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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 7 (October 1, 1934)

Famous New Zealanders — No. 19 — Te Whiti, of Taranaki. — The Story of a Patriot and Peacemaker

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Famous New Zealanders
No. 19
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. New Zealand has seen the vindication of Maori leaders who were in their day denounced as rebels, and whose principles and actions are now admitted to have been those of patriots fighting for their people's rights. In this sketch of a leader whose ethics were those of a peacemaker, the celebrated Te Whiti-o-Rongomai, of Taranaki, the writer shows that in history even the best-intentioned of Governments have sometimes failed to deal justly with a political opponent, and that might is sometimes confused with right.

The land, always the land, has been the cause of contention that led to the tragedy of war in New Zealand. There was only one exception, perhaps, Hone Heke's little war in the North. But that issue was not complicated, or aggravated, by the confiscation of land in revenge for rebellion against the white Queen's authority. 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. There is no need here to recapitulate those old unhappy wars, except to explain that the great blunder of the disputed Waitara purchase in 1860, with all the arbitrary acts that followed it, began the long and bitter struggle of the races which a more enlightened national opinion has closed and healed. The great tactical mistake of our Governments in the Sixties 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 Government, and the justice of Wiremu Kingi te Rangitaake's objection to the purchase was tacitly admitted, 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 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 quite 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 and priest and little king of Parihaka.

Peace, peace, was ever Te Whiti's call and watchword; it was the guiding principle of his life. Peace and good-will, 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.

Te Whiti surrendering to the Military Forces, Parihaka, November 5, 1881. (From a drawing by G. Sherriff. Copyright.)

Te Whiti surrendering to the Military Forces, Parihaka, November 5, 1881.
(From a drawing by G. Sherriff. Copyright.)

There certainly 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.”

A Visit to the Prophet.

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. My visit to that Mecca of Maoridom was prompted and fortified by letters from two Maori chiefs of page 18 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. It was plain that the Japanese were not popular in Parihaka. The Russians were in the right, according to the voice of Taranaki; their foes were an “iwi kohuru,” a treacherous race. I opined that that view was assumed because the Japanese were friends of the English.

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 many soft mats, came up to “hongi” with me, in polite salutation, and I pressed many noses of the Taranaki aristocracy that evening.

Those were memorable poi song and dance acts, altogether different from any others I had seen. 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 old Polynesian hulalike vigour of the women's movements in perfect time to the songs, gave the poi-swinging 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. I think we were there for more than two hours, watching and listening and admiring. The old man was exceedingly proud of his poi women and girls, and they seemed to put forth their best efforts for his critical eyes.

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

One other memory of Parihaka is still rather vivid. It was a kind of anti-climax to the primitive pleasure of the poi-women's night. Te Whiti's handsome daughter, wife of Taare Waitara, gave me a comfortable room in the prophet's big house, and I slept a dreamless sleep, after that long day's ride and the long talks and the varied entertainment of Parihaka town. But early in the morning the room became strangely warm, and the warmth increased. I wondered sleepily if the house had caught fire, and at last got up to investigate. The flax mats on the floor were quite hot. In the passage outside I met my hostess. “Oh,” she said, laughing, “that's always a little surprise for our visitors. The baker has to begin his work very early.” Then I found that the community bake-house was just below the dwelling.

Parihaka baked all its own bread; the large bake-oven turned out several hundreds of loaves two or three times a week to feed the faithful, and an extra large supply was needed for the gathering of the 18th of the month.

Later on that day, as I rode on to New Plymouth along that beautiful coast, I met many 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.

Te Whiti's Career.

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 he distinguished himself by assisting the shipwrecked people of the steamer “Lord Worsley” when that vessel was wrecked on the Taranaki coast, and 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.

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 Revelations. (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 Maori learning was on that island.)

From War to Peace.

Some writers and some Maori speakers have stated 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 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 Paimarire 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; the white feathers of the albatross (in the later days the goose-feather was the usual substitute) and page 19
The Hon. John Bryce. This photo shows him when Captain of the Kai-iwi Cavalry, Wanganui, 1869.

The Hon. John Bryce. This photo shows him when Captain of the Kai-iwi Cavalry, Wanganui, 1869.

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 anyrate 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 road-making 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.

When Taranaki was an Armed Camp.

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 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 16,000 acres of the Waimate Plains for settlement.

The survey of the Plains was begun because the Government was anxious to get the land into the market. “My belief,” the Hon. Mr. Macandrew wrote in a minute to Cabinet in 1878, “is that it [marketing the land] will place in the Treasury half-a-million sterling.” If the land had been ready, it was added, it would have placed the Crown in funds to a very large extent, as purchasers were waiting. And even before the Maori reserves had been marked off, the Government sent advertisements to Australia offering the choice lands of the Waimate Plains to selectors. Te Whiti and his people did not know exactly where they stood. 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. This was a totally inadequate provision out of a very large area which the natives considered rightfully theirs. The ploughing and 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 1500 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 Surrender of Te Whiti.

Bryce invaded the native land, after various proclamations, marched into Parihaka with Constabulary and Artillery, had the Riot Act read to a peaceful and silent assembly of some 2000 Maoris seated in the marae of the village, and called upon Te Whiti and Tohu Kakahi to surrender.

The circumstances of that tragic farce, as it has been described, have often been told. 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.”

The prophet Tohu Kakahi, on his way to New Plymouth, after his arrest, November 5, 1881. (From a drawing by G. Sherriff. Copyright.)

The prophet Tohu Kakahi, on his way to New Plymouth, after his arrest, November 5, 1881.
(From a drawing by G. Sherriff. Copyright.)

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Whareaitu, Chief of Ngati-Tupaea, Taranaki, as conductor of the poi performances at Pari-haka, in the Nineties.

Whareaitu, Chief of Ngati-Tupaea, Taranaki, as conductor of the poi performances at Pari-haka, in the Nineties.

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 only fifty years ago. But the strong hand was the only law where the Taranaki “fanatics” were concerned. The Government was influenced throughout by West Coast pakeha opinion, which had assumed a kind of frenzy. One perfectly ferocious newspaper editor wrote, in 1879, when Te Whiti's followers were being arrested in parties: “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.

In Vindication of the Prophet.

It is pertinent and illuminating to conclude this brief sketch of Parihaka days with the opinion of a Government official of that period. Major Robert Parris, of the Native Department, was no philo-Maori. He had been responsible to a very large degree for the arbitrary actions of the Gore-Browne Government at the Waitara in 1860, when he supported the purchase of the disputed Pekapeka block from Teira and disregarded the paramount chief Te Rangitaake. In a report to the Native Minister at the end of 1881, he wrote the following remarkable review of recent events, amounting to a vindication of Te Whiti's character and policy:

“… Those who are capable of taking an impartial view of the whole case and can admit the full right of the Maori to strive by all fair means to retain his old free mode of life and enough of the primeval wilderness of fern and forest to enjoy it in, will find in Te Whiti's conduct much that is worthy of their sympathy and respect. Te Whiti was, in fact, the representative in this part of New Zealand of the love of the Maori people for their ancient customs and ways of living, and of their dread of being hustled off the scene by swarms of strangers, and by the introduction of new conditions of life under which they instinctively feel themselves unable to compete on equal terms with the eager and vigorous newcomers in the struggle for existence. Regarding Te Whiti's position and career from this point of view, all feeling of irritation against the man for his steady opposition to the progress of colonisation must disappear, and we can properly estimate the firmness, combined with total absence of any recourse to violent measures, with which he maintained the unequal contest for so many years, and can sympathise with his hopes and understand his prophecies, however quaint their form, that in some mysterious way a higher power would interfere and protect the rights of the weaker race.

“As regards the practical results of Te Whiti's leadership of the Maoris of the West Coast,” Major Parris continued, “it is perhaps hardly too much to say that if he had shaped his course with the special intention of enabling the Government to tide over without bloodshed a period during which there was a constant risk of collision between the races—but during which the Government (from want of funds or other causes) was not in a position to compel submission without involving the country in a ruinous war—he could not have been more successful in accomplishing this difficult task. It would, of course, be absurd to impute to Te Whiti a desire to prepare the way for the final bloodless victory of the forces at Parihaka, but it should, I think, always be remembered in his favour that it is mainly in consequence of his strong personal dislike to bloodshed and violence that this happy result has been obtainable.”

That estimate of Te Whiti's ethical principles and policy and of the Maori cause would have been a sufficiently strong defence of the old patriot of Taranaki had it emanated from a consistent defender of the native race. It is all the stronger and more convincing coming from an official of the Government which attacked and imprisoned Te Whiti and dispersed and dispossessed his people. It sums up admirably the views of those who were able to take a fair-minded unprejudiced view of the Taranaki situation in the troubled Eighties.

The Maori town of Parihaka, 1881. Te Whiti's house is on the mound on the left.

The Maori town of Parihaka, 1881. Te Whiti's house is on the mound on the left.

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