Ōpōtiki, Utopia, Yemen (Part 1)

We went to Ōpōtiki to see about the death of a vicar.  24 of us.  One bus driver, two teachers and 21 History students.  It’s quite a long way from Wellington to Ōpōtiki.  We left at 8.15am and arrived at about 6.30pm.  At 6.30pm the last red of the sun was flaming out all along the sea’s horizon as we slowly nosed down the winding coastal road towards the Ohiwa Bay Holiday Camp.

On 2 March 1865 Carl Völkner, a CMS missionary, was strangled, shot, beheaded and mutilated at the instigation of a man called Kereopa in Ōpōtiki.  Although it seems that others actually killed Völkner, it was Kereopa who caused that death, and carried out the acts after the death that shocked settler New Zealand.  Völkner’s death would set off a chain of consequences, but the death of Völkner was an example in itself of how an action in one place can simply be one of innumerable consequences of a great explosive initiating action somewhere else.  Governor Grey’s unjustified invasion of the sovereign territory of the Waikato in 1863 was like a nail driven into brittle stone: the fracture lines would splinter across all of the North Island.  The murder of Völkner was only one event at the end of one of those fracture lines.  If we want to know why Völkner died we should ask Sir George Grey.

In 1863 Governor Grey’s invasion forces crossed into another nation’s sovereign territory and began a war.  The responses of Māori iwi to the British invasion of their intellectual, spiritual and physical territory were sophisticated and diverse.  The military response of Tītokowaru, for example, frustrated and sometimes out played the British, the political responses of people like Wiremu Tāmihana or Te Whiti would lead to the King Movement and Parihaka, and the spiritual responses gave New Zealand Pai Mārire, Ringatū and Rātana.

The death of Carl Völkner is probably best explained by what happened at Rangiaowhia, about seven months after the initial invasion of the Waikato, on Saturday and Sunday 20-1 February, 1864.  British soldiers led by kūpapa Māori astutely outflanked the Māori forces massed at Pāterangi and came to the undefended settlement of Rangiaowhia.  The people left at Rangiaowhia were not warriors although they did resist once they had run inside their main building.  The handful of Māori there did kill three troopers.  The Māori who died at Rangiaowhia included an elderly man holding a white blanket above his head, people trying to escape the whare that had been set alight in the stand-off, and those who were burned to death inside.  Three of the people inside that whare were the wife and two daughters of Kereopa.

Kereopa’s sister would be killed the next day.  One of the things that would burn Kereopa was the failure of the representatives and ideals of Christianity to protect his people.  War had revealed to Kereopa whose side God was really on.




In the documentary Utopia John Pilger interviews Mal Brough. Brough was the minister for Indigenous Affairs in Australia from January 2006 until November 2007 and was a key player in the Howard government’s intervention in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territories.  The intervention was conducted because – according to Brough and his office – child abuse was an epidemic in those communities.


This claim was based on a report which Brough refers to in his interview with Pilger:

“There was an independent inquiry put together by the Northern Territory Labour government.  They visited forty-five distinct, different aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and they found evidence of child sexual abuse in every single community.”

The report was called Little Children Are Sacred.  One of its co-authors, Pat Anderson, was also interviewed by Pilger:

“The report did not point to pedophiles or pedophile rings or dozens of people roaming around abusing children, it wasn’t that kind of a report at all.  We wrote about what people told us about and all the concerns that they have.  So they spoke to us about poverty, they spoke to us about children not going to school, young mothers, a lack of education for everybody, a lack of housing, unemployment….  When certain conditions like that exist the likelihood of the abuse of children happening – it’s very likely.”

You can find the report on-line.  Something Pilger doesn’t really mention is that the report was actually commissioned to specifically look at sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territories, and that it makes recommendations for interventions.  Otherwise though how the report is presented in Utopia is correct as we can see from this statement from the report:

A breakdown of Aboriginal culture has been noted by many commentators. A number of underlying causes are said to explain the present state of both town and remote communities. Excessive consumption of alcohol is variously described as the cause or result of poverty, unemployment, lack of education, boredom and overcrowded and inadequate housing. The use of other drugs and petrol sniffing can be added to these. Together, they lead to excessive violence. In the worst case scenario it leads to sexual abuse of children.

The overwhelming thrust of the report’s numerous recommendations is that education is important.  Education of white Australia, and government officials in the Northern Territories to overcome the cultural gap or gulf, and education of Aborigines: either the youth in a  more effective school system, or the adults on the harms of certain activities and how to access culturally-nuanced support.

Mal Brough’s misreading of the intentions of this report is symptomatic of a certain view: that when it comes to minorities the past and the present are not related, and that the majority culture’s norms are correct.  It is easy to recognise that this is a double standard.  In the ANZAC countries, for example, we place great store by 25 April 1915’s significance to “our” national identities, as we do to the first settlers arriving and their hardships in settling a “new” land.  These things explain the present; they are a valuable continuity we can be proud of when we look at the cities we built, and the economy that fuels it.  For the indigenous however the invasion and land confiscation and loss of sovereignty are not supposed to explain anything about the present: it’s time to stop harking back over old wounds and move on.  Time to accept responsibility and harden up.

What is more, where indigenous culture intersects with the dominant culture’s demands for progress that indigenous culture becomes emblematic of a people who are “stuck in the past”.  A new roading project that disturbs sacred ground has the majority population responding quite differently if it is Māori land that is being disturbed, or if it is the Turkish government’s plans to improve the roading around Gallipoli.  One group is standing in the way of progress, business, and jobs, and the other is desecrating the sacred bonds of brotherhood and sacrifice that forged a nation.




The Australians Bronwyn and Neill Dowrick are Chris Harvard’s step father and mother.  Chris Harvard and Daryl Jones were killed in a drone strike in Yemen on 19 November 2013.  Chris Harvard was Bronwyn’s only child.  On 28 November 2013 Australian authorities wrote: “We are considering whether to inform the Harvard’s family at some stage.”  They eventually let the family know a month after the event that Chris had been killed in a Yemeni airstrike on a mosque.  It transpired that he had actually been killed by a US drone strike on a car.

Chris and Daryl appear to have been collateral damage in a strike on another target.  Before the drone strike (14 November 2013) the Australian government stated that Harvard was “thought(?)” [redacted] to be involved with AQAP, had “possibly” been involved in a kidnapping in Yemen, and that Daryl Jones was “probably” involved with Al-Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula (AQAP).  The language of possibly and probably feels very weak when used as a case for killing people.

At the top of all of these official papers it states that the Australian Terrorism Suspect Protocol,

places a high priority on consular access, observance by the detaining power of international human rights standards, and implementation of due legal process

In New Zealand we have the Terrorism Suppression Act.  In that Act a person knowingly associating with a terrorist group can be imprisoned “for a term not exceeding 14 years” [section 13(3)].  Additionally, “Proceedings may be brought in a New Zealand court for any offence against this Act… if the acts alleged to constitute the offence occurred wholly outside New Zealand, but were done (a) by a New Zealand citizen” [section 15].

Regardless of your crime in New Zealand we do not have the death penalty in this country, and no one can be sentenced without due legal process.  The consequences of allowing exceptions, and of ignoring human rights standards can have ramifications far beyond the immediate victims of an American assassination programme.

The Dowricks could not raise the money needed to bring their son’s body home, and, on a Friday in April, agreed to his burial in Yemen.

“That Friday night I was within this far of hanging myself,” Mr Dowrick said….  “I felt like I’d let Chris down, I felt like hanging myself.

“I didn’t because I knew it’d affect Bronwyn more. I had to make a decision, I made it. I don’t feel good about making that decision, but I had to make it because the Government was pushing us that much, and I knew they’d win anyway.

ABC News

The New American Foundation suggests that between 781-1024 people have been killed  by drone strikes in Yemen.  About 80 of them were civilians, and 30-50 unknown.  The rest, we are told, were militants although I imagine that militants include people like Chris Harvard and Daryl Jones who have been labelled “foot soldiers” for Al-Qaeda on the basis of possible or probable involvement.

In Yemen I wonder how many more people like Mr Dowrick there are.  People who knew people who may or may not have been involved with AQAP and are now dead, or were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I wonder how many family members and friends of the dead there are too, and what they say about us: the people controlling the drones, the people authorising the drones, and the people supplying the intelligence.



If you are invited by Ngati Patu you may go up to their marae at Opape near Ōpōtiki, and visit the urupā.  From the marae you can follow a dirt road dotted with cow pats alongside overgrown grassy banks around the side of a low hill .  At the top of the hill there are two paths: one leads to the old urupā site where you can see headstones and crosses inside a low fence with a gate and a tap, and the other path leads out onto the flattened hump of the hill’s summit.  On that second site are buried men who were executed by the government in 1866 for the death of Carl Völkner.  One of those men was called Mokomoko.


If anyone wanted to know what it was like to live with the legacy of shame and grief that comes from being executed on the thinnest of evidence they could visit Ōpōtiki and talk to the descendants of Mokomoko.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

2 thoughts on “Ōpōtiki, Utopia, Yemen (Part 1)”

  1. Hi. Thanks for this comment. That photo of Kereopa is powerful, and I do intend to visit his “grave”. He is a fascinating and tragic character. I have read the trial report on Mokomoko but will look up the Kereopa one. I’m looking at Tribunal reports, but finding some of them hard to locate on-line. I was discussing Kereopa today with my class and I had to say that if my wife and two daughters (I have a wife and two daughters) had been burnt to death by soldiers while sheltering in a whare being used as a church, I’m not sure that I would be able to keep my equilibrium when I met representatives of the crown or the church again.

  2. http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/kereopa-te-rau
    Funny how what everyone who reads their NZ history remembers about Kereopa is his nickname – Kaiwhatu – and not that he lost his family like that. Next time you come to Napier visit the old prison in Coote Road and you can stand in the cell he spent his time in, see where the photo was taken. It isn’t a fantastic slick tourist experience, but it gives you the shudders anyway. One source says they buried him onsite in unconsecrated ground but he was later exhumed and reburied in ‘A Maori burial site’ (before his death he was told his remains would be given to Tareha for appropriate burial).. Have you read the trial report? paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=WI18711227.2.13
    or the parliamentary report that concludes that he was singled out under guilt by association (not unrelated to your comments about people in Yemen being guilty by being there) and of those known to have hanged Volkner, he is the only to be hanged and the only to not have been pardoned by the NZ Government subsequently.

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