Stephen Chan: Ka whawhai tonu mātou, Ake! Ake! Ake! We begin part five of our series on political thought on the just rebellion with those words from the Māori general Rewi Manga Maniapoto in 1864. When he said those words he was on the verge of defeat. Defeat at the hands of a much much larger European army with much heavier artillery than he could muster for the defense of his fortifications.
For many days he and his fighters had been under siege by the European army. And despite being under siege, despite running out of ammunition, still his men would creep out into no man’s land to rescue wounded European soldiers and return them to their own lines. This chivalry so impressed the European commander that he offered honorable surrender. On hearing the offer, the Māori general stood up and said those words, “Ka whawhai tonu mātou, Ake! Ake! Ake! We will resist you forever and ever and ever.”
He was part of the movement to create a Māori state in the face of European depredations, and particularly in the face of European seizures of land. And this kind of heroic stand, even if the last stand of this kind of chivalry, very very much entered Victorian British folklore. So the whole idea of the noble savage, which was very very much an image that was perpetrated in what they called penny dreadful novels at the time of Dickens, for instance—these were cheap paperbacks that you literally bought for a penny—these were stories of adventures in the South Sea islands in which the noble savage was a figure drawn from the Māori warrior. And it was true to type in a way. At the same time this kind of romanticism obscured the fact that white settlerdom was confiscating the land of an entire nation.
It wasn’t meant to be like that. In 1840, when the first official British presence touched down in New Zealand, it was led by a very idealistic young naval captain, Captain Hobson. And he gathered together representatives of most of the tribes in New Zealand. And at the Treaty of Waitangi he agreed that there should be certain rights that would be inherent within the Māori nation if they pledged allegiance to Queen Victoria.
It didn’t take long before the legacy of the idealistic young naval captain was overturned by rapacious settlers who came in his wake. And the Māori decided that they were going to resist this constant encroachment. Hobson had put forth the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. By the 1850s, and particularly by the 1860s, war had begun. And it was an interesting series of wars, fought in the Waikato, fought in Taranaki. And first fought by isolated figures but then gradually, these isolated figures and their peoples were brought together into a confederation. They called their country the “King Country”—the country of the king. In the center of the North Island they were named the Kingites—the followers of the king.
And they thought that they had better organize themselves. So they had their own parliament. They had their own offices of the government. They had their own bank. They had their own standing army. So that a very great deal of the wars that followed were fought by standing armies. And it could be said that the Māori armies were defeated in the end by a combination of greater numbers on the part of the Europeans, but also as I said earlier greater artillery power on the part of the Europeans.
What happened, however, was a succession of conflicts led by very very notable Māori generals, but also the people who were leaders who infused in their resistance a very curious form of thought. Māori thought up to that point in time had not been able to be written down. It was a very oral culture. Māori carving expressed in pictorial terms, in totems as it were, in carvings of pillars not unlike those of the American Indians, the legends of the tribe. But these legends could not articulate new forms of government and new forms of resistance. The ideology of resistance was certainly built around the recapture of land that had been stolen. But it was also based on trying to make some kind of fusion of Māori thought and the new European thought, just as the King Movement tried to adopt the trappings and the institutions of government of the Europeans.
And what you had were succession of prophets who combined Christianity, or forms of Christianity, with forms of Māori spiritual belief. And these combined forms of thought inspired their armies, inspired the followers of the prophets, the followers of the Māori generals, to resist fiercely. This kind of fusion thought gave rise to an entire literature of songs, of poetry. Judith Binney, the famous historian in New Zealand of the Māori resistance, wrote a beautiful book called The Songs of Resistance. And it was very much a poetic rebellion, anchored in thought that was oratorical and at the same time highly poetic. Figures like Te Kooti left behind a legacy of written works which tried to describe the belief systems that he himself helped to inculcate in his followers, for the sake of resistance.
The legacy of this, the legacy of this fusion, married still to the desire to be able to own land, led to two things in New Zealand. One was the agreement of the courts that the Treaty of Waitangi was justiciable. So Māori tribes were able to bring lawsuits underneath the treaty for restitution of lands, or full compensation. And this was the first movement of that sort in the world of colonized peoples.
The second thing was this notwithstanding, the resurgence of Māori pride, a renaissance in Māori self-belief, and a replaying of the new kinds of fusion introduced by Te Kooti began to infuse radical elements in modern Māori society. So as recently as 2007, the descendants of Te Kooti in the Urewera mountains, the Tuhoe people, launched a rebellion. They tried to occupy land. They tried to reestablish their own nation. Of course this was a movement doomed to failure, but the romanticism, the poetry, the fusion of thought, and to a very large extent the fighting spirit of the original rebellion of the Māori people against the white settlers still lingers far away in the land of New New Zealand.