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Hero Stories of New Zealand

Te Whiti of Taranaki — The Story of a Patriot and Peacemaker

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Te Whiti of Taranaki
The Story of a Patriot and Peacemaker

HISTORY has seen some remarkable changes in the popular estimation of prominent figures in the life of the nation. The lapse of time brings a more balanced and better-informed view of disputed causes; and a more generous attitude towards those who were once regarded as enemies. Maori leaders who in their day were denounced as rebels have been vindicated by historians; their principles and actions are now recognised as those of patriots fighting for their people's rights. Wiremu Tamehana te Waharoa, the Kingmaker, the leading figure in the cause of Maori nationalism before the Waikato War, was essentially a peacemaker, and had his altruistic plans for native self-government been adopted by the rulers of New Zealand there would have been no war. He was a man inspired by pure love of country.

Te Kooti was a different type of leader, yet his long and desperate combat with the Government could have been avoided had he been justly treated in the beginning. Exiled without trial, detained on Chatham Island on an indeterminate sentence, with many others, his desire for revenge was natural. His daring escape from the prison isle, with all his people, was a truly heroic exploit.

A different character again was Te Whiti-o-Rongo-mai, the prophet, priest and revered chieftain of the Taranaki tribes, a man whose ethics were above all those of a peacemaker.

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Te Whiti in his time was a much misunderstood man. To-day it is admitted that his policy of patience and non-resistance saved the colony from a disastrous renewal of war. The story of his life is an illustration of the frequent failure of Governments to deal justly with political opponents. Might sometimes was confused with right.

It is a classic name, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai. It means the flight across the sky of the shining one Rongomai, the god whose visible form was a meteor. Rongomai was one of the deities of the Taranaki and other West Coast tribes. The son of the Mountain who was to become the most revered leader of his people was a descendant of the famous pair, Takarangi and Rau-mahora, whose love-story, written for Sir George Grey by a Taranaki chief, was so poetically paraphrased by the Governor in his “Polynesian Mythology.” When he was a young man and known then as Erueti (Edward) te Whiti, he distinguished himself by assisting the shipwrecked people of the steamer Lord Worsley when that vessel was wrecked on the Taranaki coast in 1862. He and his fellow-chiefs Arama Karaka and Wiremu Kingi Matakatea (not the Wiremu Kingi of Waitara fame) metaphorically cast their garments of protection over the pakehas on a hostile shore. They procured carts for them and saw them all safely conveyed to New Plymouth. Te Whiti accompanied his fellow-warriors of Taranaki in the early fighting against the British forces on the coast, but after 1864 he fought no more, and steadfastly devoted himself to the study of his Bible and the doctrines of peace.

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Like many a pakeha preacher he gave strange and twisted interpretations to some of the Scripture chapters over which he pored. His favourite book was Revelation. (Te Kooti, in exile, went to the Psalms and Isaiah for his passages of promise and consolation). He developed a strong belief in the affinity of Jew and Maori. “We came from the land of Canaan,” he told me. “Kenana was our first Hawaiki; our last Hawaiki was Rangiatea.” (This is Ra'iatea, in the Society Islands; the chief seat of sacred Polynesian learning was on that island.)

It has been said that Te Whiti did not take part in any of the Taranaki wars. But he undoubtedly was with his people in the fighting south of New Plymouth in the early part of the Sixties; and the late Te Kahu-pukoro, the head chief of the Ngati-Ruanui, who was wounded in the desperate but hopeless attack on the Sentry Hill Redoubt in 1864, told me that Te Whiti was one of the chiefs leading the Hauhau warriors there. Tohu Kakahi, afterwards his fellow-prophet at Parihaka, was also there. They, like Wiremu Kingi te Rangitaake, were not armed with guns; each carried a tokotoko or walking-staff and directed his men. They relied on the magic Pai-marire incantations taught by the prophet Te Ua. But Te Whiti soon perceived the folly of Pai-marire, and he abandoned any faith he might have had in the Hauhau charms. Thenceforth his only study was the Maori Bible.

In 1868 he fixed upon Parihaka as his home, and stirred little from that spot—except when the Government haled him off to prison for his principles. He adopted the raukura and the poi ball as his emblems; page 239 the white feathers of the albatross (in the later days the goose-feather was the usual substitute) and the poi symbolised peace and hospitality. He never swerved from his gospel of peace and non-resistance, and he gradually acquired a marvellous influence over the tribes of not only Taranaki but the whole of the West Coast, and to a large extent Waikato also. Maori pilgrims to Parihaka came, if not to scoff, at any rate filled with breathings of war against the Government; they remained to worship with Te Whiti and to imbibe his sentiments of goodwill to all men.

It was hard for some of the warriors to accept tamely the amiable counsels of the Prophet of the sacred Mountain. Titokowaru, after he had recruited his force following on his defeat by Whitmore in 1869, was anxious to fight again. He was very restive under the military survey and roadmaking on his lands on the Waimate Plains. “If the mosquito bites my leg,” he said to Te Whiti, “I must slap it.” The prophet's reply was, “Were not your ears singed?” This was an allusion to the war chief's defeat by the Government forces. Titokowaru deferred to the sage counsel of the spiritual leader; and even when a Government road was put through his cultivations he did not stir; his day was done.

It is strange at this time of day to recall the condition of the Taranaki frontier in that tense period, 1878–81, culminating in the advance on Parihaka and the arrest of Te Whiti on the 5th of November—significant date!—1881.

In protest against the occupation of Maori land—which had been confiscated, but which Sir Donald page 240 Maclean, Native Minister, had practically returned to the Maoris—the followers of Te Whiti ploughed up some of the land of settlers near Hawera. There were demonstrations of military force, and many arrests were made, but the Maoris invariably contented themselves with passive resistance. The immediate cause of the trouble in 1879 was the action of the Grey Government, without having allocated certain promised reserves out of the confiscated land, proceeding to sell areas of the Waimate Plains for settlement. The land, always the land! In the wars of the Sixties the first and last issue was the land. The key to all the campaigns and expeditions, up to and including the fortunately bloodless invasion of Parihaka, Te Whiti's great camp, in 1881, is to be found in the taking of Maori land by force of arms. The great tactical mistake of the administrations was the revengeful seizure of enormous areas of land, the ancestral homes of thousands of the Maori race. Apart from all questions of right and wrong, and the impossibility of proving fully who were innocent and who were guilty of the acts described as rebellion, it would have been far cheaper to have purchased all the land in Waikato and Taranaki and elsewhere that was confiscated by process of law and occupied by force of arms. The Waitara purchase was officially renounced by the Governor, Sir George Grey, and his Ministry, but the Government of the day blundered into another war, and followed it up by the policy that the Maori describes as muru-whenua, that is, the forcible taking of land without giving any equivalent for it. Probably the view held by the ruling politicians in the Sixties was that the Maori race was a dying one, bound to disappear page 241 before the pakeha, and that it was therefore not necessary to consider the future generations of the Maori, and the innocent children of the combatants. At any rate they were dispossessed of their best lands, and what reserves were made for them as a kind of afterthought were inadequate.

That was the position in Taranaki; that was the issue that embittered the Maori mind, and would have led to a renewal of the disastrous wars but for one man, and that man was Te Whiti, the prophet of Parihaka.

Peace, peace, was ever Te Whiti's call and watchword; it was the guiding principle of his life. Peace and goodwill, and self-sacrifice in the cause of peace. He suffered imprisonment in the cause of his people's rights; he urged peace, non-resistance. “Guns and powder,” he told his people more than once, when there were signs of impatience at the aggressive actions of their pakeha opponents, “shall no longer be the protection of man. Our weapon is forbearance, patience, non-resistance. God is our refuge and our strength.” He made strange oracular utterances that often mystified the pakeha; he was described as a fanatic and a madman, but his fine madness saved his people and the country from fearful strife.

Had that great and sagacious Native Minister, Sir Donald Maclean, lived, there would have been no “Maori crisis,” as it came to be termed, in Taranaki. He had condemned the confiscations as excessive, and he acquiesced in the Maori re-occupation of the land between the Stony River (Hangatahua) and the Waingongoro River, near Hawera. This should have been made a Maori reserve, secure against pakeha occupation, page 242 a piece of territory in which the tribes whose ancestral home it was could have lived to themselves, preserving their ancient customs and own way of living, secure against the hustling white man. But Maclean died, and the land-seeking pakeha had free play.

The good lands of the Maori beyond the Waingongoro River excited the longing of Government and white speculator and settler alike. They must have those Wai-mate Plains; the Government of the day even sent off advertisements to Australia offering land for selection that was in Maori occupation. A change of Government occurred, and Sir John Hall became Premier, with Mr. John Bryce as Native Minister. A Royal Commission recommended the setting aside of 25,000 acres of the Parihaka block for the Maoris. All the rest of the country across the Waingongoro was to go to the pakeha. This was a totally inadequate provision out of a very large area which the natives considered rightfully theirs. Roadmakers and surveyors began work on Maori land. The natives did not know where their reserves were. Survey obstruction continued as a protest. Te Whiti sat fast, and counselled continued protest without resort to arms.

Taranaki by this time was a great military camping ground. There were redoubts and stockades everywhere but at the Maori villages, and a force of about 1,500 Armed Constabulary and Volunteers was assembled, under Major Roberts, with Mr. Bryce practically the commanding officer. The Maoris had no fortifications, had no arms except a few shotguns. The Government decided to break up Parihaka and disperse the Maoris. Bryce, after various proclamations, marched into Parihaka page 243 with Constabulary and Artillery. He actually had the Riot Act read to a peaceful and silent assembly of some 2,000 Maoris seated in the marae of the village. Te Whiti and Tohu Kakahi were called upon to surrender.

The Maori leaders, and in fact all their people, behaved with a calmness and dignity strangely at variance with the military strong hand of the autocratic Bryce. Te Whiti and Tohu were dressed in graceful korowai robes, the classic garb of old Maoridom; they eschewed all pakeha clothes that day. It was a dignified act, that reversion to the kakahu Maori. There was dignity, and a patience and resignation, in the pathetic leave-taking of Te Whiti and his people. “Even if the bayonet be put to your breasts,” he had counselled them, “do not resist.” They did not resist when the two leaders had gone, and they were dispersed, and drafted away in detachments, “just like drafting sheep,” as one of the Constabulary officers described it to me. It was written of the Maori assemblage that day that “such completeness of good temper under circumstances of great provocation has never been paralleled in history.”

Te Whiti and Tohu were kept in custody by the Government for about two years without a trial. Te Whiti repeatedly asked for a trial; his request was ignored. It is extraordinary to think that such things should have happened in New Zealand. But the strong hand was the only law where the so-called fanatics were concerned. The Government was influenced throughout by West Coast pakeha opinion, which had sssumed a kind of frenzy. One perfectly ferocious newspaper editor wrote, in 1879, when Te Whiti's followers were being arrested in parties:

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“Perhaps, all things considered, the present difficulty will be one of the greatest blessings New Zealand ever experienced, for without doubt it will be a war of extermination … . The time has come, in our minds, when New Zealand must strike for freedom, and this means the death-blow to the Maori race.”

So New Zealand struck for freedom in the manner prescribed by the warlike editor, and found a perfectly unarmed, peaceful foe, whose little children carried loaves of bread to the troops, and whose most formidable act was a performance by some poi girls who would not get out of the way of the advancing Constabulary.

There was truth in many of Te Whiti's prophecies. This was one of his sayings shortly before his arrest by the military in 1881, when he declared that he was willing to be made a sacrifice for his people:

“Though I am killed, yet I shall live. The future is mine, and little children will answer in the future when questioned as to the author of peace, ‘Te Whiti,’ and I will bless them.”

∗ ∗ ∗

In the year 1904 I was riding round the Mountain, from Hawera to New Plymouth, and in the course of that leisurely horseback tour, when I turned off the main road to visit various Maori villages and explore old battlefields, I called in at Parihaka, the town of the Prophet. On the way I passed little parties of Maori travellers, some of them families packed in carts behind slow-plodding bullock-teams, bound for Parihaka; and all of them wore in their hair or their hats the white feather badge of the Prophet of peace, the raukura of Te Whiti-o-Rongomai. My visit was prompted and page 245 fortified by letters from two Maori chiefs of high mana in the old patriot party, and I was received, though a stranger, with all the hospitality for which Te Whiti and his tribe were renowned. In a long talk with the old chief I learned something of his outlook on world affairs as well as the more immediate subject of Maori rights and the perennial grievance of the West Coast reserves. Te Whiti was then a man of about seventy-five, I judged. He was white-headed, with a short straggly beard; his features were small and finely cut; a well-shaped nose; his eyes keen, shrewd, with often a glint of humour. He had many questions to ask. The Russo-Japanese war was then being fought, and several of his people came up to listen when they heard the old man ask for the latest news about it.

That evening Te Whiti invited me to his meeting-hall, to see his poi parties rehearse their dances for the coming monthly festival of the faithful, the 18th, the anniversary of the beginning of the never-forgotten Waitara war, in 1860. The poi dance was more than a mere amusement in Parihaka. It was a semi-religious ceremony; the ancient songs centuries old were chanted, and Te Whiti's speeches were recorded in a kind of musical Hansard and given forth in high rhythmic song to the multitude at those periodical gatherings. It was a memorable evening in that dance-hall, where I was the only pakeha.

“Sit with me here,” said the prophet, “and tell me what you think of my poi girls.” Many of the people, men and women, seeing their leader bring a guest on to the dais, spread with soft mats, came up to hongi page 246 with me, in polite salutation, and I pressed many noses of the Taranaki aristocracy that evening.

Those poi song and dance acts were altogether different from those of other parts of the Island. They were very wild and high, unrestrained in voice and action. The tossing white plumes with which every one of the dancers, about thirty-five of them, had decked her flowing black hair, the bright, glittering eyes, the vigour of the women's hip-swinging, the undulating rhythm of the old Polynesian tarekareka, in perfect time to the songs, gave the poi a touch exciting to the senses. But it was the high ceremonious chanting that was the most thrilling part of it. The songs were ritual, historical, sacred. Te Whiti explained their significance, one after the other. History was there, the perennial story of the wars; the recitals to Maru, to Rongo and Tane, the ancient gods of the Maori; chants centuries old, and chants of the land-taking.

It was fitting that the Prophet of the Mountain, when he was laid in his grave yonder, beside his Parihaka home—that was three years after my visit—should have been farewelled with the chant of the Aotea canoe from far Tahiti and the invocations of the ancient days, to the tapping sound of many poi balls. To the Maori fancy the wise old chieftain's spirit still lingered, with a smile on the spirit lips, to hear once more the music of his beloved rangi poi.