1866: Mokomoko and the Maori killers of Carl Volkner

1 comment May 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1866, five Maori men hanged for the murder of a German proselytizer.

Hesse-born Carl Sylvius Völkner* arrived in New Zealand as a Lutheran missionary in 1849; by 1861, he was directing an Anglican-run mission at Opotiki, the center of Maori Te Whakatohea territory.

Unfortunately for Volkner, his mission to win souls overlapped with the British mission to win land.

This same early 1860s period saw a sharpening of the European-Maori conflict on the North Island where Volkner kept his mission — the bloodshed in turn fostering the militant Pai Marire or Hau Hau faith in place of the settlers’. Though the Te Whakatohea weren’t directly involved in this war, they had felt its effects: refugees, food shortages, disease outbreaks.

Volkner, who was seen by Maori as a pro-government character and a British spy,** was warned that under the fraught circumstances he might be wise to extend his most recent trip to Auckland indefinitely and wait for things to simmer down.

He did not heed that warning.

On March 2, 1865, the day after Volkner’s return to Opotiki, a group of Pai Marire hanged the missionary to a willow tree outside his Church of St. Stephen, then butchered the dead body.

The Pai Marire leader Kereopa Te Rau then preached from the church’s pulpit with Volkner’s severed head at his side, in the course of which he tore the eyeballs from his grisly prop and, calling one “the Queen” and the other “Parliament”, theatrically devoured them. (Kereopa Te Rau is nicknamed “Kai whatu”, “the eyeball eater”.)

Old eyeball eater would eventually hang for this display as well, but he avoided capture until the 1870s — so this narrative takes its leave of him here.

The slaughter of the European evangelist at the very steps of the protomartyr’s church in turn fired the fury of white New Zealand.

The most immediate response was the government’s landing 500 soldiers in Opotiki in September 1865. From there they raided throughout Te Whakatohea territory (confiscating some 240,000 hectares that would feed white settlers’ surging demand for real estate) and put crops to the torch until the tribe surrendered up some 20 chiefs for punishment of the Volkner affair.

Five of those eventually hanged for their participation: Heremita Kahupaea, Hakaraia Te Rahui, Horomona Propiti and Mikaere Kirimangu … and a man named Mokomoko who was then and remains now the most controversial execution of the bunch.

Mokomoko’s guilt was sharply disputed by eyewitnesses who gave conflicting accounts of whether he was even present at the church on March 2. It was Mokomoko’s rope that strangled Carl Volkner, but the man himself insisted that he was not present. (The three witnesses who placed him on the scene said he carried the rope, suggesting participation far exceeding a bystander.)

Maori tradition preserved Mokomoko as an emblem of wrongful persecution, along with his song Tangohia mai te taura i taku kaki kia waiata au i taku waiata (Take the rope from my neck that I may sing my song):

Violent shaking will not rouse me from my sleep
They treat me like a common thief
It is true that I embrace eternal sleep
For that is the lot of a man condemned to die.

Shielded from the harsh light
With narrow eyes I reflect on the retribution taken at Hamukete
Remember how I was taken on board ship (chained)
The memory of it burns me with shame.

Bring me justice from distant lands to break my shackles
Where the sun sets is a government in Europe
It is for them to say that I must hang
Then shut me in my coffin box.

Under pressure from Mokomoko’s descendants, latter-day New Zealand has made a number of gestures of apology for Mokomoko’s hanging over the past 20-odd years, culminating in a posthumous pardon.

* A copse of rocks sprouting out of New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty is named for our man — the Volkner Rocks, also known as Te Paepae o Aotea.

** He sent reports to the government about subversive activity.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Murder,New Zealand,Occupation and Colonialism,Posthumous Exonerations,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Wrongful Executions

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1869: Hamiora Pere, Maori “traitor” to the Queen

2 comments November 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1869, Hamiora Pere became the only New Zealander ever executed for treason.

Maurice Shadbolt’s Season of the Jew is a historical novel of the conflict that doomed Hamiora Pere. It’s told from the standpoint of Te Kooti, who liked to compare the Maori cause to that of the Israelites resisting Egypt, and founded a religious sect that still persists today.

Pere* came by the distinction quite accidentally — even setting aside the queer circumstance of his “betraying” a state on the opposite side of the globe by resisting its claim to his ancestral homeland.

Hamiora Pere was one of five Maori prisoners from the Siege of Ngatapa during Te Kooti’s War — an indigenous resistance against British colonization — to face the fatal charge.

The crown handled these cases carefully.

Though all five men drew death sentences (mandatory for treason), the government was evidently trying to stay out of the martyr-making business — as revealed by a judge’s comment during official deliberations.

I believe the result is the very best that could have been arrived at. I am glad to know that Mr McLean thinks that one execution will be useful as more would have been by way of example and caution.

Unfortunately for Hamiora Pere, the one of those five who was most likely set up to be the “example,” Wi Tamararo, committed suicide in prison shortly after his sentence.

Pere seemingly became the next in line for hanging because he was associated with murders in a noteworthy massacre at Matawhero that slew 33 Europeans and 37 of their Maori allies. Notably, however, the charge of murder actually filed against him was dropped prior to trial since he could be placed at the scene of the attack, but not directly shown to have killed anyone. Even off the indictment, it may have been the thing that doomed him.

Whatever the nature of the deliberations — and this report (pdf) of New Zealand’s Waitangi Tribunal inconclusively attempts to unpack the story with the patchy evidence available — the remaining convicts got clemency. Four years later, they were pardoned outright.

Pere got the noose at Wellington, and the accidental historical footnote. He would seem destined to maintain his unusual distinction indefinitely, since New Zealand has abolished the death penalty altogether.

Fear of Death

It is the circumstantial distinction of his case that earns Pere his place in this blog out of the numberless thousands to meet his same fate.

But in the end, he faced the gallows in that existential nakedness common to all us mortal wretches beholding death. Many in these pages meet their ceremonial end with with bravado; Hamiora Pere, by contrast, suffered all the pitiably human torments of fear, according to the report of the Daily Southern Cross:

He received the notice of his approaching death with calmness, and it was not until the morning before the execution that he gave any outward sign that he realised his terrible position. … [after his last farewell with his family he] became terribly distressed. He evidently fully recognised his position; he knew that he had looked for the last time on those from whom only he had any right to expect sympathy; every incident was reminding him how rapidly his term of life was decreasing, and it was not until his spiritual adviser … had been with him some time, that he became more composed.

[on the morning of the execution, Pere’s] responses [to his spiritual advisor] were accompanied by a peculiar moaning, and by convulsive sobbing. … the prisoner, quite a young man, and with nothing in his general appearance worthy of special remark, was sobbing bitterly, and was evidently suffering from intense mental agony; he looked anxiously around, yet stood firm and erect while he was being pinioned, repeating, as well as his trembling voice would allow, the prayers that were being offered on his behalf. … At the foot of the steps [to the gallows] the prisoner halted a moment, but, being led up, was quickly placed in the centre of the platform, under the noose, which was immediately fixed round his neck. From the time the prisoner left his room, until the rope was adjusted, he continued praying in a low moaning tone, interrupted frequently by violent sobbing …

* Also spelled “Peri” and, occasionally, “Pera”.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,New Zealand,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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