Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

CLARKE, George

(1798–1875)

Missionary and public servant.

A new biography of Clarke, George appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Born in England, the son of a carpenter of Norwich, Clarke was apprenticed to a London gunsmith. Besides this trade, young Clarke picked up a number of other skills, including carpentry and an elementary knowledge of engineering, which were later to stand him in good stead. While still very young, Clarke became interested in missions and offered himself to the Church Missionary Society for work in one of their posts overseas. The society had need of keen, pious tradesmen for their mission in New Zealand to serve as catechists and accordingly Clarke and his young wife were dispatched to serve in this field. He arrived in Sydney in October 1822 and, after staying with Samuel Marsden at Parramatta for some time, was sent to work in a settlement then being formed for the aborigines of New South Wales. He stayed there for about a year and was then sent on to New Zealand, taking passage in the French hydrographic vessel Coquille, reaching the Bay of Islands on 3 April 1824.

Captain Duperrey of the Coquille made an amused comment on his young passenger: “dans sa nouvelle condition de missionaire, il avait pris un ton et des prétentions bien au-dessus de celles d'un simple ouvrier.” Obviously Clarke could not follow his trade as gunsmith in New Zealand, unless it were to repair the muskets of the warlike Ngapuhi, which Marsden would not by any means countenance. Hongi Hika was chagrined at this prohibition, protesting that he wanted a good workman and not another ariki, but Clarke managed to resist his blandishments, forgot his training in the gunsmith trade, and took up teaching.

Clarke was stationed at Kerikeri where he opened a school for Maori boys and girls, some of whom lived with his family. Here he taught the rudiments of reading and writing and of useful crafts and trades such as carpentry and black-smithing. He continued this occupation for the next six years until 1830, when he was selected to found the mission station at Waimate along with the Rev. W. Yate and two other catechists, Richard Davis and James Hamlin. His knowledge of carpentry and engineering proved to be of essential value in establishing this station. Here he continued his school for Maori boys and girls and a little later took on the additional duty of secretary to the local committee of missionaries.

From his first days in New Zealand Clarke took a great interest in Maori customs, laws, and habits, and seized every opportunity to increase his knowledge in this respect. Over the years he acquired a wide knowledge of these matters, and succeeded in gaining the confidence and respect of many Maoris. At the same time his energy and ambition drove him to expand his scholastic acquirements which, when he first arrived in New Zealand, appear to have been very modest.

In 1837 the Waimate mission station was visited by Captain W. Hobson of HMS Rattlesnake. Clarke's meeting with Hobson proved eventful for him, for on Hobson's subsequent appointment to New Zealand the impression earlier made on him by Clarke's apparent knowledge, zeal, and ability led Hobson to offer Clarke the position of Protector of Aborigines. Conscientiously thinking that his acceptance of this post would forward the ideals of the mission, Clarke accepted with the approval and blessings of his fellow missionaries. He was formally appointed on 6 April 1840.

The position of Protector of Aborigines was created on the instructions of the British Government, and its purpose was to protect the Maoris from injustice, cruelty, and wrong, to establish and maintain friendly relations with them, to encourage the development of their capacities, to preserve their health and general well-being, to educate their youth, and to diffuse the blessings of Christianity. In practice, the interpretation placed by Hobson and Clarke on these instructions tended to emphasise the work of the Protector in preventing fraudulent dealings with the Maoris over their land and in upholding the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi.

These admirable intentions were the result of an increased enlightenment on the part of the British Government towards the native races over whom British rule was being extended, and they owe much to the efforts of missionary and other charitable bodies (in particular, the Church Missionary Society in the case of New Zealand) to inject a measure of their evangelical Christianity into colonial administration. The Church Missionary Society took a jaundiced view of the colonisers of New Zealand, especially the New Zealand Company and its settlers, which was shared to the full by Clarke. This low opinion of his fellow countrymen was not altogether unjustified, but it became exaggerated, and Clarke tended to take the view that all Maoris were or would probably become the innocent victims of unscrupulous and rapacious Europeans.

Partly because of Clarke's unrivalled knowledge of Maori affairs and partly because of his connections with the influential Church Missionary Society, by whom he was highly esteemed, he was able to exert great influence over Governor Hobson, his temporary successor Shortland, and Governor FitzRoy. Clarke's approach to the task given to him strongly affected the direction of the local Government's administration in the early, critical years of the colony's history. It may be questioned whether this administration was directed to any particular end, or whether it merely did what it could to survive from day to day. It is certain, however, that it was powerless to achieve anything but the simplest aims – any larger ambition, such as stabilising the economy, maintaining peace, or introducing law and order, was well beyond its resources and capacity. In these circumstances it is no wonder that the operations of Clarke's department were almost a caricature of the British Government's intentions in establishing it. Besides the local Government's lack of means, it must be observed that, although these intentions were expressed clearly enough, the local Government was never vouchsafed any precise directions as to how they were to be achieved with the resources made available to it.

Nevertheless, despite these unpromising circumstances, Clarke managed to carry out his duties with considerable credit to himself. His observations on the state and feelings of the Maoris and on their relations with the settlers and the Government were keen and penetrating. In general his assessments were sound, although at times it appears that he could not completely reconcile himself to the fact that New Zealand was being, and would continue to be, colonised by Europeans. He was fully aware of and deplored the ineffectuality of the local Government; to its numerous unfulfilled promises and unexecuted threats he attributed much of the unrest among the Maoris. On a number of occasions he submitted that the Government should have been in a position to give the Maoris a check, and to have dictated rather than entreated peace.

For all his desire to do good and his abilities, Clarke was in some respects a baneful influence. He made himself a hated figure among many of his fellow settlers by his arrogance and indiscretion and by some sweeping generalisations about Maori-Pakeha relations. These were not only wrong in themselves but they also brought his office into disrepute and hopelessly prejudiced most of the settlers against it. By doing so the chance that his functions would be useful and beneficial was substantially reduced, and brought into popular contempt the British Government's well intentioned aim to smooth the path of settlement by benevolent persuasion. A greater man than Clarke would not have tolerated working for such an ineffectual Government; a stronger Government would not have tolerated a man of Clarke's temperament in a key position.

The Protectorate Department was abolished by Governor Grey in 1846, and Clarke was offered another position in terms that made it impossible for him to accept. He then retired to his property at Waimate and resumed his connection with the Church Missionary Society as local secretary. His mortification was increased by Grey's bringing an action against him to test the legality of his claims to his Waimate property, and to add to his troubles the Church Missionary Society dismissed him, along with the Rev. Henry Williams, for failing to surrender the title deeds to their property. Finally, however, a reinvestigation of his land claims upheld Clarke's contentions and in 1859 he was awarded their full extent.

Despite the suspicion with which he was regarded by most settlers, Clarke managed to retain some popularity in the Bay of Islands, as was shown by his election to the New Ulster Council (which never met) in 1852 and to the Auckland Provincial Council in 1853 – a seat which he held until 1855. In 1861 he was appointed Civil Commissioner and President of the Bay of Islands Runanga, which formed part of the machinery of Grey's Maori administration. This was no doubt a tribute to his undoubted abilities and to the respect in which he was held by the Ngapuhi tribe. In 1864 he was appointed Judge of the Native Land Court. His concern for Maori education continued unabated as is shown by an interesting and comprehensive plan he drew up and submitted to the Government in 1862. His increasing age soon caused him to withdraw from public affairs, and he died at his home at Waimate on 29 July 1875.

Clarke left a large family, of whom three had notable careers. George Clarke (1823–1913) was educated by the Rev. William Williams and acquired an extensive knowledge of the Maori language and of Maori customs and law. He was appointed clerk in his father's office in 1840. He was interpreter at the trial of Maketu for murder in 1842, and soon afterwards was attached to Spain's Land Claims Commission as interpreter and Maori advocate. His youthfulness and the mere fact that he was the son of his father caused him to be regarded with extreme suspicion by the New Zealand Company, whose land claims Spain was adjudicating upon, but his abilities were never impugned. In 1848 he sailed to England and became a minister of the Congregational Church and was appointed to Hobart, where he ministered for 52 years. He was Chancellor of the University of Tasmania from 1898 to 1907. Henry Tacy Clarke (1825–1902) accompanied the British troops to Ohaeawai in 1845 as interpreter and was there wounded. In 1860 he was appointed Resident Magistrate at Tauranga and Civil Commissioner in 1873. In 1874 he was promoted to Undersecretary of the Native Department, later becoming Judge of the Native Land Court. In 1879 he retired to Waimate where he became a highly successful farmer. Edward Blomfield Clarke (1831–1900) entered the church and served for a time in Victoria, but returned to New Zealand in 1860, when he took charge of the Maori school at Tauranga. In 1865 he proceeded to Waimate and was soon afterwards appointed Archdeacon of Waimate. In 1885 he returned to Auckland, where he took charge of the Maori population of the diocese.

by Michael Wordsworth Standish, M.A. (1920–62), late Dominion Chief Archivist, Wellington.

  • Maori Affairs Department Archives (MSS), National Archives
  • CrownColony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1958)
  • Notes on Early Life, Clarke, G. (1903)
  • The Letters and Journals of Samuel Marsden, 1765–1838, Elder, J. R. (ed.) (1932)


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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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