After the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi – The Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 the European population of Aotearoa New Zealand began to increase rapidly. Settlers wanted land. From early on, the area around Mt Taranaki had been identified as ideal land for British settlement. The New Zealand Company, an organisation which focused on colonisation and land sales, was involved in the settlement of New Plymouth and several extremely dubious land purchases in Taranaki in the late 1830s and early 1840s. New Zealand Company artist Charles Heaphy produced an enticing, idealised painting of Mt Egmont / Mt Taranaki to attract potential migrants. However, there was nothing to indicate that this was the ancestral tribal land of Te Ātiawa and other Taranaki Māori. When the new Colonial government was established, land purchase officers were officially appointed to purchase Māori land for the Crown, as outlined in the Treaty.

A significant factor in early land sales would have been the difference in understanding between Māori and Europeans about the concept of land ownership. In traditional Māori society, land was owned communally by the whole tribal group (hapū) and ownership was established by customary occupation and use. As such, the Māori understanding of land sale is likely to have been more akin to a mutual agreement to share and use the land in this way with other interested parties. A stark contrast to the standard European concept of land ownership as individual and exclusive with outright permanent alienation from the previous owner. This misunderstanding was a significant source of conflict which contributed to the outbreak of war in the 1860s.

By 1858 the non-Māori population outnumbered Māori and was steadily growing. Settlers were demanding more land. In response, the colonial Government’s agenda was firmly set on freeing up more Māori land for European settlers. At the same time, Māori were becoming increasingly wary of government intentions and more reluctant to sell their ancestral tribal lands.

The Land Wars

Against this background of escalating tension, a dispute over a land sale at Waitara in Northern Taranaki led to the outbreak of the New Zealand land wars in 1860. The British Army occupied the disputed land, martial law was declared and war began.


During the 1860s land loss was greatly accelerated by the establishment of the Native Land Court and legislation which enabled large scale confiscations of Māori land (raupatu). This action was in complete disregard of Te Tiriti o Waitangi – The Treaty of Waitangi which guaranteed ‘to the Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand and to the respective families and individuals thereof the full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands…’

Some of this legislation also involved significant breaches of civil rights for Māori: arrest without warrant; detainment without trial; suspension of habeas corpus (the right to be present at trial) and limitations on Māori gatherings and freedom of speech. The combined effect of all these factors was to blur the boundaries between good governance, politics and criminal intent.

Some of the more extreme legislation included the Suppression of Rebellion Act (1863) and the New Zealand Settlements Act (1863). The latter authorised unprecedented large scale confiscation (raupatu) of ancestral tribal land from Māori “deemed by the government to be in rebellion against the British Crown.” With impeccable colonial logic what this meant in practice was that Māori who fought to protect their land would then be conveniently liable to have their land confiscated. In both of these laws the core concept of ‘rebel’ was never clearly defined and the use of the word ‘deemed’ suggested a potentially dangerous level of subjective judgement. By the mid-1860s, Te Ātiawa and other Taranaki Māori had lost most of their ancestral tribal lands through confiscation aimed to fit in with the Governor’s agenda to acquire more land for settlers.

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In 1866 Taranaki prophets Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi established a settlement at Parihaka on Māori land which had been confiscated by the government. The community quickly became a pacifist centre for Māori opposed to the loss of tribal lands for European settlement and was the largest Māori community in the country. Te Whiti encouraged the members of the Parihaka community to use only non-violent, passive resistance strategies to protest against European settlement on confiscated Māori land. When the government attempted to survey this land in preparation for European settlement, Māori responded by pulling out survey pegs. The non-violent protest included an ‘army’ of ploughmen who incessantly went out each day to plough up confiscated Māori land occupied by settlers. The use of the plough was particularly apt as it symbolised Māori’s spiritual and physical connection to the land. Many of these ploughmen were later arrested and detained without trial in the South Island. Te Whiti’s followers adopted the raukura (the white albatross feather) as a symbol of peace.


On the 5th of November 1881 the Native Minister John Bryce led a force of more than 1500 armed militia and volunteers to invade Parihaka. The armed forces were met by children playing in the streets and villagers sitting quietly together on the marae. The militia were offered food and drink. Bryce approached Te Whiti and Tohu and demanded a response to the government’s ultimatum for the resistance activities to cease. When no response was given Bryce ordered the Riot Act to be read to the quietly assembled group of children and villagers who were addressed as ‘persons unlawfully, riotously and tumultuously assembled’. The militia moved in and community leaders Te Whiti and Tohu were arrested and imprisoned.

For the next few days the village remained occupied by armed militia and was surrounded by long-range artillery and a military stockade. Meetings and public speeches were forbidden. Houses were searched and ransacked. Villagers were forced to leave at gunpoint and the peaceful, prosperous and largest Māori community in history was largely destroyed. 

Above is a letter to Governor Grey with reference to content discussed in the House of Representatives, confirms that: “Te Whiti invariably denied having advised his followers to use guns for guns when used against them…The evidence in support of this is overwhelming” and that “the dangerous weapons Bryce talks about were flax sticks.” 

Te Whiti and Tohu were eventually tried and released in 1883 and returned to Parihaka with a warning against further action. They rebuilt the community at Parihaka and continued their campaigns of passive resistance. Read a contemporary newspaper report from the Taranaki Herald, 7 November 1881.

Parihaka and the legacy of passive resistance

The Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu could be thought of as forerunners to pacifist leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. In Aotearoa New Zealand the spirit of Parihaka and passive resistance has lived on through many people including the Māori prophet Rātana, the conscientious objectors of the twentieth century wars and James K Baxter’s community at Jerusalem on the Whanganui River.

The Teacher, the Farmer and the Dominican priest

More recently in Aotearoa New Zealand the legacy of Parihaka’s ploughmen has been expressed in the actions of the Anzac Ploughshares, three peace activists who sabotaged the GCSB satellite base at Waihopai in protest against New Zealand’s collaboration with the United States in its war against Iraq. Both groups use the motif of the plough as a unifying symbol of protest. These 21st century ‘ploughmen’ were eventually acquitted.

‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
their spears into pruning hooks,
nation shall not lift sword against nation,
 and there shall be
no more training for war’.

                                                                              - Book of Isaiah (Old Testament)

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the 5th of November is now recognised as Parihaka Day. 

Sources and further reading:
Author: Beth Ringer, Central Auckland Research Centre