The legacy: Piripi Taumata-a-kura
(Phillip the Teacher)
(An edited excerpt from Bible & Treaty by Keith Newman (Penguin 2010)
The fact the Gospel message and the new moral and spiritual ethic that came with it, made its way across the country without the agency of
European missionaries is as important to our understanding of this nation’s pioneering history as the fact that Maori invited missionaries here in the first place.
What has become known as the East Coast revival, took hold before the Anglican and Wesleyan missionaries, landlocked in the Far North through tribal wars, realised their teachings were having any impact at all.
After a decade with no converts and only low attendance at their schools they were despairing that progress would ever be made.
As far back as 1823, visitors from Ngāti Porou, including the old chief Uenuku, had been given Christian instruction in the Bay of Islands before returning home to the Bay of Plenty. Then a decade later when CMS mission head Henry Williams returned Rukuata and seven Ngāti Porou slaves to their people, they saw the Sabbath day of rest was already being observed.
Back among their own people this group also began to share the missionary message but in reality they were simply adding to the work of one who had begun to build a strong foundation before them. On a return visit in January 1834 Williams and his companions found 1000 people attending Christian services at Whakawhitira pā.
The missionaries heard that the principal teacher in the area was the respected chief Piripi Taumata-a-kura, who had learned at the mission school at Waimate after being enslaved by Ngapuhi.[i] On his return the people hung onto his every word believing his return was a good omen and he could assist them as they prepared for war with their relatives Whanau-a-Apanui late in 1834.
Voice across the valleys
Taumata-a-kura preached loudly to the people from the riverbank about the new God, Jesus Christ and his voice reverberated through the valleys[ii].
About 10,000 warriors were gathering for the impending battle from as far away as Heretaunga and Wairarapa.
He initially resisted the invitation to lead them into battle continuing to instruct many in the art of reading and writing. When his efforts to preach peace failed, he agreed to enter the battle but on his terms which were designed to avoid ‘the most evil excesses’ of war.[iii]
Fighting would be conducted ‘in accordance with the principles adopted by Christian nations’.[iv] While the old tohunga were unhappy the chiefs agreed. There was to be no cannibalism, no fighting on Sundays, prayers morning and night, care for the wounded, and no senseless destruction.
“Cast aside . . . the Maori gods, that we may have the one God for us . . . If a man is killed as a result of your fire or your attack, neither cook nor eat him. Take nothing from the corpse, whether it be a gun, a cartridge belt, clothing, a patu or anything else belonging to the dead person or from the battlefield: take nothing away but let them recover their dead, lest you be cursed by God. Should you all conduct yourselves in this way perhaps the Lord God will be pleased. This fight will be remembered as having begun the peace to end this long running war which began with our ancestors in times long past. Should you ignore any of these rules you will be . . . cursed by God.”[v]
It is said Taumata-a-kura went into the heaviest fighting carrying his musket in one hand and his Bible in the other, and although the musket balls flew thickly around him, he was unscathed. A number of key chiefs who ignored his instructions, and many of those who broke the rules paid with their lives.[vi]
His display of faith during the six-month-long Toka-a-Kuku siege at Te Kaha was pivotal in the acceptance of Christianity by iwi and hapü as far south as the Wairarapa. As historian Monty Soutar explained:
“..[t]hey now had a new deity who, as Taumata-a-kura had predicted, found favour with them. It was a new God against the old which made them feel right about their actions. They were now earnestly desirous, even enthusiastic, of further instruction.[vii]
Taumata-a-kura continued teaching and preaching and giving instruction in reading and writing, using short prayers, hymns and texts of scripture written on scraps of paper and on leaves that became highly revered
among the people. His display of extraordinary knowledge made a great impression upon his people, who looked upon him as a tohunga.[viii]
William Williams, on hearing a report of the battle and the influence of Taumata-a-kura, said it was clear that God had used this man to prepare the way for the missionaries. However, there were none available to take up the challenge, so he selected six willing volunteers of ‘good character’ with connections to that region and began training them for the task.
A peace settlement
After a decade of some of the worst armed tribal raids in the country, Whanau-ā-Apanui leaders instructed two women of high birth to take a message of peace to Ngāti Porou at Rangitukia and Whakawhitira. When they
arrived, chief Uenuku climbed onto a roof so all could hear, and after a long oration he declared to his people, ‘we shall accept the offer of peace . . .let no one break it’.[ix]
What resulted was thirty years of peace and prosperity. Families all along the East Coast showed genuine interest in Christian knowledge. The move towards one God and one religion marked ‘a crucial breakpoint’ in the
history of both tribes, people returned to their former coastal residences, agricultural production grew and the economy improved dramatically for everyone.
Taumata-a-kura and the other Maori who had learned at the mission stations in the Far North now had huge success evangelising their own people, and there was a growing demand for more teachers and books. Other East
Coast hapü began arriving, hungry to learn more about this new faith and as chiefs and tohunga made a commitment, Christianity spread like wildfire along the East Coast.[x]
In January 1838 William Williams and the printer William Colenso, along with former Methodist missionary James Stack and Joseph Matthews, visited Ngāti Porou and with Uenuku and other chiefs, bringing messages of peace
from tribes they had long been at war with, including the aging Te Waharoa of
Uenuku wanted a missionary come and live in the Waiapu district, and three of his young tribal members went to the Bay of Islands to receive training. Williams was astonished to find that throughout the region they were preaching not to the ‘wholly unconverted’ but to people who already possessed rudimentary knowledge of Christianity:
“A great work has been accomplished in which the hand of the Lord has been signally manifest. It has not been through the labour of your missionaries; for the word has only been preached by Native teachers. We had
literally stood still to see the salvation of God.”[xi]
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[i] Rewiti Kohere, The Story of a Maori Chief, p. 26; J.G. Mackay, Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast; Williams, Christianity Among the New
Zealanders, pp. 255–56
[ii] Based on excerpts from an article ‘Rangitukia: First light of the sun’, Lloyd
Ashton, 01 Jun 2008, http://anglicanhistory.org and the account given to Rev. William Williams in 1836
[iii] Apriana T. Ngata & I.L.G. Sutherland (ed.), Religious Influences: The Maori People Today, A General Survey, p. 340
[iv] Mackay, Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, p. 92
[v] Rev. Mohi Turei in Māori
newspaper Te Pipiwharauroa, 1910, cited in Soutar, Ngāti Porou leadership: Rāpata Wahawaha and the politics of conflict’, p. 107
[vi] Ngata & Sutherland, Religious Influences, p. 340
[vii] Account derived largely from Soutar, ‘Ngāti Porou leadership’, pp. 108–09
[viii] W.L. Williams, East Coast N.Z. Historical Records, p. 32
[ix] Soutar, ‘Ngāti Porou leadership’, p. 109
[x] Ibid., pp. 112–15
[xi] Williams, Christianity Among the New Zealanders, p. 290