On the morning of Sunday 2 April 1916, 57 armed police invaded the remote Ngāi Tūhoe settlement of Maungapōhatu in the Urewera Ranges. They had come to arrest the prophet Rua Kēnana. A gunfight broke out and two Māori were killed, including Rua’s son Toko. Rua and others were arrested on charges ranging from resisting arrest to treason and taken to Auckland for trial. Rua was sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour followed by 18 months’ imprisonment.
Rua called himself the Mihāia (Messiah) and claimed to be the successor whose coming had been predicted by the prophet Te Kooti a generation earlier. By 1907 around 600 followers had joined him at Maungapōhatu, a model community he had founded on non-violent principles. Rua aimed to blend the best of Pākehā practices with Māori customs. He established a farming co-operative and a savings bank, and promised his people that their land and their mana would be returned.
Many Pākehā saw the Maungapōhatu community as subversive and Rua as a disruptive influence. Māori politicians like Māui Pōmare and Āpirana Ngata believed that traditional tohunga (spiritual leaders) such as Rua held back Māori progress.
In 1915 Rua was arrested on charges of illicitly selling alcohol at Maungapōhatu. The government was also concerned about his opposition to Tūhoe men enlisting for service in the First World War. There were rumours that he openly supported Germany. The alcohol issue provided an opportunity to bring Rua into line.
Rua was summonsed to appear before the local magistrate on 19 January 1916. He excused himself on the grounds that it was harvest time but stated that he would attend the court session scheduled for February. This was viewed as contempt and a new warrant was issued for his arrest. John Cullen, the commissioner of police, began preparations for an armed police expedition to Maungapōhatu.
On 2 April 1916 Rua was standing unarmed on the marae waiting to greet the approaching police when a shot was fired. In a short exchange of gunfire two Māori were killed, including Toko. Senior police officers claimed they had walked into a planned ambush, but the weight of evidence suggests it was the police who fired first.
Rua was taken to Auckland and charged with treason. A jury found him not guilty, but Judge F.R. Chapman found him guilty of ‘morally’ resisting arrest. He lectured Rua that as a member of a race ‘still in tutelage’ he must learn that the arm of the law reached into ‘every corner’. Eight of the jury petitioned Parliament to have the sentence reduced.
Rua was released from jail in April 1918. The community at Maungapōhatu fell on hard times and by the early 1930s many had left in search of work. Rua went to live at Matahī, a community he had founded in 1910 on the Waimana River in eastern Bay of Plenty. He died there on 20 February 1937.