Missionary Carl Völkner killed at Ōpōtiki

2 March 1865

Völkner’s death in the Illustrated London News (Alexander Turnbull Library, PUBL-0033-1865-47-080-2)

On 2 March 1865, Anglican priest Carl Sylvius Völkner was killed at Ōpōtiki. During Völkner’s recent absence in Auckland, rumours had spread that he was a government spy. Locals warned him to stay away, but he returned to Ōpōtiki on 1 March and was promptly taken prisoner.

During Völkner’s absence, Kereopa Te Rau had arrived in the area seeking followers for Pai Mārire. Widely believed to be behind the killing, Kereopa did not participate in the actual act. Völkner was hanged from a willow tree near his church, then decapitated. Kereopa swallowed the eyes, allegedly calling one ‘Parliament’, and the other the ‘Queen and British law’. This indignity to the head of an enemy conferred mana on Kereopa, but outraged Europeans.

Kereopa fled into Te Urewera and sought protection from Tūhoe, who respected him as the bearer of the Pai Mārire faith. Despite their vehement denial of any role in the killing of Völkner, Tūhoe were accused of involvement and the government confiscated land belonging to them and other ‘rebel’ tribes, Te Whakatōhea and Ngāti Awa.

The dense bush of Te Urewera offered shelter from pursuit to Kereopa, and later Te Kooti. As the Ringatū faith of Te Kooti gained popularity among Tūhoe from 1868, the influence of Pai Mārire began to wane. Still, Tūhoe did not disclose Kereopa’s whereabouts. Over the next three years the government's relentless pursuit of Te Kooti and his followers led to the destruction of Tūhoe pā and crops, and many deaths.

By late 1870 several Tūhoe leaders had made their peace with the government. Realising that their survival was threatened by Kereopa’s continuing presence, they withdrew their protection from him. It was agreed that Tūhoe would deliver Kereopa to the government, thereby retaining their mana. In September 1871 a Tūhoe party met with Kereopa, who agreed to surrender but then attempted to flee. He was captured and handed over to Captain Thomas Porter and the Ngāti Porou leader, Rāpata Wahawaha.

When Kereopa stood trial at Napier on 21 December 1871, a European eyewitness testified that he had seen him among those escorting Völkner to the willow tree. This proved sufficient to convict Kereopa of murder. He was sentenced to death and hanged on 5 January 1872.

In 2014 a statutory pardon for Kereopa Te Rau was part of a Treaty of Waitangi settlement between the Crown and Ngāti Rangiwewehi. He was the second important figure to be pardoned in relation to Völkner’s killing – the first was the Whakatōhea chief Mokomoko.