Ngatauomahuru_1.jpg Portrait of Ngātau Omahuru also known as William Fox (1868). William James Harding. Collection of Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand (PA2-2494).

If a picture paints a thousand words

Look at the photo - he's a small, unwilling impostor. Just five or six, he's formally dressed in an Eton suit and new pair of shiny boots. You can see by his stance he's been precisely posed, one hand on a polished table and the other in a pocket. You can tell from his hurt expression he doesn't want to be there. Someone has combed his hair and pasted him into their background. Someone has lifted little Ngātau Omahuru out of his own life and stuck him into theirs.

And that's exactly what's happened. In the midst of war, Ngātau Omahuru, a small brown boy from Māwhitiwhiti near Hāwera, is plucked from the Taranaki bush and whisked to the capital of Wellington, to be adopted by the Prime Minister Sir William Fox. He will be baptised at least twice before having the name of his new father bestowed upon him and will shortly become a pawn in a political power game.

Turn the photo over and read the back: The nephew of Titokowaru. This boy's parents were both shot and he was found in a hut all alone. He was brought to town, sent to school and named William Fox.

Only the last sentence is true.

In a small forest clearing

Terrible things happen in war and none so terrible as the slaughter and abduction of children.

It's September 7, 1868, the time of the Hauhau revolt against indiscriminate land confiscation. The British troops have been called in. The battle with Titokowaru at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu is yet to be fought. Major von Tempsky is still to lose his life there, along with 22 of his men. Colonel McDonnell will lead the charge that will see them all killed.

Kepa, or Major Kemp as he is known, takes charge of the Māori kupapa who fight on the British side. The sun is directly overhead when the scouts hear voices, but the forest is so dark they can't see a thing. Von Tempsky takes the lead while Kepa and his Māori allies bring up the rear. Suddenly, in a clearing, they find a couple of huts and a single tent - a bush hospital for Titokowaru's people.

A Māori woman appears, screams with fright and runs away. She is never seen again. When an old man emerges from a hut, a British bullet lays him dead. There are two more in the hut - one sick little girl and a disabled boy about nine. Von Tempsky and McDonnell put their heads together to decide what to do.

A terrible decision is made

And whether they sanction it or not, the slaughter of children begins. According to varying accounts, the girl is either “thrown up and spitted in mid-air on a bayonet” or “taken out and killed by our Maoris because she would not keep quiet”. The boy is seized by the feet and “brained” against a tree.

How easily it is written in James Cowan's The New Zealand Wars: “Here the Kupapas killed a man and two little children”. How easily Thomas G. Gudgeon dodges details in Reminiscences of the War in New Zealand: “As our men passed the tent a man sprang out and was immediately shot; as also two poor little children out of three who were found there”.

And what happened to the third child? “The third was carried all through the battle of The Beak of the Bird on a Maori's back and brought safely into camp where he gave a good deal of information...”

Riding into battle on a stranger's back

The third child has been snatched up by a man called Pirimona, who passes him to another called Herewini. Both are from Ngāti Te Upokoiri iwi in Hawke's Bay, lured into fighting by the promise of three shillings and sixpence a day. Herewini loves children, but he and his wife have none. He stares at the boy and dares him to cry. He knows the danger the boy is in. As a Christchurch paper would one day write, “He was an attractive child and did not blubber, and so did not get brained”.

The army splits into three and marches on towards Te Ngutu-o-te-manu pā. Little Ngātau Omahuru witnesses the frenzied fighting from the height of Herewini's back. Sometime during the six hours of battle, the boy is baptised. Father Jean-Baptiste Rollande, who often goes into war with the British troops, sprinkles the boy “lest he should be killed and die a HauHau”. Myth has it he uses wine instead of water.

Why was he taken?

After the battle comes defeat and a long retreat. Omahuru is carried aloft like the small spoils of war. As Peter Walker writes in The Fox Boy: “The news of the little trophy, one captured child, did not make a great impact on the public mind. One newspaper turned him into a girl; another increased his age to ten. And the military intelligence in the possession of a six-year-old was not of high value. He was, however, able to tell his interrogators that two or three white men had of late been fighting on Titoko's side, and that one of them had recently been murdered”.

There are five white deserters living with Māori at the time: Kimble Bent, William Moffat, Humphrey Murphy, Jack Hennessey, and Charles Kane - newly despatched for betraying his “owner”.

In his book Walker offers several reasons for the boy's capture: That there had already been several kidnappings between Māori and Pākehā, (Caroline Perrett would soon disappear from Lepperton) so it was considered a kind of natural justice: That Herewini simply wanted to rescue the child: That he was taken as a political pawn.

Enter The Fox

William Fox, born in England, studied law, married Sarah Halcombe after he qualified and immigrated to New Zealand. By 1855, he had been elected to represent Whanganui in the House of Representatives. By the time war broke out in 1863, he was a leading politician, though he wouldn't come to power until the fighting was almost over.

For a talented and prolific painter, Fox was a physical man. One of the first Europeans to journey into the Wairarapa, he also explored Buller Gorge. One day, as the eldest man to climb Taranaki, he would stand on the summit, peer down through the smoke of bushfires and try to make out Parihaka in the distance. There would be little left to see. 

Fox was a hard man. He knew what he didn't like and seldom what he did. When he rose to political heights he reacted to events and rarely initiated them. Here was a man who loved to hate - and he hated the demon drink and preached temperance wherever he went.

His house was described as “cheerless” and his wife Sarah as “small, thin, dull, lonely …”. It was into this atmosphere that little Ngātau Omahuru went, after three parentless years spent at the Native Hostelry in Wellington.

A child of her own

If William Fox was known for his self-centredness, it was lucky for Ngātau that Sarah Fox was not. In one of the few statements attributed to him in later life, he said, “She loved me”. And why wouldn't she love him, this sad little waif from south Taranaki? 

In the Prime Minister's residence, Sarah Fox became his mother and he became her child. She read him stories, baked him cakes, dressed and taught him, took him on outings to Wellington town. With her husband away much of the time, the pair were happy, despite lies told at his adoption - ones that were told in church and recorded in the baptismal register. To adopt and rename a child without the consent of his living parents is tricky. A few quick strokes of his pen and Sir William cut them from everyone's life.

“Child's Christian name: William Fox, age 7

Parents: Hane and Ani

Surname: Ngaruahine tribe

Quality, Trade or Profession: Little Hau Hau captive

By whom ceremony formed: Basil K. Taylor”

It was easy. Hane was a man known to have died at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu and Ani was such a common name it could never be disproved.

The boy now known as William

Sarah and her new son form a small alliance of two until one day in town, unbeknownst to either of them, William is recognised by someone who knows his iwi well. It's the priest-historian Tauke Te Hapimana, who hurries back to the village of Māwhitiwhiti with the news that Ngātau is alive and well.

When the boy's mother Hinewai is told, it knocks her down like a club. She has mourned Ngātau for six long years. And all this time he's been living with the Prime Minister in Wellington! What does he look like? What clothes does he wear? How tall has he grown? Though Te Hapimana tries to answer her questions, there are far too many. She cannot be satisfied. And the biggest question of all remains unanswered. “What shall we do now?”

The biggest question of all

Peter Walker writes: “This was a delicate question. The south Taranaki tribes and the government had no formal relations. Many of them were still seen by whites as rebels and monsters; and to them, the Pakeha were robbers, child-killers and aliens, tauiwi... And although they were safe in their fastness beyond the river, the tribes were now militarily weak and in no position to make demands...

“There was their boy, who was not dead after all but now nearly a man living with and bearing the name of perhaps the most powerful Pakeha in the country. It was a kind of distinction for the family. It even had an auspicious appearance to it, or the look of fate which should not be lightly interfered with.”

So swamped in a sea of confusion, Hinewai and husband Te Karere Omahuru do nothing. Unaware of their newfound knowledge and angst, the Fox family pack bags to sail around the world.

A punishment is delivered

From 1874 to 1876, young William Fox disappears until the ship docks again in Wellington. He is 16 years old, and has travelled to America, Canada, England and Egypt. Sir William Fox returns with a jealous eye and heart. The close relationship between his wife and William displeases him. To punish them both he will send the boy away.

From The Fox Boy: “To put it bluntly, old William Fox threw young William Fox out. Doing good for the Māori was still a watchword in the colony; even 'clearing' an entire area of its Māori inhabitants was a policy which Fox described to his colleagues as being 'for the sake of the Natives themselves.”

It would be hard to accuse him of racial prejudice while he had a Māori child bearing his name and living under his roof, and in fact no one ever did. Even today Sir William is routinely described as a humane man and a philo-Māori (Māori-lover) and one of the reason cited is his adoption of young William Fox. Still, he had to be rid of the boy, but how?

Another new life begins

William is banished under the pretext of studying law, sent to Walter Buller to work as a law clerk. Even now Sir William Fox keeps an eye on the main chance. Millions of acres are changing hands, but title has to be organised through the courts. It's a complicated process that takes forever and over-taxes lawyers while they make their fortune. The boy might do well for all of them.

William Fox is not a lawyer, but when he stands up in the Land Court in Whanganui in his dark suit and tie, speaking both Māori and English, he is the next best thing. There is even a slight whiff of celebrity about him.

Most of Buller's clients are from the lower North Island but there are some from Taranaki. By a strange quirk of fate, among them are Pirimona and Herewini. The boy now holds in his hands the future of the men who snatched him from the bush.

A complete and utter mess

During the 1860s, the government sought to confiscate large tracts of Māori land as punishment for those who rebelled. When the wars ended in 1870, south Taranaki iwi still occupied much of that land and the government looked for ways to evict them from it.

Over the next few years legal status changed and changed again, from confiscation to abandonment of all promises and rules. When Māori were at last recognised as the rightful owners, the government declared much of the land was to be taken from them and given back as reserves. The rest would be sold to white settlers and iwi paid in market rates.

Well, that was the cunning plan. Trouble was, this threw up all kinds of new legal challenges. An exchanging of “gifts” was organised, only to result in a “kind of mad informality” which further hobbled things. It wasn't until mid-1876 that surveyors crossed the land.

A bitter sweet reunion

Into the middle of this swampy bureaucratic jungle steps young William Fox as law clerk. And in the spring of 1878, after a decade's absence, he is sent to Taranaki to talk to clients. He rides across the Waingongoro River and into Mawhitiwhiti where he reunites with his family. It's a sad and bitter reunion. He and his birth mother talk about Sarah Fox.

“She's my mother” William says.

“No, I am your mother” Hinewai replies.

“She loved me.”

“'I loved you!” cries Hinewai, as her hand forms a fist and she strikes her heart with it.

Walker describes the scene: “And then she wept. Poor Hinewai, still an invalid, asthmatic and bronchitic, her son, the mischief boy, first missing, presumed dead, then years afterwards reported alive and now - here he was in front of her again, but once more turning away...”

The boy's father Te Karere holds a good deal of land currently lost in title confusion. One of his greatest barriers to obtaining legal rights is the warrior Katene, who is fighting for it, too. Ironically, it was Katene's son who was “brained” the day his own boy was taken alive. Now Te Karere rises above Katene. “Look. My son is still alive. He has returned a gentleman. He will sort everything out.” 

One great crisis

Te Karere puts all his lands into the hands of Walter Buller's law clerk. Two years pass without result, until one great crisis arrives to sweep everyone up.

It's 1879, and nothing but broken promises litter the ground from White Cliffs to Whanganui. The prophet Te Whiti-o-Rongomai orders his people to pull surveyor's pegs from the land. They follow him into peaceful protest over the continued creeping confiscation of land. He sends them into settlers' territory to quietly plough up the paddocks.

The settlers build blockhouses and the Pātea Mail exhorts: “Perhaps the present difficulty will be one of the greatest blessings ever New Zealand has experienced for without doubt, it will be a war of Extermination. The time has come in our minds when New Zealand must strike a blow for freedom, and this means the death-blow to the Maori race.”

Hearings into the land grab begin that last two months. Sir William Fox stands in the spotlight. William Fox Omahuru, as he calls himself now, speaks on behalf of his birth family and extended whānau. He and his adoptive father face each other across the room.

The Commission cries “Shame!”

The Commission, ashamed at the treatment of Māori, issues a brave report that recognises the Government has upset “their steadiest tribal friends”. “The spectacle of these four chiefs trying in vain to get the paltry dole of land which had been promised to them is sad enough. When it is remembered that one of these chiefs is Te Puni, the earliest and truest friend whom the English settlers had, the story ought to fill us all with shame.” 

The remedy is simple. Make good old promises and ensure the reserves are given to Māori. But no one has counted on the brutal politics of John Bryce, Minister of Native Affairs.

John Bryce – “The murderer”

John Bryce, the man on the white horse who will one day lead the assault on Parihaka, was once part of the infamous Kai Iwi Yeoman Cavalry who attacked a group of Hauhau warriors at William Handley's Woolshed. That they turned out to be unarmed children chasing pigs and geese hardly pricked his conscience. He was upset only by a writer who dared suggest there were women among the victims.

Known by Māori as Bryce Kohuru - Bryce the Murderer - he is infamous for his aggressive and racist views. He has become something of a tool for men higher up the pecking order who approve of his new anti-Māori laws, but don't want their names on the documents.

It is Bryce who draws up new laws so Te Whiti's peaceful protestors can be jailed without trial. As a final grand gesture, after ordering the assault on Parihaka, he reinvents himself as Minister of War.

The final showdown

They are all there at Parihaka - John Bryce, leading the troops. Te Whiti with William Fox Omahuru beside him, giving speeches. Walter Buller watching from the side-lines. Though Sir William Fox is not present on the day, he will ride to meet John Bryce through a sea of his son's displaced Ngā Ruahine and Ngāti Ruanui people straggling home after the fall.

The curtain falls

After Parihaka, Ngātau Omahuru's sad story doesn't so much end as simply fade away. It's known he bought a field at Mawhitiwhiti as a campsite for people visiting the sacked Parihaka. He helped set up a Māori school and was seen at Parihaka off and on for years. He kept an office in Tohu's meeting-house but he never went back to law. For a while he worked in Whanganui as interpreter and in Hāwera teaching te reo Māori. 

But he never recovered his footing or his roots, and remained forever distanced from both his families, though he continued to refer to Sarah Fox as mama for the rest of his life. There had been rumours of a Hinemoa at Parihaka before the troops rode in, but he never married or had a child.

Sir William Fox died in 1893, a year after his wife, with his politics forgotten and is remembered mostly for his watercolours and for setting up national parks.

Ngātau Omahuru died in 1918, around the age of 50. No one knows how or why. He lies in Lepperton Cemetery with nothing to mark his grave.


Cowan, J. (1955). The New Zealand Wars and the pioneering period. Wellington: Government Printers.

Finlay, N. (1998). Sacred Soil: Images and stories of the New Zealand Wars. Auckland: Random House.

Gudgeon, T.W. (1986). Reminiscences of the War in New Zealand. Southern Reprint.

Walker, F. (2001). The Fox Boy: The Story of an Abducted Child. London: Bloombury.

Portrait of Sir William Fox (about 1880-1893). Collection of Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand (PA2-2495).

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Puke Ariki Heritage Collection: William Fox


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