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Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World

Two Worlds of ‘Tribalism’ and Parihaka's Lost Age

Two Worlds of ‘Tribalism’ and Parihaka's Lost Age

In June 1916 the Star carried a vigorous correspondence on the ‘problem’ of the Swiss in Taranaki. It began with a letter from ‘A Britisher’, printed under the heading ‘The Enemy Within Our Gate’. After commenting on the great sacrifices so many of the country's young men had already willingly made, and the recent introduction of compulsory service, ‘Britisher’ continued:

This new law applies only to British subjects, and the consequence will be that the farm lands will in many instances, and the artisan employment also, pass into the hands of Swiss, or as I prefer to call them, aliens. They (the Swiss) are becoming by far too numerous, and unless steps are taken to prevent it, will ere a few years oust the British—who by national right and by right of present-day conquest or preservation own the country-and become firmly implanted in our nation and indelibly stamped in national affairs.

‘Britisher’ went on to express his concern at the way Swiss lived like paupers to pile up money to buy up the best dairying land, and at the way many well-to-do farmers were leasing their farms to them ‘at such exorbitant rentals as to debar the New Zealander’. His punchlines concerned the attitude of these ‘aliens’ to the current conflict:

We educate alien people's children, and they are safeguarded and protected by all our laws, and yet from time to time some of these same people hold festivals and celebrations on the receipt of an enemy victory…. I need only recall a very few occasions on which sprees have taken place in honor of the occasion; the overthrow of Serbia, the Dardenelles withdrawal, the surrender of General Townsend, and, most lately, the death of the Secretary of State for War (Lord Kitchener).

‘A Britisher’ may well have been from Kaponga, the centre of Taranaki's Swiss population. In any case the debate he initiated helped remind the district's settlers that at least the French and Italian speaking Swiss were friendly neutrals, and that a number of New Zealand Swiss were away on active service. One striking aspect of the correspondence, and of the editorial it occasioned, is the firm conviction by all involved of the superiority of British traditions and of British settlers' absolute right to the Taranaki lands through, as ‘Britisher’ put it, ‘present-day conquest or preservation’. The thought does not seem to have occurred to anyone that there might be some Maori rights involved, or that claiming Taranaki by right of conquest was inconsistent with vilifying the Kaiser for seeking similar rights elsewhere. Of course the actual occasion of New Zealand's involvement in the war was Britain's fidelity to the Great Power guarantees page 340 to Belgium. New Zealanders were proud to share with Britain in her moral high ground, for which the German Chancellor accused her of ‘going to war over a scrap of paper’. But as Kaponga's first settlers moved onto their lands in the spring of 1881, had not a New Zealand army marched a few miles away to crush Parihaka, in contempt of another ‘scrap of paper’, the Treaty of Waitangi?

Writing in 1996, with the Waitangi Tribunal's The Taranaki Report/ Kaupapa Tuatahi fresh off the press, it is impossible to ignore the sadness of Parihaka's lost age. All that Parihaka was asking for was the right, firmly enshrined in the treaty, of continuing its remarkable success in adapting new European ideas and technology to Maori social structures and values. As the Taranaki Report puts it:

Parihaka is symbolic of autonomy—of the right of indigenous peoples to maintain their society on their own terms and to develop, from mutual respect, a peaceful relationship with the Government. That, in our view, is the autonomy and relationship that Te Whiti of Parihaka sought to achieve. Autonomy, under his direction, was synonmous with prosperity and peace. (p. 199)

Parihaka flourished by successfully marrying western civilisation and Maori culture, and by fostering the growth of a pan-tribal community in the region as the best way of repairing the ravages of the 1860s and facing the uncertain future. But the settlers, conceited about their own ‘tribal’ superiority, treated all this as an unacceptable threat to their own ‘rightful’ dominance. In his definitive study of official attitudes towards the Maori people in the 19th century, Alan Ward concludes that

… the colonisation of New Zealand, notwithstanding the Treaty of Waitangi and humanitarian idealism, was substantially an imperial subjugation of a native people, for the benefit of the conquering race in which the notions of white supremacy and racial prejudice, familiar in other examples of nineteenth-century European imperialism were very much in evidence.16

These ‘notions of white supremacy and racial prejudice’ were what shaped the underlying assumptions of ‘Britisher’ and his fellow corres pondents, even while a devastating critique of such ideas was being provided by the ghastly outworkings of European tribalism on the northern battlefields. That man of peace, Te Whiti, had seen their folly years before.

A quarter of a century ago I wrote of the irony of that day in November 1881 when

Behind ‘honest John’ Bryce on his white horse came his troops, many of them men but recently escaped from the servitude of the English countryside … The down-trodden labourers who had crossed the oceans in search of a plot of land to call their own and a fair reward for the sweat of their brows, had so soon assumed the role of oppressors themselves…. The Parihaka page 341 affair was already heavy with irony before Te Whiti, that master of irony, sent the singing children to meet the invaders and welcomed his foes with bread. Men who had given their fervent ‘amens’ to Joseph Arch's stirring protests helped to raze Parihaka, despoil the well-tended crops in the surrounding fields and disperse the visiting tribesmen.17

So our Kaponga settler story lies between the savaging of two dreams. There is cause for honesty and humility here, but also for pride. Today both Maori and Pakeha can respond to the vision of Parihaka as it shines brighter with the passing years, and both can acknowledge the wisdom of the settler determination that neither the world nor the south Pacific should be reshaped in terms of the Kaiser's brand of German imperialism.