TELL IT NOT IN GATH: THE EXECUTION OF THE REVEREND VÖLKNER

Carl Sylvius Völkner (c.1819-1865). Dostoevskian holy fool who’d naively, blindly, even willingly gone to his sacrificial doom. His headless remains lie beneath the floorboards of pretty little Hiona Church (Māori transliteration for “Zion”) at Ōpōtiki in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty. Born in Kassel, Hesse, Völkner arrived in the nascent British colony in 1849, sent by the North German Missionary Society. In 1852 he changed allegiance to the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) and married the aspirational, emotionally unstable Emma Lanfear, sister of the CMS missionary Reverend Thomas Lanfear. Ordained an Anglican in 1861, Völkner took enthusiastic charge of the isolated mission at Ōpōtiki that August, among Te Whakatōhea who built Hiona and a school for him.
Twice, in 1864 and early 1865, Völkner made trips to Auckland. It was on the second of these trips that he was sent word from Te Whakatōhea that it wasn’t safe for him to return. It had been found out that he had been sending intelligence on Māori anti-government activities to the colonial Governor Sir George Grey. This advice either failed to arrive or was ignored, leading to Völkner’s infamous execution and defilement at the hands of Kereopa Te Rau of Ngāti Rangiwewehi, an evangelist prophet of the Pai Mārire (Hauhau) religious sect closely associated with the Kīngitanga[1] independence movement. The incident was to result in a massive retaliation by Crown forces against hostile tribes at the end of the New Zealand Wars, upsetting already critical race relations, with repercussions lasting nearly a century after.
Kereopa, long luridly depicted in Pākehā histories and fictions as a bloodthirsty revenge-bent fire-and-brimstone prophet of the Apocalypse, or a voodoo witchdoctor terrorist, needs some reconsideration in the context of his role as a missionary and deputy prophet of the Pai Mārire. This was one of the dozens of syncretic, nominally Scriptural Māori sects (ngā poropiti), that had sprung up in the nineteenth century; a liberation theology which drew heavily on the visionary books of the Bible, reframing Māori as the Israelites exiled from their homeland in bondage to the Babylon-cum-Egypt of the Pākehā.[2] Te Ua Haumēne (d 1866), prophet-leader of Pai Mārire, found a way of balancing his millenarian Christianity with its emphasis on love and forgiveness with his Kīngitanga resistance to the Crown through a vision experienced when the ship Lord Worsley ran aground on Kīngi land in 1862, in the words of his biographer Lyndsay Head,
…[I]n which the archangel Gabriel announced that the last days described in the Revelation of St John were at hand. The vision assured Te Ua that he was chosen by God as his prophet, commanded by him to cast off the yoke of the Pākehā and promised the restoration of the birthright of Israel (the Māori people) in the land of Canaan (New Zealand). This would come about after a great day of deliverance in which the unrighteous would perish.[3]
The rapid spread of Hauhauism, the violent “church militant” incarnation of Pai Mārire, was a reaction to Crown military actions against North Island Māori to steal more land for European setters and to emboss it with the seal of British sovereignty. Such was its impact that from the events of 1865 until at least the First World War, any armed Māori were referred to as “Hauhaus”.[4] Comparisons can be made with similar anticolonial quasi-mystical movements such as the Boxer Rebellion in China, the Ghost Dancers of North America, and certain militant Islamic groups in Africa, who also shared a belief that their rituals could make them invulnerable to gunfire. Pai Mārire made a very strong identification with the Jews, calling their ministers Teu (a transliteration of “Jew”) and adopting Friday as their Sabbath. This notion may have received some support from the indefatigable Bishop Samuel Marsden of the CMS claiming in 1813 that Māori were one of the lost tribes of Israel. They believed they were God’s second Chosen People and that He would soon return in glory to drive the English into the sea. Then every Māori who had ever lived would be resurrected to be judged in the Messianic presence of Zerubbabel[5], and angels would descend from heaven to teach Māori all the knowledge of the Pākehā.[6]
Te Ua’s followers held their rituals at a niu (“news”), a tall, yard-armed pole, the first of these being the mast of the Lord Worsley. The congregation would circle the niu at various times of day, touching a preserved head mounted on the pole, chanting nonsense corrupted from transliterations of Anglican services and Roman Catholic Latin muddled with military and nautical jargon, or else speak in tongues until they achieved an ecstatic frenzy and collapsed in a cataleptic trance. Ōpōtiki was no different. One of Kereopa’s first acts upon his arrival, after berating the local Māori for allowing Pākehā to live among them, was to produce the preserved head of the soldier, have a post put up which the head was put next to and a wide circle of mānuka sticks around it (delineating the pae or sacred liminal ground, mānuka is also laid on the ground during the wero, the ceremonial challenge upon entering the marae), about which his followers performed their ceremonies every evening until the arrival of Völkner’s party.[7] The “Angels of the Wind” (Haumēne’s adopted surname means “wind man”) were said to climb and descend the ropes dangling from the yard-arms during the ritual, and by the end of 1865 a niu stood in almost every village from Taranaki to the Bay of Plenty.[8]
On 26 February 1865, the day after the messengers of Pai Mārire arrived at Ōpōtiki, Völkner’s house and possessions had been plundered. Völkner himself arrived back on March 1 with the Reverend Thomas Grace on the schooner HMS Eclipse. Once the Eclipse had crossed the treacherous bar into the harbour, Völkner’s destiny was irrevocable. We have the account of the Captain Morris Levy (his Jewishness will become important later) of the Eclipse to set the scene, Völkner still dangling from the willow tree behind the Post Office where they’d hanged him:
…[S]ome of the natives were hauling at [Völkner’s] legs to get off his boots and trousers, sharing what was in the pockets whilst he hung over them. One of the natives put on his trousers in the dying man’s presence. After letting the body hang about half an hour, it was lowered and taken to the church, near where they fenced in a place, spread the body out in the form of a cross, and proceeded to cut off the head, the body being still warm, and symptoms of life being yet apparent. The inhuman fellows then carefully cut the flesh around the chest and back, and chopped off the neck with an old axe. The natives then formed themselves into a line, and prepared to taste the blood as it ran out of the head and body. Amongst the women there was a frightful scramble as to who should have the most. What blood fell on the ground they painted their faces with. The chief Kereope [sic] took out the eyes with his fingers, and eat [sic] them before the crowd, to show them an example. The flesh of the neck was then stripped off, and given to the dogs… After it had been gnawed for some time by the dogs, the natives took it up and threw it down a water-closet.[9]
To begin with, we may dispense with the notion that Kereopa’s treatment of Völkner post mortem was unusual in the Hauhau context. After Te Ua experienced his first visions on the battlefields of Taranaki in 1862, he sent out his missionaries to spread the new faith. The two he sent to Rangitaki and Ōpōtiki in the summer of 1865 were Patara Te Raukatauri of Taranaki (a former Crown assessor) and Kereopa, with the instructions to carry the preserved head of a young soldier killed in the recent ambush in Taranaki, to the “four quarters” (Whanganui, Taupo, Te Urewera, and finally the East Coast where it was to be given to Hirini Te Kani, paramount chief of Uawa and Tūranganui). No Pākehā were to be harmed on the way.[10] This was a ritual to undermine the British soldiers. The “frightful scramble” of the women was not without significant purpose; less frenzied bloodlust than grief and anger, as William Colenso reinforces in his pamphlet Fiat Justitia (1871).[11] When the head was brought to Tauaroa in Te Urawera, the widows of those warriors who had fallen at Orakau bit the head, “ngau-pakoko-noa-iho”, to lift its tapu and sympathetically remove the power of the British soldiers.[12] What happened at Opotiki presumably fulfilled similar purpose.
The eye-eating earned Kereopa the sobriquet “Kai Whatu” (Eye Eater), and he had reputedly done it to at least two previous heads.[13] Ostensibly the mechanics of what happened to Völkner were already an established pattern, but what makes his death different is that he was the first clergyman to be killed in the rebellion. Kereopa was said to have said one eye was Parliament and the other the Queen and British law. Another tradition says that one of the eyes stuck in Kereopa’s throat, which he interpreted as an omen of comeuppance.[14] For Māori, as with the ancient Celts, the head is a tapu thing, a repository of mana. The head of a tohanga (priest) of the God that Pai Mārire nominally worshipped, even if that tohanga was an enemy spy, was still a dangerous object to be treated cautiously. Völkner’s head had, in effect, been made a mokomokai, a preserved head as trophy of war, something to be displayed on the marae and mocked, or to be exchanged in diplomatic negotiations.
To have one’s corpse eaten by dogs is a standard desecration in most cultures. Though I cannot recall the exact source, I remember one of the Māori prophets describing Pākehā as “Jezebel in the vineyard of Naboth” (1 Kings 21), and Jezebel’s career concluded with her tumbling from her window to be torn apart and eaten by dogs in the street (2 Kings 9-10).  For Māori the dog was considered a food animal and therefore to be consumed by a dog was the lowest of humiliations, lower even than being eaten by one’s enemies; to be reduced to excrement (hence the symbolism of Völkner’s body later being dumped in an outdoor privy). Any possible lurid embellishment by Levy aside Kereopa’s actions seem rather specific, premeditated, even over-determined. Certainly the act shocked the white Christian settlers, but we must also consider the impact on the many Māori who had converted to Christianity, if only for pragmatism. There is the division of the clothes (Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24), the Deposition (John 19:38-42), and earlier in the piece, even a subversion of sorts of the crowd’s call to Pilate to spare Barabbas (Mark 15:7), here reversed with Wepiha Apanui’s performing of the celebrated haka “Ka Mate” on behalf of Ngāti Awa tribe for Völkner to be spared.[15] Appropriately enough “Ka Mate” is a celebration of life over death, never a peruperu (war dance), but always to be interpreted as the performer sees fit, even as a mass spectacle performed by the All Blacks.
There is even an echo of the final words on the Cross, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24) in what Whakatohea author Pat Heretaunga Baker claims in her 1990 novel The Strongest God as Völkner’s last words, “I am so very sorry for you all!”, said to “echo like a sacred chant through tribal history and his tears were to moisten the eyes of generations to come.”[16] Captain Levy emerges as an unlikely Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38), securing the body from the privy whence it had been so unceremoniously dumped. That he was able to do so reflects the significance and mana of the Jewish people in Pai Mārire.

How much of this received cultus is Pākehā propaganda and mythmaking to mould an expedient martyr? I suspect the reiteration of some of the Crucifixion imagery certainly is, one way or another, but Kereopa’s grisly ritual seems genuine because in many ways was simply the literal, if blasphemous, version of that which Völkner himself had performed there of a Sunday in symbolic fashion; doubly blasphemous from the Roman Catholic perspective where the Eucharist and wine are, through the miracle of Transubstantiation, the body and blood of Christ by Act of Faith. The similarities can hardly be coincidental. In Catholic terminology it was, in effect, a Mass of Vain Observance – a perversion of the Mass in order to bring about a desired effect supernaturally.

While Völkner was singled out by Kereopa, the German’s fate was sealed by committee. A collective communication was sent to the Government from Ōpōtiki (called “Wahi o Kanana”, the Place of Canaan) on 6 March 1865. This was signed by the “Komiti” of Ngāti Awa, Whakatōhea, Taranaki and Te Urewera (Tūhoe) tribes. It gives the reason for Völkner’s death - supplying intelligence used in military attacks in the Waikato, where the women, including two of Kereopa’s daughters had been shot. The letter explicitly states that Völkner had been “Ripekatia” (crucified) by “the laws of the New Canaan”. This New Canaan was to exist alongside or instead of the Crown.[17]
It would be wrong to dismiss this as merely a mocking parody of the Christian rite as political window dressing to the limited revival of Māori cannibalism as symbolic revenge (utu) on the Pākehā during the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s.[18] The identification with Scripture was genuine and deeply felt. While disputed and much debated, some of the more vivid details have a ring of truth to them. Had Marsden not died in 1838 he certainly would have made the connection, noting as he did from his discussions with North Island chiefs on the subject of Māori cannibalism:
It is also customary with them [Māori] for a man when he kills another in battle, to taste the blood of the slain. He imagines he shall then be safe from the wrath of the god of him who is fallen, believing that from the moment he tastes the blood of the man he has killed the dead man becomes part of himself and places him under the protection of the atua, or god, of the departed spirit.[19]
The Anglican missionary Thomas Kendall (1778-1832), infamously so seduced by the spiritual beliefs and comely women of Ngāpuhi that he, as they used to say, went native, records another instance, preserved by Marsden, with peculiar resonance to events: “The [Māori] believe that the left eye, sometime after the death, ascends to heaven and becomes a star in the firmament,” and that a warrior ate a “chief’s left eye from present revenge and the idea of increasing his own future glory and brightness after death, when his own left eye should become a star.”[20] Hence the farewell to the dead, “Kua wheturangitia koe”, (You have risen over the horizon, ie. become a star).[21]
Völkner was not to be permitted to travel to the celestial heaven of his God, his mana would become Kereopa’s. This is strongly indicated by the disputed account of Ōpōtiki resident Joseph Jeans (or Jennings), if it can be relied upon. Jeans/Jennings reports that he and Ranapia approached Kereopa with the intention of negotiating for Völkner’s life. Kereopa responded in Māori “This man is sacred to me. I will eat his eyes at two o’clock and you will see my reasoning”.[22] The shadowy Jeans/Jennings, who vanished soon after, also states, “I saw Mr Völkner hoisted up to a willow tree after being suspended about two minutes he was lowered and I saw Kereopa go up and shoot him through the body. He was then run up again with a jerk, a great many natives had hold of the rope…”[23] Given that from where the prisoners were kept such an eyewitness account seems unlikely, we may infer that events were reported to Jeans/Jennings by Ranapia and then embroidered out of desire for a more important role in the story. The shooting echoes the piercing of Christ’s side (John 19:34) but is also a defilement of the mana of the body.
Jeans/Jennings goes on to say, “After Mr Völkner was dead, Kereopa went to Hiki [? the identity is not clear] telling to come and see. Hiki asked him “Kua mate?” “Ae.” (“Is he dead?” “Yes.”) – Kereopa then said “Ka ora ahau akuanei i ona karu” – “I will soon be given life by his eyes”.”[24] That is a strange and suggestive thing to say. Then “…Kereopa called on all the [subtribes], men, women, and children … to come and taste Mr Völkner’s blood.”[25] Jeans/Jennings also reports that Werapoaha, leader of Whakatōhea (Jeans/Jennings says his wife is Ngāti Rua, the Catholic subtribe of Whakatōhea) forbade his people to do this.[26] Perhaps it was a blasphemy too far.
One suspects that many educated Pākehā intuited the parallels at the time, but only hinted at until George Frazer started speculating about sacrificial kings and dying vegetation gods in The Golden Bough as the century turned. Kereopa’s Pai Mārire colleague Patara Te Raukatauri had not been present at Völkner’s execution and did not support it,[27] nor does it seem consistent with Pai Mārire’s otherwise peaceful beliefs (a staunch, millennial pacifism where the unrighteous Pākehā would be dealt with in a most unpleasant way by the Almighty without the need for military intervention). Nonetheless the language of the Māori prophets could embody theophagous imagery in calling out their rivals. Te Kooti is said to have challenged the tohunga and chief Te Ra Karepe at Paraharaha pā with, “Homai o Atua kia kainga e au” (Give me your gods so that I may consume them), to which Te Ra responded, “Ae, haeremai: tikina!” (Yes, you are welcome to come and get them) – a challenge to the death.[28] However if what happened to Völkner was at the instigation of Kereopa, and Kereopa still saw himself as a missionary of Pai Mārire, then in order for things to arrive at a ritual sacrifice Kereopa had diverged significantly from Te Ua’s Pentecostal precepts.
The idea that I would like to entertain is something more theurgical; that the seemingly conscious paralleling of the Biblical narrative of the Crucifixion and was Kereopa’s way of making Völkner a kind of Christ proxy, and that the macabre fusion of traditional Māori ritual cannibalism and the Christian sacrament was how Kereopa intended to, at least symbolically, assimilate the Pākehā God into his version of Pai Mārire, there in the New Jerusalem of his New Canaan. Throughout his trial, Kereopa uses eating as a metaphor for consuming another’s mana.[29]  Even the name “Kereopa” is significant as the transliteration of “Cleopas” who failed to recognise the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, was converted, and spread the news in Jerusalem (Luke 24: 13-32). The idea is an old one, hence Christians built churches on pagan sites. In any case, one suspects that these rituals were intended to be cumulative and leading somewhere rather than just unifying the East Coast tribes with Völkner the unfortunate focal point of seething anti-Pākehā resentment and anger. It is tempting to speculate that they were meant to bring about the Pākehā-annihilating Apocalypse.
With Kereopa on the run, the Pākehā newspapers transformed him into something supernatural; an uncatchable bogeyman, and if not quite the devil himself, an approximate Antichrist. His final capture coincided with a particularly bright meteorite in the sky, and a sharp earthquake was felt in Napier as he waited, gaoled there, for the hangman. Kereopa is worthy of his own rich accumulation of legendarium, but in the end, at trial, he denied his guilt, and appears to have returned to the Christian flock before his execution, a resigned, introspective and misunderstood man. The Anglicans reclaimed and redeemed Hiona Church by renaming it St Stephen the Martyr after the first martyr of the early Christian Church, implying that Völkner himself was to be regarded as symbolic proto-martyr of New Zealand.








[1] The Kīngitanga or Māori King movement arose among some of the Māori tribes of New Zealand’s central North Island in the 1850s, to establish a role of similar status to the British Crown to prevent further alienation of Māori land.
[2] One of the best accounts being P. Clark. Hauhau: The Pai Marire Search for Maori Identity, Auckland, 1975, passim.
[3] L. Head, “Te Ua Haumene, ?-1866”, updated 31 July 2003, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, http://www.dnzb.govt.nz, 2003. Accessed 5 December 2014.
[4] B.J. Dalton, War and Politics in New Zealand 1855-1870. Sydney, 1967, pp207–208.
[5] According to the Book of Ezra, Zerubbabel led the first group of Jews returning to the Holy Land from the Babylonian Captivity in the first year of Cyrus, King of Persia. He also laid the foundation of the Second Temple.
[6] S. B. Babbage, Hauhauism: An Episode in the Maori Wars 1863-1866, Dunedin, 1937, chapter 2, Passim; J. Cowan, The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period, Wellington, 1922, Vol. 2, Chapter 1, passim.
[7] From “Record’s relating to Murders, Various Maoris for Murder of C. S. Völkner, James Fulloon Etc”, Archives New Zealand, ACGS 16221 JC22-2/3B AG66/789.
[8] S. B. Babbage, Hauhauism: An Episode in the Maori Wars 1863-1866, Dunedin, 1937, chapter 2, Passim; J. Cowan, The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period, Wellington, 1922, Vol. 2, Chapter 1, passim; K. Sinclair, A History of New Zealand, Auckland, 2000. p396.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Dated 8 December 1864, translated by William Williams, Williams Family Papers, MS Papers 0069:0077B, Alexander Turnbull Library.
[11] W. Colenso, Fiat Justitia: Being a few thoughts respecting the Maori prisoner Kereopa, now in the Napier Gaol, awaiting his trial for murder, 1871, passim.
[12] Letter from Kepa Te Uruhui to T. H. Smith, 20 February 1865, Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives 1864-65, E-5, p4.
[13] S. Oliver, “Te Rau, Kereopa”, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 30 October 2012;http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/1t72/te-rau-kereopa, 1990. Accessed 7 December 2014.
[14] “Record’s relating to Murders, Various Maoris for Murder of C. S. Völkner, James Fulloon Etc”, Archives New Zealand, ACGS 16221 JC22-2/3B AG66/789.
[15] Ibid.
[16] P Heretaunga Baker, The Strongest God, Queen Charlotte Sound, 1990, p223.
[17] Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives 1864-65, E-5, pp9-10.
[18] J. Cowan, The New Zealand Wars: Volume II: The Hauhau Wars, (1864-72): A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period, Wellington, 1923, p218-9.
[19] S. Marsden in J. R. Elder (ed.) The Letters and Journals of Samuel Marsden 1765-1838, Senior Chaplain in the Colony of New South Wales and Superintendent of the Mission of the Church Missionary Society in New Zealand, Dunedin, 1932, p168.
[20] Ibid
[21] M. Orbell, The Natural World of the Maori, Auckland, 1985, p69.
[22] S. B. Babbage, Hauhauism: An Episode in the Maori Wars 1863-1866, Dunedin, 1937, p53.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.
[27] J. Binney, Encircled Lands: Te Urewera, 1820-1921, Wellington, 2009, p81.
[28] R. Emery, 10 June 1979, Davis Dossier, Vol. 9, Alexander Turnbull Library.
[29] As reported in the Wellington Independent, 22 and 28 December 1871.

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