Faith in Focus

Henry Williams and the Treaty of Waitangi

"Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy". These words heralded the good news of the arrival of the Messiah to the shepherds on the Judean hills. The same message was heard in Jerusalem, and Samaria, and then in the rest of the world. Savage Northern European tribes heard the news of the gospel and "saw the light". Finally, the same message came to the South Pacific. These very words were uttered by Samuel Marsden on New Zealand soil on Christmas Day 1814. "

Yet it was another Church of England missionary, Henry Williams, who won the respect of the Maori and was arguably foremost among the early missionaries in New Zealand. Who was this Henry Williams, and why should all New Zealanders, and especially all Christian New Zealanders, know of him?

Early Life

Henry Williams was born in Hampshire in 1792 to a lace manufacturer father and a mother who was "well educated above the normal standards of her time, [whose] deep religious convictions and strong independent spirit made a deep impression on two of her children, Henry and William, who were to share the burden of early missionary work in New Zealand" (Rogers, 1973:30).

At the age of fourteen, Williams entered the Royal Navy. At this time, Britain was involved in the Napoleonic Wars. In the course of his ten years in the Navy, he distinguished himself in battle. After Napoleon surrendered, he, along with many other military men, was discharged as an officer on half pay. Some three years later he married Marianne Coldham. Marianne had trained as a cook, nurse, midwife and teacher, and became a wonderful helper to her husband and sharer in his Gospel work in New Zealand. Influenced by his brother-in-law, Henry trained for missionary work. This training included instruction in medicine, weaving, twining, basket making, and also shipbuilding (Fisher, 593). Thus prepared, at the age of 31, he arrived in New Zealand with his wife and three eldest children in 1823.

Before discussing Williams' role in the Treaty of Waitangi, it is necessary to touch on the character of the man, the state of New Zealand society at the time of signing, and the work of the CMS mission in New Zealand.

The character of the man

Who was Henry Williams? In character he was perhaps more akin to Indiana Jones than to the popular caricature of a clergyman. William Colenso, a fellow missionary with whom it was far from easy to get on, described him as:

"imperious and distant, almost of repelling manner, and yet very kind hearted. A superb organiser, he not only led but acted. However, he was eminently fitted for his post at that early time in this then savage land" (Rogers, 1973:19).

That Williams was no distant or elitist snob is abundantly clear when his relationship with the Maori is considered. As a Christian missionary he demonstrated the blessed life of a peacemaker. Fisher comments:

"Only rare individuals had the temperament to be successful mediators of European ideas in a Maori environment… As well as providing vigorous leadership for the missionaries, he acquired increasing mana among the Maoris. The fact that he was able to interfere in inter-tribal disputes and sometimes managed to negotiate a peace between hostile groups was both a cause and a consequence of his prestige among the Maoris. Only a person of considerable prestige would be invited to settle a conflict peacefully and it required even greater prestige to be successful" (1975:149).

Williams' courage is often noted. As one writer put it,

"If physical courage were the measure of virtue, Henry Williams should long have been canonised. He could intervene between two fighting men. He could stand unflinching before a Maori chief whose taiaha (spear) was poised to kill him…As someone has said, 'he feared his God, and therefore had no need to fear man'" (Rogers, 1973:20).

The fearlessness of the man was also evidenced by his journeys across the length of the North Island to seek locations for new mission stations and later to obtain signatories to the Treaty of Waitangi. These journeys took him through territory into which no white man had previously ventured to enter.

Above all, he was a Christian. Without an appreciation of this fact there can be no accurate understanding of his life. He belonged to the evangelical party of the Church of England. Rogers points out that "[t]he word 'evangelical' had at that time a Calvinist connotation" (ibid.: 22). His parents were dissenters, that is, evangelical Christians (Fisher, 1990:593). Henry followed in their footsteps and has been described as a Calvinist evangelical (Rogers, 1973:23). The ten commandments were the moral norm for his life. Conversion of the Maori to Christian obedience was the goal of his life, in keeping with the Scriptures which speak of all those apart from Christ being in darkness (John 1, I Peter 2:9). From this darkness he called them to God's marvellous light. This involved him in preaching against certain Maori practices such as cannibalism, tattooing, utu and the work of the tohunga (priest). It also meant his opposing many Pakeha practices in New Zealand, including the alienation of Maori land, the desecration of the Sabbath, the prostitution of Maori women, and the drunkenness that was then prevalent in the Bay of Islands.

The love of the Maori for Karuwha (four eyes!) or Te Wiremu, as they called him, is exemplified by the memorial that they erected for him near his home in Pakaraka which reads:

A memorial to Henry Williams

A token of love to him from the Maori Church

He was a father indeed to all the tribes
A courageous man who made peace in the Maori wars

For 44 years he sowed the Good News in this island

He came in the year 1823

He was taken away in the year 1867

New Zealand in the 1820s

In the forty years since Cook's rediscovery of New Zealand in 1769, Maori life had changed considerably. Even before Cook's arrival, Maori life had been tough. "The harshness of the Maori diet meant low life expectancy, high infant mortality, and low fertility" (Olssen & Stenson, 1989: 4). Few Maori lived more than thirty years (ibid. 3; Walker, 1996:170), in part due to the absence of medicines to ameliorate diseases, particularly those introduced by the Pakeha. Additionally the implications of tapu, and the unremitting warfare, often fuelled by the relentless force of utu, and resulting enslavement of the conquered, made for a tough existence.

The arrival of the Pakeha was a mixed blessing. Certainly the implements that the Pakeha brought were coveted, and there was considerable mana, as well as economic benefit, to be gained for a tribe by associating with a Pakeha. However, the arrival of the musket made the all too typical inter-tribal warfare increasingly deadly. New Pakeha diseases decimated the population. Alcohol became a scourge, and the regular arrivals of whalers and traders made prostitution, with its many associated evils, a commonplace in coastal towns.

It was into this context that the missionaries arrived. Much as Williams' focus was on converting the tangata whenua ("people of the land") to Christianity, some of the most vocal and forceful opposition to his work came not from them, but from the white settlers who saw the missionaries as a threat to their profit and pleasure.

The CMS Mission in New Zealand

The Christian message was first proclaimed on New Zealand soil on Christmas Day in 1814 by Samuel Marsden, and he proceeded to set up a mission. However, his first efforts resulted in failure. Williams believed that this was because Marsden's approach emphasised the civilisation of the Maori, rather than the work of 'preaching, studying and translating' (Fisher, 1975:144). Williams changed the mission's focus, arguing that:

"the emphasis on secular instruction distracted the missionaries from the far more important task of bringing the Maori to Christianity. He began to reorganise the mission so that more time could be devoted to spiritual teaching." (Fisher, 1990:593).

The subsequent effectiveness of the mission was due to a number of factors (c.f. Fisher, 1975):

The mission was not immediately 'successful'. By 1828 few Maori had been converted. Yet by 1840 some 30,000 Maori had been baptised (Olssen & Stenson, 1989:38). The reason for this turnaround has been discussed long and hard by historians, many of whom speak either in terms of broad social processes or in terms of important individuals as the key to understanding what was going on. (Fisher, 1975:150). To these factors a third must be supplied by the Christian historian: the sovereign work of God's Spirit in the lives of those to whom the gospel is preached.

Olssen and Stenson (1989: 38ff) list some of the social processes that may have predisposed the Maori to accept the gospel. These included:

Besides the social factors, however, the role of the individual, in this case Henry Williams, should not be overlooked. Henry Williams' effect on the work of the mission has already been indicated. Most important to its success was his relationship with the Maori, which has already been noted.

Williams and the Treaty

By 1840 the mission was flourishing. During that year much of Williams' time revolved around the Treaty of Waitangi.

Williams' concern for the welfare of the Maori reflected that of the evangelicals in England. There the Aboriginal Protection Society had a major influence on foreign policy toward indigenous peoples (Orange, 1987:2). Indeed, high officials in the British Foreign Office, including Lord Glenelg, the Secretary of State for Colonies, had evangelical leanings and were sympathetic to the Maori, and averse to the plans of the New Zealand Company to colonise New Zealand (ibid. 25f). As Rogers (1973:163) comments, "Williams needed no urging of authority to play his part" in assisting with the Treaty process. After all, he had supported Governor Fitzroy in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence (1835), had written to the CMS in England in 1838 that "[t]he English government should take charge of the country, as the Guardians of New Zealand and …the chiefs should be incorporated into a

General Assembly, under the guidance of certain officers, with a military force" (ibid.). He also protested against the lawlessness of the European element in New Zealand.

Williams was responsible for translating the Treaty, and acted as a key negotiator of the Treaty. It is now fashionable to suggest that he did this maliciously. Before assuming this to be the case, consider:

As an aside, the hostile relationship between the officers of the New Zealand Company, who claimed to have purchased large chunks of the North Island, and the missionaries, is well documented. At one time, Henry Williams had purchased some 60 acres of land in the heart of what would become Wellington, to hold it in trust for the Maori, lest the New Zealand Company dispossess the local Maori. This earned him the wrath of the New Zealand Company Director William Wakefield. In a subsequent acrimonious meeting between Wakefield and Williams, "Wakefield instinctively displayed the fear and dislike which the [New Zealand] company invariably showed the Treaty, which guaranteed the Maori people their lands" (Burns, 1989:154). This incident was typical of the Company's attitude toward the missionaries, whom they believed were Maori lovers who would hinder the Company's plans by warning the Maori against selling their land (ibid. :136). Wakefield did subsequently gain control of that Wellington land and did dispossess the Maori. Writes Rogers (1973:237): "The source of the problem was that the missionaries and the Company were in New Zealand for opposite purposes. For the former the welfare of the Maori was most important, for the latter the securing of land was paramount." This conflict between the missionary/humanitarian and the settler/colonist view is a theme that was played out throughout the nineteenth century, the latter becoming the dominant view after the wars of the 1860s.

The Aftermath

Given the good intentions of Henry Williams and others, why was the Treaty ineffective in protecting the Maori and their interests in land?

A major factor was the rapid growth in the Pakeha population and the attendant demand for land (refer figure 2). The Pakeha population grew rapidly after 1840. This was not a direct consequence of the Treaty. Already before the Treaty was signed, the New Zealand Company planned to colonise large areas of New Zealand, and around 1840 started sending shiploads of colonists to the country. As a result of the increase in population, the influence of the missionaries declined. The church changed from having a mission to a settler focus. This change is seen in the shift of authority from Henry Williams (a CMS missionary) to Bishop Selwyn (a "settler" clergyman).

The Land Question

Despite years of faithful service, Williams was dismissed by the CMS in 1849. Ostensibly this dismissal was due to his refusal to give up claims to 11,000 acres of land which he had purchased. In fact, he suffered the fate of one who crossed swords with Governor George Grey. Sir George Grey set out to destroy Williams' influence, and land claims provided a pretext for this (Olssen and Stenson, 1989:37).

Williams had, prior to 1840, acquired around 11,000 acres at a cost of £1,722. This land was then vested in the names of his children, for whom he, as a missionary in a far away country, had to make provision. As he had eleven children, and given the marginal productivity of the land, the area was not excessive, and his claims were upheld by law. It must also be noted that no Maori seller ever contested any of these transactions even when the Governor solicited complaints from the Maori (Rutherford, 1961:136).

Why then was Williams dismissed? There were skirmishes between the Ngapuhi Maori and the settler government in the mid 1840s. Seizing an opportunity to wrest influence away from the missionaries, Grey wrote dispatches to London in which he asserted:

"I feel myself satisfied that these claims [by the missionaries] are not based on substantial justice to the aborigines or to the large majority of settlers in this country. Her Majesty's Government may also rest satisfied that these individuals cannot be put in possession of these tracts of land without a large expenditure of British blood and money" (ibid., 132).

The following comments might be made:

After his dismissal, Williams retired to Pakaraka, where he continued to teach the Maori. With sadness he saw the Treaty being broken. He wrote: "We gave them but one version, explaining clause by clause, showing the advantage to them of being taken under the fostering care of the British Government, by which act they should become one people with the English, in the suppression of wars, and of every lawless act; under one Sovereign, and one law, human and divine." (cited in Davidson, 1986:32). As early as 1847, Williams joined in with the Maori to protest against abuses of the Treaty (Orange, 1989:127). Williams lived out his days in service to the Maori church.


In Psalm 105 the Psalmist exhorts us to remember the great works of God. As Christians in New Zealand, let us not be ashamed of our forefathers in the faith. Perfect they were not; yet they lived lives of servant leadership in the face of danger and deprivation such that we cannot know today. Among these, Henry Williams stands as a giant: a peacemaker, a Treaty maker and a missionary. A friend of the Maori, he was instrumental in bringing the Gospel to them. A Christian, he worked ceaselessly for the welfare of the Maori. Much as it may have failed to deliver, the Treaty for which he was in measure responsible symbolised his concern that the two peoples live together on the basis of covenant, and that the Maori be preserved in the land.

Rob & Andy Vosslamber

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised January 1999 / Copyright 1999