Parihaka Non-violence: The Heart of Peaceful Resistance

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 18, Advent 2000

Paul Reeves

On 5 November 1881, a New Zealand government military force of 1589 invaded and occupied the unprotected Maori village of Parihaka in Taranaki. Within three weeks, 1600 unarmed Maori had been either imprisoned or dispersed. This followed the illegal imprisonment in 1879 of 420 Maori ploughmen and a further 216 fencers in July 1880. Their ‘crime’ was to replace government surveyed roads and pegs on Maori land with new fences and freshly sown crops. This was a sustained response of nonviolent resistance by Taranaki Maori to state invasion and systemic theft of their land.

On Wednesday 22 March of this year about 300 Maori left Taranaki in five large buses and assorted cars. They even had their own food in a large refrigerated truck which went ahead of them. It was going to be an arduous journey so they took two policemen and a doctor and also made sure there were at least two nurses in each bus. The group crossed from Wellington to Picton by the Topcat, a vessel which looks good but is ill suited for the rough conditions of Cook Strait. One of their number was so ill that she went to hospital when she reached Picton but so determined was she that she rejoined the hikoi by the time it reached Murchison. The destination on this marathon leg of the journey was Hokitika where they were billeted in the Seacliff Psychiatric Hospital.

Who were these people, many of them old, and why had they embarked on such a journey? They were from the tribes of Taranaki which stretch from Parininihi near Mokau in the north to Waitotara in the south. Ngati Ruanui based near Hawera was there in force and so too was my tribe Te Atiawa from Waitara. Their spiritual home is Parihaka, the great pa on the slopes of the mountain Taranaki. Almost without exception the women wore the raukura in their hair, the white albatross feathers symbolising the protection of the mana of the Parihaka movement. Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth and goodwill among all are the words which invariably accompany the raukura.

Parihaka was the centre of the great land confiscation of central and southern Taranaki in the 1880’s. But what was taken was not simply land but the basic ingredients of a society, the right to choose one’s leaders and to enjoy freedom of speech and association. It is a tangled story of surveyors moving on to land which was to be confiscated, the assertion of Maori ownership by ploughmen chosen as the people of the greatest mana and who proceeded to plough the disputed land, fencers who fenced off the Parihaka land as the road being built drew closer to the pa and the invasion of Parihaka by a column of the Armed Constabulary led by the Native Minister John Bryce mounted on a white charger.

The great leaders and prophets of Parihaka were Te Whiti O Rongomai and Tohu Kaakahi. Before the final assault Te Whiti spoke to the people. I stand for peace. Though the lions rage still I am for peace … I am here to be taken. Though I be killed I yet shall live; though dead, I shall live in peace which will be the accomplishment of my aim. The future is mine, and little children, when asked hereafter as to the author of peace, shall say ‘Te Whiti’ and I will bless them.

Over 420 ploughmen were imprisoned but only 40 were sent for trial. None of the 216 fencers arrested in 1880 was granted a trial. What followed was one of the most shameful episodes in the legislative history of the New Zealand Parliament. The Maori Prisoners’ Act of 1879 was a temporary measure to provide for the further detention without trial of the ploughmen protesters. In other words all untried prisoners were deemed to have been lawfully arrested and to be in lawful custody. The Maori Prisoners’ Trial Act of 1880 was not to provide for trials but to dispense with them. Do not punish, do not try, simply detain. In effect the provisions of habeas corpus were suspended not once but twice. Prisoners had been sent from Taranaki following the surrender of Titokowaru’s followers in 1869 so there was ample precedence for sending more, this time to Hokitika, Dunedin, Ripapa Island in Lyttelton Harbour and Mount Cook prison at Wellington.

My cousins and my aunts are a conservative group of people who want to live their lives in peace and enjoy the rights and responsibilities of citizens of this country. It is an option not yet open to them. At Hokitika the weather was fine but no one knew much about the prisoners who had been there 120 years before. The presence of so many Maori in town must have been a puzzle. Before they left, the people from Taranaki unveiled a large and arresting sculpture of Te Whiti O Rongomai and Tohu Kaakahi whose words and spirit are shared among their followers even today.

The hikoi was in Hokitika only one day and the next stop was Dunedin, a 13 hour journey through Arthur’s Pass, a test of fortitude and endurance. I flew from Auckland to Dunedin to join them and I was at Otakou Marae just inside Taiaroa Heads when they arrived at about 9 pm. Ten years ago at Anderson’s Bay a cairn surmounted by Rongo, a stone from Taranaki, had been unveiled in a ceremony which I had attended. After a good night’s sleep we gathered once again around Rongo, further plaques were unveiled, prayers said and speeches made. Time rolled back and we were in the presence of our tipuna and their families who had been sent to Dunedin where they worked on the sea walls and the stone walls on the Peninsula and the causeway at Anderson’s Bay itself. The jail was on the site of the present railway station and the prisoners were taken to work in an old hulk. Otakou is important to Taranaki because these people cared for the prisoners and kept alive the traditions of Te Whiti at least until the 1920’s. The prisoners’ names are known; some of them died in Dunedin so the next step was to climb back into the buses and set off for the Dunedin and Port Chalmers’ cemeteries. In fact there are two headstones in the Dunedin North cemetery and the assumption is that the remainder were buried in paupers’ graves. Everyone agreed that native trees like the Kawakawa needed to be planted in the cemetery. By this time I had left, but I have been told that the visits to the cemeteries were emotional and the tangi were long. It is still very sad that these men died so far from home and that the rule of law oppressed them and did not protect them.

I met my relatives a few days later in Wellington by which time they were starting to look weary. We gathered at Ngati Poneke in Thorndon for the mihi and a meal before they left for Taranaki. They had wanted to put a plaque on the site of the Mount Cook prison but construction of the Massey campus there made that impossible. They were not happy. The floor plan of the prison shows that like the prison at Kingston on Norfolk Island it was built on the model of Pentonville which stressed incarceration, darkness and silence. There is a memory of 96 prisoners put in a hulk in Wellington Harbour though this probably refers to the earlier group of prisoners who were the followers of Titokowaru.

The hikoi got on the road in the early afternoon and headed back for Parihaka. It was a remarkable journey, not simply back to a painful past but also towards an uncertain future. As a result of a Waitangi Tribunal report which came out in 1996, the Crown has been negotiating with Taranaki tribes to settle historic grievances. My tribe, Te Atiawa, has found that remarkably difficult. I chaired an abortive Fiscal Envelope hui in Taranaki which gave a clear message that the Crown had allocated a global sum for all settlements and Taranaki would get their share. So much for level playing field negotiations.

Taranaki Maori have a hurtful and painful history that will not go away. They were the ones who lost their land and their social cohesion. The wounds are on their backs. It is not just what happened at Waitara, Parihaka or to the prisoners, it is also what is happening today. After the conflicts the overwhelming portion of remaining land was leased on a long term basis to Europeans on what Maori call the ake ake or the ever and ever lease. Taranaki Maori obtained at best, the right to receive a rent, and then at a rate fixed not by them but for them. Effectively they had not land but an annuity and owing to the new tenure of individual entitlements, not one penny passed as of right to a common hapu pool … Maori land was made meaningless as a tribal asset and as a tribal asset, it is largely meaningless today. (Waitangi Tribunal Report, page 207)

The Treaty of Waitangi was not signed by Maori in Taranaki though my ancestors signed it in Wellington and the Sounds. Nevertheless the tribes of Taranaki accept the Treaty as a korowai which should offer them protection and a basis for negotiation with the Crown. But there has been a profound constitutional change best illustrated from the New Zealand coat of arms which has two figures, Maori and Pakeha, with a crown placed between them. The implication is that the Crown mediates the relationship. This would be in accord with the Maori view that the Treaty of Waitangi created a personal compact between Queen Victoria and hapu, on the basis of which several groups felt they could travel to England seeking Victoria’s protection from the actions of the New Zealand Government. But by 1863 authority on all matters had been transferred from Britain to New Zealand, to all intents and purposes the settler government was now the Crown and an important layer of accountability had been lost. Maori still protest that the relationship originally envisaged by the Treaty has been lost and must be restored. Maori and Government should engage in a partnership under the watchful eye of a higher constitutional power. The Government is not the Crown.

Pakeha are the beneficiaries of past injustice and fundamental constitutional change. But you have to ask if they are in touch with the tumultuous and defining history of nineteenth century New Zealand, whether they are willing to own their share of it or whether they have blocked it out. In 1998 a young friend walked all the way from Cape Reinga to Wellington as part of the Hikoi of Hope organised by the Anglican Church. He is deeply committed to the cause of justice and peace but he felt he could not tell his Maori companions his secret, which was that his great great grandfather had been a member of the Armed Constabulary.

You may think that a trivial example but what do you do with pain when you begin to relive it? The present round of settlements is part of a wider picture. The stereotypes and prejudices we hold about each other need little encouragement to assert themselves. The question of the freedom to be a New Zealander in whatever way you are comfortable with is raised frequently. But as we revisit our history we realise that above all the settlement of claims is about the healing of the memories, understanding and forgiveness. These are profound spiritual issues we do not talk about easily. Though they may not articulate it I believe my Taranaki whanau want to forgive and be forgiven, they want to live in peace and with justice and they want to join the team. But that demands some sort of national conversation that goes way beyond Pakeha protestations that they are nor guilty for what may have happened in the past. Unless we can heal memories we are prey to uncertainty and a sense of unfinished business. Forgiveness is a release from the weight of history and a determination to approach its consequences creatively and not hopelessly. Forgiveness is not an easy option. It requires conviction and determination. It assumes that what is good for my neighbour must be good for me too.

Maori want to settle because they want their culture to survive and they want to be in charge of their own destinies. A settlement of a claim may now give them the tools of money, land and resources and the control which they need. Tino rangatiratanga does not have to lead to a competitive and adversarial relationship with the Crown. It can allow for collaborative approaches to common issues but that is a decision for partners to make from a position of relative parity. Settlements are the foundation for new partnerships with the Crown and because relationships change and develop there may be some other things to talk about at a future date. The focus is firmly on new beginnings and flexibility.

To a New Zealander words like forgiveness, healing of memories or reconciliation come out of a religious lexicon which is quaint and unfamiliar. We are a secular society and reality is what we can see, touch, experience and analyse. A Maori sense of reality includes all of these things plus some others we can neither see nor touch. The Christian Gospel brought by the colonisers is still preached in various ways and the Maori Gods who were here when the colonisers arrived are still here. What we need is a greater degree of mutual respect and dialogue. Gods need to respect each other.

Religions produce peacemakers and hatemongers and we can think of situations where religions have stoked the fires of discord rather that extinguished them. Judaism, Christianity or Islam seem to be unlikely candidates for any constructive role in human rights. Their sacred texts say more about commandments and obligations than about liberty and rights. But there are resources in spiritual traditions that can contribute to the healing of the human community and how we understand our relationships with each other. Te Whiti, like Te Kooti or Te Ua Haumene, was a religious leader steeped in Maoritanga. From Minarapa and from the Lutheran missionary Riemenschneider he got his knowledge of the Old Testament and many of his sayings echo the New Testament emphasis on dying and rising again in the face of adversity. He was a peacemaker.

Paul Reeves is a former Anglican Archbishop of New Zealand and a former Bishop of Waiapu and Auckland dioceses. Among many other achievements, he was the principal architect of the much-praised multi-racial 1997 reformed constitution of Fiji.

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