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Murray Reid

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.


The writer has grandchildren who descend from Thomas Power and Rahapa te Hauata. She was present during the events of that day. When discussing this fact with a senior Maori leader in North Waikato I was shocked to learn, “that was the place where Maori were locked in a church and burnt to death”. As a result, I decided to follow up on that story.

I soon learnt that the story has no basis in fact. Below is my analysis. I include quotations from numerous senior New Zealanders, with searchable references where possible.

Rangiaowhia was a flourishing village near Te Awamutu set up to create large scale farming in the Waikato from 1841. Gov. George Grey was instrumental in the development. He supplied horses, equipment and funds to the venture via Rev. John Morgan, Anglican Missionary. Central to the village was Thomas Power, sent by Grey to work with Morgan.
Power lived in the village with his wife, Rahapa te Hauata, and family.

During Gen. Cameron’s Waikato campaign, he was confronted with a well defended Pa at Paterangi. Military historians would say that Cameron followed classic military tactics to avoid bloodshed, by destroying the enemies supply lines. There is no doubt that Rangiaowhia was a supply source. There were found to be loaded wagons of food in the village.

The village was believed to be largely populated with the elderly, women and children. Cameron did not expect to find a large number of armed men in the village. Cameron was largely successful in preventing loss of life, save for one large whare where the occupants resisted arrest. A trooper was shot dead when he entered the whare which resulted in firing from both parties. During the affray a child and his mother were allowed to leave but the remainder resisted. The whare caught fire, either deliberately or accidentally from burning gun wadding. Military historians suggest the latter is probable. At the end of the attack five troopers were dead and no more than ten Maori. Troopers described the whare as having a sunken floor, much like a gun pit. There is no record of the age/sex of the dead.

A number of reports written after this event are readily available online through the NZ National Library.  Despite overwhelming evidence, over 150 years later, the history of the village has been corrupted with claims by many influential people that A large number of unarmed women and children were herded into a church in the village, the doors locked and the building set on fire, with the loss of life of all inside. One prominent writer put the number of deaths at 144.

To this day, school groups visiting the site are still being told this story and in the last few years the story was influential in an act of parliament to annually commemorate the New Zealand Wars.

There are numerous documents that show the burned church was still standing until it was demolished in 1931, which is further proof that this horrific massacre never happened.  It is hard to understand how local historians had not done the simple research long ago to dispel this myth which would otherwise stand as the worst atrocity in NZ history.     
The purpose of this essay is to present the documents that disprove the prevailing myth and also to identify prominent people who have repeated the myth in recent years, supply their quotes with links to the documentation and media used. The items are in chronological order.


 A/.  Articles written by persons present at Rangiaowhia on 21 Feb 1864.

1/.   There are many newspaper articles from the days/weeks immediately after the event. None mention a burning church, but all comment on the defended whare.

2/.  14 July 1883. NZ Herald Rusden’s History. Boy witness Potatau
Too long to quote. But worth reading.

B/.   Articles that prove the Catholic Church was still standing into the 1930’s.

1/.  6 April 1864 NZ Herald. Own correspondent 3 March
At Rangiaowhia they have completed another (Redoubt) upon exactly the same plan. The churches still remain intact, two officers of the 50th Regiment live in the Catholic Church,
There is one settler there who married a native woman, his place is preserved and a white flag flies continuously in the case of danger, he himself not being at home. (Thomas Power)

2/.  1922.  Cowan. The New Zealand Wars. Chapter 37. Page 363. Footnote.
Mr. William Johns, of Auckland, a corporal in the Forest Rangers.
“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 during the skirmish. A great deal of wild talk arose as to the burning of the Maori whares designedly, but the firing of Maori guns and of soldiers' rifles at close range into dry raupo whares is a sufficient explanation.”

3/.  20 February 1931 Auckland Star.
One of the oldest buildings in the Te Awamutu district, the Roman Catholic church at Hairini (Rangiaowhia), was recently demolished.

4/.  October 1938.Thomas Moisley. Son in law of Thomas Power.
 “He brought the sawyers up to cut the timber for houses and the two churches in Rangiaowhia. Both of them are still standing.”

5/.  Wikipedia
The Catholic Holy Angels mission station was about 400 metres north of St Paul's.  Father Jean Pezant relocated it there from Matamata in 1844.  In 1850 he was succeeded by Father Joseph GaravelPart of the mission station burnt down in an accidental fire in 1865. The church was demolished in 1931. The cemetery remains.

6/.  Victoria University. NZ Wars. P351 Rangiaowhia. William Johns
 Mr. William Johnsof Auckland, who served as a corporal in the Forest Rangers, says, regarding the firing at the Roman Catholic church, Rangiaowhia:—
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 during the skirmish, and yet these were long visible upon close inspection.

7/.  Alexander Turnbull Library. Rangiaowhia March 1864. EA Williams painting.
This painting shows a new redoubt in the village, with both churches clearly shown.
The same painting is reproduced in Mr. O’Malley’s major work on the NZ Wars.

8/.  Alexander Turnbull Library. Rangiaowhia 1864.  Charles Eastwood. Sketch.
This sketch was done by a member of the Forest Rangers.

C/.  Below are some of the published articles perpetuating the myth.

Some are written by prominent authors. One by a Dame in a prominent Government appointed role. One can only speculate the motives behind those perpetuating the myth, which some clearly know to be false, while others may merely wish the myth to be true without query.

1/.  20 July 2009. Bay of Plenty Times. Tommy Kapai Wilson
Tommy is a regular BOP Time columnist.
His troops herded all the local Maori up like cattle and locked them in the church, and then set it alight - killing all 144 inside.
Those who tried to escape were shot and only one 3-year-old girl got out, by being thrown through the burning back wall.

2/.  2013. Hazel Coromandel-Wander.  Massey Thesis. Master in Adult Education.
Describes memories of gt grandmother Wikitoria (Te Mamae) Papa (c1830-1947)
When the alarm was raised in the village the elders along with the young mothers and their babies ran into both the Rangiaowhia Catholic church and Anglican church for refuge. The Crown troopers set the Catholic church on fire (Barber 1984) and kept their guns trained on the exits to make sure no one could escape (redacted). All those who sought the safe haven of the Rangiaowhia Catholic church were killed.
The reference to Barber 1984 is incorrect. In a later “Stuff” article Ms Coromandel-Wander does not refer to the Catholic church but to a whare karakia.

3/.  8 Dec 2015. Waikato Times. Petition to Parliament. Leah Bell
Student Leah Bell was among the students who marched on Tuesday to present the petition. She said a visit to battle sites at Orakau and Rangiaowhia were the reason for starting the petition. “We were shocked and horrified at the stories told by the kaumatua, who were distraught sharing their ancestors' stories about innocent women and children and elders being burned alive," she said. In a videoed interview Leah uses the words “innocent women, children and the elderly being burnt alive, in churches for example
The Otorohanga students were under the wing of their teacher, Mariana Papa and Rahui Papa, who that told them the history of Rangiaowhia. He is a very senior Tainui leader and advisor to the Maori King.

4/.  7 October 2016. Radio NZ. Aaron Smale. Vincent O’Malley Historian.
 “The official casualty rate for the number of people killed at Rangiaowhia is only 12,” says O’Malley. “Some other sources suggest it may have been over a hundred. Many died in a church” (abridged)
As a published historian, Mr. O’Malley might have been expected to cite the other sources. 

5/.  5 February 2017. Bay of Plenty Times. Dame Susan Devoy. Race Relations Comm.
      6 February 2017. Waitangi Day address. Mt Maunganui. Dame Susan Devoy.
A few years ago, some teenagers from Otorohanga were on a school history trip and were told it was the site of a battle during the New Zealand Wars. When the teens started asking about what went on, they were shocked to find out that civilians were killed by Crown soldiers. They were horrified to hear that women and children who sought shelter in a local church were locked inside and the church burnt to the ground.
When officially challenged by the writer, Dame Susan chose not to recant, merely saying that somebody had told her the story. Should she have not checked the veracity?

6/.  13 September 2017. RNZ.  TV3. Shane Te Pou
TV 3 interview. Duncan Garner. “Him and his troops rounded up Maori women and children, put them in a church, locked the church and burnt them and killed them and we ought not to celebrate his life”.
This story was in reference to the “Nixon” memorial in Papakura.

7/.  13 September 2017.  Mr. Rahui Papa.  Radio NZ. Mihi Forbes.
Mr Papa, whose ancestors were from Rangiaōwhia, “said there were many ways that history could be recorded”. "One of our tūpuna in particular was burnt in the church, two of them escaped out the window and looked from the swamp land as they were burning in the flames, so we hold those as very dear family histories.
Mr. Papa is the spokesman of the Māori King, and was an unsuccessful Māori Party candidate at the last election. 

8/.  Assoc Prof Tom Roa. Stuff 9 December 2017Roa heard stories of deliberate fires, killing of elderly, women and children, and rape. These are the kinds of things mainstream New Zealand finds uncomfortable. There's much denial, but these are the stories that our tūpuna told us. He said their forebears talked about soldiers shooting people having prayers in the whare karakia, and when they refused to come out, they set the whare alight. Our mother talked about a young boy, eight or nine years old, who was shot dead, how women were raped. And an old man who came out wrapped in a blanket, hands held high, and he was shot dead, Roa said.
Tom Roa is a descendant of Thomas Power from Kahutoi. (not Rahapa, his wife)

All of the above stories are remarkably similar. As far as I am aware none of the contributors has recanted, with the exception of Ms. Wander who today no longer refers to a church but to a whare karakia. When asked what denomination, she replied “Roman Catholic”. One might then ask why the settlement required two Roman Catholic places of worship.

Some would argue that handed down memories have merit, but it needs to be remembered that both established Missionary groups in the area had been instructing young Maori in both English and Maori for nearly 20 years before 1864. Why are there no writings from those students?