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

The Maori Dimension

The Maori Dimension

From this survey of the context it should now be fairly clear why the Kaponga District settlers had so little consciousness of a Maori dimension to their lives. They did not displace Maori, for the back reaches of the bush had not been used as a Maori resource for some decades. New farm animals page 55 and crops had provided ample food nearer to home for a population diminished by the coming of the Pakeha muskets and diseases.

Most newcomers to Kaponga, whether from the Old World or elsewhere in the colony, brought no knowledge of Maori. Few gained more than a superficial understanding from their life in the district. As we have seen, they had plenty of problems of their own, and will have left Maori concerns to those affected by them, such as their neighbours to the south on the Continuous Reserve. When Maori protests did reach them they were expressed in the forms of an alien culture and so had little chance of penetrating the strong defences of their settler prejudices. But one or two of the district's settlers had grown up among Maori, with ample opportunities for understanding. One such was W.K. Howitt,* who comes into our story in Part 3 as a storekeeper and gifted ‘Our Own’ on the western fringe of our district. Late in life he wrote of his early years at Okato:

My youth was spent in a Maori district and some of the finest Maori rangatiras were our nearest neighbours; their sons and daughters sat at the same school desks as we sat and ran some of us hard for the highest positions in the class. There was a big family of us and we got steeped in Maori lore and Maori codes of honour…. Our mother, who was of Highland descent, loved the native people. She fraternised with them a good deal because of their likeness to her own race and clan, and when our eldest sister was born (the first white child born in that locality) the Maoris … wanted to adopt her into their tribe. This same sister … had as her greatest friends some of the finest Maori men and women in Taranaki.66

In his childhood and youth Howitt had met both Te Whiti and Titokowaru. He claims to have known Titokowaru ‘very well’, and as a boy been ‘very familiar with Te Whiti's appearance’. He attended Te Whiti's funeral in 1907.67 Surely here was someone who would have raised his neighbours' awareness of the injustices that Taranaki Maori had suffered? Not so, if (as they probably do) the attitudes expressed in his two books on pioneer life reflect his lifelong outlook.

Howitt's books are thoroughly one-sided in their justification of all that the settlers had done. There is reference to the ‘devastation caused by hostile Maori’68 but complete silence on the devastations inflicted by the pakeha. We are told of ‘how gallantly the Maoris fought for what they thought were their rights'69 but given no hint that they may indeed have had some right on their side. Yet Te Whiti had obviously deeply influenced Howitt. He wrote:

Te Whiti was not a blood-thirsty old rebel like many who lived within the bounds of his pa…. We were drawn to him in a way that few Maoris could influence us, and there is always something good in those who attract young people…. He used to make men do work which women were accustomed page 56 to do, and in this, as far as the Maoris were concerned, he was a long way ahead of his time. If there really were prophets among the Maoris, Te Whiti was one. He was a mystic and he was a student…70

But John Bryce's march on Parihaka is repeatedly and fulsomely justified. He is presented as a gallant leader who ‘taught a misguided Maori prophet the lesson he had to learn’. The march ‘clipped the wings of the disturbers and dispersed them’.71 Howitt managed to believe that Te Whiti turned from pacifism to fighting speeches, threatening war, leaving the government no option but to take him on. He also believed that when Fox and Bell ‘came to our district to allocate a fair proportion of land to the Natives … they did their work well, their one object seeming to be to do full justice to the requirements of the Natives’.72

We have quoted Howitt at length to show how, even with his long, close and friendly association with Maori and better than average education,73 he was quite unable to rise above settler self-interest and racist prejudice. Most settlers lacked Howitt's advantages; to them Maori matters would have been of only marginal interest. Coming mainly from Old World backgrounds where the economy and public affairs were managed by their ‘betters’, they were grappling with creating a new democratic community based on a rural economy meshed into international markets. From the 1880s on the yeoman settler was unquestionably the main protagonist in south Taranaki, dominating it by his numbers and reshaping its landscape in accordance with his dreams. Much of his attention was directed abroad, searching for useful agricultural innovations, scanning distant markets, monitoring rival producers. In their home community Kaponga settlers gave infinitely more thought to handling differences between English, Scottish, Irish and Swiss traditions than to understanding what to them was the archaic, fading world of the Maori. All this is understandable and to a large extent forgivable in the context of the times. But that they misunderstood and largely ignored the potent challenge that Te Whiti set ringing down the years does not excuse later generations from hearing its claims and examining their merits.