Wargaming as a way of learning? Especially for a series of wars that continue to have repercussions in my country to this very day? Doesn’t playing the New Zealand Wars as a game trivialise the on-going impact of colonialism on generations of descendants?
My own story says otherwise.
But firstly, why am I even mentioning this? Well, there’s increasing pressure on the New Zealand government to make the study of our colonial wars compulsory in the national education curriculum. I totally support this idea. Just like a person, a country should know its own history, especially where parts of that story still adversely affect the lives of many of its citizens.
So how does wargaming fit into all this?
As a youngster, for me ‘real’ history didn’t take place in New Zealand. Rather, it was the stirring battles and sieges that took place hundreds of years ago and far, far away in the fields, towns and castles of Europe, or in the forests and grasslands of America.
For many years my hobby was built around the history of other countries’ wars – the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War. I read a lot of history of these conflicts, what caused them, what impact they had. But I totally ignored the wars much closer to home.
But I wasn’t entirely ignorant of my country’s history. I vaguely remember doing a project in primary school about the early 19th century whalers and sealers. Then in secondary school I learned all about our political figures of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. And of course every New Zealand kid learns about the ANZACs at Gallipoli.
I think I mainly learned about our founding document, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, from a set of cereal packet cards when I was a child! Decades later I was lucky enough to take part in a reenactment of the signing of the treaty to celebrate its sesquicentennial, but even then I still didn’t know much about the wars that followed.
During the 1980s I co-authored a couple of local police history books. However, even though there was an obvious linkage with the New Zealand Wars (after all, today’s New Zealand Police descend from the Armed Constabulary), I still didn’t really connect with how those wars were affecting many people in the Māori community today.
The idea of playing a wargame based on New Zealand history never even occurred to me.
But then in 2011 along came a British company with the ironic name (considering colonialism) of Empress Miniatures, who announced a new range of 28mm metal figures portraying the 1840s campaigns of the New Zealand Wars. There was Hone Heke, exactly as I recalled him from my childhood Weetbix card, along with his fellow chief Kawiti and their warriors, the men of the British Regiments of Foot, the colonial militia and even the Royal Navy.
I was immediately hooked by what looked to be a lovely set of figures, that for once depicted a struggle closer to home. Off went my order to England. And, as does any wargamer who takes up a new period, I started by reading up a few histories.
Initially I was just searching for superficial information, such as what the soldiers and warriors looked like, the weapons and tactics they used, and the type of terrain they fought over. This was the sort of stuff I needed to know to be able to paint the figures accurately and to create suitable tabletop scenery.
However, as time went on I began reading more and more deeply, and started learning about the background of the wars, what drove the participants on both sides (willingly or unwillingly), and the legacy they left, particularly through the confiscation of Māori land.
This burgeoning interest gradually infiltrated into my work-life, where I became more aware of the role of the impact of colonialism on my job, and increasingly interested in te reo Māori (the Māori language) and tikanga Māori (Māori custom) generally.
We’ve probably all heard of people maligning the hobby of wargaming by saying that it’s a war-mongering entertainment that trivialises the history and heartbreak of war. But it was this hobby that initially attracted and then inspired me to dig deeper and gain an understanding of not only the New Zealand Wars, but of their legacy to this very day.
I bet many wargamers from all over the world could say the same about whatever periods they recreate. Wargaming, through its unique visual and hands-on experience, is an amazing way of piquing interest in history. It then goes on to foster deeper learning by the very fact that to be a good wargamer, you need to research your chosen period.
I believe that wargaming can result in much deeper historical engagement than you’ll ever get from more common (but less often maligned) conflict-based entertainments, such as watching war movies or reading war novels.
I hope that if the New Zealand Wars do become part of our national curriculum, teachers won’t overlook the potential of a fascinating miniature wargame to spark their pupils’ first interest in our country’s history.