Battle of Gate Pa: Does local history matter?

Stop what you’re doing and go to Greerton. It doesn’t matter if you don’t finish reading this column. Just go, right now, to the Battle of Gate Pa exhibit at the Greerton Hall.

Finally, Tauranga has its very own world class, grown up exhibit. But it’s only on until 24 May, which feels like a crime against the city. Something this good needs a permanent home.

Image by Dave Tipper
Image by Dave Tipper

I took my boys to see the exhibit last weekend. We had an interesting discussion on our way over.

“Did the good guys win the battle, Dad?”

 A simple question of awkward complexity. To a child’s logic, if there was a battle then one side must have been good and the other side bad. Just like in Star Wars. It got me thinking of all the times I played cowboys and Indians as a kid, and how simplistic – and probably offensive – that was.

My answer: “Maori won the battle of Gate Pa, but there were no good guys and there were no bad guys. In a war, anyone trying to kill you is generally the bad guy. I think it’s safe to say both sides thought they were the good guys at the time.”

Gate Pa is a rousing story of the underdog. The next time you shop for gardening tools at Mitre 10 Mega, take a moment to reflect that 150 years ago the whole area was a thumping battleground. A vastly outnumbered band of Maori withstood nine hours of the heaviest artillery bombardment New Zealand had ever seen before fending off the British troops at close quarters.

We’re eager to applaud this win against the odds but no one seems quite so chirpy about the decisive follow-up battle at Te Ranga. Any talk of Te Ranga is usually tempered with the phrase ‘land confiscation’, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to a triumphant round of high fives for the winning team.

I find myself wrestling with my own response to those events. What do the battles of Gate Pa and Te Ranga mean for me, a Tauranga resident who can’t claim any deep, historical connection to the land? I resent the whiff of guilt I feel about something I had nothing to do with in the first place. I wasn’t here 150 years ago, nor am I directly descended from any of the people involved.

Yet here we all are, together in the 21st century, buying and selling properties, enjoying our lives in this city that was built upon the outcome of those two historic battles.

Life in the Bay is pretty good. Do I really need to bother knowing what happened here 150 years ago?

Resoundingly, yes, although it’s hard to clearly explain why without sounding trite.

Part of the explanation is to be found, this month at least, at Greerton Hall. Wandering through the exhibit I was struck by the richness of Tauranga’s history.

Gate Pa was one of New Zealand’s most significant battles. It happened in our own backyard and it laid the foundation for a larger story that we have all become part of.

If we are going to participate in the life of this city then we need to know more about that story. The better we understand the forces and decisions that shaped Tauranga, the more respect we will carry into the future as we strive to make Tauranga the best possible place to live.

In beautiful detail the exhibition depicts a founding piece of our collective history with all of its ugly and redemptive moments. It is a generous work that feels like another step forward for the city.

And if nothing else, it’s just really interesting. You’ll know what I mean when see it for yourself.

What, you’re still reading? Hurry up and get to Greerton.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 9 May 2014. Reproduced with permission.