The burnt church lie that won't die

When two high school students were told, in 2014, that colonial troops herded women and children into a church at Rangiaowhia on that day and then set the church on fire, killing 144, they were deeply shocked and petitioned Parliament to set up “a national day to commemorate those who lost their lives in the land wars, both Maori and colonial”. [1]

However, you don’t have to look far to see that the story is at best incorrect or at worst, a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive, otherwise known as a lie. Why?

The allegation is that one of the two churches there, either St Paul’s Anglican built in 1852 on the south side of Rangiaowhi or St John’s Catholic 400 metres away on a small hill on the north, was set on fire there on that date.

But a report in the New Zealand Herald on April 6, 1864, less than two months after the alleged fire, said “the churches still remain intact, two officers of the 50th Regiment live in the Catholic Church”. [2]

Both churches remained long after 1864. St Paul’s Anglican Church is still standing, and St John’s was dismantled in 1931 according to the Auckland Star, February 20, 1931.[3]

More evidence that both churches survived the incident appears in a painting of Rangiaowhia with soldiers’ tents with St John’s Church to the left and St Paul’s Church to the right.

A painting of Rangiaowhia shows soldiers’ tents with St John’s Church to the left and St Paul’s Church to the right.

So, if neither church was burned on February 21, 1864, was anything else burned and were people killed?

Two eyewitness accounts (presented below) show that a gunfight occurred at Rangiaowhia on that date centred on a whare containing 10 armed villagers one of whom shot dead a trooper before colonial forces started shooting.

The story that colonial troops herded woman and children into a church relies on orally transmitted stories. Oral tradition can resemble the “Chinese whispers” game that shows how a message may be distorted when passed around in a whisper. Add to this an agenda of those sore about being defeated and it is understandable how over the years the incident grew into an atrocity. Here are the two eyewitness accounts.

Potatau, a boy who was in the whare at Rangiaowhia when the soldier was shot, made a statement which said:

It took place on Sunday morning.  Early in the morning I had reason to go outside the house.  I then saw some troopers passing behind the house.  I at once ran to my father's house. I had not been long there when my grandfather came to the same house. His name was Hoani. It was because he knew we were there that he came, 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 said: 'Am I greater than your uncles who were taken at Rangiriri?'  My father again said to my grandfather: ' Let us go in peace, and according to law. '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. The European went inside of the house. My grandfather shot him and killed him. Some of the others dragged the body in the house.  At this time my mother and self arose and went through the soldiers and between the troopers.  They did not interfere with us, but allowed us to pass.  We went to the house of Thomas Power, who had a Maori woman to wife.  After we left, we heard the soldiers firing.  Whilst we were at the house of Thomas Power, the Government interpreter came there.  I may say that by this time a large number of women and children of our people had come to Thomas Power's house.  What the interpreter said to us was that the general would have to deal with us.  If he would allow us to take our departure it would be well; we could do so; if he sent us to Te Awamutu it would have to be so; but he told us to remain at this house.  After this the interpreter left us.  At this time the firing had ceased. We at once left the place and ran off to the bush, and made for Rangitoto."  See1887 - Gudgeon, T. W. The Defenders of New Zealand [4]

Another eyewitness to make a statement was Captain John Alexander Wilson. When confronted by the allegation that people had been murdered there, Wilson, who was part of the colonial force on that day, said:

“I can explain all about that affair, for I was present. It was I who sent the man whom the Maoris shot into the hut to make prisoners. Our man was dead inside the hut before the attack commenced”.[5] 

A pen and ink drawing of the gunfight at Rangiaowhia presented to the Auckland Library sometime around 1880 is visual evidence of the sequence of events after shooting started, as Colonel Nixon was mortally wounded, and before the whare became engulfed in flames. Colonel McDonnell, at left, is seen running towards Nixon while Captain Wilson, to the right of the falling Nixon, rushes to help.

The fight at Rangiaowhia, from a drawing by J.A. Wilson who fought there on that day. The soldier shown falling is Colonel Marmaduke Nixon, commanding the Colonial Defence Force Cavalry, who was shot from the doorway of the Maori house in the middle of the picture.[6]

An unarmed old man walked out of the blazing whare with his blanket singed on his back. He had not walked 10 paces when he was shot dead. A man came to the door and tried to shoot but was shot dead. Another appeared at the door and was also shot dead. No one else came out.

Altogether 14 were killed including the 10 occupants of the whare as well as Nixon, McHale, a cavalryman named Corporal Alexander, and Forest Ranger John Ballender, who later died of a hip wound. About 30 prisoners were taken. The village was looted and later demolished to make way for a tent redoubt. Shots fired from the whare doorway and the deaths of Nixon, Alexander and Ballender are evidence that whare occupants returned fire.

Potatau’s testimony was that Hoani refused to surrender and when “the European” who was named Sergeant McHale entered the whare and pulled Potatau’s father out, Hoani shot him dead. At that time Potatau and his mother left the whare and were allowed by the soldiers to pass. After they left, they heard the soldiers firing.

In his 1923 book The New Zealand wars: A history of the Maori campaigns and the pioneering period, historian James Cowan said that the location of the shooting were dwellings occupied by Ngati-Hinetu chief Hoani Papita and Ngati-Apakura chief Ihaia. Cowan also said that the unarmed old man who was shot held a white blanket above his head.

This could be a tragic sequence of events. Hoani, a chief who felt honour-bound to fight, shot dead the soldier who grabbed his son. Soldiers started shooting at the whare. As the whare burned, Hoani walked outside to surrender and was shot dead. Another tried to escape the fire by shooting his way out but was shot dead. Yet another tried to get out but was shot dead. A dwelling was burned and 14 people, both soldiers and Maori, lost their lives.

Potatau’s account confirms that a woman and her child were there but they were allowed to get out before the shooting started.

Why were troops there on that day? Armed conflict between pro-Government troops, settlers and Maori and anti-Government Maori started in Taranaki in 1860 and extended to Waikato, the centre of the Maori king movement, to the Bay of Plenty and the East Coast until 1869.

Rangiaowhia was located about 4km east of Te Awamutu. It was once a Maori mission station and thriving food-growing village. The area became involved in conflict after colonial forces under General Duncan Cameron took Rangiriri (about 75km north), on November 20, 1863. Cameron wanted to outflank the Kingites' substantial defences at Paterangi and Rangiatea by taking Rangiaowhia, which would also separate anti-Government forces from their food supplies. There were about 100 men in the settlement, with many women and children, while there were nearly 1000 troops in the colonial force, according to Cowan.

Cowan wrote that armed Maori crammed into the Saint John’s Catholic Church and raised a white flag so were not touched. The English church, too, was filled with Maoris, and some shots came from the windows. Shots were fired at the churches that were not bullet-proof so Kingites soon left the churches. No church was burned as evidence provided above shows.

Outflanked, defences at Paterangi, Pikopiko, and Rangiatea were redundant so Waikato fighters regrouped at Hairini about 1km to the west of Rangiaowhia where they were pushed back on February 22. The final battle in Waikato was at Orakau on April 2 after which Kingite forces retreated south.

The Kingites were sore about losing Rangiaowhia because they did not expect colonial troops to outflank them. Some referred to the incident there as the “kohuru” (murder).

Historian George Rusden alleged in his 1883 History of New Zealand that women and children were wantonly shot and burned in their houses at Rangiaowhia when surprised by troops. In that book Rusden also accused John Bryce - at that time Native Minister - of killing women and children in an incident at Handley’s woolshed during the Taranaki war. Bryce sued Rusden for libel. The verdict, the High Court in London, went against Rusden, his book was suppressed and Bryce was awarded £5000 in damages, a vast sum at that time.[7]

The church-burning story has been repeated on numerous occasions. In the Bay of Plenty Times on July 20, 2009, columnist Tommy Kapai Wilson wrote:

When General Cameron (now there's a familiar name) was sent over to sort out the "natives" and confiscate all their lands he ran into some strong resistance from some of our Ngati Apakura whanau. And in true Cameron military madness style, he gave the orders to wipe them out. His troops herded all the local Maori up like cattle and locked them in the church, and then set it alight - killing all 144 inside. Those who tried to escape were shot and only one three-year-old girl got out, by being thrown through the burning back wall.[8]

Otorohanga College teacher Mariana Papa and her husband Rahui Papa, an advisor to the Maori King, told the story to two pupils, Waimarama Anderson and Leah Bell, who launched the above-mentioned petition that gained nearly 13,000 signatures which resulted in Land Wars Day. Leah Bell said:

We were shocked and horrified at the stories told by the kaumatua, who were distraught sharing their ancestors' stories about innocent women and children and elders being burned alive. We decided that it was our responsibility now to take action and be proactive about our history. We petitioned absolutely everywhere. See Otorohanga students deliver land wars petition to Parliament.[9]

In the videoed interview, Leah Bell said “innocent women, children and the elderly being burnt alive, in churches for example”.

The “national day to commemorate those who lost their lives in the land wars, both Maori and colonial” quickly became “Land Wars Day” which carried the implication that the colonial government attacked Maori to take the land. October 28 each year was selected as the day because on that day in 1835 the Declaration of Independence of New Zealand was signed. Maori sovereignty activists use the declaration as justification for their cause. Using that date carries the implication that the commemoration is a separatist event. Responsibility was handed to the Minister of Maori Affairs. The Māori Party secured funding of $4 million, over four years for “hapū, iwi and local communities” which reinforced the view that event was to commemorate anti-government Maori who had lost their lives.

Northland tribe Ngapuhi created their own three-day commemoration starting March 10, 2018, to mark the 173rd anniversary of the burning of Kororareka (Russell), when a settler town was burned by anti-government insurgents. The dramatic shows of defiance that featured in the commemoration made it hard to see how the event was “a national day to commemorate those who lost their lives in the land wars, both Maori and colonial”.

As Human Rights Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy repeated the church-burning story in a column for Waitangi Day on February 5, 2017. She wrote:

A few years ago, some teenagers from Otorohanga were on a school history trip and were told it was the site of a battle during the New Zealand Wars. When the teens started asking about what went on, they were shocked to find out that civilians were killed by Crown soldiers. They were horrified to hear that women and children who sought shelter in a local church were locked inside and the church burnt to the ground.[10]

Dame Susan refused to retract or in any way amend her statement when challenged. When the anti-statue movement appeared in the United States, Labour Party activist Shane Te Pou sought the removal of the statue in Otahuhu of Col Nixon. In his Radio NZ interview on September 13, 2017, the burnt church story is repeated by Rahui Papa who said:

One of our tupuna in particular was burnt in the church, two of them escaped out the window and looked from the swamp land as they were burning in the flames, so we hold those as very dear family histories. We also have the writings of Wiremu Tamihana at the time, who talked about the invasions into Rangiaowhia.[11]

A descendant of Colonel Nixon quoted in that report disputed that the church was set alight.

A curious fact about the church-burning story is that the story changed after objectors pushed back. For instance, in her thesis titled KOORERO TUKU IHO: Waahine Maaori Voices from the Embers of Rangiaowhia, which was presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master in Adult Education at the College of Education, Massey University, in 2013, Hazel Coromandel-Wander wrote:

When the alarm was raised in the village the elderly along with the young mothers and their babies ran into both the Rangiaowhia Catholic Church and the Anglican Church for refuge. The Crown’s Troopers set the Catholic Church on fire (Barber 1984) and kept their guns trained on the exits to make sure no one could escape. All those who sought the safe haven of the Rangiaowhia Catholic Church were killed.

(A check on the reference to Barber showed no such information.) But when interviewed by Stuff in 2017, she did not tell that story. After explaining that her great-great grandmother and her children escaped from the troops by ducking under the water in the nearby marsh, she said:

The whare karakia and other whare were burned down, with reports of people incinerated inside.[12] 

She had shifted from burnt church to burnt whare. Discussion in that story about the burnt whare pivoted on whether it was deliberately or accidentally set alight, with a quote from a letter by trooper W. Drake, who wrote:

We were obliged at last to set fire to the wharrie [whare], which was no easy affair - however, we did it and found eight dead bodies of Maoris in it and one of our own men.

Quoted in that story was Waikato University historian Dr Tom Roa, a descendant of Ngati Apakura, said their forebears talked about soldiers shooting people having prayers in the whare karakia, and when they refused to come out, they set the whare alight. After mentioning the “old man who came out wrapped in a blanket, hands held high, [who] was shot dead”, Roa embellished the story by adding that his “mother talked about a young boy, eight or nine years old, who was shot dead, how women were raped”.

The battle for ownership of our history has appeared in a number of plaques erected around the country. Roa was involved in wording on a plaque erected in 2014 on the site where the whare was burned to mark the 150-year anniversary of the event. The plaque says:

Ko tenei kowhatu hei whakamaumaharatanga I te pahautanga I pa ki runga I a Ngati Apakura, Ngati Hinetu me nga iwi ki konei ki Rangiaowhia I te 21 o Pepuere, 1864. I huraina I to 21 o Pepuere, 2014.

Which was translated to say:

This stone is a memorial to the atrocities suffered by Ngati Apakura, Ngati Hinetu and others here at Rangiaowhia on the 21st of February, 1864. Unveiled on the 21st of February, 2014.

The word “atrocities” means “an extremely wicked or cruel act, typically one involving physical violence or injury”. The term would match an incident in which women were herded into a church and the church set on fire and any escapees shot at. It does not match the sequence of events as related by the eyewitnesses, the Maori boy who was in the hut and the officer who gave the order for the soldier to enter the hut to take prisoners. The plaque shows an agenda, as if the people who erected it were still fighting a war that had been lost 150 years earlier. A more neutral, inclusive, monument would say:

This stone is a memorial to all those killed here at Rangiaowhia on the 21st of February, 1864. Unveiled on the 21st of February, 2014.

Those who were killed included the unarmed chief shot dead while holding a white blanket up, the two who tried to get out of the whare, the seven others in the whare, Sergeant McHale, Colonel Nixon, and two other soldiers. The memorial would be greatly helped by including the names of all who lost their lives there on that day.

There is a sustained push to have our history taught at school. Our children deserve to know the truth about the lives and times of their ancestors. Those who fought during the 1860s conflicts in New Zealand are our great grandparents, or older, and were involved on both sides.

But demonstrably untrue stories such as the Rangiaowhia burnt church allegation can cause just as much damage as Rusden’s allegation that Bryce killed women and children during the Taranaki war, that cost him £5000.  The damage is three-fold.

  • The reputations of long-gone forebears who cannot defend themselves are smeared.
  • The credibility of those who repeat false allegations is destroyed.
  • Peddling fake history to generate white guilt is a recipe for race hatred.

Our challenge is for the Government to issue a statement of fact about what actually happened on Sunday, February 21, 1864, at Rangiaowhia. So-called “sincerely held beliefs” that are contradicted by verifiable evidence do not qualify as facts.



The burnt church lie that won’t die


[2] See

[3] See


[5] See

[6] James Cowan, The NZ Wars: The history of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period, Vol 1, p354.

[7] See

[8] Bay of Plenty Times on July 20, 2009.


[10] Learning Nation’s Past a Way to Safeguard Future, Bay of Plenty Times, February 4, 2017.


[12] When the war came to Rangiaowhia