‘Wars Without End’ by Danny Keenan

Danny Keenan, Wars Without End. The Land Wars in Nineteenth Century New Zealand, Penguin Books, Auckland, 2009.

‘Land is the foundation of all our troubles’ is the quote from Te Rauparaha that Danny Keenan uses to set the tone for his book Wars Without End.  At no time throughout are you left wondering what the prime driver was behind the conflict between Pakeha and Maori from before the Treaty through to the beginning of the 20th Century and beyond – it is land.

Keenan weaves a story of military, political, legal and commercial engagement, dipping into cultural background to ensure that the reader has the depth of understanding for why land was so important to it all.  While other histories often give the impression that the battle for land was restricted to the military conflicts of the 1860s (where Maori won many battles but lost the war), and really only returned to the 1970s with the land marches and Treaty claims, Keenan makes it clear that the battle raged between these times.  Its just that the frontline moved off the battlefield and into the courtroom.

And even where other authors have shown similar, none have done it in such an easy-to-read manner.  Keenan’s audience is obviously quite broad and non-academic, with the writing style not assuming a depth of knowledge by the reader.  The references are not obscure, but a list of recognisable other New Zealand historians that anyone who has read a little of New Zealand history would recognise.  This doesn’t mean he shies away from grappling with the deeper academic or theoretical issues – for example, engaging in a discussion of how the label ‘The New Zealand Wars’ is a way of removing land from the equation and instead placing the focus on sovereignty – but he manages to present these excursions in a way that does not interrupt the flow of the story.

The point of difference for this book is that it is told from a Maori point of view.  Keenan is an associate professor of Maori descent, his earlier career spent at the Department of Maori Affairs and then later as a lecturer in New Zealand history where he took classes of eager students to visit the battlefields of the Land Wars.  Rather than trying to write the dispassionate history where the research material dominates, here we have a reading from one side of the struggle with the story taking precedent over the records.

All architects operating in New Zealand should read this book.  From it will be gleaned a deeper understanding of why land is so central to being Maori, not from a romantic, rose-tinted glasses angle but from the centre of the political struggle.

If there is a failing for Wars Without End it is that Keenan restricts himself to the 19th Century, despite the struggle continuing right through to the current day.  Telling the full story in such an engaging manner would of course require much more than the 280 or so pages Keenan has here, so we should perhaps treat this as a first instalment of a four or five-part history – the topic deserves such an airing and also deserves a writer like Keenan to tell it.

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