Saturday, July 19, 2014

Auckland reading....

At the launch. Photo by David Frost, MTG Hawke's Bay.

 I'm doing a reading in Auckland, at the Whare Wananga, Auckland Central Library, Lorne Street this coming
Tuesday evening (22 July 2014) at 6pm. Everyone welcome.

I'll be reading from one part of the book that looks at going to Hiona, Volkner's church in Opotiki and my impressions. (I'll be accompanying the talk with photographs, some of which are in the book, some of which aren't.

I'll also look at the trial of Kereopa Te Rau in Napier 1871, when Kereopa Te Rau defied his lawyer and took to the floor to try and explain his journey. It was a calculated risk.


As always when I do a talk I write across the top of the paper BREATHE.

I have to remember to keep taking breaths consciously. Otherwise my fear of public speaking overwhelms me and unconsciously I start taking short panicky breaths. It tends to be self fulfilling, as when in this state, I end up with no control of my voice and I can sound both frightened and whiney. Awful.

Hence my memo to myself. The most obvious thing in the world. Breathe.


And I have to remember what it was like for Kereopa Te Rau to speak to a room largely full of Pakeha, when he knew his life was hanging on a very slender thread. He spoke te reo and it seems a shame to me none of the journalists talked of the timbre of his voice.

At certain times this short man (5'3" - 9 stone) had been extraordinarily charismatic and had held large numbers of people in his thrall.

But finally when it mattered most - on trial for his life - he could not 'read' the audience he was talking to and his words have a strange muted vagueness to them, as if he were trying to lay a pattern very imprecisely over another pattern that he could not read - British justice, I suppose you would call it.

What Colenso called, aptly, 'a shadowy phantom' thing.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Launch of 'Journey to a Hanging' with associated media links

Chandalier at the Old Church, Meanee. All pix David Frost MTG Hawke's Bay.

Well, on Monday night, Journey to a Hanging was well and truly launched at the Old Church
Restaurant Meeanee. MTG Hawke's Bay assisted brilliantly with the launch, with staff members 
generously donating their time and energy to give the occasion a really warm atmosphere. 

I've put the talk I gave below, so you can see how I conceptualised the book
at its public birth, among friends and followers.

I was also fortunate to do some media for the book. (I'll enclose the links below.) One was a lively and
energetic interview with Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon, National Radio - Kathryn seemed very 
involved with the subject, which was great. 

The other more surprising interview was for Te Kaea, the News on Maori TV. They had sent a crew 
to the book launch and did an on the spot interview afterwards. I was amazed - and gratified - to see it 
occupying about five minutes on Maori TV news last night - 8 July '14 - where it was treated seriously - and with really close
with interest. 

The other in-depth interview I did was with Hawke's Bay TV. This is harder to find for people out of 
the region, but will eventually be on Youtube.

So here is my launch speech.

"It seems especially fitting we're standing here in the body of the church that was once Sister Mary 
Joseph Aubert's.

It was from this church that Sister Aubert set out on a Thursday afternoon of January 4th 1872 and
 began her walk in to Napier, to go and visit Kereopa Te Rau on the hill in Napier Prison.

He was to be hanged on the Friday and it was her wish to go and comfort the condemned man. 

But we need to backtrack here, to fill in the back story.

Kereopa Te Rau was charged with the murder of the Anglican missionary with the strange Germanic 
name of Carl Sylvius Volkner.

The murder happened in March 1865 at Opotiki - and it was an especially grisly murder, especially 
for a traditionally tapu person - a man of God. 

Volkner was first rather amateurishly hanged, then when dead, beheaded and his head was passed 
into his own church where Kereopa Te Rau ate his eyes and drank his blood. His head was then 
mummified - turned into a moko mokai.

Ever since then Kereopa Te Rau had been on the run, fighting battles, then fading into the 
Urewera mists.

By 1871 Tuhoe were ready to sign a peace pact with the Crown. They could no longer withstand 
the battering they were receiving from kupapa and colonial troops.

Part of this was an agreement to hand over Kereopa who had a 1000 pound bounty on his head.

Kereopa was captured and marched to Wairoa, then put on a boat to Napier.

The news spread around NZ - and around the world - the notorious eye eater - Kaiwhatu - was 
captured at last and being brought to justice.

On Sunday 26 November 1871 the entire population of Napier waited on the wharves to see Kereopa.
He was kept below on the orders of JD Ormand and Sir Donald McLean.
Eventually - disappointed - the crowd dispersed.

The following morning Ropata Wahawaha -a Ngati Porou warrior who had once been a slave - 
brought Kereopa into town.

He insisted on a triumphant march - a king brought in chains - so he marched Kereopa along 
Waghorne Street, up along Shakespeare Road - then he got to Coote Road.
This led directly to the prison.

But no, Ropata wanted a triumph - he had been hunting Kereopa for many years in terribly 
challenging conditions - so down Shakespeare Road they marched, a brilliant Pai Marire banner in 
scarlet silk and white fluttering in the breeze, - they marched past the Govt Builidngs where 
Kereopa would be tried on the corner of Shakespeare and Hastings Street - they marched along 
Hastings Street - and only then along the Parade to the corner of Coote Road.

There Kereopa was handed over to Pakeha control.

He was marched up that steep incline to the prison.

But just as he entered the prison, he dropped a cut throat razor on the ground - and with bound hands
 - grabbed it QUICK AS THOUGHT as a newspaper put it- and slashed his throat open.
Blood was everywhere. 

The three doctors of Napier were all called.
Dr Spenser, the brilliant military doctor - famous for sewing up limbs - was first on the spot. 
He sewed up Kereopa's throat - he had just missed the jugular - and brandy was administered.

Kereopa was taken to a wooden cell, placed in their alongside two Pakeha prisoners and chained to 
the wall.

And there Kereopa stayed, through his trial on Friday 22 Dec 1871  when he was found guilty of murder 
and sentenced to death.

There he stayed through Xmas and New Year -

hearing the sound of the waves which are so clear and audible up in the prison still

hearing the band music played by the military bands

hearing the jollity and drunkenness hymns and silences

till he heard the sound of a nail being driven hard into wood
and he realised the gallows were being constructed

he was to be the first man hanged in Hawke's Bay.

At this time, when everyone local rejoiced in his capture and eagerly looked forward to his death 
one man 
one man alone in the whole of NZ stood forth to defend him

that man was the remarkable William Colenso
Colenso speedily wrote a defence published in the Hawke's Bay Herald over three days calling for
he didn't argue whether Kereopa was guilty or not

he just said the enormous killings and vast confiscations which had happened in the Bay of Plenty as 
utu for Volkner's killing had surely sated the desire for revenge

to be merciful is to be strong, he said 
to be merciful is to be Christian
he went to comfort Kereopa in his cell

and now walking in from Meeanee we have Sister Mary Joseph Aubert who had finished helping 
entertain the Catholic children of Napier who came out on drays for a special Christmas picnic 

she took her bible and her beads and began walking into town

so here we have
two of the most remarkable people alive in colonial NZ
two people walking to Napier prison to comfort Kereopa in his last hours

- what happens during those last hours, ….well, you have to buy my book and see….

but let me end by saying- inside the body of this one time church
which is like being inside the whale of our shared past

this book is about New Zealand, about Hawke's Bay, about the past, about the ancestors of 
some of the people who today stand in this room - 

it is about the present and the way we understand AND misunderstand the past

how we come to terms with our past - in this case a most painful episode in our short combined history -

an episode in which a missionary was killed and then a Maori prophet and warrior -

events that galvanised and divided NZ in its own town, 
echoes of which travel right up to this very present day 

it is only a month or so since the Crown issued pardon - in the sense of forgiveness - 
to Kereopa Te Rau for his implication in the murder

so we live among its echoes 
since the Crown pardoned Kereopa Te Rau two months ago - 
pardoned in the sense he was forgiven 

but in the book I talk of 
walking at night without stars

and I used this term to describe the German migrant who came to NZ and had to try and 
comprehend not only Maori culture but English culture - 
both were foreign to him so he was travelling at night without the guidance of stars

whereas Kereopa Te Rau was travelling in his own country but guided by a completely new religion 
which believed in talking in tongues, which believed that moko mokai - shrunken heads - could 
prophecy the future, a completely new religion made up on the spot

so he was walking at night too without the guidance of stars

just as i felt, writing this book,
being pulled in different directions at different times
but also trying to be empathetic
without being conned into a false sympathy

so in the three years I spent writing the book
I travelled far and wide and looked at everything I could find out about these events and 
the people who were its main characters -

and this was what i came up with in the end

there are many paths to understanding

there are many ways to see the same thing
other people might and will see things differently
and this book is a single writer's honest attempt to make his own path towards understanding -

so all in all
though this represents a book with pages and pictures, and facts, and thoughts, and intuitions 
and I hope insights

in the end this is all it amounts to 

there are many paths to understanding 

and this book is one of them.

Kathryn Ryan interview on Nine to Noon, National Radio

See below for Te Kaea, News on Maori Television 8 July 2014.


Latest episode. Te Kāea. Originally aired on Tuesday 8 July 2014. News programme with local, national and ...


Monday, June 30, 2014

Hook, line and sinker

It was Janet Malcolm, the remarkable nonfiction author, who questioned the gullible relationship between a person being interviewed and the journalist. The journalist will use his or her wiles to pretend to be the interviewee's friend, in order to find out what the journalist wants to know. Then they ruthlessly use whatever  sentences they want, discarding the rest, to build their own 'story'. There is no objectivity, and indeed Malcolm says objectivity can, at best, be a rhetorical device (a pretence).  

It is up to a journalist to balance ethics, credibility and a sense of the true story.

I say all this in reference to a ground breaking article that appeared in Saturday's NZ Herald a fortnight ago (21/06/14). 

This was partially - very partially based - on an interview I had with Herald journalist Andrew Stone. 

The fact is I had in effect created the news story, which broke the news that Kereopa Te Rau had been pardoned. 

I had contacted Linda Herrick, book editor of the Herald, asking if the Herald was doing anything on 'Journey to a Hanging' whose arrival in book shops was imminent. She told me she had passed the book onto Andrew Stone, a news journalist at the Herald.

I appreciated the fact the book was moving from the book pages to news, so I contacted him by email on 13 June 2014: I told him my book was coming out soon and this was the 'hook' I dangled.

I wondered about  - how do you write about a sore spot in the national psyche in minefield of 'The Age of Apology'.

On one hand you have horrors, like eating eyeballs, turning a missionary into a moko mokai and a show trial and a retributive hanging of the man held responsible - and on the other you have a contemporary sensibility which is couched in 'saying sorry' for the mistakes of the past.

It's a dynamite field to occupy and writing the book gave me sleepless nights...The subject area was gruesome...the iwi weren't playing ball and The Office of Treaty Settlements rang me up and asked me to stop blogging about a pardon for Kereopa Te Rau as it was so controversial...

How do you juggle all these contemporary and historical factors - iwi sensibility, your sense of the importance of following your own path...and making a call. Or would it be an easier ride not to make a call and just 'say sorry'.

This was followed up two days later by a further email from me.

I think I left out the most interesting detail.

In early April 2014 Kereopa Te Rau received a pardon from the Crown but this fact received no publicity at all that I know of.

It was carefully buried within the Ngati Rangiwewehi Claims Settlement Bill.

My question is: what is a pardon worth if nobody knows anything about it?

The silence seems to underline the fact the event still has potentially explosive echoes in the present. 

Or is it 'just unimportant'?

What I was implying here was that the silence that surrounded the Crown pardon of Kereopa Te Rau - now two months old - was not accidental. 

It had not become public because the feelings round it were still raw and Kereopa's iwi - and Crown - did not know how it would play out in public. 

I called it a 'pardon by stealth' and questioned its real value, given the silence which surrounded it.

Stone contacted me:
Hi Peter

We’ve got your book. I’ve had a peek. It’s terrific. Can I call you abt it, in the next day or so? By the way the pardon of  Kereopa passed under the radar. So does that make it two pardons for Carl Sylvius? And if they didn’t do it, then who did?

Andrew Stone

He arranged to call me at 3pm on Wednesday 18th June. He said he would do an article for the coming Saturday. When I demurred, hoping it could come out when the book was actually in the bookshops (4 July) - my side of the quid pro quo - he said he 'was going away on holiday'. 

So it was this Saturday or never.

He rang me on the Wednesday a little late and we talked for over 45 minutes. He said, inter alia, he had spoken with Mrs Te Rangikaheke Bidois (he struggled to pronounce her name) - iwi spokesperson for Ngati Rangiwewehi (Kereopa's iwi) and she said, she was 'just wondering as she drove along that morning about the fact there had been no publicity about the pardon'.

I gathered by the end of the conversation he had read my book (not 'peeked' as he said in his email.) Towards the end of the conversation he called the book 'a terrific read' and he seemed to be full of praise. Perhaps I in my turn was being gullible…

He questioned me on many different things and I answered to the best of my ability. 

I was very aware of being cautious in my utterances, and even-handed. But we did, in the end, get down to tin tacks and I explained to him that - to the best of my knowledge - Kereopa Te Rau had acknowledged responsibility for the killing of CS Volkner, although he did not literally hang CS Volkner.  

I also explained that my understanding of the pardon was not that it implied Kereopa Te Rau's innocence - rather that the pardon was an act of forgiveness - an attempt to heal the wounds of the past.

This points to the ambiguous position of the Treaty processes which have to be both a truth and reconciliation mission - yet the fact is these two aspects - truth - historical truth - and reconciliation are not always mutually compatible. 

Reconciliation points towards apology and the embrace of empathy. Truth points in a harsher, pricklier direction - what actually happened when and in its true sequence.


I opened the Saturday Herald with some anticipation - but also trepidation. Soon enough, as I sped-read the article, I felt the familiar sense of being betrayed. The article seemed to bear no relationship to the private conversation I had had with Stone. While he had seemed enthusiastic about my book in conversation , in print it was introduced as an 'also ran' - 'For author and film maker Peter Wells, the Crown's pardon came too late to be included in his new book'… Moreover it became clear from the way the entire case was being presented he had swallowed hook line and sinker the ahistorical Treaty and iwi presentation of Kereopa Te Rau's case.

Don't get me wrong. I think there were many wrong things in the December 1871 trial of Kereopa Te Rau in Napier. But the case for Kereopa's 'innocence', as outlined in the Herald, was a muddled mixture of conjecture and post hoc conclusions.

'Kereopa arrived in the Bay of Plenty with a heavy heart and possible revenge on his mind. The year before his wife and two daughters died near Te Awamutu after British troops burned a whare where missionaries told the family they were safe. The next day, in another Waikato siege, Kereopa's sister was killed.'

This story is terrible. The only problem - and it is an enormous one - is that Kereopa Te Rau never once attributed this as a source of his actions.  (He never once mentioned it.) Even when he was on trial for murder - and he decided to take the stand and defend himself - he never mentioned what would have been a very clear vindication of his actions. 

What are we to make of this? That he was a warrior and disdained to mention personal feelings? Or is it significant that this story only emerged many years after he died. 
It never came from his own lips. It was never talked about at the time. It may have been a deep and private hurt. But as for it being a motivation - we need more evidence of such a terrible event. 

What for example are the names of his wife and two daughters? Even in the Treaty document they remain unnamed. I know all my ancestors who were alive in 1865, I know their names and birthplace. It is not that long ago, after all, in terms of family memory. 

These are small but significant details. I want to be persuaded with fact. 

The second inconsistency follows soon after (and their arrangement has a nice tidy mathematical quality.) 'Volkner had sent Governor Grey a plan of the pa where the family burned to death.' Earlier Stone said 'the churchman was viewed with deep suspicion because he had come to be seen as a Government spy.'

Both these statements are drawing post hoc conclusions which bear little relationship to how people saw things at the time. In 1975 - a century after the killing - an Auckland University historian Paul Clark made a discovery. CS Volkner had sent letters to Governor Grey outlining Whakatohea's suspectability to joining in the war with Waikato. He did send a plan of a pa of Rangiaowhia as given to him by a kupapa - a friendly Maori. It was inside this pa that the alleged burning to death took place.

People ever since have drawn direct lines between the existence of these letters and used them as an excuse for CS Volkner's killing. It lends a kind of primitive justice to an otherwise inexplicably violent act. CS Volkner was discovered to be a spy and was killed as a response to this discovery.

The only problem with this is again - evidence. In the runanga the night before CS Volkner was killed, there was effectively a long night's discussion on whether or not to kill Volkner. Not once was spying ever mentioned as a motive. The burning to death at Rangiaowhia and the pa plan certainly never featured. 

In fact the discussion was really about which god was most powerful - the new Pai Marire religion, with its ability to consume an entire tribe in a sort of Game of Thrones magic fire - or the older Anglican/Christian God which was now yoked to the British army? Which one would reign supreme?

The priest arbitrating this dispute or discussion was Kereopa Te Rau, who presented himself as an awesome fiery figure full of magic powers and divination. Whakatohea wanted to present the other Anglican missionary present - TS Grace -as a sacrifice. He was, after all, not 'their own' missionary. But as a test - to prove their bowing before the awesome power of the new god - Kereopa Te Rau insisted Whakatohea hand over 'their own' missionary - C.S. Volkner.

So at the very least Kereopa Te Rau was the person insisting on the sacrifice of CS Volkner.

A complication is that Kereopa did not  actually join the hanging party. He says he stayed inside Hiona, Volkner's church. So although he may have inspired the sacrifice and took part in the ceremonies around the beheaded head, plucking out its eyes, he did not literally haul CS Volkner up on the rope. 

But when Volkner's head was either passed to him or thrown in the window, wrapped in cotton or linen, he then extracted the eyes and ceremonially drank Volkner's blood and asked or demanded that the congregation do likewise.

Stone says Maori buried Volkner but it was in fact British sailors along with friendly Maori who dug Volkner's grave and quickly buried him, the sailors carving a simple wooden plaque. 

All this may seem pinpricking detail. But these small indirections or inconsistencies build up to present an essentially false picture. 

So what does it all mean?

It means the headline 'Pardoned at last: Chief cleared of 1865 Murder' is not literally true. My understanding - from the Treaty office - was that the pardon was by way of forgiveness - an act of understanding and empathy. The article tries to assert that Kereopa Te Rau did not eat Volkner's eyes  - it becomes 'the claim that Kereopa had removed Volkner's eyes with his fingers and eaten them'. This is absurd. There were so many eye witnesses and he himself admitted it to various people, including Suzanne Aubert.

In fact he believed the eye eating was the act that so inflamed public opinion against him - rather than the death of CS Volkner overall. He also said that he knew the eye-eating would have fateful consequences when he almost choked on one of Volkner's pale grey blue eyes.


I suppose my big picture feelings are these: it is apt to forgive Kereopa Te Rau and his actions. He did not have a fair trial in 1871. He was acting within his understanding of the time. I believe he should be pardoned.

But I also feel this as strongly, in terms of natural justice. Maori believe it is very important to return moko mokai (shrunken heads) to their whanau. The government has spent much money on groups of Maori travelling to overseas museums to bring back these heads, which are then granted the grace of a proper burial.

Kereopa Te Rau left Opotiki with the head of CS Volkner. Regardless of whether he actually killed Volkner or not he regarded Volkner's head as his own trophy. He saw the head as a godhead (since Pai Marire believed that shrunken heads had a sort of divine power and that voices and thoughts came out of them.)

In other words CS Volkner's head was last seen in Kereopa's hands.

I believe it is the other half of the settling of the wounds of the past that Kereopa Te Rau's iwi regard it as a responsibility that they locate and return the moko mokai to the remains of Volkner's body at Opotiki.

Then justice is done, justice is seen to be done. All sides can rest easy and a natural balance of justice is restored.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The events that set NZ race relations back by a century....

Shameless self promotion, I agree but it does look a bit of a bobbie-dazzler and it is the first time an ebook has been available at the same time.

In my next blog I will write about Kereopa Te Rau's Pardon by the Crown, which finally emerged in public due to
an action by me.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A voyage into an Antipodean Heart of Darkness

I'm at that exciting stage where the book - the actual physical thing - is on the horizon. (It arrives in NZ any day from China where it was printed, packaged and shipped in one of those inscrutable container ships you see in harbours all round the world.)

The book will be launched on Monday 7 July 2014 at the Old Church Restaurant, Meanee.

This building was where Suzanne Aubert set out, on foot, to walk into Napier to see if she could 'fan the flames' of religion - specifically Catholicism - in the inscrutable heart of Kereopa Te Rau in January 1872.

He had been found guilty of murdering the missionary C.S.Volkner and was sentenced to hang.

This is the emotional heart of the new book - the dramatic and terrible events over the final few days.

The Church, as Aubert knew it, was simpler than this rather fancy building that was extended in the 1890s (I think) then extensively remodelled into a smart restaurant.

I always find it slightly strange to be in a church that has changed its usage so markedly. Especially when you consider the rites of 'take, eat, this is my blood' (communion wine) and 'take, eat, this is my body' (communion wafers) are concerned with a kind of sacred food that represents the physical body of Christ.

This has an added resonance when you remember that Kereopa Te Rau's big sin, as far as the newspapers were concerned, was that he was 'a cannibal' who had 'eaten' C.S.Volkner.

Today the Church is a rather merry restaurant which has, however, various items associated with Suzanne Aubert.
(And if she is made New Zealand's first Catholic saint, which is only a matter of time, the Church will be a favourite stopping off point for pilgrims...)

Regardless, I'm hoping having the launch in a building associated with the historical events portrayed in the book will have some resonance.

(In terms of places which still exist from the time of the story I am telling it was either at the Church or the colonial Napier Prison, pictured below.)

It seemed too forlorn for words to hold something as hopeful as a launch in a prison.

A prison is full of ghosts....I sometimes wonder if Kereopa Te Rau lay in his cell looking out a window like this.
The bars seem terrible.

If you want a clear idea of what the book is about (or at least how it is being packaged) have a look at this tagline below. It basically says what is on the back page of the book.

It is indeed a voyage into an antipodean heart of darkness.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Fact & Fiction

Still by Virginia Ginn from the 1983 film Utu

 This photo is in my new book Journey to a Hanging.

It relates to a key New Zealand film, Utu.

Why is a film-still in a history book?

Wasn't the film a fictional drama and isn't my book a factual history?

Yes and yes and no and no is the improbable answer.

The still relates to a highly dramatic moment in the fictional drama of Utu. (The film is about the experiences of an imaginary Maori warrior called 'Te Wheke'.) Te Wheke in the drama has just experienced the slaughter of his wife and family by British soldiers. This horrific experience becomes the source of a burning desire for utu - revenge - on Te Wheke's part. (A little like Russell Crowe in 'The Gladiator' - the slaughter of the gladiator's wife and children by Roman soldiers turns the gladiotor against the whole Roman Empire.)

(See the promo for Utu here which explains Te Weke's motivation in a very direct way.

Te Wheke's first act of revenge leads him to a church. A Protestant minister - with a beard curiously like CS Volkner - is preaching. The director and writers of the film had a standard 1970s anti-establishment view of religion so the minister is seen as ugly, vengeful and hypocritical. Te Wheke takes the church by surprise. He kills the minister - shoots him dead. But it is the next scene that interests us.

This shows him at the pulpit of the church, holding the beheaded head of the Protestant minister. He rages against British colonialism. And the head is brandished about as a talisman.

This is, of course, a precis of what Kereopa Te Rau was said to have done with CS Volkner's head at Opotiki, inside the Anglican Church, on 2 March 1865. 

This shows how deeply implanted the killing was in the New Zealand psyche, even as late as 1983. Utu's writers, rummaging round in that deep dark bloodied sack of New Zealand's history, found a key moment. 

They used it in their drama to mark a progression in Te Wheke's character. He reaches a point of no-return. From now on, it will be war to the death.

The killing of a minister, but even more so, the showy symbolism of holding the minister's head in his hands, inside a Christian church, at the very pulpit in which the voice of the Christian God is meant to speak, was an act of rebellion. 

In many ways it was a moment of brilliant theatre.

All around the world people gasped. 

But there is something which doesn't happen in the Utu film, and this is what interests me. 

Or rather there was something else actually filmed but it was edited out of the film. During the filming, Te Wheke also swallows the Protestant minister's eyes. 

This of course is simply following the historical narrative of Kereopa Te Rau eating the eyes of CS Volkner, accompanying the act with a symbolic statement. (This statement varied, according to listeners, from being specifically about one eye representing Queen Victoria and the other eye, the colonial or London Parliament - to Kereopa Te Rau raging against the disappearance of Maori control of their land and destiny.) 

At his trial for murder in 1871, Kereopa Te Rau asserted he said nothing of any import. 

In fact during his trial he denied eating the eyes at all.

He said he only ' pretended to'. This was in part an astute assessment of the degree to which the eye-eating actually fueled the anger against him - the disgust. He believed it was the eye eating that led to his being found guilty of murder (rather than, say, the literal hanging of CS Volkner for which he was actually charged. There was no separate law against eye-eating in the British statute books - for perhaps obvious reasons.)

Regardless, during the editing of Utu, the eye-eating was dropped.


Because test audiences, or the director and his editor, decided it made Te Wheke 'too unsympathetic' to contemporary audiences. 

(This is all based on a relatively recent interview with Anzac Wallace who acted the Te Wheke role. The interview came out last year when the redigitised version of Utu Redux was released to new and appreciative audiences.)

This interests me. If eye-eating is still 'unsympathetic' as late as 1983 - when in fact many codes to do with sexuality, behaviour, drugs, life style - were being broken down - it seems to infer that eye-eating, in an earlier age when codes of behaviour were so much more prohibitively strict - was even more outrageous. 

So while today there is a determined attempt to remove the stain of 'Kaiwhatu' - 'the Eye eater' nickname that Kereopa Te Rau wore during the 19th and much of the 20th century - the fact remains that this symbolic act which Kereopa Te Rau is associated with does have a continued power. 

I understand entirely the action of whanau sympathetic to Kereopa Te Rau who wish to see his life in a broader context. The eye-eating was one pivotal moment in a much longer life. It also had precedents, as I discussed in my last blog, in pre-European Maori culture. It had an entirely legitimate meaning in terms of this pre-Pakeha Maori culture. 

The question relates really to timing. Are acts which are culturally acceptable in one period culturally unacceptable in another?

Look at hanging in European culture. It was totally accepted as a form of punishment - for quite minor crimes at times - right up until late in the 20th century. Homosexuality is another case. Right up until comparatively recently, homosexuality was criminalised and deeply stigmatised in many cultures.

But cultures tend to be restlessly developing entities. What is acceptable at one point suddenly becomes reprehensible and even repulsive in another. Eye eating in Maori culture, in the 1820s  was quite acceptable, as was ceremonial cannibalism and slavery. But by the 1860s, we are entering - globally- another world. Slavery has been banished in the British Empire since the 1820s, although slavery inside the Maori world continued on for much longer. 

So was Kereopa Te Rau caught out, enacting a symbolic gesture the morality of which time had eroded and hollowed out and changed forever?

Perhaps. In the heat of the moment, it seemed a brilliantly symbolic act. His wife and two daughters were said to have been burnt to death by British soldiers earlier, so he effectively had a motive. 

The only problem here is that Kereopa Te Rau stoutly refused to accept this as a motive for his actions, even in his final letters to the world in the days before his death.

It is a very complicated story, as all human actions are, which take place at one particular moment but have to be understood in the longer context of someone's life, and changes in the way we view behaviour.

But the above still from the film interests me greatly, for what it says about how CS Volkner's death remained as a enduring symbol in the minds of New Zealanders - a grand guignol nightmare. But the still is also interesting in that the eye-eating, filmed at the time, and which Anzac Wallace said was disgusting to do, was edited out.

The symbolic removal of the eye-eating points to how some things need to be left out of a story, if you want to make your character sympathetic. If you want audiences to identify with your journey.

This relates to the contemporary attempt to rehabilitate Kereopa Te Rau and give his life a broader meaning than the one spectacularly gory act.

Unfortunately people tend to be seen in haiku form - compressed, all their changeable brilliance and various acts condensed into a single hieroglyph which often is even shortened further into good or bad.

At the moment the Office of Treaty Settlements and the Parliament of New Zealand have decided that Kereopa Te Rau should be officially pardoned. Surprisingly this became law on 9 April 2014 and got the royal assent on 16 April 2014. (I say surprising as I do not recall seeing a single mention of this extraordinarily historical act anywhere in the media.)

Part of this pardon is a kind of symbolic deleting of this act which is not even mentioned in the act.

So just as in the editing of Utu a too painful, too negatively constructed act, is removed from sight, so Kereopa Te Rau is remodelled for future time with a controversial act, not exactly removed, but certainly dampened down and tamped down so it no longer defines him. 

In fact that is the nature of air brushing in contemporary history, the blemish is removed completely.

Kereopa Te Rau is 'The Eye Eater' no more. He is just another victim of colonialism.

Whether this is strictly speaking, historically accurate, is another question. But few people today would accuse the Office of Treaty Settlements of historical accuracy.

Rather history is bent to the purposes of the state.  People are cleansed of past mistakes and presented to the future as idealised portraits.

To me this is understandable, in some senses, as a way of dampening down a century and a half of stigmatising and pain for Kereopa Te Rau's whanau and iwi. Whether it is being true to the core question inside history - what happened, why, when and how - is another question entirely.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Saints & Devils.

                                   Caption from 'Journey to a Hanging'.

I thought I'd talk about a few of the illustrations in my book Journey to a Hanging. I always love placing pictures inside books. It is where the film-maker in me comes out. And in my last book I worked out a way of illustrating which was a mixture of my contemporary photos and historical images. They seem to go together well and illustrate the double focus of my writing - a contemporary take on the past.

Here though I thought I'd talk about an historical image which intrigued me.

Discovering the photo in the Auckland Museum Library records.

This is a photo of CS Volkner which was taken by his close friend John Kinder. Kinder was a well educated man who spoke German. (In the 19th century Germany was seen as the land of Goethe, of advanced educational reform, of civilisation. At Kinder's house, which still exists at the top of Ayr Street Parnell, behind the Auckland Museum, CS Volkner and Kinder could relax, speaking in German, ranging over many topics.) 

But Kinder, as well as a teacher at Auckland Grammar was also a very talented watercolorist and, in his spare time, a photographer.

The door at Kinder House where Kinder took many photographs. It faced into the sun so had good light.
This was an exacting art and he practiced taking photographs of friends and family. He supplied some of the images of CS Volkner which were used over and over again, after CS Volkner's terrible death. But among his papers was a less familiar photograph. When I found it, looking through papers at the Auckland Museum, I felt a tremendous sense of excitement. This was partly because it dislodged the over-familiar images. 

But it was more than that. It seemed informal, and psychologically acute. Unusually in 19th century photography, it was a close up. But Carl Sylvius appears to be looking deep into the camera - almost as if he is staring into the future which he will soon vacate. His expression is ambiguous. You can sense his good looks - his hair colour was described as corn-yellow, his eyes were that greyish-blue colour - so his colouring was Germanic - one hesitates to say Aryan, because the much later Nazi appropriation of this type of colouring. But his features are regular and comely. He was in his early 40s.

(This photograph was probably not often used because of defects on the surface of the photo, the small blotches of black which might indicate some failure during the development process. But this 'failure' goes along with a great sense of reality, informality, insight.)

CS Volkner's hand is also in the shot, clasped. He stares into the camera and sees - what? Doubt? Uncertainty? Or is it certainty that he displays, that 'too firm' principle that a fellow German missionary, Kissling, said he would lose in time, as he got older and more experienced? But of course we know he had no time ahead of him. Or only a little. 

So this living portrait is a momento mori (a memory or harbinger of death) - just as photography itself is meant to be, according to Susan Sontag, an expression of the swift passing of time, essentially celebrating and marking the motion of present into the past - or passed.

I have to confess something further. When I see this picture of CS Volkner's head something in me takes a horrible step sideways, into the grotesque. This is a very difficult and potentially explosive area to examine. But this is to imagine what 
CS Volkner's head actually looked like when it was made into a moko mokai by the Pai Marire in Opotiki on 2 March 1865.

What is a moko mokai? It is a human head smoked, its eyes removed, its brains sucked out. The head was then boiled and the flesh smoothed out. Straw was often stuck up the nose to ensure the nasal cavity was kept straight. At times the lips were stitched together but often the lips were parted to reveal, horrifically, the state of the dental work of the human. At times this gives the shrunken head the appearance of a fiendish grin.

I have to admit I find even writing this turns my stomach. I am a person who looks away from the television screen when they show operations or internal medical explorations. I dislike blood and gore. 

Audiovisual at Rotorua Museum. 1 minutes 23 seconds to explain cannibalism in Maori society.

But there was of course another layering to this seemingly barbaric custom. Within Maori culture, moko mokai had a ceremonial or ritualistic place. It was not simply an expression of cannibalism (the eating of body parts) but was an expression of wairua and power. 

By eating somebody you consumed their mana, you overpowered their life essence, and, in a parallel act, you defamed them forever by shitting out their remains. 

That this occurred as late as 1865 - a time of railways and global travel - of chloroform and corsets  - indicates something about this act. It was 'out of time' , looked backwards to an earlier time when the eating of humans was a constant in Maori culture. (After all Christianity in the East Cape of the North Island had a name that literally translated into 'the instrument that removed human flesh from our teeth.') 

It was part of the turmoil of the land wars of the 1860s that a Christian/Anglican minister was selected for a return to ancient, pre-Christian customs.

So CS Volkner was hanged, then beheaded somewhat crudely, then his head was turned into a moko mokai by elders who still clearly remembered the customs which had only really stopped 35 years before. (So imagine for yourself something you did 35 years ago, like perhaps using a dial telephone. You would still instinctively be able to do this today.)

His eyes were removed and later swallowed by Kereopa Te Rau in CS Volkner's church. This was again done in a ceremonial manner, though nobody can agree on what Kereopa Te Rau actually said. (And he himself tried to deny that he had actually eaten the eyes at his trial in Napier in 1871. He said he only 'pretended' to eat them and he denied saying anything of any importance.)

There was something astonishingly appalling about the beheading. It fed directly into the 19th century taste for the grotesque. (Captain Morris Levy who was present during the killing, though possibly not seeing the actual hanging and beheading, asked to look at the head, to see it with his own eyes, soon after the moko mokai of CS Volkner was completed. There was something about 'seeing is believing' here.)

CS Volkner's death exploded into the newspapers in Auckland, then Sydney, then by telegraph and later reports all around the world. It was a scandal, a shock-horror episode and bizarrely 'amusing' case of a missionary being 'eaten' by the tribe who were supposed to be being converted by him. Burlesque poems followed, along with punning headlines - and calls for revenge. 

Lost in all this was one person: CS Volkner. He became a holy victim who swiftly became a saint.

And also lost in all this was Kereopa Te Rau, the man who swallowed CS Volkner's eyes. He became 'a devil'.

So that in essence is the trajectory of my story. The story of a 'saint' and a 'devil'. 

It is also, in that double focus, the story of how we see those terms today.

But for me, this intimate photograph of CS Volkner is important, as it reveals the human.

We have to find the human, to unlock the real story.