Parihaka cover

Myths and Legends

By Roger Childs

The activities of the South Taranaki Maori settlement and its occupation by the Armed Constabulary on 5 November 1881 have a special place in our history.  The episode features prominently in history books and online, and is often mentioned by the media and commemorated in music, drama, art and dance. There is even a Parihaka Day called the “Day of Plunder”.


Much has been written about the passive resistance to settler land development, which was initiated by the Prophets Te Whiti and Tohu, near Parihaka in the 1870s. These Maori leaders are seen as iconic heroes, preaching peace and standing up to an unreasonable and oppressive government.

Furthermore, there has been general condemnation of the “invasion” of the peaceful settlement in 1881 by a large armed force of about 1600 Armed Constabulary and Volunteers, led by Native Minister John Bryce.

But have we been getting a full and balanced account of Parihaka and its history?

A new Parihaka book giving the facts

John McLean has written a number of books on New Zealand history and in Parihaka: The Facts he sets out to untangle the myths about the community, its activities and the 1881 occupation by government forces.

Using the observations of Maori and non-Maori from the time, the words of Te Whiti himself, contemporary newspaper reports and accounts by eminent historians such as James Cowan, the author’s interesting and informative book is soundly based on thorough research and the facts of what happened.

Putting Te Whiti in perspective

Te WhitiThe prophet was fundamentally a man of peace, but was also a prominent member of the Pai Marire (Hauhau) Movement which was often involved in violence and had, as one of its goals, driving European settlers from the country. Te Whiti and Tohu established and independent “state” at Parihaka and refused to negotiate with the government which wanted a peaceful resolution to the complicated land issues in Taranaki.

The prophets drew large number of Taranaki Maori to the village and this annoyed other iwi in the region as there was a drain of people and resources from their communities. The prophets held regular feasts and Maori who came to live in the village were required to bring gifts as well as food contributions for the regular feasts. Both men became very wealthy.

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The passive resistance that was carried out in South Taranaki was generally peaceful, but did involve some violence, vandalism and pillaging. One murder was committed and the culprit Wiremu Hiroki was subsequently sheltered at Parihaka. The warrior chief Titokowaru, who had practised cannibalism during his 1868-69 rebellion in South Taranaki, also found sanctuary in the village.

Much is made of Maori being driven out of Parihaka after the occupation and the plundering of the village, however, it was only the people from other iwi who had come to live at Parihaka who were sent home. Their temporary whare were destroyed and the homes of genuine Parihaka people, with some exceptions, were not plundered. There was a search for weapons and those that were found were taken away. Te Whiti and Tohu, and others legitimate Parihaka residents, who were taken prisoner, were later allowed to return to the village.

The author acknowledges that Te Whiti, despite his links with the Hauhau, was fundamentally a man of peace and his instructions to his people not to resist the armed occupation was a key reason why the only casualty was a boy having his foot stood on by a horse. The size of the government’s occupying force was another reason why there were no casualties.

Putting the record straight

Parihaka: The Facts is an important and very readable book which examines the myths and legends surrounding Te Whiti, Tohu and Parihaka. The author looks closely at the evidence suggesting Te Whiti actually wanted the government forces to come to the village. He also examines the allegations of rape which only surfaced over 40 years later in the 1920s, and covers the waning of Te Whiti’s popularity after he returned to the settlement.

A useful addition to the main text are two Appendices – one on the amount of land confiscated after the conflicts of the 1860s and the not well known detail on the approximately 50% that was returned. The other appendix covers the interesting history of the Armed Constabulary.

John McLean’s enlightening book should be read by anyone wanting an honest and unbiased account of what actually happened in this much heralded Taranaki settlement in the last quarter of the 19th century.

Published by Tross Publishing, available for $30 from Paper Plus Paraparaumu and can also be bought online.