Why do these persistent untruths about our co-history keep getting pushed at the public? Yes, why!

Historian Bruce Moon tells what really happened at  Rangiaowhia.Yet again, that hydra-headed monster, the false tale of the burning of a church or “whare karakia” at Rangiaowhia, has reared its ugly head from the pen of Vincent O’Malley.[1]

The very name of his book, “Voices from the New Zealand Wars” should be enough to alert the reader for the plain reason that, with the cessation by 1840 of the ferocious “Musket Wars” amongst the Maori tribes there was never again a war in New Zealand, not even a civil war.  There were of course a number of tribal rebellions, that of some Waikato tribes in the 1860s being perhaps the most serious,[2] with both Ngapuhi and Arawa offering warriors to assist in its suppression.

As O’Malley notes, Rangiaowhia had been nominated as a safe place for women, children and old men but he omits mentioning that as the primary food source for the rebels holding the strong fort of Paterangi, this had been totally compromised by its being actively engaged in the rebellion.  

It may be, as claimed by O’Malley,  that to the rebels “the assault on Rangiaowhia was an almost incomprehensible act of treachery.  They had complied with requests to remove their families out of harm’s way, only for the troops to deliberately target them in the most horrific manner possible. In their eyes, those killed in the attack were not victims of war: they were non-combatants who had been brutally murdered.” As one might truly remark in today’s vernacular “yeah right!”

What O’Malley claims here treats the real facts with contempt.   In fact, in deciding to occupy Rangiaowhia in a surprise move at dawn, the humanitarian General Cameron[3] planned to do so with minimal casualties on both sides.  When the troops arrived, the first move was Captain Wilson’s call to the women and children to move out of harm’s way and most did just that, by an escape to the nearby property of Thomas Power and his wife, Rahapa Te Hauata where a white flag was raised and they were not touched any further.

With the cavalry proceeding to enter the village and contrary to O’Malley’s claim that it was “essentially undefended” they encountered small arms fire from the Catholic church where a considerable number of rebels had gathered but the latter, finding that its thin weatherboard walls gave no protection against musket balls, retreated quickly and took no further part in the action.  It might all have ended there, just as General Cameron had hoped, with just two rebels shot by musket fire but alas that was not to be!

It was then that Captain Wilson’s attention was drawn to a “slab hut”[4]from which a woman, a boy and a “large Maori” emerged when called upon to do so, the latter made prisoner by Corporal Little.[5]  On being informed that some Maoris remained inside the hut. Captain Wilson ordered Sergeant McHale, the only Australian in his force, to enter the hut and call on its occupants to surrender.

When McHale obeyed, he was immediately shot dead by the hut’s principal occupant, “Hoani Papita” (“John the Baptist”), grandfather of Potatau.   In the rapid escalation of fire which followed the hut was set ablaze, possibly by the troops, several of whom fell, including the mortally wounded Colonel Nixon.  Then, knowing that all was lost, an old man emerged waving a white blanket in, no doubt, a futile gesture to word off the musket fire – alleged to be a “white flag” in a tale told at the Te Awamutu museum today.  Despite their officers’ orders to hold their fire, in the heat of the battle, he fell to a volley from the troops as did two more who followed him.

When the action had ceased, the troops who entered the remains of the hut found several bodies, charred almost beyond recognition, including that of McHale and two women, said to be daughters of Kereopa Te Rau, notorious for swallowing the eyes of missionary Volkner and drinking his blood from his skull.[6]

After the action, the troops retired to Otawhao, now Te Awamutu, taking a number of prisoners with them, some wounded, and some women and children.  Tents were pitched for their use.  There was a total of seventeen deaths from the action, twelve rebels, all but two at the slab hut, and five of the troops of whom Colonel Nixon died later from his wounds.

As historian Chris Pugsley has observed, this was the decisive action of the entire conflict, a major blow to the morale of the kingitanga, so that the end of armed resistance was only a matter of time and peace returned to this troubled corner of New Zealand.

Sadly, however, it was not the end of the story as Captain Wilson found out at the great meeting at Kopua some months afterwards.  There he was informed by two Wesleyan ministers that “there was one thing the natives were sore about, namely the  kohuru  [murder] at Rangiaohia” [sic].

It was the rebels themselves, furious at being so outwitted, who concocted the colossal lie of the burning of a church full of women and children, the reported “anguish” about this festering in Ngati Apakura to the present day.[7]  The 1991 hearsay of a man, one Mac Burt, about it all and the tale of an old Maori woman described by him in O’Malley’s tale should be seen in this light.  We have heard O’Malley’s “ring of authenticity” from others before him![8]

It was noted rebel leader, Wiremi Kingi, who told the truth: “There was only one house burnt; that was the house where the Maoris died.  I went there and saw it.”

So why, I ask, are so many New Zealanders today[9], so ready to blacken the record of our colonial past, humane by any standard of history and one which indeed, saved war-torn, slave-holding, cannibal Maori society from itself?

That, gentle readers, is not a rhetorical question!!!

Bruce Moon


11 December 2021

[1]     V. O’Malley, “Voices from the New Zealand Wars”, Bridget Williams Books, 2021

[2]     At one stage they planned to attack Auckland with wholesale slaughter of its inhabitants.

[3]     Whose “commendable humanitarianism” is described by military chaplain, Frank Glen in  “Australians at War in New Zealand”, ISBN978-1-87742-739-8, p2011, p.146

[4]     Of various descriptions of this edifice, this appears to be the most accurate!

[5]     They were in fact the boy Potatau who later gave a most detailed account of his experiences, with his mother and father.

[6]     M. A.Tagg, “The Martyr’s  Crown”, ISBN 0-473-11187-X, 2006

[7]     As reported in “Waikato Times” for  9/12/17.

[8]     In the report of the Waitangi Tribunal in favour of the swindle which was the Ngai Tahu claim accepted by it and the Bolger government.  (For a careful analysis, works by A. Everton,  M. Butler and D. Hampton may be cited.)