Opotiki – New Zealand’s Colonial Past & Present

Summertime in Opotiki

During the summer break we visited Opotiki for just a couple of hours.  The small Eastern Bay of Plenty town made a deep impression on me.

Our friend a local school teacher got his car fixed and we went with him into town not expecting much with the time we had to kill. I was teasing him about Opotiki recently being discovered as the under-age-sex capital of New Zealand. Some overeager righteous parents had complained about some boys over sixteen having sex with girls under sixteen. Oh shock horror ! Poor Opotiki College got into the headlines even if the events had nothing to do with the school other then that some of the youth do or did attend the college. The police would not have (over-) reacted would they not have been under pressure because of a previous mishandling of serious sexual offending against young girls in Auckland, which played out in the social media.

The first thing, which pleased me was the number of little art shops, galleries and the museum I did not expect to find in this poorer part of the country not bristling with tourists. The shops and galleries were full of the works of local artists many of them Maori or in the Maori cultural tradition and design and materials. What a wonderful contrast to the usual op shops full of cheap European nick-nags or made in China rubbish.


Walking down the main street I saw a big group of people gathered around  some impressively tattooed men in gang regalia and thought that I’d come across the Mongrel Mob headquarter. Getting closer however, I saw the little historical colonial courthouse and I realised my mistake. As a former lawyer I was interested to see the wheels of justice in motion. I talked to the lovely friendly Maori aunty who’s job it was to call the defendants and usher them into the court room for their appearance before the judge of the day. Taking a seat in the back I noticed that among the about thirty people in the room I was one of only three white faces. All were Maori including the judge.

I watched two cases being dealt with. One a pre-sentencing referral. The judge took great pains to instruct the obviously already convicted defendant in his thirties what he had to do before his next appearance to qualify for home detention. Otherwise the sentencing judge would have no choice but send him to jail. I hope that the man headed the advice as he did not seem to be bothered too much about jail or otherwise giving his supporters in the back a big smile and thumps up as he walked out.
This reminded me of the myth perpetuated by middle class white people calling for more and harsher jail sentences as a deterrent. However, because it would be a deterrent to them does not mean that it is a deterrent to the disadvantaged downtrodden brown offenders as well. Many of them feel at home in prison.

The second case was a traffic offence. The middle aged defendant with a full moko (facial tattoo) was challenging the jurisdiction of what he called this “colonial” court. The judge already had made a determination. It was clear what the outcome would be namely that the district court had jurisdiction in traffic offences even if the offender happened to be Maori. However, because of a clerical error the judge accepted the new submission and would decide on it before the next hearing. The defendant who stood his ground said that the days of martial law were over and he would attend a whanau (family group) meeting and then it would go to some tribal “supreme court” in Tauranga. I must admit that I admired the judge’s patience taking notes for instance of the street address of the supreme court and encouraging the defendant to report the outcome from these what he called “hui” (meetings) to the court. He showed empathy and respect. He did not talk down at the defendant and left his mana (dignity and honour) intact. Even if in the end the outcome will be the same – as I know the argument has been dealt with many times before in New Zealand courts – I was deeply impressed by the dignified way this Maori judge handled the situation. I wonder if a pakeha (European) judge would have done the same.

When I told people of my experience of the Opotiki Mongrel Mob headquarters/court house they all said : Thursday, court day in Opotiki !

Colonial History

About 100 meters across the road stands the well kept colonial Anglican church.


Part of it’s history is the infamous murder of Anglican missionary Carl Völkner. After a very questionable short “judicial” process Chief Mokomoko among others was hanged for the murder.

“As a result of the murder, the Government sent military troops to Opotiki; the Mokomoko family were reduced to just 30 women and children and 70,000 hectares of land was taken from them. The Mokomoko family have since carried the shame of bringing raupatu (land confiscation) to Opotiki.” (Rotorua Daily Post 2011)
Entering the church you cannot avoid looking at the framed document with the pardon of Mokomoko by the Governor General in 1992. At the back of the church you still find Völkner’s tomb stone where his decapitated corps was buried by the local Maori. His head was never found.
In 2011 further action was taken to rehabilitate Mokomoko.
“In granting the pardon in 1992, the Crown did not consult with the Mokomoko whanau on the wording which implied the pardon was granted because of similar pardons for Mokomoko’s co-accused,” Dr Sharples (Minister of Maori Affairs) said. “And so did not restore the character, mana and reputation of Mokomoko.”
He said, through these actions, the Crown had perpetuated the shame and stigma carried by the whanau of Mokomoko.
“I want to apologise to the whanau and express sincere regret for the way the Crown has acted in the past.”

Result of Colonisation

At the end we went past a group of lovely young late teen Maori girls one of them with a baby in a pram just being able to hold the bottle sucking on the teat. I was aghast to notice the distinct colour of the fizzy drink Fanta the about ten months old baby was drinking. I am sure the young mother wants the best for her baby thinking that a sugary fizzy drink was  better then just water. I was reminded of the anti-obesity campaign featuring Olympic shot put champion Valerie Adams with the catch phrase “Too much Love”.

I could not get that image out of my head especially as I have a grandchild of the same age in my house. I started wondering if this had something to do with what has happened to this community over the period of colonisation. This young mother has lost contact to the the wisdom of her own culture but is not educated enough to be aware of the perils of the Western fizzy drink culture.

Was this the image where colonial past and present came together ?

by  Dr. Hans B. Grueber


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