From Peria to Hobbiton
In the countryside near Matamata the remains of an old village can be found. The inhabitants of this village lived peacefully, growing crops in the fields near their cosy homes. But their lives were changed by an army of invaders.
The old village I've been describing isn't Hobbiton, the fragment of JRR Tolkien's Shire that Peter Jackson has constructed near Matamata and used in his adaptions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. It is true that, in the world Tolkien named Middle Earth, the Shire is a peaceable agricultural society which is invaded and conquered by the evil forces of Sauron and his ally Saruman. But there is another, real-life village which stood one hundred and fifty years ago near the site of Hobbiton. It was called Peria, and it was established by Wiremu Tamihana, the Ngati Haua and Tainui chief who helped build the Maori King Movement.
Tamihana, who was also known as William Thompson, was one of a generation of Maori leaders who tried to blend the technology, religion, and cash economy which Pakeha had brought to Aotearoa with traditional Polynesian culture. Tamihana and his people planted new crops like wheat on their land, and built flour mills beside their streams, but they retained collective ownership of much of their property. They exported their surplus food to Pakeha colonists in Auckland on a fleet of schooners, but distributed the proceeds from these sales according to traditional customs and hierarchies.
Tamihana had founded Peria in 1846 to show that it was possible to fuse the best of the Maori and European worlds. The village was named after Berea, an ancient city which stood on the slopes of Mount Olympus. A meeting house sat in the centre of Peria, ringed by whare belonging to the different kin groups of Ngati Haua. Tamihana was literate in Maori and English, and his settlement featured a large school and boarding houses for two hundred pupils. John Gorst, a lawyer, writer, and aide to the colonial government in Auckland, visited Peria in 1856 and was impressed:
It was beautifully situated on a number of gentle eminences; on the summit of every hill were located Whares...each surrounded by its own little plantation of wheat, maize, kumara and potatoes...A Maori-built church crowned one height, the ancient burial place another...Thompson's own house, nestling in a grove of peach trees, stood on an eminence...On an adjacent hill stood a post office, from which Thompson despatched letters to all the Maori villages. In the valley below the village, a stream turned a little flour mill, where the dusky farmers ground their wheat...Every morning and evening a bell called this simple, orderly, religious people to prayers. I never saw a more charming instance of simply idyllic life...
Other Tainui chiefs set up their own modern settlements, and scores of flour mills were established across the iwi's territory.
In 1863 war came to the Waikato. After the Maori King Tawhiao refused to accept the authority of Queen Victoria and open his land for large-scale settlement, a British army marched down the Great South Road from Auckland, crossed the Mangatawhiri Stream, which flows into the Waikato River near Mercer and had been treated as the boundary between Maori and Pakeha territory, and attacked a series of pa. Some of the young men of Ngati Haua journeyed north, across the Maungakawa Ranges and along the Waikato River, and joined Tawhiao's army. Tamihana tried fruitlessly to negotiate a ceasefire, sending unanswered letters north to Auckland.
old and melancholy general who doubted the justice of the orders he received from the colonial government in Auckland. John Gorst was also dubious about the war. In his 1864 book The Maori King he argued that by sending troops across the Mangatawhiri he and his colleagues had 'destroyed whatever reputation we had for benevolence or justice'.
Cameron was unable to control his soldiers, who drank, burnt, and looted enthusiastically as they advanced south through the Waikato. Even settler enclaves in the region, like the little town of Raglan, were ravaged, and after the war the New Zealand parliament was forced to establish a commission to award compensation to loyal householders and farmers who had lost their livelihoods at the hands of boozed-up troops.
Instead of retreating south with Tawhiao, Wiremu Tamihana led his hapu northeast to Maungatautari, the sprawling mountain that overlooked the Waikato River, where an ancient forest pa offered them temporary sanctuary from the invaders. When their enemies threatened to encircle Maungatautari, Tamihana's people escaped across the rapids of the Waikato by night in small boats.
Peria lay close to the edge of a vast tract of land confiscated by the victors of the Waikato War. Tamihana died in 1866 and, nearly destitute and under pressure from Pakeha settlers, including the wheat baron Josiah Firth, a faction of Ngati Haua sold the land the village stood on for a very low price. Peria was evacuated by its former inhabitants.
We drove into Matamata, past a large sign that said WELCOME TO HOBBITON and a bad statue of a pensive Gollum. The Matamata Visitor Information Centre had posters and stacks of brochures advertising expensive guided tours of Hobbiton, but couldn't supply us with any information about Peria, or about other sites associated with Wiremu Tamihana.
It might seem odd that Matamata chooses not to publicise the story of Peria and its people. Wiremu Tamihana is an impressive figure, a visionary thinker as well as a man of courageous action, and events like the epic battle at Orakau and the night crossing of the Waikato have as much drama as anything Tolkien and Jackson have imagined. Why, we might ask, are movies not being made about Wiremu Tamihana? Why hasn't a replica of Peria been built for busloads of snap-happy tourists?
Learning the story of the Waikato War and Peria is, though, a much less comfortable experience. In the story of the Waikato War, the army doing the pillaging and burning is made up not of mindless monsters, but of men acting in the name of the New Zealand state. The place of Sauron is taken by the business and political establishment of Pakeha New Zealand. For politicians, tourism operators, and Pakeha film and book audiences, it is much easier to think about New Zealand as Middle Earth than as a society founded on and consolidated by war.
Footnote: Over the last week or so Chris Trotter and Giovanni Tiso have both written well about the 'rebranding' of New Zealand as Middle Earth. I banged on about the same subject in this lecture. The late Waikato historian Evelyn Stokes wrote a fine biography of Wiremu Tamihana.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]