Te Whiti o Rongomai: A Forerunner of Gandhi – by Helena Nielson

Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Gandhi are all well known as advocates of peace, but not many people, even in New Zealand, have heard of Te Whiti, a Maori leader who practised nonviolent resistance against the British Empire two generations before Gandhi. It is unclear whether Gandhi was inspired by Te Whiti’s philosophy and actions but there is evidence that he heard about him from two Irish visitors who had visited Parihaka, Te Whiti’s model community in New Zealand. This article is an attempt to acknowledge and honour Te Whiti’s life and achievements.

Te Whiti o Rongomai

Te Whiti o Rongomai

Te Whiti o Rongomai was born in the early nineteenth century in Taranaki on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. As the son of a minor Maori chief, he was educated in Maori traditions and learnt to read and write at a Catholic missionary school. His favourite book in the Bible was Revelations and, in adult life, he often used quotations from the Bible.

The mid nineteenth century saw a period of relatively peaceful coexistence between the Maori and what were small numbers of European settlers. In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the British government and many Maori chiefs giving Britain sovereignty over New Zealand in return for the protection of Maori rights and resources. The meaning of the Act was however, interpreted differently by both sides and is still being contested in New Zealand courts a hundred and sixty years later.

Maori resistance to selling land, however, provoked twelve months of fighting in Taranaki in 1860 and 1861. Neither side was able to force a victory and an uneasy truce existed when, in 1862, the ship Lord Worsley was shipwrecked off the Taranaki coast. A crowd of Maori were waiting for the survivors as they reached the shore. Despite a peaceful reception, one of the white passengers called out to those remaining on the Lord Worsley to throw all the ammunition on board into the sea to prevent its falling into the hands of the Maori. The situation began to turn ugly until two Maori chiefs arrived and took control. One of these was Te Whiti, who killed a bullock to feed the passengers and then sent word to New Plymouth, the nearest town, to say that the passengers were safe. Te Whiti then organised for his men to escort the passengers safely to New Plymouth. The other Maori chief was Te Ua, whose cult followers, in 1864 at the battle of Sentry Hill, went to fight against the white settlers with their right hand raised believing that the Christian God would protect them. Many were consequently killed.

George Grey had become Governor of New Zealand for a second term in 1861. In his earlier period of office he had learnt Maori and organised for their traditions and myths to be written down, thus earning the respect of many Maori. The situation, however, was different in 1861 as New Zealand now had its own elected parliament. In the three years after 1861 the white population doubled. White settlers in the North Island were eager to take over Maori land and in 1863 The Suppression of Rebellion Act was passed stating that any Maori fighting to retain their land was a rebel and therefore could be detained indefinitely without trial. This Act was quickly followed by The New Zealand Settlements Act, which allowed the Government to take over any land claimed by so-called rebels.

Seizure of Maori land

Three million acres were seized mainly in Taranaki leading to renewed fighting. Te Whiti took no part in the ensuing wars and when his village was burnt in 1865 he took his people inland and set up the town of Parihaka. Parihaka was run as a model community. Te Whiti and his fellow leader Tohu Kakahi argued that the Maori should refuse to sell land to the white settlers but should live in peaceful coexistence and reject the use of violence. Te Whiti was a very charismatic leader who was very knowledgeable and loved to talk in metaphors. On the 18th of every month a meeting was held in Parihaka attended by many Maoris from outside the town and even some white individuals. Te Whiti’s followers used the white feather of the albatross as a symbol of their peaceful intentions.

Although Te Whiti welcomed other Maoris into Parihaka, he refused to become involved in any plans for armed resistance to the seizure of their lands. There is a story that when Titokowaru, the great Maori warrior came to Parihaka with his armed followers, Te Whiti stopped him and said “Titokowaru the man is welcome, but when Waru the man comes to Parihaka, Waru the warrior must stay at home.” Titokowaru pointed to the armed warriors behind him and asked Te Whiti arrogantly “Who is behind you? “ “God” replied Te Whiti. At this Titokowaru told his men to lay down their arms and was welcomed into the town.

By the end of the 1870s Parihaka was a thriving community with a population of approximately 1500. Self sufficient in food, they also grew cash crops and used the latest agricultural equipment. Many European visitors praised the village for its orderliness and industry.

Although Maori land had been confiscated in the 60s, few European settlers had bought land there. So in 1878 the colonial government came up with a plan to survey the land prior to selling it off to some of the many settlers who were arriving on assisted passages from the United Kingdom. The surveyors cut through Maori fences and trampled cash crops, so Te Whiti organised for his followers to plough up grasslands belonging to existing European farmers. This enraged the white population and some members of the colonial government were determined to teach the Maori a lesson. An MP Major Harry Atkinson wrote in the local paper that, “he hoped if war did come, the natives would be exterminated.”

Te Whiti commanded that the ploughers should resist arrest and violence passively, saying “Go, put your hands to the plough. Look not back. If any come with guns, 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.”

As the ploughers were arrested, others immediately took their place. A commission was set up to try to resolve the issue but although they reported that it was a puzzle why the land had been confiscated when Te Whiti had never been a rebel, it still recommended that the surveying and sale of land should continue. The interim report from the commissioners stated that, “the story (of how the Maori had been treated) ought to fill us with shame”.

In 1880 Native Minister Bryce, known to the Maori as Brycekohuru or Bryce of the murders, insisted that a road was built north towards Parihaka. At first Te Whiti offered the labourers food as a sign of hospitality and was offered beer in return. But when Bryce ordered the road to be built through cultivated fields, refusing to fence it off so that livestock would not eat growing crops, Te Whiti ordered that fences should be erected and the road blocked. The road builders destroyed these fences and Parihaka fencers remorselessly kept rebuilding them. In total 420 ploughers were arrested and 216 fencers. Several later died in prison on the South Island.

Taking advantage of the absence of the British governor in 1881, parliament passed a proclamation giving Te Whiti 14 days to expel all non residents and to accept the reserves set aside for him, which would be sold by the government with Parihaka receiving rents for them. Te Whiti refused to sign.

Nonviolent resistance continues

On 5th November Bryce, the native Minister, along with a group of 2674 armed men, made up of volunteers as well as armed constabulary, rode to Parihaka. Croumbie-Brown, a newspaper reporter from the Christchurch Lyttleton Times, hid in one of the Parihaka houses and filed a full report of what happened, much to the annoyance of the government who had refused to allow any media to be present.

The militia were met by a group of 200 young boys, who sang and performed a haka or action routine. Then came a group of young girls skipping. Around 2,500 adults had been sitting in silence since midnight and 500 loaves had been baked to feed the militia. “If war comes, what can we do but look on and laugh” said Te Whiti.

The Riot Act was read but met by silence, which continued for an hour. After this Te Whiti and Tohu were arrested and taken away. The Maori remained silently where they were until nightfall. Next day the militia returned and began destroying the town and dispersing the Maori. Te Whiti and Tohu were never brought to trial as the politicians feared they would not be found guilty. Instead they were removed to Christchurch prison in the South Island. Christchurch had been founded in 1839 as a model community of Anglicans based on the city of Oxford. Here the two Maori leaders were admired by many of the city elders. They were given tweed suits and a meal of tinned lobster and taken on outings to show off the advanced technology and ‘civilisation’ of the European settlers. Te Whiti when asked if he had been impressed said he had liked the river. He claimed, “ …indeed the Pakeha (white settlers) did have some useful technology but not the kindness of heart to see that Maori also possessed much great technology, which if Pakeha were prepared to adopt, would lead to stability and peace and the building of a great new society”.

Parihaka restored

In 1883 after the British governor in New Zealand had pleaded the Maoris’ case in the House of Commons in London, Te Whiti and Tohu were released and taken back to Parihaka. Here they helped rebuild the village in a modern mixed European and Maori style. Both leaders continued to live there until their deaths in the early 1900s.

The political and social context for Te Whiti’s passive resistance differed in significant ways from Gandhi’s, three generations later. The Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 had given Great Britain sovereignty over New Zealand and the Maori rights as British citizens. In 1854 a New Zealand Parliament met for the first time and the British crown showed little interest in this small colony 12,000 miles away. Te Whiti was fighting for the right of Maori to live independent lives on their own lands but in peaceful coexistence with European settlers who were arriving in boatloads on assisted passages. His fight was with these settlers and their leaders rather than with the full might of the British Empire.

Given the difficulties and limitations of international communication at the time, Te Whiti’s passive resistance received less media attention in Britain and the wider world than Gandhi’s. His actions did not fit the white settler view of the colonisation of New Zealand and so were largely ignored by white historians until recently.

However as with Gandhi, powerful opinion in both the colony and London was divided as to the rights and wrongs of the Maori case. Several Maori challenged the government’s land claims in the courts and by personal entreaty to Queen Victoria. Unlike Gandhi, Te Whiti refused to take part in these actions.

Te Whiti and his followers in Parihaka lived simply but were not averse to using modern, European technology. They willingly offered hospitality to any European settlers even opponents. Large crowds came to hear Te Whiti speak, as he was a gifted and charismatic orator.

Te Whiti believed not only in total nonviolence, or ahimsa, but also in satyagraha, or civil disobedience, by resisting the surveying of Maori land through the actions of the ploughers and the fencers. He argued that Maoris should never sell their land but his vision was that Maoris would continue to live according to their traditional customs and beliefs in peaceful coexistence with European settlers. His traditional Maori spirituality was combined with a sound knowledge and belief in the Christian bible.

For these beliefs Te Whiti was willing to spend time in prison and to put his own and his followers lives at risk. As Gandhi said “I am willing to die for many causes but not to kill”.

Gandhi is officially recognised in India as “The father of the nation”. Te Whiti certainly does not receive such recognition in his homeland except perhaps amongst the Maoris. The European settlers continued taking over Maori land, and in the twentieth century many Maoris were forced to move to the cities, thereby often losing touch with their tribe and traditional customs. Discrimination often also led to unemployment, poverty and other social problems.

However, almost one hundred years after Te Whiti’s civil disobedience campaign against land seizures, New Zealand was forced to acknowledge the injustices that had been committed in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The Treaty of Waitangi Act in 1975 led to formal apologies and the setting up of a Tribunal to settle Maori land claims.

Significant places regained their Maori place names. Aoraki – Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand returned to the Ngai Tahu tribe, who the same day gave it back to the nation, their mana restored. Mana, an important concept in Maori culture, refers to authority or reputation and it is keeping this alive within the Maori communities that is perhaps Te Whiti’s greatest legacy.

Further Reading

Scott, Dick. Ask That Mountain: The Story of Parihaka. Auckland: Heinemann/Southern Cross. 1975.
Riseborough, Hazel. Days of Darkness: Taranaki 1878-1884. Revised ed. Auckland: Penguin 2002.
Walker, Peter. The Fox Boy London: Bloomsbury. 2001.
King, Michael. The Penguin History of New Zealand Auckland: Penguin 2003.
The Lyttelton Times November 7th 1881.

Helena Nielsen, a former social work tutor and present peace activist came across the story of Te Whiti during a two month stay in New Zealand.

The Symbolism of the White Feather in History

The white feather in history has been both a symbol of peace and paradoxically a symbol of cowardice.
As a symbol of cowardice, the Oxford University Dictionary dates the first appearance of the term “showing the white feather” as 1795. The term comes from cock fighting, when a white feather indicated cross breeding and therefore inferior fighting ability.

In 1902 A E W Mason wrote a story about a British officer whose resignation, being seen as a sign of cowardice, led to his receiving four white feathers, three from fellow officers and one from a lady. Ashamed the officer goes to fight in the British Sudanese war of 1882 and then returning to England gives back the feathers.

Following this story, a month after the outbreak of the First World War, a retired Admiral, Penrose Fitzgerald, formed a band of 30 women to give educated men who were not in uniform a white feather to encourage them to enlist and set an example to the working class. The custom soon caught on throughout the country but became unpopular when disabled men or those in essential industries were mistakenly given feathers. The government responded by casting a badge with King and Country on it for those legitimately entitled not to enlist.

Allegedly the first recorded use of the white feather as a symbol of peace was inEaston, New York State. In 1775, Quakers there, when faced with a crowd of Indian warriors, decided to sit in silence to show that they were peaceful. After searching the meeting-house for weapons, the Indian Chief attached a white feather above the door of the meeting-house to show others that the Quakers were not to be harmed.

The white feather is still displayed as a symbol of peace by the community of Parihaka which holds an international peace conference every year in memory of Te Whiti and Tohu’s passive resistance.

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