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Response to Review of Dancing with the King: The Rise and Fall of the King Country, 1864-1885

Martin Fisher’s review of Dancing with the King demonstrates that New Zealand’s history of colonisation is still captured by a dichotomy of Crown versus Māori, where Maori seem inevitably portrayed as innocent victims and Europeans violent, unprincipled and heartless aggressors. Whereas New Zealand historians now rightly show a good deal of caution in describing levels of violence by Māori in the New Zealand Wars, accounts of violence against Māori are often treated without such professional restraint. Much of this history is an unfortunate by-product for what in New Zealand has been an essential and important attempt to resolve the ongoing injustices of New Zealand’s colonial past, and in many cases its postcolonial present. Fisher is highly critical of my interpretation of events which occurred at Rangioawhia on 21 February 1864, as part of the British Imperial Army’s invasion of the Waikato, remarking that the events have ‘commonly been referred to as an atrocity’. He describes what happened in this way:

Rangiaowhia was an unprotected village populated solely by women, children and the elderly when it was attacked by British imperial forces. The defenceless inhabitants sought refuge in a church, and after short volleys of fire from both sides the church was set alight. Those escaping the church were shot and those who remained inside were burnt to death.

Had Fisher’s description been accurate, I would have had no difficulty in describing these events as an atrocity as he does, because not only would they offend understandings of rules of engagement today, they would have been highly offensive to both Māori and European understandings of military conduct in 1864. The problem is that Fisher has not only got these events almost completely wrong, he has misrepresented his own source for them, dramatically amplifying the allegations against the invading forces.

In his 2016 article on negotiations to settle the Tainui claim, he describes the Tainui negotiators’ attempts to have recognition of ‘atrocities’ at Orakau and Rangiaowhia included in their settlement. The Crown negotiators refused to include them. These would have been events for which Queen Elizabeth would in 1995 apologise in the first major historical Treaty of Waitangi settlement.(1a) The killing of escaping and surrendering Māori defenders of Orakau (including women) is well documented and was publicly known soon after the events. While Tainui also remember the events at Rangiaowhia as an atrocity, only recently have historians begin to use the term in describing the attack on the village. Fisher’s claim that James Belich did so in his 1986 The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict is not correct. Belich only goes as far as saying that ‘Non-combatants may have been intentionally killed at Rangiaowhia, and some were certainly at the later engagement of Orakau …’ (emphasis added).(2a) After Fisher, Vincent O’Malley’s 2016 Great War for New Zealand provides the most sustained and detailed attempt to apply the term atrocity (in every sense) for the taking of Rangiaowhia.(3a)

Fisher’s description of the events at Rangiaowhia demonstrates the casualness with which claims against 19th-century Europeans can be made and remade in more dramatic form, without critically evaluating the original sources or even returning to them. His narrative of events originated in a letter by Bob Mahuta, the leader of the Tainui negotiators. In the heat of the settlement negotiations, some special pleadings are inevitable. However, Mahuta’s account is still far more accurate than Fisher’s retelling. Mahuta does not claim that the village was ‘unprotected’ as Fisher suggests. He wrote that it was ‘un-fortified’. There is a substantial difference between the two, for Rangiaowhia was certainly defended. Mahuta describes the village as a place where ‘a number of families were living’, while Fisher has it ‘populated solely by women, children and the elderly’. Rangiaowhia was not just a refuge it was the centre of a provisioning network and there were certainly armed men present. But even more important, Mahuta also accurately describes the place where a building caught fire and where seven Māori defenders were killed as being a whare (house) ‘near the Church’, not the Church. In Fisher’s reconstruction, imperial forces attacked the ‘defenceless inhabitants’ of an ‘unprotected village populated solely by women, children and the elderly’, who took refuge in a church. The troops set fire to the church, shot those attempting to leave and burnt the rest alive. This did not happen and no one before Fisher’s review of my book has ever claimed that it occurred that way.

Mahuta’s letter does make a number of statements that are either misleading or unable to be substantiated. He claims that the ‘people of the village’ took refuge in the whare, whereas the vast majority of the village’s inhabitants either escaped or took refuge in not one but two Māori churches, one Catholic, one Anglican. Far from being burnt down, the Catholic church was demolished in 1931 and the Anglican church still stands. Although there is evidence of an exchange of fire with Māori defenders from the Catholic church, not only were these places of refuge respected, but Cameron ordered that the men within the church should be allowed to retreat. Far from being undefended, there were sufficient armed men in the village, and at least two armed women, to be able to put up an effective resistance, particularly once seven of them had retreated to large whare. From the protection of an excavated floor, they were able to fire through the raupō (bullrush) walls at the attacking troops after refusing an offer to surrender. The defenders killed or mortally wounded five of the European attackers, including Colonel Marmaduke Nixon, the commanding officer of the advance force.

Mahuta neglected to mention these deaths, before continuing that ‘After a short volley of fire from both sides the whare were [sic] set alight. Those who came out to escape the flames were shot. Those who remained were burnt to death’. The story of the killing of one older man, who left the whare to surrender was recounted by a number of witnesses. He was shot while clearly unarmed and surrendering. The officers who recorded the event absolved themselves from blame, by claiming that their orders not to fire were disobeyed by men furious at the loss of their commander and companions. One account suggest two other men came out of the building firing and were cut down with volleys of fire from the troops. By this time, the whare was in flames and the remaining defenders died in the fire. Although there are conflicting accounts, the building was probably deliberately torched.

The official account of the engagement recorded 12 dead on the Māori side and five from the Imperial Force, casualties repeated by James Cowan in his 1922 account of the wars, and by James Belich in his 1986 book and still repeated today in Danny Keanan’s figures on Te Ara, the official New Zealand online encyclopaedia.(4a) These figures are clearly at odds with Mahuta’s final narrative, recounting a ‘heavy casualty suffered by the people including women and children as people evacuated en masse the village of Orakau as it was surrounded by 1100 soldiers’. This accusation was not manufactured for the purpose of negotiation, but represented a long held view that women and children were killed at Rangiaowhia, a view expressed soon after the battle itself and by no less reliable a source as Wiremu Tamihana, the intellectual and Christian leader of the Kīngitanga, who claimed ‘women and children fell there’.(5) But this accusation needs to be seen alongside his immediate report of the engagement to allies, which made no such claims, reporting on ‘six were killed in one place’ (which has to the whare) and that the ‘payment was eight, all officers’, an exaggerated reference to Nixon’s death and the other British dead.(6)

Nonetheless, the risk to women and children was very high and Cameron would have known this before the attack. With Maori firing at the invaders unseen from within the whare, troops returning fire indiscriminately and burning houses, the lack of civilian casualties would have been miraculous. However, in dramatic contrast to the killings of women and surrendering men at Orakau a few days later, none of the European participants is recorded as mentioned such deaths. William Mair, for instance, was at both battles and later recorded detailed and dramatic memories of soldiers bayonetting unarmed women, but was silent on Rangiaowhia.(7)

Vincent O’Malley, in his detailed and almost exhaustive account of the Waikato War, canvases the evidence on the battle in great detail. Like Fisher, in this Waikato centred approach, O’Malley has no difficulty in using the word atrocity. His book was published when mine was all but completed. However, O’Malley tends to go from detail to detail, dismissing few as implausible, but clearly suggesting that the most extreme accusations should be taken seriously even relied upon. Using evidence collected from James Cowan in the early 1920s, he collates all the statements accusing Bishop Selwyn of complicity in declaring Rangiaowhia a place of sanctuary and then riding with Cameron to attack it, taking every attempt to give them plausibility. Cowan did not repeat these accusations, while not holding back on the after battle killings at Orakau. He did not consider them plausible and he was good enough a historian much closer to the events themselves for his judgement to be respected.(8) In contrast, O’Malley even goes far as to suggest that Selwyn would not have requested that the soldiers refrain from attack the church, because it was a Catholic Church.(9) He eventually concludes (accurately in my view) that we will never know how many additional deaths there may have been.

The invasion and sacking of Rangiaowhia caused a deep-seated sense of bitterness and grief for the iwi of those attacked and this cannot be ignored. The deaths of women and children were only one of the accusations made against Cameron, and more tellingly, against Bishop Selwyn. From a European perspective, Rangiaowhia was a legitimate military target. Before the war, the village had been at the heart of an extensive agricultural enterprise exporting root crops, grains and fruits across the Pacific. During the war it provided the provisions for keeping the king’s forces in the field. Knocking it out destroyed the Kīngitanga’s ability to wage war. It was far from being just a refuge for women and children. But Christianised Māori who supported the King saw an attack on an un-fortified village, inhabited by non-combatants, particularly women and children, as a betrayal of fundamental Christian principles. Over time, they would come to believe that Selwyn and Cameron had guaranteed to protect the village from attack. This the two men could never have agreed, but there are good grounds for concluding that many Māori assumed that they had.

When I used the word atrocity in Dancing with the King, I wanted to avoid covering all of these issues, although I could have explained this better. It was enough for my purposes to show that the Kīngitanga saw the events of 21 February 1864 as atrocities, even if most non-Māori accounts did not. For their horror over what had occurred had a dramatic impact on their engagement with the colonial government in the decades following the war. Their views of Selwyn in particular illustrated the extent to which they felt betrayed by Christianity and abandoned by missionaries.

We need to use the term atrocity cautiously. New Zealand’s history of colonisation has its share of indiscriminate violence, greed posing as high principle and ongoing attempts to erase Māori cultural identity. The invasion of the Waikato and the subsequent attack on Rangiaowhia are low points in New Zealand’s history, with enduring consequences to the present. As historians, we make mistakes and Fisher has pointed out a number of my own, but on issues such as these we need to be doubly vigilant. Fisher approvingly cites Jock Phillips’s comments on a major New Zealand news site, in an article entitled ‘NZ statues linked to genocide, racism’.(10) Phillips is quoted as saying about Rangiaowhia, ‘There's some evidence that they shot women and children as they came out of burning buildings. It was a terrible atrocity’. If he is quoted correctly, then he is adding yet a new twist to the myth, for no such allegation has previously been made. Perhaps Philips should have first consulted the Te Ara entry, for which he was editor. Is grossly overstating or creating imagined atrocities in New Zealand’s past any better than arguing that the invasion of the Waikato was justified because the Kīngitanga was in rebellion and likely to invade Auckland?


  1. Martin Fisher, ‘The Politics of History and Waikato-Tainui's Raupatu Treaty Settlement’, New Zealand Journal of History, 50, 2 (2016).Back to (1a)
  2. James Belich, The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict (Auckland, 1986).  In his widely viewed televised documentary on the New Zealand Wars in 1998, he simply acknowledged Cameron's military brilliance in bypassing the much more difficult defences of Paturangi, and comments dismissively that they ‘killed some old people’, presumably the defenders of the whare, The New Zealand Wars, New Zealand On Screen, episode 3 <> [accessed 11 July 2018].Back to (2a)
  3. Vincent O'Malley, The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800–2000 (Wellington, 2016).Back to (3a)
  4. Danny Keenan, 'New Zealand Wars – Waikato War: Major Battles', Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand <> [accessed 4 July 2018]. Keenan is a Māori historian of Te Atiawa descent, who has written his own account of the wars. He treats Rangiaowhia only very briefly, but as just another engagement in the war: Danny Keenan, Wars without End: The Land Wars in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand (Auckland, 2009).Back to (4a)
  5. Petition of William Thompson Tarapipipi, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1865 Session I, G-05, p. 2.Back to (5)
  6. Wiremu Tamihana to Rawiri and Tawaha, 28 February 1864, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1864 Session I, E-03, p. 40.Back to (6)
  7. W. G. Mair, ‘Our Literary Corner’, Press, 11 December 1909, p. 7 <> [accessed 11 July 2018].Back to (7)
  8. James Cowan, The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period (Wellington, 1922).Back to (8)
  9. O'Malley, p. 641, n. 57.Back to (9)
  10. Newshub, 2 April 2016, <> [accessed 18 July 2018] .Back to (10)