Two years ago, I learnt that my grandsons are direct descendants of Thomas Power and Rahapa te Hauata. Until then I was ignorant of the history of the settlement at Rangiaowhia. To improve my knowledge, I visited the site and the Te Awamutu Museum. The museum has an impressive display of the locality and holds the Taonga of Mrs. Power, gifted to the museum by the West family. I then did follow up research on the genealogy of the couple and read up on what I could find.
A few weeks later at a historical group meeting I mentioned my family’s connection to Rangiaowhia to be told by a Kaumatua of a NE Waikato Iwi that “that was where the British locked over 100 Maori men, women and children in the church and burnt them to death.”
I was stunned by this statement but was unable to rebut it as I had already observed that the Catholic church at Rangiaowhia no longer existed.
It was around this time that I learnt of the girls of Otorohanga College petitioning the Maori Select Affairs Committee at Parliament. I have been told that part of their oral presentation included the same story of numbers of Maori being burnt to death in a church at Rangiaowhia. I understand that on a visit to Rangiaowhia the girls were told the history of the place by a local Kaumatua. I believe this person was Mr. Rahui Papa who is an advisor to the Maori King and recently stood for parliament. It would be hard to rebut any part of Maori history from such an individual.
I was astonished to learn that Dame Susan Devoy referred to this story during her address at a dawn Waitangi Day ceremony this year at Mt Maunganui. I wrote to her office explaining that the story had no basis in fact, only to be told “that somebody told her it was so” I remain absolutely dumbfounded that a person of her standing, can so easily be duped.
The New Zealand Listener (25 Feb 2017) carried a six page article on Rangiaowhia, written by the historian Vincent O’Malley wherein he alludes to a death toll of up to 100. Interestingly his recently released book on the land wars did not include this claim.
In September this year Shane Te Pou told a similar story, live on the AM Show on TV3, as part of his campaign to have the Col Nixon memorial in Otahuhu removed.
These five references widely told by people in prominent roles is hard to ignore so I have been attempting to find official references to support the story. To date I have found none.
The sources I have looked at include Cowan, King, Belich and O’Malley. I have also read other historians interpretation of Cowan’s work. They all seem to agree that Cowan (who lived in the area as a child) was a very reliable source. He was fluent in Maori and interviewed many living participants of the wars. He was also considered to be sympathetic to Maori. His seminal work was The New Zealand Wars, published in 1922.
My analysis concludes that the story is false. The Catholic church at Rangiaowhia was not destroyed by fire with a large number of Maori civilians locked inside.
When I asked how such a story came to be told I was advised that it was a Maori oral history that must be accepted as fact, ahead of any other evidence. Personally, I discount such an assertion, as from my experience as a Genealogist I have found that the least reliable facts are handed down stories. It should be added that young Maori men had been educated by both the Anglican mission at Te Awamutu and the Catholic mission at Rangiaowhia since about 1841. It would be very surprising if a large number of the population in that area were not fluent in both English and Maori, both oral and written. Yet as far as I can ascertain there are no writings from Maori of the day on the subject.
In fact, there is irrefutable fact that the story cannot be true. Two examples are quoted below.
The Rev Father Vinay, who resided at the church for many years after the war, cleverly effaced and closed up the bullet holes left in the building after the skirmish, and yet these were long visible upon close inspection. The temporary stand made by the natives in the church formed the closing scene of that mornings encounter.
This is a footnote on Page 347 of Cowan’s first edition of 1922.
Interestingly the footnote is missing from the version available online.
“The churches still remain intact, two officers of the 50th regiment live in the Catholic church. The beautiful stained glass windows of the English church are entire.”
This from the NZ Herald dated 6th April 1864, some 16 days after the affair.
Other similar examples are easily found by online searches.
During all of my research into the Land Wars in general and Rangiaowhia in particular there are three separate issues that stand out to me.
Firstly, how so many people, trained historians included, tend to judge events of the past through the lens of today’s social mores. While things that were acceptable and commonplace 150 years ago are considered abhorrent today we should not judge the individuals involved from today’s perspective. A mere 20 years previously the British were flogging, hanging and transporting convicts for crimes unlikely to be punished today. In the same era Maori employed slavery and occasional cannibalism.
Secondly, some condemn the British for a vicious attack on unarmed, elderly civilians who were mainly women and children. This was plainly not the case as written histories explain that possibly half the inhabitants were armed adult males. Others, particularly Military Historians, believe the intent of the troops was to minimise casualties while closing down the farming operation thus cutting off supplies to the combatants in the fortified Pa. Throughout history basic military strategy is to avoid conflict where possible by starving the opposition of food water and munitions. I personally believe that General Cameron employed such tactics to good effect. Actually, most historians cast Cameron in a good light for his efforts, often against orders, to minimise casualties on both sides.
Thirdly, while historians focus on the events of the few years preceding the Land Wars in my opinion they ignore, in the case of Rangiaowhia, the important years from 1841 and the people involved. Namely Sir George Grey, Capt. Hobson, Rev John Morgan and Thomas Power. The life of the latter is particularly interesting. Thomas Power was born in Waterford, Ireland and was transported to NSW for sheep stealing. It is believed he was known to Hobson (or his family) and was sent to NZ by Gov. Gipps as an aide to Hobson at Waitangi. He accompanied Hobson to Auckland and served as a courier. He was then sent to Te Awamutu c1845 by Gov. Grey with horses and farm implements to be employed by the Anglican Mission to introduce English farming methods to the community.
In this endeavour he was hugely successful. He married Rahapa te Hauata (believed born in Pirongia c1825) They raised a family of five children. Thomas and Rahapa made their home at Rangiaowhia and she was present with some of her children on the morning of the British attack. They are both buried in the cemetery in front of where the Catholic church stood. There is a memorial to them there, although their graves are unmarked. There is some conjecture that Grey and Power were also known to each other. Grey’s mother was born in Waterford and Grey spent some of his early military career there.
I think history has overlooked Gov. Grey’s involvement with Rangiaowhia.
Grey was largely instrumental in the establishment of a very successful horticultural enterprise in the area during his first term as Gov. General. (1845 – 1853) He was well regarded by Maori in general but particularly within the community at Rangiaowhia, which he visited twice. He arranged for two young Maori men to travel to England to present a bag of local flour to Queen Victoria. They were rewarded with portraits of the Queen and Prince Albert. One of which still exists. Grey was actually reprimanded for his action. In all of New Zealand the close bond Grey had with Maori was strongest at Rangiaowhia.
When Grey returned to New Zealand relationships between Maori and the British had changed markedly. It was because of Grey’s early rapport with Maori that he was recalled.
Grey considered that the Maori King Movement was is breach of the Treaty of Waitangi with their disloyalty to the Crown and the invasion of Waikato was his response. The Maori King Movement had earlier written to Gov. Browne stating “that as the Waikato tribes had never signed the Treaty of Waitangi and that they were a separate nation”. That assertion was false. The third largest gathering to sign the treaty was at Port Waikato in April 1841. Of the 32 signatories on that document most were from Tainui affiliated tribes such as Maniapoto and Ngati Apakura. The later having Rangiaowhia within their Rohe. There was also a treaty signing at Kawhia where again most signatories were affiliated to Waikato.
When examining Grey’s place in New Zealand history most would agree that he was probably the most influential individual and his achievements in the development of our nation are immense. He was not perfect however. My personal assessment of him as a man was that he was very much an authoritarian and did not like to be crossed. When challenged he was apt to bear a grudge and inflict penalties beyond the effect of the slight.
I think that can be borne out in the massive land confiscations that followed the Land Wars, much of which was returned within a short period when cooler heads prevailed.
I think Grey’s order to Cameron to clear out the settlement at Rangiaowhia was part military wisdom and part revenge. To his credit Cameron carried out his orders yet still successfully minimised losses. Maori would describe Grey’s actions as Utu.
My concern regarding the false story of the burning alive of large numbers of people is that is being told consistently for political advantage, by people of standing in our community who either know it not to be true, or worse, by people who cannot be bothered to seek the truth.
History tells us that the telling of large lies, loud and often, has worked well in other regimes.
Our country and especially the young deserve better.
Murray H H Reid, a retired businessman with a strong interest in genealogy and history, is a member of the Waikato District Heritage Forum and Advisory Board.