The challenges of relocating ‘offensive’ Weeping Woman monument

Posted 26 December 2023 by Moana Ellis
Josh Chandulal-Mackay at Pakaitore
Councillor Josh Chandulal-Mackay says relocating the 158-year-old battle memorial is “the opposite of cancel culture”. Photo: LDR / Moana Ellis

Relocating a controversial war memorial from a historic Whanganui reserve is expected to be lengthy process due to the “sensitive issues” involved.

The 158-year-old Weeping Woman monument will be removed from Pākaitore after objections to its inscription condemning upriver Māori for “fanaticism and barbarism”.

Pākaitore Historic Reserve Board chair Jay Rerekura said the Reserve Board decided to remove the monument after a request by Whanganui iwi members.

“For many of us, it’s quite an offensive piece of writing.”

Rerekura said they haven’t decided where to move the statue yet.

“There have been suggestions that it go into the Whanganui Regional Museum but we will need to discuss with the museum whether that is an option.”

The case for relocating the Weeping Woman monument was strong, he said.

“All of the right people are around the table to make that decision. We will be prepared to answer anything that comes back from the community.”

The Reserve Board is finalising a plan for the relocation process, with a timeframe expected to be at least a year.

“We are still working through legalities and discussions we want to have to make it happen smoothly. Once we firm up the plan, we will relay that to the community.”

Rerekura said iwi had asked for appropriate context to go alongside the monument when it is relocated.

“Something we expect to hear from the wider community is that in removing this monument we’re removing history.

“It is not about removing history. History gives an account of what happened in the past and if only one side of that history is being told then that history is flawed.

“We want to add our voice to that account and then the history will be fair.”

The offending inscription on New Zealand’s oldest war memorial. Photo: LDR / Moana Ellis

Appropriate signage and wording would be one way to present a balanced history, Rerekura said.

“My personal belief is that our stories were held in kōrero, waiata (song) and whakairo (carving). If the story is going to be shared, that’s the way that we will share the story.”

Josh Chandulal-Mackay, a council representative on the Reserve Board, said relocating the statue to a more appropriate location would be an opportunity to tell history “from all sides”.

Chandulal-Mackay has been a councillor and a member of the Reserve Board for seven years.

“I was in support of this move firstly to protect Māori today from further harm caused by historical inaccuracy and, secondly, to consider how we create an opportunity in the 21st century for a better and fuller expression of history.

Chandulal-Mackay said the monument does have historical value.

“This monument, like it or not, is a part of history. But it doesn’t mean we need to celebrate it at the entrance to Pākaitore.”

He rejected the idea that relocating the statue was an example of “cancel culture”.

“We’re not cancelling anything – if anything, it’s the opposite of cancel culture.

“My generation of pākehā have grown up largely without the opportunity in our schools to understand New Zealand history.

“This statue has sat here with no public discussion, no back story, no opportunity to examine it. By going through this process, we’re creating an opportunity to examine the history in a broader way.”

Relocating the statue would be a lengthy process, he said.

“It needs to be lengthy because we’ve got to do this right. There are a lot of sensitive issues, and a lot of parties that are affected by this.

“We have to identify the appropriate partner in the appropriate location who is willing to receive this statue. We need to make sure that tangata whenua and mana whenua have the opportunity to be intimately involved in making sure we get this right.”

Other partners who will be critical in this process too, Chandulal-Mackay said.

For example, the monuments on the site are heritage-listed through council’s district plan, so there could be a publicly notifiable resource consent process to relocate it, he said.

Consultation with Heritage New Zealand was also underway, Chandulal-Mackay said.

SIDEBAR – The history of the Weeping Woman

The monument was erected in 1865 on the banks of the Whanganui River at Pākaitore, an historic trading site and seasonal for Māori.

It commemorates 15 Māori and one European killed in an 1864 battle with upriver Māori at Moutoa island, 80km from Whanganui.

Europeans saw the incident as proof of loyalty by “friendly natives at Wanganui” defending the fledgling settlement against a taua (war party) from the upper reaches.

Heading downriver, and intent on driving the settlers away, the taua was forced to retreat after fierce fighting, leaving behind at least 50 slain warriors, according to some accounts.

Six weeks later, the Wellington Provincial Council resolved to erect a monument in recognition of “patriotic services”.

In Sydney, Provincial Superintendent Dr Isaac Earl Featherstone purchased a generic sculpture of a weeping woman and installed it facing the river at Pākaitore on 26 December 1865.

The controversial inscription reads: “To the memory of those brave men who fell at Moutoa 14 May 1864 in defence of law and order against fanaticism and barbarism.”

LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air.