Hero Stories of New Zealand
It has been said more than once that one of the things New Zealand conspicuously lacks is an historical sense. This deficiency in the popular mentality and outlook is being made good to some extent, especially through the recent efforts of that great and discerning Englishman, Lord Bledisloe, who never tired, in his capacity of Governor-General, of urging the people of the Dominion to cultivate a greater pride of country and a deeper appreciation of New Zealand's individuality and nationhood. He reminded his audiences that New Zealand possessed heroes and heroines whom at any rate posterity would record as having illuminated the country's history. Would that all our own people were as keenly appreciative of dramatic pages in the nation's past! This country has a history, in its first century as a British land, adventurous and romantic in the widest senses of those words, but ignorance of that story, vivid and stimulating as so much of it is, is widespread. The young generation is apt to conclude, from its popular reading and the cinema, that one must go abroad for frontier tales, preferably to America. Such occasions as the gathering of Maori and pakeha at the Bay of Islands early in 1934 to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi are useful by way of awakening a concern in the fine things of our beginning and of doing honour to the memory of the pioneers. There is a definite inspirational value in the country's story of breaking-in and building-up.
The lack of accurate knowledge is general. In the preface to an anthology of New Zealand short stories this editorial statement occurs:page viii
“Our country lacks much romantic material usually found in a new land. We have had no frontiersmen, no epic struggle with mighty forces….. Our settlement victory was prosaic and swiftly won.”
An elementary knowledge of this country's history and its settlement conditions should have prevented such a palpably inaccurate summing-up of our past. If ever there was a country that developed the spirit of the frontier it was New Zealand. Explorers, scouts, bush-fighters, frontier settlers we have had in multitude, men (and women, too) who lived adventurous days and nights and suffered and endured. I have known many men who were as well entitled as any hero of America's West to the title of frontiersmen, men who lived wild days on the border. Such pioneers, living all their lives on the edge of romance between the two races, were always on the skirts of settlement. Explorers and surveyors—frontiersmen of the best type. Our backblocks settlers making homes in the danger-filled bush; ten thousand British troops fighting their slow way against the Maori on his native fern-heath and in his stockades; the gold-seekers who carried their swags through icy torrents and over snowy mountains in a wilder land than California—the sum of their efforts would seem to have constituted a true epic of conquest and colonisation. Enough of that! We have had a few borderers in our day.
Human effort, human resolution and action proceed on much the same lines on all frontiers. New Zealand, however, presented unusual difficulties in the era of its breaking-in. The mountains, ranges, forests and swamps, and above all the very independent and war-loving Maori made the frontiers here formidable and arduous out of all proportion to the size of the country page ix on the map. No country's history holds a greater variety in the features of romance and border perils and battle story.
Patriotism flourishes best upon the soil of history, and the uses of history are two-fold. For one thing, it teaches—or should teach—what should be avoided in the present and the future, and for another, it supplies us with examples of human conduct at its highest, of self-sacrifice, endurance, bravery conjoined to intelligence and skill.
The New Zealander perhaps is not sufficiently conscious of the fortune that is his in being able to call this country Home. He is too apt to look over the seas to the lands of his forefathers for leadership instead of cultivating the spirit of nationhood for himself. There are so many agencies here operating to destroy the natural beauty and historical places of the land, so many people trying to make this country a copy of some other rather than to maintain it as a place apart, with a great and peculiar genius of its own.
The stories of courage and endurance in New Zealand's dangerous days can never be told too often. They are a perpetual incentive to a spirit of duty, bravery and comradeship. Maori and pakeha combatants of that era of great hazards were the heroes of a war that was still a chivalrous thing, fought at close quarters, when the human factor had not yet been submerged by the diabolical tide of machines for scientific wholesale slaughter.
“It is one of the curious things about war,” an American historian recently wrote in the “New York Times” (he was reviewing that one-sided combat, the war with Spain), “that no matter how it may be regretted as foolish or useless, no one wishes to eliminate page x from written history the stirring tales that grew out of it.” This remark may be applied with special force to our Maori wars. Though that long-drawn series of campaigns was of small dimensions and trifling statistics as we reckon wars nowadays, it was full of the episodes that give the heroic personal touch to history. Regrettable as the wars were, they enriched our national story in incidents of self-sacrifice, endurance and gallant indifference to heavy odds. We would not be without any of those stories of devotion to duty, a hundred stories of pluck and daring and resolution, of which the “high topgallant” is the Maori reply of despair and defiance at Orakau. Such episodes are an enduring memory and inspiration. It is a pity, I have often thought, that our artists do not profit more by the wealth of memories and suggestions in the story of the frontier. There is here a field quite unworked, the field of fine and picturesque deeds in often beautiful and boldly dramatic settings. One suggestion for a noble picture out of innumerable heroic subjects; Captain Phelps, of the 14th Regiment, who had distinguished himself in the Crimea, lay dying at Rangiriri, and when the surgeon came to attend to his wound, he said (in the spirit of Sir Philip Sidney), “Attend to those poor fellows yonder. They may have a better chance than I have; I know my wound is mortal.”
Memories! One cannot learn or write history exclusively from written documents. The generals' despatches, the officials' bluebooks, do not give you the real meat of history. The generals and colonels did not know the war from the Maori side The officials did not know the frontier. I have spent years in gathering the real story on the spot. Memories of old Ben Biddle and Donald Sutherland and Steve Adamson, two-gun men page xi of their day, telling the tales of their bush scouting. Many days with old fighters, of both races; such leaders as Porter and Roberts, Northcroft, Gilbert Mair; a talk with Te Kooti himself, in 1889. Moving it was to listen to the two old comrades Te Huia Raureti and the blind man Pou-Pataté, the last of the defenders of Orakau, sitting side by side on the matted floor of the Puniu-side home, chanting together the old songs of war, now and again breaking off to explain the significance of the stirring lines they repeated.
Often on the site of a fortification or a battle-ground I heard a Maori veteran's narrative of his warpath days. Sometimes both pakeha and Maori were there to describe the incidents of the fighting from opposite sides: old antagonists now firm friends. Many such meetings, treasured in memory—they can never come again. The men have gone; the times have changed.
In this book some typical stories of action, of bravery and endeavour, are given in chronological order, covering the past century in New Zealand. For some of the episodes, unpublished MS. narratives given me have been drawn upon. Soldiers and Maori warriors, missionaries, settlers, bush scouts, sailors, heroic women are the leading figures in these tales of the true romance. A great many like episodes could be narrated; the present selection should be sufficient proof that New Zealand's record is full of the “flaming faith and gallantry” of the past, a spirit which, as Lord Birkenhead remarked in his preface to a recent book of great deeds, “will yield an atmosphere helpful to valiant enterprise in the future.”