A response to ‘The Parihaka prisoners and the legend of the caves’

At the beginning of November, The Spinoff published an article looking at the story of the Māori prisoners taken from Taranaki and imprisoned in Dunedin. The piece reported new research by Toitū Otago Settlers Museum curator Seán Brosnahan that challenged the accepted kōrero, brought home to whānau by survivors, that the prisoners were kept in caves. Ngāi Tahu kaumatua Edward Ellison responds.

In 1985, Taranaki iwi made a pilgrimage to Dunedin. They were responding to an invite from prominent Ngāi Tahu elder Riki Ellison to visit those places where their ancestors died while in captivity. They were the descendants of the Pakakohi and Tangahoe prisoners of Ngāti Ruanui who were jailed in Dunedin between 1869 and 1871, and the Parihaka prisoners who were jailed in Dunedin between 1879 and 81. Both groups of prisoners were sentenced to hard labour and were responsible for significant civil works across Dunedin City. Ellison’s invitation began a long period of reconnecting, remembering and honouring those who suffered under the injustices of the Taranaki Wars of the 1860s through to the November 5, 1881 plundering of Parihaka Pā.

The base cause of the imprisonment was the government’s determination to deny Māori their rangatiratanga, as guaranteed by the Treaty of Waitangi, and the settler lust for land. The suffering and indignities visited on the Taranaki iwi by the government and Crown troops was an orchestrated and despicable campaign which breached the spirit of the Treaty of Waitangi.

At the time of the 1985 hīkoi there was little awareness locally about the Taranaki prisoners and the visit spurned urgent research at Dunedin institutions such as the Dunedin and Hocken Libraries and Andersons Bay Crematorium (where cemetery records were kept). Only information relating to works undertaken by the Pakakohi prisoners of 1869-71 was found and this formed the basis of site visits for the 1985 hīkoi.

No archive evidence was found of the cave or its use by the Māori prisoners, however the link to the caves was known from an oral tradition within the Ellison whānau. It was clear the Pakakohi prisoners were involved in many civic construction projects in Dunedin and were a significant part of the prison labour that built the Andersons Bay and Vauxhall roads and contributed to building of the causeway across Andersons Bay Inlet.

A subsequent hīkoi in 1987 unveiled the Andersons Bay memorial ‘Rongo’ to commemorate those political prisoners who had died defending their rights. This site was chosen by the Taranaki elders and its proximity to Vauxhall, the causeway and the cave was a significant influence.

Initially there was scepticism from within the Dunedin community about the persecution of Māori in their city and there was at least one vandalism incident at Rongo. Determined, iwi from Taranaki and Ōtākou persisted in recognising the atrocities and their local legacy. The advent of a Parihaka exhibition in Wellington prompted a request to the Parihaka Trustees for the exhibition to be shown in Dunedin, which ran in the Public Art Gallery over the summer of 2002-2003. This contributed to a growing awareness of the Taranaki connection to Dunedin’s history.

Late in 2003, Mayor Sukhi Turner, accompanied by Ngāi Tahu, visited Parihaka and went on to attend the opening of the first showing of the Parihaka exhibition at Puke-Ariki Museum, New Plymouth.

In The Spinoff article ‘The Parihaka prisoners and the legend of the caves’, there are misleading comments such as “None of the Parihaka men ever worked on or near Portobello Road” leaving the reader believing that there were no Māori prisoners associated with the causeway or road beyond. This is, of course, quite incorrect. A basic analysis of historical record for road works in that part of Dunedin show a connection to the Taranaki prisoners and the Pakakohi men of 1869-71.

Over many years of research, until recently, no record with any certainty pointed to work that the Parihaka men may have done in and around Dunedin. It was thought that they protested the hard labour component of their sentence and refused to work however, thanks to Seán Brosnahan’s research efforts, new evidence has been uncovered that shows a section of the Parihaka men did two months hard labour, and for the balance of their confinement refused to work.

We are happy to collaborate with Seán in his research, but one unfortunate implication of The Spinoff article, that omitted our perspective entirely, is the spectre of doubt regarding the prisoner experience. Unfortunately there are those who would like to diminish and discredit the experiences of those ancestors. When you present iwi histories without an iwi voice, or the generations of whānau mātauranga that can’t be found in text books or online, then you’re obscuring an important chapter of that history.

The cave is a red herring that is an important whānau memory. Its use, or otherwise, has no impact whatsoever on the Crown’s culpability and the complicit behaviour of those who colluded with the imprisonment of the Pakakohi and Parihaka men.

Of upmost importance to successive hīkoi has been finding the burial locations of their ancestors so they may pay respects, to tangi, to pray, mihi and erect memorials for the men who were buried in unmarked pauper graves. Finding their burial sites was a huge and weighty task and we are forever indebted to Mr Dennis Harold who, through diligent and independent research identified the burial location of 17 of the Pakakohi men in the Southern Cemetery. There is still at least one burial location yet to be found.

Those of the prisoners that left captivity, left with the goodwill of many Otago residents who appreciated their great labour efforts and provided new clothes and tobacco to the men upon their release. Many southern MPs objected to their imprisonment and reports on their condition and the passing of each prisoner was regularly reported in the local papers.

The work conditions some Pakakohi prisoners were subject to was also recorded in this letter by ‘Humanitus’ in the Evening Star of 12th February, 1872:

“…nearly all the Maori prisoners exhibited a tendency for consumption, no doubt the particulars of the kind of work &, the Maori may have been placed at, will be given on such an occasion. I read the other day that the Maories had been working in the water for a considerable time at Pelichet Bay. Should any of those unfortunates been consumptive inclined, I do not think that immersed in water for a number of hours would be likely to stay its rapid development; and this little Nathan, of all others, looked to my mind, two years ago, least likely to be hurried off by lung disease.”

‘Humanitus’, also described the prison living conditions:

Forty-two bunks – in a space of about 30 x 15 feet, constitute the Maori dormitory in the Old Gaol. These bunks (twenty-one on either side) are divided by a passage so narrow as not to admit of a moderately stout man walking through it comfortably. The first impression of a visitor is, he is viewing a warren, yet I have known 42 men to be sleeping in this rabbit warren at one time. The men are compelled to wriggle in, feet first into their bunks, and when asleep their heads are so close as to appear all together; add to this a water closet on the right hand in front, and one immediately behind – the stench from which often compels the window of the cell in the New Gaol overlooking Stuart-street to be closed on summer evenings, and we have probably the reason why I have so often heard the inspecting officer of a night give an expression to an ugh! and one of relief having reached the door. To my unprofessional mind it has often suggested itself, whether this tendency to consumption is likely to be diminished by inhaling the fetid air and breath of those advanced in tubercular disease, for eleven and half hours in Summer and thirteen and a half in the Winter Months

The living conditions brings to mind a generational custom at our family homestead (built 1878) at Ōtākou where the young slept outside year-round on the verandah. We were told it was to ensure our lungs were robust. Death from consumption had been an issue in previous generations. I often wondered what was so different to set that custom in place, as other whānau had similar issues with consumption, which did not lead to sleeping outdoors. The description of the prison conditions must have been horrific for former free men who lived a natural and open-air lifestyle. It is open to conjecture that Raniera Ellison, who was close to the Taranaki prisoners, was heavily influenced by the squalid prison conditions and deaths such that the ‘fresh air’ approach was adopted in his whānau? Further to that, what would be so different in standards of humane treatment between a locked cave and the prison conditions?

‘The Parihaka prisoners and the legend of the caves’ draws on part of an interview that Bill Dacker conducted with my father, George Ellison:

“The myth turned out to be based on a hazy recollection by Otākau kaumatua George Ellison, who was interviewed in 1985 by historian Bil Dacker about his grandfather Raniera Erihana’s involvement with the prisoners during their time in Dunedin.”

I was surprised to see this material quoted publicly and it certainly raises questions about the use and interpretation of personal whānau information. The piece refers to the fact that my father’s memories were inconclusive although my father earnestly relayed to Dacker what he could recall. The interview was not entered into in order to create doubt or to mislead the public to the point that the integrity of my whānau should now be questioned. In fact, over the years we have made every effort to moderate the “caves” story for this very reason.

The symbolism of the caves and the subsequent outpouring of emotion so greatly affected the late Stuart C Scott, whose grandfather Adam Scott served at the Dunedin Gaol from November 1872 to August 1887, that he went on to publish the book titled The Travesty of Waitangi. He believed his grandfather had been so maligned that he attacked the Waitangi Tribunal process and argued that despite Māori culture, New Zealand became what it is today through the unremitting toil and backbreaking work of the early European settlers who cultivated the land, built roads and most importantly introduced the rule of law.

The story is a powerful one and the Taranaki connection to Dunedin and Ōtākou has contributed greatly to the local Māori identity. To us the connection extends much further than the story. Last year a party of over 50 Ōtākou Ngāi Tahu travelled to Parihaka and the marae of the Pakakohi men, to re-establish the connection for our children and grandchildren. We learnt more about the Parihaka people and their deep-set resolve to honour the teachings and memory of their ancestors. The people of Taranaki and their association with Dunedin will not diminish over time but as we maintain this connection then there will be a shift from pure grievance. The visits will increasingly be about returning to the places where their ancestors are buried and honouring the relationships with those of us, Māori and Pākehā, who understand and respect this history.

One thing I do know is that the symbolic status of the “cave” will remain in our consciousness as part of the Taranaki prisoner story and I live with hope that all may one day better understand history from the tangata whenua point of view.


Read more:

 A place for returning: injustice, legacy and reconciliation at Parihaka

 A milestone day for Parihaka – and for the long march to justice and peace in Aotearoa


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