Sixteen hundred police and volunteers took part in the attack on Parihaka, a settlement in western Taranaki which had become the symbol of protest against the confiscation of Māori land.
Its primary leaders were Te Whiti-o-Rongomai (Taranaki and Te Ātiawa) and Tohu Kākahi (Taranaki and Ngāti Ruanui). They were joined by Tītokowaru (Ngāti Ruanui) in the aftermath of his campaign against the government in the late 1860s. Te Whiti and Tohu were arrested in 1881 and exiled until March 1883.
Te Whiti and Tohu employed tactics of non-violent non-cooperation in their struggle against land confiscations. The government responded to their protests by passing laws aimed specifically at the Parihaka protesters and ultimately by imprisoning people without trial.
Parihaka became of concern to the government as a possible site for the reignition of Māori opposition to Pākehā ‘progress’. As the historian Hazel Riseborough wrote: ‘Parihaka had become a haven for the dispossessed and disillusioned from the length and breadth of the coast, and as far away as North Auckland, the King Country, Wairarapa and the Chatham Islands.’
On the morning of 5 November 1881, some 1600 volunteer and Armed Constabulary troops invaded the settlement. More than 2000 villagers sat quietly on the marae as a group of singing children greeted the force led by Native Minister and Wanganui MP John Bryce, who had described Parihaka as ‘that headquarters of fanaticism and disaffection’. Bryce had fought in the campaign against Tītokowaru. He ordered the arrest of Parihaka’s leaders, the destruction of the village and the dispersal of most of its inhabitants.
The press, banned from the field by Bryce, were ambivalent about the government’s actions, but the great majority of colonists were reportedly in favour of them. Te Whiti and Tohu were detained without trial for 16 months. In the absence of its leaders, the Parihaka community no longer seemed to pose the threat that Bryce believed it had. The government also managed to delay for several years the publication in New Zealand of the official documents relating to these events.
View the film Tatarakihi: the children of Parihaka from NZ On Screen: