Saturday, May 7, 2022

Mike Butler: Burnt church atrocity refuted

A new book titled Hoani’s Last Stand – the real story of Rangiaowhia by Piers Seed refutes once and for all allegations that in 1864 British troops attacked a defenceless village in New Zealand and burnt to death women and children sheltering in a church.

Here the word “refute” is used with its correct meaning, of proving that something is wrong. Some mistakenly use “refute” when they should use “reject” or “dismiss”. Only the fictional boy wizard Harry Potter can utter a word make something bad go away.

Rangiaowhia can be found on a New Zealand map, although today it is merely a church and a memorial stone by a country road 4km east of Te Awamutu. Around 160 years ago it was a thriving little village with two churches in a fertile, food-growing area.

An incident took place there on February 21, 1864, at the height of what has come to be called the Waikato war.

A correct understanding of that incident is critical to gain an accurate understand of exactly what happened in New Zealand in the 19th century during armed conflict between pro- and anti-government forces.

That correct understanding took a big hit one day in 2014 when a group of impressionable Otorohanga schoolkids were taken on a field trip to Rangiaowhia.

The teens were told how troops attacked a defenceless village and burnt to death women and children sheltering in a church.

Two pupils were shocked into raising a petition which launched both Land Wars Day and a New Zealand history curriculum that promotes the views that anti-government tribes held 160 years ago. The teacher wife of a senior advisor to the Maori king mentored the pupils.

Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta, the Maori king Tuhetia Paki, and the senior advisor to the Maori king, Rahui Papa, were behind this well-orchestrated and particularly successful political stunt that had the support of iwi leaders.

Author Piers Seed, an electrical engineer who turned his analytical skills to writing history, describes his book as a forensic examination into what exactly happened at Rangiaowhia on February 21, 1864.

Part 1 of his book lays out the facts, Part 2 presents the myth, Part 3 has the analysis, and Part 4 reprints all 12 accounts of the incident.

Seed’s analysis of the accounts is systematic and comprehensive, driven by an indefatigable logic that cuts through the sanctimony of grievance and politically correct talk.

And here is the point. There is no evidence to support the claim that British troops burnt to death women and children sheltering in a church. There is:
• No eyewitness account, either English or Maori, of such an atrocity.
• No mention of such an incident in newspaper reports about that day at Rangiaowhia.
• No evidence that any church was burnt there. One of the two churches there is still there and the other was dismantled in 1931.
Seed shows how the myth was created over time, by Kingite spokesman Wiremu Tamihana, who was not an eyewitness.

Tamihana’s first account about what happened, written just one week after the event, has no mention of women and children being burnt alive in a church.

That account matches two other accounts written soon after the incident by Maori individuals – one named Potatau, who, as a boy, was in a slab mini fort there immediately before a trooper was murdered and a gunfight erupted, and the other, by Rahapa Paoa, the Maori wife of farming advisor Thomas Power.

In a second account 18 months later, Tamihana wrote that women and children were killed. This was the first version of the myth.

Tamihana created a second version of the myth two and a half years after the incident, that women and children were burnt to death.

Tamihana’s myth grew in a context of widespread bitterness and resentment among the losers in the Waikato conflict while no one knew what actually happened because nobody was there to see it.

Kingite supporters who ran away from Rangiaowhia had only seen soldiers, they knew that shots had been fired, some knew that they had fired shots, and some knew that dwellings had been torched.

The burnt-church variant of the myth appeared after 1904 and became increasingly visible after 1980, according to Seed.

A further variant of the myth was that women and children were burnt in a whare karakia (house of prayer). That version appeared around 2017, the year that former Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy repeated the burnt church myth in a Waitangi Day homily.

Devoy came under fire from people who knew the area and the background and was made aware that two churches continued to exist at Rangiaowhia after February 21, 1864.

Devoy did not withdraw her statement or apologise. The burnt church myth morphed into the burnt whare karakia (house of prayer) myth.

Who was Hoani? Actually, two people named Hoani became part of the Rangiaowhia story.

One Hoani martyred himself there, with others, in the timber slab fort built over a rifle pit.

That was where a gun battle took place after occupants of the building murdered a trooper who stepped inside the structure to capture the occupants.

The other was a Hoani Papita, who had lavishly praised Governor Grey for helping the area grow wheat and mill flour, but then became hostile and joined the Kingites.

Seed’s point about the whole affair is that if rifle-pit Hoani had not decided to martyr himself, and others, nobody would have died at Rangiaowhia and there would be no myth about women and children being burnt alive.

Another fact that is often glossed over in accounts of the Waikato fighting is that whoever controlled Rangiaowhia would win the Waikato war.

This is because Rangiaowhia was a productive area that kept Kingite fighters fed.

Once the government controlled Rangiaowhia, Kingites had to look elsewhere for food.

This means that General Duncan Cameron’s strategy, to outflank Kingites in bypassing fortifications at Paterangi and take control of the food-producing area at Rangiaowhia, decided the outcome of the Waikato war.

Seed also debunks the assertion that British troops wrongfully attacked a defenceless village. He points out that:
• Armed Kingites were present to guard a convoy of food to be taken to their fort at Paterangi that day.
• These fighters were the first to fire on Cameron’s soldiers.
• Armed women fired on soldiers as they entered the village.
• The building that Hoani made his last stand in was a mini fort with a section of the floor dug out to protect fighters from British bullets.
• Fighters in that fort started the gunfight when they murdered a trooper who entered in an attempt to capture the occupants.
Troops set fire to the mini-fort to drive the occupants out. The fact that troops shot the escaping fighters against the directions of officers was deeply regretted, Seed wrote.

“Myths are terrifying things”, Seed writes. “Prejudice, jealousy, ignorance, ambition, greed schadenfreude, politics, ideology, racism, bigotry, stupidity, confirmation bias combine” and soon you have “a rollicking, unstoppable juggernaut hurtling through time, bridging generations, growing and shapeshifting as it goes”.

Seed notes that political correctness and Maori separatism both are ideologies of division, of splitting people into groups. He warns that “the invocation and amplification of grievances creates a powerful unifying and emotional mechanism that increases the height and thickness of the walls between those from whom one wishes to split.”

Hoani’s Last Stand makes gripping, compelling reading. Seed’s writing style is direct and immerses the reader in the sights, sounds, textures, smells, and attitudes of English and Maori people on that day.

It is by far the best coverage of the events at Rangiaowhia on February 21, 1864, and the myth about women, children, a fire, and a church – or a whare karakia.

By the way, the memorial plaque at Rangiaowhia that was unveiled in 2014 is a “memorial to the atrocities suffered by Ngati Apakura, Ngati Hinetu and others here at Rangiaowhia on the 21st of February, 1864.”

Perhaps now is a good time to remove the word “atrocity” from the plaque.

Hoani’s Last Stand – the real story of Rangiaowhia, Piers Seed, Tross Publishing, 270 pages, illustrated, $35 (including postage within New Zealand) is available from or email


Robert Bird said...

And the sad thing is that we have some those Otorohanga pupils, now grown up and some university educated, going around schools of the Waikato perpetuating their version of events. They are not challenged but welcomed with open arms to spread these false narratives.

Rob Wigmore said...

I wonder if this analysis will be included in the new school History curriculum??

Don said...

Who said, "The first casualty of war is truth." Stories of invading Hun Soldiers raping nuns in Belgium in 1914 helped Britain get young men to race to the colours. At Parihaka stories of rape by colonial soldiers seem to have entered the folklore. Now we are informed of rape by Russians of Ukranian women is commonplace. It all comes under the heading of propaganda which is a long established concomitant of war. Worrying to see it used so much in false history spoon-fed to our own school students.

Anonymous said...

We discussed the Maori wars verses the Pakeha at school approx 1946 and there was no mention of the brutal burning of a church with people inside.
What is for most in my mind is Hone Heke chopping down the Flag pole at Russell.

Robert Arthur said...

The programming of the school girls was a remarkably shrewd exercise of maori cunning. The great majority of the many non maori who see through these ploys dare not express their scepticism for fear of the racist slur and cancellation. No matter how often it is refuted the burning incident will, if not directly included, be leaked into the curriculum by brainwashed teachers.
The great advantage of a history passed on by word of mouth is that it can be endlessly modified to suit the moment. (As Cook's confrontation in Poverty Bay). When these tales are recounted in robust company in maori circles noone would dare be so contrary or foolhardy to question.