Rod Oram: Journeying in the spirit of Waitangi

For four days over the last weekend, I travelled with friends down from Auckland through the Waikato and King Country to Taranaki, seeking insights from history and hope for the future. Our journey was an early celebration of Waitangi Day, anguish, reconciliation and all.

Our first stop was St John's church in Te Awamutu, Waikato's oldest building. It was built to serve the mission station established there at Otawhao pa in 1841. The community thrived, and its agriculture prospered.

Then during the Land Wars, Lt General Cameron set up camp at the station in February 1864, with St John's as his garrison church. Some 4000 Imperial troops were quartered there and at neighbouring outposts. Over the next few months scores of British soldiers and Māori warriors were killed at three battles nearby. They were buried at opposite ends of St John's churchyard, each with its own obelisk commemorating the segregated war dead.

Our second stop was just 5km to the east at St Paul's, Hairini. It is the second-oldest building in the Waikato, just months younger than St John's. It was built to serve the Rangiaowhia mission station, a community which numbered some 700 people in 14 hapu by the early 1850s.

"About a thousand acres, soon greatly to be added to ... under cultivation ... A very numerous population of natives engaged in industry and agriculture ... in a few years will be the granary of Auckland," noted a report in the Daily Southern Cross in 1851.

This was Māori land, and on it they grew a cornucopia of plants and animals, including milking cows. Rangiaowhia was particularly famous for its flour, which was shipped as far as Melbourne, San Francisco and London. In 1849, Governor George Grey sent two bags to Queen Victoria.

The Imperial troops were particularly interested in the community. They saw it as a main source of food for the Kingitanga movement, so on February 21, 1864, they attacked its defending pa. The following day the cavalry, backed by artillery and foot soldiers attacked and looted the village.

Our third stop was Parihaka. We were welcomed on to Paraahuka Marae — Te Niho o Te Atiawa by Maata Whareoka and members of her whānau. With gracious hospitality, Maata told us some of the story of Parihaka and the hopes its people have for the future.

Two Māori chiefs, Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, founded the village in about 1866. Its population grew to more than 2000 from a number of iwi. Many had been dispossessed by government land confiscations. European visitors reported it was a clean and industrious place, with extensive cultivations providing food for the inhabitants and cash crops to trade.

But the villagers' peaceful protests against the government's land confiscations led to troops invading Parihaka on November 5, 1881. Te Whiti, Tohu and other leaders were arrested and detained without trial in various places around the country for 16 months. In total, 405 Parihaka residents were imprisoned for their participation in the peaceful ploughing and fencing campaigns from 1879 to 1881.

As a tiny and very diverse nation we still have lots to learn about standing true and strong in ourselves here in Aotearoa, so we can be welcoming and confident to a tumultuous world.

In the following decades, the people of Parihaka rebuilt their community, albeit with a smaller population. In due course it prospered, and was among the first communities in the country to have a piped water system and street lighting. But like almost all Māori communities in the 20th century, it suffered a considerable loss of people, well-being and prosperity.

On June 9 last year, the Crown offered an apology to the people of Parihaka and signed a Deed of Reconciliation with them. As Attorney General Chris Finlayson said on the day:

"Basic requirements of natural justice and the rule of law (which are the birthright of all New Zealanders) were denied to our citizens at Parihaka and they were left without any legal remedy. Signing this Deed of Reconciliation is a significant milestone for the Crown, Parihaka, the iwi and community of Taranaki and many others who believe in Parihaka's legacy of peace."

In due course, Parihaka will receive $9m compensation from the government. Among its hopes for the future are to make itself "a 'Living Language Community' and an education destination for culture, language and peace studies."

Our fourth stop was St Mary's church in New Plymouth. Four years after the first English settlers landed on the Taranaki coast and established the town, they began building the church, completing it in 1846. The oldest stone church building in the country, it was much expanded, particularly when it was the garrison church for government troops during the Land Wars.

In 2010, the church was consecrated as Taranaki's Anglican Cathedral. But it had to be closed two years ago for earthquake strengthening. The Cathedral congregation, worshipping in the meantime in their hall across the road, has been considering how to give new life to the building and new expression to their history as a church for all — including Pakeha, troops and Māori.

To that end, they are raising $15m to restore the church and build a peace and reconciliation centre to be named after Sir Paul Reeves. A descendant of Te Whiti, Sir Paul was the first Māori Archbishop and first Māori Governor-General of New Zealand.

On our travels, we carried some history of our own. A gaoler in Dunedin when the Parihaka prisoners were incarcerated there was an ancestor of one of us. Philbert Roberts, the first person to be buried in the churchyard of St Mary's, just a year after he arrived from England with the first settlers, was an ancestor of a friend who was unable to accompany us.

As we were leaving Parihaka, Maata mentioned one of her 19th century forebears was an Anglican priest. Two of his children, Ruben and Lydia Moanaroa, had died young and were buried, she thought, at a St Stephen's in Auckland.

I said it was likely the one in Judge's Bay. A small chapel, it was built in 1857 for the signing of the first constitution of the Anglican church in New Zealand. Its egalitarian structure of three equal houses of bishops, clergy and laity caused consternation in the hierarchical Church of England, which threatened to excommunicate the church here.

This Waitangi weekend, as I stroll through the churchyard seeking Ruben and Lydia, I'll give thanks for the progress we're making as a nation on peace, reconciliation and culture.

Yet, as a tiny and very diverse nation we still have lots to learn about standing true and strong in ourselves here in Aotearoa, so we can be welcoming and confident to a tumultuous world.

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