Union Jacks and Grumpy Cats: Monumental disagreements in Aotearoa / New Zealand

August 28, 2020
Listen to the podcast

ALONG with Covid, this has been the year in which Confederate Civil War monuments have fallen in America. And monuments to Christopher Columbus, and to colonialists like Cecil Rhodes and the slaver Edward Colston in Britain as well.

Well, a battle over the monuments is nothing new to New Zealand, either: a country stuffed with memorials to the now-vanished British Empire and its heroes (a comprehensive guide can be found here).

What’s been happening just lately in America and Britain has been going on for a long time in New Zealand. For instance, a 79-day occupation that caused the destruction of one monument amid calls for others to go took place 25 years ago, now, in one coastal city.

New Zealand still hasn’t arrived at a consensus on the issue. But it might be possible to glean some lessons from the New Zealand experience. And it’s to that that I turn.

A Monumental Conflict

Everywhere you look in New Zealand, it seems, there’s a union jack being guarded by a grumpy cat.

Image for post
From the Napier South African War Memorial

And so it might be. For, not only has the British lion been left stranded on one of the the former empire’s remotest shores. But also, these colonial and post-colonial monuments have long been under attack in New Zealand.

As far back as 1931, a statue of the British Field Marshal, Lord Kitchener — so famously as to be name-checked in The Wind in the Willows: “Is it the King? Is it Kitchener? No, it’s Mr Toad!” — was decapitated in Auckland, taken down, and never replaced.

A statue of King George V in the town of Matakana has been decapitated no less than five times.

Many of these attacks are one-offs. But something more organised, akin to the current US and British protests, happened no less than a quarter of a century ago in the city of Whanganui.

And it may be that some useful lessons can be learned from the incident, as there are quite a few parallels — colonialism being the most obvious one.

‘The War Memorial Capital of the World’

Whanganui is an attractive city at the mouth of the Whanganui River, on the south-west coast of the North Island of New Zealand.

Image for post
The south-western part of the North Island of New Zealand, north of Wellington. Abbreviations are PN for the city of Palmerston North, and T for Mount Tongariro, N for Mount Ngāuruhoe and R for Mount Ruapehu. Green shows forested areas. North at top.

Several of Whanganui’s highlights can be seen in a two-minute newsreel from 1964, which calls the town Wanganui. That was an older spelling of its name, which was revised in 2009.

Whanganui also has a lot of monuments. In fact, it’s been dubbed the “War Memorial Capital of the World” by a historian named Jock Phillips. In one single photo taken by Phillips, which appears to have been taken on New Zealand’s veterans’ day — Anzac Day, 25 April —you can see no less than three war memorials!

Image for post
Photograph taken by Jock Phillips (ca. 1986), from a page about the memorial in the foreground on

The obelisk in the foreground is a monument to Māori soldiers who served in World War One. Behind it there is a statue of a local Māori chief and military commander in British service called Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, or Major Kemp, who died in 1898 and was memorialised in 1907.

In the following photograph, taken in 1912, the people around Te Keepa’s monument appear to be local Māori in modern attire: the norm for decades already, tourist images notwithstanding.

Image for post
The statue in memory of Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, also known as Major Kemp, at Whanganui, in 1912. Ref: 1/1–021036-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22506769.

On the skyline of the Anzac Day photograph, we can also see a tower commemorating the fallen of World War One, from all local communities.

Image for post
War Memorial Tower on Durie Hill, Whanganui. Photograph by Markus Koljonen. 11 November 2006, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s a view of the Veterans Steps leading up to the classy Serjeant Gallery, which you can also see in the video.

Image for post
The Veterans’ Steps and the Serjeant Gallery, Whanganui. Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Mark Brimblecombe.

The Veterans’ Steps don’t honour the fallen in the World Wars or even the South African War of 1899–1902. Like several others monuments in Whanganui, including the one to Te Keepa, they actually honour inhabitants of Whanganui who took part in the nine or so colonial wars that were fought in New Zealand between 1845 and 1872.

Around the country, there are about sixty memorials to the veterans and casualties of those wars. They include this 1867 obelisk in honour of the 57th Regiment of Foot, erected near Mount Taranaki.

Image for post
The Memorial to the 57th Regiment at Te Henui in New Plymouth. The surrounding war graves are from a variety of conflicts. Photograph by Jock Phillips, 2010, from a page about the memorial on

And a smaller memorial in Symonds Street, close to the centre of Auckland, which was erected in 1915.

Image for post
Photograph by Chris Harris. The female figure used to carry a bronze flag, but something happened to it about twenty years ago.

Not to mention private memorials and gravestones, such as these ones in the Old Napier Cemetery on Hospital Hill.

Image for post

Image for post

They do, of course, honour all those who fought to keep New Zealand British and open for colonisation, and not their adversaries. Wherein lies the rub, and the contemporary monument problem, for a post-colonial nation in which Māori and English are now co-official languages!

The very first such public war memorial in New Zealand, featuring a weeping angel, was erected in Whanganui in 1865 to commemorate a battle the previous year in which people from Whanganui had fought Māori who lived further up the Whanganui River, on a mid-stream island called Moutoa.

A photograph was taken soon after its erection. The photograph also shows the massive Rutland Stockade, near the site of the future Serjeant Gallery and Veterans’ Steps.

Image for post
Contemporary view of Whanganui’s 1865 Battle of Moutoa memorial below the Rutland Stockade, with the court house and the Albion Hotel also in frame. Ref: 1/1–000051-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22666128.

The 1865 monument is dedicated to:

". . . those brave men / who fell / at / Moutoa / 14 May 1864 / in defence of / law and order / against / fanaticism and barbarism . . ."

Which is probably not how we would put things today. Mark Twain, who visited Whanganui inthe course of a tour around New Zealand, was offended by that very inscription, contending in 1897 that:

"Patriotism is Patriotism. Calling it fanaticism cannot degrade it … But the men were worthy. It was no shame to fight them. They fought for their homes, they fought for their country; they bravely fought and bravely fell."

The site of the monument, and also of the monuments to Te Keepa / Major Kemp and the World War One Māori soldiers, is called Moutoa Gardens Historic Reserve. For a long time before that it bore the historic Māori name of Pākaitore.

Pākaitore / Moutoa Gardens also used to contain a statue of John Ballance, who served as Minister of Lands and Native Minister in the 1880s and as Premier of New Zealand for nearly two and a half years, from 1891 till 1893.

Used to. For that changed in 1995.

Pākaitore Day

On the 28th of February 1995, a group of Māori iwi [tribal] activists fronted by a spokesperson named Ken Mair moved into Moutoa Gardens and occupied the site for the next 79 days.

In the words of a 1995 news, reproduced as an appendix to a later academic thesis,

Fellow iwi spokesman Ken Mair said iwi also wanted to meet the council and negotiate the removal of all statues from Moutoa Gardens, including that of the now-beheaded John Ballance.

Here’s a photo of Ballance during the occupation, with his head replaced by a pumpkin. Even before the occupation, Ballance’s statue had been decapitated. The statue would end up being entirely destroyed before the protest was over.

Image for post
Kia Kingi practising flax plaiting beneath statue of John Ballance, Moutoa Gardens, Whanganui, 18 March 1995. Dominion post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1995/0789/15a-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22832651.

One of the reasons Ballance was unpopular with the Māori protestors was that he had been a combatant in the wars of the 1860s and an aggressively pro-war founder and editor of a newspaper called the Evening Herald, known from 1876 as the Wanganui Herald. Here’s a photo of the staff of the Evening Herald around 1870, with Ballance third from the left.

Image for post
Group outside the Evening Herald office in Campbell Place, Wanganui, circa 1870. John Ballance is third from the left. Photograph taken by William James Harding. Public domain photograph held by the Alexander Turnbull Library (ATL), Wellington, reference 1/1–000139-G, via Wikimedia Commons.

However, as time wore on, Ballance seemed to mellow and become more progressive. He came to champion the causes of votes for women, trade-unionism, and the redistribution of the lands already gained by Pākehā (whites) from richer to poorer, as the best way to address poor settlers’ aspirations without the constant taking of Māori land.

In 2007, after more than a decade of reflection on Ballance’s pros and cons, a new statue of him was commissioned by a working group that included representatives of the original 1995 occupation movement. The new statue was deemed acceptable as long as it wasn’t re-installed at Pākaitore.

Ever since the occupation, many local Māori have celebrated 28 February as Pākaitore Day.

As for the other statues, they ended up remaining. Ironically enough, this was because their existence did not conflict with the Māori identity of Pākaitore as much as one might think.

Ambiguous Identities

The troops honoured in the 1865 monument were not British colonists themselves, but Māori allies of the colonists in their fight against anti-British Māori who dwelt further inland.

Here’s an photograph of one such ally, Hoani Wiremu Hīpango, conversing with two missionaries in England in the 1850s. It looks as though the younger missionary is getting some kind of dressing-down, though perhaps this just an artifact of the lengthy poses required in those days.

Image for post
Hoani Wiremu Hīpango (right) with the Reverend Richard Taylor (middle) and the Reverend’s son Basil, taken circa 1855 in England. Photograph by W. M. Van Erpers Roijaards, Ref: PAColl-5185. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22680461.

Hīpango was killed in a subsequent attack on a fortification further up the river, at Ōhoutahi, in February 1865. The attack was led by Hīpango himself and another Māori commander named Mete Kīngi Paetahi, who then went on to be elected to New Zealand’s House of Representatives in 1868.

Later in the same decade, around the time the surviving commander of the assault on Ōhautahi was entering politics, the aforementioned Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, Major Kemp, rose to take the place of Hīpango and Mete Kīngi, in a war which was still dragging on.

And so, ironically, perhaps this is why not all the Imperialist monuments at Pākaitore / Moutoa Gardens were toppled or removed, as Ken Mair and his supporters had initially hoped they would be.

Because so many local Maori had actually been on the side of the British Empire, and honoured by monuments that bore bilingual inscriptions, it seems that it was ultimately possible to reclaim the mana of Pākaitore as a Māori place without doing away with the 1865 memorial, the memorial to Te Keepa / Major Kemp or the monument to the Māori soldiers of World War One.

Only that of Ballance, in the end.

‘Wars without End’

In other parts of the country, though, things were different. For instance, further north, in the district known as the Waikato, near Auckland, there were almost no Māori friendly to the Empire. Not after the wars began in earnest in that region, at any rate.

The large inland city currently known as Hamilton (pop. 165,000), and the large town of Cambridge were both established on land that had been quite simply confiscated from Waikato Māori.

The latter were battered into submission by means of an epic 1863 invasion in which the British threw all their latest technology at the Māori, including armoured riverboats called monitors. The invasion of the Waikato has often been likened to a campaign from the American Civil War raging at the same time.

Image for post
A scene depicting the monitor ‘Pioneer’, part of a convoy under attack from a Māori pā (fortification) at Meremere on 31 October 1863. Detail from an image catalogued as A-110–006 at the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, via

The story is recounted here, in a short clip from a 1990s TV series on the New Zealand Wars.

And so, not surprisingly, attitudes in the Waikato also display fewer shades of grey.

A recently-erected statue of John Fane Charles Hamilton, after whom Hamilton City is named, was pulled down again in 2020.

The removal was cheered by Morgan Godfery, a commentator of Tainui (Waikato Māori) extraction, in an article called ‘The removal of Hamilton’s statue is only the start, we should tear them all down’. Mentioning a couple of still more controversial characters in the same breath as Hamilton, Godfery contends that:

"Grey, Hamilton and Nixon were fighting for control, taking it from one people for the benefit of another. Are these men who are worth commemorating? Never. They’re not worth commemorating in public — whether in Albert Park or Hamilton — and they’re not worth commemorating in private spaces either, whether in museums or elsewhere. The only way to acknowledge the history they made — invading the Waikato, Bay of Plenty, and Taranaki — and the society they’re responsible for — where Māori are on the wrong side of every statistic, from incarceration to joblessness — is to tear it all down."

Godfery makes a telling point here, which is that even if the Whanganui Māori in the 1912 photograph above look fairly prosperous, many Māori communities who had not allied themselves with the British were utterly dispossessed.

The Tainui did receive compensation of $170 million in the 1990s, since topped up to $430 million as of 2018, but even so you have to ask what percentage of the value of Waikato real estate, virtually all of it in the possession of colonists, that amounts to.

It’s often said by knowledgeable New Zealanders that the old wars never really ended, and never will end, as long as there is a legacy of dispossession. Indeed, this sentiment has made it into the titles of at least two books written by Māori about New Zealand history and communal relations, each running to a second edition: Ranginui Walker’s Ka Whawhai Tonu Mātou / Struggle Without End (1990/2004) and Danny Keenan’s Wars without End: Ngā Pakanga Whenua o Mua (2009/2021).

All the same, an abundance of mouldering monuments celebrating Imperial and colonial victories mislead many into supposing that the struggle is over.

Evening up the Score

And so, what should we really do about these monuments? Some aren’t really that controversial, and some are also rather grand. As with the Veterans Steps, whatever their origin, I can’t see this one ever being carted off.

Image for post
The Cenotaph in Queens Gardens, Dunedin. Photograph by Chris Harris.

Perhaps the question we should be asking is whether we ought to have more memorials, celebrating the side of our history that has been left un-commemorated.

This is an insight that’s relevant to New Zealand, but probably goes for other countries as well. Every country has a sort of suppressed side to its history, I think. A side that hasn’t been publicly remembered.

In New Zealand, it seems to me that the memorials that cause most offence are the ones that perpetuate what the historian Bill Oliver once termed the ‘myth of the possessor’.

Dispossession was the pedestal on which the wedding-cakes of British or European civilisation were erected in New Zealand.

(A country for which the resisting Maori came to favour the name Aotearoa, so that they wouldn’t have to use New Zealand: a name randomly bestowed by Joan Blaeu, a Dutch mapmaker of the 1600s.)

And yet Oliver’s point, expressed in the classic 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, was that many of New Zealand’s finest political hours came when the non-possessors gained power by way of political champions of the underdog.

Now I would hate to see anything happen to the Veterans’s Steps, for instance. And I do fear that we risk a sort of historical silence of the grave if we go too far down the iconoclastic route.

But we do need to even up the score by doing more to honour the non-possessors and their champions.

Perhaps we could do with a few new monuments like this one in Dublin, honouring James Connolly: a paradoxical patriot who contended that there was no point separating from England if social issues weren’t addressed at the same time. Otherwise, as he wrote, what would it mean to the ordinary person which flag flew from the mast?

Image for post
James Connolly Memorial (1996) by Éamonn O’Doherty, Dublin. Public domain image by ‘Sebb’, 22 August 2006, top and bottom trimmed for this post, original via Wikimedia Commons.

And so, along with more public art of the kind that involves Māori cultural themes and decorative motifs, we also need public art that explicitly celebrates the non-possessors, the dispossessed and the champions of the underdog, after the fashion of the Connelly memorial, or maybe this even more troubling one.

Image for post
Famine Memorial (1997) by Rowan Gillespie, Dublin. Public domain image by ‘Sebb’, 8 September 2006 via WIkimedia Commons.

There’s not really anything like that on the streets of New Zealand, a country where a certain degree of smugness is probably the national fault, or the fault of the nation’s possessors.

To end on a positive note, we should also be celebrating a much wider range of achievements.

Not just the achievements of famous sportsmen — men, sic — rural heroes, and war heroes, but other achievements as well.

Still cringingly relevant today, as an aspect of a lingering colonialism, is the following passage first published in 1921:

"Pre-eminence in Rugby football and dairy products is not enough. I want to see our scientists, our artists, our writers (when discovered), encouraged so that they may put New Zealand’s name on the map as a country which produces ideas as well as butter-fat, as a nation that has spirit as well as population and area."

As I say, these are points specifically relevant to Aotearoa / New Zealand. But in a general sense, they apply to most countries: ‘The tale, ‘tis told of thee’.


A scholarly article about the Ballance statue and Moutoa Gardens is here.

The contents of this post will appear in my next book, A Maverick Traveller: The North Island.


Subscribe to our mailing list to receive free giveaways!

Thanks for subscribing. You can expect to receive more information about Mary Jane, her top travel tips, free downloads of Mary Jane's award-winning books, and more, straight to your inbox!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Try again or contact us if you're still having trouble.

Share and subscribe

Share this post on Facebook or Twitter, and subscribe to new posts with RSS.

Recent Blog Posts

April 14, 2021

Around Mount Taranaki by the Southern Side

Continue reading
April 13, 2021

'The Town of Light': Reefton and the Kirwans Track

Continue reading
April 11, 2021

There's more to Hanmer than Springs!

Continue reading