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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


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.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




Missionary and Maori scholar.

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

Robert Maunsell was born on 24 October 1810 at Dublin and was the seventh son of the nine sons and two daughters of the second family of George Maunsell, a Collector of Customs and, afterwards, a banker. He was educated at Waterford and at Trinity College, Dublin, where in 1833 he graduated B.A. with honours in classics. At first Maunsell intended to study law, but when his imagination was fired by a lecture on the work of the overseas missions he decided to take Holy Orders. On 21 December 1834 he was ordained by the Bishop of London. He was accepted by the Church Missionary Society and, after brief training at the society's institution at Islington, he sailed for New Zealand in the Florentia, arriving at Paihia on 26 November 1835.

Almost immediately Maunsell was sent to Mangapouri. He was withdrawn a few months later and, in 1836, formed a new mission at Uretoa, 6 miles north of Waiuku and on Manukau Harbour, where he was joined by Hamlin. In 1838 the two missionaries separated, Hamlin going to Orua Bay, near Manukau Heads, and Maunsell to Maraetai, at Port Waikato. At Maraetai Maunsell won the friendship of two powerful local chiefs and mission work proceeded rapidly. By April 1839 a native school had been established and the mission farm had been started. A year later Maunsell canvassed the Waikato district for signatures to the Treaty of Waitangi and, in the course of this journey, he visited Awhitu, where he was unable to persuade Potatau Te Wherowhero to sign. On 5 July 1840 Governor Hobson and George Clarke paid an official visit to the mission. Progress was steady until December 1845, when a land dispute between the Ngati Teata and Ngati Tamaoho almost erupted into war. Both parties arrived on the battlefield accompanied by their resident missionaries and, after Maunsell and Buddle had harangued their respective tribes for an hour, the meeting broke up amicably. Four months later the dispute broke out afresh and Maunsell was kept busy attending to the wounded.

By 1852 Maraetai had expanded to such an extent that there appeared to be insufficient land available to meet future requirements. In addition to the native boarding school under J. W. Stack, F. D. Fenton, and A. G. Purchas, there was also an agricultural and industrial school under C. S. Volkner, attached to the mission farm. At this the Maoris were taught dairy, sheep, and grain farming, market gardening, timber and flourmilling and brickmaking. On the practical side, the mission girls were baking 400 lb of bread a week to cater for the station needs and had begun to harvest and process the “Irish Moss” (carrageen) which grew on the coast nearby. Because of the shortage of suitable land in the area, Maunsell induced Sir George Grey to arrange for the Maori chiefs to endow the mission with 700 acres at Te Kohanga. In 1853 Stack and Volkner led an advance party to the new site. They found the soil “sour” and decided it would require much cultivation to sweeten it. Maunsell persevered, however, and in a few years was producing wheat, maize, and other crops in sufficient quantities to export to the Auckland markets. The Te Kohanga mission was soon the largest and most productive in the Waikato. It also boasted an apiary, dairy, sheep, and goat farms, an orchard, and extensive market gardens. In 1854 the produce reaching Auckland from the various Waikato missions was valued at £16,000.

During the 1850s Maunsell was a strong opponent of the “King” movement and was able to persuade the two main chiefs in his area to remain aloof. Notwithstanding his attitude on this, he continued to enjoy enormous prestige among the Maoris. This was put to a test in 1860 when, following the murder of Eriata, a young chief, Maunsell faced an armed and hostile crowd in the victim's village and, by arguing from circumstantial evidence, was able to divert the Maoris from massacring the settlers at Mauku. In the troubles which followed, Maunsell worked closely with McLean, Selwyn, and Wiremu Tamihana Te Waharoa to preserve peace in the Waikato. After war broke out he remained at Te Kohanga until mid-October 1863, quitting his post when the rebels were only hours away. In November 1863 he became chaplain to Cameron's forces and remained with them until after the Battle of Orakau. He returned to Te Kohanga in 1864, but found his mission in ruins and abandoned by the Maoris. When his wife died in October of that year he returned to Auckland. In November 1864 Ashwell informed him that there was a move afoot to have Maunsell nominated for the Nelson See; he preferred, instead, to accept a post as Vicar of St. Mary's, Parnell. He was appointed Archdeacon of Waitemata, but resigned this post two years later. In 1870 he became Archdeacon of Auckland, an office which he held until his retirement from the active ministry 13 years later. After 1883, although in retirement, Maunsell long continued to discharge self-imposed clerical duties: he visited the Maoris at Orakei, the native school at Parnell, and often took services in the mission hall at Lower Remuera. He was also honorary tutor and Bishop's examiner at St. John's College, Tamaki. Maunsell died at his home in St. George's Bay Road, Parnell, Auckland, on 19 April 1894.

In his own day Maunsell was considered, by Maori and European alike, to be the foremost living Maori scholar. His reputation rests, principally, upon his Maori Grammar, first published in 1842, and upon his monumental translation of the Old Testament into Maori from the original tongues. As early as 1836 he had begun to translate Exodus; and in 1847, despite many setbacks (his notes were all destroyed by fire on one occasion), he published his translation of the first six books. After this, the project was taken over by a committee for the revision of the Old Testament, consisting of William Williams, Maunsell, and Kissling for the Church Missionary Society, and T. Buddle, A. Reid, and Hobbs for the Wesleyans. The committee's secretary was John Boyle Bennett, grandfather of Bishop F. A. Bennett. Maunsell translated the remaining books, the committee merely revising his translation before giving its imprimatur. His second volume, covering Proverbs to Lamentations, was published in 1856; and the remaining volume, Ezekiel to Malachi, followed in 1857. In making his translation Maunsell went to great pains to secure the correct Maori idiom. In this way he was able to present the Old Testament in a manner intelligible to the Maoris; while, at the same time, he preserved the language at its purest in what is probably its greatest literary work. Since Maunsell's day, in view of the course of subsequent Maori religious movements – Hauhauism and Ringatu – the wisdom of translating the Old Testament into Maori has been questioned. It can hardly be a coincidence that these Maori “Old Testament” religions arose so shortly after Maunsell's translation was published.

Maunsell was twice married: first, in 1834, to Susan Piggot (who died at Maraetai on 24 October 1851), by whom he had four sons and three daughters. He married, secondly, on 30 September 1852, at Auckland, Beatrice Isabella Duncan Panton (who died at Te Kohanga on 4 October 1864), by whom he had two daughters and one son.

by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • Robert Maunsell, LL.D. – A New Zealand Pioneer – His Life and Times, Wily, H. E. R. L., and Maunsell, H. (1938)
  • The Parish of St. Mary, Parnell, Auckland, New Zealand, Kissling, T. G. (1960)
  • New Zealand Herald, 20 Apr 1894 (Obit).


Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.