Look at this foreboding portrait of the Māori prophet and leader known as Te Whiti. It’s entitled, “The man of peace and the man of war (Te Whiti and Titokowaru)” and was painted by New Zealand artist, Tony Fomison in 1980.
His full name was Erueti Te Whiti Te Whiti-o-Rongomai III and even if you’ve never heard of him, Te Whiti was an astonishing leader and one of the international founders of passive resistance, or nonviolence direct action (NVDA).
NVDA is the strategic use of nonviolent tactics and methods to bring an opponent or oppressive party into dialogue to resolve an unjust situation. It is used as a moral force to illustrate, document and counter injustices. The best known proponents are from the 20th century, men like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But Te Whiti employed the method nearly a century before Dr King’s Selma march.
Te Whiti was born in the Taranaki region (that’s the imposing Mount Taranaki in the background in the painting above) during the turmoil of the ‘Musket Wars’, the intertribal battles fought between the Māori in the first half of the 19th century.
He was recognized as a gifted teacher and prophet very early in his life, and so as a child his tribe took care to protect him from the skirmishes.
During this time, a Christian preacher Minarapa Te Rangihatuake taught Te Whiti to read and write by teaching him the Bible. He also became a pupil of Lutheran missionary Johannes Riemenschneider. But far from diminishing his standing in the Māori traditional world, his new-found Christian faith only augmented the respect with which he was held.
By the mid-1860s, his Christian beliefs had led Te Whiti to turn his back on all acts of violence.
However, as he grew into a tribal chief, he assumed responsibility for providing for his tribe. That included holding onto their land. But doing so was an enormous challenge.
After the end of the New Zealand Wars (previously known as the Māori Wars) in 1872, white settlers backed by the colonial government, began confiscating land from the defeated Māori. Not willing to fight the incursion of settlers, Te Whiti moved his people from his prime coastal lands to the less desirable inland village of Parihaka, hoping the government would leave them alone there.
But the confiscation of Māori land continued unabated.
In 1879, the government began to survey 16,000 acres of Māori land near Parihaka. Te Whiti responded by ploughing the land occupied by settlers. The police were called. Arrests followed. Parihaka was surrounded. But Te Whiti pledged he and his people would never resort to violence. They sat down and refused to leave. They were staging a direct action, shaming the local authorities for their cruelty and avarice.
Te Whiti announced,
“Though some, in darkness of heart, seeing their land ravished, might wish to take arms and kill the aggressors, I say it must not be. Let not the [whites] think to succeed by reason of their guns … I want not war, but they do. The flashes of their guns have singed our eyelashes, and yet they say they do not want war … The government come not hither to reason, but go to out-of-the-way places. They work secretly, but I speak in public so that all may hear.”
News of the protest spread. Many Māori arrived from all across the nation, bringing food and supplies for the people of Parihaka, now besieged by white settlement.
Then, on 5 November 1881 a force of almost 1600 armed officers invaded Parihaka. The Māori inhabitants, numbering about 2,000, put up no resistance. Instead they greeted their invaders with singing and with offers of bread. The police dispersed the protesters, but arrested Te Whiti. They then destroyed the settlement.
Stories of brutality and even rape have been told.
Te Whiti was charged with “wickedly, maliciously, and seditiously contriving and intending to disturb the peace,” even though his protest was entirely peaceful.
He was held without trial for nearly three years, after which he returned to the empty ruins of Parihaka.
Defiantly, Te Whiti continued to lead peaceful Māori protest. He was imprisoned again for six months in 1886.
In 1892 the New Zealand parliament released more than 200,000 acres of Māori land to white settlers. In response, inspired by Te Whiti, Māori persisted with ploughing campaigns. In 1897, nearly 100 Māori were arrested for ploughing protests.
Te Whiti died in 1907. His followers had adopted the white albatross feather as a symbol of the spirit of the Parihaka settlement and Te Whiti’s protest. Today, it remains an enduring emblem among the Māori.
Personally, I’ve been involved in a few nonviolent direct actions to highlight causes I believe in. I take the example of the prophet of peace, the chief of passive resistance, Erueti Te Whiti Te Whiti-o-Rongomai III, as my inspiration, along with Gandhi, Dr King, Rosa Parks, and myriad others who have resisted governments, regimes, police forces and armies to defend the rights of the oppressed everywhere.