Remember, remember the 5th of November: Parihaka’s silent vigil for Machiavellian NZ

Last night, as part of the Wellington Doicese’s Anglican Schools Youth Pigrimage, we stayed in Te Niho o Te Ati Awa on Parihaka Pa. We were hosted by my whanaunga, the redoubtable kuia Maata, who has lived on the pa for thirty years and is from the Borell and Moanaroa whānau of Tauranga Moana. Warmly welcomed, well fed and lovingly corrected where necessary, we had an afternoon and evening immersed in the story of Parihaka.

There is heaviness in the story that hangs upon my wairua; photos of people, the children (he tatarakihi), the women and the men who were drowned in the angry wave of the invasion of Parihaka. All New Zealanders should know this story and yet I meet so many who do not.

After 1864, Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, rangatira who had experience the growing war between the Crown and tangata whenua in Taranaki, grew in conviction that the path of war would lead to the loss of all for the Taranaki tribes. They sought a new path of unity, peace and restoration and took that vision inland to Parihaka. There they lead their Te Ati Awa people in building self-sustaining community of extensive gardens, modern architecture, careful town planning and regular community meetings. Inspired by the Atua, the two men called on Māori to forgo violence and division. People of many tribes came and joined them.

Worried by this example of independence, the government determined to end the community at Parihaka. Their surveyors came and marked out the land for Pākehā farms and roading. The response of the people of Te Whiti and Tohu was non-violent resistance. Every day the men would leave the pa, pull up the survey pegs, cut down the fences and plough their land anew. Every day those men would be arrested. Every day other men would come and take their place. The arrested men were incarcerated in Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and Hokitika where they were forced labour building the streets and foundations of the settlements. Men were continually arrested and improisoned  for 19 years, the last being released in 1898.

When the men were gone, the women continued their work. Frustrated, the Crown planned to wipe Parihaka from the face of the earth. On the Fifth of November 1881, a large contingent of soldiers marched from their camp above the pa, arranged cannons on the small hill Purepo, and rode on horses towards Toroanui, where the people were meeting in the centre of the village. As they entered, the children sung in welcome on the road, holding the raukura out before them. Forcing their way past, the soldiers rode in to be greeted by women with freshly baked bread for their guests. They found Te Whiti and Tohu exhorting their people to stand strong in their commitment to non-violence and to expect their hopes of peace to be realised. The two rangatira were arrested. The soldiers tore down the houses and burnt them, destroyed the crops and chopped down the trees. They raped and assaulted the women left in the pā. Ashes. Dust. Blood. Pain.

As I listened to Edward Snowden reveal that the NSA has its own bases here in Aotearoa and the GCSB has been an integral part of the Five Eyes Network collecting metadata about New Zealanders, our allies and others’ enemies, it occured to me that few New Zealand voters would care. I grimly judged us as a nation of Machiavellians, in it only for what we can get for ourselves; and I blamed that on the success of the neo-liberal reforms in the 1980s. Visiting Parihaka has cleared my vision that I mght see.

The invasion of Parihaka reveals the Machiavellian streak is much older in New Zealand than the 1980s. The ability of an empire to colonise and oppress people is dependent on the complicity of the many. In Aotearoa, the colonisation and systematic dismantling of Māori required the complcity of the settler population. Parihaka is remarkable not for the violence of the coloniser, but for the non-violence and moral fibre of the colonised. Similarly, the ability of the GCSB and its partners to spy on us and others who have caused us no harm is dependent on the complicity of the many.

Here is an uncomfortable truth for my activist friends: New Zealanders are willing to give up freedom to ensure that their possessions are safe from the world’s poor. The same empire that brought the settlers here holds their loyalty today; names change, but it remains the empire of power and violence. New Zealanders are not angry at the activities of the GCSB being condoned by the National-led government; they are annoyed at having the veil torn off their carefully constructed ignorance.

The vigil of Parihaka is their long waiting for justice, for peace and for unity. It is instructive today to those of us who desire change in the leadership of our country; we are called to vigil, to pass judgement on the sickness at the heart of our country, less by words than by the quiet authority of our example and our actions. There are moments like Parihaka when the many have been stung into pursuing justice by the suffering of the few. I truly expect that moving us off this path of greater surveillance and reduced rights in service of a destructive capitalism will require the few to suffer greatly for many years yet; Parihaka is a beacon that shows the way for those with the courage to try.