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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter XVI — Te Whiti and Parihaka, 1880-81

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Chapter XVI
Te Whiti and Parihaka, 1880-81

"Our native policy is one based upon doing strict justice to the natives and on the other hand claiming from them obedience to the law"—



For many years the Native question was difficult and thorny. It was as troublesome to the New Zealand Parliament as was the Irish problem to the Imperial Parliament. It gave rise to the same bitter accusations of bad faith; it was marked by the same vacillations of policy on the part of the rulers—sometimes yielding and conciliatory, and sometimes firm and even harsh; and in each case it imperilled or ruined the reputations of many statesmen.

The reader will not have proceeded far with his study of New Zealand history before he discovered that there are two strongly opposed schools of thought on many incidents in Maori history. On the one side are the ardent philo-Maoris who can find nothing to blame in the Maoris, and nothing to approve of in the actions of successive governments. These people would be known in England as belonging to Exeter Hall, and indeed that phrase is not infrequently found in early New Zealand controversies. On the other side are ranged most of the settlers who, without regard to the causes of conflict, suffered heavy losses at the hands of Maori War parties—who saw, perhaps, their families murdered, their homes destroyed and farms ravaged. To these settlers we must add the various successive Native Ministers who had to cope with the incredibly intricate problems that arose from time to time. page 153It is significant that, though these Ministers expressed the utmost solicitude for the welfare of the Native race and in every case strove incessantly to preserve amicable relations, their good intentions were often frustrated by their own blunders or the untoward course of events. But of their goodwill towards the Native race there can be no doubt.


One of the most remarkable incidents in our history occurred in 1880-81 at Parihaka—a Native settlement south of New Plymouth. During most of the time the events were in progress, Rolleston was Minister of Native Affairs. But, in the final stage, his place was taken by Mr John Bryce, for reasons which will appear later. The background of the story is briefly as follows:

After the Taranaki War came to a halt in 1865, a Proclamation was issued by the Government confiscating over 1,130,000 acres between Wanganui and the White Cliffs. At the same time it was stated that the rights of loyal natives would be preserved, and the rebel natives were invited under a Peace Proclamation to come in within a certain time. If they did so, provision would be made for them, otherwise they would be excluded. But the confiscation was not enforced, and the natives were not driven from the territory. By liberal arrangements of the Government, they were restored to a large part of the country. They remained in friendly relations with us for nearly three years. Then in 1868 the Chief Titokowaru raised the standard of rebellion, and swept away nearly all the settlements over a large area. He was defeated and fled through the fastnesses of the great forests. Part of the land was again thrown open for settlement, and some of the tribes were brought back and settled on reserves set apart for them.

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The Government now began to push on the construction of roads. At this stage (1870) the Government sought the co-operation of the powerful Chief Te Whiti, which was willingly given.

Meanwhile, against the protests of the settlers, the defeated tribes were stealthily creeping back by tacit permission. Sir Donald McLean, the great Native Minister, was anxious above all things to avoid another armed conflict. He decided to bide his time rather than attempt to drive the natives off the lands which were still nominally confiscated. So matters dragged on in a sort of uneasy peace until, in 1879, the Government began systematic surveys. It was here that the cardinal blunder on the part of the Government occurred. For, although several successive Governments had promised that the natives would be granted large reserves and that all their burial places, cultivations, and fishing grounds would be excluded from the lands to be settled, the natives became alarmed when they saw no signs of this being done. They saw the survey lines approaching their cultivations, and they threatened resistance. According to the Report of the Fox-Bell Royal Commission, the whole trouble arose from the failure of the Government to make clear to the natives that, in due course, their reserves would be set aside for them. It is not surprising, therefore, that the natives thought it time to forbid any further progress. They quietly removed all the surveyors to the south of the Waingongoro River.


The Chief Te Whiti now became the central figure of the drama. He was a sort of New Zealand Gandhi—a passive resister. He was regarded by his followers as a prophet with some strange power of wizardry. He knew the Bible almost by heart, and had evolved a mystical religion of his page 155own. Thousands of natives poured into Parihaka where he lived, and stripped themselves of all they possessed to sustain his entourage. Great chiefs of higher lineage than Te Whiti trembled before him. He even claimed to be able to raise the dead, and his deluded subjects actually brought in armfuls of clothing in which to dress their friends when they should be resurrected. But ostensibly he remained a man of peace. His earlier objections to the Government surveys seem reasonable and quaintly humorous.

Your survey is wrong (he said), being without my consent or authority. Where is the piece to be retained by the natives? Where are the promises of McLean and Parris that the lands in the occupation of the natives should not be taken from them? You say let me and the Governor sit down on the blanket. The Governor will not do that. He is dragging it all away for himself. From the way the surveys are being conducted, it seems that you want to take the whole of the blanket and leave me naked.

No immediate response was made to Te Whiti's complaint. He now resolved to make some more forcible demonstration to bring matters to an issue. In May 1879 he set up a claim to all the land not only of that district, but of all New Zealand. To assert his title he sent out parties of his followers to plough not only the land in dispute but other lands at some distance away held by settlers under Crown grants. Gradually he became more and more arrogant and defiant. The Grey Government arrested some of his ploughmen, but more natives under orders from Te Whiti took their place.


While these strange doings were still causing widespread alarm, there was a change of Government. The Hall Ministry took office in October 1879, with Bryce as Native Minister. He realised that Te Whiti's hostility was endangering the peace. The natives erected fences, which the page 156constabulary kept pulling down. Parties of natives with some sort of clubs or sticks followed the constabulary as they went about their task, and the position became daily more menacing. Bryce wanted to force the issue by arresting Te Whiti and his chief adviser Tohu and removing them from Parihaka. The rest of the Cabinet objected. They counselled delay. They said the slow course was the sure one. Finding his policy unacceptable to his colleagues, Bryce resigned, and his portfolio was taken over by Rolleston.

Now Rolleston had seen this trouble brewing for many years. We have seen in an earlier chapter that, as far back as 1869, he had urged in Parliament the appointment of a Commission to settle the whole problem before it became acute. But his advice was disregarded. "When I was asked", he said, "whether I would join the Hall Government (in 1879) one of the first things I put to Mr Hall was: 'Will you agree to a Commission being appointed to settle this question of the apportionment of the lands on the West Coast?'" This led to the appointment of the famous Fox-Bell Commission, whose report traversed the whole history of our conflicts with the Maoris. On the immediate problem the Commissioners were emphatic that the main cause of the trouble was the failure of successive Governments to set aside and indicate to the natives the reserves set aside for them before pushing on the surveys. Parliament adopted this Report, which made not only fair but liberal reserves for the natives. Lands to the value of over £1,000,000 were granted to natives not exceeding 3000 in number.


I have said that Bryce resigned early in 1880 and Rolleston took his place. Rolleston consulted his old friend, J. C. Richmond, who had been at one time Native Minister, and had a long experience of Native affairs. Richmond strongly page 157advised that it would be premature to adopt Bryce's policy. It would be better to see what attitude Te Whiti would adopt towards the proposals of the Fox-Bell Commission. Rolleston agreed with Richmond that delay was wise, but that, if no success was achieved by that means, he thought Bryce's policy ought to be adopted.

Ormond to Rolleston, 26 January 1881:

…Bryce's resignation astonished everyone, but it is not fair to express an opinion without knowing all the circumstances. The general opinion is he resigned in consequence of interference on the part of the Governor … another version is that he did not agree with some of Fox's acts as Commissioner…. However, as Te Whiti puts it, "the potato is cooked".

I see you have taken over Native Affairs, and think your colleagues very fortunate in having got you to do so. I have always known you had a special fitness for the position, and I think the natives believe in you. You would have had a much better field open to you had you taken Native Affairs when Bryce did. As it is, I consider the position full of difficulty. Bryce, in my notion, has not been a success as Native Minister. I know the general opinion is different…. Your great difficulty now is Bryce has entirely neglected to keep up any communication with the natives, and has got that to be looked on as "the policy".

As time went on, Te Whiti became more and more difficult. He declined to put his claims before the Commission. The new Governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, who had dealt successfully with Native troubles in Fiji, invited Te Whiti to come as his guest to Wellington and discuss his grievances, or to meet him in Taranaki. Te Whiti declined, and used his famous phrase: "The potato is cooked." All attempts to approach him through friendly emissaries met with similar refusals. The fact was that Te Whiti, having placed himself at the head of a body of malcontents, dare not recede. His vanity and mana were at stake, and his mana, in his view, covered the whole country. In fact, he asserted his sovereignty against that of the Government. When Parliament rose, Rolleston himself went up to the page 158district and put himself in communication with Te Whiti through a lifelong friend of Te Whiti, and finally personally interviewed him. Te Whiti was friendly and courteous, but absolutely declined to admit the right of the Government to share the lands with him. "He took my hat in his hand", said Rolleston, "and said: 'What is the good of your hat if it cut in two? If you have come to ask me to share the blanket with you, I am not the man to help you.'" Rolleston formed the opinion that Te Whiti would have been glad to come to some arrangement with the Government if he had dared to do so in face of his people. If he gave way, his whole power and influence would vanish. Finally, Rolleston not only informed Te Whiti that, if there were any lands for which he had a predilection, he had only to point them out and the Government would meet him liberally. But he wrote on 10 October 1881 that the present confusion and uncertainty could not continue. "Our meeting is over. Whether it is for good or evilis yet unknown. If it brings good to both races, we shall have the blessing which belongs to peacemakers. If no good comes of it, the blame will not rest with me and the Government. It will be with you."

All these efforts were perhaps taken by Te Whiti as signs of weakness. But at least they show the patience of the Government. The illegal fencing still went on. No other course seemed open but to adopt Bryce's policy and to allow him to carry it out. Rolleston, however, chivalrously insisted on signing the famous and much-debated proclamation of 19 October 1881, under which Te Whiti was informed that he must now yield or he would forfeit all claim to consideration, and all the reserves now set aside for them would be withdrawn. The Queen and the law must be supreme at Parihaka as elsewhere. On the same day Bryce became once more Native Minister. He decided that the position was so critical that the only way was to make an overwhelming display of force, otherwise war was page 159almost inevitable. He and Rolleston assembled a large armed force, marched on Parihaka, and arrested Te Whiti and some of his followers. There was no resistance, and everything passed off quietly.

Attempts have been made to treat the armed march on Parihaka as a fiasco and a farce. It is true that Bryce and Rolleston and the armed forces that accompanied them met with no resistance. Much fun was made by critics of the fact that some hundreds of young children singing and dancing were sent out to meet them. "Mr Rolleston, who was on foot, showed by his happy, expressive face how completely he appreciated the humour and pathos of the whole design; but Mr Bryce, who was mounted on an old white horse which looked as careworn and unhappy as his rider, was evidently more annoyed than mollified by the clever exhibition of humanity before him."1

Te Whiti ordered his people to offer no resistance, and in due course he and the Chief Tohu were arrested.

Now all these and other incidents afforded the enemies of the Government great scope for ridicule. They pictured Te Whiti and his followers as peaceable Quakers invaded by a ridiculous army in a theatrical comedy. But most people in New Zealand considered that a dangerous situation had been handled with great skill and firmness. The settlers who were living in an acute state of tension and alarm breathed sighs of relief. In Parliament, many tributes were paid to Bryce, although there were voices to the contrary. Perhaps the best evidence of the wisdom and necessity of the Government's action came from Sir George Grey, who was in opposition. He declared that we had just come through a great historical crisis, and that Bryce had had as great difficulties to meet as any one could have had to meet in New Zealand. "His hands are unstained by blood," declared Grey, "he committed no act of cruelty, he has done nothing to cast a slur on the name of the Colony, page 160and he has brought the difficulty to a peaceful conclusion." Finally, Grey did not hesitate to say that Te Whiti was "an impostor or dupe of his own imagination", and had embarked on a very dangerous career, which might have led to enormous disasters and loss of life. In his view, it was entirely proper to confine him till the crisis had passed.


In 1902, long after Parihaka was closed and forgotten, the whole story was revived by Mr (later Judge) Alpers. He alleged that, when Rolleston handed over the portfolio of Native Affairs to Bryce in October 1881, he did so in order to escape from the personal odium and risk of taking strong measures against Te Whiti. This belated and unjust attack called forth a devastating reply from Mr John Bryce in defence of Rolleston, who was ill. "How little Mr Alpers understands the true nobility of Mr Rolleston's nature", wrote Bryce. He recounted Rolleston's unceasing efforts to effect a peaceable settlement, and Te Whiti's vainglorious rejection of all approaches. He quoted Te Whiti's utterance, "I am the Father, I am the Son, I am the Holy Ghost—there is no one behind me", as evidence of his fanatical derision of the pakeha.

Prior to the request that I should resume office, Rolleston had made all suitable arrangements to secure, by a display of force, a peaceable termination of a disagreeable and dangerous drama. Volunteers were enlisted for the special service and were on their way to supplement the forces of the constabulary. Rolleston, in the greatness of his heart, had insisted that, as Government had now adopted the plan, the refusal of which had caused my resignation, I, and I alone, should carry it out. He would stand back, but give me every loyal support. How well, how generously, how magnanimously he kept his word I can understand, though Mr Alpers cannot.

He gave in detail the sequence of events—how Rolleston, before resigning, had insisted on signing "that terrible page 161Proclamation giving the Parihaka natives fourteen days' notice in which to accept the terms offered"—how Rolleston had insisted on going with him to Parihaka in spite of Bryce's pleading that he might be killed and that Mrs Rolleston would then have good cause to reproach him (Bryce).

Rolleston's voice was slow and emphatic as he replied: "If anything happens to me, Mrs Rolleston will be grieved, but, rather than see me in these circumstances evade a danger which you are to incur, she would prefer to see me dead at her feet." We went into Parihaka next day together, and it was he who wrote, in my name, the first telegram announcing our success. How steadily, unfalteringly, and generously my friend kept his promise of loyal support no one knows so well as I do.

The Parihaka affair involved Rolleston in several controversies which at this distance of time call for only the briefest notice. The first was with Bishop Suter, of Nelson. The Bishop was a strong believer in Te Whiti, and accused the Government in its treatment of the natives of being actuated by political considerations with a view to influencing the forthcoming elections. Rolleston was furious at what he called "gratuitous and unwarranted slander of men acting under a heavy sense of responsibility". He complained that the Bishop "had not thought it inconsistent with his sacred office to privately slander his neighbour and impute to public men base motives in action involving possibly the lives of large numbers of their fellow creatures". The Bishop protested against being called on to give an account of private conversations. "We might as well be in Russia at once", he declared. J. C. Richmond, a former Native Minister, joined in the fray. "No man in the country", he said, "is fitter to be trusted than Mr Rolleston in such a matter as this. Highly educated, exactly informed as to every detail of the history of Maori affairs—a man of stern conscience if New Zealand contains one—he is as certain to deal justly and considerately in the page 162future as he is incapable of the offence imputed to him in the past." He quoted very aptly the opinion of several English Bishops to the effect that "Bishops rarely possess the judicial mind and the power of giving an impartial unbiased decision". After a wordy newspaper controversy, the affair died down without either side being convinced that it was wrong or its opponent right.

Sir Robert Stout then made another serious allegation. He declared that the Parihaka Proclamation had been pushed through late at night on the eve of the Governor, Sir Arthur Gordon's return to the Dominion. The suggestion was that the Governor would not have sanctioned the Proclamation. Rolleston indignantly denied this accusation. "Ministers", he said, "had not individually or collectively received any information that the return of His Excellency to the Colony within any stated time was probable." Rolleston's reply seems clear and final in spite of the fact that Rusden and others have preferred to impute bad faith to the Government.

The reader will probably consider that enough has been said about the Parihaka affair, even although the story has been told only in bare outline.

But the moral of the story is that, had Rolleston's wise proposals of 1869 been adopted, this grave crisis would never have arisen.


It was while Rolleston held the portfolio of Native Minister that he realised the great possibilities of the thermal springs district as a health resort. He foresaw that in future years the marvels of this district would draw visitors and patients from all parts of the world. He therefore devoted much thought and labour to the task of acquiring land and laying out the present township of Rotorua, and the beautiful grounds and gardens that surround the spa. Writing to page break
Mrs Rolleston in1900

Mrs Rolleston in1900

page 163his brother, the Reverend Robert Rolleston, on 18 April 1882, he says:

My wife and I have just returned from travelling all through the wonders of the hot springs district. I suppose there is no hope of seeing you come in search of rejuvenescence, like Medea's grandfather, in the boiling cauldrons of New Zealand. Here you would see the sun shine as it never does in the Northern Hemisphere, moonlight as bright as your daylight, glacial and volcanic action in active operation and wondrous forests. Trees of the Lord, which he—no mortal hand—hath planted—from one of which you may build a small village. I have been travelling many hundreds of miles on horseback over yet uninhabited country, through peach groves and apple trees under which, the wild pigs lie waiting for the fruit to drop. The great beauty of the country however is its shrubs. They are something marvellous in their colour and variety.

1 Saunders, History, p. 458.