Creeping confiscation, Alan Ward

I Shall Not Die: Titokowaru’s War, 1868-1869
James Belich
Bridget Williams Books, $39.99,
ISBN 9781877242496


In publishing a second edition of this work, first published in 1989, James Belich and Bridget Williams Books show their determination that knowledge and understanding of Riwha Titokowaru shall not die. And quite right too. In the constant task of shaping a fruitful relationship between Maori and Pakeha in New Zealand, it is important to know what Titokowaru stood for.

The book reveals in depth Titokowaru’s remarkable capability as a guerrilla leader, defending Ngati Ruahine and Nga Rauru lands in south Taranaki in the same years that the better-known Te Kooti Arikirangi was beginning to harry Pakeha occupiers of the eastern coast. But neither man started out as a war leader. On the contrary, Titokowaru, like Te Kooti, was a bright, favoured student of the Christian missions – in Titokowaru’s case of the Wesleyan Methodist mission in south Taranaki. Baptised Joseph Orton, he was 10 years a Methodist teacher. Indeed, one of the questions that modern readers might ponder is why many leaders of the Maori resistance in the 1860s – in the Kingitanga too – began their adult lives as mission-trained Christian idealists.

In Taranaki as elsewhere, the disastrous policy of land confiscation, as punishment for alleged rebellion, provoked even stronger Maori militancy. In 1865, after the invasion of Taranaki by British regiments and colonial militia, the government proclaimed most of the district confiscated. The policy was to survey the land section by section, place military settlers on it, and allow Maori who accepted the government’s terms to occupy reserves in their former homelands. In the mid-1860s, the influence of Te Ua Haumene, founder of the Pai Marire faith, was dominant among south Taranaki Maori.  Pai Marire, “good and peaceful”, wove elements of Old and New Testament religion into strongly traditional patterns of belief and ritual. Belich accurately characterises Te Ua as “the founder of a great Maori movement of non-violent resistance” to the colonists’ incursions – a movement which by the mid-1860s included the Maori King and the prophet Te Whiti o Rongomai of Parihaka. Titokowaru, who had fought the British in 1864-5, also became an adherent and inherited much of Te Ua’s mantle when the prophet died in 1866. Throughout 1867, Titokowaru led a hikoi of peace into the British settlements and military posts as far south as Wanganui Town, renouncing war, and persuading fellow-rangatira to accept the existing military settlements.

But “creeping confiscation” continued and, as the surveys encroached on land that Maori considered essential to their needs, rangatira including Titokowaru agreed on a campaign of muru – formal plundering of settler horses and other property from the military settlers’ farms. The Resident Magistrate, James Booth, not only ordered arrests of Maori responsible, but led parties of troops into Maori villages, including Te Ngutu o te Manu, Titokowaru’s village, to arrest Maori deemed responsible. On 9 June 1868, Maori warriors responded by killing three militia outsettlers. As Belich puts it, “Titokowaru’s Peace was over. Titokowaru’s War had begun.”

Belich’s account of the developing crisis, and of the military campaigns that follow, are among the best of his writings. He states that he intended the book to be “ ‘easy reading’, a lively narrative history presented as dramatically as possible without compromising historicity.” He also set out to show that the “indigenous side of resistance histories could be resurrected … through the careful re-analysis of European documents”, to get “under the skin” of past actors, including those playing apparently minor roles, and show them not as “cardboard cutouts” but as “flesh and blood” people for whom we can feel empathy. He succeeds very well. But it would have helped greatly if the text had included end-note numbers for the specific references, which are merely listed alphabetically under “Sources”.

Belich shows that most of the protagonists were complex people who interacted closely in peace as well as war. Officers such as Thomas McDonnell and Von Tempsky were able and brave commanders, but ambition and vanity led to their under-estimation of Titokowaru and his people, to their tactlessness towards kupapa allies, and thence to their ignominious defeat (and death in Von Tempky’s case) at Te Ngutu o te Manu. Similarly with Colonel George Whitmore at Moturoa.

Belich analyses Titokowaru’s ability to draw British and kupapa forces into frontal assaults on pa, which left them exposed to flank attacks from concealed entrenchments. Besides his many remarkable lieutenants and loyal followers from most south Taranaki tribes, Titokowaru’s main ally was the bush itself, in which defenders could move and fire from cover but attackers could not regroup. After Moturoa, moving swiftly through the forest wall, Titokowaru harried outsettlers and exposed military posts all the way to Wanganui Town, while avoiding battle with superior forces in open country. Titokowaru then revealed his genius at fortification in building the great pa Tauranga Ika.

Which gives rise to the mystery of why, on the night of 2-3 February 1869, Titokowaru and his followers abandoned Tauranga Ika, which Whitmore was preparing, somewhat nervously, to assault. Marshalling the available evidence carefully, Belich suggests that the position of a warrior-prophet was inherently vulnerable, because his actions could have unintended consequences: they could be read by other rangatira as bad omens, signs that his mana-tapu had waned. Warrior-prophets were considered entitled to liaisons with many women, but jealousies lurked nevertheless, and even as the attack on Tauranga Ika commenced, Titokowaru may have fallen into that most commonplace of male pitfalls: wrong place, wrong time, wrong woman.

But some rangatira among his allies had all along been uneasy about Titokowaru’s revival of ancient war rituals, including the Whangai Hau (cutting out and singeing the heart of the first enemy killed, as an offering to the gods of war), and ritual cooking and eating of parts of an enemy’s flesh by selected warriors. Although Titokowaru apparently never ate human flesh himself, he wrote a letter flaunting the ritual to his adversaries: “I have eaten the European, as beef … my throat is constantly open for the flesh of man.” This and his harrying raids had the desired effect of creating near-panic among the west coast Pakeha settlements. After Tauranga Ika, however, as his allies deserted him in droves, Titokowaru was forced into a fighting retreat to the fastnesses of inland Taranaki.

Belich deals fairly with all these events.  He notes too that when the wars were over and the government included the guerrilla leader in a general amnesty, most Taranaki settlers did not regard Titokowaru as a monster, but welcomed him into their public functions as a brave and skilful adversary who had fought to defend his land and his people. Titokowaru did not, however, cease non-violent resistance to the confiscation. He supported Te Whiti at Parihaka and spent eight months in gaol when that settlement was broken up. In 1886, though now frail, he participated in another occupation of a settler’s farm, and “spent another month in a colonist gaol”. He died in 1888.

Belich can at times be over-exuberant, and readers will ponder his characterisation of Titokowaru as “perhaps the greatest war leader either of New Zealand’s peoples has ever produced”. There will be other contenders for that honour. The difficulty for Titokowaru, as for other Maori resistance leaders, was that they were working within the framework of a kinship-based society, whose leaders could make common cause for a time, but could not readily create and defer to on-going superstructures, even Maori ones. Moreover, in 1869, Titokowaru had ranged against him, not only the colonists, but kupapa forces drawn from Te Arawa, Ngati Porou, Whanganui, and some Whanau-a-Apanui, Ngai Te Rangi and Ngapuhi.

Belich also overstates his case when he twice characterises central Taranaki under the leadership of Te Whiti, Tohu Kakahi and Titokowaru as “an independent state”. Building any “state” worthy of the name is a task requiring much time and patience, multiple skills and a willingness to subordinate sectional interests to the public good. The world is now littered with scores of miserable failures, many ruled by vicious dictators, others propped up by international armies and manipulative foreign patrons. Belich is also wrong to suggest that but for Titokowaru’s “feet of clay” Maoridom had a chance in 1868-9 of returning to the situation of 1860 “when the two peoples were equal”. They had not in fact been truly equal since the late 1830s, when capitalist imperialism had penetrated New Zealand. Only parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, in the hands of the general populace, has the capacity to tame that monster, in part. Many modern Maori leaders have recognised this and are assisting in the process.

Perhaps Belich will one day turn his remarkable talents for research and story-telling to some of those fighters too.


Alan Ward is emeritus professor of history at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales.

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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review, War
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