Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

19 August 2009

Murder at Opotiki

Hiona St. Stephens, Opotiki
It was 1865, twenty-five years after the Treaty of Waitangi. It should have been a time of peace but disaffection was widespread. Maori attitudes towards the British ranged from collaboration to increasing hostility and outright armed warfare.

The British wanted more of the land; if they couldn’t buy it they readily provoked rebellion then confiscated it. Maori ownership of Aotearoa (New Zealand) was becoming diluted and while they had been the first people in the queue they could not expect perpetual rights to the best seats in the house.

‘Maoridom’ didn’t exist in 1865. New Zealand was composed of discrete tribes and sub-tribes. Complex ancestral connexions determined whether tribes were friends or enemies; pre-European history was a mosaic of warfare whose winners gained territory, slaves and the meat of the bodies of the captured. Maori, like the British, were warlike, and the confrontation of one race by the other logically led to a series of wars - despite the Treaty.

Some Maori were friendly to the British because, a cynic might suggest, they were rewarded with European magic such as firearms which might quickly put old enemies to rout. A less cynical viewpoint might be that wise Maori heads realized that British newcomers were but the vanguard of a mighty host that would overwhelm them; things would never be the same again so if you couldn’t beat ‘em you’d better join ‘em.

Among the first Europeans were missionaries who zealously brought their Catholic, Anglican, Wesleyan, Methodist and Presbyterian Christianity to the natives. They were surprisingly well received. The extent of their conversions was awesome. Christianity somehow meshed with Maori spirituality and, besides, wasn’t it the religion of these technocrats from afar who took Aotearoa out of the stone age in one magnificent cannon blast?

But the most bitter tribes lost their patience with the pakeha, (non-Maori) their disillusionments soured to rebellion and many missionaries became compromised. Whom did they represent, their native congregations or their native countries? When the local priest heard of Maori preparations for rebellion could he keep quiet and side with his parishioners, ignoring the fact that his masters in head office were part of the Great British Establishment?

One such missionary was Carl Sylvius Volkner, vicar of the parish of Opotiki in the eastern Bay of Plenty.
He couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

* * *

Opotiki was well populated by Maori, and strategically important. Eastward lay the crags of East Cape. South was the Waioeka River gorge whose forest tracks permitted inter-tribal communication with Poverty Bay. Other more secret paths led to the Urewera, home of the Tuhoe people. West lay Auckland and Northland whence reached the long arms of pakeha commerce, law and order, perfidy, preaching and retribution. Across gentler hills dwelt the restless spirits of Rotorua and Taupo, connected to the Bay of Plenty by ancient footpaths and a thermal tract whose sulphurous fires erupted at White Island, smoking on the sparkling horizon of the bay.

Here in 1860 the Church Missionary Society had established an outpost now run by Carl Sylvius Volkner, a gentle, blond, blue-eyed aryan. With native help he built its little church in 1862. Soon he became compromised by divided loyalties and either naively or stupidly he set himself upon a disastrous path towards his particularly violent death…

* * *

In 1864, the Whakatohea, their East Cape neighbours, and the Waikato and Tauranga tribes were caught up in a struggle against the British south of Auckland. They tried to attack through Rotorua but were blocked by a pro-British tribe, Te Arawa. Trying an alternative, northern, coastal route, they were badly mauled by troops and naval gunfire. A battle had taken place near Maketu, where a chief of the Arawa had been killed and Whakatohea chief Te Aporotanga had been taken prisoner. The dead chief’s widow killed the prisoner, leaving the Whakatohea with a deep need for vengeance, especially as Carl Volkner had let the tribe down by not condemning the murder; they felt that he should have asked his boss, Bishop Selwyn, to influence Governor George Grey to punish the Arawa for the revenge killing.

Volkner was aware that the tribe felt he had deserted them for he told Selwyn so but he had alienated himself with the tribe even worse; he, they discovered, had been sending secret despatches to Governor Grey. To be generous, he may ingenuously have believed he could save the tribe by divulging their plans and thus pre-empting pitched warfare. But in time of war, that sort of activity is tantamount to espionage. Naive or not, Volkner was a spy.

Knowing of Volkner’s divided loyalties, Te Whakatohea condemned him to death, and that decision, together with other forces occuring almost coincidentally sealed his fate…

* * *

Far to the south-west in Taranaki the Hauhau cult had grown out of the seed bed lain by the early Wesleyan missionaries. In 1862, chief Te Ua Haumene had been visited by the Angel Gabriel, who revealed that the Maori - one of the lost tribes of Israel - would find salvation by expelling the pakeha from ‘New Canaan’. Te Ua’s vision by-passed Christ, the Hauhau considered they had an affinity with the Jews of the old testament.
Te Ua believed the pakeha would be expelled peaceably by ‘karakia’ or prayers and that chanting believers were immune from bullets as they ran into battle; needless to say, the bullets maintained their trajectories.
Some Hauhau espoused violence. One such was Kereopa Te Rau who set off from Taranaki with a war party bent upon spreading a militant message through the North Island, recruiting followers to his mission as he went. He was skilled in the arts of terrorism and coercion as a report to the Civil Commissioner in Tauranga makes clear :

‘Poronui, Whakatane. February 21 1865.
On Saturday last a large party of [HauHau] arrived . . . bringing with them a British soldier prisoner and the head of Captain Lloyd, which they exhibit. . . They pretend to make it speak. . .’

The report continued that the Hauhau had sealed the port, threatening to kill the crews of any pakeha ships, and were moving towards Opotiki. The Hauhau knew enough of Volkner’s activities to announce that if he was in Opotiki when they arrived they would kill him.

* * *

Volkner, meanwhile, had taken his wife to Auckland for safety but ignoring warnings, he left Auckland for Opotiki again on 29 February on the trading schooner ‘Eclipse’.

The events that followed his arrival were dramatic. The highly respected ‘Illustrated London News’ of 29 July 1865 reported to the effect that:

‘Having had occasion to go to Auckland, Mr.Volkner returned to Opotiki with the Rev. T. S. Grace. The master of the vessel, Captain Levy, states that, on the 1st of March, when he sailed up the river at Opotiki, and came alongside the wharf he found a great crowd of Maoris. His storekeeper brother, Mr S. Levy, with Tewai, the interpreter, came on board, and said that the Maoris [Whakatohea] had all taken an oath the day before to kill every minister or soldier who came there. Captain Levy went ashore and found that this report was true. Later in the day the Maoris ordered Levy, with his crew and passengers, out of the vessel. As soon as they did so, the Maoris seized Mr.Volkner and Mr. Grace.
‘Captain Levy and Mr. Samuel Levy were not personally molested because they were Jews.

‘In the morning Captain and Mr. S. Levy were told that the two missionaries would be shot. The Captain begged the Maoris to refrain but another party asked for Mr.Volkner, saying they wanted him to come to a meeting. The unfortunate gentleman ran out, thinking for a moment that he was about to be set free’.

To quote Captain Levy’s narrative: ‘They walked him off at once. They told him that they were going to kill him. He stopped near the church and asked them to allow him five minutes for prayer … Whilst he was praying they took a block and strop from the vessel, which they made fast to the topmost branches of a large willow-tree… There were now about 800 natives on the ground, who at once marched him under the tree. They then took off his coat, vest, and shirt, which the principal chief [Kereopa] put on, he being quite pleased with the watch and chain.

‘They left his flannel on, he not showing the slightest fear…The poor fellow commenced shaking hands with them while they were tying his neckerchief over his eyes; and… while they were hauling him to the fatal branch. They never tied either his hands or his feet, but left him to dangle in the air for nearly an hour, during which time some of the natives were hauling at his legs to get off his boots and trousers, sharing what was in his pockets, whilst he hung over their heads, and one of the brutes put on his trousers…

‘After letting the body hang for some time they lowered it down and carried it to the side of the church, where they had a place fenced in. Here they spread the body out in the form of a cross. They then proceeded to cut off the head and to drink his blood as it ran out of the head and body… the chief, Kereopa, taking the eyes out of his head with his fingers and eating them before the whole crowd to show them the example. The body was then thrown to the dogs…’

A lurid report but while it sounds a little exaggerated it is substantially corroborated by other reports.
It’s hard to imagine that Volkner showed ‘not the slightest fear’. Unless spiritually anaesthetized the man must have been a blubber of visceral terror.

The report goes on: ‘The Maoris assembled that evening in a … chapel, where the bleeding head of Mr.Volkner was placed on the pulpit, and they performed a savage dance before it, yelling and screaming with the utmost fury.’

The essence of the remainder of the report is that Levy took possession of Volkner’s mangled, headless body which he buried behind the church in what has been described as ‘a curiously shortened grave’.
Volkner's memorial at the back of St Stephens
Retribution followed. On 8 September 1865 an expeditionary force made a clumsy seaborne landing and within a few days Opotiki had been taken. The force took up positions in and around Mr. Volkner’s church.
During several weeks of skirmishing many of the participators in Volkner’s assassination were killed or captured. (Kereopa left the district and made his way down the east coast. He was finally taken late in 1871, cornered at the head of Whakatane Gorge. At his arrest he made the comment that he knew his luck would run out eventually because when he’d swallowed Volkner’s eyes one of them had stuck in his throat! Kereopa was tried in Napier on 21 December 1871, found guilty and executed.)

From the scores of perpetrators, eggers-on, bystanders and witnesses of Volkner’s demise only five were eventually tried. There should have been more but, no doubt, accusation and counter-accusation so confused the issue that hard evidence was difficult to come by. In any case, as with some modern mistrials of ‘terrorists’ - notably the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four - accuracy was less important than that some sort of trial and punishment should satisfy the public’s appetite for revenge.

On Thursday 29 March 1866, the Opotiki Five were tried before Chief Justice, Sir George Alfred Arney. In the dock stood Mokomoko - a Whakatohea chief - Heremita Kahupaea and Hakaraia te Rahui (Ngati Awa) and two boys - Paora Taia (Whakatohea) and Penetita (Nga Maihi). Mr Carnell, for the defence, contended a lack of evidence all round but in the end the judge left it to the jury to decide and they, six and a half hours after the trial had started, gave their verdict:

Paora: Not guilty
Penetito: Guilty - a strong recommendation for mercy
Heremita: Guilty
Hakaraia: Guilty
Mokomoko: Guilty

* * *

Mokomoko maintained his innocence to the last and the other two, acknowledging that they were guilty and deserved to die, supported his statement; but their words fell on deaf ears, there was to be no reprieve. Shortly before he died he said, ‘Farewell, you pakeha! I die without a crime, it is not right that I should die!
Was Mokomoko guilty? Who was guilty? It appears that only Heremita and Hakaraia actually admitted guilt. Perhaps the fact that Mokomoko was a chief of the Whakatohea who, it was said, condemned Volkner to death even before Kereopa appeared on the scene, was sufficient to condemn him.

Never mind, it was all over on 17 May 1866. The ropes had stretched, the necks had broken, the bodies had been buried in unmarked graves to haunt Mt. Eden prison’s gloomy precincts; the tribes and colonists could carry on into the future losing a bit there and winning a bit here, promising to forgive and… forget?

* * *

Maori never forget. No matter how much Maori were changed by pakeha ways over 150 odd years of co-existence - cars, television, hospitals, tobacco, alcohol, state education and welfare, sheep and cattle farming and even a Maori governor-general - they have remembered how to remember. And the Whakatohea, who not only lost a son but also more than a quarter of their land, confiscated by the government, carried the scars of Mokomoko’s injustice down the years with the corrosive pain of unresolved grief.

Spirits of Maori ancestors demand dignity and respect. There are protocols to be observed. When Mokomoko and the others were executed their bodies were buried upright, headless, in unmarked graves. In 1986 the Auckland District Maori Council commenced a three year fight to have the remains exhumed and on the 18th of October 1989 the prison gave up its melancholy relics. Mokomoko was taken back to Opotiki where he now rests in the green hills of Waiaua, safe in the country of his Whakatohea.

There remained the question of his original ‘sin’. At first the Whakatohea declined the offer of a pardon. Some see it as implying guilt - how can one be pardoned when one was innocent in the first place? Whakatohea certainly saw it that way and in July 1990 they petitioned the prime minister, Geoffrey Palmer, that action should be taken to restore Mokomoko’s name and honour. A grave miscarriage of justice had occurred. Statutory intervention was called for equivalent to an acquittal rather than a pardon.

But two pleas for acquittal were turned down on the grounds that there was not enough evidence of innocence (such irony - was there ever enough evidence of guilt?) And although a representative of the Whakatohea insisted that the tribe did not wish to become ‘embroiled in land issues’ but simply wanted Mokomoko’s name cleared, a plea for pardon was lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal. A 1991 newspaper report said that the Tribunal had not decided whether to accept the claim.

But in June 1992, as a result of pressure from the Anglican Church, it was announced that the Governor-General, on the advice of Mr. Douglas Graham, Minister of Justice, had granted a posthumous pardon to Mokomoko. On 25 July, Mr Graham met Mokomoko’s descendants at Waiaua Marae, near Opotiki where the Minister presented the pardon to 80 year old Te Wairemana Taia, great grand-daughter of Mokomoko.
‘At last the long black cloud has been lifted off you, your family and the whole of Whakatohea’.

* * *

The Church of St. Stephen the Martyr still stands, neat, modest and white in Opotiki’s main street. You wouldn’t know, unless somebody told you, that there is a story here that ranks with the murder of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. Relics of Volkner are still preserved in the church - a bible, his chalice and other bits and pieces - and his ‘curiously shortened grave’ - he was, remember, headless; his smoked head had been taken to Poverty Bay - is incorporated into the body of the church.

It has a simple, marble stone: ‘Carl Sylvius Volkner . . . who suffered martyrdom’.

And not so very far away there’s another simple stone: ‘Mokomoko. Wrongfully executed. . .’

But while their bodies rest, and while further reparations have been made since 1992, we may be certain that the story has not yet ended.



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By Don Donovan