On 21 February 1864, 1000 British troops marched into the tiny, defenceless village of Rangiaowhia and wantonly slaughtered a hundred women and children. Or did they? –Piers Seed

Dispelling appalling lies

By Roger Childs

This is a book that should not have needed to be written. There is no way that General Cameron, the chivalrous Commander of the Colonial troops in the Waikato War, would contemplate the killing of women and children. He had criticized Kingite general, Wiremu Tamihana, for having women in the front lines at the earlier Battle of Rangariri.

Cameron did want to occupy Rangiaowhia, because it was the major source of food for the Kingite forces, notably at the powerful set of forts at Paterangi. To get to the village he had cleverly by-passed these fortifications in the dead of night to avoid casualties. 

The warriors at Paterangi were furious, but Cameron’s strategy made perfect sense as he wanted to avoid unnecessary deaths on both sides in battle and shorten the Waikato War.

There was a small engagement at Rangiaowhia which was started by local armed Maori, including some women. One whare in particular wasn’t going to give up without a fight, despite being asked to surrender several times.  There were casualties on both sides and in the end the whare was set alight to end the impasse. 

No eye-witnesses at the time, the only ones an historian should consult, regarded the whare “battle” as untoward, and after this minor action in Rangiaowhia the Waikato War moved on towards its inevitable conclusion.

So how did the myth of defenceless women and children at Rangiaowhia being killed get started and why has it been believed by many through to the present day?

Analyzing what happened through the eye witnesses

The first law for the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second it that he shall supress nothing that is true. Cicero

In Hoani’s Last Stand The Real Story of Rangiaowhia Christchurch historian, Piers Seed, divides his detailed study into four sections:

  • The Facts
  • The Myth
  • The Analysis 
  • Eye Witness Accounts

There are just three Maori documents that relate to eye witnessing what happened in Rangiaowhia. There were definitely no Maori spectators watching what was going on! Some warriors and women were snipers in the Catholic and Anglican Churches but soon gave up. Most women and children had fled, or were told by the soldiers to get out of the village, or had hunkered down in their homes. 

Te Hauata Rahapa Paoa, the wife of settler Thomas Power, was at home with her children when the soldiers arrived. She put a white flag on the roof of her house and most of the troops gave her place a wide berth. 14 months after the action she wrote to Governor Grey and mentioned that …. We were living comfortably at our home, when …. the soldiers arrived … There was no reference to women and children being killed in the letter.

Another contemporary account comes from Wiremu Tamihana a leader of the Ngāti Hauā. A week after the action in Rangiaowhia he wrote a letter to two East Coast chiefs. Most of it related to the battle of Harini on 22 February, but there was brief reference to what happened in Rangiaowhia. … an attack was made on Rangiohia (his spelling), a stealthy assault by the Pakehas. They fell (the Maoris) and six were killed in one place …. These men were attacked at night, the payment was eight, was eight, all officers. Enough of that. Nothing about women and children being slaughtered. 

The key Maori eye-witness account was from a young lad, Potatau, who saw part of the action. ‘I at once ran to my father’s house.  I had not been long there when my grandfather [Hoani] came to the same house. … so that he might die with us – Ihaia, Rawiri and his son.  

At this time myself and my mother went outside the house, and sat at the door of the house.  I heard my father say to my grandfather:  ‘Let us lay down our guns and give ourselves up as prisoners.’ … My grandfather would not agree.  At this time the soldiers came to us, and asked my mother in Maori: ‘Are there any Maoris in the house?’  She replied: ‘No, there are no Maoris in the house.’  My father at once said: ‘Yes, there are Maoris here.’  

The European who spoke Maori came to the door of the house, and caught hold of my father, and handed him over to the soldiers.’ 

(Shortly after this, Potatau and his mother were allowed to leave the whare where most of fighting occurred later, and they went to the Powers’ house.)

There are at least ten eye witness accounts from soldiers including the legendary Forest Rangers leader Gustavus von Tempsky, and from the press, who were always looking for a good story and were not afraid to criticise the government and the military leaders. Although these accounts differ in some details, there is no reference to women and children being murdered. 

(All the eye witness accounts are provided in full in Part 4 of the book.)

So how did the “story” of women and children being killed get started?

If you haven’t got enough information – make it up

Over the last 15 years there have been a number of stories about atrocities committed at Rangiaowhia. Historians such as Jock Phillips and Vincent O’Malley, who should know better, have jumped on the band-wagon. These are lies that are unsupported by eye-witness accounts. 

The worst version is that over 100 women and children were herded into a church which was set on fire. (Unfortunately for the myth-makers the two Rangiaowhia churches were still standing after the action on the day.)

However, the atrocities stories have been parroted by historians, public figures, iwi leaders and journalists who have failed to do their own research. Sadly in the new school history curriculum the appalling lies about what happened on 21 February 1864 in Rangiaowhia will probably be passed off as genuine history to our unsuspecting youngsters.

It was in fact Kingite advisor and general, Wiremu Tamihana, who set the myth going. A year and a half after the occupation of the village – August 1865 – Tamihana in a petition to  Parliament mentioned  … the women and children fell there. A year later in another petition fire comes into it … because my women and children having being burnt alive.

Come through to the 21st century and a Bay of Plenty Times journalist gives the myth its full extension – … troops herded all the local Maori up like cattle and locked them in the church then set it alight – killing all 144 inside.

A must read telling of the truth

Piers Seed puts the record straight on what happened in Rangiaowhia on 21 February 1864. But will the right people read the book? Will the PC historians have the guts to admit they got it wrong and that there is no evidence to support the myth that there were atrocities committed in the village.

I highly recommend this patient, thoughtful and fluently written outline of the events of that February day. Seed provided all the evidence that can be found and gives an excellent analysis of how the myth and lies started and eventually grew albatross wings.

(Hoani’s Last Stand The Real Story of Rangiaowhia by Piers Seed should be in your local bookshop, however, it can be purchased direct from Tross Publishing, postage paid, for $35)