Cons and rebels, Paul Morris

The Prophet and the Policeman
Mark Derby
Craig Potton, $39.99,
ISBN 9781877517112

The English word “prophet” can mislead us, even if its Maori version emphasises the biblical legacy of seers and seekers of justice who spoke in the name of the Lord. Maori spiritual leaders came to identify with Jesus, Joseph, Moses, Jacob and Abraham, as they appropriated these models in their own ways.

A prophet needs a people, and Maori came to see themselves as ancient Jews, or Hebrews, in slavery in Egypt, or in exile from their promised land. These inspired, religiously and spiritually creative figures shared their visions of a future freedom, a restoration to their former independence, often compromised to a little land to live their own lives alongside the farms and towns of their colonial oppressors. These prophets too felt the divine call and sought to create new communities, often crossing iwi and hapu lines that would bring together the best of Maori and Pakeha traditions. Their aim was not simply rebellion but to be spiritual redeemers of land, to create living space, and become saviours of the generations. The Taranaki prophets, Te Whiti and Tohu, had gas street lighting and communal agriculture at Parihaka, and banned sugar, tobacco and alcohol. The prophets, aware of the scope of their chosen task, developed lineages to carry their work into the future.

Te Kooti’s mantle was claimed by the one-time shearer and ditch digger, Rua Kenana, who established his New Jerusalem at Maungapohatu in the Ureweras. Like his prophetic forbears, he attracted many Maori to his community where he set up communal enterprises in farming and mining, started a bank and built a sewerage system. Rua banned “smoking, drinking and unnecessary feasting”.

There is none so fashionable as a historian. The prophets were decried in their days as seditious rebels, charlatans, fake shamans, and their claims even to a limited degree of sovereignty or independence were seen as a threat to the Empire itself. Later romantic historians envisioned them as guerrillas and freedom fighters whose every deed was understood as an act of resistance against colonial power. This corrective saved them from historical obscurity but was as distorting in its way as the former documented condemnations. Dick Scott, who did so much to recover the Parihaka prophets, abandoned his project on Rua because he lost his admiration for a man who didn’t easily fit into this subaltern hero mode. It is to Mark Derby’s credit that he successfully presents Rua in his wonderfully flawed humanity, both polygamous rebel and fallible fool. In his other aim, that of creating a head-to-head duel with Commissioner of Police, John Cullen, he is perhaps less successful. The parallels are overstated and, while both were poor but ambitious men, they had little in common or any seeming real interest in each other. They only met once when Rua was arrested so that, dramatically, the first round in 1916 was the last.

Rua attracted more than 2000 to his community, followers who after 1907 called themselves Iharaira (Israelites). Maungapohatu became the “holy city” with Rua’s palace, Hiruharama Hou (New Jerusalem) at the centre alongside Hiona (Zion), the Council Chambers, magnificently modelled on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Rua claimed to be Jesus’ brother and the new messiah, although he created such division amongst local Tuhoe Maori that Premier Joseph Ward came to Whakatane in 1908 to mediate. His prophecy that King Edward was coming, and land would be restored or bought back, failed as dramatically as the promise of his resurrection three days after his own death. Rua was charged with evasion of the dog tax and with alcohol offences, and his claims to independence led to the 1907 Tonhunga Suppression Act, which was in large part created to be used against him.

Cullen should be interesting, the third son of an Irish peasant farmer who saw policing as a way to get ahead. He was the strictest disciplinarian, personally liked to lead his men into violent action and was prone to the use of his fists. Coming to New Zealand as a young constable, he quickly rose through the ranks, gaining promotion for undercover work against illicit alcohol sales. The ends would always permit the suspension of the law for Cullen, and his style of policing might be thought of as paramilitary. More than once he led successful campaigns against his superiors. The most loyal of servants to his political supporters, he smashed dissent wherever it presented itself and became Commissioner of Police in 1912.

During his tenure he established a pattern of politically motivated police action that he would repeat on a number of occasions. A perceived civil disturbance would lead him to bring out armed police, supported by special constables (local militia) in order to deliberately provoke the crowd. Then an orchestrated happening would result in a violent police charge to crack skulls and/or open fire. This strategy was used against striking miners at Wahi in 1912 and wharfies the following year in Wellington, Auckland and Lyttelton. These actions were followed by mass arrests with charges often being dropped later.

It was these very tactics that were employed again in 1916 at Maungapohatu, when Cullen led his armed troops together with a reporter and a photographer to arrest Rua. His threefold pincer movement only led to the first two groups being welcomed with offers of hospitality. The third contingent under the Police Commissioner himself arrived and arrested Rua, even though this was not lawful on a Sunday. After a mysterious shot was fired, he ordered the troops to attack: Rua’s son and another resident were killed, and many injured.  The battle was re-enacted for the photo opportunity. Rua was charged with a range of offences including incitement to murder and the use of seditious language. All were dropped in the subsequent trial, although he was found guilty of “morally resisting arrest”.

Following his battles with strikers, Cullen had, since 1915, focused on “shirkers”, conscription defaulters in the context of the patriotic paranoia of WWI, and Rua was painted as a leading Maori “shirker”, pro-German and anti-British. After his retirement in 1916, Cullen was appointed to the Commission for National Alien Employment, and headed north to torment and provoke “Dallie shirkers”, who were reputed to be Bolsheviks, in the gum fields. In his dotage, he fished and introduced Irish heather around the national parks in the central North Island, where it is still thriving as an imported noxious weed. We never really learn why Cullen was the way he was, and he turns out in this account to be a bit of a caricature.

Rua was released from prison in 1918 and returned to a community decimated by legal costs. He had sold communally owned land since 1908, at the persuasion of the Premier, to fund his projects and in 1921 sold more in return for the promise of road building, the vital lifeline between Maungapohatu and other centres. Road building was continually delayed to keep land prices low, and he seems to have been duped on a number of occasions by those he trusted.

What do we learn that is new in Derby’s book?  There is a little new material on Rua and a few family recollections of Cullen. However, the book is a joy to read. Written in a lively accessible way, it fulfils the author’s stated aim of making the Waitangi Tribunal materials available to a wider public. However, the level of the colonial suppression of difference to ensure conformity, for both Maori and Pakeha, calls for further research and explanation.


Paul Morris is Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.


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