Hawke’s Bay Today: Looking Back to Look Forward

Hawke’s Bay Today: Looking Back to Look Forward

The 1866 battle of Omarunui is a moment in Hawke’s Bay history that evokes many different feelings. Jono Rotman’s Omarunui exhibition at Parlour Projects in Hastings is an important contribution to an emerging discussion about this historical event.

This year is the battle’s 150th anniversary. Rotman’s exhibition depicts people and objects that are significant to the encounter. The battle and its consequences are complex for a variety of reasons. Maori fought on both sides of the conflict. Many Maori who fought against each other were related.

There were significant consequences for all Maori after the battle. For those who defended their territory, their descendants would inherit the enduring label of “turncoat” for allying with the Crown. For those who surrendered, the Crown inflicted death, Chatham Islands incarceration and land confiscation on them. Anguish, grief and loss are still felt by some descendants today.

The battle was also a significant one from a British and settler perspective. There were no imperial and colonial forces at Omarunui. The local settler militia comprised civilians and ex-veterans obligated to fight (out of duty) to protect the settlement. It was a reluctant conflict.

The battle was a turning point in the history of Hawke’s Bay and our nation. Rotman’s exhibition displays the depth and complexity of the event by the selection of five photographs that examine glass plate negatives and one photograph of the obelisk that was erected in 1916 on the battle’s 50th commemoration. As a descendant of one of the depicted leaders, I’m proud to have a living connection with the exhibition.

On October 3, descendants gathered to talk about the significance of the historical event and what the exhibition meant to them. It was a powerful show of support for the exhibition.

One descendant spoke of the need to preserve the histories for their children so “they will have a better understanding of who they are”.

Rotman’s exhibition is a timely and remarkable contribution to a conversation about our nation’s colonial past.
It’s an important opportunity to reflect on where we’ve come from and acts as a catalyst to stimulate a conversation about where we’re going.

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