Setting the Record Straight on Rangiaowhia 1864
On 21 February 1864, 1000 British troops marched into
the tiny, defenceless village of Rangiaowhia and wantonly slaughtered a hundred
women and children. Or did they?
- Piers Seed
There is no way that General Cameron, the chivalrous Commander of the Colonial troops in the Waikato War, would contemplate the killing of women and children. He had criticized Kingite general, Wiremu Tamihana, for having women in the front lines at the earlier Battle of Rangariri.
Cameron did want to occupy Rangiaowhia, because it was the major source of food for the Kingite forces, notably at the powerful set of forts at Paterangi. To get to the village he had cleverly by-passed these fortifications in the dead of night to avoid casualties.
The warriors at Paterangi were furious that they had been duped, but Cameron’s strategy made perfect sense as he wanted to avoid unnecessary deaths on both sides and shorten the Waikato War.
There was a small engagement at Rangiaowhia which was started by local armed Maori, including some women. One whare in particular wasn’t going to give up without a fight, despite being asked to surrender several times. It was a sturdy building with a low, narrow entrance making it difficult to capture and inside a rifle pit had been dug which made it easy to defend. There were casualties on both sides and in the end the whare was set alight to end the impasse.
No eye-witnesses at the time*, the only ones an historian should consult, regarded the whare “battle” as untoward, and after this minor action in Rangiaowhia the Waikato War moved on towards its inevitable conclusion.
So how did the myth of defenceless women and children at Rangiaowhia being killed get started and why has it been believed by many through to the present day?
* Historian Vincent O’Malley has uncovered a possible eye-witness account from an unnamed Maori woman but he concedes it needs to be considered with caution. (See more details below.)
Analyzing what happened through the eye witnesses
Are there any credible eye-witness
accounts of women and children being burnt to death in a church in Rangiaowhia
on 21 February1864? Maori from the village recalling:
- the smoke from the burning church billowing in the air
- the dreadful screams of the women and children trapped inside
- the collapse of the church roof
- sifting through the rubble to find the human remains
- the burial of the remains in a mass grave.
There are none, simply because it never happened.
There are just three Maori documents that relate to eye witnessing what happened in Rangiaowhia. There were definitely no Maori spectators watching what was going on! Some warriors and women were snipers in the Catholic and Anglican Churches but soon gave up. Most women and children had fled, or were told by the soldiers to get out of the village, or had hunkered down in their homes.
Te Hauata Rahapa Paoa, the wife of settler Thomas Power, was at home with her children when the soldiers arrived. She put a white flag on the roof of her house and most of the troops gave her place a wide berth. 14 months after the action she wrote to Governor Grey and mentioned that …. We were living comfortably at our home, when …. the soldiers arrived … There was no reference to women and children being killed in the letter.
Another contemporary account comes from Wiremu Tamihana a leader of the Ngāti Hauā. A week after the action in Rangiaowhia he wrote a letter to two East Coast chiefs. Most of it related to the battle of Harini on 22 February, but there was brief reference to what happened in Rangiaowhia. … an attack was made on Rangiohia (his spelling), a stealthy assault by the Pakehas. They fell (the Maoris) and six were killed in one place …. These men were attacked at night, the payment was eight, was eight, all officers. Enough of that. Nothing about women and children being slaughtered.
The key Maori eye-witness account however was from a young lad, Potatau, who saw part of the action. ‘I at once ran to my father’s house. I had not been long there when my grandfather [Hoani] came to the same house. ... so that he might die with us – Ihaia, Rawiri and his son.
At this time myself and my mother went outside the house, and sat at the door of the house. I heard my father say to my grandfather: ‘Let us lay down our guns and give ourselves up as prisoners.’ ... My grandfather would not agree. At this time the soldiers came to us, and asked my mother in Maori: ‘Are there any Maoris in the house?’ She replied: ‘No, there are no Maoris in the house.’ My father at once said: ‘Yes, there are Maoris here.’
The European who spoke Maori came to the door of the house, and caught hold of my father, and handed him over to the soldiers.’
(Shortly after this, Potatau and his mother were allowed to leave the whare where most of fighting occurred later, and they went to the Powers’ house.)
There are at least ten eye witness accounts from soldiers including the legendary Forest Rangers leader Gustavus von Tempsky, and from the press, who were always looking for a good story and were not afraid to criticise the government and the military leaders. Although these accounts differ in some details, there is no reference to women and children being slaughtered.
Despite the best efforts of honest historians like James Cowan, John Robinson, and Bruce Moon, and now in the recently published Hoani’s Last Stand The Real Story of Rangiaowhia by Piers Seed, the truth about Rangiaowhia has struggled to gain recognition. (See Mike Butler’s review of Seed’s book in Breaking Views HERE)
So how did the “story” of women and children being killed in the village get started?
If you haven’t got enough information – make it up
Over the last 20 years there have been a number of stories propagated about the so-called “atrocities” committed in the village. Historians such as Jock Phillips and Vincent O’Malley, who should know better, have jumped on the band-wagon. These are lies that are unsupported by eye-witness accounts.
The worst version is that over 100 women and children were herded into a church which was set on fire. (Unfortunately for the myth-makers the two Rangiaowhia churches were still standing after the action on the day.)
However, the atrocities stories have been parroted by historians, public figures like Susan Devoy, iwi leaders, journalists and school children who have failed to do their own research and check the facts.
Sadly in the new school history curriculum the appalling dishonesty about what happened on 21 February 1864 in Rangiaowhia will probably be passed off as genuine history to our unsuspecting youngsters.
It was in fact Kingite advisor and general, Wiremu Tamihana, who set the myth going. A year and a half after the occupation of the village – August 1865 - Tamihana presented a petition to Parliament and mentioned … the women and children fell there. A year later in another petition fire comes into it … because my women and children having being burnt alive.
Come through to the 21st century and a Bay of Plenty Times journalist gave the myth its full extension - … troops herded all the local Maori up like cattle and locked them in the church then set it alight – killing all 144 inside.
There is a tangible reminder in Rangiaowhia of the myth. On a memorial stone are these words:
Vincent O’Malley’s convictions about “atrocities”
O’Malley is regarded by the mainstream media as one of New Zealand’s top historians and a leading authority on the country’s 19th century history. But the reality is, he is selective in the evidence he provides; subjective in his conclusions and is often devious and dishonest. At talk in Wellington a few years ago he admitted his intense dislike of the English.
On the Rangiaowhia incident his comments include:
A must read telling of the truth
Following in the footsteps of John Robinson and Bruce Moon, Piers Seed’s detailed analysis: Hoani’s Last Stand The Real Story of Rangiaowhia, is the most recent attempt to put the record straight on what really happened in the village on 21 February 1864.
But will the right people read Seed’s book? Will the PC historians have the guts to admit they have got it wrong and that there is no evidence to support the myth that there were atrocities committed in the village?
Bruce Moon neatly sums up what should be in the history books, especially for our impressionable children.
It was General Cameron himself who led the expedition to Rangiaowhia, to cut off the food supplies to the strong rebel fort at Paterangi and thus to avoid a frontal attack on that fort with heavy losses of life on both sides. Nearly all the women and children escaped when permitted to do so and it was only armed resistance by a few rebels which led to loss of life on both sides.
Roger Childs is a retired teacher who taught History, Social Studies and Geography for 40 years.