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’.
Kereopa Te Rau’s precise part in the murder of Völkner remains an open question, though it seems obvious from Wells’ thoroughly documented text that he was certainly one of the chief instigators of the incident. His direct guilt has become a moot point, with contradicting witness reports from odd angles of view, and considerable difficulty in getting a straight and factual account. The court case was heard six years after the murder, by which time first-hand accounts had become blurred and some of the witnesses were no longer traceable. There had also been a demonisation of Te Rau, who was a fugitive during this interval, shunned also by much of the Māori community – who in that turbulent region were divided and deeply demoralised. His presence brought ever-increasing exactions: ‘Although Te Rau did not come from there … among Māori of the Bay of Plenty [his] name became synonymous with loss.’
In somewhat convoluted authorial prose we are presented with a situation where Völkner, who had been stationed near Opotiki since 1861, returned to the mission in February 1865 to find it sacked and occupied by a band of Māori, who had set up a pole for a ritual orgy as part of their Pai Mārire-inspired worship. It seems that the missionary was then accused of treason and espionage. (Völkner was at his first missionary posting, and in common with all of his calling he reported regularly on Māori movements to the colonial authorities.)
Could we advance, then, the hypothesis of a double crime with retribution (utu)? Völkner, as a missionary in a pretty tight spot, and German to boot, was fairly obviously trying to ingratiate himself with Governor Grey and his team by supplying them with information on the movement of various Māori factions. All missionaries functioned in this way, to a greater or lesser extent. Wells goes to considerable trouble to give us an in-depth portrait of Völkner the foreigner, showing the difficulties he had in gaining acceptance by the rather uptight community of Anglican missionaries – characters who ranged from semi-gangsters of the William Williams ilk to mavericks like William Colenso, the subject of a previous Wells biography. Apparently, Völkner was never ordained as a full Anglican priest, and the saga of the Anglicans’ petty and summary treatment of him – a hard working and conscientious man, but nevertheless a ‘foreigner’ – and of his difficult marriage in rough times, make up an important component of this book. Wells is very good at portraying Völkner’s well-documented missionary career, and I feel he gives a good outline of the whole idea of ‘the Mission’. Unlike his compatriot Riemenschneider, Völkner made an early break with the cruelly negligent, Hamburg-based German Protestant mission, and did his best to work with the Anglicans.
Wells’ account tells us that Völkner was eventually lynched, beheaded and his body thrown down a bog. Te Rau is reported to have eaten his eyeballs. Meanwhile, in a recent unpublished essay, Andrew Paul Wood has come to interesting terms with these gory details, drawing parallels between the death of Völkner and the death of Jesus Christ. Wood comments on the well-known sacrality of heads – the head was an established pre-Christian Māori tapu – but also points out the significance of heads in Biblical scripture, notably that of John the Baptist, and picks up on other Christ-like parallels to the circumstances surrounding Völkner’s death as well: the division of the clothes (Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24), the Deposition (John 19:38–42), and, earlier in the piece, even a subversion of sorts of the crowd’s call to Pilate to spare Barabbas (Mark 15:7). Kereopa’s grisly ritual killing of Völkner was a literal, if blasphemous, version of that ritual which Völkner himself had performed of a Sunday in symbolic fashion, including in particular the consumption of the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. As Wood states, the similarities can hardly be coincidental. Wells, however, rather surprisingly, has little to say about this clash of religious iconography, which would seem pertinent to the ritualistic violence.
The actual connection between this murder and the Pai Mārire movement is another ambiguous and fraught territory, and one which Wells tiptoes around with understandable caution. However, I cannot get a clear picture of the teachings of the prophet Te Ua Haumēne, and subsequently of Te Kooti and Te Rau, from the narrative of Journey to a Hanging. It was a result of the volatile mix of repression and religion, certainly, and based on the idea of the Old Testament story of the liberation of the Jews under Moses. Those messianic connections are plain, but the Pai Mārire movement appeared to be in a constant state of evolution as the historical situation changed. Judith Binney’s published research on the prophet warrior’s life and beliefs makes this clear. By the time of Völkner’s murder, the tragic repression of the Taranaki and Poverty Bay Māori had reached a point of no return. What do we do when we are in a situation of betrayal, when we have nothing left to lose?
A word that sticks in my throat in the context of this book, though it is only used at the very end, is ‘terrorist’. It is an abhorrent word describing a horrible practice of extremely violent intimidation; as I write, the news is saturated with it.
So, was Kereopa Te Rau a terrorist? Could his faction of the Pai Mārire movement be deemed a terrorist group? Reluctantly, I feel we have to answer, yes.
Many, many questions are asked in this work, and many answers and explanations are dangled in front of us as Wells tackles the difficult task of sorting out the various stories he has assiduously netted in various archives. He is particularly good on the rather unseemly battle for Te Rau’s soul on the eve of his execution, between two unsinkable militants: Bishop Williams on the one side, and Sister (later Saint!) Marie-Joseph Aubert. Another duality, which surely added to the confusion of the man’s last hours.
But although Wells frequently recreates the era and its context in fascinating detail, one of his idiosyncrasies is that it is not always absolutely clear whether we are grappling with a partly imaginative narrative or with a completely factual text. He shuttles between modes. He also scatters photos like confetti – some important, such as the portraits of the two protagonists, while others are best forgotten. He cannot, I feel, entirely get away with hiding behind a kind of assumed innocence, either, given the impressive and quite coherent research he has undertaken for this project; and his claim: ‘I had tried to negotiate my way between the twin poles. On one side was intellectual clarity, with its attendant demand intellectual freedom; on the other was empathy, the need to emotionally connect and understand people or a person fundamentally different from myself.’ Because these ‘twin poles’ are actually represented on the page by articulating Völkner’s ‘European tradition of scepticism trying to match action against observable effects’, leaving Kereopa Te Rau mutely represented by only the residual act of understanding through ‘empathy’.
Nevertheless, the book is definitely valuable and worth perusing, although the reader will come away from it with an incomplete and literary, rather than a comprehensive historical, understanding of a nasty and possibly still septic episode from our colonial past. It’s worth adding, as a footnote, that the Waitangi Tribunal pardoned Kereopa Te Rau in 2014.
MAX OETTLI is a photographer, writer, archivist and researcher who lives in Geneva, Switzerland. He grew up in New Zealand and returns regularly.