Must rogues fall? On the mathematics of monuments. Part 4: multiplication

In the conclusion to this series of posts adapted from a paper for the 2019 New Zealand Art Crime Symposium, I discuss diversification of the symbolic landscape, or multiplication.

x x x x Multiplication x x x x

Debates over monuments tend to focus on individual statues or memorials, but this focus misses a larger picture. Taken together, memorials and other symbols in public space (such as names of streets and buildings) convey messages about collective identity, even if they aren’t noticed consciously. They often reflect power imbalances, with some groups having a more prominent place than others in how a community is imagined. In New Zealand and other former British settler colonies, statues in public places are overwhelmingly of straight, white, wealthy men.[1] Memorials disproportionately represent history as seen through the eyes of such men. This is changing, but not fast enough.

Instead of focusing on the possible removal of existing monuments, we could think about diversifying the symbolic landscape. The strategy of ‘multiplication’ involves creating new works of public art that tell different stories and represent different historical experiences from those represented by older memorials. Of course, public art has a cost, one which ratepayers, taxpayers or private sponsors may be reluctant to bear. However, if done well, new commemorative artworks can not only make public spaces more representative of the community but also make those spaces more attractive and interesting for residents and visitors.

Below are some Canadian examples of diversification of memorials (Algonquin chief Tessouat, Gatineau, Quebec; ‘Famous Five’ women’s rights activists, Winnipeg, Manitoba; Daurene Lewis, first black female mayor in Canada, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia).

One objection to this approach is that traditional memorials, and particularly statues, have had their day.[2] But even if we accept this view, new commemorative works need not be bronze or stone monuments. They can take new forms that may be playful, provocative, performative, interactive, educational or ephemeral.[3]

Overseas, some of the most interesting challenges to the current symbolic landscape have come from artists whose work is often temporary and responds directly to existing memorials, straddling my categories of ‘addition’ and ‘multiplication’. The Monument Lab project in Philadelphia, USA, is an example of such counter-monuments or anti-monuments. Monument Lab artworks erected in 2017 included Karyn Olivier’s ‘The Battle is Joined’, which encased a Revolutionary War memorial in a mirrored acrylic structure, and ‘All Power to All People’ by Hank Willis Thomas, a giant Afro comb with a clenched fist on the handle, which was placed near a statue of a controversial former Philadelphia mayor.

There is still room, too, for more lasting artworks commemorating historical experiences that have previously been absent from public space. These may depart from memorial traditions largely inherited from nineteenth-century Europe. In Aotearoa New Zealand, we are now seeing more commemorative projects initiated by Māori and employing Māori iconography, particularly carved wooden pou.

2017-12-30 04.26.32
Te Tarata memorial, near Ōpōtiki
Waerenga a Hika memorial, Gisborne

One possible concern about the multiplication strategy is that it could challenge some forms of under-representation while perpetuating others. For example, creating new memorials to address the dominance of Pākehā history in public space might still reinforce the tradition of focusing on ‘great men’.

Another potential problem is that creating new memorials might fail to effectively challenge dominant views of history. Instead, it could leave different groups living in parallel historical universes, with incompatible or even competing forms of public memory represented by multiple memorials.[4] We might call this the ‘tomayto/tomahto’ scenario, in which we call off the whole messy business of trying to understand each other’s perspectives on history, or of looking for common ground on which to build a shared future.

= = = = Equal to | Not equal to ≠ ≠ ≠ ≠

There’s also an argument that symbolic recognition through the creation of new monuments is mere tokenism, a distraction from calls for genuine redistribution of wealth and power. A similar argument can be made in relation to calls for the removal of existing monuments: that focusing on the symbolic diverts attention from real, material problems.[5] It’s easier to tear down a monument than to dismantle structural racism; simpler to build new memorials than to construct a fairer society.

As someone who studies symbols and memorials, I admit to being troubled by this argument. I believe that symbols have power, that they play a role in shaping our understanding of the world, and therefore that changing symbols can play some part in building a more equal world. I also think that debates about memorials can provide opportunities to rethink and challenge dominant views of history, and make room for other perspectives. But I can’t help wondering whether, by focusing on what to do with tired old statues of dead white men, we invest them with too much power. Perhaps, sometimes, the best thing we can do is to ignore them, to leave them cloaked in invisibility, their heads a target for pigeons, the foundations on which they stand a convenient platform on which to sit and eat our lunches.

It should be clear by now that I don’t think there’s any one-size-fits-all approach to solving the problem of contentious memorials. All approaches have their advantages and drawbacks – or, perhaps I should say, their pluses and minuses. The status quo can entrench division, leaving some parts of the community feeling aggrieved and excluded by existing monuments. Subtraction, or removal, may be appropriate for monuments that are particularly objectionable, but risks sanitising the past rather than engaging with it. Addition, providing new information or interpretation, can contextualise or challenge memorials. But the reinterpretation can itself be subject to ongoing debate and revision, and may be inadequate to challenge a monument’s original message. Finally, multiplication can help to diversify the symbolic landscape, but can have a significant financial cost. In some cases it could also entrench, rather than bridge, division over how we view the past.

Each debate about historical monuments has to be considered in its own context and based on its own characteristics. Each one is, to remain with the language of mathematics, a unique equation with a particular set of variables. But my talk of mathematics may be misleading, because we can’t reduce the messiness and contradictions of history and human relationships to a mathematical formula. These debates are about history and heritage, but also about power, prejudice and perspective.

I don’t have the answers, but I’ve tried to provide a framework for thinking about whether rogues must fall, and to offer some alternatives to iconoclasm that may get us closer to balancing the equation.

[1] See, for example, the discussion of New Zealand statues in Megan Whelan, ‘Mrs Sheppard and Mr Seddon’, in Bronwyn Labrum (ed.), Women Now: The Legacy of Female Suffrage, Wellington, Te Papa Press, 2018, pp. 139-152. Strictly speaking, I should qualify ‘straight’ by saying the statues are of men who were apparently straight in terms of their public personas, regardless of the realities of their private lives. The point remains, however, that there are few memorials to people who openly departed from prevailing social norms of gender and sexuality.

[2] See, for example, Jonathan Jones, ‘Feminism Doesn’t Need More Female Statues – it Needs Political Action’, Guardian, 27 March 2017,

[3] See, for example, Sue-Anne Ware, ‘Anti-Memorials and the Art of Forgetting: Critical Reflections on a Memorial Design Practice’, Public History Review, vol. 15, 2008, pp. 61-76; Catherine De Lorenzo and Vivien Chow, ‘Contained Memories or Catalysts? Some Aboriginal Memorials in Australia’, Memory Connection, vol. 1, no. 1, 2011, pp. 452-74; Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2010, pp. 356-76.

[4] This danger has been identified in the contemporary South of the United States: David Goldfield, Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History, Baton Rouge, LSU Press, 2002, p. 305; Dell Upton, What Can and Can’t be Said: Race, Uplift and Monument Building in the Contemporary South, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2015.

[5] Anne C. Bailey, ‘Tearing Down Confederate Statues Leaves Structural Racism Intact’, The Conversation, 24 August 2018,

Must rogues fall? On the mathematics of monuments. Part 3: addition

Having considered the capacity of monuments to create division, and the strategy of subtraction (or removal), in this post I turn to addition.

+ + + + Addition + + + +

Moving a memorial to a museum can be one way of reinterpreting and recontextualising it, but something similar can also be done while the memorial remains in place. This is the strategy I’ll call ‘addition’: adding to the existing text and imagery to incorporate changed perspectives or new historical scholarship.

Graffiti and other types of vandalism (such as painting a statue, placing objects on its head, or lopping off body parts) can be unofficial forms of addition. Although it’s a kind of iconoclasm aimed at subverting a monument rhetorically, and therefore somewhat akin to efforts to remove the monument physically, graffiti is also a commentary on the messages the monument conveys.

March 2010 222
Portion of the Abel Tasman memorial, Golden Bay, with amendment, 2010

In a speech in 2018, following the painting of anti-racist slogans on a statue of Captain Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park, public historian Lisa Murray asked the provocative question: should the graffiti have been removed, or should they be considered to form part of the changing meaning of the statue?[1] Leaving graffiti in place, however, could simply encourage tit-for-tat vandalism. It’s worth remembering that white supremacists also deface monuments, and that there have been attacks on Māori carvings in New Zealand and on indigenous memorials in Australia.

A more official form of addition is the placing of a new plaque or inscription on an existing memorial. In 1994, for example, a new plaque was added to the so-called ‘Explorers’ Monument’ in Fremantle, Western Australia, acknowledging that the original plaque portrayed frontier violence from a white settler viewpoint.[2]

‘Explorers’ monument’, Fremantle, Western Australia


An alternative to a new plaque on the memorial itself is to place information boards nearby, providing additional information and perspectives on the history of the memorial and of the person or event it commemorates. Digital technologies also allow us to add new layers of interpretation without destroying the old ones: websites and apps make it easy to ensure information about memorials and the events they commemorate is accessible and up to date.[3]

An issue with the additive approach to contentious monuments is that any new interpretation will itself be only one point of view. Like the original memorial, it will be a product of its time, and can be subject to debate and revision. New Zealand journalist Tim Watkin, though supportive of historical re-evalution, asks, ‘where does it stop? Does each generation add a plaque as our views of history twist and turn?’[4] Even if a new plaque itself becomes outdated in time, however, it may be enough to signal that there’s more than one perspective on history. And information boards or digital interpretation can be replaced and updated more easily than plaques on the memorial itself.

A more significant challenge can be reaching consensus about the wording of any new plaque or sign. Debates about proposed new wording can sometimes drag on for years, and may simply provide a new focus for disagreements about history and public memory.[5]

Another concern is that new information and interpretation may be insufficient to overcome the impact of the original memorial. This is particularly true if the monument is a dominating presence in the landscape and if its design and symbolism convey a powerful message (perhaps in conjunction with other, similar memorials). In such cases, a new plaque or sign that requires viewers to come close to the memorial and take the time to read the additional information may be inadequate.

[1] Andrew Taylor, ‘Historian Questions Whether Graffiti Should Have Been Left on Captain Cook Statue’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 April 2018, A video of Lisa Murray’s Jim Kerr Address, ‘Monuments and Memories: Reassessing Colonial Imperialism’, 18 April 2018, can be seen at

[2] Bruce Scates, ‘Monumental Errors: How Australia Can Fix its Racist Colonial Statues’, The Conversation, 28 August 2017,; Vanessa Mills and Ben Collins, ‘The Controversial Statue that was Added to, not Town Down or Vandalised’, ABC News, 29 August 2017,; Stephen Gilchrist, ‘Surfacing Histories: Memorials and Public Art in Perth’, Artlink, issue 38:2, June 2018, pp. 42-47.

[3] See, for example, Hannah Natanson, ‘There’s a New Way to Deal with Confederate Monuments: Signs that Explain their Racist History’, Washington Post, 22 September 2019,

[4] Tim Watkin, ‘Slater Slams History. At Least the Discussion of it’, Pundit blog, 3 April 2016,

[5] For example, attempts to create new plaques for the memorial to slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England, and to controversial eighteenth-century politician Henry Dundas in Edinburgh, Scotland, have become bogged down in disputes about wording and interpretations of history: Tristan Cork, ‘Plaque Rewrite as Row Goes On Over Wording for Colston Statue’, Bristol Post, 26 March 2019,; Bill Caven, ‘Historians Clash in War of Words Over Memorial to Dundas and Slavery Past’, Scottish Daily Mail, 28 October 2019,

Must rogues fall? On the mathematics of monuments. Part 2: subtraction

Continuing with my discussion of controversial memorials, adapted from a paper given at the New Zealand Art Crime Symposium 2019, in this post I look at the strategy of ‘subtraction’.

Space previously occupied by statue of Edward Cornwallis, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada (statue removed 2018)

– – – – Subtraction – – – –

One response to contentious monuments, which I’ll label ‘subtraction’, seeks their removal from public places. The case for removing memorials rests on the belief that they either celebrate or are silent about past oppression, and thus perpetuate injustice in the present.

Demands for the removal of monuments are often met with talk of cultural vandalism and comparisons with the iconoclasm of the Taliban or Islamic State. In 2017, then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described proposals to remove or change colonial memorials as ‘Stalinist’.[1] There’s some irony in Turnbull’s statement: many people around the world cheered when statues of Stalin and other Soviet figures were toppled in Eastern Europe after 1989, recognising that those statues represented a political system that had trampled on basic human rights.

Few people, I suspect, would argue for the retention of all monuments, no matter how abhorrent the individuals or causes they commemorate. Who would feel comfortable with seeing Nazi monuments in modern Germany, for example? The real issue is where we draw the line.

How should we decide whether a particular monument meets the threshold for removal? There are a number of questions that can be helpful in making this decision:

  • If the memorial is to an individual, was that person responsible for crimes against humanity or gross violations of human rights, such as genocide, slavery or torture?
  • What was the original purpose and context for the creation of the memorial? Most Confederate memorials in public places in the Southern United States, for example, were not erected in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War as symbols of mourning for the war dead. They were constructed in the twentieth century, during the era of segregation, as symbols of white supremacy.[2]
  • Are the inscriptions on the memorial offensive, or does the monument depict members of particular groups in a derogatory or demeaning manner?
  • Is the location of the memorial problematic? For example, is it on land of particular significance to indigenous people, or will its proximity to an important public building such as a courthouse have a chilling effect on access for people who feel alienated by its presence?
  • Does the monument dominate the landscape around it?
  • Has the memorial become a rallying point for groups with hateful ideologies?

This can never be a simple tick-box exercise – it’s not a case of ‘three strikes and you’re out’. Sometimes one factor alone might be enough to warrant a monument’s removal, while in other cases the argument for removal might rest on a combination of factors. In many cases, the best option may be to leave the memorial in place and employ a different strategy for responding to it.

The answers to the questions I’ve posed may not be straightforward. There will usually be differences of historical and artistic interpretation, and divergent perspectives on the memorial’s meaning and impact – the very differences that give rise to division over monuments in the first place. The answers to these questions may also change over time, as interpretations change or new information comes to light. But working through questions like those I’ve proposed may at least help to focus discussion about a memorial’s future.

In most cases, I don’t favour the destruction or removal of historical monuments, even though they represent objectionable individuals or attitudes. These monuments aren’t neutral records of history, but they do provide important evidence about the views of those who created them. As a historian, I’m reluctant to destroy evidence, and cautious about removing it from its original context. There’s also a danger of sanitising the past by removing structures that document attitudes, once widely held, that created unjust policies and practices.

Complete destruction or removal from public view aren’t the only options for contentious monuments. Sometimes a memorial that’s controversial in one location is less so in another. For example, a statue of Queen Victoria that was the focus of much criticism when it stood outside the Irish Parliament building in Dublin was relocated in 1987 to Sydney, Australia, where it sits outside a shopping centre and barely gets a second glance.[3]

Removal of Queen Victoria statue from outside Leinster House, Dublin (from
Queen Vic 2
Queen Victoria statue outside the Queen Victoria Building, Sydney, Australia. Photo by Jamie Williams for City of Sydney,

Another strategy, employed particularly in parts of Eastern Europe, is to move memorials that represent past attitudes and regimes to a single, open-air location – sometimes referred to as a statue graveyard – where they may be ignored or, perversely, become tourist attractions.[4]

Head of statue of Lenin, Citadel Museum, Berlin, 2017

A popular suggestion for controversial memorials is that they should be moved to museums. This can be a good solution in some cases. Displayed in a museum, a memorial can be contextualised with interpretive information and by juxtaposition with other objects that tell contrasting stories. The memorial will also still be available to researchers who are interested in it from a historical or artistic perspective. But is it really fair to ask museums to become the dumping grounds for what are often large, heavy objects? Does placing offensive monuments in a museum necessarily neutralise their negative impacts? At a time when museums are trying to become more welcoming to groups that have felt excluded from these institutions, what will be the effect of giving space to imposing statues of white men?[5]

[1] Katharine Murphy, ‘Changing Colonial Statues is Stalinist, says Malcolm Turnbull’, Guardian, 25 August 2017,

[2] Southern Poverty Law Centre, Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy, updated 1 February 2019,

[3] Yvonne Whelan, Reinventing Modern Dublin: Streetscape, Iconography and the Politics of Identity, Dublin, University of Dublin Press, 2003, pp. 195-201.

[4] Jordan Brasher and Derek H. Alderman, ‘A Confederate Statue Graveyard Could Help Bury the Old South’, 26 July 2019, The Conversation,

[5] Janeen Bryant, Benjamin Filene, Louis Nelson, Jennifer Scott, and Suzanne Seriff, ‘Are Museums the Rightful Homes for Confederate Monuments?’, Centre for the Future of Museums Blog, 3 April 2018,

Must rogues fall? On the mathematics of monuments. Part 1: division

I’ve previously published a couple of short blog posts – on Pundit and Bay Heritage Blog – about strategies for dealing with controversial memorials, using the terminology of arithmetic. In October 2019, I fleshed these previous pieces out into a paper for the New Zealand Art Crime Symposium in Wellington, which had the theme ‘Iconoclasts, Vandals, and Artists’. This post and the ones to follow are adapted from that paper. I begin by looking at division.

Monuments, it seems, are having a moment. In the 1920s, the Austrian writer Robert Musil famously observed that ‘There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument’. Statues and memorials, Musil wrote, form an unnoticed backdrop as people go about their daily lives.[1] Yet, for the past few years, certain monuments have been anything but invisible in a number of countries that are grappling with the legacies of colonialism and historical injustice. Instead, they have become the focus of debate about what should be done with memorials to contentious individuals or events.

We seem to be in a time of iconoclasm: purposeful attacks on images – in this case, memorials – because of the beliefs, attitudes and power structures they are seen to represent.[2] Although recent debates have often involved campaigns for the orderly removal of monuments by the relevant authorities, rather than spontaneous and unofficial attempts at destruction, the iconoclastic impulse is still present.

There’s nothing new about controversies over memorials. Around the world, monuments have often been targeted during times of political turmoil, particularly after changes of regime. But the recent period of international focus on memorials seen as representing colonialism, racism and white supremacy began in 2015. In Cape Town, South Africa, the Rhodes Must Fall movement demanded the removal of a statue of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes,[3] while in the United States killings of African-Americans by police and white supremacists sparked growing calls for the removal of Confederate memorials.[4] In Britain, too, monuments to imperialists and slave-traders have come under fire,[5] as have those to individuals involved in the dispossession of indigenous peoples in Australia and Canada.[6]


Statue of slave-trader Edward Colston with face painted white, Bristol, England, 2017

Aotearoa New Zealand has had its own contested memorials.[7] Over the past few years, statues of James Cook in Gisborne have been vandalised. There’s also been a petition to remove the memorial in Ōtāhuhu to Colonel Marmaduke Nixon because of his role in one of the most notorious incidents in the Waikato War, the attack on Rangiaowhia in 1864.

Treaty Times, February 1995

A number of colonial monuments were vandalised in the 1990s, when Māori were protesting against the inadequacy of Government redress for historical Treaty of Waitangi claims. One casualty during that earlier period was the statue of Premier John Ballance in Pākaitore/Moutoa Gardens, Whanganui, which was initially beheaded (and the head replaced by a pumpkin), then destroyed completely.[8]

Ballance statue 1995 image from ATL
Kia Kingi practising flax plaiting beneath the damaged statue of John Ballance in Pākaitore/Moutoa Gardens, Whanganui, photographed on 18 March 1995 by Evening Post staff photographer Phil Reid. EP/1995/0789/15a-F, Dominion Post collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

Debates about historical monuments raise complex issues about how we should relate to the past and to its legacies in the present. But for all their complexity, these disputes and the possible responses to them can be considered using the language of basic arithmetic: subtraction, addition, multiplication and division.

÷ ÷ ÷ ÷ Division ÷ ÷ ÷ ÷

Unlike the other three terms I’ll discuss – subtraction, addition and multiplication – ‘division’ is not a strategy for responding to controversies over monuments. Instead, it describes the situation in which a particular monument has become contentious, dividing opinion within the community. To understand why memorials can be divisive, we need to consider their social function.

Like other symbols, memorials are erected to represent and construct the identity of a community – whether that community is a school, a town or a nation. Historical monuments signal the events and personalities that are, at least officially, considered important in the history of that community. Statues of the ‘great men’ of ‘our’ past are intended to draw our attention to our common membership, with them and with each other, of a particular community. But ideas about history, identity and belonging are always contested and evolving.

When historical monuments come under attack, their critics are sometimes accused of stirring up division. The assumption underlying such accusations is often that existing monuments simply record what happened in the past, and ‘You can’t change history’. But the status quo is not neutral. Historical monuments represent particular views of a community’s past and present: who is important and who gets ignored; who were the aggressors and who the victims. More often than not, they represent the perspectives of those who are (or were) politically and socially powerful, and ignore other perspectives. Divisiveness is built into the landscape, and it’s this inbuilt bias the critics are reacting to.

[1] ‘Monuments’, in Robert Musil, Flypaper, transl. Peter Wortsman, London, Penguin, 2011, pp. 19-24 (quote at p. 19).

[2] On iconoclasm see, for example, Tabitha Barber and Stacy Boldrick (eds), Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, London, Tate Publishing, 2013.

[3] For one perspective on Rhodes Must Fall, see Saul Dubow, ‘Rhodes Must Fall, Brexit, and Circuits of Knowledge’, in Stuart Ward and Astrid Rasch (eds), Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, pp. 111-120. On memorials in South Africa more generally, see Sabine Marschall, Landscape of Memory: Commemorative Monuments, Memorials and Public Statuary in Post-apartheid South Africa, Leiden, Brill, 2009; Martin J. Murray, Commemorating and Forgetting: Challenges for the New South Africa, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2013; Runette Kruger, ‘Ruptures and Continuities in the Post-apartheid Political and Cultural Landscape: A Reading of South African Monument Culture’, in Laura A. Macaluso (ed.), Monument Culture: International Perspectives on the Future of Monuments in a Changing World, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019, pp. 85-97.

[4] See, for example, David B. Allison (ed.), Controversial Monuments and Memorials: A Guide for Community Leaders, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2018.

[5] For example, the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, discussed in Olivette Otele, ‘The Guerilla Arts in Brexit Bristol’, in Stuart Ward and Astrid Rasch (eds), Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, pp. 133-141.

[6] For Australia, see Paul Daley, ‘Heroes, Monuments and History’, Meanjin, vol. 77, no. 1, Autumn 2018, pp. 86-97. For some recent Canadian debates, see Trina Roache, ‘History Decolonized: A Closer Look at Edward Cornwallis and Why His Statue Toppled’, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network News, 16 February 2018,; Nancy Janovicek, ‘What’s in a Monument? Part II: The Edward Cornwallis Monument and Reconciliation’, Active History blog, 14 August 2018,; Murad Hemmadi, ‘What Fights About “Erasing” History Are Really About’, Maclean’s, 18 August 2018,

[7] For recent examples, see Paul Little, ‘Monumental Blunders: Should New Zealand Get Rid of its Controversial Statues?’, North and South, November 2017, pp. 58-65. For some older examples, see Jock Phillips, To the Memory: New Zealand’s War Memorials, Nelson, Potton & Burton, 2016, pp. 50-52; Mark Stocker, ‘“Director of the Canoe”: The Auckland Statue of Sir George Grey’, Melbourne Art Journal,  vol. 11-12, 2009, pp. 57-58; Paulette Wallace, ‘A Fraction Too Much Friction: Heritage Dissonance and the Whitely Memorial’, Te Ara – The Journal of Museums Aotearoa, vol. 33, 2009, pp. 18-22.

[8] On the Ballance statue, see Ewan Morris, ‘Men Alone in Bronze and Stone: A Tale of Two Statues’, Journal of New Zealand Studies, n.s. vol. 13, 2012, pp. 62-76.

Don’t be an Egmont!

2019-10-26 04.54.52

At 5 AM saw for a few Minutes the Top of the peaked Mountain above the Clowds, bearing NE; It is of a prodigious height and its top is cover’d with everlasting snow. … I have named it Mount Egmont in honour of the Earl of Egmont — This mountain seems to have a pretty large base and to rise with a gradual assent to the peak and what makes it more conspicuous is, its being situated near the Sea, and a flat Country in its neighbourhood which afforded a very good asspect — — being cloathed with Wood and Verdure.

James Cook’s journal, 13 January 1770

It’s 250 years since Lieutenant James Cook, captain of HMS Endeavour, saw and renamed the mountain that Māori knew as Taranaki. Cook named it Mount Egmont after John Perceval, the second Earl of Egmont and First Lord of the Admiralty. Cook never set foot in the Taranaki region, but he was impressed by the mountain, which he likened to Tenerife (one of the Canary Islands) and which the Endeavour‘s botanist Joseph Banks described in his journal as ‘certainly the noblest hill I have ever seen’.

Taranaki was just one of many places given a new name by Cook as he sailed around Aotearoa New Zealand — and plenty of other places were named after Cook during the subsequent colonisation of the country.

Statue of Captain Cook in Marton, New Zealand, which is named after Cook’s birthplace in England.

250 years later, the name Mount Egmont will finally be disappearing from maps as the result of an agreement between the iwi of Taranaki and the Crown. The agreement will see the mountain given legal personality (in the same way as has recently been done for the Whanganui River and Te Urewera) and managed by a joint iwi-Crown governance entity. It will also result in recognition of Taranaki Maunga (mountain) as the landmark’s sole name. This agreement is the culmination of a long campaign by Taranaki Māori for recognition of the mountain’s original name.

Taranaki Maunga (or Mounga, as it’s often spelled in the Taranaki dialect of Māori) is enormously significant to all the eight iwi of Taranaki. (For any non-New Zealand readers, I should explain that Taranaki is the name of the mountain, but also of the region that surrounds it, and of one of the local iwi or tribes of the region.) Māori from Taranaki view Taranaki Maunga as an ancestor, and their identity is inseparable from the maunga.

Restoration of the mountain’s Māori name had some Pākehā supporters in the first part of the twentieth century. In 1938, the mayor of Hāwera, J.E. Campbell, told a meeting of the Aotea Māori Association that the mountain’s name was ‘a disaster’ and that ‘the old name of Taranaki’ should be substituted for Egmont ahead of New Zealand’s centennial in 1940. This view was supported by the Rev. P. Moki of New Plymouth, who said ‘Taranaki always had been and will be the name for the mountain recognised by the Maori race throughout the Dominion.’

Māori began calling publicly for the name Taranaki to be restored to the mountain in the 1970s, but it was in the 1980s that the issue really came to a head. In 1985, the Taranaki Māori Trust Board submitted a proposal for the maunga to be officially named Taranaki to the New Zealand Geographic Board, the body responsible for assigning official place names. The Geographic Board decided that the mountain’s official name should be ‘Mount Taranaki’, with ‘Egmont’ continued as a secondary name in brackets. There was then a three-month period during which objections to the Board’s decision could be lodged.

The release of the Geographic Board’s decision provoked a furious debate, the intensity of which is hard to believe some 35 years later. There were numerous letters to the editor, particularly in Taranaki newspapers, petitions were organised, and many official and voluntary organisations in Taranaki took a position on the matter. Essentially, the debate pitted a large number of Pākehā who objected vehemently to the Geographic Board’s decision against Māori and more liberal Pākehā who supported it. (Justin Gregory has produced a very good piece for Radio New Zealand looking back at the debate — you can read or listen to it here.)

Ultimately, the Minister of Lands Koro Wetere accepted a revised recommendation from the Geographic Board in 1986, that the mountain’s official name should become ‘Mount Taranaki or Mount Egmont’, thereby recognising both names and allowing people to choose for themselves which they wanted to use. That remains the situation to this day, although in practice it’s clear that use of ‘Mount Egmont’ has declined dramatically, and it seems likely that few will miss the name Egmont when it finally disappears.

The rapid decline in usage of Egmont in the space of a few decades is all the more remarkable given that in the 1980s many Pākehā seemed to feel that the proposal to restore the name Taranaki posed an existential threat to their very identity. It’s not surprising that Pākehā residents of Taranaki should identify strongly with the mountain — anyone who’s been to Taranaki knows how dominant the mountain is in the landscape (at least, on the days when it’s not covered in clouds). Pākehā identification, not simply with the mountain but with the name Egmont had also been reinforced by the extensive use of the mountain’s image and its English name in commercial and organisational branding. As Ian Wedde writes, this was:

a culture for which ‘Mount Egmont’ would soon become an ideal, a symbol of individuality, even of nationhood, appearing on the wrappers of butter, cheese, knitwear, and other products of the region, as well as in a great deal of art.

At the time of writing, this iconography is being explored by the artist Fiona Clark in an exhibition at Wellington’s Adam Art Gallery entitled ‘Egmontiana’ (images are currently available on the Gallery’s website, though presumably only for the duration of the show).

The willingness of Pākehā to use the mountain’s name and image in a commercial context shows how different Pākehā identification with the mountain was from the spiritual connection of Māori. Nonetheless, the meaning of the mountain and its name to Pākehā is worth further exploration. For some time I’ve been struggling with an article I’ve been trying to write about the Taranaki/Egmont name debate of the 1980s. What I’ve written so far is too long and too unfocused, but I’m starting to think that Pākehā identity and identification with place could provide a useful focus for the article.

But what, you may ask, of the Earls of Egmont, whose name the mountain currently still bears? In 1985, when the naming debate was raging, a couple of newspapers sought comment from the eleventh earl, who turned out to be a 71-year-old called Frederick Perceval living on a ranch in Alberta, Canada. The Earl was too deaf to speak on the phone, but his wife told reporters that she and her husband objected strongly to the proposal to replace the name Egmont: ‘You don’t go changing generations of tradition’. The Earl had never visited New Zealand, she said, but people from around the world had sent him postcards of the mountain. ‘Asked if the earl had an ambition to see Mt Egmont, she said he had always wanted to go to Africa.’

The earldom became extinct in 2011, on the death of the twelfth earl, who left no successors.


Auckland Star, 9 December 1938, p. 4.

Sunday News, 11 August 1985.

Taranaki Herald, 14 August 1985.

Ian Wedde, ‘Translation and Representation: A History of Ferries’, in Ian Wedde and Gregory Burke (eds), Now See Hear! Art, Language and Translation, Wellington, Victoria University Press for the Wellington City Art Gallery, 1990, pp. 95-102.