Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

WILLIAMS, Henry

(1782–1867).

Pioneer missionary.

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

Henry Williams, leader for many years of the Church of England mission to New Zealand, was the third son of Thomas Williams, a Welshman of good family who had come to live at Nottingham. Henry was born there on 11 February 1782. In 1806 he entered the Navy as a midshipman and, in that same year, took part in the action at Copenhagen when the Danish fleet was seized. Among other subsequent engagements he fought on board the Endymion in her action against the American warship President. When the latter was forced to surrender, Williams was a member of the small prize crew which sailed the badly damaged vessel to port, after riding out a storm and quelling a mutiny of the American prisoners. When peace came, in 1815, he retired on half pay. Three years later he married Marianne Coldham, sister-in-law of Edward Marsh, an influential member of the Church Missionary Society, who inspired him to become a missionary. He had at first intended to work as a lay missionary, but the society were anxious that he should be ordained. After complying with their wishes he sailed for Sydney, in June 1822, on the Lord Sidmouth, a convict ship carrying female prisoners whose practice of singing obscene songs the young missionary succeeded in getting forbidden, in spite of a suspicious apathy on the part of the ship's captain.

At Sydney, Williams met Samuel Marsden, and later accompanied the famous missionary on his fourth visit to New Zealand in 1823. The fortunes of the mission, first planted in the Bay of Islands in 1814, were now at a low ebb, partly at least for lack of a capable leader – a deficiency that was at once made good when Williams settled at Paihia and took charge of affairs. Firearms were in great demand among the Maoris who, much to the mission's embarrassment, could not easily be persuaded to accept any other commodity in exchange for their produce. In spite of Marsden's protests, the missionaries had occasionally given way to the temptation of trading muskets for provisions, but from the first Williams insisted that the practice should cease. Intertribal warfare, made infinitely more deadly by the possession of firearms, was a perennial scourge of the Maori people. Because its prevalence militated against the spread of Christianity, Williams laboured to preserve the peace, and risked his life many a time by interposing himself between forces about to join battle and insisting that he be allowed to act as mediator.

Progress was slow for the first 10 years. Rejecting Marsden's view that the Maoris should be educated and civilised as a preliminary to conversion, Williams held that conversion should come first. He always refused, however, to accept converts for baptism until fully convinced that they were genuine. Several new mission stations established in the early 1830s had some initial success, but were soon extinguished by roving bands engaged in intertribal warfare. Not until the years 1838 and 1839 did Williams succeed in planting stations that were to become permanent at Tauranga, the East Cape, and Otaki.

He regarded with rising dismay the influx of his countrymen that was taking place at this time, mainly in the far northern districts of New Zealand. Many of these people were by no means the flower of their race, and he feared that their example of loose living would undo much of the mission's work. Foreseeing, too, that their land speculations, entered into on a fantastic scale and with little regard for equity, would entail dangerous complications, he hoped for some form of intervention by the British Government. The operations of the New Zealand Company roused his immediate antagonism, and when Captain Hobson arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1840 as representative of the British Crown, Williams used all his unique influence with the Maoris in persuading them to sign the Treaty of Waitangi.

New Zealand having thus become a British colony, Williams almost unavoidably became an indispensable intermediary between the Maoris and the newly established Government. In that capacity he displayed a concern for native interests that made him distrusted by some of his countrymen. By the time that he had been created an archdeacon in September 1844 events were in train for the outbreak of Heke's war, and Williams had had thrust upon him the incompatible dual role of pacifier of the insurgent Maoris and intelligence agent to His Majesty's forces. At the sack of Kororareka, he stayed in the town almost until it went up in flames, restraining the Maoris from pillage and helping the settlers who were being embarked from the beach to save some remnant of their goods. As the war proceeded, the dilemma in which Williams and other missionaries found themselves grew more acute. “How can we excuse ourselves to the natives when thus incorporated with the military?” he demanded. He had already been called a traitor by a British naval officer when Captain Grey replaced Captain FitzRoy as Governor. FitzRoy had been Williams's firm friend, but Grey lost no time in implying, by subtle inference, that the missionary had indeed been involved in treasonable correspondence with the rebels.

The archdeacon's reputation survived these slanderous insinuations, but the latter part of his life was embittered by a controversy that embroiled him with both civil and ecclesiastical authority. Many of the Church of England missionaries had large families for whose future some provision had to be made. Since the New Zealand of the 1830s held out little prospect for male children of employment in one of the trades or a career in one of the professions, the obvious course was to settle young men on the land. The Church Missionary Society, however, declined to give a ruling as to the extent of land that might be purchased, and the missionaries, bound by no defined limit, bought, in some cases, extensively. When British sovereignty was declared, Williams claimed to have bought 11,000 acres from the Maoris, for the whole of which he eventually received a Crown grant in 1844. Unlike FitzRoy, Grey, the new Governor, deplored such transactions and in 1846 he informed the Colonial Secretary that “a large expenditure of British blood and money” would be needed to put the large land buyers in possession of their purchases. His statement received publicity with the result that Bishop Selwyn, with full approval from the society, appealed to all missionaries who, like Williams, had bought land in excess of the officially fixed limit of 2,560 acres, to forgo their claims to the overplus. Williams had already informed the society that he was prepared to transfer all his land to his family and keep none for himself, but he was infuriated by Grey's insinuation, since repeated, that the land had been acquired from unwilling and uncomprehending vendors. Having rejected Selwyn's appeal, he obstinately refused a subsequent request from the same quarter to surrender his title deeds unconditionally. The society objected so strongly to his conduct that he was dismissed from its service 27 years after having landed in the Bay of Islands. Though reinstated in 1855, Williams still smarted under a sense of injustice, and the last years of his life were darkened by the Maori War and its harmful repercussions on the missionaries' work. He died on 16 July 1867 at Pakaraka, Bay of Islands. On the following day two warring hapus of the Ngapuhi were on the point of joining battle when news of his death reached them. The Maoris were so deeply grieved and shocked that they dispersed peacefully.

The most successful period of Henry William's career was that during which he exercised more or less absolute control over the Church of England mission from 1823 to 1840 when its influence was extended far and wide throughout the North Island. Courageous, masterful, and energetic, he was born to command rather than cooperate. Combative by temperament, he was vehement in dispute and seldom willing to accept a compromise. As a low churchman or evangelical, he looked askance at the Oxford movement and feared that Bishop Selwyn, whom he believed to be a “Puseyite”, might exert an unfortunate influence in his diocese. In matters of doctrine Williams was inclined to bigotry. His attitude towards strange manners and customs was both insular and puritanical. “I feel it necessary,” he wrote, “to prohibit all old (Maori) customs; their dances, singing and tatu-ing, their general domestic disorders.” Politics were certainly not his element, but he had the misfortune to become involved in them through causes beyond his control. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, with whom he had much in common, he was not subservient to secular rulers, nor did he invariably treat ecclesiastical superiors with due deference.

by Randall Mathews Burdon, M.C. (1896–1965), Author, Wellington.

  • The Life of Henry Williams, Carleton, H. (1874)
  • Marsden's Lieutenants, Elder, J. R. (1934)
  • Sir George Grey, K.C.B., Rutherford, J. (1961)
  • The Early Journals of Henry Williams, 1826–40, Rogers, L. M. (1961).


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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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