The making of new kinds of history, J G A Pocock

Redemption Songs: a life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki
Judith Binney
Auckland University Press and Bridget Williams Books, $79.95,
ISBN 1 86940 131 x

This book is a major achievement. Not, perhaps, of the printer’s and bookbinder’s art. It may be symbolically significant that it is produced by the Kings Time Printing Press of Hong Kong and that its pages total the Number of the Beast but the decision to use only a heavy and highly glossed paper has meant that the letterpress is pallid and that the volume weighs four pounds (1.81kg) on my bathroom scales.

Something will have to be done about placing Redemption Songs in the hands of its readers, where it can hardly be retained at present, for its historiographical importance is very great. It is written with love and mastery; it presents and explores the life of a charismatic, enigmatic and debatable man and the history he acted in and did much to shape; it magnificently assaults the problems of uniting biography and history set in a culture which is not the historian’s. In addition to all this, it marks an immense step forward in the interpretation of history in a multiplicity of cultures. It recognises not only that there will be several histories constructed by the several cultures and that actors must be understood in the histories they inhabit, but that the history of cultural encounter will include the making of new kinds of history and that there may be creative figures who invent and institute the histories they inhabit and suffer.

Te Kooti, a prophet of unusual inventiveness, is seen calling into effective reality a history in which he required his followers to live. Since they are living in it still, we have to greet them as our equals and understand the history in which they live. At the same time — whose time is that? — we live in our history, which is not identical with theirs, and we seek to write a history which is also a metahistory: a history, that is, in which their history and ours can both be seen as coming into being. Whether the Ringatu elders who taught Judith Binney how to understand their history are interested in joining her in the creation of a history of this kind is a further question.

I write as a pakeha, South Islander and expatriate. Each of these characteristics distances me from what was going on across the central regions of Te Ika-a-Maui 130 years ago. It distances me also from the British and European histories I study and write. And, in distancing me from both sets of histories, it creates a need, even an obligation, to find ways in which they can be told and seen happening.

One does not go in search of ways in which they are already being told and to which one subjects one’s own narrative capacity; to suppose that one does is an error of those in whom the colonial cringe is perpetuated by the effort to exorcise it. One searches for a history in which the coming to be of histories is itself historically intelligible so that the masks one puts on to see and speak through them are known to be masks, though the exercise of wearing them is a good deal more than superficial. There arises a further need for a historical understanding of historiography itself, of the very diverse ways in which histories are created and narrated and of the many things which a historian, defined as a specialist in narrating and expounding them, may turn out to have been doing in and to the history which one inhabits.

Judith Binney in her opening pages promises richly to satisfy this appetite:

Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki continues to live in oral narrative and his influence is far from ended. In death, as in life, multiple ambiguities surround him. The oral histories and the understandings they carry have engendered history in their turn, as they set — and may still set — further events in motion… To some he is a figure who generated profound loyalties and great empathies, yet to others, both Maori and pakeha, he was a man without magnetism. These different histories cannot be reconciled, nor should their differences be smoothed away.

Nor can the various kinds of historical sources simply be interwoven. I have conceived of my task as an historian as being to juxtapose these different ways of recording and narrating history so that each retains its integrity, its purpose and its autonomy… The act of writing history can be conceived as an encounter between the multifaceted human past and the individual who is constructing the present narrative. This construction of history as literature, however, is very different from self-representation by the participants. The act of historical reconstruction allows different voices to speak; it reveals people in their own times and contexts, which are not our own and should not be seen to be like our own… In the representations of the past in the late twentieth century the dialogue must be between each other: that is, it must transcend both self-representation and those European notions of claiming uniquely to possess the historical language which establishes an analytical truth.

The many histories of Te Kooti arise in a number of ways: from the ambiguities of his own prophetic language; from the multiplicities of his impact upon others, who proceed to recall him in a diversity of narratives; from the multiplicities, circumstantial and cultural, of the contexts in which narratives concerning him are constructed, by himself and others, the latter increasing as time goes on; and from the presence in the action of the historian oneself. One affects the outcome, less because one claims to impose a single master-narrative — European positivism and claims to scientific objectivity are not much of a problem at present — or because one’s subjectivity enters into one’s constructs on such scale as to leave one little different from the self-representing agents one studies than because it is one’s function as historian to be forever retelling the story, inventing or uncovering new contexts in which it may be presented and which need not be identical with any of those in which the actors and narrators in the diverse stories supposed themselves to be existing and behaving.

In the ancient pedigrees of our civilisation, the historians are descended not from the philosophers but from the poets, sophists and rhetoricians, who knew that there was always another way of telling the story, another way of recombining the different stories that had been told and of telling the story of how they had come to be told. Binney’s objective is largely — but not, as I think she has told us, wholly — the laudable one of getting the tellers of the stories to listen to and learn from each other. I share it but I am aware that, as historian, I am apt at any moment to start telling another story, inventing a new context and including the other storytellers in it in ways by which they may be more surprised than pleased. History is a pack of tricks which we play upon the dead; it is part of our constant effort to understand them in ways in which they did not necessarily understand themselves.

I therefore find myself, as I read this deeply exciting and moving book, constantly impelled to perform thought-experiments which its power suggests to me: — that is, to rearrange the contexts in which Binney sets her several narratives and enquire what may be the effect of doing so. This is quite often the construction of a possible alternative, whether narrative or interpretation, and it may seem sometines to take the form of criticism of what she has written. When it does, two things are to be made plain. The first is that I am merely building on the foundations she has laid — or, rather, constructing excrescences on the building she has erected. The second is that I have no authority as a historian of the wars in Te Ika-a-Maui. I have not studied the sources and I am only partly acquainted with the secondary historiography. I engage in these critical speculations because this is the way historians think and I put them forward as evidence of how historians think and as a way of asking whether the historian will refrain from rearranging her grand narrative and developing it in directions which, while enormously indebted to her work, will not always be congruent with her intentions. If, as I suspect, this will be the case, we shall have to ask what historians are doing and accomplishing in the very complicated cultural politics of fin-de-siècle New Zealand.


Te Kooti’s career begins in his native Turanga and its first climacteric is his exile to the Chatham Islands. At Wharekauri he established his prophetic leadership and there is not much evidence of his religious experience or activity before that time. He may have been marked as a figure of destiny by the matakite seer Toiroa Ikariki, to whom Ringatu writings ascribe a lifespan longer than the ordinary so that his first prophecy can be dated 1766, three years before Cook’s landfall. (pp11-16) But this is the language of myth, designed to connect the later prophet with the earlier and with ancestral time. There are extra-mythic narratives which depict Toiroa and others like him as engaged in the visionary speech and action that form part of East Coast culture before the wars involving the pakeha began.

But the decisive shift in the history of prophecy occurs with the advent of the biblical and messianic religions of which Te Kooti’s Ringatu is one; the writings, some of them Te Kooti’s, connecting him with Toiroa are designed to assert a continuity between the new prophecy and the old. The arrival of Pai Marire emissaries among Rongowhakaata (his own iwi), Ngati Kahungunu and Ngatiporou in 1865 creates a context which is crucial in Te Kooti’s life and in Aotearoa-New Zealand history generally and happens in a further context capable of being described in terms other than the prophetic, though not competing with the latter.

Though Te Kooti becomes a central figure in pakeha imagination and historiography, it is important that his life was spent in a context of religious and political struggle, a context of civil war among Maori. This would not have occurred without the pakeha presence but only in the long run were pakeha the principal actors in it. The dissent was about different ways of responding to the pakeha presence and the effects of these on competition, authority and social structure within the Maori world.

Te Kooti’s enemies all his life were Ngatiporou and Rongowhakaata as well as pakeha and he can be seen as an adversary of the mainly Ngatiporou ruling structure in the strategy it had adopted, and maintained after his lifetime, for dealing with pakeha impact and surviving it. He is driven out of Turanga, and never allowed to return, by Ropata Wherowhero whose opposition persists to the end of Te Kooti’s life, as does that of Ngati Kahungunu and other figures who were his enemies. He died in the age of James Carroll and Apirana Ngata.

There is need, one feels, of a Ngatiporou history; not only a history of Ngatiporou, but a history of Aotearoa-New Zealand at large, written in a context generalised from the perceptions of Ngatiporou and told as it seems to them. It would be only one of several such histories but it would be one worth having. I find recurrent in the historiography of the nineteenth-century wars the suggestion that in the end it is the kupapa experience which best explains what the wars meant to those engaged in them.

This does not mean that Te Kooti is to be seen simply as a defeated revolutionary within a Ngatiporou-dominated world. He Iooked beyond it. Many of his actions were aimed at reaching Taupo and confronting King Tawhiao, as in the end he rather unsuccessfully did, and if his associations with Waikato and Maniapoto were transient, that with Tuhoe was lasting. Redemption Songs looks repeatedly towardMihaia, Binney’s earlier study (1979, 1987) of Rua Kenana, the prophet who later split Ringatu within Tuhoe by claiming to be the messiah Te Kooti had foretold. lt is in associations outside the Ngatiporou and pakeha East Coast that we find Te Kooti’s lasting presence and in the end it is as the prophet of nga morehu, the marginalised and dispossessed, that his spiritual life takes final shape.


The arrival of the Pai Marire on the East Coast brought civil war to Ngatiporou and other iwi, meaning religious war with elements of each people on either side. It is a complex war, difficult to understand, because nearly every action had and was intended to have two meanings. Te Kooti, not yet a prophet in any eyes including his own, followed the aged Toiroa in refusing to join Pai Marire but at the end of the war was seized and sent to the Chathams with the Pai Marire prisoners.

There are serious gaps in the explanation of this event. One thesis would emphasise the ambiguous conduct of his leader Anaru Motete, who joined Pai Marire, made contact with Tawhiao at Taupo and talked of alliance with the Taranaki prophets, including Te Whiti but not Titokowaru. (pp59, 60) This called up visions of a general war led by the Kingitanga in east and west, feared by the pakeha and hoped for by some Pai Marire. But it may have indicated rather the turn away from war towards peace and religious solidarity as a means of keeping lands, to which Te Whiti and apparently Tawhiao were attracted. We seem to encounter here the politics of wairua, the contacts and rivalries between prophetic leaders across the island, which provides a context — but not necessarily a paradigm — for the whole of Te Kooti’s active life; a context hard for actors to live in and historians to understand, because every action could mean its opposite — “Come ye in peace or come ye in war?” — and because it was hard to approach a powerful figure proposing alliance without seeming to challenge his mana. How leaders dealt with this is the reason of state of the politics of wairua.

Ambiguities of this kind may account for Te Kooti’s being exiled along with the Pai Marire but not after his being singled out as a figure prominent enough to deserve such treatment. We do not seem really to know why this happened. Two actors take the lead in it: the pakeha Reginald Biggs (pp49, 55, 105-6) and the Rongowhakaata hapu chief Paratene Pototi (p55); and it was on them that Te Kooti exacted utu two years later. Pototi may have simply regarded him as a troublemaker, perhaps sensing that he was an extraordinary person though he did not yet know it himself. Biggs’ motives are harder to make out, though they were probably nefarious. During Te Kooti’s exile Biggs took possession of land at Matawhero to which he had a claim but this does not seem to have been the reason for Biggs’ actions in 1866.


Te Kooti was never a “Hauhau” and not yet a prophet. The Ringatu literature about his visions at this time seems to be of later date. lt was at Wharekauri in the Chathams — its Moriori name was Rekohu — that he began to experience visions, to write them down and to proclaim them to the previously Pai Marire whakarau, the faithful of this prophet’s hijrah. With them he captured a ship, performed his first ritualised killing — the unbeliever Te Warihi was thrown overboard as a Jonah — and returned to Poverty Bay, landing within sight of Hikurangi on 8 July 1868.

The armed prophet had commenced his journey but what were its objectives? He had not come for utu, since the whakarau marched inland away from his enemies. He had come in arms but not with the intention of making war against the East Coast pakeha or the Ngatiporou establishment. There was talk of grander vision: a march through southern Urewera, arriving at Taupo and a confrontation with Tawhiao, “to dethrone the king and set up one that shall be the chosen of Atua”. Binney comments: “It was a clash of mana; a struggle for religious authority.” (p92) But is this adequate? The words (if they are Te Kooti’s) suggest a theocracy, the rule of a prophet instead of a king. Tawhiao also was among the prophets but perhaps “the chosen of the Atua” would rule by divine guidance alone, without lineage or rangatiratanga.. In that case the “clash of mana” would involve a transformation of mana itself, from an old form to a new.

Since the whakarau never reached Taupo in arms, we cannot say what would have come of this confrontation, though everything one reads of Maori politics suggests that the outcome should have been accommodation rather than revolution. But the possibility that Te Kooti was moving towards a revolutionary antinomianism — a ture wairua displacing a ture tangata — is there and might have come to pass. In history one cannot understand what did happen without considering what might have happened but this is always difficult. We have returned to the context — and it seems to have been Te Kooti who put us there — in which we have to envisage a never-realised alliance, for peace or war, linking leaders as far away as Taranaki.

Tawhiao told Te Kooti he would be considered an enemy. Tuhoe bided their time. Settler and kupapa militia continued to harass the whakarau. In these circumstances Te Kooti turned back towards Turanga and Poverty Bay, saying that God would give him back his lands. There ensued the killings at Matawhero and the beginnings of new narratives concerning Te Kooti, including the pakeha narrative which Binney aims to displace. In this narrative Te Kooti is a “fanatic” and the killings are a “massacre”.

She challenges the second term, as connoting an indiscriminate or irrational killing spree directed against a group identity (pp127-31) but a massacre may be selective. Those killed, incIuding the women and children, were Maori as well as pakeha and part-Maori. They were either, as in the case of Biggs and other pakeha families, living on land to which Te Kooti had a claim (pp105-15) or, as in the case of Paratene Pototi and other Rongowhakaata, had been involved in his deportation two years earlier. Some were both and I remain uncertain how far the two issues had become merged in his mind. Here is a case for regarding the killings — 50 or so in all — as acts of utu and, since it was the killing of pakeha women and children which enraged the settlers, it is emphasised that such acts were part of Maori custom in warfare.

This relativising argument was known to contemporaries — even George Whitmore, of all people, is found expressing it (p307) — but is it the whole story? Te Kooti told his followers that God would give them back the land of Turanga. (pp115-16) Maria Morris reports him as saying: “God has told me to kill women and children.” (p122) His ex-wife Maata Te Owai said later: “The god was his as well as the fight.” (p559)

God — that is, Te Kooti’s Atua who was taking on more and more of the attributes of Jehovah — was not normally an actor in Maori customary warfare and this language, if his, may indicate Te Kooti’s sense that he was performing extraordinary actions needing special justification or that he was himself an extraordinary person. We cannot fall back on the argument from custom without asking to what extent prophecy was transforming custom. And, to the extent to which it was transforming custom, the pakeha perception that Te Kooti’s actions were the product of “fanaticism” is not altogether wrong. As against this, his actions at Matawhero — in his own country — were never repeated and we may say that the conjunction of utu and wairua never recurred. Like other biblically-instructed prophets, Te Kooti was journeying through the Old Testament towards the New, from the law and the sword towards a religion of love and there is plenty of language in his messages and waiata which shows he knew this. He completed the journey, though the dead of Matawhero did not.

The issue of antinomianism refuses to go away (not that Judith Binney ever seeks to dismiss it). The attack on Matawhero stirs up both te riri pakeha and the wrath of Ngatiporou and Ngati Kahungunu, though the enmity of Pototi’s descendants was also to be long-lasting. Ropata Wherowhero and a Ngatiporou contingent join the constabulary in besieging Ngatapa and in the mass executions of prisoners which follow its fall.

This massacre can be seen as a pakeha action, reprisals for Matawhero falling on the wrong people but justified in pakeha eyes by their customs in warfare. (Would we accept this or not?) Or it can be seen as Ngatiporou action in which case it would not be utu but something else — perhaps an action of religious civil war, increased in its ferocity by the perception of the whakarau as the Pai Marire returned. Those who had brought a new kind of war to the East Coast divided Ngatiporou against itself and challenged the strategy by which its chiefs were trying to ensure a survival including their own.

Twenty years later, when Te Kooti tried to return in peace to Poverty Bay, Ropata and Ngatiporou were as determined as the pakeha (and the kin of Pototi) that he should not. There was an alliance which he still threatened. A Ngatiporou narrative was part of it and for that matter a pakeha narrative as well. To call the settler opposition of 1889 “hysterical” (p539) may be justified but does not mean that their emotions can be dismissed or their narratives made marginal to this history of narratives. The peace of the East Coast was preserved from Te Kooti’s spiritual challenge.

Te Kooti withstood siege at Ngatapa — probably a tactical mistake — while he sent messages to Tawhiao challenging him to offer his support. In the aftermath of Ngatapa, the prophet and his armed men — no longer the whakarau of the Chathams — arrive at Tauranga-o-Taupo, the Mecca of this hijrah, and the confrontation at last occurs. Tawhiao, however, refuses to see Te Kooti and though he appears a confused figure, jealous of his own counsellors, (p178) he is supported, or managed, by the far more formidable and adroit personality of Rewi Maniapoto, practising a reason of state which the reader can disentangle from the background of prophetic leadership and competition involving Tawhiao, Te Kooti and, more remotely, Te Whiti.

Tawhiao’s history of these years could be written and perhaps has been; so could Rewi’s. He neutralises Te Kooti by offering him hs protection. The prophet lacks arms, Machiavelli would have said. He lacks also the commanding spiritual authority which might have been his had he arrived at Taupo with his word and his whakarau intact and had not turned back to Matawhero or stood at Ngatapa. It is usual to add that Te Kooti, though a guerrilla fighter of genius, was never a battlefield commander of the stature of Titokowaru; but there were many ways of combining military power and spiritual authority and the political truth seems to be that Te Kooti did not find any of them.

Perhaps he turned back to Matawhero because Tawhiao had already refused the support without which he could not go on, in which case he was impotent as a revolutionary challenger to increasingly religious leaders who at the same time enjoyed chiefly authority. The antinomian move was made but was defeated. We might find ourselves rephrasing the Machiavellian dictum by saying that wairua could not stand without manawhenua and that Te Kooti exercised the latter only at Matawhero. He had Waikato and Maniapoto before him, Ngatiporou behind him and only Tuhoe in between.


Since he lived like other prophets on both a spiritual and political plane, Te Kooti’s actions and intentions were always multilayered and it is this — activated by his own genius and interpreted by his historian — which imparts an extraordinary richness to the chapters of Redemption Songs that follow his career from 1870 to 1893. This is in some ways the more important part of the story and it would be possible to follow it in detail only at the price of doubling the length of this essay.

A series of military defeats in the central region bring to an end his efforts to make himself a contestant for armed power with both Kawanatanga and Kingitanga and he returns to “the shelter of Tuhoe”. (ch9) This is still a history of war and the complex politics of war and peace as perceived by the rivals for Maori leadership. But as Te Kooti is forced back into the Urewera, the legendary quality of his guerrilla exploits becomes more closely integrated with the myths of his spiritual leadership and the history of the latter’s development. The persistence and brutality of government and Ngatiporou assauIts on his infrastructure in the end compel Tuhoe to join in expelling him and he reverts in 1872 to “the shelter of Maniapoto” (ch10) which many regret he ever left. By this time his followers are no longer the whakarau but nga morehu and the armed prophet is about to become the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.

The story now beginning is probably that which Binney is most concerned to tell and there is a case against a review like this focused so heavily on the years before 1872. In the remaining 20 years of his life Te Kooti, now a prophet of peace, fashioned the Ringatu narrative which Rua Kenana sought to appropriate and which the Delamere and Biddle families have explained to the historian. It is made up of the “redemption songs” — “wherever Te Kooti went, he’s singing” — which brought into being a mythic and messianic narrative by which his people might recover themselves, not (I think) so much from the burden of sin as from the loss of identity. This would make it as much a secular as a sacred phenomenon and the narrative Binney constructs is the narrative of its construction, in waiata, meeting-houses, letters, gifts and traditions.

The macrohistorical context is not lost to sight. Te Kooti’s relations with Tawhiao and Rewi recur. He utters a prophetic warning to the Kingitanga against the railway which will break down their rohe potae and his association with Tuhoe brings him into contact with the destruction of their rohe potae in turn when they are compelled to admit surveyors. We have seen how his frustrated return to Poverty Bay may be connected with the maintenance of whatever deal Ngatiporou conceived themselves to have made with the new order.

But there is a microhistorical turn on two levels. Te Kooti becomes increasingly the prophet of the morehu, a constellation of Ringatu congregations from the Urewera to the Coromandel, made up of Tuhoe and other scattered peoples, including some Ngatiporou, isolated and dispossessed by wars and confiscations. The total Ringatu membership does not rise above a few thousands.

Binney does not retreat from the larger context. She knows that she is working within the history of the wairua and that it may not be over yet. But as against the context of power, she is constructing a context made up of narratives, in which every narrative is worth telling, and in their very irreducibility all narratives have something to say to each other. There may be an aroha or agape among narratives, in which they and we live together better for knowing all of them. Her book is held together by its title, even more than by its subtitle.

As a student of historiography, I enormously admire her book and I recognise what she is doing as the outcome of the historian’s conviction that all stories can be told and retold together. And yet I am not sure that what I have been doing with her narrative as I have followed it is congruent with what she is doing. The historian I recognise will not leave the narratives to unfold themselves. He or she constantly experiments on them, rearranging them and recombining them, retelling them in contexts not only furnished by one another but by their recombination in patterns which they would not have produced by themselves. The historian goes so far beyond self-representation that the selves themselves become historically contingent. The Enlightened historians did this with the history of religion, so that (as they intended) the religions lost sacrality and gained historicity instead. We may be doing this with the multiple narratives of Aotearoa-New Zealand but if we succeed, the wairua really will be over and not everybody is prepared to admit that.

J G A Pocock, formerly professor of political science at Canterbury University, is professor emeritus of history at John’s Hopkins University, Baltimore. He edited The Maori and New Zealand Politics (1965) and more recently published “Tangata whenua and Enlightenment anthropology”, New Zealand Journal of History (1992, 1).

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