Pukeahu Anthology

The Parihaka Woman

In the 1870s and 1880s Taranaki prisoners were brought to Wellington from Parihaka, the centre of a peaceful resistance movement led by Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi. This excerpt from important Māori novelist Witi Ihimaera’s The Parihaka Woman (2011) describes a group of characters, led by Te Wheoro, visiting the gaol at Pukeahu. They are there to enquire after three prisoners who were transported with the original 170 men brought from Parihaka.

‘It was three days before Christmas, 1881. The weather had turned cloudy and cold. The Wellington streets were packed with horse-drawn vehicles of all kinds; men on horseback squeezed through the gaps. Te Wheoro’s driver, oblivious of the shouted oaths, navigated expertly through the traffic, sometimes with only inches to spare between his vehicle and the next.

‘“Bob’s showing off for the country constituents,” Anaru whispered to Te Wheoro.

‘As the carriage turned up Taranaki Street, Te Wheoro pointed out a rise ahead. “Ah, we are approaching Pukeahu,” he said. Mount Cook Prison crouched on the top of the small mounga. I caught glimpses of an encircling palisade topped with viewing platforms and sentry boxes. Guards holding rifles patrolled the walls.

‘My sisters became nervous. In an attempt to calm them, Anaru engaged them in conversation. “Did you know,” he began, “that the palisade was built by the very first contingent of prisoners from Parihaka? When they arrived they were put to work converting the original military barracks into the prison. They repaired and altered the buildings, put in the gas and water fittings, graveled the yard and built the prisoners’ wing — and then they moved into it.”

‘The carriage clattered up to the main gateway, interrupting him.

‘“Ah, here we are,” Te Wheoro said. He showed our credentials to the guard, and we were admitted. As Bob drove through, we saw that another guard was waiting at the steps to the administration block. He gave a snappy salute as we stopped. “Rank has its privileges,” Te Wheoro continued.

‘My sisters clung to me as we were led to the office of the prison superintendent. On the walls of the corridor were sketches of similar prisons in Tasmania and Norfolk Island. One showed a prison at night, its outer walls lit up and guards on constant patrol.

‘“Let me speak for you,” Te Wheoro said. It was fortunate that he did so because the prison superintendent was not helpful. No sooner had Te Wheoro introduced himself than that officious man responded by saying, “While I am forced to entertain your presence, I am not required to assist your enquiries.”

‘Te Wheoro almost lost his temper, but he maintained admirable self-control. “Sir, I quite understand your position. I am here on behalf of three of my constituents. Won’t you help them? All they request is that you consult the manifest for the month of August 1879…”

‘“That information is classified.”

‘“And advise them if the names of three particular prisoners appear on it. The men were transported here with the original 170 sent from Parihaka. They were not, however, among those who returned and my constituents understand they may have been transferred instead to prisons in the South Island. Once they know that destination they will thank you and be on their way.”

‘“I repeat,” the superintendent began again, “that the information is…”

‘At his words, Meri gave a sob and, well, my sister had her uses: she could melt a heart of stone, even if it did belong to a prison superintendent. After a while, he coughed. “I will make an exception to the rules in this case,” he said, and reluctantly called one of his men to bring him the relevant records.

‘“The names of the fanatics?” he asked us. Fanatics? We gave him Horitana’s, Riki’s and Paora’s names. He thumbed through the manifest. “Yes, we have their names entered in the register among the misguided men who were sent here.”

‘I could have hit him for his abusive words. “This prison follows the Pentonville model,” he continued, “and therefore, for infractions, felons are subjected to the normal punishments. From the very beginning the fanatics you refer to were sullen, morose, refused to work and were disobedient. The ones named Riki and Paoroa were punished for insubordinate behavior and the third, Horitana, was placed for seven days in isolation and solitary confinement.”

‘My heart lurched with fear. “The first two men were detained from transportation with their fellow fanatics to the South Island because they were undergoing punishment. The same applies for their misguided leader, Horitana. Upon completion of their sentences, however, the fanatic named Paoroa was conveyed to Hokitika…”

‘“Those prisoners have already returned to Parihaka,” Ripeka interrupted.

‘The superintendent ignored her. “…and the fanatic named Riki was sent to Christchurch.”

‘“What was the date of their release?” Te Wheoro asked.

‘“On 14 August, at 6.15 a.m., the fanatics were presented for transfer while the streets were still empty, so as not to disturb the harmony enjoyed by the citizens of our peaceful city.”

‘“What of the prisoner Horitana?” I asked.

‘The superintendent thumbed through the register. An expression of puzzlement appeared briefly on his face. “His name appears to have been erased. There’s no indication of his movements. Certainly, he’s no longer imprisoned at Mount Cook.”’

‘Te Wheoro asked the question I dared not ask. “Is it possible that the prisoner Horitana died in solitary confinement?”

‘My heart skipped a beat as the superintendent turned the pages. Finally, he shook his head, “No, I have no record of his death. I do have the name of Tami Raiha, however. He was so ill he could not be sent with the others.”’