Journey to a Hanging by Peter Wells (Vintage, 2014), 412 pp., $45
Peter Wells’ historical account of the persecution and assassination of Kereopa Te Rau has a rather gloomy title, and I first opened it with a sense of foreboding and unease. It’s true though that the story he tells us here is of a hanging – or rather of two: one of a hapless German missionary, from a tree in the hinterlands of Opotiki in 1865; the other of Kereopa Te Rau himself at the hands of the colonial authorities in Napier in 1871.
Wells starts his book with a protracted ramble through the old prison in Gisborne, now a backpacker hostel, walking up a picturesque path where, in his terminology, the past is to ‘pitch … against the Vagaries of the present’. By this means he immediately signals that the account will be a personal one, marking the 140th anniversary of Te Rau’s execution (oddly, Wells never actually alludes to this, though he makes clear he is visiting Gisborne over New Year in 2012). His initial visit, in the introduction, culminates at the gallows. He makes a useful comparison between the ‘murderer’, Kereopa Te Rau, and his victim, Carl Sylvius Völkner; both die on a rope, but the latter was rather more amateurishly strung up by a bunch of enraged warriors seven years earlier and suffered horribly. The convicted murderer, on the other hand, ‘died fairly instantly’. [Read more…]