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

The death of Carl Völkner

On 2 March 1865 the missionary Carl Völkner was hanged from a willow tree near his church at Ōpōtiki. His death was blamed on followers of Pai Mārire who had recently arrived in the area.

The German-born Völkner was in charge of the Church Missionary Society’s mission station at Ōpōtiki. After he made several visits to Auckland in 1864 and early 1865 rumours spread among Pai Mārire followers that he was a government spy. Locals warned him to stay away from the mission station, but he returned to Ōpōtiki with fellow missionary Thomas Grace on 1 March 1865. Both were taken prisoner.

Völkner was hanged from a willow tree near his church by members of his own congregation, Te Whakatōhea. His head was then cut off and many of those present either tasted his blood or smeared it on their faces. In a final insult Kereopa Te Rau swallowed Völkner’s eyes, describing one eyeball as ‘Parliament’ and the other as the ‘Queen and English law’. Thomas Grace was spared.

Kereopa Te Rau was one of the five original disciples of Te Ua Haumēne. During the Waikato War his wife and two daughters were apparently killed at Rangiaowhia on 21 February 1864, and a sister at nearby Hairini the following day. After his conversion to Pai Mārire, Kereopa and Pātara Raukatauri were sent by Te Ua to the East Coast to spread the word. Twice on this journey Kereopa demanded that Europeans be given up to him, but he was denied on both occasions. Kereopa may well have instigated Völkner’s death but it is not clear whether he particpated in the actual killing. His actions in eating Völkner’s eyes outraged Europeans, but committing an indignity on the head of an enemy conferred mana on him. In a battle against Ngāti Manawa in May 1865 three fighters were killed and decapitated. According to one account Kereopa again ate the eyes, earning himself the name Kaiwhatu (the eye eater).

Government reaction

Not surprisingly, this event sparked outrage amongst the settler community and sections of Māori society. The government responded to the killing and general disturbances in the area by confiscating 144,000 acres (about 58,000 ha) of Te Whakatōhea land under the terms of the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863. In the process, it also satisfied settler demands for land.

Kereopa was given sanctuary in the Urewera region until he was taken into custody in September 1871. He stood trial in Napier for the murder of Völkner. While there was no direct proof of his responsibility for the killing, a European witness testified that he had seen Kereopa among those who escorted Völkner to the willow tree. On the basis of this testimony Kereopa was convicted and sentenced to death. William Colenso argued unsuccessfully for clemency on the grounds that the crime had already been punished by other executions and the confiscation of land. Kereopa spent his last night in the company of Mother Mary Aubert and was hanged on 5 January 1872. In 2014, as part of the settlement of Ngāti Rangiwewehi’s Treaty of Waitangi claim, Kereopa was pardoned for his role in the death of Völkner.

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 9-Apr-2019