Gerry Te Kapa Coates
Te Whiti O Rongomai and the Resistance of Parihaka by Danny Keenan (Huia Publishers, 2015), 275 pp., $45
It is some time since I read Dick Scott’s Ask That Mountain, so Danny Keenan’s book is a welcome refresher, informed as it is by his ancestry, contacts and biography of Te Whiti in the Dictionary of NZ Biography. It is a readable, inspiring but ultimately sad tale about how colonial power and injustice was imposed on Māori. The book is well illustrated by present-day images of Parihaka, and a beautiful 1903 painting of Te Whiti by the artist and photographer James McDonald. The book starts slowly with a chapter on origins and whakapapa, and then gathers momentum. There are some minor quibbles regarding absences in the index and not quite enough mentions of dates to allow the reader to get a sense of chronological progress, but nevertheless this is a welcome addition to the canon of work on our greatest peaceful warrior, whose mana regarding ‘passive resistance’ equals that of Gandhi.
Te Whiti was born in the early 1800s into one of around ninety Te Atiawa hapū that each possessed their own land areas and distinct boundaries. His hapū, with famous ancestry, had secured customary title to Ngā Motu, near the site of present-day New Plymouth. Taranaki Māori had been decimated by Waikato tribes in the musket wars from the early 1820s, with subsequent large migrations south to safety. Their lands were also made vulnerable to dubious purchases by Governors Fitzroy, Gore Brown and then Grey. For example, Ngāmotu’s lands around Paritutu and Ngā Motu beach were included in Fitzroy’s award of 3500 acres to new Pākehā settlers, thus denying the hapū the opportunity to recover land claimed to have been ‘purchased’ by Wakefield. These lands were never returned to Ngāmotu control.
It was in this precarious environment that Te Whiti grew up, becoming a Christian under the care of the Lutheran pastor Rev Riemenschneider at Warea, southwest of New Plymouth. Riemenschneider was impressed with Te Whiti’s ‘divine knowledge and truth’, saying he was ‘far ahead of most others’. The issue that ultimately came between Riemenschneider and Te Whiti was the Kīngitanga movement, created in 1858, which Te Whiti supported. Essentially it was about the rights of Māori to have independence and power within the context of Christian theology.
Te Whiti’s village was shelled by HMS Niger in 1860 – a surprise move by the government in the first year of the Waitara war – in retaliation for the participation of Taranaki Māori in an attack on Waireka, south of new Plymouth, in March 1860. Te Whiti later moved further south to Parihaka in the early 1860s to further his growing opposition to Pākehā encroachment in Taranaki. A 25-ft (7.6m) pou, intended to be a southern boundary for land sales to Pākehā, had been erected by Te Atiawa around 1847 just north of New Plymouth.
Te Whiti’s beliefs in the principles of peace and goodwill, developed during his younger days with Riemenschneider at Warea, were still to the fore, and he expected fair dealings from other people. The continued fighting as a result of the Waitara war had resolved little regarding Māori land purchases and confiscation. Te Whiti avoided the excesses of the Pai Mārire movement, which had only encouraged more land confiscation and extinguishment of Māori customary titles by the government in 1863. According to Bryan Gilling, greater harm was probably done to Māori by the confiscations than by the wars that preceded them. There would be little redress through the Compensation Court set up under Judge Fenton, with a continuing number of settlements under threat. Te Whiti moved – with Tohu Kākahi, who he’d grown up with in Warea in a relationship that was compared with Moses (Tohu the older visionary) and Aaron (Te Whiti the skilled orator) – to join his younger half-brother, Taikomako, at Parihaka, deep in the coastal forest due west of Taranaki maunga.
Te Whiti insisted that weapons should have no part in direct action taken in defence of land. He never swerved from this gospel of peace and non-resistance, a stance also supported by the Kīngitanga. After the renowned warrior Tītokowaru’s two-year spate of resistance ended when he took refuge inland of Waitara in 1869, many of his followers moved to Parihaka but needed to accept the condition that they commit no more acts of violence. Ever larger gatherings occurred at Parihaka, such as one attended by 1200 visitors in March 1870, called by government official Robert Parris, who ‘admired Te Whiti’s strength of purpose but not his opposition to coastal economic developments’. Te Whiti was even blamed for coastal Māori being unwilling to participate in public works.
Open conflict finally ceased in 1872, but not the simmering discontent among Māori over customary titles and the continued acquisition of their land. By May 1878 the government – in the person of Native Minister John Sheehan – decided to ‘market’ the confiscated Waimate Plains and send in surveyors. Māori, already confused over whether land confiscations had been abandoned, were asked ‘not to interfere’. The surveying began in July 1878 and was backed up by a sizeable colonial force against which Māori were in no position to mount a military response. The government’s notices advertising the survey were intended to deter Māori from ‘meddling with the survey marks and trig stations’. Charles Brown, the civil commissioner for Taranaki, believed that ‘the advice of the prophet Te Whiti at Parihaka had no doubt materially assisted in promoting the general submission of Māori on the plains’.
However, Te Whiti asserted Māori rights to the land by ploughing them, and ninety ploughmen were arrested and put into custody in June 1879. This, coupled with more arrests and legislation validating the government’s actions, was a recipe for escalation. The Māori prisoners were sent to Wellington for a trial that was never held, then sentenced to hard labour and shipped south to Te Wai Pounamu – Dunedin and Hokitika. More followed. Legislation allowing indefinite imprisonment was passed in 1879.
George Grey’s government faced dissolution and was replaced in 1879 by ‘a more conservative and hard-line administration, especially where Māori policy was concerned’. Grey’s final act as premier was the passing of the Maori Prisoners’ Trials Act, which was rushed through parliament without any Māori translation, despite Standing Order 318 stipulating that bills be translated, and objections from Māori MPs. Objections were also raised that this legislation represented a denial of justice, was in conflict with the Magna Carta and suspended habeas corpus – the right to a fair trial. John Bryce became native minister during the Parihaka invasion of 1881 and took personal offence at Te Whiti’s and Tohu’s resolve, clouding any prospect for a conciliatory native policy.
Some of the prisoners were released in late September 1880, but when Parihaka was invaded and occupied on 5 November 1881 more prisoners were taken, including Te Whiti and Tohu. Fortunately, representatives of the press, including some from as far away as Lyttelton, were present in Parihaka to witness the injustices first hand. Te Whiti and Tohu were initially imprisoned in the New Plymouth gaol, then tried and sent to Christchurch and detained without further trial in Addington gaol.
In July 1886 more protests resulted in arrests including that of Te Whiti, who was again gaoled for 3 months. Finally, there was a Royal Commission in 1891 to look into Māori land alienation and its acquistion by Pākehā. The commission’s report agreed the laws were ‘imperfect and cumbrous’ but stopped short of handing any land back to Māori, instead suggesting a Native Land Board be set up with full powers to act as owner to ‘give due regard to the welfare and reasonable wished of Māori’. The vexed question of perpetual leases by settlers was not addressed, and indeed is still being dealt with.
Of the 187,000 acres set aside in 1881 for the use of Taranaki Māori ‘absolutely and for all time’, only 18,000 remained when Te Whiti died in 1907. In an obituatry, the Lyttelton Times said that Te Whiti had been one of the most remarkable men the Māori race had produced, ‘as an orator, as a priest, a prophet and a chief’. In 1903 Te Whiti made his famous quote, telling historian William Baucke to ‘ask that mountain, Taranaki saw it all’.
The connection between Ngāi Tahu and Te Whiti and his followers, and their enforced presence in our rohe during imprisonment without trial, was strengthened by the ‘kinship of old’ that existed between Ngāi Tahu/Ngāti Mamoe and their northern cousins. Kaumatua from Ngāi Tahu were also regular visitors to Parihaka at this time. A special one-ton rock memorial named Rongo was placed near the Shore Street caves in Dunedin in 1987.
Note: a shorter version of this review appears on the Te Rūnunga o Ngāi Tahu website.
GERRY TE KAPA COATES (Ngāi Tahu, Waihao) was born in Oamaru, and is the author of a collection of poems and short stories called The View From Up There, published in 2011, and also of a variety of non-fiction articles, essays and reviews. He is currently a consultant, working on hearings as a commissioner, and on Māori advisory work.