Militant Classics: Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou

Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou by Ranginui Walker (revised edition 2004)

Ranginui Walker presents a history of Aotearoa/New Zealand from the perspective of Maori fighting for self-determination. In this way the book has a ‘bottom up’ or ‘people`s history’ feel too it – it is an indispensable resource for activists today. Walker has been an engaged intellectual, scholar and activist fighting for Maori rights for decades, and his history is informed by this deep personal commitment and experience.

It cuts through many liberal myths generated by the likes of James Belich and Micheal King. Its unapologetic characterisation of Maori that took up arms against the crown in the Land Wars as freedom fighters is something that every socialist should agree with. The argument that the Land Wars didn’t defeat the Maori resistance per se but weakened it to the point that the new settler state could consolidate its power and steal vast swathes of land through the native land court is an important insight. The book is full of history that the capitalist establishment continues to try and bury.

Far from a celebration of colonisation like most histories of New Zealand Evan Poata-Smith, in a sympathetic but critical appraisal, suggests that: “Ka Whawhi Tonu Matou represented a challenge to the more sanitised versions of history that tended to present New Zealand as a harmonious and progressive nation in a world otherwise characterised by incessant ethnic conflict, racism and division. This romanticism, originally encapsulated in Hobson’s decree at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi that New Zealand was ‘one nation, one people’, had become firmly entrenched in the consciousness of many New Zealanders.

Walker clearly demonstrates that underlying this patriotism and rhetoric of national unity is a more sinister version of our national history, predicated on notions of European superiority, racism and the destruction of the territorial and cultural integrity of indigenous communities.”

Walker gives us a coherent history of Maori resistance with a vast amount of knowledge and detail. The book starts with a brief description of myths and legends and the second chapter examines early Maori settlement of Aotearoa. The scope of the history is fantastic – Walker chronicles wave after wave of struggle leading up to the mass hikoi and split within the Labour party in 2004 over the confiscation of the foreshore and seabed.

Some of the political analysis and narrative presented by Walker is questionable. There is not a strong analysis of the class divide within the contemporary Maori world and the way this influences corporate approach to treaty settlements. This is a problem, especially since we have seen the Maori Party go into coalition with National and then split to form the Mana movement. Sadly the book does not provide much insight to the left/right divide within the movement for tino rangatiratanga. For those interested Poata-Smith provides a leftwing critique of Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou that you can see here[1].

Despite this, as far as histories of Aotearoa/New Zealand go, Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou is the best I have read. All activists need to read it (and re-read it) and engage with the debates that it brings up about both historical and contempory politics and strategy. For Marxists, who aim to rebuild a revolutionary movement grounded in the struggles here, it is a vital text that brings to life generations of struggle.