Did the Tohunga Suppression Act undermine Māori culture and wellbeing, enabling disharmony and inequity to persist until now?

In an opinion piece We must speak out against racism   the Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon stated that “Measures such as the 1907 Tohunga Suppression Act were introduced, undermining Māori culture and wellbeing, and enabling disharmony and inequity to persist until now.”  Does the evidence support this contention?

In pre-European times, tohunga were expert practitioners of rongoā Māori, the traditional Māori healing system encompassing herbal remedies, physical therapies and spiritual healing.  However, European contact and migration brought new diseases and a need for new knowledge to treat them. Some tohunga continued with their traditional practices and wove European health knowledge into them.  However, others did not adapt, and fraudulent “tohunga” emerged who lacked both traditional and European knowledge. As with Pākehā charlatans and “quacks”, they preyed on people’s superstitions and credulity and offered to “cure” all kinds of illnesses, often with disastrous results.

Key advocates for the Tohunga Suppression Act were Te Aute College graduates who were culturally Māori and educated to the best academic standards available in New Zealand at the time. Their teachers were highly educated Pākehā who respected Māori culture and often spoke Māori fluently.

John Thornton was Te Aute College’s headmaster from 1878 to 1912, during which he focused on preparing “Maori boys for the matriculation examination of the New Zealand University…I saw that the time would come when the Maoris would wish to have their own doctors, their own lawyers and their own clergymen.”

Te Aute’s founder, Samuel Williams supported Thornton’s vision for Te Aute students.  Both Williams and Thornton lobbied to have Māori language included at university level in BA degrees.

In 1880 James Pope was appointed Inspector of the 57 native schools then operating.  Pope was a polymath – a teacher, botanist, musician, and a Greek, Latin, French, German, Māori and Hebrew speaker and linguist.  Pope drafted a native school’s code that set high standards for schools. He insisted that Māori must receive at least as good an education as European children.

In 1883 James Pope visited Te Aute and described the standards reached in mathematics and science as “equal to those of any secondary school in the country”.  He strongly supported the College, and was present at the meeting at Te Aute in 1897 which launched the Te Aute College Students’ Association (“the Young Maori Party.”) 

Pope took a great interest in Māori health and was deeply knowledgeable on mātauranga Māori.  He was critical of tohunga capabilities.  He noted that tohunga could help with bruises and wounds, but described their overall approach as “all this folly” and stated that Māori belief in tohunga was no better than Pākehā believing in quacks. 

Pope’s Health for the Maori: A Manual for use in Native Schools published in 1884 was embraced by Te Aute college graduates.  Translated into Māori, Pope’s manual was used by the young Āpirana Ngata, Rēweti Kōhere and others as a basis for their campaigns to improve hygiene and sanitation to enhance Māori health. Decades later, Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana gave Pope’s manual an important place in his missionary efforts.

Te Aute educated many talented Māori including Āpirana Ngata, Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), Māui Pōmare, Edward Ellison, Paraire Tomoana and Rēweti Kōhere. Pōmare became the first Māori doctor when he graduated in 1899, followed by Peter Buck in 1904 and Tūtere Wī Repa in 1908. 

Ellison had grown up on a Taranaki farm where he observed Māori funerals passing the farm gate and attributed many of the deaths to tohungaism. This helped motivate him to a medical career which led to him succeeding Buck as director of the Māori Hygiene Division in the Department of Health.

In 1901 Māui Pōmare was appointed Māori Health Officer.  He had the same powers as district health officers and ranked below only the Public Health Department’s permanent head.  Pōmare understood that living conditions caused much Māori morbidity and mortality.  He tirelessly visited villages inspecting water supply, rubbish disposal and sanitary arrangements.  He was so concerned about the health risks of deserted whare that over three years he is reported to have burnt to the ground around 1,900 of them.

In his reports to Parliament Pōmare was scathing about the mortality tohunga caused through improper procedures.  Seventeen children died in one pā alone as a result of tohunga “treatments”.  Pōmare’s 1904 annual report sought legislation against the practices of tohunga. 

James Carroll (Timi Kara) introduced the Tohunga Suppression Act to Parliament in 1907.  Māori MPs such as Carroll and Ngata were advocating for improved funding for Māori healthcare, and they were likely concerned to distance themselves from tohunga.  Ngata indicated that tohunga would continue to be active unless better healthcare came available for Māori.

In a fine academic piece, Māmari Stephens (2000) noted the wider political, institutional and legislative context for the 1907 Act, the motivations of the key people involved, and the extent to which the Act achieved its objectives.  Nothing in her work suggests that the Act was intended to, or had the effect of, “undermining Māori culture and wellbeing and enabling disharmony and inequity to persist until now.”

The Act targeted any person who “gathers Maoris around him by practising on their superstition…professing supernatural powers…foretelling of future events”.  The Act did not outlaw those tohunga practicing, for example, herbal remedies that do no harm, even if they may not be effective.  No part of the Act targeted Māori culture.

While Parliamentary debates saw references to such Māori leaders as Rua Kenana, there was much more discussion about Pākehā faith healers, charlatans and quacks.

Prosecutions could not be undertaken under the Act without the Native Minister‘s assent. Given that James Carroll was the Native Minister from 1899 to 1912 this provided a safeguard against the legislation being used capriciously or punitively against Māori.

The Tohunga Suppression Act was supported by all Māori MPs and received Royal Assent on 24 September 1907.  It was followed in 1908 by The Quackery Prevention Act, which banned publication of untruthful claims about medicines.

Overall, the Tohunga Suppression Act was applied leniently. It was not used to target tohunga who practised without making outlandish and obviously fraudulent claims. There were around nine well-documented convictions under the Act, often involving patient deaths. The harshest penalty was six months jail for the “White Tohunga” Mary Ann Hill after several deaths had been attributed to her treatment. 

In themselves the Tohunga Suppression Act and the Quackery Prevention Act had modest direct impacts.  Vastly more important for Māori health was improving living standards, better hygiene, housing and nutrition, and of course more doctors and nurses. However, the Acts signalled that health services and products needed to be based on reason, science and evidence, and not on fraudulent and delusive claims that caused harm.

The Tohunga Suppression Act did not undermine Māori culture and wellbeing, nor cause disharmony and inequity.  In fact, much is owed to Māori leaders and their Pākehā compatriots who promoted the Act as a very small part of their lifelong service in advancing the interests of Māori people.

Further reading

The following are further reading:

Dow, Derek 1999: ‘Pruned of Its Dangers’: The Tohunga Suppression Act 1907. Health and History. Vol. 3, No. 1, Maori Health (2001), pp. 41-64.  Published By: Australian and New Zealand Society of the History of Medicine, Inc

Lange, R. 1999. May the people live. A History of Maori Health Development 1900- 1920. Auckland University Press, Auckland.

Stephens, Māmari 2000: A Return to the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907. Submitted in fulfilment of the LLB(Hons) requirements at Victoria University in 2000.

About Peter Winsley

I’ve worked in policy and economics-related fields in New Zealand for many years. With qualifications and publications in economics, management and literature, I take a multidisciplinary perspective to how people’s lives can be enhanced. I love nature, literature, music, tramping, boating and my family.
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