Today is the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Boulcott’s Farm, which took place in what is now the city of Lower Hutt, where I live. Yesterday’s Dominion Post reported that the Deputy Mayor of Lower Hutt, Tui Lewis, is working to address the one-sided nature of the memorial to the battle that stands in a prominent position on the corner of High Street and Military Road, near Hutt Hospital. The memorial commemorates ten members of British and colonial forces whose deaths were associated with the battle, and describes the Māori attack on the British outpost at Boulcott’s Farm solely from a Pākehā perspective.
The news article, written by journalist and historian Nicholas Boyack, begins with the comment: ‘If someone does a PhD on war memorials and civic racism, the stone commemorating the Battle of Boulcott’s Farm would make a great case study.’ I can’t claim to have done a PhD on the subject, but I have written about the changing ways in which Boulcott’s Farm has been commemorated and mythologised by Pākehā, and how those stories have started to come under challenge in more recent decades.
The battle was part of a wider conflict in Te Awakairangi, the Hutt Valley, which subsequently spilled over into the Porirua area. The cause of the fighting was conflict over land, arising from the flawed New Zealand Company ‘purchase’ of the Wellington area and the Crown’s confirmation of the Company’s claims at the expense of Māori rights (for more detail, see the Waitangi Tribunal’s report on the Wellington region).
On 16 May 1846, a large Māori taua (war party) attacked the British military garrison at Boulcott’s Farm. After several hours of fighting, the taua withdrew, leaving several British soldiers dead. It is unclear how many Māori, if any, died in the fighting.
This relatively minor skirmish came to loom large in Pākehā public memory, largely through the repetition of one particular story: that of Private William Allen, more commonly known as Bugler Allen. Allen supposedly blew a warning blast on his bugle to alert the garrison to the attack, and continued sounding the alarm even as he was being killed by a member of the taua.
This story first appears very soon after the battle, and has been repeated up to the present day. It’s impossible to know if there is any truth in it, although it’s notable that it doesn’t appear in the official report on the skirmish from the British officer in command. Throughout its many retellings, the consistent themes in the story are Allen’s youth, bravery and self-sacrifice. Although Allen was actually a 21-year-old, he is portrayed in the stories as a boy, perhaps as young as 12. This misrepresentation of Allen’s age heightens the contrast with his attackers, who are depicted looming over him as he gallantly plays on.
The story of Bugler Allen reinforced two common themes from the popular literature of British imperialism. On the one hand, the willingness of Britons to ‘do their duty’ by sacrificing themselves for the greater good; on the other, the ‘savagery’ of indigenous peoples, who are depicted as an undifferentiated mass, with no motivation beyond anger and vengeance.
This cultural context explains the popularity of the Bugler Allen story and the way in which it elevated the significance of Boulcott’s Farm. But the Boulcott’s Farm monument also had more local origins. By the 1920s, Lower Hutt was developing rapidly, and was being promoted as a thriving and progressive place in which to live and work. At the same time, the pioneering phase of Pākehā settlement in the Hutt was passing out of living memory and into nostalgia, forming a romantic prelude to the development of a modern city.
This local context helps to explain why, in 1922, the then Mayor of Lower Hutt sought to have a commemorative tablet from Bolton Street Cemetery in Wellington re-erected in the Hutt. The tablet had been erected in a Wellington church in 1846 by soldiers of the 58th Regiment, in memory of their comrades who died at Boulcott’s Farm. The Mayor’s request for the tablet was granted, but its removal from Wellington was opposed by the Early Settlers and Historical Association of Wellington. An agreement was reached whereby the New Zealand Government, the Lower Hutt Council and the Early Settlers and Historical Association would jointly fund a new memorial, which was erected in 1925.
As it turned out, however, the historic tablet was never returned to Wellington, but was instead re-erected in 1933 at St James’ Anglican Church in central Lower Hutt. For several years in the 1930s, and on the battle’s centenary in 1946, commemorative services were held at the church on the anniversary of the battle. The memorial tablet was subsequently accidentally knocked down and destroyed, but the wording of the original still appears on a stone in the churchyard.
From the 1970s, the Boulcott’s Farm story as been reassessed and rewritten, as part of the wider revision of our understanding of New Zealand’s colonial past. Boulcott’s Farm appeared in works by Pākehā writers, such as Keith Aberdein’s script and book for the 1977 TV series The Governor and Lloyd Jones’s 1988 novel Splinter, which took a more critical or satirical view of colonisation. More recently, Boulcott’s Farm has been re-imagined from the perspective of Māori combatants in Witi Ihimaera’s novel The Trowenna Sea (2009) and Jenny McLeod’s opera Hōhepa (premiered 2012). Both of these works focus on the story of Hōhepa Te Umuroa, one of a number of Māori transported to Van Diemen’s Land for their alleged involvement in the Battle of Boulcott’s Farm. In Ihimaera’s and McLeod’s accounts, Boulcott’s Farm was the tragic result of injustices committed against Māori by colonial authorities.
The current reconsideration of the Boulcott’s Farm memorial is not the first time questions have been raised about the monument. When The Governor was broadcast in 1977, an article in the Hutt News commented that ‘In the spirit of the times, the memorial commemorates only the white soldiers who were killed. More modern thinking might suggest that the Maoris [sic], too, should have their memorial.’ The Hutt Council received a few letters in the 1970s and 80s asking it to do something about the memorial’s one-sided perspective. At the time, however, the Council decided to take no action.
Aotearoa New Zealand has come a long way since then, and it’s good to see that the Hutt Deputy Mayor is now taking the lead on working to publicly acknowledge the Māori side of the Boulcott’s Farm story. I’m also encouraged that Tui Lewis is planning to take the time to ensure all those with an interest are consulted before making change. As I’ve written previously, there is value in taking a considered and consultative approach to contentious memorials. In the case of Boulcott’s Farm, the issue is further complicated by the fact that the Māori who fought against the British and colonial forces were expelled from Te Awakairangi, so they live elsewhere and are not among the tangata whenua of the valley.
There are also other places where Māori perspectives on the Hutt War could be acknowledged, including at St James’ Church and at Boulcott’s Farm Heritage Golf Club. The Golf Club is located near the memorial and in the vicinity of where the battle was fought, and may be where the British dead of the battle are buried. It would be good to see some accurate historical interpretation at or near the golf club – and in the meantime, the appalling nonsense on this sign at the club should come down immediately, if it hasn’t already.
Further reading: Ewan Morris, ‘The Boulder and the Bugler: The Battle of Boulcott’s Farm in Public Memory’, Journal of New Zealand Studies, ns 20, 2015, pp. 51-71; republished in slightly revised and updated form as ‘The Boulder and the Bugler: Boulcott’s Farm and Public Memory’, in John Crawford and Ian McGibbon (eds), Tutu te Puehu: New Perspectives on the New Zealand Wars, Wellington, Steele Roberts, 2018, pp. 32-56.