The Story of Te Whiti O Rongomai
Imagine a leader so inspiring he is able to encourage men with warrior hearts to stand up for their rights, while laying down their weapons.
Picture this same man convincing 2000 people to welcome battle-thirsty soldiers into their village, and even offer them food and drink. Even more surprising is how this peaceful leader allows himself and his people to be arrested without showing the slightest shrug of resistance.
You may believe you are reading the story of famous pacifist Mahatma Gandhi, of India, or another of the world’s great leaders. But in fact, this is the tale of a man from Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Te Whiti o Rongomai III was the leader of Parihaka, a Māori village nestled in a lahar-lumpy landscape between Mount Taranaki and the Tasman Sea.
Even though Te Whiti died in 1907, his spirit of peace is still alive at the slowly reviving kainga (village) – and way beyond.
Parihaka historian Te Miringa Hohaia has studied the life and writings about the man of mana. “Te Whiti was one of those great leaders. We had Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther-King, Nelson Mandela and Te Whiti o Rongomai.
“Te Whiti was the forerunner of them all.”
Te Miringa says Gandhi knew about Te Whiti. “He learnt about Te Whiti from an Irish delegation that visited Parihaka and then had a meeting with Gandhi. Although Gandhi was already committed to non-violence, the impact of finding out about Te Whiti must have been startling.”
Even from an early age, Te Whiti and his close relative Tohu Kakahi began showing signs of leadership. For much of their lives, these men were good friends, sharing the leadership at Parihaka. They even married sisters. Te Whiti’s wife was Hikurangi and Tohu’s wife was Wairangi.
Te Whiti’s parents were Hone (Tohu) Kakahi, the great-great grandson of Takarangi (Ngati Awa or Te Atiawa) and Raumahora (Taranaki). His mother was Rangi Kawau, a sister of Te Whetu Moeahu II of Taranaki Iwi, Ngati Moeahu Hapu.
The children of Te Whiti and Hikurangi were Ngaruaki and Nohomairangi.
While there is some debate over Te Whiti’s birth date, the elders of Parihaka have always believed he was born about 1815.
“We have always gone with what’s on the memorial stone out there,” says Te Miringa. “His closest descendants agree with that as well.”
Living up to a sacred name
There have also been differences of opinion over how the leader got his name. Some reports say he was named after the flight of an albatross, others say it was inspired by a comet that looked like an albatross, but Te Miringa prefers the story told by Te Whiti himself – that he was named after a hill.
“In 1900 he made a speech in which he spoke about the origins of his name.”
It involves the sacred hill, called Puke Te Whiti, now known as Pukeiti, the home of Taranaki’s world-famous rhododendron sanctuary.
The dome-shaped mound is found between the Pouakai and Kaitake ranges. “That hill is the most sacred site on all of the mountains of Taranaki.”
This relates to the ancient story of Mount Taranaki. The guidestone, Te Toka a Rauhoto, led Taranaki up the Stony River to become snagged on the spur of Pouakai, where the large mountain settled. But Rauhoto’s journey continued around Pouakai and through the gap between the ranges to its resting place on the southern side of the Stony River, not far from the sea. The guidestone’s flight was called Te Whitinga o Rauhoto, and so the sacred hill was named in remembrance of this, becoming Puke Te Whiti.
“This hill was a pa site as well,” he says. “It’s an ancient burial ground. Some very serious people are buried there.”
In the 1900 speech, Te Whiti tells his own story: “My name is taken from the hill Puke Te Whiti (which stands as a sentinel guarding the past, the present and the future). Like Puke Te Whiti, I stand as a sentinel – not one bit of land will be given over to strangers with my consent.”
Even now Te Whiti’s name is associated with justice, peace and freedom for oppressed people.
Educating Te Whiti
As a youngster, Te Whiti was well educated by Māori elders, who taught him about the traditions of his culture.
It also appears preacher Minarapa Te Rangihatuake taught Te Whiti scripture and to read and write. Te Whiti also became a pupil of Lutheran missionary Johannes Riemenschneider. The young Maori was baptised Erueti (Edward), which he later rejected in favour of his sacred name.
Te Miringa says Te Whiti’s beliefs were based strongly on traditional values and knowledge, mixed with some Christianity.
“He showed qualities that were close to Godliness, but I can’t say he was a religious man. He was buried without a Christian ceremony. That was his own wish.
“I don’t see a row of churches that were built down the coast by Te Whiti and Tohu. There wasn’t even a church at Parihaka.”
A way with words
However, Te Whiti’s favourite book of the Bible was Revelations. Sometimes he even quoted from scripture. “He was a great classical orator,” Te Miringa says.
This is clear in a speech to his people, on 1 November 1881:
‘My word to you to the tribe … There are two roads, one to life and one to death. God said, in the days of Noah, the earth will be destroyed; build an ark, or all will perish. Noah did as he was commanded and this was an example for us to follow. God said to Lot, depart from the city; leave your houses and goods, for he who turns back shall die, and the city shall be burnt. This is an example for us to follow. God said to Moses, do not strive against me, or you will die; by faith only can this tribe be saved. This also is an example to us. Our salvation today is stout-heartedness and patience …’
At odds with Te Ua
Some historians believe that Te Whiti was a follower of the Pai Marire (Hauhau) religion and a protege of its leader, Te Ua Haumene.
Te Miringa says it’s not as simple as that and, from his own studies, has learnt the two leaders were at odds. “Te Whiti’s challenge to him was to put an end to violence.”
But this never happened and at the Battle of Sentry Hill on 30 April 1864, many of Te Ua’s followers were killed because they headed into the fray with their right hands raised in the belief God would protect them from bullets.
They were gunned down.
Te Miringa says Te Whiti was probably at Sentry Hill, but not to support Te Ua. He was there to support his own people, who were putting their lives on the line.
Two years earlier, both men played a part in saving the people from the Lord Worsley shipwreck at Te Namu, near Opunake. It was around that time that Te Ua says he had a vision that sparked his Pai Marire religious beliefs. He later used the ship’s mast as a niu (pole) as the centre of worship.
Birth of passive resistance
In that 1862 incident Te Whiti ensured the stranded settlers made it safely through tribal territory to New Plymouth.
While the Parihaka prophet turned his back on all acts of violence, he wasn’t going to give up land without a fight.
And so, passive resistance was born.
“Though some, in darkness of heart, seeing their land ravished, might wish to take arms and kill the aggressors, I say it must not be. Let not the Pakehas (sic) think to succeed by reason of their guns … I want not war, but they do. The flashes of their guns have singed our eyelashes, and yet they say they do not want war … The government come not hither to reason, but go to out-of-the-way places. They work secretly, but I speak in public so that all may hear,” Te Whiti told his people in March 1880.
By that time, Parihaka was a stronghold of Māori opposition to the loss of tribal lands, which arose from Crown legislation.
Te Miringa says the the government passed the Suppression of Rebellion Act 1863. This defined Māori fighting for their land as rebels, who could be detained indefinitely, without trial.
Crown begins to slice up land
The New Zealand Settlements Act 1863 then authorised the confiscation of any land where the government deemed the natives to be in rebellion.
Although the judiciary warned that confiscation was illegal, the government systematically took 3 million acres (1.2 hectares) of land.
Much of that was in Taranaki and the Waikato.
Some Members of Parliament demanded to know what would happen to the thousands left landless and imprisoned.
The government promised to designate reserves and return these to iwi. By 1870, no reserves had been created in Taranaki.
In the 1870s, more immigrants arrived from Europe, and farmers on small-holdings in Canterbury sold up and moved north to Taranaki and Manawatū. And so the government was pressured to provide more land for Pākehā.
As a result, surveyors began slicing up the Waimate Plains.
In the beginning, Te Whiti and his people allowed this to happen. But in the late 1870s, when settlers began to move on to the land, the people of Parihaka chose to act.
That’s when the passive resistance campaign began in earnest.
Power of the plough
In June 1879, Te Whiti said to his ploughmen: “Go, put your hands to the plough. Look not back. If any come with guns and swords, be not afraid. If they smite you, smite not in return. If they rend you, be not discouraged. Another will take up the good work. If evil thoughts fill the minds of the settlers, and they flee from their farms to the town as in the war of old, enter not you into their houses, touch not their goods nor their cattle. My eye is over all.”
During that period of non-violent unrest, hundreds of Māori were arrested and kept in prison without trial.
The conflicts between the people of Parihaka and the settler-backed government came to a head in 1881. On 19 October, Native Affairs Minister William Rolleston signed a proclamation to invade Parihaka.
Invasion of Parihaka
On 5 November 1881, the peaceful village was invaded by 1500 volunteers and members of the Armed Constabulary. The soldiers were welcomed by the 2000 people of Parihaka, allowing themselves to be arrested without protest.
Te Whiti and Tohu were the first to be led away. They were imprisoned without trial and then taken on a tour of the South Island to show them all the progress and developments made by the Europeans. Neither was impressed, and Te Whiti continued to ask that his people be given justice, their freedom and the return of their tribal lands.
After they returned to Taranaki in 1883, the relationship between Te Whiti and Tohu changed. Tohu no longer went out to participate in protests, while Te Whiti continued passive resistance with the support of Ngā Ruahine leader Riwha Tītokowaru.
Friendship breaks down
“Tohu made many very fiery speeches and lost hope in a peaceful settlement,” Te Miringa says.
He believes Tohu’s frustration stemmed from how harshly the people of Parihaka had been treated.
The friendship between the two leaders became strained. Sadly, it never healed.
“Te Whiti was a very, very clever man. There is no account of Te Whiti o Rongomai reacting to the harsh treatment . Although, while in detention he complained of being very low of spirit.
“They (his supporters) composed many, many hundreds of verse about the injustices and of the land theft, but there is no cynicism and no indication of bitterness and there is certainly no derogatory remarks made about anybody who had been a friend or colleague of his,” Te Miringa says.
Brilliant leader forever remembered
Like Nelson Mandela, a hundred years later, Te Whiti only showed compassion and strength in the face of adversity.
“Te Whiti was a brilliant leader, so much so that for a long, long time to come, generations of people will talk about him,” Te Miringa says.
Which has happened.
Even though Tohu and Te Whiti both died in 1907, the people of Parihaka continue to carry on the tradition of meeting on the 18th and 19th of every month. This began back in the early 1860s, to mark the start of the First Taranaki War, which began in Waitara on 17 March 1860 (the 18th according to the Lutheran calendar).
By coincidence, Te Whiti died on 18 November.
These are the words on his memorial at Parihaka:
He was a man who did
great deeds in suppressing
evil so that peace may
reign as a means of
salvation to all people
on earth …