Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy has come under criticism for repeating an old wives’ tale about women and children being burnt to death in a church during the New Zealand Wars.
She made the comments in an opinion piece published earlier this month.
In the article, she referred to students from Otorohanga College asking about events during the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s, particularly in the Waikato village of Rangiaowhia.
She goes on to say the students ‘were shocked to find out 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.”
Tauranga resident Chris Lee, who happens to have an interest in the wars and is familiar with the historiography, took issue with the remark.
He made a complaint to the Human Rights Commission, arguing Dame Susan’s repetition of false information about the wars might, ironically, cause racial disharmony.
He included evidence from the April 6, 1864 edition of the New Zealand Herald, which describes both churches at Rangiaowhia still standing mere weeks after the attack on the village.
He hoped Dame Susan, in light of this written evidence, would retract her statement and set the record straight.
However, the HRC, in their official reply, informed Chris the commissioner would not be retracting her statement.
“History is often contentious and debatable. There are many historical sources, including accounts from Waikato-Tainui and the NZ History website, which give different accounts from your sources as to what happened in Rangiaowhia in 1864.”
Chris has been given the opportunity to lodge a complaint with the Human Rights Review Tribunal, but since they can award costs, he doesn’t think it’s worth the risk.
Mostly, he’s frustrated one version of history, with virtually no substantial supporting evidence, is being favoured by a government body over sources such as newspaper reports and diary entries.
“Certainly I think Dame Susan has an agenda which almost seems like she’s become a protagonist for the Maori side,” says Chris.
Stuart Strang also contacted SunLive about Dame Susan’s comments. Like Chris, he has read extensively on the history of the New Zealand Wars, and knows the written evidence contradicts the sensational story of the church burning.
“A race relations commissioner should have a look at all the facts before she goes to print,” says Stuart.
SunLive contacted Dame Susan for a comment, pointing out that while a whare containing about seven armed Maori was certainly burnt down with the occupants inside, such an incident is far removed from the story of a church full of women and children being set alight.
She says she has recently been told the women and children were not burned to death in a church at Rangiaowhia, but in another kind of building.
“I was told by several people that they were burned to death in a place of worship and this is what I have reflected upon recently in my opinion piece. If this was wrong then I will acknowledge and amend my opinion piece in due course: happy to do so. Admitting when we get things wrong isn’t a bad thing.
“But it doesn’t change the fact that women and children were burned to death, murdered by Crown soldiers in an atrocity that in 2017 would be investigated as a war crime. We owe those young people who launched the petition a debt for helping to highlight our history."
“I applaud SunLive’s debate about our country’s history – it’s good to talk more about our past. I don’t agree that my korero worsens race relations, far from it. The more we talk about and reflect about what happened in the past the better we are for it.”
"The more New Zealanders know about what went on at places like Rangiaowhia and Gate Pa, the better.”
The Invasion of Rangiaowhia: A Brief Summary
During the Waikato War of 1863-64, Kingite (Maori) forces were steadily driven south by Crown troops under the command of Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron. In November 1863 Kingite forces suffered a defeat at Rangiriri which resulted in around 220 of their troops being captured or killed. The loss severely affected their ability to wage war, and they lost large swathes of land in the subsequent two months, including the Maori King’s capital at Ngaruawahia.
By late January of the following year, the Kingites had regrouped and constructed a line of fortified pa near Te Awamutu, dubbed the Paterangi Line. The fortifications defended the prosperous community of Rangiaowhia, which supplied food to the Kingite army and was an essential asset to the economy of the King Movement.
Cameron, however, did not attack the Paterangi Line; rather, he outflanked it, and on the morning of February 21 the village of Rangiaowhia was attacked.
Occupied chiefly by non-combatants, there were still armed Kingites in the vicinity, several of which took shelter in a whare. Several Crown soldiers were shot outside the entrance to whare, including the mortally-wounded Colonel Nixon. In response, the whare was likely set alight deliberately to snuff the occupants out (although reports at the time claim this was caused accidentally by shots fired into the whare by soldiers).
Some of the occupants tried to surrender, and were shot as they tried to leave. The rest died in the fire. A total of seven Maori bodies were found amongst the ruins of that particular whare.
Some Maori did take shelter in one of the churches; but Crown troops were ordered to leave them alone. It is easy to see, however, how these two separate aspects of the Rangiaowhia attack – the burning of the whare and the non-combatants sheltering the church – could have been conflated over the years, and transformed into the sensational, but false, story of the church burning.