The Parihaka Prophets in Nelson


In the 1860's and 1870's Taranaki Māori were troubled by Government determination to enforce European settlement of traditional lands. Promised reserves did not eventuate and, by 1866, dispossessed Māori formed a permanent settlement at Parihaka under Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi. Parihaka had been confiscated after the Waitara conflict (1860-1861) but not yet prepared for European settlement. The well-ordered, pacifist community attracted Māori from other districts, including Te Tau Ihu.  The raukura (feather) became their symbol.

Artist unknown :Te Whiti. Nelson, 1883Artist unknown :Te Whiti. Nelson, 1883 Alexander Turnbull Library. PUBL-0113-01  . Permission must be obtained from ATL for further use of this image.
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Settlers and officials feared Te Whiti's leadership, Tohu's spiritual influence, their burgeoning following, and the Parihaka community's independence, despite the village's pacifist philosophy.  As surveyors and roadmakers encroached on Parihaka cultivations, Te Whiti ordered men to remove survey pegs and plough or fence the land, but offer no violence.  Hundreds of ploughmen and fencers were shipped to Wellington, Lyttelton, Hokitika and Dunedin gaols and imprisoned without trial.

On 5 November 1881 John Bryce, Native Minister, led 1,600 armed constabulary and volunteers (including 200 from Nelson and a contingent from Blenheim) into Parihaka and arrested Te Whiti and Tohu.  Absolutely no resistance was offered.  The troops then systematically destroyed Parihaka, home to about 2,000 people.

Te Whiti and Tohu were held, also without trial, at the Governor's pleasure, under "honourable restraint", to be shown "the power and accomplishment of the Pakeha".  After time in Christchurch, Dunedin, Invercargill and Bluff they lived under house arrest in Nelson from July 1882.1

Ward, John P :Tohu. Nelson, 1883Ward, John P :Tohu. Nelson, 1883 Alexander Turnbull Library PUBL-0113-02 Frontal head and shoulders portrait of Tohu. Permission must be obtained from ATL for further use of this image.
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Wakapuaka Māori, who were related to the prophets through Wikitoria Te Amohau, widow of their recently-deceased chief Wi Katene, and Te Ātiawa at Motueka and Tākaka all welcomed the leaders to Nelson, providing potatoes, kūmera and fish for their household,2 and visiting frequently. Their gaoler, J. P. Ward, suspected conspiracy:  "There is some way in which their people at the Pah communicate with them without my knowledge.  I am always present when they visit them ...".3 

In late September Ward refused to allow the chiefs to visit Wikitoria at Wakapuaka, and sent Police to retrieve them when they set out walking.4  It was not until February 1883 that they were permitted another brief visit.

Nelson Europeans were cautious, with several landlords refusing accommodation.5  A few Pakeha visited, as did Members of Parliament, and neighbours who called in to play draughts were "invariably beaten, for both Te Whiti and Tohu are splendid draught players".6  The chiefs happily shared their rented house with a family made homeless by fire, giving up their beds and "bringing tea and bread and butter ... to the youngsters".  Otherwise reading Scriptures and solving the "American gem puzzle" occupied them.7  The prophets sent telegrams from the new Cable Station,8 were fascinated by the Guy Fawkes story,9 enjoyed the Nelson Regatta, and appreciated medical treatment in Nelson.10

In March 1883 a telegram advised Ward of the prophets' return to Parihaka for release.  They left on the Stella with "a gift in loving forgiveness from the Government ... quite an express load of belongings ... as a start for housekeeping at Parihaka",11 fulfilling Te Whiti's prediction that he would return to Parihaka on a star.12

The prophets and their people rebuilt Parihaka, upgrading to piped water and electrical installations.  In 1885 "they sent to Nelson a few Natives especially to gather mussels ... and one Nelson Native sent twenty-five cases of apples and five cases of jam as a present and contribution"13

The Parihaka story, one of New Zealand's darkest hours, has inspired powerful art and literature.  People from throughout New Zealand meet regularly at Parihaka to honour the prophets and their ideals of passive resistance.


Updated April 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Riseborough, H. (2002)   Days of Darkness : Taranaki 1878-1884.  Auckland : Penguin,  p38.
  2. Ward, J. P. (1883)  Wanderings with the Maori Prophets, Te Whiti and Tohu. Nelson: Bond, Finney & Co, pp125, 130.
  3. Ward,  p125.
  4. Te Whiti and Tohu (1882, September 25) The Colonist, p.3
  5. Ward,  p109.
  6. Ward,  p130.
  7. Ward, p132.
  8. Ward, p119.
  9. Ward,  p130.
  10. Ward, p132.
  11. Ward, p134.
  12. Tohu and Te Whiti (1883, March 28) Marlborough Daily Times
  13. Rennell (Native Officer, New Plymouth):  to Under-Secretary, Native Department, 13 April 1885. AJHR G-2 1885 p20.

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  • Hello,

    I would like to know of the availability to buy the video series on 'The Prophets', as aired on NITV in Brisbane / Australia. Also, I would like to know of other, similar such productions of Maori/Pakeha history.

    David Lloyd-Jones
    Australia +617 3889 0528

    Posted by David Lloyd-Jones, 05/01/2016 3:50pm (9 years ago)

  • I never realised Te Whiti and Tohu had lived in Nelson. I thought they'd gone to Otakau to build Portobello Road. This is so interesting. Will be reading more. Kia ora Hilary and John.

    Posted by Katrina Smith, ()

  • I have just recruited a new member for our Chch Parihaka group who told me there will be an exhibition of interest at the Nelson Museum in September. I don't know how much it focusses on Parihaka.To promote the exhibition there is a competition over 10 weeks: each week has one question about the war and its impact in the Nelson region. Two prize draws each week. For more info see:

    Posted by Deborah Williams, ()

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