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The Secret Jewish History Of A Violent New Zealand Cult

This is the second of a series of posts on the history and lives of Jews in New Zealand. The first can be found here.

Samuel A. Levy was almost certainly terrified as he sat across from Patara Raukatauri on February 25, 1865, the latter being a member of the infamous and supposedly violent Pai Marire cult. Indeed, Raukatauri’s men would in the subsequent days hang a priest and eat his eyes at an altar, but Levy would be spared the gruesome fate for a crucial reason: He was Jewish.

How is it that a Māori raiding party seemingly intent on killing English settlers would spare a man because of his faith? To understand this event — and the multitude of colonial connections between Jews and Aotearoa, New Zealand’s indigenous people — we must begin with the arrival of Christian missionaries in 1814.

The missionaries, from a number of different Anglican sects, struggled in the first years to convey their cultural and spiritual understandings to Māori people, let alone actually convert them. As Bronwyn Elsmore writes in “Like Them That Dream: The Māori and the Old Testament,” “In reply to [Rev. John Butler’s] statement that God was angry with all men who had many wives, the chief replied, ‘Our God is not angry with us, and your God does not live in New Zealand.’”

There was, however, one concept that the missionaries succeeded in transferring. Elsmore writes, “In the very early period of Māori-missionary contact, the theory was advanced among several of the prominent church authorities that the Hebrew and Māori languages had much in common.”

Samuel Marsden, one of the premier missionaries in New Zealand and Australia, wrote of the Māori in 1819 that “I am inclined to think that they have sprung from some dispersed Jews, at some period or other… and have by some means got into the island from Asia.” These notions gained currency among the missionaries, and ultimately, according to Elsmore, “the theory of the New Zealanders having some link with the people of Israel was commonly believed at the time.”

Māori thus quickly came to believe this as well, after they were introduced to the Hebrews through the teachings of the missionaries. By 1846, some Māori were considering themselves members of the “lost tribe” of Israel. Others followed the Old Testament to the word, punishing cursing and adultery with stoning, etc. Māori culture places a heavy emphasis on genealogy, or Whakapapa, and thus many Māori readily accepted an extension of their inheritance.

There were other connections that the Māori drew as well. Noting the habit of some Māori tribes to engage in cannibalism, and given the fact that the Te Reo Māori translation of the description of the Tribe of Benjamin foretold that members “shall eat the dead body in the morning,” a Māori man named John Williams concluded that Māori were the descendants of Benjamin. Māori also identified their atua, or god, Hema, with Shem — son of Noah.

Furthermore, as Elsmore writes, “the content of the Old Testament also had more points of familiarity with tradition that did the New.” The focus on the genealogy of the Israelites lined up with Māori interest in Whakapapa. The Psalms could be related to Māori traditions of waiata and mōteatea , or songs and chants. (Indeed, my girlfriend, of Māori descent, remarked on this latter similarity at my brother’s bar mitzvah many years ago).

Jesus Christ, a man who had been killed and was no warrior, had no mana, or power, in the eyes of the Māori. “In the early 1830s… a European talking to a [Māori priest] said the priest dismissed the Christian God as ‘too quiet, too lazy, and so no good for the Māori.’ He didn’t kill people so his mana was small. On the other hand, the atua [or Māori gods] had great power and could kill easily.” The God of the Old Testament, too, was at times a vengeful and violent entity, and thus invested with much greater mana.

However, in order to understand what for many Māori was the most convincing evidence of their connection to the ancient Israelites — and thus contemporary Jews — we must understand the context in which Māori lived in the 19th century. By the time the Old Testament was fully translated into the Māori language, a foundational 1840 treaty between Māori and the British Crown had already been sundered in dozens of ways. Māori found themselves –- and particularly their land –- under attack from means both cunning (predatory loans) and outright violent (military or vigilante attacks by the British). The land wars in Taranaki that raged through the 1860s were the most famous and devastating of these latter cases.

Elsmore notes that “it is no wonder that the biblical accounts of the Israelites, with their troubled history, caught the full imagination of the Māori.” Indeed, it was not long before a full-fledged movement, identifying Māori with Jews, came into being. Te Ua Haumene Horopapera Tuwhakararo, inspired by the Israelites of his heritage, founded the Pai Marire movement as a nonviolent but spiritual way of opposing European colonization. Pai Marire, in Te Reo Māori, means good and peaceful.

Born in the early 1820s, Te Ua served for many years in the clergy of the Wesleyan missionary sect. He studied the Christian Bible enthusiastically, dedicating himself to the Scriptures. Although a minister at the outbreak of the Taranaki wars, he was also a supporter of the anti-colonial Māori king, and bore arms during fighting in 1861. In September 1862, Te Ua claimed, the angel Gabriel spoke to him and instructed him to aid the passage of Europeans shipwrecked in Māori territory. Te Ua helped broker a deal, and thus the Pai Marire ideology of peace began to spread.

For two years, Pai Marire was adopted by Māori with every intention of keeping the fragile peace with their European neighbors -– neighbors who by now outnumbered them. In 1864, however, three attacks on Europeans –- including the ambush of a military patrol and a raid on a village –- shattered the Pai Marire reputation. Although Te Ua condemned these violations, the Pai Marire movement was remade as a violent cult in the European imaginary.

By mid-May, according to historian Paul Clark, “of the three prophets who had seemed to be leading the new religion, Te Ua alone remained, pre-eminent and unchallenged and enunciating the hopes for peace and Māori unity that he had first spoken of over a year before.” He attempted to regain control of his movement by proselytizing to the Māori king, Tawhiao, who later converted to Pai Marire. In the same time period, he wrote letters to the other two religious leaders and signed them, “from Te Ua Jew Te Uea.” In a different letter, he concluded, “Enough from Te Ua, a peacable Jew.”

The Pai Marire, like other Māori, identified with the struggle of the Jews. In Ua Rongopai, somewhat of a guide for the movement, Te Ua writes, “Return and go home in peace, for the Lord has spoken to me twice and urged that his people, his forsaken, naked, separated and half-standing flock, return as did Abraham of Israel.” They celebrated the Sabbath on Saturday instead of Sunday, and called their priests Te Tiu (the Jew). Although Pai Marire was not by any means Judaism, it still drew heavily from it, and at its height had 10,000 followers – some 10 percent of the remaining Māori population.

In 1865, after gaining the favor of the King and the fearsome Waikato Māori, Te Ua dispatched missionaries to New Zealand’s East Coast, to spread his faith there. The leader of this band of missionaries, Patara Raukatauri, was a former administrator with a prominent brow and proud visage. He accepted Te Ua’s instruction to act carefully around Europeans, for the latter “did not want to have murder committed.” Raukatauri’s subordinate Kereopa te Rau, however, had other ideas. Patara talked him down from killing a Roman Catholic priest along their voyage. He would not be so successful in the future.

The arrival of the Pai Marire in the town of Opotiki proved a crucial turning point for the movement. Patara Raukatauri, discovering that a Jew lived in Opotiki, invited himself over for tea at the house of the aforementioned Samuel Levy. According to Levy’s diary for the day, Patara explained to a man who had heard only of Pai Marire murder that “he was very glad I was a Jew, he being very fond of them, giving as his reason that the Jews were once a grand people, but were now reduced to a very small one through the persecutions they had gone through, the Maoris believing themselves to be undergoing the same.”

But all was not to go well, this peaceful evening aside. Carl Sylvius Volckner was a Protestant missionary Opotiki who worked to convert the Whakatohea Māori there. They viewed him as a friend and ally, and despite the occasional anti-Crown raids by the Whakatohea, the priest and Māori got along well. In the same town, the Catholic Father Garavel tended to another group of Māori. In 1863, Volckner accused Garavel of aided Waikato Māori rebels, and Garavel was recalled to the capital of Auckland. In response, Garavel accused Volckner – truthfully – of relaying information about his parishioners to the colonial Governor.

The arrival of the Pai Marire appears to have acted as a catalyst for the Whakatohea. Patara left town for a month, according to Levy, and while he was gone Kereopa whipped the local Māori parishioners into a frenzy. When Volckner returned from Auckland (presumably reporting to the Governor once again), the Pai Marire – for the Whakatohea were by then devout converts – captured him and executed him for his crimes.

After this, the Europeans – themselves whipped into a frenzy by the exaggerated reports of Levy and others – demonized the Pai Marire. In April of the same year, Governor Grey launched a campaign of repression against them, arresting four hundred and imprisoning them on the Chatham Islands. Te Ua and Patara were themselves captured in a similar raid, though they were later pardoned and released. The Māori king Tawhiao eventually abandoned Pai Marire, and the bloodshed throughout New Zealand resumed as Māori struggled against British colonization.

The legacy of Pai Marire was long. One of the prisoners in the Chathams, Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, would later found a new peaceful religion based on Pai Marire. The non-violent movement created by Te Whiti o Rongomai – a movement that would serve as a model for Gandhi and other peace advocates – at Parihaka in the 1880s also drew from Pai Marire mythology and practice.

I wrote in my previous article for the Forward that Jews were vital to the creation of the State of New Zealand. Likewise, Jewish history and belief meshed with Māori culture on a spiritual level as well as a practical one, and ultimately instigated major events throughout the nineteenth century. Just as the Jews recovered from the persecutions we faced, the Māori continue to fight for their rights and freedoms, receiving reparations and settlements from the New Zealand government and participating in radical and non-violent politics – politics that may very well have Pai Marire and Judaism at their roots.


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