Patrick Gower: Make Tītokowaru a New Zealand hero

Riwha Titokowaru was potentially the "best military leader" this country ever produced.
Riwha Titokowaru was potentially the "best military leader" this country ever produced. Photo credit: NZ History

OPINION: It is a tragedy the name 'Tītokowaru' means nothing to many New Zealanders.

Well, let me tell you, Riwha Tītokowaru was potentially the best military leader this country ever produced. And he was also one of our great peacemakers, going full-circle to become a leader of a non-violent resistance. 

It is the story of a great New Zealander. It tells us about how we became a nation. It shows us how times - and people - can change. It is a story that every Kiwi should know.

But we just don't. 

For instance, few people beyond historians and Māoridom would realise that today is the 150th anniversary of one of the most significant moments of the New Zealand wars, the battle of Te Ngutu o Te Manu in south Taranaki. 

On September 7, 1868, Tītokowaru led the Māori forces that killed his opponent, Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky - another renowned military leader. Up until then, the Colonial forces had conducted a vicious campaign throughout Taranaki, destroying many villages, killing people and confiscating land. 

Tītokowaru was a brilliant military strategist who, historians say, was world-leading when it came to trench warfare - designing impenetrable pas with underground bunkers and tunnels which could withstand heavy attack. The New Zealand Wars actually stopped for a time such was the fear of Tītokowaru. 

Death of Von Tempsky painting.
Death of Von Tempsky painting. Photo credit: NZ History

But Tītokowaru changed. He understood there needed to be a union between Māori and Pākehā, advocated peace and diplomacy - and practiced what he preached, trying to work with the British. 

Tītokowaru then became one of the leaders of of the Parihaka pacifist movement alongside the prophets Te Whiti and Tohu. 

As Te Whiti put it: "The lion lay down with the lambs."  

The non-violent resistance at Parihaka was eventually destroyed by the British, and Tītokowaru spent many of his last years in jail before his death in 1888.

Growing up in Taranaki, I knew nothing of all this despite this rich history being all around me. It was only later in life that I came to realise what went down - and what it meant. Taranaki people are resilient and strategic - this heritage is part of the reason why.

Stories like Tītokowaru's and others from the New Zealand wars are still not taught in our schools. There are no statues of Tītokowaru, and he isn't on any dollar bills. Despite the valiant efforts of those like historian Jamie Belich and the Ngāruahine iwi, this history is unknown. 

And that is wrong. We should remember him. 

That is just some of the story of Tītokowaru - a great warrior who took part in one of the great non-violent movements.

Like many war leaders it is hard to judge whether they are villains or heroes. Tītokowaru
was merciless on the battlefield - but he changed. To me, that transition sets him apart. In my view - he is a New Zealand hero - and should be treated as such.

It is not too late. Take this prophecy from Tītokowaru himself: "I shall not die; I shall not die. When death itself is dead, I shall be alive."


Patrick Gower is Newshub's national correspondent.