Author of the 1954 book, “The Parihaka Story” and its 1975 update, “Ask That Mountain“, Scott was the first writer to widely publicise the story of the destruction of Parihaka village in Taranaki by colonial forces in 1881.
It has proven to be a very influential story. Wrote former Listener journalist, Denis Welch “Not many books change the way people think but, like its near-contemporaries Silent Spring and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Scott’s did: his dramatic tale of the passive resistance shown by Te Whiti and his followers, and their shameful treatment by the colonial authorities, was eventually to play a key part in radicalising young Maori and raising Pakeha consciousness about the racism inherent in this country’s development.”
Who is Dick Scott and why, in the early ’50s did he choose to write a book about an obscure piece of NZ’s colonial history?
From a Manawatu farming background, Scott mixed with the Communist Party during WW2 in Wellington and went on to formally joined the Party in Palmerston North.
Scott’s first exposure to the Communist Party’s Maori programme was Party member Ron Meek’ 48 page pamphlet “Maori Problems Today“. Meek’s work was designed to assist in “forging a bond of unity between maori and progressive pakeha.“
Meek wanted the communists to take up maori problems, in order to secure “an intelligent and powerful ally…to make the inevitable change to a real New Order to come faster and less painfully”.
Scott took up journalism and in the late ’40s was one of several undercover communists working on the Labour Party’s daily newspaper, “Southern Cross“. These included Scott’s friend and comrade, cadet reporter, Noel Hilliard. Already working on the manuscript that became “Maori Girl” Hilliard asked Scott to view his work.
Scott used his secret party status to advantage. He infiltrated the “right wing” anti communist group “Catholic Action“, had clandestine dealings with the US embassy and gained union positions, by keeping his Party membership secret.
In 1946 as a 22 year old, he even accepted a Manawatu Labour Party nomination for the General Election. Communist Party HQ made Scott withdraw his name as they feared the embarrassment should his true loyalties be discovered.
Later in Auckland, Scott held night time meetings with young unionist, Eddie Isbey, in the Parnell Rose Gardens. Formerly a communist in London, Scott advised Isbey to stay out of the NZ Communist Party. Isbey joined Labour instead and later became an Minister outside Cabinet.
Scott did become an open communist for a while however and edited the Party’s newspaper “People’s Voice” for a brief period.
Scott says he left the Communist Party in the early ’50s, but his earlier secrecy and admitted dishonesty must cast some doubt on that claim.
About this time, aged 29 and bedridden with measles, Scott began reading from a 640 page legal tome “Bryce vs Rusden“, the story of a defamation case, associated with the 19th century military incident at the Taranaki Maori settlement of Parihaka. Scott had co-incidentally picked this book from the Library of Wellington businessman Siegfried Eichelbaum. When Mr Eichelbaum died, his daughters, had invited to pick a book from his library.
Of the four girls, at least two, Anne, later married to economist Wolgang Rosenberg and Cath, later married to unionist Pat Kelly, were Communist Party members.
Scott was inspired to look into the Parihaka story and travelled to Taranaki to undertake research. Scott uncovered the story of one of NZ’s most shameful episodes. On the 5th of November 1881 Native Minister John Bryce sent 1600 Armed Constabulary and volunteers, backed by artillery, to subdue Parihaka. The community’s non-violent resistance to land confiscations was viewed as a serious threat and had to be suppressed. Many maori were killed and many more imprisoned.
Scott worked on the book through 1954. He was able to afford to devote time to the project, because Communist Party member and dentist, John Colquhoun, kindly employed Scott’s wife Elsie as a temporary dental assistant.
The book was printed by sympathetic former “concientious objector” Owen Smith and came out in time for Christmas 1954.
“The Parihaka Story” polarised left and right. Wolfgang Rosenberg gave it a very favourable review in the union journal, “The Building Worker“, leftist Bob Goodman praised it in the “Auckland Star“
As Scott has said “Two of my favourable reviews were written by refugees from Nazi Germany. They were from two friends. Any good review I got, looking back, were from people I knew.”
The “Listener” said “Mr Scott is a passionate advocate for the Maori-his history, product of much research, would be even more impressive had he written it with less bitterness and violence.”
The Taranaki Daily News was more hostile. They ran several articles attacking the books accuracy and alleged bias.
“…It is surely no coincidence that a leading member of the Communist Party has recently published The Parihaka Story with emphasis on the undoubted wrong to the Maori,” wrote Alexander Boyd Witten-Hannah on 29 January 1955.
Two weeks later, Witten-Hannah wrote of being visited by a Mr Pokai, who: “…came to my home and told me of his feelings in words that give a complete answer to the malicious innuendos in a recently published book by a communist journalist, obviously designed to revive the memory of old wrongs for political advantage.”
Scott says his early political leanings were well known. “I have to be honest, I had been a member of the Communist Party when I was young, but I wasn’t then.”
In december 1955, Scott learned that “Foreign Languages Publishing House” in the Soviet Union, was proposing to include “The Parihaka Story” in their 1956 history section. Scott later recieved a cheque for the then substantial sum od 300 Guineas from his Soviet publisher.
In the 1970s, Scott reworked the book and had it re-published as “Ask That Mountain“. It has gone into eight printings and around 25,000 copies.
As PM Helen Clark said in 2004. Most famously, The Parihaka Story in 1954, as developed into the fuller account Ask That Mountain in 1975, has had, in the words of Denis Welch, ‘as profound an influence on our national sense of history as any book ever written’. Having visited Parihaka, I can only affirm what Dick Scott found when he brought that story into New Zealand’s general consciousness – that it is a special place with a special history which must never be forgotten.
Ask that Mountain is credited with helping to change the way we thought as a nation, and its continued readership has confirmed its classic status.