Powerful peace, Robert Sullivan

Te Whiti o Rongomai and the Resistance of Parihaka
Danny Keenan
Huia, $45.00,
ISBN 9781775501954

This account of the non-violent resistance movement founded by the prophets Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi at the Taranaki settlement of Parihaka begins with a mihi by Rangikotuku Rukuwai, who is a descendant of Te Whiti, and who was raised by Tohu’s family. It sets the tone of the deep connections the author has with the tangata whenua of Parihaka as a member of Te Whiti’s hapū, Ngāti Te Whiti. The values of manaakitanga, or care for people, and rangimarie, or peace for one another, in his mihi, also set the stage for this meticulous, respectful narrative. Danny Keenan has relied on a range of oral, archival, official and published source materials. His entry for Te Whiti o Rongomai in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography did not cite oral histories, and so he takes the opportunity in his introduction to acknowledge his sources in this work, focusing on the two prophets and the conflicts in Taranaki leading up to the peaceful resistance. This is the book’s point of difference. It is a concerted, indigenous account of the events surrounding the invasion and at times violently destructive occupation of Parihaka in 1881. It is told without rancour. The unvarnished tone, and the weight of historical evidence, provide many insights into the lives and motivations of prominent Pākehā and Māori leaders of the time, without recourse to the highs and lows of drama.

A focus on Te Whiti o Rongomai is suggested by the title, and the back-cover blurb, yet the book achieves this by an interpretive reconstruction of events and fragments surrounding the historical figure, so that, in the end, we are left with a sense of mystery intact. It is as if we have witnessed the woodcarver’s sacred chips reassembled into an inverse image of the original figure. Te Whiti is famous in New Zealand history for instigating a passive resistance by the villagers of Parihaka, long before more famous non-violent struggles for governance and human rights internationally. The material could most easily have been drawn into a dramatic narrative with declaiming players, yet what I find most moving about the narrative style here is its unemotional approach, its sense of continuity and surety in what the village of Parihaka represents. In any case, this is a collective history involving Te Whiti’s great partner, Tohu Kākahi, and communities of interest. It is one of the stories belonging to Taranaki and Aotearoa, so it has a resonance that carries beyond these shores into the wider area of indigenous studies, and non-violent political resistance.

It covers the events leading up to the resistance quite swiftly, if thoroughly. “Titokowaru’s War” is dealt with in four pages, for instance. Officials, such as Civil Commissioner Robert Parris, whose census reports and surveys provide much of the historical data, are given detailed attention and help to provide a larger picture of the kinds of information available to the settler governments, or, rather, the kinds of information sought, and the attitudes revealed. Keenan is quite restrained in his description of the reports, saying that Parris’s attitude to Māori in the 120-mile coastal district from Mokau to Patea he was responsible for, was “benign at best”.

Importantly, indigenous perspectives are represented. Personal communications with kaumātua who have now passed away, such as Te Rū Wharehoka, Te Miringa Hōhaia, Wikitoria Keenan, Joe Ritai Chalmers, Lou McDonald, Reuben Ashford, and generous quotations from treasured karakia, waiata, tangi, go a long way to representing the enduring views of Māori. The Māori oral informants help to provide the text with its collectivity, its holistic approach to the issues facing officials as well as the women and men of Parihaka. In regard to the representation of women’s perspectives, this is partly achieved through the whakapapa of kōrero presented, and the author’s informants. In this well-woven approach to narrative, it is at times difficult to discern women’s perspectives on some of the major events surrounding the 1881 invasion, and perhaps a clearer approach could have been taken in this regard. The mistreatment of women by the armed constabulary after the 1881 invasion is addressed briefly in one paragraph, for instance. Other historical accounts are admittedly wanting in that regard, too.

In terms of its contextual approach, this account is quite satisfying, with its coverage of earlier prophetic movements throughout Aotearoa, as well as its beginning in whakapapa, and then the history of the people of Taranaki through prominent ancestors and the unifying arrival of the waka Tokomaru from which Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Mutunga and Te Ātiawa descend. Intertribal wars with Waikato present a picture of turbulent unsettlement, with Te Ātiawa migrating south to Wellington in the early 1830s, and then returning to Waitara in a migration led by Wiremu Kingi in 1848 where they came under intense pressure by Pākehā to sell land over the next decade. Continuing a collective, communal theme in this narrative, Te Whiti had migrated south with Te Ātiawa, and then a decade later, in the early 1840s, migrated to Warea in central Taranaki not far from Parihaka. Te Whiti’s positive relationship with the German missionary J F Riemenschneider, who provided him with early spiritual counsel, lasted briefly, before they ended their friendship on the grounds that an independent Māori theology, symbolised by the Kingitanga movement, was opposed by Riemenschneider. Soon after, the Waitara war began and Warea was shelled by a British warship. Te Whiti moved inland to Parihaka. Although the government defeated Te Ātiawa, Governor Grey decided to return the Waitara Block to Māori in order to pacify the area. Nevertheless, events then rapidly unfolded, resulting in the Waikato wars, resulting in mass displacements and confiscations further north. In this climate of rising and falling tensions between colonists and Māori, the attractions of a peace movement are well-described by Keenan, and the long-lasting haven for Māori well-being centred at Parihaka is established. Far from being an individual biography of Te Whiti o Rongomai, this account by Keenan might best be described as a collective biography for its communal dispositions towards events and people.

After reading Keenan’s history, I felt that I gained a greater understanding of the purpose of Parihaka’s resistance to colonial encroachments, and the Parihaka community’s ongoing support of Aotearoa’s peace movements. The careful word selection, its attention to relationships between officials, Pākehā and Māori leaders, wraps us in cloaks worn by rangatira. I also appreciated the thorough pace when it was warranted, such as the suspension of constitutional rights to fair trials for the ploughmen, and for unjust arrests and imprisonment for Te Whiti and Tohu on November 5, 1881, and for its patient unfolding of events from different perspectives — accounts by journalists at the time, descendants, and politicians. Context is ever-present in the activities of New Zealand’s political representatives, such as the Act of parliament to enable the prophets’ detention without trial due to the likely failure of their charges for disturbing the peace, and inciting violence, and another Act indemnifying the settler troops due to their illegal activities. The pace also left more time to cover the long period of clearances of Māori residents from the village and surrounding lands, and also the long road to recovery for Parihaka. I cannot say that any of the sketches of individuals amounts to a complete biography, except that there is an even-handed presentation of figures so that no one figure appears to dominate. John Bryce, for instance, receives as much attention as Parris, or a number of other government officials and politicans, so that I wasn’t left with a sense of individual scapegoating or blame, as I have felt when reading other accounts. Taken in its entirety, this collective biography of Parihaka successfully conveys the considered emotions of a community who were subjected to considerable force at the hands of the settler government. Its measured and gentle pace creates a history that will endure for its authentic presentation of indigenous voices among those positioning their community’s crisis in much larger narratives. It is hoped that this history will be received as a vehicle for those voices, as a source of powerful peace, as an exemplar of how to tell a people’s story motivated by values and not by conflict.

Robert Sullivan (Ngāpuhi, Ngāi Tahu) is a Māori poet who has published nine books and co-edited three significant anthologies of Māori and Polynesian poetry. 

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