Volkner Incident

Volkner Incident

The Volkner Incident describes the murder of the missionary Carl Sylvius Völkner in New Zealand in 1865 and the consequent reaction of the Government of New Zealand in the midst of the New Zealand land wars.


The Battle of Te Ranga, June 21, 1864, was the last major conflict of the Tauranga Campaign and is also said to mark the effective end of the fighting involved with the Invasion of the Waikato. It left an uneasy peace–not so much a peace as an absence of conflict, one that lasted for several months. This period saw two significant changes in disposition of the warring parties.

The Imperial Troops were fighting their last campaign in New Zealand before being withdrawn to garrison duty and then complete withdrawn from New Zealand. At the same time the Colonial Militia were being reorganized and rearmed to take up the slack.

Meanwhile the Pai Marire movement (or Hau Hau) was gaining ground and converts among the East Coast Māori. The Pai Marire Movement began in 1862 as a combination of Christianity and traditional Māori beliefs. Originally peaceful, it had soon changed to become a violent and vicious anti-Pākehā creed.

Volkner's murder

Pai Marire evangelists arrived in the Opotiki area of the Bay of Plenty in February 1865. On March 2 the missionary, Carl Völkner, discovered that his Māori congregation had moved on from Christianity to Hau Hauism. Although warned to stay away from the town, on his next visit he was captured, put on trial and hung from a tree; after an hour or so he was decapitated. Then the Hau Hau prophet, Kereopa Te Rau re-entered the church and conducted a service with Völkner's head in the pulpit beside him. At a suitably dramatic moment he plucked out the missionary's eyeballs and swallowed them. The news of this brutal murder caused great alarm and anger among Pākehā.

Völkner's death at the hands of his congregation was caused by his apparent (and in fact real) willingness to act as an agent of the Governor, Sir George Grey. Seduced by Sir George's personal charm during a visit to Opotiki, Völkner began sending him reports of anti-Government activity, which are still extant in the archives (one is transcribed in Lyall's book, see "Further reading" below). Sir George commonly used such reports from Protestant missionaries to battle his two enemies: anti-Government Māori and the Parliament; in turn he supplied the Protestant missionaries with information on the movements of Catholic missionaries.

That said, the New Zealand government was in no position to do anything about it--the Imperial Troops under General Cameron were virtually on strike. There was active conflict in Taranaki (on the opposite side of the Island) which had to be resolved before anything could be started in the Opotiki region.


For several months nothing happened--then came the capture of Wereroa Pa--the relief of the siege of Pipiriki in August, 1865 that virtually ended that phase of the Second Taranaki War. This freed up the militia for action elsewhere.

In September, 1865, the forces then available to the New Zealand government, some 500 men, were transported by ship from Wanganui through Cook Strait, around the East Cape to Opotiki. The composition of this force was significant. There were four companies of militia, a troop of cavalry and a contingent of Ngāti Hau (not to be confused with their enemy, the Hau Hau) warriors lead by Kepa te Rangihiwinui. These were the units that had already been campaigning together during the Taranaki War and had a history of successful cooperation and mutual respect.

The landing at Opotiki was accomplished with difficulty. One of the ships ran aground on a falling tide and came under fire from the shore. Eventually it had to be abandoned and the crew and militia waded ashore but it was another twenty four hours before the other ships were able to land their men and supplies.

As soon as they were established and the snipers driven away the militia occupied the church where Völkner had been murdered. While some of the Pākehā soldiers worked at turning this into a fortress the others with Kepa and the Ngāti Hau were turned loose on the countryside. There followed a season of pillage, rape and murder. Within two weeks they had stripped the countryside of all available food supplies, keeping what they needed and destroying the rest. Beyond a few muskets the local Māori lacked any weapons with which to defend themselves. It was made clear to them that these depredations would continue until the men responsible for the murder of Völkner were captured or surrendered. But the man responsible, Kereopa, was not available for capture and had no intention of surrendering.

In the midst of all this, the commander of the militia, Major Brassey, was arrested for being drunk at his post and was replaced first by Major Stapp and then by Col. St. John, a one-armed veteran of the Crimean War.


By the end of October the local tribe's position was desperate. Some twenty of its chiefs surrendered. They were shipped to Auckland for trial, five of them received the death penalty and were hanged the following year. Large areas of land around Opotiki were confiscated under the "New Zealand Settlements Act of 1863" and sold to settlers.

In 1993, Justice Minister Doug Graham delivered an apology to Te Whakatōhea along with an official pardon of Mokomoko, one of the chiefs hanged. [Ranganui Walker [http://www.teara.govt.nz/NewZealanders/MaoriNewZealanders/TeWhakatohea/3/ENZ-Resources/Standard/2/en Mokomoko’s pardon, 1993] , 'Te Whakatōhea', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Updated 2007-09-07.] In 1996, the New Zealand Government signed a Deed of Settlement, acknowledging and apologising for the allegedly wrongful invasion and confiscation of Te Whakatōhea lands, and the subsequent economic, cultural and developmental devastation suffered by the iwi. In 1998 the New Zealand government offered the Whakatōhea iwi $NZ40 million as compensation for all their historical claims including the invasion and the confiscation of land following the Volkner Incident; however the offer was not accepted. Te Whakatōhea are presently preparing to negotiate a full settlement with the New Zealand Government. As part of the settlement of neighbouring iwi Ngāti Awa's claims in 2003, the Volkner Rocks near Whakaari/White Island were renamed "Te Paepae Aotea (Volkner Rocks)".


Further reading

* Barthorp, Michael (1979). "To face the daring Māori". Hodder and Stoughton.
* Belich, James (1988). "The New Zealand wars". Penguin.
* Belich, James (1996) "Making peoples". Penguin Press.
* Cowan, J., & Hasselberg, P. D. (1983) "The New Zealand wars". New Zealand Government Printer. (Originally published 1922)
* Lyall, A. C., (1979) "Whakatohea of Opotiki". A.H. & A.W. Reed.
* Maxwell, Peter (2000). "Frontier, the battle for the North Island of New Zealand". Celebrity Books.
* Simpson, Tony (1979). "Te Riri Pakeha". Hodder and Stoughton.
* Sinclair, Keith (ed.) (1996). "The Oxford illustrated history of New Zealand" (2nd ed.) Wellington: Oxford University Press.
* Vaggioli, Dom Felici (2000). "History of New Zealand and its inhabitants", Trans. J. Crockett. Dunedin: University of Otago Press. Original Italian publication, 1896.
*"The people of many peaks: The Māori biographies". (1990). From "The dictionary of New Zealand biographies, Vol. 1, 1769-1869". Bridget Williams Books and Department of Internal Affairs, New Zealand.

External links

* [http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/classroom/event-volkner Pai Marire and the death of Carl Völkner, 2 March 1865]

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