> Skip to content
About the book
  • Published: 4 July 2014
  • ISBN: 9781775533917
  • Imprint: RHNZ Adult ebooks
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 416

Journey to a Hanging


Formats & editions


Part history, part biography, part social commentary, this fascinating book is about infamous events that shook New Zealand to its core.

Part history, part biography, part social commentary, this fascinating book is about infamous events that shook New Zealand to its core.

In 1865, Rev Carl Sylvius Volkner was hanged, his head cut off, his eyes eaten and his blood drunk from his church chalice. One name – Kereopa Te Rau (Kaiwhatu: The Eye-eater) – became synonymous with the murder. In 1871 he was captured, tried and sentenced to death. But then something remarkable happened. Sister Aubert and William Colenso — two of the greatest minds in colonial New Zealand — came to his defence.

Regardless, Kereopa Te Rau was hanged in Napier Prison. But even a century and a half later, the events have not been laid to rest. Questions continue to emerge: Was it just? Was it right? Was Kereopa Te Rau even behind the murder? And who was Volkner – was he a spy or an innocent?

In a personal quest, author Peter Wells travels back into an antipodean heart of darkness and illuminates how we try to make sense of the past, how we heal, remember - and forget.

  • Pub date: 4 July 2014
  • ISBN: 9781775533917
  • Imprint: RHNZ Adult ebooks
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 416

About the Author

Peter Wells

Peter Wells is a writer and film-maker. He studied history at the University of Auckland and the University of Warwick, England. His short stories, novels, memoirs and biographies have won many awards and accolades. He spearheaded the saving and restoration of the Civic Theatre in Auckland in the 1980s, and is co-founder of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. In 2006 was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to literature and film.

Peter won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction for his first book of short stories, Dangerous Desires, which was published in New Zealand, New York and London. The book also won, among other awards, the PEN (NZ) Best First Book in Prose Award in 1992. He has published another book of short fiction, The Duration of a Kiss (New York, Sydney and London), and a memoir Long Loop Home, which won the 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Award for Biography. His published novels include Boy Overboard, which was shortlisted for the 1998 Commonwealth Prize (Pacific–Asia Region), and Iridescence, which was runner-up for the Deutz Medal Winner for Fiction at the Montana Book of the Year Awards and a finalist in the Tasmania-Pacific Award. In 2009 Peter Wells won the Copyright Licensing Limited Award to write a book on William Colenso, The Hungry Heart: Journeys with William Colenso, published in 2011, which was shortlisted for the NZ Post Awards. In 2011 Peter Wells was awarded the Michael King Fellowship. Peter has a blog at peterwellsblog.com.


The New Zealand Herald called Iridescence ‘without question one of the most important New Zealand novels of the year’, noting that the ‘final pages have a tender grace to them, a respect for the redemptive possibilities of everyday life, which had me in tears.’

Metro declared The Hungry Heart the best New Zealand biography of 2011, saying that it ‘ranks amongst the finest and most fascinating biographies ever produced in this country’. ‘The conventional wisdom among biographers is that they ought to keep themselves out of the story and maintain a judicious distance from their subjects. Peter Wells dares do otherwise . . . The risks Wells takes pay off.’

North & South greeted The Hungry Heart with ‘Everyone’s favourite polymath is back’, calling it ‘a remarkable book about a versatile colonial figure’. ‘The reviewer notes that Wells’s ‘skill allows him not just to compile a compelling narrative but to subtly pepper it with micro-essays on many themes that revolve around the enigmatic figure of Colenso. ’The New Zealand Herald reviewer noted that ‘the challenge of biography, and history writing too, is to include, without strain, both the known and the unknown in one frame’ before going on to say ‘Wells does gracefully, with an extra dimension that goes beyond mere technical skill to something that might be called wisdom.’

Also by Peter Wells

See all

Praise for Journey to a Hanging

“I am sometimes so taken with a book that when I come to review it I feel the urge to rush to judgement before I do an analysis of it. This is the case with Peter Wells’ latest book Journey to a Hanging. I was so absorbed in it that I found it very hard to put it down, and galloped through its substantial text (about 400 closely-printed pages, before endnotes) in a couple of days. It is a vivid, insightful narrative and analysis of a set of tragedies in 19th century New Zealand. It is the product of close research and makes extensive use of the diaries, letters and testimonies of the people involved. It presents a credible set of arguments. And it is very, very readable.”

Nicholas Reid, http://reidsreader.blogspot.co.nz/

“Wells' story is much more than the journeys to two hangings or an attempt to reconstruct a crime scene. This author is compelled to understand the humanity of his subjects, to trace the inflections of their thoughts, to plumb the reality of their lived experience. This is cultural and social history at its best, brought to life with the immediacy of Wells' prose. And despite the harrowing nature of the narrative, this is history as literature, art, film. The book is replete with images old and new, making a statement about how the past lives on. . . . he sets out to show the many-sidedness of the object called "truth" or "fact". . . . It is difficult to do justice to Wells' accomplishment with this book. . . . perhaps Wells has contributed to the lightening of history's burden through the gift of a listening human ear and a patient narrator for Carl Sylvius and Te Rau. This is a powerful, highly readable and important New Zealand book.”

Samuel Carpenter, Listener

“Wells’ depth of knowledge and thorough research, particularly as to the Kereopa trial documentation, is not conveyed in the style of a conventional historian. His writing style is possibly best described as “racy”, and the historical narrative at times unusually weaves back and forth to his own personal involvement with people and localities. It is a unique style he used well in his previous book onWilliam Colenso. . . . It is an effective book because of its insightful challenging of long-held myths, or of aspects of some revisionist histories. The book is accurate and engagingly written about two limited segments from a violent period of our history.”

R.D. Crosby, Daily Post, APN, syndicated

“It is a considered and artful retelling . . . The style is that of an author in his prime. Wells’ method is sure. He overcomes the distance between present and past by utilising the very unknowability of what has occurred.”

David Herkt, Dominion Post Weekend

“Wells has to rely mainly on Pakeha sources, so the true Maori point of view of this event isn’t seen. But this is compelling history nonetheless and equally fair or critical to both sides. Wells is a fluent writer and attempting to weld accurate history with a personal and subjective viewpoint, and make it a literary page-turner, could easily go horribly wrong. Since Wells is completely upfront about where he’s coming from, readers know exactly what to expect. And he succeeds admirably in giving readers an intimate view of a controversial pivotal point in New Zealand history. This is historical research and presentation at its best.”

Dave Calderwood, Waikato Times

“extensively researched, colourfully and adventurously written”

Hawkes Bay Weekend

“Even-handed take on historic event.”

Diane McCarthy, Opotiki News


Related titles