Honouring the Prophets : Centenary – Te Whiti and Tohu, Prophets of Non-Violence

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 42, Spring 2007

By Jim Consedine

Though the lions rage, still I am for peace… Though I be killed, I yet shall live; though dead, I shall live in peace which will be the accomplishment of my aim.

-Te Whiti o Rongomai (5 November 1881)

In the late 1800s, Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, Maori leaders in Taranaki, co-ordinated a series of daring non-violent campaigns to halt land confiscation that evoked the fury and wrath of the New Zealand Government but which also caught the imagination not just of the nation but of the leadership of the British Empire. The impact of the resistance at Parihaka remains today as a model of what might be when people unite and work non-violently for a peaceful future.

They both died in 1907 – which makes this year the centenary of their deaths and a time to honour the men, their movement and the vision they presented to a violent world. Conversely, it is also the centenary of one of the most shameful episodes of injustice in our history as a nation.


The context is critical. By 1860, the number of European settlers matched the number of Maori and the government felt obliged to supply land to new settlers. They made it clear they were willing to use force to colonize the North Island if other means failed. The New Zealand Settlers Act (1863) made it possible to confiscate land if Maori refused to co-operate in its purchase. They were deemed to be in rebellion. Although warned by the judiciary that such confiscations were illegal, the government confiscated 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares), much of it in Taranaki where Te Whiti and Tohu lived with their people at Parihaka.

In the 1860s, Te Whiti and Tohu had emerged as natural leaders of their people, grounded in the spiritual traditions of Maori as well as the Christian scriptures. ‘Te Whiti and Tohu…were Christian pacifists and promoters of spiritual and economic growth.1

With a further inflow of settlers in the 1870s, the government set its sights on acquiring further large land blocks including Parihaka. Te Whiti had observed at close quarters the land wars in the 1860s at Waitara and elsewhere where Maori had taken up arms to defend their land and lost both their lives and the land. He saw violence as counter productive.

For nearly two decades, these men had watched as the government had stolen, bullied and bribed its way into what amounted to widespread confiscation of land which had been in Maori hands for centuries.

Right through the late 1860s and 1870s, they dialogued with government agents and ministers trying to preserve what land was left. By early 1879, it was clear that the government greed for land knew no bounds. A new strategy was required by Maori.

Ploughmen’s Campaign

On 26 May 1879 a campaign led by Te Whiti and Tohu was launched whereby, across Taranaki, a disciplined corps of ploughmen started to plough settlers’ land using either horse or oxen-drawn ploughs. Te Whiti’s instructions were clear.

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…into their houses, touch not their goods nor their cattle. My eye is over all. I will detect the thief, and the punishment will be like that which fell upon Ananias.

The first modern planned campaign of non-violent resistance to state tyranny was under way. As the inevitable arrests occurred and ploughmen were imprisoned, others took their place. The plough protests started at Oakura, spread to Pukearehu and then to Hawera. It was a provincial-wide campaign. Te Whiti maintained that he was not targeting the settlers ‘but ploughing the belly of the government.’ The government’s response was drastic. By August 1879, about 200 had been taken into custody. In all, about 420 were to be imprisoned. Of these, only 40 were ever sent for trial. These were eventually held for 12 months in prison in New Plymouth. The remaining ploughmen were imprisoned without trial and sent to prisons in Dunedin, Hokitika, Lyttelton and Ripapa Island. In effect, the rule of law had been suspended.2

The government expanded its push for land. A force of 600 armed constabulary started to build roads right through some of the most fertile land in Taranaki. Without consultation, the constabulary pulled down cultivation fences around gardens to allow for roadways. Properly fenced gardens were essential to Maori health and economic wellbeing. They had huge acreage planted and stock to feed the several thousand who lived there. By June 1880, the new roads had reached the outskirts of Parihaka.

The resisters changed tact. As soon as the fences were pulled down, Maori rebuilt them. Inevitably the surveyors’ pegs were removed. Again the government moved to arrest the ‘fencers’ as they came to be called. In all 216 were taken into custody. None ever appeared in court. They were simply shipped to prisons in the South Island. This was illegal.

News of these imprisonments was widely reported in England and pressure was brought to bear on the government to act more justly. Ignoring recommendations from the West Coast Commission, a pro-government tribunal set up to investigate ways of dealing to the land issue, the government decided to take all the remaining land it wanted including the Parihaka block which the Commission had set aside as a reserve. New legislation pushed through in parliament allowed for imprisonment without trial with up to two years hard labour. The scene was set for the final confrontation.

The Final Thrust

On 5 November 1881, an armed military force of 1589 armed constabulary and volunteer militia invaded and occupied the unprotected Parihaka. Native Affairs Minister John Bryce himself, mounted on a white charger, with sabre and in military uniform, led the assault. On the marae, 2500 unarmed adults sat waiting with Te Whiti and Tohu in their midst. The soldiers were made to walk past rows of children playing with tops and dancing and singing, past rows of women to where the men waited. The two leaders along with several others were arrested and led away. They did not resist.

In the days that followed, 1600 people were forcibly dispersed, while 600 were allowed to remain. Houses and crops were destroyed, animals slaughtered. After Parihaka was destroyed, the constabulary fanned out over the countryside to wreak more extensive damage. Still there was no violent resistance. Not one shot was fired, not one life lost. The spirit of non-violence prevailed.

Te Whiti and Tohu were charged with sedition. Te Whiti told the judge, “It is not my wish that evil should come to the two races. My wish is for the whole of us to live peaceably and happily on the land”. Both were sent to Addington Prison in the South Island where they served 16 months. Upon release, both returned to Parihaka which, in the mid-1880s, was rejuvenated but to nothing like its previous status. Te Whiti continued to preach non-violence and promote harmony with the settlers and was imprisoned twice more over land issues. Both Te Whiti and Tohu died in 1907. Remarkably, only two weeks separated their deaths.


Along with the creation of our welfare state and nuclear free laws, knowledge of these remarkable men and their leadership at Parihaka should form part of the spiritual DNA of every person born in this country. Their movement of non-violent resistance to state tyranny deserves to be placed alongside the movements a century later in India and the US led by Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jnr. Indeed, there is evidence Gandhi knew of and was inspired by the resistance at Parihaka.

The ongoing spiritual legacy of Parihaka is one of living in harmony with the land and humanity. It is also a legacy of non-violent resistance and a belief in the peaceful and respectful, co-existence of Maori and Pakeha.

Given the impact of these two men on historic events, and given the almost universal disquiet at levels of violence in contemporary society, one wonders why neither Te Whiti nor Tohu have gained the status of iconic New Zealanders. Surely they are role models for what most want our society to become – just, fair, peace-loving, non-violent.

Why isn’t their story and the story of Parihaka as well known as the Gallipoli story? Why isn’t the Christian-led non-violent Parihaka resistance a compulsory part of RE programmes in our schools? And finally, why is 5th November still known as Guy Fawkes Day when it could be Parihaka Day?

1 The Taranaki Report – Kaupapa Tuatahi, Ch 8.3 Waitangi Tribunal, Wai 143, 1996

2 ibid

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