Marmaduke Nixon and “our history”

Standing beside the Great South Road in Otahuhu, about 13 km south of central Auckland, is a memorial obelisk, beneath which are buried the mortal remains of Marmaduke Nixon. The memorial was inaugurated by the Governor-General in 1868. When community activist Shane Te Pou called for the removal of the monument a few weeks ago, it sparked an interesting discussion, one which has many parallels with the ongoing discussion about the removal of monuments to leaders of the Confederacy in the United States.

Monument to Marmaduke Nixon beside the Great South Road in Otahuhu

Te Pou told RNZ News “I think it ought to be removed. I’m not saying totally, I think it is part of our history but it needs to be put in a museum and we need to have a debate and discussion about it. But it certainly ought not to be out there standing in memory of [a man] who I think was a thug, who raised a militia and then went down to Te Awamutu and killed innocent women and children.”

Shane Te Pou
Photo: Claire Eastham-Farrelly RNZ

Nixon was a minor figure in the initial stages of the colonial wars of the 1860s, through which European settlers took possession of the rich lands of the Waikato region from their Maori owners and established a capitalist state.  Otahuhu, Onehunga, Panmure, and Howick, which are today southern and eastern suburbs of Auckland, were founded in the 1850s as Fencible settlements. The Great South Road was a military supply road built by British troops in preparation for the Waikato war.

Royal Artillery soldiers building the Great South Road in 1863. Photo: William Temple, Alexander Turnbull Library

The Royal New Zealand Fencible Corps was created in 1846, in response to Governor George Grey’s request for military forces to defend the southern frontier of the Auckland settlement from an alleged threat from Maori. It was recruited from among experienced and retired soldiers of the British Army. Some 2,500 people, comprised of 721 Fencible soldiers together with their families, arrived in Auckland between 1847 and 1851, almost doubling the population of the city at the time, and establishing a clear colonial frontier for further expansion of the colony.

Under their terms of enlistment, these soldiers were provided with passage to New Zealand for themselves and their families, a cottage, an acre of land, and pay of one shilling and threepence per day. Officers received a house and 50 acres of land. They served as a source of labour for local farmers, and built roads and other infrastructure needed by the colony. In return, they signed for seven years military service in defence of the colony.

One acre of land was not enough to live on, of course, and the pay wasn’t high. If any of these soldiers wanted enough land to become farmers, they would need to engage in more than just ‘defence.’ The terms of engagement of the Fencibles set the stage for accelerated land-grabbing. It was one of many policies of the colonial government which would reward participants in the wars of conquest with land confiscated from Maori.

Up until the 1860s, Maori had supplied Auckland with a large part of its food supplies. Adapting traditional techniques to new crops and techniques introduced by Europeans, they had established big commercial growing and trading operations, supplying potatoes, wheat, fresh fruit and other crops to the European settlements in exchange for products of European industry, including textiles and weapons. In some regions, they invested the proceeds in tribally-owned flour mills and other industries, including shipping lines that exported their produce to Australia and California. (A great book on this little-known aspect of history is Chiefs of Industry, by Hazel Petrie.) The supposed threat to the Auckland settlement from the Waikato Maori was a fiction. Maori had nothing to gain by destroying their largest market, and had explicitly extended their military protection over the settlement.

The development of settler farming was incompatible with these Maori farming and trading operations, however. At the opening of the 1860s, Maori retained ownership of the best land; tribal ownership could not co-exist with capitalist forms of property. The settlers needed to take possession of the land and to destroy their competitors supplying the Auckland market.

Marmaduke George Nixon. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Ref PA2-2728

Marmaduke Nixon understood this.  He was not one of the Fencibles, but like them was a veteran of the British army, including its colonial wars in India. He migrated to New Zealand in 1853 and bought a farm in south Auckland. He soon became an advocate for settlers who wanted to gain access to Maori lands to the south, and in this role was elected to the House of Representatives in 1861. When the simmering tensions erupted into war in Taranaki in 1860, Nixon offered to raise a volunteer cavalry militia among south Auckland farmers. By the time of General Duncan Cameron’s invasion of the Waikato in late 1863, Nixon had recruited a cavalry 200 strong.

Nixon and his militia took part in the invasion of Waikato lands led by Cameron’s 1500 troops. The first major encounter in this war was at Rangiriri, near the northernmost part of the Waikato river, before it turns westward to the coast. There, the heavily outnumbered and outgunned Maori put up a fierce resistance from behind massive earthworks, and successfully repulsed several assaults, at a cost of about forty to fifty dead on each side. The pa was eventually taken largely by treachery. Among the dead on the Maori side were ten women and two children, as well as one of two pakeha known to be fighting alongside the Maori.

The New Zealand Herald had a correspondent travelling with the colonial troops in the invasion of the Waikato. His reports capture the spirit that prevailed among the troops.

On our way we passed several deserted Maori whares and cultivations, and the one evidently thriving little native settlement of Paitai. … It is now all abandoned, and though little cultivations of wheat and potatoes, neatly fenced, with ditch and rose-covered earth bank, and beautifully studded with peach trees, lost to their Maori planters forever. Little crops that might have gladdened the heart of many a peacefully disposed husbandman, will now be trampled down, cut for forage, and dug up for the soldiery that the Maoris’ own treachery and determination for war have brought on them. Poor fools! One cannot help pitying their loss while witnessing the chastisement that they would persist in bringing down upon themselves, that they have robbed for, murdered for, and striven for years, by long and pertinacious insult, borne with magnanimous and sorrowful patience, to compel the great white man, and would-be brother, to inflict upon them. Such beautiful tracts of land! that in a few years, under the industrious care of the white man, will smile with food and riches and beauty for hundreds. Poor fools! to throw it all into the balance against the barren gratification of war and robbery; and war with a giant that they had been warned over and over again could swallow them up, and whose magnanimity they would treat as impotence, in spite of all entreaty. (The Native Rebellion, New Zealand Herald, 7 December 1863)

An earlier report, written just after the battle at Rangiriri, gave an indication of the military balance of forces. The correspondent had been among the troops who arrived on warships up the river.

The repulse of the Royal Navy storming party at Rangiriri. Image from The New Zealand Wars by James Cowan 1922. Public domain

We then landed and proceeded to examine the famous earth-works that (manned only by naked savages, armed with any sort of old guns) had kept English soldiers and sailors with the most powerful weapons ever invented at bay for so many hours, and certainly a more wonderful specimen of engineering was never seen. An intricate network of rifle-pits connected by covered ways, having in front of it a ditch eighteen feet deep by thirteen wide, and running from a swamp on one side to the river bank on the other, and assailable only at one point by a narrow ditch through which only one man could pass at a time. Without sapping and mining it would be almost impossible for any troops in the world to have taken it, as it was impossible to get at it. A few steady men could have shot down hundreds as they came up one by one, and had they had artillery the Maoris might have held such a place against ten thousand men; as it was, they fought nobly, waiting till the stormers were close and then delivering their fire unerringly. The hand-grenades that were thrown amongst them they took up and flung hack again before they burst, and again and again they shot down the leading officers and front ranks of the storming parties, and rendered the narrow passage to their pits impassable.  (The Battle of Rangiriri, New Zealand Herald, 30 November 1863)

A month later the correspondent reported: “About 100 of the Colonial Defence Force, under the command of Lieut.-Col. Nixon, have marched through this camp to join the General’s force at headquarters…. The men all seemed in most excellent spirits at the prospect of having a brush with our tattooed friends. The reason of so many cavalry proceeding upwards, is that they will be able to get in rear of the enemy’s position, and cut off their retreat. If this plan proves successful, I have no doubt it will have a great effect on the natives, as a cavalry charge will be something new for them ; and if once the cavalry once get amongst the rebels, they will make great havoc.” (The Native Rebellion, New Zealand Herald, 5 January 1864).

As Cameron’s combined force of 7,000 troops marched south after the capture of Rangiriri pa, a line of major fortifications barred the way to the richest Waikato lands.  A particularly formidable pa at Paterangi was considered by Cameron to be unassailable. After the heavy losses of colonial troops at Rangiriri, Cameron decided on a tactic of sneaking past these fortifications during the night to attack directly the agricultural heartland of Rangiaowhia. Nixon’s cavalry, with its high speed and mobility, thus proved to be key to the next stage of the invasion of the Waikato.

The Attack on Rangiaowhio. Image: George Grey Collection, Auckland Libraries 7-C2

Vincent O’Malley, author of The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800–2000 takes up the story in an article in the New Zealand Listener. “The area around Rangiaowhia was the country’s granary, and in 1849, two young chiefs from the settlement proudly sent a bag of flour ground at their own mill all the way to Queen Victoria. Crowds of Waikato Maori flocked to view the two lithographs of the royal family the Queen sent them in return. Early European visitors to Rangiaowhia were amazed by the “European” appearance of the settlement. Wheat fields stretched as far as the eye could see. Peach groves and all kinds of orchards added to the scene. Horses and carts carried produce to market. …

“… at dawn on February 21, 1864, armed cavalry, followed by foot troops, charged into the settlement of Rangiaowhia, whose terrified, startled and screaming residents ran for their lives in every direction. The troops encountered little organised resistance, but official returns listed 12 Maori killed and a similar number wounded.

“Rangiaowhia was a place of refuge for women, children and the elderly. It was an open village, lacking fortifications or defences of its own. The men of fighting age were amassed at Paterangi waiting for a British attack that never came. Kingitanga commanders had been given to understand that women and children would not be killed. Following the Rangiriri battle, the presence of both inside the pa was condemned by Europeans (including Grey) and the Maori defenders were urged to remove them to a place of safety. Bishop George Selwyn, accompanying the Crown forces as official chaplain, was told nine days before the February attack that Rangiaowhia had been designated such a place and was asked to consult Cameron and ensure that the people there would not be harmed.

“Kingitanga leaders understood that some kind of agreement had been entered into, making the early-morning attack on the settlement – on a Sunday – all the more treacherous.”

The women and old men in the village defended it as best they could against the attackers. After shots that were fired from a whare killed a sergeant, Colonel Nixon led the assault on the whare. He was wounded by gunshot as he approached the entrance to the building. The whare was then set ablaze and its occupants, most of whom were women, were burned alive.

Kereopa Te Rau Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Ref PA2-0400

The burning of the women at Rangiaowhia caused deep bitterness among Maori, and had further consequences in the war. Kereopa Te Rau, whose wife and two daughters were killed in the attack, later killed the missionary Carl Volkner, who had supplied the colonial forces with detailed plans of Rangiaowhia village before the attack. Volkner’s assassination then became a pretext for further reprisals and confiscations of land in the Bay of Plenty.

Nixon died of his wounds in May 1864. The monument was inaugurated five years later, as the land wars themselves were drawing to a conclusion – and the punitive confiscations of Maori land were accelerating.


Historian Paul Moon has objected to the proposal to remove the Nixon monument. “I don’t think it should be removed at all, if you remove it, it’s like burying our heads in the sand. You might not see it anymore but the history is still there,” Moon said.

It is true that there is nothing to be gained by erasing or sanitising the bloody history of the founding of the New Zealand state. It could be argued however that the inscriptions on the monument are themselves sanitising an atrocity.

There is a reason why the Nixon obelisk and various similar monuments to the land wars honour the sacrifices and heroism of only one side of the conflict: they are not, and never were, simply markers of history, but rather symbols of who rules. Removing the monument to a cemetery or a museum, as Te Pou suggested, would not erase any history. In the opinion of this writer, the reluctance to consider such a removal is driven by a fear that removal constitutes a challenge to the power of the rulers, whose symbols they are.

As far as the working class is concerned, Marmaduke Nixon is not ‘part of our history’. As US historian Eric Foner indicates in a contribution to the debate about the Confederate statues, a lot is bound up in that little word ‘our.’

Out of the 1860s land wars emerged three distinct social forces, each of which has its own history.

In the first place, the wars marked the birth of the colonial-settler state in New Zealand. The militias such as the one raised by Marmaduke Nixon formed the core of the repressive forces of this state, merging with and transplanting the remaining organs of British power to New Zealand soil. Over the course of the following fifty years this state evolved into a minor star in the imperialist constellation, closely allied with but independent of Britain. In 1928 a further monument was added at the site of the Nixon memorial – a bronze statue of a soldier on horseback, commemorating New Zealand’s participation in the first imperialist World War. In order to make abundantly clear the continuity between this imperialist state and the earlier colonial settler state, the WWI statue also includes a plaque honouring Nixon. Patriotic commemorations of ANZAC Day take place annually at the site of the two memorials.

Marmaduke Nixon and his exploits belong to the history of this state. Nixon is part of their history.

On the other side of the palisades, the wars also gathered the Maori tribes into a single nation. While in each battle the local tribe formed the majority of the fighting force, there were numerous reinforcements comprised of different tribes, some of whom travelled long distances to support the fight. The alienation of Maori land that followed the military defeats spared no one, not even those tribes that had fought alongside the colonial troops. The Maori nation came into being as an oppressed nation, dispossessed of its own territory, denied the right of self-determination. There are very few monuments marking the history of this nation.

The third product of the land wars was the dispossessed class, the class of wage-labourers.  Although it only took recognizable shape as a hereditary proletariat some thirty years later, this class had its origins in the dispossession of Maori, just as in every part of the world where the capitalist mode of production comes into being, it arises from the uprooting of the producers from the land. Over the following decades many more landless proletarians arrived as immigrants from the United Kingdom and mainland Europe, but the dispossessed Maori have remained a central component of the proletariat from the very beginning down to the present day. The war against its own dispossession was the first act of resistance by the proletariat in New Zealand, and up to this point, its greatest act. This was the beginning of our history on New Zealand soil.

Interest in discovering and reclaiming our history is growing rapidly. At the time of the 150th anniversary of the invasion of the Waikato in 2013-14 hundreds of people attended gatherings at the sites of major battles at Rangiriri, Orakau, and Gate Pa. (Government funding for these events was about $240,000, compared to some $25 million spent on commemorating New Zealand’s participation in the First World War).

Otorohanga College students Rhiannon Magee, Tai Jones and Leah Bell who initiated the petition. Photo: Bruce Mercer, Fairfax NZ

Last year a group of students at Otorohanga College visited some of the nearby battle sites at Rangiaowhia and Orakau, and after hearing some of the stories, initiated a petition calling for a national day to be set aside to commemorate these wars. The petition won 13,000 signatures; the occasion of its presentation to Parliament  drew hundreds, and it was successful: On October 28 the first ever day of commemoration of the New Zealand Wars will be held.

Pania Newton, leader of protest at Ihumatao and participant in the hikoi. Photo: Stuff

This year, a group of marchers re-traced the route of the Waikato invasion from Otahuhu to Pokeno, installing plaques along the way. Taking part in this march were some families from Ihumatao, an area near Auckland Airport where a new housing development is being forced through despite Maori opposition. Ihumatao was like Rangiaowhio in 1863, a market garden where Maori farmers grew food to sell to the Auckland settlement. The Maori occupants were driven out and the land divided among settlers after the Waikato War. Pania Newton, who has been leading the protest against the housing development, said the Waikato War may have happened in 1863, but “it is continuing to happen [even] now where we are being ejected from our lands”. (For a comprehensive account of this struggle, see this article in NZ Geographic magazine.)

Clearly, the proposal to remove the Nixon monument, the resistance to removing it, and the movement to reclaim our history are about much more than just events of the distant past. Those who are upset by the thought of removing this relic of shameful injustices must be trembling with fear.

5 responses to “Marmaduke Nixon and “our history”

  1. Again good scholarship and challenging the history I grew up with. Are there any credible published rebuttals?

  2. Thanks, Winston. As far as I know, the rebuttals to Shane Te Pou’s call were from Paul Moon (quoted in the post), as well as Waikato University history professor Tom Roa, who is also a kaumatua of Ngāti Āpakura and Ngāti Hinetū, and who took more or less the same stance as Moon, that is, to remove it would be an attempt to cover up the history, instead of bringing it out into the open. At face value, this is a reasonable argument – because it is true that the discussion is the important thing here – however I remain convinced that it is more motivated by a fear of upsetting the status quo. The clinching proof is Auckland Mayor Phil Goff’s effort to impose a ‘compromise’ position of sticking on an additional plaque about the Maori deaths – and thereby shutting the discussion down.

    You are in Gisborne, if I remember an earlier comment correctly? I was originally going to cover the related debates about the James Cook memorial at Poverty Bay, which some people would also like to remove. Unfortunately, the blog post got too long and I couldn’t include that discussion. I think that Cook as a historical figure is quite different, a more complicated and interesting matter.

  3. The clinching proof is Auckland Mayor Phil Goff’s effort to impose a ‘compromise’ position of sticking on an additional plaque about the Maori deaths –
    In Gisborne Tairawhiti as our 2019 Sesquicentennial celebration approaches it is likely the monument to Captain Cook will be relocated to our Museum. It is also likely the memorial to the settlers whose lives were lost in Te Kooti raids will be joined with a memorial to the hundreds of Maori lives lost. A difficulty is a number of iwi affiliated with the British troops

    • Thanks, Winston. Perhaps I should clarify my comment about the Goff ‘compromise’: I have absolutely no objection to adding the plaque recording the Maori deaths. I only object to what is plainly an attempt to end the discussion.

      That is interesting about the plan to relocate the Cook memorial – is this written up anywhere in local news media etc?

  4. Pingback: Toppling statues, censorship, and erasing history | A communist at large·

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