Today, Parihaka is a small Taranaki coastal town, a small settlement of unassuming buildings and homes, but originally it was a model Māori village, impressing European visitors with its cleanliness and industry, and its extensive cultivations producing cash crops as well as food sufficient to feed its inhabitants, all built on christian values. Yet it became the site of one of the greatest abuses of Human Rights in New Zealand's History.
During the punitive years of mass confiscation and dispossession of Māori from their lands, two strong Christian Māori elders, Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, led Parihaka. By 1870, with Māori refugee's flocking there, it had become the largest Maori village in the country. Both men were committed to non-violent action in order to resist the invasion of their estates and to protect Māori independence. They drew on ancestral as well as Christian teachings to offer both spiritual and political leadership while the colonial interests sought to portray them as fanatics.
They condemned violence and greed, and began a passive resistance campaign in May 1879. By September 1880, hundreds of men and youths had already been exiled to South Island prisons where they were forced to build the infrastructure of cities, such as Dunedin. Many never returned to Taranaki as they died on average at a man every two weeks. The bloody clashes between armed soldiers and unarmed Māori building fences on their own land, as well as the increasing numbers of deaths in custody in the freezing South Island jails, were attracting the attention of the British House of Commons and newspapers in Europe.
On 5 November 1881, Parihaka was invaded. At dawn that morning the invasion force led by two Members of Parliament, both Cabinet Ministers, entered Parihaka. 1600 troops and cavalry were met by children singing and offering them food while the people of Parihaka sat quietly on the marae.
Parliament had passed legislation enabling the Government to hold protesters indefinitely without trial. The Riot Act was read, and an hour later Te Whiti and Tohu were led away to incarceration in the South Island. The destruction of Parihaka began immediately. Every Women and girl, from 12 years old and up, were raped in a deliberate policy to try to breed Māori out of existance, leading to an outbreak of syphilis in the community. It took the army 2 weeks to pull down the houses, leaving hundreds homeless and 2 months to destroy the crops, leaving the Māori to starve. Fort Rolleston was built on a tall hill in the village; 4 officers and 70 soldiers garrisoned it. The 5-year Military occupation of Parihaka had begun.
Yet because of the teachings of Te Whiti and Tohu Kākahi, who returned in 1883 and did not give up the protests and their stand against evil, the spiritual legacy of Parihaka is one of living in harmony with the land and humanity. It is also a legacy of nonviolent resistance action and a belief in the peaceful and respectful co-existence of Māori and other races.
In 2003 Dr. Lawrence Edward Carter, Sr., dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College, posthumously honored Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, the spiritual leaders of Parihaka who led their people in nonviolent protest, by conferring upon them the Gandhi, King, Ikeda Award. Dr. Carter praised the spirit of Te Whiti and Tohu as exemplifying "the victory of the human spirit over barbarism, of justice over evil, and of compassion over greed."