|Te Whiti o Rongomai|
During the 1860s New Zealand had witnessed land wars between the colonising Europeans and the indigenous owners, the Māori. With the Māori largely militarily defeated, the government confiscated large areas of land, including land around Taranaki.
In 1867 Te Whiti and Tohu founded the village of Parihaka on land that had been “confiscated.” They declared that they would not use weapons to hold onto the land that they had occupied for centuries before the coming of the European. Initially this action was of no threat to the government as there were too few colonial settlers desiring land. The village of Parihaka flourished. Taranaki’s Medical Office visited in 1871 and described the village as having an abundance of food, no disease and that they were “the finest race of men (sic) I have ever seen in New Zealand.”
However, during the 1870s Taranaki was experiencing a surge in immigration. In 1879 surveyors were marking out roads and plots for European settlers. In May of that year Māori ploughmen began ploughing the fields that were supposedly “owned” by white settlers. The government responded by arresting the ploughmen, who offered no resistance. As soon as they were arrested others took their place. Te Whiti encouraged them to nonviolence by exhorting
“Go put your hands to the plough. Look not back. If any come with guns or swords, be not afraid. If they smite you, smite not in return. If they rend you, be not discouraged. Another will take up your good work.”By August that year, over 200 ploughmen had been arrested. Fearing that if brought to trial many would be freed the Native Minister (John Bryce) introduced a Bill to Parliament that ensured that the prisoners would be held in custody indefinitely.
1880 saw the government building roads in the area including one that led directly to Parihaka. These roads were built mainly by unemployed men with the promise of free land. The Māori response, under Te Whiti’s leadership, was to erect fences across the roads. Again, as soon as the fences were pulled down, Māori quickly re-erected them.
With the government continuing to sell “confiscated” land in the area, Te Whiti’s followers continued to fence, plough and cultivate the lands paying no heed to survey pegs or notices of sale.
By October 1881 the New Zealand Premier (Richard Hall) with the re-imposed Minister of Native Affairs (John Bryce) completed plans to invade Parihaka.
At dawn on 5 November 1881 almost 1,600 armed constabulary and volunteers encircled Parihaka. Although settler newspapers were claiming that Te Whiti was fortifying and arming Parihaka, the troops were met by “a line of children across the entrance… (who) sat there unmoving… even when a mounted officer galloped up. There were skipping-parties of girls on the road.” (first-hand account given by Colonel William Bazire Messenger)
Arriving at the centre of the village the invaders found 2,500 Māori sitting together. The soldiers were offered food and drink by the Parihaka inhabitants. Te Whiti and others put up no resistance to their arrest. Te Whiti was charged, cynically, with “wickedly, maliciously and seditiously contriving and intending to disturb the peace” and held without trial.
Upon his release in 1883 Te Whiti returned to Parihaka and continued to lead nonviolent protest at colonist occupation. He was arrested and imprisoned again in 1886 for six months.
Parihaka continued as a centre of nonviolent resistance until the death of both Te Whiti and Tohu in 1907.
Between 2001 and 2006 the New Zealand government formally apologised to four of the tribes involved in the resistance. Redress amounting to millions of dollars was paid out.
Followers of Te Whiti and Tohu continue to meet monthly, proudly wearing the white albatross feathers – Te Whiti’s symbol.
Was Te Whiti o Rongomai the Grandfather of Nonviolence? Perhaps he was. There are suggestions that Gandhi was aware of Te Whiti and his teachings, via a couple of Irish journalists who had visited Parihaka and later met with Gandhi.
This blog piece was reposted on 12 June 2017 because the government of New Zealand formally apologised to the people of Parihaka and the descendants of Te Whiti, Tohu and their followers.