Book Review: Dancing with the King: The Rise and Fall of the King Country, 1864-1885, by Michael Belgrave

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cv_dancing_with_the_kingGrowing up with the late night time sounds of the steam trains puffing their way around the Raurimu Spiral – a sound interspersed with the melancholy cry of the Ruru (Morepork) – I had no idea of the significance the main trunk railway line had to the politics of the post Waikato War and the shaping of New Zealand politics. That is until I read Dancing with the King: The Rise and Fall of the King Country, 1864-1885.

Author, Professor Michael Belgrave, from Massey University, has an extensive list of titles, many of them related to the Treaty of Waitangi and has also has carried out much research and written many substantial papers for the Waitangi Tribunal. Understanding this background is to understand why this book provides an extremely authoritative account of the post-Waikato War, rise of the sovereign authority of the Māori King within Rohe Pōtae and then the gradual loss of sovereignty and influence 20 years after its birth. The fall was symbolised by the first sod being turned for the main trunk line at the aukati – the boundary – between Māori controlled King Country and the Victorian Empire conquered Waikato. As the main trunk line pushed into the King Country, it served not only to open up the Rohe Pōtae but create a wholly new relationship between Māori and Pākehā eventually leading to united New Zealand Aotearoa.

The story of what happened after the sod was turned is well told in Vincent O’Malley’s, The Great War for New Zealand, which traces the political consequences of the Waikato land confiscation, or Raupatu, right up to 2000. Within Belgrave’s 428 page masterpiece of research is an illuminating account of how the Kīngitanga established itself strategically, economically and politically and prospered in peace – for a time.

Dancing with the King opens with an account of the defeat of Rewi Maniapoto and his small band of supporters of the Māori King at the battle of Ōrākau, marking the end of the Waikato War. The second Māori king, Tāwhiao, led the defeated Waikato tribes into armed exile within the Rohe Pōtae, where the Queen’s writ did not extend and Pākehā dared their lives to cross the aukati.

They established towns such as Te Kuiti and Ōtorohanga. While there was much hardship and deprivation among the Waikato refugees, these towns had a degree of prosperity, even without the aukati, with trade from local Māori in wheat and kumara, even without the aukati and with Pākehā.

The book’s title is a reference to what happened next, described by Belgrave as “diplomatic history”. War gave to a long period of negotiations. “Māori leaders and colonial government negotiators both adopted, however reluctantly on the European side, the language of sovereignty and diplomacy in their dealings with each other”. But it was not just negotiations between two sides: there were many layers of interest on each side. On the Māori side, Tāiwhiao could only move as far as the many iwi, hapu and whanau would let him. The political structure of Tāwhiao’s kingdom can be likened to a federal structure with each different iwi chief having a part to play. Over time Tāwhiao’s power to call the shots became subdued.

On the Pākehā side, there were in fact two governments, the New Zealand Government in Wellington and the British Government in Westminster, and they were not always in agreement with regard to Māori issues While the British parliament had given the colony self rule in 1852 by way of the New Zealand Constitution Act, Britain was still the ultimate power. Tāwhiao quite often stirred the pot of argument between the two, especially when he and his band went off to see the Queen in London. He didn’t actually see the Queen but made a very good impression as to the rights of Māori with the people and government of Britain. The story of that visit is one of the highlights of Belgrave’s work, as it is a good example of how the British Empire was managing issues with indigenous peoples in many countries they had conquered, rightly or wrongly.
It is the detailed accounts of the negotiations between the various layers of the Māori side which for this reviewer proved fascinating. Belgrave’s research brings to full view the impact on traditional Māori land ownership. This was based largely on the establishment by an iwi by war of occupation, food gathering or conquest with collective ownership imbued within the authority of the chief.

On the European side, land ownership was established by survey and registration, sale and purchase with individual rights of ownership. The colonial government set up the Native (later Māori) Land Court essentially to establish, the European method of ownership by deciding among competing chiefs as to which iwi owned which areas of land. But within the Rohe Pōtae, no trig stations were allowed to be built for some time. Any attempt to erect them often met with them being destroyed. And there was great resistance to allowing the Māori Land Court to operate within the King Country. Much of this resistance was due to the involvement of lawyers and surveyors in establishing tribal boundaries.

This reviewer, as a young newspaper reporter attended a Māori Land Court hearing in Tokaanu in 1966 where the process of deciding on a dispute of 600 acres on the side of Mount Ruapehu was decided by the judge on the authenticity of the waiata (chant) carrying the iwi’s history. Whanganui and Tuwharetoa were the claimants. Tuwharetoa’s waiata was considered to be the most accurate and thus the title of the surveyed block of land was awarded to that tribe.

And so the dancing and feasting went on and the accounts of the four hui held between, former Governor and now Premier Grey and Tāwhiao between 1878 and 1876 are as colourful as any court ball.  “The dancing that took place did not involve traditional Māori haka or poi, but waltzes, Schottische, polkas and quadrilles.” But in the meetings before the dancing there was also the deep seriousness of political dancing with high stakes. Tāwhiao, as he always did, demanded the Waikato be returned wholly and Grey responded that that could not happen. But Grey did offer a settlement which according to Belgrave “Grey immediately went on to make what would be a substantive and detailed offer of peace, to settle the issues of King and Queen.”

There would be three more hui involving Tāwhiao and Grey and it would be a spoiler if the outcome was revealed here. Eventually though, the first sod for the railway at the boundary of the King Country was dug with three spadesful by Chief Wahanui on behalf of Māori loading them into a former children’s’ toy barrow which Premier Stout wheeled down a short plank “turning the sods onto the grass”. While the ceremony signalled the start of the opening up of the King Country it ended the independent sovereignty of the King Country.

A disappointing footnote: Having grown up in the Ohakune, this reviewer has always proudly stated as being from the King Country only to discover, while reading Dancing with the King, that the southern boundary of the Rohe Pōtae crosses westward over Mount Ruapehu’s highest peaks, Te Heuheu and Paretetaitonga leaving Ohakune on the wrong side of the aukati.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Dancing with the King: The Rise and Fall of the King Country, 1864-1885
by Michael Belgrave
Published by Auckand University Press
ISBN 9781869408695

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