Remembering another war (in New Zealand)

When “The Last Post” rings out on Saturday at scores of commemorative services across the world for the thousands of New Zealanders who have died in conflict – 30,000 in all – people will stop and reflect on the sacrifices made. They will stop to reflect on how two world wars and a host of smaller ones have impacted on New Zealand as a nation, where we have come from and where we are going. But what about New Zealand’s own past, with its settler conflicts in the 1800’s, whose shadow still permeates the nation today despite attempts at redress through the Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal?

Specifically they might also remember another conflict, closer to home, in which British settlers in Taranaki tried to crush a peaceful Maori protest movement that originated in the west Taranaki locality of Parihaka. Here after the Second Taranaki War in about 1866, a Maori chief named Te Whiti established a settlement that was home to those seeking isolation from European settlers and war-like Maori groups. At its peak, just before being destroyed by a brutal raid in 1881, Parihaka was home to several hundred people.

As Parihaka grew, it became self sufficient, and developed internal infrastructure. Road ways were clean. The Government Medical Officer at the time reported a good state of hygiene with no disease. It was also visited by Europeans on a regular basis, who reported being greeted with dignity and hospitality. The community grew sufficiently organized as to hold meetings in the largest whare (meeting house).

And yet Parihaka had to be destroyed according to Native Minister John Bryce, whose condemnation of Maori and Maoridom was as strident as National Front rhetoric against immigrants is today. It was a threat to European superiority, a threat to British colonialism and an unjust use of colonial land. If it could not be dealt with peacefully through coerced land sales, it would be simply destroyed by Government forces.

But there was a problem. Te Whiti was not buying into the attempts to sell the land to the settlers. Despite bribes of money, alcohol and food stuffs that his community did not have, Te Whiti refused to be coerced and instead eventually led a campaign of resistance. Attempts at building roads to connect the British settlements such as Stratford were not so much stopped with armed force, as the surveyor pegs were stolen; furrows were ploughed through settler farms. The Government began arresting the men under Te Whiti’s command, but more kept appearing. The British settlers did not understand that if one of the Maori got arrested, another several would be lining up to take his place. But they were most incensed by the non armed resistance tactics which also included mass sit ins, refusal to answer questions and peaceful defiance in response to threats of violence.

Eventually after legislation was passed to criminalize resistance, followed by further attempts to seize the land and subsequent bouts of resistance, Government forces moved on Parihaka. They looted the stores, destroyed the town and made mass arrests. Similar violence broke out in Maori communities all over western Taranaki. Upwards of 1500 people were arrested. Some women were allegedly raped.

130 years after the raid that destroyed Parihaka, and nearly 170 years since the New Zealand Wars started, is it perhaps not time to remember that the early years of New Zealand history were not exactly peaceful either? That for nearly 30 years between 1845 and 1872 a combination of intermittent skirmishes and larger conflicts, many involving atrocities ravaged the North Island?

To understand where we go as a nation in the future, we must first understand our past. That is the same regardless of whether one talks about New Zealand’s involvement in foreign wars, or our own blood splattered development as a nation all those years ago.

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