Gunpowder, treason, and… what??

Nancy makes the acquaintance of Guy Fawkes, 5 November 1919, Hastings, by Leslie Adkin. Gift of G. L. Adkin family estate, 1964. Te Papa (A.006644)

Yesterday was Guy Fawkes Day, and it is almost becoming a tradition for New Zealand media to celebrate the occasion by running pieces on two topical issues: Should the sale of fireworks be banned? And should we be commemorating the resistance of the Taranaki Māori community of Parihaka (which was invaded by government forces on 5 November 1881) instead of the foiling of the 1605 plot by Guy Fawkes and other English Catholics to blow up the English Parliament and install a Catholic monarch? For the record, my answer to both questions is ‘yes’, but the focus of this post is a bit different.

As the historian David Cressy notes, after the Gunpowder Plot was discovered and the conspirators had been captured, tortured and executed, the English Parliament passed a law for an annual act of public thanksgiving on 5 November to ensure the nation’s deliverance from the plot was held in ‘perpetual remembrance’. Cressy calls this ‘one of the earliest examples of legislated memory’, which ‘provided a model for subsequent acts of commemoration’. The law mandating the day of commemoration was not repealed until 1859, and the imperative to remember was also captured in the popular rhyme:

Please to remember the Fifth of November

Gunpowder Treason and Plot

We know no reason why Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot.

Over time, Guy Fawkes Night became a popular festivity marked by socially licensed misrule, featuring bonfires, the burning of effigies of Fawkes and others, and, eventually, fireworks. In the late nineteenth century, authorities had some success in bringing the festivities under control by providing organised entertainment, and the focus changed again during the twentieth century with the commercial availability of fireworks.

As Guy Fawkes Night became a popular festival, it also came to focus less on the historical details of the Gunpowder Plot and more on current events and hate-figures of the times in which the festivities took place. David Cressy writes that:

Foreign and imperial affairs brought new figures into the Guy Fawkes pageant. Effigies of the 1870s included Pope Leo XIII, the Tsar of Russia, the Sultan of Turkey, the Amir of Afghanistan, Araby Pasha and the king of the Zulus. The Irish leader Parnell appeared on the bonfires in 1879…. Historical memory gave way to current affairs.

David Cressy, ‘Four Hundred Years of Festivities’, in Brenda Buchanan et al, Gunpowder Plots: A Celebration of 400 Years of Bonfire Night, London, Allen Lane, 2005

In New Zealand, too, Guy Fawkes effigies of the German Kaiser were burned during the First World War, as were effigies of Hitler during the Second World War. What may be surprising, however, is that in 1881 some Pākehā New Zealanders drew a connection between Guy Fawkes and the Parihaka leader Te Whiti-o-Rongomai.

Today, when people argue that we should commemorate Parihaka’s campaign of non-violent resistance rather than the Gunpowder Plot, the underlying assumption is that the two events could not be more different in their nature and their significance to Aotearoa New Zealand. The Taranaki Daily News, for example, editorialised in 2012:

Fawkes was a religious zealot and would-be terrorist who almost succeeded in killing and maiming thousands of people. On the other hand, Parihaka played host to the dramatic conclusion of a now-celebrated campaign of peaceful activism against land theft in a manner that propelled other activists in other countries to iconic status worldwide.

Taranaki Daily News, 26 June 2012, p 8

At the time of the invasion of Parihaka, however, many Pākehā had convinced themselves (or been convinced by what we might now call disinformation) that Te Whiti, Tohu and their followers were themselves dangerous plotters who posed a genuine threat to public order and safety. Astonishing though it may seem today, it was not outlandish in 1881 for Pākehā to speak of Guy Fawkes and Te Whiti in the same breath. The fact that the Gunpowder Plot was a Catholic conspiracy may be relevant here. This was a time when sectarianism was still a powerful force in New Zealand society, and many Protestants viewed Catholics as superstitious, credulous and in thrall to their religious leaders – the same characteristics Pākehā attributed to the people of Parihaka. But above all, Parihaka had been the subject of so much rumour- and fear-mongering that it could seem plausible to depict Te Whiti as New Zealand’s Guy Fawkes.

In the leadup to the invasion, for example, rumours spread that the people of Parihaka had positioned dynamite in the village so that ‘the Divine interpretation promised by Te Whiti on the 5th November will consist in blowing up the New Zealand forces as Guy Fawkes proposed to do to the House of Commons on that day two or three centuries ago’. Even the newspapers at the time conceded that this rumour was unfounded and absurd. The Poverty Bay Herald, however, published two poems which mocked Te Whiti, linked him to Guy Fawkes, and celebrated the suppression of the Parihaka resistance:

Remember, remember, this Fifth of November,

Native Policy, Armed Force, and the lot.

There is reason to doubt, that they’ll suffer a rout,

If they give way to Te Whiti one jot;

Then let it appear,

To that savage, most clear,

That his day dreams have come to an end —

He is doomed to the Pakeha to bend,

And so say all of us.

‘Monteagle’, ‘Ye Modern Guy Fawkes Plot’, Poverty Bay Herald, 5 November 1881, p 2

Ah! Long shall we New Zealanders a well-known date remember —

The which Guy Fawkes commemorates, the fifth day of November

When Bryce, by British bayonets backed, read out the Act called Riot,

And bold Te Whiti — why he “caved in,” like a lamb so quiet.

‘J.J.P.’, ‘The N.Z. Guy Fawkes’, Poverty Bay Herald, 7 November 1881, p 2

Of course, Te Whiti had not ‘caved in’ but rather been arrested, and would be held in detention by the government, not being allowed to return to Parihaka until 1883. The invasion was a source of huge and ongoing trauma for the people of Parihaka and for Taranaki Māori more widely. For many Pākehā at the time, however, it was cause for celebration. The New Zealand Herald reported:

The Fifth of November, the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, has been celebrated this year with unusual rigour, principally it is believed, as enabling the youngsters to hit two birds with the one stone — namely, commemorating the crime of Guy Fawkes, and the capture of Te Whiti. Crackers and squibs were being exploded in the streets to a late hour on Saturday, while bonfires were blazing in every suburb, and on the top of nearly all the hills surrounding Auckland.

New Zealand Herald, 8 November 1881, p 4

Pākehā ‘youngsters’ of today may still enjoy fireworks, but we can hope that the new New Zealand histories curriculum will mean they will have a much better understanding of the events at Parihaka than their counterparts of 140 years ago.

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