The killing of missionary Carl Völkner by Pai Mārire followers in 1865 shocked the colony. The government used the event to justify taking harsh action against the Pai Mārire religion in general.

Death of Carl Völkner

On 2 March 1865 the Reverend Carl Sylvius Völkner, an Anglican priest, was killed at Ōpōtiki. During Völkner’s recent absence in Auckland, Kereopa Te Rau, one of the five original disciples of the Pai Mārire founder, Te Ua Haumēne, had arrived to enlist followers in the East Coast. Rumours spread that Völkner was a government spy and was giving information to Governor George Grey. Locals warned him to stay away from the mission station, but he returned to Ōpōtiki with fellow missionary Thomas Grace on 1 March. Both were immediately taken prisoner.

Kereopa was widely believed to have instigated Völkner’s killing the following day, although he did not take part in the actual act. The priest was hanged from a willow tree not far from his church. His body was then decapitated. Kereopa swallowed the eyes, allegedly calling one Parliament, and the other the Queen and British law. Although this act outraged Europeans, such an indignity to the head of an enemy conferred mana on Kereopa.

Government reaction

Following Völkner’s death, Kereopa fled into Te Urewera. Martial law was declared in the Ōpōtiki and Whakatāne districts, and a reward was offered for the capture of those responsible. Despite their vehement denials and a lack of evidence of their presence at the killing of Völkner, Tūhoe were accused of involvement. In 1866, 448,000 acres (181,000 hectares) of land belonging to the ‘rebel’ tribes of the Bay of Plenty – Tūhoe, Te Whakatōhea and Ngāti Awa – was confiscated by the government. This area was subsequently reduced to 211,000 acres (85,000 hectares), of which Tūhoe lost 14,000 acres (5,700 hectares). Tūhoe lost Ōpouriao and Waimana, their only substantial flat lands, and their only access to the coast through Ōhiwa Harbour. This injustice fanned the flames of war.

Kereopa retained much mana in the eyes of Tūhoe as the bearer of the Pai Mārire faith, and he obtained their protection. The dense bush of the Urewera mountains also offered shelter from his pursuers, as it later would for Te Kooti, and he was able to elude them for five years. But the influence of Pai Mārire began to wane from mid-1868 as the Ringatū faith of Te Kooti gained popularity among Tūhoe. Despite this, Tūhoe did not disclose Kereopa’s whereabouts. Over the next three years the government's relentless pursuit of Te Kooti and his followers led to the plunder of Tūhoe pā, the destruction of crops and the deaths of many people.

By late 1870 several Tūhoe leaders had made their peace with the government. Realising that their survival was threatened by Kereopa’s continuing presence, they withdraw their protection from him. Tūhoe tradition gives the following account of the capture of Kereopa. It was agreed among Tūhoe that government forces would not be allowed to capture Kereopa; Tūhoe would deliver him to the government, to ensure that their own mana was retained. In September 1871 a Tūhoe party met with Kereopa, who agreed to surrender as payment for the Tūhoe blood that had been shed for him. As he gathered his possessions from his sleeping house, he attempted to flee. He was captured by Te Whiu Maraki and taken to Ruatāhuna, where he was handed over to Captain Thomas Porter and the Ngāti Porou leader, Rāpata Wahawaha, a prominent figure in the war against Pai Mārire.

Trial and execution

On 21 December 1871 Kereopa stood trial at the Supreme Court at Napier for the murder of Völkner. There was no direct proof of his responsibility for the killing, but a European witness, Samuel Levy, testified that he had seen Kereopa among those who escorted Völkner to the willow tree. Kereopa was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. William Colenso appealed unsuccessfully for clemency on the grounds that the crime had already been punished by executions and land confiscation. Mother Mary Aubert of Father Euloge Reignier's mission at Napier, stayed with Kereopa during his last night. He was hanged on 5 January 1872 in the grounds of Napier gaol.

Pardon

In 2014 a statutory pardon for Kereopa Te Rau was part of a Treaty of Waitangi settlement between the Crown and Ngāti Rangiwewehi. He was the second important figure to be pardoned in relation to Völkner’s killing, following the pardoning of the Whakatōhea chief Mokomoko in 1992.

How to cite this page

'The death of Carl Völkner', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/classroom/the-classroom/historic-events-activities/the-death-of-volkner-classroom-activities, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 12-Nov-2020