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How New Zealand Pioneered Peaceful Protest

A dairy farm in Taranaki, New Zealand | © Dave Young/Flickr
A dairy farm in Taranaki, New Zealand | © Dave Young/Flickr
Parihaka is a small settlement in the Taranaki region that has left a strong mark on New Zealand’s history. The pacifist community, founded in the mid-1860s, quickly became the country’s largest Māori settlement and a symbol of non-violent resistance to colonial confiscation of land.

On November 5, 1881, approximately 1600 government troops invaded Parihaka. They were met by several thousand Māori who quietly sat in the local marae as singing children greeted the armed forces. Some accounts even claim the community welcomed these soldiers with song and bread.

Despite these peaceful gestures, a lot of lives were lost. Houses were wrecked, crops destroyed, animals slaughtered and there were even reports of brutality and rape. It was only fairly recently that the Crown issued an official apology for its actions in this dark period in New Zealand’s past.

But what sparked such violent unrest? Let’s rewind things a bit to bring in some much-needed historical context.

A portrayal of an incident in the New Zealand Wars on 7 September 1868 © WikiCommons

New Zealand had been under colonial rule for 20 years by 1860, and territorial conflicts had become a reality for most. As British settlers moved to assert their authority across the country, many Māori iwi (tribes) lost their lands. Despite the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which was arguably meant to safeguard Māori sovereignty over their land, the British enacted ‘The New Zealand Settlements Act’ in 1863—a law that proclaimed all tribes trying to assert their independence would be marked as ‘rebels’ and punished accordingly.

Not long after this, two prominent Māori chiefs, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, had their lands confiscated. In response, they withdrew to the western end of Mount Taranaki and established the open farming community of Parihaka. Having witnessed the violence and bloodshed of the Taranaki land wars for themselves, both leaders came together to establish a peaceful philosophy for their new commune: one that would use spiritual powers, not force, to protect what’s rightfully theirs.

Soon, dispossessed Māori from all over New Zealand found their refuge in Parihaka. By May 1879, ploughmen from the community had, under the leadership of Te Whiti and Tohu, started to disperse across the Taranaki region to peacefully assert Māori territorial ownership. They began to plough confiscated land, often working from dusk till dawn as they hoed the white settlers’ farms.

A dairy farm in Taranaki, New Zealand © Dave Young/Flickr

The government responded by enacting several laws targeting these protesters and imprisoning many Parihaka ploughmen without trial. After a new government was elected in September 1879, an inquiry into land confiscations led many of these ploughmen to be sent to South Island prisons. In 1880, the established West Coast Commission recommended that reserves should be created for the Parihaka people, and in 1881, the prisoners were released from captivity.

While all this was happening, British authorities had been busy constructing new roads on fertile Taranaki land. A group of 600 armed forces were taking down garden fences built by Māori to make way for the infrastructure. By June 1880, the roads had reached the outskirts of Parihaka, where the British tried to incite conflict with little success—in fact, Māori continued with life as usual, rebuilding any fences that had been dismantled and even offering food to passing soldiers. More arrests ensued as hundreds of Māori came together to assist the Parihaka movement.

Tohu Kakahi leaving Parihaka under arrest on 5 November 1881 © WikiCommons

A proclamation made on 19 October 1881 gave the ‘Parihaka natives’ an ultimatum: 14 days to accept the reserves the government was offering, or face the dire consequences. The threat did nothing to break the community’s harmonious demeanour, despite the violent campaign that ensued in November.

As the soldiers dispersed and began destroying the land of Parihaka, Te Whiti and Tohu were sent to a South Island gaol. The two leaders were released in 1883, though the last of the imprisoned protesters would not be released until the summer of 1898. Many families affected were living in exile, poverty or in search of loved ones who had been arrested.

In the years that followed, Te Whiti and Tohu continued to advocate for non-violent resistance, and were subsequently arrested several times for a number of smaller campaigns. By the 1900s, Parihaka had modernised to become a thriving municipal development.

Fast forward to present times, and the town’s significance continues to show. In June 2017, 135 years after the deadly invasion, a reconciliation ceremony was held in Parihaka as the Crown took steps to redress its past wrongdoings. Prior to that, the town became globally renowned for hosting the International Peace Festival for several years until its founder passed away. The area and its history has also inspired several plays, books, films and contemporary artworks over the years.