Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

BUTLER, John Gare

(1781–1841).

Pioneer missionary and farmer.

John Gare Butler was born in March 1781. Nothing is known of his family background. In 1798 he married Hannah Hitchman. For many years they resided in Paddington, London, where Butler was clerk to a large London carrying company. He was honorary secretary of the Grand Junction and Canal Bible Association from its inception in 1816, the president being the Rev. Basil Woodd, a fervent evangelical pastor of Paddington. Butler, in anticipation of a career as a missionary of the Church Missionary Society, was prepared by the Rev. John Bishop. He was ordained by the Bishop of Gloucester in 1818.

On 15 December 1818 Butler sailed from England with his wife and two children for New Zealand as superintendent designate of the Church Missionary Society's mission at the Bay of Islands. His son, Samuel, was then 18 years of age, and his daughter, Hannah, two. Accompanying them were James Kemp, a lay missionary, and his wife, their destination being also the Bay of Islands mission. On 26 June 1819 Butler arrived in Port Jackson in New South Wales. In due course the Rev. Samuel Marsden, supervisor of the New Zealand mission on behalf of the Church Missionary Society, accompanied the Butlers and Kemps to New Zealand in a chartered vessel, General Gates, which arrived at the Bay of Islands on 12 August 1819. While Butler was in New South Wales, Marsden prevailed on the Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, to appoint Butler as a Justice of the Peace for New Zealand, under date 24 July 1819. After Marsden and Butler arrived at the Bay of Islands, the offer of Hongi Hika, an influential chief, of land for a missionary settlement at Kerikeri was accepted. Marsden left for Port Jackson in November 1819. On 20 December the Butlers and Kemps took up residence at Kerikeri which thus became the headquarters of Butler as the superintendent of the mission. Butler was New Zealand's first ordained resident clergyman. The “Kemp House”, which was built shortly after the establishment of the settlement at Kerikeri, apparently as a residence for Butler, is New Zealand's oldest existing European building, and Kerikeri, New Zealand's oldest town with a continuing history of European occupation.

Butler's journal of his years at Kerikeri gives many arresting details of his contacts with Hongi, Te Morenga, and other chiefs, and of the contemporary Maori culture. While the Butlers had anxious moments as the result of the occasional turbulence of the local Maoris, they were accepted or tolerated by them, the Maoris being well aware of the material advantages of this association in the shape of hoes, axes, and other perquisites. The Butlers for their part ministered devotedly to the spiritual and material needs of their Maori neighbours. Butler at an early date ran into stormy weather with Thomas Kendall and the other lay missionaries at Rangihoua, who had preceded Butler at the Bay of Islands. Kendall in particular was recalcitrant, acting as a go-between in securing for visiting ships pigs and potatoes from the Maoris in exchange for muskets. Butler himself on at least one occasion was forced by a shortage of supplies to buy produce with a musket. Kendall systematically procured muskets for Hongi and other chiefs, and ignored Butler's protests. Numbers of minor differences arose between Butler and the other Europeans of the mission station at Rangihoua. On 27 February 1820, Marsden arrived at the Bay of Islands in the naval ship Dromedary. On 2 March 1820 Kendall, accompanied by Hongi, took passage for England in a visiting ship, thereby earning the disapproval of Marsden and Butler.

On 3 May 1820 Butler recorded the first ploughing of land in New Zealand in the following words: ‘The agricultural plough was for the first time put into the land of New Zealand at Kideekidee, and I felt much pleasure in holding it after a team of six bullocks brought down by the Dromedary. I trust that this day will be remembered with gratitude, and its anniversary kept by ages yet unborn. Each heart rejoiced in this auspicious day, and said, “May God speed the plough’”. In the years that followed, Butler and his Maori helpers at Kerikeri established a small mixed farm which earned the praise of later visitors. Butler was New Zealand's first systematic cultivator of the land.

In October and November 1820, Butler accompanied Marsden in a whaleboat to the Hauraki Gulf. They crossed the isthmus, being the first Europeans to visit Manukau. Butler went with Marsden as far as Kaipara and then returned to the whaleboat at Tamaki.

Butler was not the first Magistrate in New Zealand, since Kendall had been appointed a Justice of the Peace before him. These appointments were made in New South Wales on the assumption that New Zealand was a British dependency, a view that was later repudiated. Since, however, British law runs in respect of British subjects everywhere, there is a case for regarding Butler's powers as well grounded in respect of British subjects in New Zealand. On 3 December 1820, Butler committed four soldiers on the Dromedary for trial in New South Wales for the murder of a seaman. For the most part, however, his powers were nominal, since he had no means of enforcement.

Marsden returned to New South Wales leaving the Bay of Islands in December 1820.

On 12 July 1821, Kendall and Hongi arrived back from their visit to England. Hongi, having found out that Butler disapproved of this visit, and of his having acquired muskets and powder, became prejudiced against him.

By this time Butler's differences with Kendall and other European members of the mission, as well as Hongi's equivocal attitude toward him, had made his position difficult. To these trials was now added a major quarrel with Marsden himself, brought on in some measure by Butler's own hastiness of temper. While visiting Port Jackson in December 1821 and January 1822, Butler accused Marsden of malpractice in certain business transactions, and charged him with having made payments to Maoris in New Zealand with muskets and powder, and of procuring a Maori head. These charges Butler repeated in a letter to the Church Missionary Society in London. Marsden sent an indignant letter of repudiation to Butler, saying that since Butler had stated that he would not accept Marsden's direction, he would wash his hands of Butler until the Church Missionary Society had made an adjudication. When Butler, after his return to New Zealand, wrote a conciliatory letter to Marsden, Marsden sent an uncompromising reply. Further difficulties arose for Butler when Kendall admitted charges of misconduct, being suspended by Marsden from the mission.

In August 1823, Marsden arrived at the Bay of Islands with the Rev. Henry Williams. Marsden decided to withdraw Butler from the mission, and secured Butler's reluctant consent to this. Subsequently Marsden charged Butler with drunkenness while visiting a ship, the witnesses against Butler being two sea captains. Before a committee of the missionaries Butler refused to defend himself, and the committee accepted the testimony against him. When James Spencer, who had accompanied Butler to the ship, wished to testify for him, the committee declined to reopen the case.

The Butlers left the Bay of Islands in company with Marsden on 14 November 1823. Marsden maintained in Port Jackson that Butler's alleged drunkenness had unfitted him for further service as a clergyman there. The Butlers returned to England, where Butler retired from the Church Missionary Society's service.

Butler's own statement in a letter was that all he drank with the sea captains was “a little Hollands in the bottom of a half-pint tumbler”. Butler's way of life both before and after the episode is hard to reconcile with a reputation for drunkenness. White and Lawry, contemporary Wesleyan missionaries who knew Butler well, testified that his moral character was above reproach.

From 1825 to 1839 Butler held minor curacies and relieving appointments in various parishes in England.

In 1839 Butler, accompanied by his wife, his daughter Hannah Barton, and her husband, sailed from England for New Zealand in order to take up an appointment as native guardian and interpreter at the Port Nicholson (Wellington) settlement of the New Zealand Company. Part of the reason for this appointment was that Butler knew the Maori language, and had been made a justice of the peace by Macquarie many years previously. Butler had also given advice to the Company about their plans for settlement. They arrived at Port Nicholson on 20 April 1840. Butler became established at Petone, where he was a clergyman and Maori welfare agent until his death on 18 June 1841. He was buried at Gear Island, his grave being later washed away in a flood.

John Gare Butler was a well-intentioned man of nervous temperament whose fate it was to find himself placed in the midst of contending forces at the end of the world, without adequate preparation or experience. It was not surprising that he was overwhelmed. His failure, however, was far from inglorious, since it was no small feather in his cap that he was the first clergyman who dared to live among the feared man-eaters of New Zealand, and become the first systematic cultivator of New Zealand's soil.

by Charles Andrew Sharp, B.A.(OXON.), M.A.(N.Z.), Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • The Letters and Journals of Samuel Marsden, 1765–1838, Elder, J. R. (1932)
  • Earliest New Zealand, Barton, R. J. (1927)
  • Adventure in New Zealand, Wakefield, E. J. (1845, 1908, 1955).


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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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