Ratana the Prophet is a new edition of the 2009 biography by Keith Newman, published by Oratia Books.

Every January, politicians of all stripes head to Rātana pā near Whanganui for the annual celebration of the birth of Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana, a farmer turned prophet who founded the influential Māori church and movement in 1918. A partnership with the Labour Party saw Rātana members holding all four Māori seats in parliament from 1943 to 1963.

Between the two world wars, Rātana travelled the country and the world championing Māori mana and the restoration of Te Tiriti o Waitangi as New Zealand’s founding document. This extract, from a revised edition of Keith Newman’s biography Ratana the Prophet, published this week, records Rātana’s first visit to London in 1924.


On behalf of the people

T.W. Ratana had publicly committed himself to a political programme for the first time in a speech at Ratana Pā during the Christmas hui of 1923; he would go to London and take with him the Bible and the Treaty of Waitangi, symbolic of the spiritual and social sides of his mission.

In the past, he had turned down offers of up to £50,000 to go to England and America, believing he would lose his power if he accepted. Instead, he began raising his own funds to take a core group of followers with him.

He had told the people, “You see my body standing here but my spirit is far away seeking your welfare . . . in Samoa and in England, and has reached the British Exhibition”. He hoped to shake hands with King George and lay New Zealand’s foundational document before him. “I will ask him, ‘This is the Treaty you have made. What do you think of it?’ He will not be able to deny it.”

The touring group — including a well-rehearsed concert party of dancers, singers and musicians who would draw crowds and raise funds along the way — left Ratana Pā for Wellington on 9 April 1924. A local newspaper reported the party were taking with them many documents and exhibits to substantiate Ratana’s claim to healing power. “Among them is the steel frame worn by Miss Lammas of Nelson, before Ratana’s intervention.” The party carried with them aboard the Maheno mere (clubs), greenstone ornaments, wood carving and taiaha (staffs), and about 150 cloaks, incorporating kiwi, native pigeon, tui, kaka and weka feathers.

Rātana’s 38-strong troupe for his 1924 world tour included a boys band. Rātana (centre) is pictured here with band members including his sons Arepa (left) and Omeka (at his right). (Uri Whakatupuranga, Ratana Archives)

A fortnight later, they steamed into Sydney. The Sydney Sun newspaper, under the heading “Miracle Man — Ratana in Sydney”, reported on their brief stopover.

Tahu Wiremu Ratana looks more like a prosperous tradesman than a famous miracle man. Well built and plump, without being stout, he is good-looking, with a light brown complexion. Except for a light moustache, Ratana is clean shaven, and he looks about 40, although he is nearer 52. Unlike other faith healers, he travels without a blare of trumpets and there are never any bands to welcome him, not because there are not bands ready to do that, but because his movements are always kept something of a secret.

Six years ago Ratana was a prosperous and well-to-do farmer. Always religiously inclined, he was a stout Presbyterian, and he seldom read anything but the Bible. His favourite passage was the “healing doctrine” as explained in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew, and so interested in it did he become that he started to practise it. Many cures were performed by the dusky faith-healer, and as church committee after church committee reported favourably on his work even the sceptical Pakeha was convinced . . . To Ratana’s credit a number have been investigated and found to be existent. Several cured of blindness or partial paralysis were watched for a considerable period and after months there was no sign of relapse.

Ratana and his troupe were dismayed at the way Black dock workers were treated and so arranged secretly to hold a picnic for them, prophesying that a time would come when they would take charge of their own country again. Ratana is pictured here with a rickshaw driver who he discovered was a Zulu chief. (Uri Whakatupuranga Ratana Archives).

The journey continued aboard the P&O liner SS Barrabool. When the ship neared its berth in Capetown, South Africa, the Ratana troupe, looking through the portholes, saw “thousands and thousands of feet . . . [and] thousands more slaves with baskets of coal”.

Ratana was moved to compassion and asked if the black dock workers could board the ship under the pretence that they would be cleaning the quarters of his troupe. Instead, he and his people cooked up a feast and spread it out before them. Ratana prayed, then prophesied a day was coming when the mighty hand of God would lift up and liberate this black nation. A time was coming, he said, when “the head would become the tail and the tail would be the head”:

Listen carefully oh morehu and our children [touring party], I have seen and indeed witnessed these black-skinned people treated like dogs, I am hurt by this. Yet it shall come to pass, that in Jehovah’s time and place, he shall lift these people up . . .

Ratana believed his mission was not only to seek redress for Māori land confiscations, but to represent his country, show off the talents of his performing troupe, preach the gospel, and learn about other nations and peoples at every port of call. On arrival in England, Ratana also held a feast on board the ship for the Black dock workers there.

Sidelined at exhibition

Attempts to present the Rātana petition on behalf of two thirds of Māori to Prince Edward and the British Parliament were undermined by claims from their own government officials that the visiting group did not represent New Zealand. Left to right: Haami Tokouru Ratana, Tupu Taingakawa and Rewiti Te Whena. (London photographer, Alexander Turnbull Library.)

When they reached London, Tupu Taingakawa made contact with Barclays, the firm of lawyers he had contacted during his earlier visits to England in 1914 with King Te Rata, and in 1884 when he had come with Tawhiao. Old man Barclay had since passed away, but partners A. Peacock, a Mr Goddard and Walter Andrew were contracted for the sum of £500 to prepare the claims to be presented to the British Parliament, to Premier Ramsay McDonald and to King George V or his son Edward, the Prince of Wales.

Ratana and his party were early arrivals at the Empire Exhibition and immediately became disturbed at the way Māori culture was being portrayed, in particular the dilapidated meeting house at the New Zealand Pavilion which had originally been presented to Queen Victoria, and pulled out of storage after nearly 50 years.

Pita Moko described it as a disgrace. While the carving was intact, and a good example of Māori craftsmanship, the panelling was “an eyesore” and all European. As for the mats, he would not have them on his own doorstep. He maintained that if the authorities intended to represent Māori, they should have made a display that was creditable to the race. “We were the only coloured race under the British flag that did not have proper representation at the exhibition.” He found that coldness strange, “seeing that the Maori boys had proved themselves as such good fellows during the wartime at home and were respected”. In comparison with the Burma hut, he said, the display suggested that Māori were “low down in the scale of native races”.

According to Ratana apostle Kereama Pene, on seeing the state of the meeting house and the Māori exhibits, Ratana quickly took control.

He and his troupe set about designing and rebuilding the stage. The troupe plaited, weaved, painted and redid the whole meeting house exhibition. Later, the party, which included some of New Zealand’s top cultural musicians and performers, delivered a presentation on their own set. Prior to this, most people had no idea about the Māori people. They had only seen those who had made their way to England virtually as slaves or kitchen help.

The news reached New Zealand via telegraph on 22 May that the royal party had visited the New Zealand Pavilion at the Empire Exhibition, including the Māori House.

While the New Zealand Government decided to leverage the fact that the Ratana troupe were at the exhibition, their recognition came far too late. At the request of Sir James Allen, the party were issued tickets and asked to give “an entertainment”. They kept the tickets and paid their own expenses in protest at the way they had been treated.

Ratana’s thoughts on the exhibition reached Wanganui a few days later via telegraph and appeared in a local paper, revealing the party had been treated in a very off-hand manner and while many coloured races were represented at the exhibition at Wembley, “even the Zulus had their fares paid”.

Ratana the Prophet, written by Keith Newman and published by Oratia Books, is available from May 7.

Keith Newman has written for mainstream, trade, business and music media. He began researching the life of Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana in 1986 and has already written two books on the prophet: Ratana Revisited (2006) and the original Ratana the Prophet (2009). He has two children and six grandchildren and lives with his wife Paula in Haumoana, Hawke’s Bay.

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