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Colonial Statues

A look at the history of protest around colonial monuments in Aotearoa New Zealand.
a sepia coloured old photograph of a statue of Queen Victoria. She stands regally atop a multilevelled carved plinth featuring soldiers, inside aa low wrought iron fence
© Te Papa. All rights Reserved

As is increasingly common worldwide, modern Aotearoa New Zealand has grappled with some of its colonial monuments, including statues erected to honour Colonial leaders who fought in the New Zealand Wars.

Of the dozens of memorials erected in the first hundred years after the end of the New Zealand Wars none acknowledged the losses of Māori who fought against the Crown, and vanishingly few recognised the Māori allied with the Crown; one that did – in Moutua Gardens – called their fight against upriver Māori foes a ‘defence of law and order against fanaticism and barbarism’. American author Mark Twain bemoaned this caption on an 1895 visit, saying that:

“Patriotism is Patriotism. Calling it Fanaticism cannot degrade it; nothing can degrade it … But the men were worthy … they fought for their homes, they fought for their country; they bravely fought and bravely fell”.
Amidst the rise of Māori activism in the 70s, the first memorials acknowledging loss on both sides were erected, and in the following decades, some older memorials were damaged in expressions of anger at their one-sided narratives. A University of Otago study found that nearly a quarter of the 123 historical statues of colonial era figures on Aotearoa new Zealand public land have been subject to physical protest, starting over 100 years ago. Below are the stories of just a few.

Pukaka (Marsland Hill) memorial

On Waitangi Day of 1991, the marble soldier figure atop the 82-year-old Marsland Hill memorial (which honoured the Colonial forces and their allies) in New Plymouth was smashed by protestors. A sign was placed on top which read:
”In remembrance of the Maori people who suffered in the military campaigns – honour the Treaty of Waitangi”.
The figure was not replaced and the empty plinth remains to this day, adding another layer to its history.
Black and white photograph with a white statue featuring a figure standing atop. Banners of flags are strung from it on both sides above a large crowd. A colour photograph of grassy hill surrounded by trees and a blue sky. A white statue plinth sits atop a grey brick base surrounded by a concrete and iron fence.Top: Unveiling of the memorial (soldier intact) 1909. Auckland Libraries, No known Copyright.
Bottom: The New Zealand Wars Memorial (without the smashed soldier), Marsland Hill, New Plymouth. CC BY SA 4.0

Symonds Street memorial

A photograph of a small park along a tree lined city street, covered in Autumn leaves. The monument is light grey obelisk shaped marble with text on the highest portion and a plaque beneath. On three low steps surrounding stands a bronze woman, draped in fabric in bronze and bare breasted. She reaches up towards the monument. The Symonds Street memorial, featuring the female figure, ‘Zealandia’. Photograph by russelstreet (CC BY-SA 2.0)
A large memorial of the New Zealand Wars stands in Symonds Street in Central Auckland, erected over 100 years ago. It reads:
“In memory of the brave men belonging to the Imperial and Colonial forces and the friendly Maoris who gave their lives for the country during the N.Z. Wars 1845 – 72. Through war they won the peace we know”.
This caption tells the colonial story of the war. A story that, like all the memorials of its time, obscures the opposing perspective; that of the Māori sovereignty movement. Perhaps in response to this, the female figure in the monument was tarred and feathered during the race-driven protests surrounding the 1981 Springbok tour. During a Waitangi Day protest in 1987, her head was removed (and later replaced).
In 2018 the statue was targeted again. She was smeared in red paint, and a plastic axe was glued to her face alongside a sign reading, “Fascism and White Supremacy are not Welcome Here”.
The group responsible sent a statement to media outlet Stuff, saying the memorial was:
“[An] ode to the violent and brutal occupation of Māori lands. It celebrates the ongoing colonisation of Aotearoa, its lands and its peoples.”

Captain John Hamilton statue

In 2013, a statue of Captain Hamilton was gifted to the city of Hamilton by a local businessman. Though named for the man, Captain Hamilton never set foot in the city. He died more than 100km away at the Battle of Gate Pā, considered one of the most significant of the New Zealand Wars.
Many of Aotearoa New Zealand’s colonial statues, place names, and street names honour people who never set foot in that place, or even visited Aotearoa New Zealand at all. So the choice in modern times to erect a statue of him would likely have been somewhat controversial on its own.
This was exacerbated by a 2017 speech made by the benefactor, Sir William Gallagher, in which he declared that “Treaty of Waitangi papers on display at the National Library were fraudulent documents”, that the Treaty itself was “a rort”, and decried the “bloody reparations going on” towards Māori whom he said “gave up sovereignty”. Though he later apologised for these remarks amid significant backlash, they set the scene for the statue becoming a firebrand for a wider issue.
The first major act of protest against what the statue represented happened in 2018 when a local kaumātua (respected male Māori elder) and Ngā Tamatoa and Polynesian Panther activist, Taitimu Maipi, took to it with red paint and a hammer, describing Captain Hamilton as a “murderous a**hole” and suggesting the city name be restored to its Māori name of Kirikiriroa. He also questioned why the Ministry of Education had not made teaching the history of the New Zealand Wars mandatory. Before walking into the Council building to leave his contact details, he told a camera crew,
“This guy here [Captain Hamilton], he murders all of our people at the Battle of Gate Pā and he gets a statue celebrating his achievements. It don’t make sense to me…. William Gallagher puts up this [statue] to celebrate his ancestors who murdered our ancestors, so I have a problem with that. I have a major problem with that…You’ve got to tell the story as it is. You can’t try to hide it because our children need to know what happened.”
In 2019, the Waikato-Tainui iwi (tribe) formally requested the statue’s removal. The iwi had 1.2 million hectares of their land seized during and after the New Zealand Wars as a consequence of their resistance to Crown control over their land and way of life. They received a formal apology from the Crown in 2001.
When the statue remained in place by 2020, against the global backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, Taitimu Maipi alerted the Council of his intention to forcibly remove it during a protest march. Before he could make good on his threat, the Council had the statue removed. Public opinion on the issue remained as divided as it had been throughout the statue’s short public life.

Captain Cook statue

A photograph from a grassy hill looking over bush to a swooping bay below. On a black rectangular base featuring gold text, stands a black statue of Cook in full admiral dress. Statue of James Cook on Titirangi Hill, Gisborne. By itravelNZ®, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
There are memorials to Captain Cook scattered throughout Aotearoa New Zealand, but perhaps the most controversial is one erected on Titirangi, a maunga (mountain), sacred to the Ngāti Oneone iwi. The statue overlooks the bay where he first set foot on Aotearoa New Zealand soil and encountered its inhabitants. Following a misunderstanding, Cook’s crew killed nine members of the iwi, including a chief, Te Maro.
Iwi found the statue offensive and had consistently opposed its installation in 1969, but were not included in consultation. The statue was vandalised multiple times and there were a string of protests, petitions and requests over the years for its removal. In 2019, 250 years after Cook’s arrival, and after two years of negotiation between iwi representatives and the council, the statue was relocated to a new location – Tairāwhiti Museum, and with a new context. Other statues of Cook remain in the region.
In its place now stands a memorial to Te Maro, the chiefly ancestor of Ngāti Oneone killed in that first encounter, by artist Nick Tupara. This is one of few such memorials that offer an alternative perspective to the colonial one memorialised for 150 years. Tupara reflects:
“It started conversations about our true history. Half the population is Māori here, but there was almost no imagery to reflect that… Cook had also only ever been depicted as this heroic figure, and selectively taught about in the curriculum, editing out things like the diseases and abuse and killings his crew brought through the Pacific. His connections with slavery are also rarely discussed.”

Just a year later, the council again came under fire, after deciding to install models of Cook’s ship the Endeavour in the town centre, again without consulting iwi. After protests, the council reversed this decision, but as Tupara said, “A lot of people are pretty disappointed. It really ran counter to everything we’ve just been through, like no lessons have been learned”.

A photograph taken at night of the lit-up circular memorial. It is a golden disc with Māori designs cut out all around the central figure of a man, stylized like a Māori pou. A memorial built by Ngāti Oneone in Gisborne to honour their ancestor Te Maro who was shot dead by Captain Cook when he first made landfall in New Zealand. David Thomsen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Debate continues

Nationally, debate continues over the future of these memorials. They stand as tangible reminders of a very colonial perspective of the country’s past. There is historical value in those perspectives as being representative of colonial views of the time, but without a robust system of historical education, there is risk that people may view them as uncontested historical fact. Many iwi and hapū (tribes and sub-tribes) have requested that they be consulted in cases where their ancestral history is enmeshed with the figures memorialised.

Much of the protest and debate around these statues comes down to both ensuring this period of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history is actively taught (until recently, the New Zealand Wars were not included in the school curriculum and if addressed, seldom included the perspectives of Māori in conflict with the Crown), and that the statues themselves be either updated with further contextual information, be presented in a place where such information is available – such as museums, or be removed.

Read this article for more examples of memorials erected to colonial figures who history remembers quite differently today.

Further Resources

More nuanced discussion around colonial statues, monuments and place names from New Zealand History

An interview with young Māori activist Safari Hynes, on a letter he wrote to Wellington’s Mayor asking for more memorialisation of Māori historical figures.

New Zealand Wars memorials, NZ History

The New Zealand Wars and the school curriculum. (Note that this article is from 2018, and makes the case for the explicit inclusion of the Land Wars into the Aotearoa New Zealand curriculum, which has since been implemented.)

Black Lives Matter protests: The Kiwi colonial-era statues that pose some problems

Memorials and Monuments, Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand

George Floyd protests: New Zealand’s controversial statues and the calls to bring them down

Captain James Cook graffiti raises necessary kōrero – councillor

Captain Cook statue in Gisborne repeatedly defaced

New Zealand Wars memorial statue defaced by anti-colonial activists

Tearing down statues – and revisiting our histories

What to do with NZ’s statues and memorials from a racist, imperial past?

Controversy over New Zealand colonial statues long-standing

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The History of Protest in Aotearoa New Zealand

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