How a rebel Māori chief held out against colonial powers

by Nicholas Reid / 29 December, 2017

A portrait of King Tāwhiao Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, by Gottfried Lindauer. Photo/Alamy

Historian Michael Belgrave offers a vital story of Māori king Tāwhiao Pōtatau Te Wherowhero.

Dancing with the King, about the King Country’s years as an independent Māori state, is the model of what a good historical narrative should be.

This “diplomatic history” by Professor Michael Belgrave deals with the two decades – after the Battle of Ōrākau in 1864 – in which the Māori king, whiao, and his followers ran Te Rohe Pōtae (King Country) as a state in its own right.

Each chapter presents negotiations in detail and in a dramatic way that gives life to the leading players. The result is a book of 452 pages that is not only scholarly but also very readable.

Officially, the colonial Government didn’t recognise Tāwhiao as a king or Te Rohe Pōtae as his kingdom. Unofficially, it realised it had to deal with him on his terms.

So, there followed 21 years of careful negotiations between Crown and Crown. Settlers wanted to move in. Speculators wanted the land surveyed for future subdivision. And ultimately the colonial state wanted to run the main trunk railway right through the King Country.

But, to the frustration of some, Tāwhiao proved to be a shrewd negotiator who “offered a voice of stability and authority that was more useful than threatening”. He did not advocate a renewal of war, did not support Tītokowaru’s campaign, did not support Te Whiti’s peaceful community at Parihaka and disapproved of Te Kooti’s raids in Poverty Bay.

This is not exclusively a story of Māori-Pākehā relations. There were tensions between Tāwhiao’s Waikato people and the Ngāti Maniapoto, upon whose land they had settled. Rewi Maniapoto becomes a major figure in the story, often pushing the authority of separate iwi ahead of the king’s authority. By the time the railway was built, some of the king’s key supporters had deserted him and were doing their own deals with the Native Land Court.

In telling this detailed story, Belgrave forces us to question the received reputations of some major negotiators. Often reviled for his tricky Land Court dealings, Native Affairs Minister Donald McLean proves to have given Tāwhiao the most generous land deal he was offered by a Pākehā official. Years later, when Premier George Grey and later Native Affairs Minister John Bryce wanted to strike harsher deals, Tāwhiao regretted not having taken up McLean’s offer.

Favourite anecdotes? There is Maniapoto sharing a “peace pipe” with a Pākehā ex-soldier who had fought against him at Ōrākau. As Belgrave notes, this shows how much US popular culture was already known here. Then there’s Tāwhiao visiting London, delighting in European music, but being shocked at the Egyptian mummies on display in the British Museum. Did English people make a spectacle out of things as sacred as corpses?

Memorable in another way are Belgrave’s quotations from the diaries of early settler Mary Rolleston, which are Eurocentric, dismissive of Māori culture and provide a big insight into the mind of one sort of British colonist in the 19th century.

Dancing with the King is enlightening and strangely entertaining.

DANCING WITH THE KING, by Michael Belgrave (Auckland University Press, $65)

This article was first published in the December 16, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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