Press
      Number of pages
      Subject classification
      Time classification
      Modern age until 1900 → 19th century
      Regional classification
      Europe → Western Europe → Great Britain, Other countries
      Subject headings
      Geschichte 1864-1885
      Original source URL
      Jul 23, 2018
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Michael Belgrave: Dancing with the King. The Rise and Fall of the King Country, 1864-1885 (reviewed by Martin Fisher)

After the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi on 6 February 1840, competing British and Maori sovereignties were established in New Zealand due to the contradictory English and Maori translations of the agreement. This would provide the basis for disagreements and tension as the British and later settler state sovereignty gradually usurped the practical levers of power - politically, socially, culturally and economically dominating Maori by the end of the century. One of the last areas in the country that managed to preserve its independence was the Rohe Potae, the King Country. A history of its tenuous co-existence and negotiations with the settler state which gradually eroded its power is examined in Michael Belgrave’s illuminating and entertaining book Dancing with the King: The Rise and Fall of the King Country, 1864-1885. While it certainly has some faults and limits, this does not detract overall from its value. This review will assess the book for its merits and also attempt to contextualise the examination of this specific historical material and how it relates to current Waitangi Tribunal (1) hearings.

Although there were many contradictions between the Treaty and Te Tiriti, an accurate translation was provided for the Crown’s right of pre-emption which granted the government a monopoly on the purchase of Maori land (which was all of the land in New Zealand at 1840). The Crown’s mismanagement of its monopoly right led to a disinclination to sell on the part of Maori: massive amounts of land were sought by the Crown, trifling prices were paid and minuscule reserves were offered. Promised benefits rarely if ever eventuated. The resistance to land sales developed alongside the idea of establishing a Māori King to advocate for the retention of Māori land and sovereignty. The Kingitanga or King Movement was established in 1858 with Waikato leader Te Wherowhero crowned as King. Although it was developed to co-exist alongside the settler state, it was unacceptable to the Crown. The movement became enveloped in wars over land and sovereignty in the early 1860s leading eventually to conflict in the Waikato in 1863. Following a tenuous victory on the battlefield the Crown imposed punitive confiscations of land which led much of the Kingitanga (now led by Te Wherowhero’s son, Tawhiao) to escape south to the region of its close ally - Ngati Maniapoto - as well as other smaller groups with stronger connections with the Crown such as Ngati Hikairo. This area became known as the Rohe Potae or King Country in 1864 and it survived as an independent state for approximately 20 years. It was not a small area, about the size of Belgium. The Rohe Potae was off limits to Europeans although it was largely a one way boundary as most Maori residents of the King Country could travel in both directions.

It is here that Belgrave picks up his narrative in Dancing with the King. The first quarter of the book covers the initial ten years of the Rohe Potae as a political stalemate led to its establishment and acceptance by a colonial state seeking absolute and complete sovereignty. Belgrave recounts the establishment of borders and a capital (which would change throughout its history) as well as the threats to its sovereignty by Maori from outside of the region such as Titokowaru in Taranaki and Te Kooti all around the central north island. The protection of its boundaries was also enforced with violence as any Europeans crossing the border could be punished by death as two Europeans were in 1870 (Richard Todd) and 1873 (Timothy Sullivan). The remainder of the book deals largely with the long-term negotiations that took place to eventually open the area to settlement by a series of political administrations and titans of New Zealand’s colonial history starting with Donald McLean and continuing under Sir George Grey, John Bryce, John Ballance and Robert Stout. These are a fascinating look into the progression of the negotiations and the differing power imbalances that gradually developed. Early in the negotiations the Kingitanga was offered sizeable amounts of land and complete power over its governance, but as the Kingitanga’s position eroded and they held out for more control the offers became less and less generous. The general structure of the negotiations reflected some of the negotiations over Treaty settlements that would take place over 100 years later, where Maori claimants remained in a subservient position to the Crown’s dominance. Belgrave notes that over time the power imbalance was reflected in the manner in which the negotiations were conducted - initially in the Rohe Potae under Maori kawa (protocol) and eventually in European towns under Pakeha tikanga (customs).

The King provided a unifying role under which the protection of land could be concentrated in one figure, but the Kingitanga was an ambitious undertaking that did not reflect the general political structure of Maori. Independence was paramount and leadership had to be earned. The most power was retained within the hapu (sub-tribe) much less the larger iwi (tribe) or going even further into a pan-tribal movement such as the Kingitanga. Tawhiao and his Waikato allies that had escaped to the Rohe Potae after many of their lands (and even those who had allied themselves with the Crown!) were confiscated, remained in the region as guests and this gradually began to strain relations in the Kingitanga. All around the Rohe Potae the Native Land Court (NLC) was continuing the alienation of Maori land, and the pressure mounted on the King Country.(2) Eventually the leaders of the major iwi (Ngati Maniapoto, Ngati Tuwharetoa, and Whanganui) that owned the Rohe Potae brought their lands to the NLC for determination. The Crown made its first penetration into the King Country by requesting permission to have the Main Trunk Line for the railway built to connect Wellington to Auckland. Once work began, this was the signal blow that destroyed the independence of the Rohe Potae.

There is much to admire about Belgrave’s Dancing with the King. His section on the King’s travels to London in 1884 in a failed attempt to gain the audience of Queen Victoria but a successful petition to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Derby, is especially rewarding. So too are the sections on the King’s first travels around the settler towns of the north island in the years before the King Country was opened. Belgrave shows the ways in which the settler government attempted to downplay the King’s status as merely a tribal leader in both settings. The reality was that he was feted and courted as ‘King Tawhiao’ in London and Wanganui, and his constitutional status was certainly elevated in the way he was treated as a cause celebre. There were some strong echoes in the events of the past and present. The New Zealand press criticised Tawhiao for besmirching the reputation of the colony by highlighting their grievances in London. A similar refrain was made earlier this year after acclaimed director Taika Waititi commented publically about how New Zealand remained ‘racist as fuck’. He was promptly criticised by some in the media for challenging the image of New Zealand’s allegedly perfect race relations. Belgrave’s descriptions of bankers clamouring across the Waipa River, waste deep in water, to pitch their lending schemes to King Tawhiao and other rangatira is particularly amusing.

But there are issues with certain of Belgrave’s interpretations, his use of archives and some minor editorial mistakes. The section on ‘Making the King Country’ is perhaps the most disappointing because I was expecting more on how the area functioned as a state, legally, economically and politically. It was probably beyond Belgrave’s purview and there was already a lot to cover in the book (and perhaps the evidence simply doesn’t exist anymore), but having some kind of window into the functioning world of the Rohe Potae state would have been fascinating. Belgrave also relies overwhelmingly on newspaper and official published sources from the Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives (AJHR). Both are excellent sources, but there are substantial archives to draw for many of the key players on the Crown side. Donald McLean’s archives are available online but did not appear once, neither did anything from George Grey’s archives held by the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Other key players such as Bryce or Ballance may not have publically available archives such as McLean but the biography of Ballance by Timothy McIvor is only cited in the introductory section to the chapter involving Ballance. This is another of Belgrave’s limitations, his overwhelming reliance on primary sources. Was there nothing on the negotiations with Tawhiao and other Rohe Potae rangatira useful in McIvor’s biography? The same can be said for the list of secondary sources referenced in his first chapter but other than a highly relevant research report by Cathy Marr (which will be discussed later) little else is used throughout the rest of the book.

In terms of editorial errors, on p. 43 Belgrave describes ‘the period leading up to the Waitara purchase in 1869’, but the author actually means 1859 as the Waitara purchase was completed in 1860. Then on p. 18 Belgrave describes the attack on Rangiaowhia as being on ‘21 February 1861’ when it was in 1863. These are minor editorial problems, but more troubling is his extended discussion of the attack on Rangiaowhia. Belgrave attempts to contextualise the attack and warns that ‘we need to consider what the term meant in 1863, rather than simply applying the sensibilities of the early twenty-first century to the actions of both Maori and European combatants’ (p. 19). This comment refers openly to a concern that has been raised with history writing in the Tribunal process, that the standards of the present are being used to assess actions in the past. Belgrave himself was involved in some of the scholarly debates that began with Bill Oliver’s 2001 chapter ‘Retrospective Utopias’ and were continued by Giselle Byrnes and later challenged by Jim McAloon. Belgrave served as somewhat of a middle point between the different positions of Oliver and Byrnes versus McAloon, and he wrote extensively on the issue in his book Historical Frictions.(3)

Rangiaowhia was an unprotected village populated solely by women, children and the elderly when it was attacked by British imperial forces. The defenceless inhabitants sought refuge in a church, and after short volleys of fire from both sides the church was set alight. Those escaping the church were shot and those who remained inside were burnt to death. It has commonly been referred to as an atrocity or at least characterised as such since at least the 1980s in James Belich’s New Zealand Wars, and it continues to be referred to as such by others such as Vincent O’Malley in his War for the Waikato, publically by eminent historian Jock Phillips and by this author in a recent article in the New Zealand Journal of History.(4) Belgrave posits that we cannot apply the standards of the present to the past but he neglects to acknowledge the way in which it was condemned at the time by some quarters of the settler press and by many Maori as murders. He states that prior to the adoption of Christianity the killing of women and children captured in warfare was ‘commonplace: it was simply part of tikanga’ (p. 19). With the arrival and flourishing of Christianity, even among the Kingitanga, he notes that more principled behaviour was expected. His characterisation of the killing of women and children during warfare as part of tikanga is questionable - that was certainly not the case in the late 1820s and early 1830s for Ngai Tahu communities ravaged by Te Rauparaha and his allies before the arrival of Christianity. But the expectation of more principled behaviour between Christian communities surely meant the standards of the time also necessitated a description of the murders at Rangiaowhia as atrocities. After opening the paragraph with the questionable statement above about applying ‘twenty-first century sensibilities’, Belgrave notes that ‘by 1863, according to Maori sensibilities, what happened at Rangiriri, Rangiaowhia, Pukorokoro and following the escape from Orakau were atrocities’ (p. 19). This leaves open the question that are Maori sensibilities in 1863 then then not sensibilities worth considering?

In November 2012 Waitangi Tribunal hearings began in the Rohe Potae (King Country) District Inquiry, regarding over 270 claims brought by different iwi (tribes), hapu (sub-tribes) and individuals of Maori descent. Over two-and-a-half years a total of 17 hearings were held around the region in the western part of the central north island covering many different issues dating as far back as 1840. These included the construction of the main trunk railway through the district in the late 19th century, the operation of the Native Land Court, the alienation and management of Maori land, the Crown’s control of waterways, public works takings and the environmental impacts of colonisation. At the core of these matters were major constitutional issues addressed in Dancing with the King: the Crown’s relationship with the Kingitanga (King Movement), the creation of the Rohe Potae and a seminal 1883 petition to enable the opening of the area to settlement. The Tribunal’s final report on the Rohe Potae claims is currently under production.

Belgrave is a Professor of History at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand. Although his academic works are extensive and overall of excellent quality, his career has predominantly been defined by his involvement in the interrelated Waitangi Tribunal and Treaty settlement processes in New Zealand. He was a research manager for the Waitangi Tribunal early in its history in the late 1980s and early 1990s before beginning his academic career. Since that time he has produced a number of historical research reports as a private contractor for different Tribunal inquiries. He also has been involved in the negotiation of historical accounts for individual Treaty settlements. (These are preambles that provide historical context for formal apologies by the Crown to claimant groups regarding breaches of the principles of the Treaty/Te Tiriti.) Belgrave has co-authored a number of different historical research reports for the Rohe Potae District Inquiry, some of which would have been relevant to the issues addressed in Dancing with the King.

His research reports on environmental impacts and Crown policy with respect to Maori land in the second half of the 20th century may not have been of much use but the reports on Maori experiences in the Native Land Court, and oral and traditional history reports for a number of different tribes would have provided some insight. The matters discussed in his book were addressed in more detail by different authors, one commissioned by the Crown Law Office (in its role representing the Crown in Tribunal hearings) and another by the Tribunal. Donald Loveridge, a Canadian historian employed by the Crown since the late 1980s, wrote on the Crown’s opening of the King Country from 1882-5 for an adjacent inquiry (the National Park District Inquiry) which was used in the Rohe Potae District Inquiry. Cathy Marr, a historian involved mainly in the Tribunal process and for a shorter time in the Treaty settlement process, was commissioned by the Tribunal to write a report on political engagement in the Rohe Potae from 1864-86 that corresponds chronologically and thematically with Belgrave’s Dancing with the King. In many ways Belgrave has provided somewhat of a middle point between the arguments of Marr and Loveridge, at least in the specific area that Loveridge addressed on the opening of the King Country.

Michael Belgrave’s Dancing with the King is a welcome addition to the historiography of the aftermath of the Waikato war. There are some questionable arguments made at times, and wider use of archival material other than newspapers and the AJHR would have been beneficial, but overall Belgrave’s work has expanded our understanding of the Rohe Potae’s rise and fall. It will be interesting to see what kind of findings the Waitangi Tribunal’s Rohe Potae District Inquiry Panel make in relation to some of the key issues examined in Dancing with the King and whether it plays any part in the Treaty settlements negotiated for the various iwi in the Rohe Potae. There is no denying the legacy the Rohe Potae has left to those still seeking mana motuhake (independence) in their own ways throughout Aotearoa New Zealand.


(1) In 1975 a permanent commission of inquiry, the Waitangi Tribunal, was established to investigate and make findings on claims by Maori of breaches of the principles of the Treaty/Te Tiriti. At first it was limited to investigating contemporary claims only, but in 1985 it was given retrospective powers to examine historical issues dating back to the signing of the Treaty/Te Tiriti - 6 February 1840. Eventually due to legal challenges in the Court system, the Tribunal was strengthened further with binding powers to provide remedies. As a result the Crown (the NZ Government) began developing Treaty settlement policies on providing its own remedies so it could retake control of the process. Over 70 settlements have been signed since the early 1990s.

(2) The NLC was established following the failure of the Crown’s monopoly on land purchasing which led to war and conflict in the 1860s. It provided a process under which the title to Maori land could be converted from customary title to fee simple title, and could then be purchased privately. This system was ultimately even more destructive in terms of total lands alienated in the North Island than the Crown’s monopoly in the first 25 years, and even the confiscation that followed the wars. It was run by European Judges who with the aid of Maori Assessors determined Maori custom and awarded lands on often dubious and uninformed rationales. Land speculators and money lenders were prevalent and swarmed around sittings of the Court like a horde of locusts.

(3) Michael Belgrave, Historical Frictions: Maori Claims and Reinvented Histories (Auckland, 2005); Jim McAloon, ‘By which standards? History and the Waitangi Tribunal’, New Zealand Journal of History, 40, 2 (2006), pp. 194–213; Giselle Byrnes, ‘By which standards? History and the Waitangi Tribunal: a reply’, New Zealand Journal of History, 40, 2 (2006), 214–29; Michael Belgrave, ‘Looking forward: historians and the Waitangi Tribunal’, New Zealand Journal of History, 40, 2 (2006), 230–50; W. H. Oliver, ‘A reply To Jim McAloon’, New Zealand Journal of History, 41, 1 (2007), 83–7.

(4) James Belich, The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict (Auckland, 1986); Vincent O’Malley, The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800–2000 (Wellington, 2016); Martin Fisher, “The Politics of History and Waikato-Tainui's Raupatu Treaty Settlement”. New Zealand Journal of History, 50, 2, pp.68–89, 2016; Emma Cropper, ‘NZ statues linked to genocide, racism’ < [accessed 13 June 2018].


Author's Response

Michael Belgrave

Martin Fisher’s review of Dancing with the King demonstrates that New Zealand’s history of colonisation is still captured by a dichotomy of Crown versus Māori, where Maori seem inevitably portrayed as innocent victims and Europeans violent, unprincipled and heartless aggressors. Whereas New Zealand historians now rightly show a good deal of caution in describing levels of violence by Māori in the New Zealand Wars, accounts of violence against Māori are often treated without such professional restraint. Much of this history is an unfortunate by-product for what in New Zealand has been an essential and important attempt to resolve the ongoing injustices of New Zealand’s colonial past, and in many cases its postcolonial present. Fisher is highly critical of my interpretation of events which occurred at Rangioawhia on 21 February 1864, as part of the British Imperial Army’s invasion of the Waikato, remarking that the events have ‘commonly been referred to as an atrocity’. He describes what happened in this way:

Rangiaowhia was an unprotected village populated solely by women, children and the elderly when it was attacked by British imperial forces. The defenceless inhabitants sought refuge in a church, and after short volleys of fire from both sides the church was set alight. Those escaping the church were shot and those who remained inside were burnt to death.

Had Fisher’s description been accurate, I would have had no difficulty in describing these events as an atrocity as he does, because not only would they offend understandings of rules of engagement today, they would have been highly offensive to both Māori and European understandings of military conduct in 1864. The problem is that Fisher has not only got these events almost completely wrong, he has misrepresented his own source for them, dramatically amplifying the allegations against the invading forces.

In his 2016 article on negotiations to settle the Tainui claim, he describes the Tainui negotiators’ attempts to have recognition of ‘atrocities’ at Orakau and Rangiaowhia included in their settlement. The Crown negotiators refused to include them. These would have been events for which Queen Elizabeth would in 1995 apologise in the first major historical Treaty of Waitangi settlement.(1a) The killing of escaping and surrendering Māori defenders of Orakau (including women) is well documented and was publicly known soon after the events. While Tainui also remember the events at Rangiaowhia as an atrocity, only recently have historians begin to use the term in describing the attack on the village. Fisher’s claim that James Belich did so in his 1986 The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict is not correct. Belich only goes as far as saying that ‘Non-combatants may have been intentionally killed at Rangiaowhia, and some were certainly at the later engagement of Orakau …’ (emphasis added).(2a) After Fisher, Vincent O’Malley’s 2016 Great War for New Zealand provides the most sustained and detailed attempt to apply the term atrocity (in every sense) for the taking of Rangiaowhia.(3a)

Fisher’s description of the events at Rangiaowhia demonstrates the casualness with which claims against 19th-century Europeans can be made and remade in more dramatic form, without critically evaluating the original sources or even returning to them. His narrative of events originated in a letter by Bob Mahuta, the leader of the Tainui negotiators. In the heat of the settlement negotiations, some special pleadings are inevitable. However, Mahuta’s account is still far more accurate than Fisher’s retelling. Mahuta does not claim that the village was ‘unprotected’ as Fisher suggests. He wrote that it was ‘un-fortified’. There is a substantial difference between the two, for Rangiaowhia was certainly defended. Mahuta describes the village as a place where ‘a number of families were living’, while Fisher has it ‘populated solely by women, children and the elderly’. Rangiaowhia was not just a refuge it was the centre of a provisioning network and there were certainly armed men present. But even more important, Mahuta also accurately describes the place where a building caught fire and where seven Māori defenders were killed as being a whare (house) ‘near the Church’, not the Church. In Fisher’s reconstruction, imperial forces attacked the ‘defenceless inhabitants’ of an ‘unprotected village populated solely by women, children and the elderly’, who took refuge in a church. The troops set fire to the church, shot those attempting to leave and burnt the rest alive. This did not happen and no one before Fisher’s review of my book has ever claimed that it occurred that way.

Mahuta’s letter does make a number of statements that are either misleading or unable to be substantiated. He claims that the ‘people of the village’ took refuge in the whare, whereas the vast majority of the village’s inhabitants either escaped or took refuge in not one but two Māori churches, one Catholic, one Anglican. Far from being burnt down, the Catholic church was demolished in 1931 and the Anglican church still stands. Although there is evidence of an exchange of fire with Māori defenders from the Catholic church, not only were these places of refuge respected, but Cameron ordered that the men within the church should be allowed to retreat. Far from being undefended, there were sufficient armed men in the village, and at least two armed women, to be able to put up an effective resistance, particularly once seven of them had retreated to large whare. From the protection of an excavated floor, they were able to fire through the raupō (bullrush) walls at the attacking troops after refusing an offer to surrender. The defenders killed or mortally wounded five of the European attackers, including Colonel Marmaduke Nixon, the commanding officer of the advance force.

Mahuta neglected to mention these deaths, before continuing that ‘After a short volley of fire from both sides the whare were [sic] set alight. Those who came out to escape the flames were shot. Those who remained were burnt to death’. The story of the killing of one older man, who left the whare to surrender was recounted by a number of witnesses. He was shot while clearly unarmed and surrendering. The officers who recorded the event absolved themselves from blame, by claiming that their orders not to fire were disobeyed by men furious at the loss of their commander and companions. One account suggest two other men came out of the building firing and were cut down with volleys of fire from the troops. By this time, the whare was in flames and the remaining defenders died in the fire. Although there are conflicting accounts, the building was probably deliberately torched.

The official account of the engagement recorded 12 dead on the Māori side and five from the Imperial Force, casualties repeated by James Cowan in his 1922 account of the wars, and by James Belich in his 1986 book and still repeated today in Danny Keanan’s figures on Te Ara, the official New Zealand online encyclopaedia.(4a) These figures are clearly at odds with Mahuta’s final narrative, recounting a ‘heavy casualty suffered by the people including women and children as people evacuated en masse the village of Orakau as it was surrounded by 1100 soldiers’. This accusation was not manufactured for the purpose of negotiation, but represented a long held view that women and children were killed at Rangiaowhia, a view expressed soon after the battle itself and by no less reliable a source as Wiremu Tamihana, the intellectual and Christian leader of the Kīngitanga, who claimed ‘women and children fell there’.(5) But this accusation needs to be seen alongside his immediate report of the engagement to allies, which made no such claims, reporting on ‘six were killed in one place’ (which has to the whare) and that the ‘payment was eight, all officers’, an exaggerated reference to Nixon’s death and the other British dead.(6)

Nonetheless, the risk to women and children was very high and Cameron would have known this before the attack. With Maori firing at the invaders unseen from within the whare, troops returning fire indiscriminately and burning houses, the lack of civilian casualties would have been miraculous. However, in dramatic contrast to the killings of women and surrendering men at Orakau a few days later, none of the European participants is recorded as mentioned such deaths. William Mair, for instance, was at both battles and later recorded detailed and dramatic memories of soldiers bayonetting unarmed women, but was silent on Rangiaowhia.(7)

Vincent O’Malley, in his detailed and almost exhaustive account of the Waikato War, canvases the evidence on the battle in great detail. Like Fisher, in this Waikato centred approach, O’Malley has no difficulty in using the word atrocity. His book was published when mine was all but completed. However, O’Malley tends to go from detail to detail, dismissing few as implausible, but clearly suggesting that the most extreme accusations should be taken seriously even relied upon. Using evidence collected from James Cowan in the early 1920s, he collates all the statements accusing Bishop Selwyn of complicity in declaring Rangiaowhia a place of sanctuary and then riding with Cameron to attack it, taking every attempt to give them plausibility. Cowan did not repeat these accusations, while not holding back on the after battle killings at Orakau. He did not consider them plausible and he was good enough a historian much closer to the events themselves for his judgement to be respected.(8) In contrast, O’Malley even goes far as to suggest that Selwyn would not have requested that the soldiers refrain from attack the church, because it was a Catholic Church.(9) He eventually concludes (accurately in my view) that we will never know how many additional deaths there may have been.

The invasion and sacking of Rangiaowhia caused a deep-seated sense of bitterness and grief for the iwi of those attacked and this cannot be ignored. The deaths of women and children were only one of the accusations made against Cameron, and more tellingly, against Bishop Selwyn. From a European perspective, Rangiaowhia was a legitimate military target. Before the war, the village had been at the heart of an extensive agricultural enterprise exporting root crops, grains and fruits across the Pacific. During the war it provided the provisions for keeping the king’s forces in the field. Knocking it out destroyed the Kīngitanga’s ability to wage war. It was far from being just a refuge for women and children. But Christianised Māori who supported the King saw an attack on an un-fortified village, inhabited by non-combatants, particularly women and children, as a betrayal of fundamental Christian principles. Over time, they would come to believe that Selwyn and Cameron had guaranteed to protect the village from attack. This the two men could never have agreed, but there are good grounds for concluding that many Māori assumed that they had.

When I used the word atrocity in Dancing with the King, I wanted to avoid covering all of these issues, although I could have explained this better. It was enough for my purposes to show that the Kīngitanga saw the events of 21 February 1864 as atrocities, even if most non-Māori accounts did not. For their horror over what had occurred had a dramatic impact on their engagement with the colonial government in the decades following the war. Their views of Selwyn in particular illustrated the extent to which they felt betrayed by Christianity and abandoned by missionaries.

We need to use the term atrocity cautiously. New Zealand’s history of colonisation has its share of indiscriminate violence, greed posing as high principle and ongoing attempts to erase Māori cultural identity. The invasion of the Waikato and the subsequent attack on Rangiaowhia are low points in New Zealand’s history, with enduring consequences to the present. As historians, we make mistakes and Fisher has pointed out a number of my own, but on issues such as these we need to be doubly vigilant. Fisher approvingly cites Jock Phillips’s comments on a major New Zealand news site, in an article entitled ‘NZ statues linked to genocide, racism’.(10) Phillips is quoted as saying about Rangiaowhia, ‘There's some evidence that they shot women and children as they came out of burning buildings. It was a terrible atrocity’. If he is quoted correctly, then he is adding yet a new twist to the myth, for no such allegation has previously been made. Perhaps Philips should have first consulted the Te Ara entry, for which he was editor. Is grossly overstating or creating imagined atrocities in New Zealand’s past any better than arguing that the invasion of the Waikato was justified because the Kīngitanga was in rebellion and likely to invade Auckland?


(1a) Martin Fisher, ‘The Politics of History and Waikato-Tainui's Raupatu Treaty Settlement’, New Zealand Journal of History, 50, 2 (2016).

(2a) James Belich, The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict (Auckland, 1986).  In his widely viewed televised documentary on the New Zealand Wars in 1998, he simply acknowledged Cameron's military brilliance in bypassing the much more difficult defences of Paturangi, and comments dismissively that they ‘killed some old people’, presumably the defenders of the whare, The New Zealand Wars, New Zealand On Screen, episode 3 <> [accessed 11 July 2018].

(3a) Vincent O'Malley, The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800–2000 (Wellington, 2016).

(4a) Danny Keenan, 'New Zealand Wars - Waikato War: Major Battles', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand <> [accessed 4 July 2018]. Keenan is a Māori historian of Te Atiawa descent, who has written his own account of the wars. He treats Rangiaowhia only very briefly, but as just another engagement in the war: Danny Keenan, Wars without End: The Land Wars in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand (Auckland, 2009).

(5) Petition of William Thompson Tarapipipi, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1865 Session I, G-05, p. 2.

(6) Wiremu Tamihana to Rawiri and Tawaha, 28 February 1864, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1864 Session I, E-03, p. 40.

(7) W. G. Mair, ‘Our Literary Corner’, Press, 11 December 1909, p. 7 <> [accessed 11 July 2018].

(8) James Cowan, The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period (Wellington, 1922).

(9) O'Malley, p. 641, n. 57.

(10) Newshub, 2 April 2016, <> [accessed 18 July 2018] .

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