Saturday, 21 March 2020

Tall Tales and Truths from the South Pacific. No. 1: War is Hell [updated]

'War is Hell': A story in four parts:
  1. A war for modernity
  2. "Nothing Less Than Victory"
  3. The heart of the rebellion
  4. The little church at Rangiaowhia
  5. The larger fiction at Wellington
War is hell. That lesson delivered in 1864 to the heart of the Waikato rebellion still resonates and is talked about today. But not all stories are equal …

Figure 1: Te Uenuku, the eater of men -- traditional Tanui carving carried into battle,
lost at the massive 'Battle of the Feathers' and rediscovered near
Lake Ngaroto years later [photo source: Bran Brake collection, Mutual Art]

1. A war for modernity
The war in the Waikato was not a “great war for New Zealand.”[1] The rebellion of the Maori king and his supporters did not attract support even from a majority of Maori. “The majority of Maori either supported or, more likely, did not actively oppose, the European government of New Zealand. This was the case even though the proximate cause of war, the forcing through of the Waitara purchase … was almost universally deemed unjust.”[2] 

Neither then was it a racial war. As the more astute historians have noticed, this was a period of time in New Zealand’s short history “when identity did not wholly rest on ethnicity,”[3] when these islands’ First Settlers were beginning to find their identity not in a tribal past but in the new secular modern world to which they had been only recently introduced. Consequently, they were quick to judge those who had introduced them to these new ideas by the standards they themselves were said to uphold. Christian teaching had taught them that God’s law would dispense utu without war, that revenge was the responsibility of the state. This had become the modern view, embraced by modernising Maori over those first three decades of contact.

But when the behaviour of colonial leaders was judged by those they had been teaching, judged by the standards of what the had been taught, it was found wanting. And when it did, Maori were faced with a choice: to embrace the teaching and reject the teacher, which is what the kingites attempted, or to attempt to correct and fully modernise the teacher. 

Renata Kawepo of Ngati Kahungunu was a modernist in these terms, rejecting both the continual tribal warfare of the past and the contemporary overtures of the king movement’s rebellion, while also accusing the British of not fully upholding their own standards. In his view, modernity meant repudiating conflict as a means of settling differences. As they had been taught, the rule of law meant the only battlefield was the courtroom, the only injury there being by due process. Land was one of the causes of war, but if one of the chief blessings of democracy is the peaceful transfer of power, without war, then one the chief blessings of the property rights offered by these new settlers was the peaceful transfer of ownership, without bloodshed.[4] It was the governor and his men who had failed to fully respect that promise.

In announcing himself as king, Potatau had been similarly critical of British double-dealing in defiance of their declared standards, but to declare his hope for peace he used a different figure, a figure of the past, a figure of war, telling his followers, “Formerly your god was Uenuku-the-man-eater. You have a different God now, the great god of heaven.”[5] When Kawepo rebuked the Hawkes Bay Supervisor Fitzgerald for dishonesty, he relied upon British standards – and in criticising the purchase of Waitara against the wishes of its owners he repaired to Potatau’s imagery describing his vexation, saying:

Uenuku, the man-eater, used to be my god; but when the clergymen came to this land, I was told to put away my god, for the Pakeha God was the true one, Jehovah, the preserver of man, the Creator of heaven and earth. When I accepted your God, I thought all wrongs were to be made the subject of investigation, great wrongs as well as little ones. When it came to this affair, I alone was left to worship his God, whilst he, the Governor, went off to pick up my cast away god, Uenuku, the cannibal. And now the Governor, the supporter of Jehovah, has stepped forward and carried off Uenuku the cannibal to Taranaki as his god for the destruction of man![6]

Kawepo was reminding Fitzgerald that by the standards of his own religion, it seemed to be him and his fellows who were now pre-modern. And he was above that battle – and along with the majority of Maori outside the Waikato he tried to remain so. 

It was in every sense an intellectual battle for modernity carried out between Maori themselves, the battle set off by the teacher’s own misbehaviour, just as they were beginning to trust him. On the one side was the modern Enlightenment view embraced by more secular Maori, one valuing realism, reason, individualism, and capitalism; on the other, the supernatural, faith-based feudalism of old. Those leaning towards the pre-modern embraced the king, and with him a pre-modern Old Testament  view; those on the other side looking towards the bolder vision glimpsed with British arrival of “a civil society that lived without fighting.”[7] “A devout Christian such as Wiremu Tamihana could believe in a Maori nation led by a king. The incentives for more secular thinkers … was less obvious.”[8] Eighteenth-century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher had stipulated that “The essence of religion consists in the feeling of absolute dependence.”[9] In this sense,“it is no coincidence that the leaders of all main Maori nationalist movements were mission-educated, and the movements themselves God-centred.”[10]
In a sense, it was a war for modernity against its opposite on both sides--the real and most important war being that inside individual Maori heads. “Maori were able to base … opposition to the government on the violation by government of its own principles.”[11] The modernists saw their battlefield as the courtroom. For the pre-modernists however, imbued with their own history of feudal warfare and Old Testament stories of Israelite victories at the hand of God, the opposition came armed.
“Whether to give allegiance at this juncture was a central question of Maori modernity.”[12] Secular leaders like Renata Kawepo were on the side of the modern. While not above criticising Maori who sucked up to government as “lickplates,” Kawepo and most Maori around the country rejected the king movement and refused them support. The so-called nationalist movement was in truth a retrograde alliance extending but little beyond the southern Waikato.

2. “Nothing Less Than Victory”[13]
At almost the same time as the rebellion in the Waikato, the United States was in a fierce struggle to resolve the contradiction that had lain within its own nation since birth: the principle of individual rights enshrined in its Constitution, against the right to keep slaves claimed by the slaveholding southern states. “The Civil War was a price paid for this contradiction,” turning into “a four-year nightmare that butchered more than 600,000.”[14]

The nightmare was only broken when Union General William Tecumseh Sherman resolved to take the war to those who had started it and show them what war looked like. Instead of taking the bait of chasing Confederate armies and attacking them on ground that they had chosen, he proposed an educational programme by military means – to “make Georgia howl,” he said[15]– marching his troops right through the centre of the South, tearing up rail lines, destroying communications, burning houses, crops and plantations, thoroughly and effectively laying waste “to the material and psychological foundations of the southern war effort.”[16]

Not to kill – that was not the primary goal – but to destroy the rebels’ means, their morale, and their will to continue the fighting.

Sherman blazed across the centre of the slave states and thoroughly savaged their morale. He set fire to Atlanta and with it collapsed the southern will to war[17]– a scene memorably depicted in Gone With the Wind -- and just five months later, American slavery and the pro-slave rebellion was over. 

It was not mere barbarism but a planned strategy: making it impossible for those supporting the war to evade the nature of what they were supporting while “not leaving any hope in the minds of southerners that an uprising could work”[18]– to “shock southern society to its roots by the sheer force of his demonstration” and at the same time to withdraw their very means of supporting the rebellion...

Continue reading:

>>>>>> READ THE WHOLE POST AT MY NEW BLOG:  'Politically Incorrect History of New Zealand' blog: War is Hell.

Atlanta burns, in a still from the 1937 film classic Gone With the Wind

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