Saturday, November 05, 2005

Remembering Parihaka

In addition to being the day we celebrate our inner pyromaniacs, today is also the anniversary of one of the most shameful moments in New Zealand's history: the invasion of Parihaka. Led by the Maori prophets Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu, Parihaka was dedicated to Maori autonomy and a philosophy of peace. When the settler government attempted to seize their land to pay its debts, the residents of Parihaka responded with passive resistance: survey pegs were pulled up, and settled land was ploughed. The government responded with mass-arrests and imprisonment without trial. Then, on November 5th, 1881, a force of 1589 soldiers and armed police invaded the village. They were met with singing children and a sit-in. This is how the Waitangi Tribunal's Taranaki Report [PDF] described the aftermath:

An information blackout imposed on the Government's actions was indicative of a disturbed conscience. The publication of even the cryptic official reports to the Government was suppressed for over two years. Those reports eventually revealed, however, that Parihaka had been taken without resistance; that it was 'completely broken up'; that about 1500 men, women, and children had been arrested; and that six were imprisoned, including Te Whiti and Tohu, who were held on charges of sedition. Titokowaru, who had recently returned from prison with the ploughmen, was imprisoned again for failing to procure sureties to keep the peace.

Images of a fuller picture escaped later to the public arena; images of assaults; rape; looting; pillage; theft; the destruction of homes; the burning of crops; the forced relocation of 1556 persons without money, food, or shelter; the introduction of passes for Maori to facilitate the military's control of movements in the area; and the suspension of trials and other legal safeguards when it appeared that lawful convictions might not be achieved.

Parihaka provides a damning indictment of a government so freed of constitutional constraints as to be able to ignore with impunity the rule of law, make war on its own people, and turn its back on the principles on which the government of the country had been agreed.

The destruction of Parihaka was partly motivated by Pakeha avarice for land (the history of New Zealand in a nutshell), but also by a hysterical fear of Maori autonomy. And there are obvious parallels with the later invasion of Maungapohatu and arrest of Rua Kenana. In both cases, isolated, autonomous Maori communities became the focus for exagerrated fears on the part of Pakeha (Te Whiti was reported to be gathering an army to burn New Plymouth; Rua was plotting with the Kaiser and had a machine gun. Neither turned out to be the case) - despite their demonstrated commitment to pacifism.

Why should we remember Parihaka? For the same reason we remember any event in history: to avoid repeating it. Parihaka was a gross injustice, but it is also a warning of what happens when government acts on fear and without respect for human rights. Only by acknowledging and remembering it can we hope to avoid making the same mistake in the future.