A memorial stone marking the atrocities that took place at Rangiaowhia in February 1864. (Photo: Vincent O’Malley)

In his new book Voices from the New Zealand Wars, historian Vincent O’Malley takes us even closer to the events of 1845–1872, through the first-hand accounts from Māori and Pākehā who either fought or witnessed the New Zealand Wars.

In this edited extract, he presents a remarkable letter containing an account from a Māori woman who survived the torching of a whare karakia at Rangiaowhia in 1864 — confirming other oral histories and countering a longstanding claim that it never happened. 


Around first light on the morning of Sunday 21 February 1864, armed cavalry, followed by foot troops, descended on the village of Rangiaowhia. That the soldiers encountered little organised resistance is hardly surprising, given that Rangiaowhia was not a fighting pā but an open and essentially undefended village. It had been selected as a place of refuge for women, children, and old men.

Following the battle at Rangiriri, Kīngitanga leaders had been criticised for keeping these groups inside the pā and were told that they should be sent to a safe place instead. Rangiaowhia was named as that place and a message to this effect was passed to the military, via Bishop George Selwyn, who was then acting as chaplain to the British troops, nine days before the settlement was attacked.

For Kīngitanga supporters who had been urged to fight in a “civilised” manner, the assault on Rangiaowhia was an almost incomprehensible act of treachery. They had complied with requests to remove their families out of harm’s way, only for the troops to deliberately target them in the most horrific manner possible. In their eyes, those killed in the attack were not victims of war: they were non-combatants who had been brutally murdered.

It is clear from the multiple eyewitness accounts that Māori were deliberately burnt to death at Rangiaowhia. But what kind of building exactly were they sheltering in? 

It is sometimes said that it was a church. Critics of this view note that both the Anglican and Catholic churches at Rangiaowhia were still standing at the end of the Waikato War and for a considerable time thereafter. There were no other churches at Rangiaowhia. Therefore, according to this argument (often advanced by anti-Māori individuals and organisations), the events described never happened.

Except that Ngāti Apakura refer to a “whare karakia”, which might mean an English-style church, but could equally apply to some other place of worship (the phrase itself simply means “house of prayers”). In other words, it might have been called a “church”, even if that meant a whare in which non-Christian forms of religious observance occurred. 

A remarkable unpublished letter to the editor of the Waikato Times from 1991 indicates that indeed a whare karakia was torched. It was written by a local Pākehā man, Mac Burt, who was known on many local marae and had a strong interest in Māori history. Burt wrote it in response to a letter that had been published critiquing the view that a church had been set alight, and later passed the unpublished response to local Treaty educators.

The letter contains the recollection of an unnamed Māori woman. According to Burt, the account was “given to her chosen moko by an eyewitness, then a girl of about ten. It wasn’t until about 1936, realising she had only a few years left, that she recalled these painful details for Piri, her whangai [adopted child]. It is but one strand of a powerful oral tradition of the Tainui, surviving to this day, about these events.”

A sketch of the attack on Rangiaowhia in February 1864, by J A Wilson, who, many years later, wrote down his recollection of what had taken place. It was one of multiple eyewitness Pākehā accounts to confirm the deliberate torching of a whare with Māori inside it. (Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 5-41)

A Māori Woman Survivor’s Account

It was a bright sunny morning when the shooting began. The older women began to tangi irirangi, and I was frightened. I though[t] the soldiers were coming to shoot us. But my mother said no, the kuia cried for our brave toa [warriors] who would die fighting at the pakeha invaders at Hairini pa. 

Still well before midday we realised that the sound of shots was getting louder. Then Tame, my cousin, arrived with the news. Most of the soldiers had not bothered to attack the pa, they were even now approaching through the fields of corn. Our men were unable to turn them away, our village of Rangiaowhia was doomed. We were to leave at once and go in the direction of Owairaka. 

Many of our people had gathered in the church to pray for our warriors. Most of them would not heed Tame’s message. They believed that as we were Christians too, like the British soldiers, we would be safe in the church. As our kui was too old to walk more than a few steps my mother thought we should take refuge also in the church.

My kui would not have it so. Though she was proud that we rangatahi were faithful Christians she always held that the old ways were good enough for her. She told my mother to follow the message that Tame had brought us. We were to roll her in a flax mat and leave her in the shade of a whare, to come back at night for her. 

My mother followed these words. 

About forty people stayed in the church to pray. Maybe more. Some weren’t able to move about easily, but most could have escaped if they had left with us.

The soldiers came shouting and shooting through our kainga [village], burning our raupo whare. Our church was the biggest whare of all, made of raupo like the rest but with a cross on top as a tekoteko. Perhaps the soldiers didn’t know it was a church when they set it alight. That’s what some people said later.

When they realised that they were about to be burnt to death the people inside began screaming. Those who tried to escape were shot as they reached open ground.

My mother was one of those who crept back after sunset. Our kui was still rolled up in her mat, but the soldiers had stabbed it with their bayonets in seven places. My mother was truly amazed when they found that she was still alive; she was thirsty. Kui lived for another four days. We kept her body for one day only and I sat with her, pointing off flies and stroking her gently as speaker after speaker rose to farewell her, recounting the events of that heavy day, when we were “burnt by the church”. 

Tuhoe came to join the fight. The spirit of the people was broken but Tuhoe urged Rewi [Maniapoto] to fight yet again. It was then that Bishop Selwyn visited [General] Cameron’s camp. The soldiers had a parade and were lined up on the slopes of a hill. Our people watched as Selwyn put the blessing of God on the British soldiers. Some said that as the mana of God had been placed on the enemy we should fight no more. But Rewi followed the will of the Tuhoe group; they had travelled many days to fight the pakeha and to honour our King with their support.

While the source of this survivor’s account is unknown and obviously needs to be considered with some caution, the level of detail it provides gives it a ring of authenticity and it appears to be a genuine attempt to convey what its author had heard or read. It strongly supports those oral histories that describe the burning of a whare karakia at Rangiaowhia.


This is an edited extract from Voices from the New Zealand Wars/He Reo Nō Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa by Dr Vincent O’Malley (Bridget Williams Books). 

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