Volkner Murder causes and consequences taken from Peter Wells’ book
Journey to a Hanging

“On 21 March 1865 “The Daily Southern Cross’ published ...a report that change everything about the death of Carl Sylvius Volkner. This was the shocking contents of what was alleged to be Captain Morris Levy’s [of the Eclipse] diary. ...It seemed to offer the complete unvarnished truth of what had [up until now] been [hidden] by distance and and lack of an eyewitness account. Now an eyewitness, or an alleged eyewitness account would shock the city, the nation and effectively the world. (Virtually every newspaper in Great Britain provided coverage of the killing once the news arrived there in July 1865.)”

Wells tells us that “things Levy wrote would become accepted as fact...That it reported on events that Levy may not have, in fact, witnessed - crucially the hanging of Volkner - and that it was a pieced-together account drawing on a lot of other reported eyewitness accounts was not, at the time, appreciated.” Further, Wells writes that the “newspaper with Levy’s account had been rushed into print ...Headlined with …”The Opotiki Murder. Diary of Captain Levy, schooner “Eclipse,” from Auckland to Opotiki and back.”

Wells writes that in [Levy’s] this account were all the details which would so shock [people at the time]: the seeming[ly] casual brutality with which the Rev Volkner was stripped, his clothes worn by various people, the throwing of the body to the dogs, above all, and then the consignment of the headless body to a shit-hole: all these small details built up an appalling picture, shockingly brutal and seemingly all too true. The ‘mokai” details also shocked - smoothing out [Volkner’s] cheeks so they would not wrinkle during the smoking process: all of it seemed to take the reader into some sort of twilight world of savage customs.

Wells tells us that “it was the single most explosive account of the Rev Volkner’s killing and embedded within the account was one name - incorrectly spelt- Kereope. Whether the account was entirely factual would not be questioned for generations.

Wells tells us that the “newspaper reportage seemed to point very clearly to Kereopa Te Rau being key to the killing of Carl Sylvius Volkner. This was also backed up by many eyewitness statements. But today this is regarded as questionable. How did this change [in opinion] come about?

Wells says that current ideas about the Volkner murder lead “back to a book printed in 1975, on the cusp of the Maori renaissance.” It was written by an Auckland University graduate called Paul Clark. The book was called “Hauhau: The Pai Marire Search for Maori Identity”. The book emerged out of the History department at Auckland University which was [then] presided over by Professor Keith Sinclair author of The Maori Wars whose colleague was Judith Binney, whose later books on Te Kooti Arikirangi and Tuhoe would be regarded as setting the standard for [current] bicultural history.

Wells tells us that “Clark’s book quickly became the go-to book for a postcolonial analysis of what happened on these turbulent few days in March 1865.” Wells says that Clark “ looked at those accounts available to him and made a clear-headed judgement. He also provided a much-needed context for Pai Marire as a religious movement.”

According to Wells, Clark made it clear that he saw the Pai Marire as “an anti-colonial liberationist theology [religion]”. Wells says that Clark’s aim was to get rid of the blood-soaked memory of the “Hauhau movement” as it was known in the Pakeha version of New Zealand’s history. Wells explains that Hauhauism had been seen as an extremist, terrorist organisation that dabbled in a version of Maori voodoo while specialising in unprovoked attacks on migrant men, women and children. Wells says that Carl Sylvius’ death had played a role in creating this perception.

Clark’s book did a very good job of returning the original meaning of the religious movement Pai Marire, meaning peaceful and good.

Wells explains that Pai Marire took stories from the recently translated Old Testament and re-identified maori as one of the lost tribes of Israel. Britain became seen as the colonising Egypt of the Old Testament. This view offered Maori the vision of a grand union of all Maori in the new Canaan [New Zealand] which forged a unity that set aside tribal divisions which were part of Maori life in the 1800’s.

The Pai Marire grew out of a background of Land Wars. Wells says that Te Ua Haumene, emerged from a Taranaki that was ripping itself apart in battles over ownership of land. Pai Marire offered these new Maori Jews self-determination [self rule] and the return of mana over land. Sovereignty in a broad sense. Wells says that Pai Marire would not have been appealing if it didn’t come at a time when there was “all the hurt, pain, loss of life through disease, and a compelling sense that Maori were losing control of their own destiny and their own country.”

How did Pai Marire become violent at Opotiki on 2 March 1865? Wells writes that Paul Clark tells us that “It seemed the arrival of Patara and the emissaries from Taranaki acted as a catalyst on Whakatohea attitudes at a time of considerable hardship [for them]. On the first day of the visit Kereopa gave an address on the new creed [religion] reputedly claiming that up to the present time they [Maori] had been labouring under a great mistake, and the whole of the ministers had been robbing them of their lands, money, and blood, through the lies the said ministers had told them, and advising them all to strongly take to the new religion. This led, says Clark, to a ‘hardening’ of existing Whakatohea attitudes. ‘what followed was on local initiative ...The tribe [Whakatohea] ...had decided to execute Volkner…[and’ Kereopa, like Patara [who] had been absent, agreed that the missionary should be killed.” So Paul Clark infers that Kereopa simply agreed to Whakatohea’s already formed opinion. Some of the possible reasons for the execution [put forward by Clark] were attempts at rational explanations of an irrational act. These are: the ‘customary Maori concern for Utu” either for him reporting on a priest regarded as a friend of the Whakatohea people (Catholic minister Garavel) for carrying messages from the Waikato Maori for Whakatohea encouraging them to support them. Or Utu for the death of some of Kereopa’s relatives at Rangiaohia in the Waikato campaign. Or Utu for the death of one of their chiefs (Aporotanga) at the hands of Crown loyalist tribe Te Arawa. Wells says that Clark selects as the “real reason, according to his “study of available sources ...that the case against Volkner the spy is stronger than usually acknowledged and may be a sufficient explanation, in the context [of the Land Wars] for an act of the ferocity of which has undoubtedly been exaggerated from its first reporting.”

Wells says that this later interpretation plays a key part in Clark’s analysis. Clark refers to the “lurid ...detail”. Wells points out that unfortunately some of the lurid details are unfortunately true. ! eg the surplus flesh from the severing of Rev Volkner’s head was fed to the dogs. His headless body was thrown head-first into a toilet. The blood-drinking and eye-eating were also seen by many people at the ceremonies following the death. ...Sucking the brains out of a skull is part of mummifying a head. So Wells says that Levy’s diary did hae a base level of truth.

In the end Clark puts forward the spy charge as the reason for Carl Sylvius’ death. this is partly on the basis that the letters from Rev Volkner to Grey have been proved to exist.

Wells states that in his research I have never seen evidence that these letters were specifically mentioned in any of the ceremonies surrounding the death scene. The closest one gets is the charge mentioned during Grace’s ‘trial’ -they would all be dead with Volkner going to and fro to Auckland, to take talk (korero) with the Governor. Father Garavel was described as the source of this information. Wells says that it was not Volkner’s letters but his going to and fro. The rununga never once brought up ‘spying’ as an issue. ...He says that even Kereopa used the word ‘mad’ to describe the mood of the night of 1 March as it turned into dawn.

Wells says that “it may have been that on the day of REv Volkner’s death he was tried for essentially political crimes, for sending letters of information to Governor Grey. But the evidence of this is once again hazy, and that we have to accept that our present-day understandings of political correctness fall away before the darker, deeper understandings and misunderstandings of an unrecorded past. It was a time of disturbances, and one of the things which got disturbed (and messed up so many eyewitness accounts) was time. Looking back it was no longer clear what occurred when. Or even who was doing what. One thing is certain: a charge of spying was never talked about in any eyewitness accounts, apart from that of Grace - and then it was conceptualised in an entirely different way. [to and fro to Auckland]

It is possible, as Clark says, that REv Volkner was unpopularly linked to recent military disasters: Whakatohea had been defeated by the colonial army and Kupapa, so it made Carl Sylvius a representative of the enemy. Whakatohea had also lost a loved rangitira, Te Aporotanga, through the same action. ...This is the reason Kereopa Te Rau said Whakatohea wanted REv Volkner hanged in his final letter to the world - not spying at all, but Utu). [it just makes sense to us looking at everything today from our classroom and reading Volkner’s letters to Governor Grey].

Students this is when you need to write about how ‘one’ could ask the question “was the only reason why they didn’t mention the word spy for Volkner was because it was common knowledge that Volkner was reporting to the Governor? Was it already common knowledge for Whakatohea that Volkner’s letters reported on Maori movements and their ‘disturbed state’? let alone that the coast line should be blockaded to control the Opotiki area and stop it from becoming another land war zone? Maybe it was enough for the trial to simply mention Volkner’s ‘going to and from Auckland’ and this was enough information for the crowd to be a reminder of his activities or an explanation of his activities? If this was the case then Wells’ point that nowhere was Volkner accused of being a spy at the time of his murder, is overlooking the possibility that his spy activities were well known enough to be described only as Volkner’s “going to and fro”.

Wells points out that above all, with Carl Sylvius there is a sense of a human blundering into a situation at the point of igniting. he misunderstood everything: he thought he had bonded [with Whakatohea]. Instead, racked with humiliation at recent military losses, naked, hungry, demoralised and mentally disturbed by the vast amount of death [from disease] in their iwi, the Whakatohea were ripe to try another form of understanding the world and to find someone to blame for their recent run of disasters. And if it meant throwing off the Anglican /Christian ways of doing things, so much the better.

From all the records of what occurred inside Hiona during the long night of the rununga [1 March], there appeared little record of anything beyond a primal tug of war between different gods. There was the Christian god and there was the new devastatingly powerful “Atua’ which demanded [loyalty] and that Whakatohea hand over ‘their Pakeha’ as a sign of submission. Kereopa Te Rau was the man articulating, ...channelling this ‘atua’. ...the Whakatohea believed they should submit or they would be burnt to death by a form of magic.

Wells tells us that Kereopa was to later represent himself as [simply unable] to resist the powerful demands of the Whakatohea who had already made their decision to their own minister. He represented himself as fighting for Grace’s life and having saved the life of the Catholic minister Grange at Whakatane.

Wells tells us that It would take the government until September 1865 to react to “the Opotiki tragedy”. When it did so, it was with the full and devastating force that Carl Sylvius had feared. After proclaiming a ‘peace’, Governor Grey unleashed the dogs of war on the Whakatohea, enacting a terrible vengeance.Just as in the Bible under the Pharoahs, the land became cursed, drained of all sustenance, confiscated and impoverished.


Earlier in his book Wells writes about visiting Opotiki to research for his book. “I had read how, after the colonial army arrived in the Bay of Plenty to avenge Volkner’s killing, they had destroyed as much as they could. Then they settled on farms, but these were often unsuccessful and many shifted on. ...Inside the porch of Hiona [St Stephens] I saw a framed letter, like a compliance certificate, of the Crown’s apology to the whanau of the Whakatohea chief Mokomoko who had been wrongly hanged for Volkner’s killing in 1866. Mokomoko was one of the people randomly chosen, one might say, to represent those who killed Volkner. He was said to have carried the rope used in hanging Volkner. He was also in the church when they held a rununga or council to decide on whether to hang Volkner. However, he demurred from the act of violence and was not a key person at the hanging. Wells says that Mokomoko was unfortunate enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. He was nabbed, tried for murder on 27 March 1866 and handed at the Auckland Prison. Mokomoko protested his innocence throughout. He sang a beautiful waiata of farewell: “Tangohia te taura i taku kaki, kia waiata au i taku waiata. Take the rope from my throat so that I may be able to sing my song.

...this all happened only a year after Volkner’s death, when the Pakeha public demanded a sacrificial victim; a scapegoat. He was pardoned in 1992, but ‘his family felt his mana and reputation was not restored because of the wording of the document. The original pardon was ‘hollow’.

Here is the crux: Mokomoko’s family was blamed for the confiscation of land after his arrest, and the stigma and shame had continued through the years. “Our family was abused and treated like crap ...we went from being quite a prominent family to being less than the dogs,” Karen Mokomoko, a descendant, said. ...The brutal confiscations that occurred after Volkner’s death were inflicted on different tribal groups almost irrespective of guilt. Opotiki people were punished for Kereopa’s actions even though he came from a different tribal group.

Wells’s background to the murder and what happened on the day according accounts.

By April 1864 missionaries all over the North Island were abandoning or leaving behind their mission stations “until things settled down”. [land wars] There was a long history of temporary evacuation.

….Carl Sylvius sent his wife away.

“This is a trying time for a missionary,” Carl Sylvius wrote to REv Joseph Long. “The people we wish to save, seem bent on their own destruction. They listen to no one’s advice nor will they learn from what has passed at Waikato. “Let our land go, and let us die as men, than become slaves” seems to be their motto now.”

Back in December 1863, Catholic father Garavel treasonously as Carl Sylvius saw it, had carried Wiremu Tamihana’s letter to Whakatohea, asking Maori of the Bay of Plenty ‘to come at once and help drive the Europeans away.

Volkner wrote that “the people became more deeply involved in the war ...they would not be convinced that the home Parliament [in England] had not given instruction to the Colonial Government here to destroy all the natives who fight with them, take the island and make slaves of those who remain quiet.”

Wells says that the latter rumour was an exact opposite of what the Imperial Parliament wanted. It watched aghast at what was happening in New Zealand, and was eager, above all, to remove all imperial troops from what it saw as an expensive and unjust local war against the indigenous people.

May 1864, following the battle at Matata in the Bay of Plenty, was in many ways a dividing line in Carl Sylvius’s life. He had earlier noted the Whakatohea eagerly heeding the call to action. “On the 30 January a meeting was held in which all the tribes of the Bay of Plenty were represented. They decided in favour of the King Movement. On Feb 1st they started for Waikato. They were stopped on their way by the Arawa, which led to a collision of these tribes in which six persons were killed.