James Watkin was born in Manchester in 1805. While still young he felt the call to preach and in 1830 was accepted as a candidate for the Wesleyan Ministry. In the same year he married Hannah Entwistle and they sailed with a missionary party to Tonga. The work of the mission was jeopardised by prolonged and involved struggles between Christian and non-Christian Tongan chiefs; Watkin faced alone the danger of tribal warfare, but the experience left him depressed and exhausted. On his removal with his family to Sydney in September 1837 he prayed for a return home to England. Instead, when John Jones offered a free passage for a missionary appointed to Waikouaiti, where Jones had a whaling station, Watkin was selected for the post and arrived there in May 1840. Here he established the first mission station in the South Island.
Watkin found the whaling settlement of Waikouaiti a centre of violence, licentiousness, and drunken depravity. Thoroughly disliking the corrupted Maoris and convinced that they were doomed to extinction, and disgusted by the brutality and vices of his fellow Europeans, Watkin laboured without hope, in the bitterness of exile and with deepening depression and distress. In spite of an abhorrence for his situation he established schools at Waikouaiti and Matanaka, and stationed partly trained Maori teachers at Stewart Island and at Moeraki. He had a natural flair for languages, preached in Maori four months after his arrival, and compiled an elementary reading book to be printed in Ngai Tahu. In November 1840 Watkin was greatly disturbed by Bishop Pompallier's visit to Otago. When, however, this was followed by Anglican intrusion – for Bishop Selwyn visited Otago in January 1844 – Watkin thought of withdrawing his own Maori teachers and abandoning the field. Never reconciled to his position at Waikouaiti, Watkin was relieved by Charles Creed and in June 1844 he sailed for Wellington, leaving 227 church members in Otago.
In 1855 Watkin settled in New South Wales, and was president of the National Methodist Conference at Adelaide in 1862. He retired in 1869 and died on 14 May 1886, at Ashfield, New South Wales.
by Timothy Holmes Beaglehole, M.A.(N.Z.), PH.D. (CAMB.), Senior Lecturer, Department of History, Victoria University of Wellington.
- The History of Otago, McLintock, A. H., (1949)
- History of Methodism in New Zealand, Morley, W. (1900).