"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?
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.
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 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"
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
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:
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
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.
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.
Given the good intentions of Henry Williams and others, why was
the Treaty ineffective in protecting the Maori and their interests
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"
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,
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,
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 / firstname.lastname@example.org / revised January 1999 / Copyright 1999