When the Governor came here, he brought with him the Word of God by which we live; and it is, through the teaching of that Word, that we are able to meet together this day, under one roof. Therefore, I say, I know no Sovereign but the Queen, and I never shall know any other. I am walking by the side of the Pakeha. –Distinguished Ngapuhi chief, Tamati Waka Nene

One of New Zealand’s top historians

By Roger Childs

Kapiti is fortunate in having one of New Zealand’s best historians. In recent times Waikanae-based Dr John Robinson has been writing a book a year, often on topics that other better-known historians have avoided.

John Robinson, however, is prepared to boldly and honestly take on some of the tougher topics of New Zealand history and politics such as the truth about the Treaty of Waitangi, tikanga in the modern era, Unrestrained Slaughter on the inter-tribal wars and He Puapua on the Maori elites program for co-governance. His latest book is on the important Kohimarama Conference where 162 years ago more than 100 chiefs endorsed their support for the colonial government and the changes it was implementing.  

The research of John Robinson is always thorough and meticulous, his analysis thoughtful and perceptive, and the conclusions he reaches are carefully backed up with evidence. The Kohimarama book is subtitled “Chiefs Support Christianity and the Queen” which clearly indicates two crucial commitments tribal leaders made at the Conference.

A large gathering of native chiefs

The chiefs from across the country, but mainly from the North Island, gathered at Mission Bay in April 1860 at the invitation of Governor Thomas Gore Browne. They were there to discuss the way ahead for Maori people and the positive hopes for their future relationships with the colonial government and white settlers.

It was probably the largest gathering of Maori chiefs in New Zealand’s history. With Governor Gore Browne presiding and Native Secretary and Land Commissioner Donald McLean also involved in spelling out government policy and answering questions, the chiefs pledged loyalty to Queen Victoria and emphasized their commitment to Christianity and support for the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi (Te Tiriti o Waitangi). However, there were a wide range of topics raised and they were not always resolved.  Many chiefs mentioned that they needed to go back to their tribal areas and discuss possible policies and future developments with their people.

Clears messages of support for the colonial government

The comments of Hemi Matini Te Nera from Ngati Hourua were typical of their wishes: “I shall not join that evil (the Maori King Movement). All I desire is to live on terms of friendship with the Governor and Queen. Under the old law we perished; under the present law we live.” Many chiefs endorsed these sentiments and there was a general desire expressed for living in peace with the growing number of white settlers. 

There was also much criticism of Wiremu Kingi’s rebellion in Taranaki and the increasing extremism of the Kingites following the death of the highly respected first “king” Te Whero Whero. His great wish was in line with the mood of those gathered at Kohimarama namely for Maori to peacefully work with the colonial government for the benefit of both races.

There were also plans discussed for the colonial government to provide tribes with wide powers of local government, equivalent to states in the USA — runanga — and to have annual conferences of chiefs.

Unfortunately, in 1860 the conflict in North Taranaki and the later Kingite Rebellion in the Waikato overshadowed the importance of the Kohimarama Conference. 

Plenty of background

As well as providing comprehensive coverage of what was said at the various sessions by the chiefs, Gore Browne and McLean, John Robinson provides background on the significance and difficulties of the interaction between a highly developed western civilization and a neolithic (late stone age) culture which had had no knowledge of the thousands of years of developments in European, Asian and Middle Eastern societies. He also touches on the very rapid acceptance by many Maori leaders and their people of the political, economic and social opportunities provided by the colonists. However, he stresses that in 1860 the way ahead was still uncertain for the young colony.

An interesting feature of the coverage is the many direct references on the full report on the Kohimarama proceedings provided by the Maori Messenger, a government-sponsored bilingual paper. 

Putting Kohimarama in context

In the later sections of the book there is detail provided on developments that occurred after the Conference related to attempts to avoid conflict with the Kingites; the offers of runanga, the outbreak of war in the Waikato and later attempts to encourage Maori leaders to work together. 

There is also an analysis of how historians in the modern era have taken a revisionist approach to the 1840 Treaty and the Kohimarama sessions that followed twenty years later.

Throughout the text quotes are carefully footnoted and there is a comprehensive list of references and a useful index. Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is that the story of Kohimarama is based around what the key players of the time actually said. John Robinson puts the large conference in its historical context which is long overdue. Highly recommended.

(The Kohimarama Conference Chiefs Support Christianity and the Queen by John Robinson is available from local bookstores or direct from the publisher https://trosspublishing.co.nz/ for $35 postage-paid within NZ.)