This article is about Henry Williams, one of the earliest missionaries to the Maori people in New Zealand. Williams' role in the Treaty of Waitangi is also discussed.

Source: Faith in Focus, 1999. 7 pages.

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, 1 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

Henry Williams

1792       (Age: 0) Born in Hampshire, England

1804       (12) Death of Father

1805       (14) Enters the Royal Navy

1815       (24) Discharged from the Navy

1818       (27) Marries Marianne Coldham

1819       (28) Offers services to CMS

1823       (31) Arrives in the Bay of Islands

1826       (35) Builds the 50 ton schooner Herald

1840       (49) Signing of the Treaty

1849       (58) Dismissed by the CMS

1867       (75) Dies at Pakaraka

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):

  • He provided the leadership that had been lacking. As a result, the infight­ing among the first missionaries, (Tho­mas Kendall, a school teacher; John King, a cobbler; and William Hall, a carpenter), that had stymied the ef­fectiveness of the mission, was over­come.

  • He directed his efforts to making the mission independent of outside sup­pliers. Dependence upon the Maori had reduced the mana of the mission in the eyes of the Maori, and trading with visiting ships had compromised the mission, particularly when the missionaries became involved in the musket trade. His construction of the 50 ton vessel Herald enabled the mission to become largely self-suffi­cient.

  • Williams focussed on the preaching of the Word. To aid this he emphasised the use of te reo, spent many hours learning the language, includ­ing involvement in the monumental task of making Maori a written lan­guage and of translating the Word. All teaching of the Maori was in te reo.

  • He emphasised and maintained regu­lar contact with the Maori. By concen­trating personnel in Paihia, he was able to itinerate, maintaining regular contact with the local Maori. He established schools, and made use of competent Maori to staff these.

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:

  • War weariness: The Ngapuhi tribe of the Bay of Islands, led by the belli­cose Hongi Hika, had been fighting for many years. Casualty rates were high, especially as the other tribes acquired the muskets that had given the Ngapuhi the initial advantage.

  • Education and literacy. The mission made education available to all classes of Maori society. As these were mission schools, the students became schooled in the Bible, especially as portions were progressively printed in the Maori language.

  • Disease: The Pakeha introduced dev­astating diseases, against which the tohunga and his treatments were in­effective. The missionaries however had European cures for some European ailments and this enhanced their mana in the eyes of the Maori.

  • Rivalry: Certain human motivations were no doubt at play: The mana that attached to having a missionary within one's tribe saw various hapu vying with one another for the mihinare (missionary).

  • Freed Slaves: Indigenous evangelists spread almost spontaneously as Ngapuhi slaves were freed and re­turned to their homes, bringing with them the gospel they had heard whilst in captivity.

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:

  • The character of the man, and his mana among the Maori of the day. As one writer comments, "He had won the respect and admiration of the Maori people, and no man had greater mana than he. It was said of him that he had only to have lifted his little fin­ger and the Treaty of Waitangi would not have been signed" (Rogers, 1973:17).

  • The difficulty of translating an English legal document into Maori. As Williams commented, "It was neces­sary to avoid all expressions of the English for which there was no expres­sive term in the Maori, preserving the en­tire spirit and tenor of the Treaty" (cited in Carleton, 1874:312). Much as Williams was extremely fluent in te reo, having lived among the Maori for some 17 years, it is quite a chal­lenge to translate legalese from one language into another.

  • The tight schedule. He had only a few days in early February 1840 to com­plete the task.

  • His implicit faith in the integrity of the British crown. He honestly believed that the Treaty would be honoured, and lived out his days protesting against abuses of it. He developed the Covenant (kawenata) concept of the Treaty to which the Maori attached such significance (Orange, 1987:90).

  • Subsequent to signing the Treaty, Williams was engaged in taking it around the country to get additional signatures. Far from this being a to­ken gesture, it was seen to be neces­sary if the Treaty, an agreement be­tween two sovereign peoples, was to have effect.

  • The context of the Treaty: the mission­aries saw it as a protection for the Maori, indeed as a way to forestall the wholesale colonisation of the country and dispossession of the Maori. In the face of the arrival of the New Zealand Company ship Tory there was incredible time pressure to get the job done.

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. 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).

NZ Pakeha Population

1820       500

1840       2,000

1854       32.500

1858       Equal numbers of Pakeha and Maori

(Note: all dates and figures are approximate estimates only

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:

  • The accusations were made by Grey without his first consulting the mis­sionaries.

  • The skirmishes did not involve any of Williams' land.

  • Williams' land purchases had been checked by a government commis­sion and approved as recently as 1844 (Rogers, 1973:308).

  • Compared to subsequent land purchases and confiscations, Williams paid a high price for his land.

  • Williams’ dismissal was reversed by the CMS in 1854. The CMS fi­nally exonerated Henry Williams by way of resolution passed in 1939.

  • Grey himself authorised the confiscation of millions of Maori acres after the wars of the 1860s, for which wars he himself was, in large measure, re­sponsible.

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.

Alienation of Maori Land

Henry Williams    11,000 acres         £1,722

North Canterbury 1.14m acres          £500

Mid South Island 20m acres

Land confiscated in the 1860s (net)>1.6m acres

Comparison of Henry Williams' land purchases with certain subsequent government purchases and confiscations.


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.

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