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Inspiration and Tragic Lesson

The Prophet and the Policeman: The Story of Rua Kenana and John Cullen By Mark Derby
Craig Potton Publishing. $40. Reviewed by TIM BOLLINGER

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The story of charismatic Tūhoe leader Rua Kenana, his foundation of a ‘New Jerusalem’ in the Urewera mountains, and his ‘defeat’ at the hands of an armed raid by Police on his settlement in 1916, is a story that’s been told many times.

The writings of Judith Binney, Peter Webster and Jeffrey Sissons in particular spring to mind, but everyone from Michael King to Vincent Ward has had something to say about this colourful episode in New Zealand’s history.

It’s a fascinating tale of power politics and cultural convergence set in modern times (almost within living memory), peppered with elements of biblical fable, legal drama, a ‘shoot-out’, a model for Māori political independence, and even some intriguing developments in indigenous architecture.

What is different about Mark Derby’s re-telling is that it’s brief (just over 140 pages including the index), lively (the story is engagingly told without pause for footnotes or distracting detail) and that it is equally focused on the principal Pakeha protagonist of the 1916 siege of Rua’s settlement, Police Commissioner John Cullen.

It is this aspect, in the recent context of Police raids in the Ureweras (again on the grounds of alleged firearms) in October 2007, which gives this fresh re-telling its edge.

Cullen’s story is a fascinating one. The Irish working class background from which this arch conservative escaped to build his fortune in the New Zealand constabulary is observed by Derby to have been not dissimilar to that in which Rua himself grew up in Central North Island New Zealand at a time of land confiscations and pestilent disease. Both Irish and Tūhoe suffered potato famines, and both characters were profoundly shaped by their impoverished backgrounds. Cullen’s biography colours Derby’s version of the Rua Kenana story, to the extent that throughout his re-telling a strong Irish perspective is revealed, suggesting an inherent cultural interest on the part of the author.

Derby also draws a parallel between the events of 1916 and the historical circumstances leading up to the dramatic raid on Rua’s settlement. Indeed, it was not the first time that armed police had raided a Māori settlement at this period, with Cullen’s forces being duly administered upon chief Iraia Kūao’s people near Kaikohe in 1903. A further precedent occurred with Cullen’s heavy-handed policing of the miner’s strike at Wahi in 1912 where, as with the raid on Maungapohatu, guns were wielded and blood was spilled.

Viewed in light of these surrounding events, the Police ‘raid’ is shown to be less an aberration than a tool of colonial domination that is repeated throughout history, and the world, to bring dissidents of all persuasions into line with government control. In the final chapter, Derby observes the uncanny parallel between the events of 1916 and the raids on Tūhoe by armed Police in October 2007.

But what makes this book so readable and rewarding is the pace at which it rattles along. In the end, the saga of Rua Kenana is a ‘ripping yarn’, and Derby recognises this quality in his narrative. Where an academic like Judith Binney might spend pages of analytical detail on the meanings of Māori allegory and proverb, Derby cuts straight to the ‘chase scenes’. His whole re-telling bears something of the ambience of a spaghetti western.

The book opens with the tolling of a church bell – just before a battle in which many fall. Other chapters begin with descriptions of events pegged to visual ephemera – an image of Cullen taken from the cover of the New Zealand Ladies Home Journal, or a group photo featuring Katherine Mansfield on a flying visit to the Ureweras in 1907.

The characters are clearly drawn, but far from black and white, with Cullen presented in perhaps his most sympathetic light for many years, while Rua is revealed to be something of a flawed hero – erratic and self-serving. It was he, after all, who sold much of Tūhoe’s land and benefited materially from his efforts.

As a post script, Derby’s account also covers the years following Cullen’s retirement as Police Commissioner, documenting his dealings with the Dalmation minority in the far North and his introduction of wild heather into Tongoriro National Park, perhaps “his most enduring legacy”.

But the undoubted ‘hero’ of this story, and probably the reason most readers will be attracted to it, remains the character Rua Kenana himself –enigmatic, anti-traditionalist, Māori folk hero.

Popularised in the 1970s by that famous portrait of a youthful ‘prophet’ with long flowing locks (arguably an inspiration to the likes of James K. Baxter, who also grew his hair and established an alternative community in the ‘woods’), Rua represents the non-conformist in New Zealand history – the outcast, the protester, the rebel.

His story remains an inspiration, and a tragic lesson, for all who seek to follow his example. It’s a story that every New Zealander should know.

LINKS: Judicial Seal of Approval for New Rua Book

Listen to Paul Diamond’s Radio New Zealand review.

Mark Derby interviewed by Chris Laidlaw on Radio NZ

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Tim Bollnger is a Wellington writer and cartoonist. His last piece for the Scoop Review of Books was Five Comics That Changed My Life.