My grandmother, on my father’s side, died before I was born so I never knew her. But one of her things that ended up in my father’s possessions was her Paipera Tapu, her Māori bible, or as he called it, her “Ringatū bible”. Grandmother was a follower of the independent Christian faith founded by warrior prophet Te Kooti Arikirangi which must have been a hard thing for her to do given that a large slice of her generation of our Tauranga family became converts to Mormonism in the years immediately before World War 1. According to Dad she clung steadfastly to her Ringatū faith right up until her death, following all its rituals and practices all by herself. I buried her bible with Dad when he died. It seemed the right thing to do.

“Ringatū” is a reference to the upraised hand, a symbolic action that was also used by Pai Mārire adherents; Pai Mārire being the precursor for the Ringatū faith. Mormons pray with upraised hands too and this might help explain the early attraction of that religion for my Grandmother’s generation.

So with the expectation that I might learn something about the faith that sustained a religiously isolated grandmother, I sat down with Ron Crosby’s new study Te Kooti’s Last Foray. It covers a crucial episode in the New Zealand Wars, detailing the capture of 218 Whakatōhea people near Ōpōtiki by Māori prophet and rebel Te Kooti in 1870.

It’s a military history told in great detail – not surprising, given Crosby has a deserved reputation for accurate scholarship in the field, as demonstrated by his previous writings in the area of 19th century Māori history. His earlier books on the Kupapa alliances between Māori and the Crown, and the Musket Wars, are good examples. I note that with this book he also goes to great pains to correct the locational detail in other books on Te Kooti including the late Judith Binney’s seminal work on the prophet, Redemption Songs.

When I was in high school I had an enthusiastic geography and history teacher, John Buckland, who taught what he called “Go There History”. The idea was that you learned as much as you could about the particular topic or subject from all the documented sources you could find, and then capped it with a field trip by going to the actual places and matching that knowledge to the geography/topography of the site(s).

With Last Foray Ron Crosby has done exactly that but at a level which I have not seen before. The photographs (presumably obtained using drones) and drawings explaining in detail the location and disposition of the players during the events described in the book – especially in the Waioeka River Valley and Gorge – are truly excellent. The descriptions are given a greater authenticity – as if that were needed – through his personal walking of the tracks and pathways of the narrative.

Makeo maunga from Ōmarumutu pāin March 2022. Stuart Spicer collection

One of the main locations of the book, the Waioeka River Gorge, might be known to some who have travelled the Ōpōtiki-Gisborne portion of State Highway 2 which passes through part of the gorge. Even that cursory visit will give an appreciation of the rugged wildness of that place. So imagine trying to negotiate that terrain with animals, children, supplies and military hardware. At that time it would have been a roadless river valley with thick bush and a river that swells to a torrent with minimal rain. The physical “research” undertaken by Crosby to produce this book has to be admired. It’s an approach that gives history a different authenticity and perspective.

But while the story of Te Kooti’s ruthlessness in “kidnapping” whole communities and the relentless pursuit that followed is compelling, detailed, and a helluva interesting historical footnote from a military perspective, I felt short-changed. There was something missing. How did Te Kooti, a man who on many occasions seems to have behaved with a brutal disregard for his victims and indeed his own supporters, nevertheless manage to engender such loyalty and commitment amongst followers like my grandmother, who as far as I know never met the man? Crosby does not shed any enlightenment on this point.

I have met other solo adherents to the faith. The contrast with the warrior life of Te Kooti and his un-Christian lifestyle and wayward behaviour, such as drinking and multiple female “wives”, runs totally counter to the soft and gentle demeanour of the followers I have met. It’s an uncomfortable fit. There’s no fire and brimstone, rather a gentle acceptance of life’s vagaries, hedged about by forgiveness and acceptance of others and their actions. That has always struck me as being slightly odd. But it’s also strangely comforting because it fits my imagined persona of my grandmother.

I had the pleasure of working with the late Sir Monita Delamere, like Ron Crosby, also a member of the Waitangi Tribunal. But Sir Monita, a proud member of Whakatōhea and Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, was also a strong advocate for the Ringatū church in which he held high office.

I had many late night talk sessions with that lovely man while travelling together on the Tribunal’s hearing circuit. He was a gentle apostle for his church and from my observation his Ringatū beliefs permeated all that he did. We laughed about how he would entice visitors to his home marae to stay on and then catch them out through their being present on the marae for the Ringatū holy day which was the 12th of the month, when none were allowed to leave or enter. They were forced to stay and partake in the round of prayers and hymns that filled the whole day and night.

In 1990 we were at Waitangi to mark the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty. I was prepping for a television evening news broadcast and the nervous vibes must have reached Sir Monita who quietly took me aside, sat me down, put a hand on my shoulder and recited a Ringatū karakia over our bowed heads. That quiet injection of calm was something I will never forget. 

But one thing that I did not have the opportunity to talk about with him in any depth, and which I regret, was why many of Whakatōhea went on to become staunch members of the faith despite the tribulations visited upon them by its founder, Te Kooti. That remains the case today with most of the faith’s around 16,000 members being located largely in the eastern Bay of Plenty.

It seems it was the fate of Whakatohea to become involved in religious events not of their own making. The execution of the Church Missionary Society missionary Sylvius Volkner at St Stephen’s Church in Ōpōtiki in 1865 by Kereopa Te Rau and his Pai Mārire contingent was an earlier example, and Crosby briefly canvasses that event.

A book of this nature probably does not lend itself easily to the kind of analysis I am interested in because that line of inquiry and recording probably demands a wider engagement with people rather than records. That being said, I do note the wide consultation undertaken by Crosby in the course of writing this book .

Nikau Flat hut on the Waioeka River, a few hours walk upriver from Te Pato Stream junction. Harvey Brunt drone image, March 2021

The other interesting aspect of this book is the further detail provided about the role of the Māori Kūpapa troops from Whanganui, Te Arawa and Ngāti Porou. The term Kūpapa only ever meant ‘neutral’ in its original coining, but in today’s world it has come to sit alongside the word traitor in its meaning and application. 

There was always enmity between most of Te Arawa and the coastal tribes, and their involvement in the pursuit of Te Kooti can be characterised as a continuation of a generational conflict so old that its origins have been lost. But the injection of Whanganui forces under Major Kemp was an interestingly new development. I assume those in charge of Te Kooti’s pursuit considered that being from the west coast, the Whanganui Kūpapa could be regarded as having no affiliations with Te Kooti and therefore able to be trusted.

Ngāti Porou under Ropata Wahawaha also aligned with the forces in pursuit of Te Kooti. Ropata comes in for some historic rehabilitation as Crosby casts some doubt on the alleged vicious prisoner executions attributed to the Ngāti Porou leader. The services of these tribes was secured on the basis that their lands would not be subject to confiscation as happened elsewhere.

The Kūpapa role is not spoken about in any detail in these post-Waitangi Tribunal hearings days given that the other party in such proceedings is the Crown, and who wants to be seen as siding with the Crown in the Tribunal forum? It’s an interesting dilemma for some. But in Last Foray Crosby expands contextually on his earlier book on the role of the Kūpapa forces.

Despite my personal disappointment, I am nevertheless pleased and happy to have this book in my home library collection. The fine detail makes it an invaluable record and brings to a tidy and satisfactory conclusion one of the more interesting events in our shared 19th century history.

Engari, mihi atu ki a koe e te rangatira Ron.

Te Kooti’s Last Foray by Ron Crosby (Oratia Books, $49.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.

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