Does historical wargaming trivialise or teach?

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Colonial NZ Wars table at The Winterdale Tavern

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At yesterday’s open day at New Zealand’s newest wargaming venue – The Winterdale Tavern on the Kāpiti Coast – I put on a colonial New Zealand Wars game.

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Well, I say ‘game’, but in fact because of it’s location right by the front door, we decided to make it an eye-catcher for visitors, so it was really just a static display. I actually love doing static displays, as it lets my imagination run wild in setting up a feast of lovely terrain, as well as providing an excuse to jam-pack the table with as many of my models as I can!

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Working from the back of the table, the first thing to capture the eye was a Māori pā, which was 3D-printed for me by Printable Scenery  

A pā was a fortified settlement or position with palisades and defensive terraces. The pā was constructed of rows of strong log palisades. Behind the palisades there was usually a trench, so that the defending warriors were fully protected as they fired through loopholes at ground level. 

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Inside the pā is a captured carronade with which the warriors fire on the British, using any old iron as ammunition. The gun is mounted on a wooden slide, secured with blocks and tackle to a couple of handy tree stumps.

In the background is an impressive Māori meeting house and two accompanying huts, all products of Printable Scenery.

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Up the mighty Waikato River (truncated to just a little stream on my small table!) chugs the paddle steamer ‘Avon’. This model is based on a real gunboat that started life as a pleasure boat on the River Avon in Christchurch, but was later fitted with sheet metal armour to become one of New Zealand’s earliest warships.

‘Avon’ mounted a 12-pounder Armstrong breech-loading gun on her bow. At the stern was a wooden shed-like structure with loopholes from which troops could fire.

The ‘Avon’ also had a novel self-defence system, with her boiler connected to a pipe running right around the hull, so that scalding water could be sprayed upon anyone attempting to board.

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Moving to the middle of the tale, the first thing viewers cud see was this huge naval 32- trying to pound the Māori pā into submission.

Naval guns were really used during the early New Zealand Wars, dragged miles through the rugged bush, for example at the Battle of Ruapekapeka. The crews would then build wooden platforms from which to fire these great guns.

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Beside the gun, you can see the commander and his two mounted aides. This photo makes the blue of these rather plain uniforms look lighter than it actually is – in fact, my paint job is almost black, which I’ve achieved by washing the finished figures with black ink.

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Emerging from the bush is a ‘taua’, or war-party, of warriors. Half of them are armed with muskets, whilst the others have the double-barreled shotguns that were very popular with Māori warriors. They called the shotguns ‘tupara’, based on the Māori pronunciation of the English words  ‘two-barrel’.

I don’t try to paint the intricate tattoos with which Māori warriors customarily adorned their faces and other parts of their bodies. I did try once, but the results looked too clunky and crude. So I think it is better to ignore them, as the skin is quite dark anyway.

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The warriors are skirmishing with a firing line of British infantry. The soldiers aren’t in their traditional red coats, but are  dressed in the distinctive blue uniforms worn by the British in New Zealand during the 1860s. The officer running out front is wearing a patrol jacket with ornate black braiding. 

The unit is being led by a man carrying a flag, even though standards weren’t as a rule carried during the colonial NZ Wars. But there is some evidence that occasionally a plain Union Jack was used.

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Right at the front of the table is another line of infantry running forward in support. They’re the grenadier company, as distinguished by the white touries on their caps.

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Cavalry didn’t play such a significant part in the larger battles of the New Zealand Wars, but they did take part in a lot of minor engagements. I’ve painted these horsemen as members of the Military Train (i.e. the supply column), who sometimes had to fight as cavalry because the British never brought any actual cavalry units to New Zealand.

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Here’s a colonial militia unit dressed in a rag-tag collection of civilian clothes and part uniforms. They represent a hastily-recruited militia or Civic Guard unit.

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One little vignette that attracted a lot of attention was this civilian group defending their cottage. Mr Atkinson is still bandaged from a wound in an earlier clash, Mrs Atkinson doles out the gunpowder from a small barrel, daughter Amelia flinches as she fires her father’s pistol, and little Annie brings up a haversack of  spare ammunition.

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In the field on the right you can see a small Royal Navy shore party. Sailors took a major role in many of the battles of the colonial New Zealand Wars.

Overall, the table attracted a lot of attention, with many people surprised that there are  figures and terrain commercially available to recreate the wars that took place on our own doorstep.

 

 

The colonial New Zealand Wars at Kāpiti’s newest wargaming venue

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Next Saturday I am planning to bring out my colonial New Zealand Wars figures and terrain to put on a display game at the open day of Kāpiti’s newest wargaming venue of choice, the Winterdale Tavern.

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The aim of the open day is to attract new wargamers, boardgamers and RPG players to help build up Winterdale Tavern’s community.

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The Winterdale Tavern, brainchild of Printable Scenery’s Matt Barker, is a dedicated venue for gamers, situated in the Lindale complex off the old State Highway 1 just north of Paraparaumu. 

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Obviously, a centrepiece of my table at the open day will have to be Printable Scenery’s magnificent Māori pā.

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There’ll be lots of other games happening too, both fantasy and historical. So if you’re in the Paraparaumu region on Saturday, why not take this opportunity to take a look round at this cool new gaming venue, not too mention the chance of seeing so many of Printable Scenery’s amazing 3D-printed offerings in real life.

 

 

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‘Send a gunboat’ to colonial New Zealand

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When we think of gunboats for colonial wargaming,  we normally picture a chunky  paddle-steamer chugging up the Nile, or a little steam launch chuffing down the Congo. However, few people know that gunboats were also used in New Zealand during the colonial period.

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I’ve been working on a project to model one of New Zealand’s earliest steam warships, the ‘Avon’. I’ve previously posted about how I converted her from a cheap Chinese toy tugboat. She is now finally finished, complete with Foundry crew figures.

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‘Avon’ was a 58-foot iron paddle steamer, launched in Glasgow in 1859, and shipped to New Zealand to work as a pleasure boat on the River Avon in Christchurch, New Zealand. She was purchased by the government in 1862 and converted into a gunboat.

James Cowan, in his book The New Zealand Wars, describes the ‘Avon’:

The work of making the hull bullet-proof was carried out by the engineer, Mr. George Ellis (now of Auckland), who states that the ‘Avon’ was converted into an armoured steamer by having iron plates bolted inside her bulwarks. These plates were ¼ inch thick and measured 6 feet by 3 feet. The wheel was enclosed by an iron house of similar-sized plates, with loop-holes. …

… The paddle-wheeler ‘Avon’ was the first steam-vessel to float on the waters of the Waikato. She was towed to Waikato Heads on the 25th July, 1863, by HMS ‘Eclipse’ and Captain Mayne, the commander of that ship, took her inside the Heads and anchored that night eight miles below Tuakau. Next day, watched with intense excitement by the Maoris, friendlies, and hostiles alike, she reached the Bluff, otherwise known as Havelock—Te Ia-roa of the Maoris—just below the junction of the Manga-tawhiri with the Waikato. She was not fired upon, contrary to the expectations of her crew, who expected a volley from the southern bank of the river at the narrower parts. Mr. Strand, of Kohanga, assisted to pilot the ‘Avon’ up the river.

On the 7th August Captain Sullivan (HMS ‘Harrier’), senior naval officer in New Zealand, took the vessel on a reconnaissance up the river, and near Meremere she became a target for Maori bullets for the first time. A volley from some Maoris under cover on the river-bank was replied to with the 12-pounder Armstrong. On several occasions later in the campaign the ‘Avon’ was under fire. This little pioneer of steam traffic on the Waikato proved an exceedingly useful vessel. When the army reached the Waipa Plains she carried stores up as far as Te Rore, on the Waipu; it was near there that Lieutenant Mitchell, RN, of HMS ‘Esk’, was killed on board her (February, 1864) by a volley from the east bank of the river. …

… Mr. George Ellis, of Auckland, who was engineer of the ‘Avon’, says: “Lieutenant Mitchell’s death occurred in this way: We carried out rather dangerous work in the later stages of the war when running up and down the Waipa River. Sometimes we took shots at anything that offered on the banks, and even landed to go pig-hunting. One very warm summer day, when steaming up the Waipa near Whatawhata, Mr. Mitchell remarked that it was too hot to remain in the iron wheel-house and that he would go outside; he declared that he would not be shot that day. He walked out on to the open part of the bridge-deck, and Lieutenant Easther (in command) and Midshipman Foljambe (father of the present Lord Liverpool) followed him. They had not been long there before a sudden volley was fired from the scrub-covered bank of the river—the east or proper right bank. The three officers were close together, with Mr. Mitchell in the middle, and, curiously, it was only the man in the middle who was hit. The volley was fired at an oblique angle. Mr. Mitchell was shot right through the breast, and died next day. We never saw a Maori, so thick was the cover on the bank.”

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‘Avon’ displaced 43 tons, was nearly 18 metres in length, and mounted a single 12-pounder Armstrong breech-loading gun on her bow. Her shallow draft of just one metre made her ideal for river operations. Besides the metal plate armour, a wooden shed-like structure with loop-holes was later built on the aft deck to provide cover for troops.

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She even had her own rudimentary self-defence system: pipes were fixed in connection with the boiler, so that a stream or jet of scalding water could be thrown upon any party attempting to board.

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I’m not how, or if I’ll ever use her in a wargame. But it has been an interesting little project to bring to life a little-known piece of New Zealand maritime and military  history.

28mm paddle gun-boat for colonial New Zealand Wars

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My project to make a model of Her Majesty’s Colonial Ship ‘Avon’, one of New Zealand’s earliest steam-powered warships, is well under way.

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As mentioned in my previous posting, the basis for this model is a Chinese plastic toy, which has given me the hull, paddle wheels and parts of the superstucture.

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I cut the hull along the waterline, and constructed a new bridge with an armoured steering position between the paddle-boxes. I also added the iron panels along the forward deck that the real ‘Avon’ carried during the 1860s campaign along the Waikato and Waipa Rivers.

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Still to come is a Armstrong gun and the steering wheel, both being 3D-printed for me by Printable Scenery. I also plan to build the large loop-holed wooden deckhouse for the aft deck, as depicted by the late Harry Duncan in Middlemiss’s book The Waikato River Gunboats.

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That leaves one remaining problem – what figures to use to crew ‘Avon’? It would be good to have a sailor at the wheel, an officer on the bridge, and maybe a sailor or two on the deck. Anyone know of some good 25-28mm Victorian-era ship’s crew models?

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Converting a toy paddle-steamer into a colonial gunboat

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The maritime element of colonial wargaming normally brings to mind armed steamers on the Nile. But people often forget that gunboats were also used in many other theatres during the 19th century.

My own interest is the colonial New Zealand Wars, which included the use of  a flotilla of converted and purpose-built ironclad gunboats to support the invasion of the Waikato in 1863. A couple of years ago I posted a review of a book about this riverine aspect of the New Zealand Wars. However, until recently, I had never tried adding a river steamer to my army.

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A few weeks ago I stumbled across a plastic kitset of a paddle-driven steam tug on Ali Express. Whilst 1/150 scale is too small for 28mm wargaming, I thought this toy could possibly be converted into a smaller paddle-steamer in a larger scale.

And at only US$22 – which even included free shipping to New Zealand! – it wouldn’t be a big loss if my project didn’t work out.

I’ve now received the model, and think it will indeed work to be converted into the armed paddle steamer HMCS Avon, as depicted in the foreground of Andrew Burdan’s painting on the cover of Grant Middlemiss’s The Waikato River Gunboats.

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According the the New Zealand Navy Museum, the Avon was arguably the first naval vessel purchased by the New Zealand Government. Originally constructed in Glasgow as the Clyde, she was subsequently shipped to New Zealand in pieces and re-assembled at Port Lyttelton.

She was purchased by the Colonial Government in November 1862, and in early 1863 was modified for service at Onehunga. The modifications involved the installation of iron plates, each six feet long by three feet wide and ¼ inch thick, along the bulwarks and down to the water line.

She displaced 43 tons, was nearly 18 metres in length, and mounted a single 12-pounder Armstrong breech-loading gun on her bow. Her shallow draft of just one metre made her ideal for river operations.

Avon even had her own rudimentary self-defence system: pipes were fixed in connection with the boiler, so that a stream or jet of scalding water could be thrown upon any party attempting to board.

In 1864 she was re-deployed on the Waipa River with reduced iron armour, as depicted in the drawing below by the late Harry Duncan for Grant Middlemiss’s book..

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To convert the toy into Avon, I plan to ignore the window stickers, so the current wheelhouse and cabin will look more like the top of the boiler housing.

I’ll add a bridge to link the two paddle-boxes, and scratch-build the double sentry-box armoured wheelhouse. The funnel will need to be taller, too – not a hard job to find something that’ll suit.

I’ll then add armoured plates along the bulwarks (and if I choose to make the later version of Avon, will build a wooden deck-house at the stern).

The hardest job will be to turn it into a waterline model – I’ll have to use a jigsaw to carefully cut round the hull, and then also trim the bottom of the paddle-wheels and rudder.

I’ll also need to find a model of an Armstrong gun of the period, mounted on a two-wheel naval truck. Any suggestions?

I’ll keep you posted on how this project goes.

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A really tough job getting my basing material

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This New Year it was time to replenish my stock of sand for my figure basing. I use a very specific type of sand that comes from a particular beach in New Zealand. So I drove the 600 kilometres to Cathedral Cove on the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula, where I grabbed a couple of handfuls of sand to take home.

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Well, to tell the truth it was actually our family holiday. But, hey, let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story!

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Why Cathedral Cove sand? Well, it has a unique blend of grainy sand, crushed pink and white shells, and contains minuscule remnants of scarlet pohutukawa blossoms. This combination makes a perfect ground texture and colour that doesn’t need any painting or dry-brushing.

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Just apply it with PVA glue, then once dry, add some patches of static grass, tufts or miniature plants. Simple!

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The hardest part is making sure I always have sufficient stock of this very special sand – it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it!

Happy New Year everybody!

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