Paul Moon: The Titford fallacy

Alan Titford was depicted by supporters as having endured a prolonged and brutal campaign of terrorism by Te Roroa thugs. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Alan Titford was depicted by supporters as having endured a prolonged and brutal campaign of terrorism by Te Roroa thugs. Photo / Michael Cunningham

For years, Allan Titford and his many supporters fashioned a dystopian and blatantly racist vision of New Zealand's future, in which avaricious Maori tribes, together with obsequious politicians, would slowly but surely trample over private property rights.

The essence of this narrative was that undeserving Maori would be enriched at the expense of hard-working and hard-done-by Pakeha, and that only a handful of stubborn battlers - such as Titford - were prepared to stand up to the onslaught. To his followers, he became at once prophet and martyr.

Such fears over a muscular assertion by Maori of political and property rights have a pedigree stretching back to the 19th century, when Maori were portrayed by some as the "principal aggressor", threatening the livelihoods and even the lives of "unoffending settlers", as the former Premier William Fox so contemptuously put it in 1866.

From around the late 1980s, the "Titford Case", as it was labelled, revived such apprehensions that had for so long lain dormant. From that point onwards, no matter how reasoned a discussion might be about the virtues of the Treaty of Waitangi, all someone had to ask was "What about the Titford case?" and suddenly, the old prejudices belched to the surface of the swamp.

Reason was often no match for the passions the Titford case aroused in many people.

Titford was depicted by supporters as having endured a prolonged and brutal campaign of terrorism by Te Roroa thugs, and his hyper-sensationalised allegations formed the basis of a cause that was soon taken up by an odd assortment of believers.

Some were drawn from a growing rural Pakeha underclass in search of their own grievances, some came from a coalescing body of anti-Treaty activists, others were conspiracy theorists who denied Maori are indigenous to New Zealand and would clutch at any opportunity to discredit them, while on the periphery were those who possessed the vague presumption that Titford's experience was somehow out of kilter with the natural order of things: "How dare the natives step out of their subjugated state?"

At the height of his crusade, Titford and his band of increasingly vitriolic collaborators kept open a racial fault line that divided the country in a way nothing else could. Here was the evidence - apparently in plain sight - of the Great Maori Threat, breathlessly promulgated with all manner of racist puffery.

Of course, the vast majority of New Zealanders had nothing to do with Titford's cause, and now that his deceptions, violence, and destructiveness have been exposed, why should we even give him another thought?

Well, we most certainly should, because not having an opinion on Titford's egregious encounters with Te Roroa, the Waitangi Tribunal and the Crown could leave the impression of being slightly too comfortable about the views he and his followers promoted.

Where, over the last few decades, was the vocal public defence of the people of Te Roroa, who over all this time were being vilified by Titford and his coterie? No serious sign of popular outrage emerged during almost three decades of Titford's invidious campaign, while the accusations against Te Roroa during this time went largely untested and unchallenged. Instead, there was just silence from the sidelines.

Silence begets forgetfulness, and in this case, we cannot afford to forget how precious and how precarious the navigation of our race relations can sometimes be.

Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at AUT University, and author of Encounters: The Creation of New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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