Thursday, January 22, 2015

Road works

The machines at Rangiriri are as neutral as well-trained beasts. Herds of bulldozers have been ordered to expand the road through King Tawhiao's old fortress, and the site of the Waikato War's decisive battle, into a four-lane expressway, and so they work through the afternoon heat, uprooting daisies and fenceposts, burying ancient musketballs and infant snails. An asphalting machine follows them, grunting and oozing a thick black liquid; my son perhaps mistook it for a wounded dinosaur.
One hundred and fifty-one years ago, in the aftermath of the battle for Rangiriri, work gangs pushed through the gaps that artillery and infantry charges had made in Tawhiao's earth walls, flattened the earth, and emptied bags of gravel. The Great South Road moved further south. Only a few metres of the Maori fort were preserved, close to the Waikato River. On the other side of the new road, beside the hotel that had opened for travellers, a cemetery holding the remains of Maori and Pakeha killed in the battle - the Pakeha got individual headstones, while Maori were put into a mass grave topped by a grassy mound - was tolerated.

In New Zealand, the destruction and preservation of history often occur simultaneously. The construction of roads and large buildings adds to our knowledge of the past, because surveyors and builders are obligated to call in archaeologists before they begin their depredations. The interesting thing is carefully recorded, and then efficiently destroyed.

A team of archaeologists excavated the land where the new freeway will flow, and discovered a pa built long before the battle of Rangiriri; another layer has been added to the history of the site. The small reserve around the remnant fragment of earthworks has also been tidied up, and given a new set of signboards and a ceremonial arch.

Despite all these enlightened activities, I can't help but feel there's something barbarous about the way our nation's most important road runs right over the fortifications built to stop the roadbuilders and landgrabbers who started the Waikato War. It is as though the men who pushed the road through Rangiriri wanted the invasion of the Waikato to be repeated endlessly, by generations of bullock wagons and Morris Minors and Sunny Datsuns.

The bulldozers, though, are neutral. If their orders only changed, they would contentedly plough up the expressway, and gouge new rifle and kumara pits in the riverside soil, and dig new trenches in which a new army of invaders could stumble and bleed.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

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