On the 5th November 1881, 1,500 government troops invaded the Taranaki settlement of Parihaka, having seized surrounding Maori land for newly arrived immigrant settlers. The Maori campaign of creative peaceful resistance, led by Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, was probably a world first. It preceded Mahatma Gandhi’s first non violent disobedience campaign in South Africa by over a quarter of a century and Martin Luther King’s first US campaign for black civil rights by three quarters.
Disciplined Maori teams ploughed land recently sold by the government to European settlers. 600 armed constabulary started to build roads through some of the most fertile land in Taranaki, pulling down fences round Maori gardens. Te Whiti and Tohu responded by ordering Maori to re-erect fences across the roads.
The government retaliated by imprisoning over 400 Maori ploughmen, mostly without trial, in South Island Prisons in Dunedin, Hokitika and Lyttelton. Over 200 “fencers” were arrested. None appeared in court, and all were illegally shipped to prisons in the South Island.
On the marae on 5th November 1881, 2500 unarmed adults sat waiting with Te Whiti and Tohu in their midst. As the soldier reached the entrance to the village, they were met by children playing with tops, and dancing and singing. Others offered them freshly baked bread and water-melons.
The two leaders and several others were arrested and led away. Despite considerable provocation, they did not resist. Rapes and looting followed the invasion. 1600 people were forcibly dispersed, while 600 were allowed to remain, but houses and crops were destroyed and animals slaughtered. Still there was no violent resistance, and not one life was lost. The spirit of non-violence prevailed.
Many of those imprisoned died of cold and malnutrition. Te Whiti and Tohu were held without trial for almost 2 years before being released. They returned home as heroes, and led the recovery of their community. Despite further imprisonment, by the time they both died in 1907, Parihaka had become renowned as one of the most advanced municipal communities in the country. Te Whiti said “it is not my wish that evil should come to the two races. My wish is for the whole of us to live peaceably and happily on the land.”