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Morgan, John



This biography, written by K. R. Howe, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

John Morgan was born in Dublin, Ireland, probably in 1806 or 1807. His parents' names are unknown. He was employed as a clerk, and then taught at a Church of England adult Sunday school, before entering the Church Missionary Society for training in June 1831. In November 1832 he sailed for New Zealand, arriving at the Bay of Islands on the New Zealander in May 1833. On 26 August 1835, at Paihia, John Morgan married Maria Mathew Coldham, a missionary; they had 11 children. He was ordained deacon in 1849, and priest in 1853.

Morgan was among the first CMS missionaries to enter the Thames and Waikato regions, travelling between makeshift CMS outposts among Māori communities that had little experience of European contact. From 1841 to 1863 Morgan had charge of the mission station at Ōtāwhao, at Te Awamutu, where he worked among Ngāti Maniapoto and related tribes. Bitter tribal feuding between Waikato and Rotorua tribes fuelled Morgan's fear of what he perceived as Māori 'savagery'. However, the missionaries were generally welcomed for the goods they brought and in the 1840s, when permanent stations were established in Waikato, most Māori in the region readily adopted the externals of Christianity and became literate in Māori.

Morgan, more than most CMS missionaries, strove to give his Māori converts 'the comforts of small English farmers'. Morgan envisaged 'Each family with their neat boarded cottage, surrounded by their orchards and wheatfields, the men employed in driving their Carts,…their women…engaged with their sewing,…training their children in the habits of honest industry.' His vision was expressed as a romantic idyll. He had, however, more practical motives for wanting to settle Māori communities in Christian hamlets. This would, he hoped, lessen the itinerant nature of missionary work, reduce intertribal and the potential for inter-racial warfare, make it easier for the government to impose its authority, protect Māori from the perceived evils of town life, and enable them to contribute to the colonial economy.

Morgan introduced to Ōtāwhao wheat and other crops, and, with the assistance of Governor George Grey, agricultural machinery and flour mills. Māori agriculture flourished. By the 1850s Ōtāwhao was a showpiece of rural 'civilisation', with its church, its hundreds of acres of wheatfields, vegetable gardens, orchards, mills, and its roads plied by oxen and carts laden with produce for sale in Auckland. Morgan also helped lay out bridle tracks and organise mail delivery from Auckland to Napier and New Plymouth via Ōtāwhao, where he became postmaster. He established a boarding school for Māori children.

Morgan's emphasis on temporal works brought him into conflict with the CMS hierarchy, who accused him of neglecting his religious duties. Although the charge was unfounded, Morgan's reaction showed him to be quick to take offence and aggressively self-opinionated. Henry Williams had, in 1835, assessed Morgan as possessing 'a degree of self importance which it may be well to correct.' Morgan was also an officious meddler. He constantly sent intelligence about Māori activity to government officials in Auckland, and urged the government to buy land in the district. He acted as a government agent, attempting to settle disputes between Māori and Europeans and reading government advice and instruction to Māori leaders. He ingratiated himself with numerous prominent government figures and claimed close friendships with governors George Grey and Thomas Gore Browne.

The Ōtāwhao Māori appeared to visiting Europeans to have embraced 'civilisation'. They were, in fact, pursuing their own goals and were among the leading supporters of the King movement in the late 1850s. Morgan, who attended many King movement meetings, including the installation of the King, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, saw the movement as an expression of Māori nationalism and rejection of European authority: 'the vital question with the Māori Kingites now is, whether the King or the Queen shall possess the "mana" of New Zealand.' Morgan called on the native minister, C. W. Richmond, to crush the movement. This attitude again brought him into conflict with his superiors. They, from a distance, naïvely interpreted the King movement as a harmless yet praiseworthy attempt to emulate European government in its absence.

Morgan became particularly upset when many Ōtāwhao Māori went to fight in the Taranaki war of 1860–61, which he saw as the prelude to a struggle for the control of New Zealand. Again, this directly contradicted the CMS and Anglican view, that the government was waging an illegal war after its improper purchase of the Waitara block, and that the King movement had nothing to do with the war. Morgan, who saw the King movement and the Taranaki war as inextricably linked, vehemently supported the government war effort and sent detailed reports of the numbers and hapū affiliation of warriors leaving Ōtāwhao for the Taranaki front.

As tensions between the King movement and the government increased in the early 1860s, Morgan sent weekly reports to Browne, Grey and other officials, providing information on King movement gatherings and sentiment, fortification, troop movements, arms and provisions. He also co-ordinated a spy network among outlying European settlers. The governors in turn used Morgan to communicate their intentions to the settlers. Browne had Morgan secretly spread word of his planned invasion of Waikato in September 1861, although this did not eventuate. Grey used Ōtāwhao as the Waikato base for his proposed 'Native Government', a form of indirect rule designed to weaken Kingite influence.

In April 1863 the resident magistrate for Waikato, John Gorst, who had taken over Morgan's station for an 'industrial school' intended to produce 'loyal' Māori soldiers and police, was expelled by Kingite Māori. Morgan, whose spying had long been known and, surprisingly, tolerated, was expelled shortly after.

Morgan removed to Auckland, where he drew detailed maps and provided other strategic information for Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron's advance into Waikato in July 1863. He interviewed Māori prisoners, received reports from 'loyal' Māori about planned attacks on Auckland, and rode about in an alarmist manner warning outlying settlers.

By 1863 almost all CMS missionaries had come to agree with Morgan's interpretation of the King movement, and openly applauded Grey's invasion. Yet the CMS believed that Morgan's highly active and prominent role as informant was nevertheless unconscionable. He was offered money to leave the country with his family. He refused, and resigned from the CMS in October 1864. After his resignation he was appointed a chaplain to the British forces in Waikato. John Morgan died at Māngere, Auckland, on 8 June 1865.

How to cite this page:

K. R. Howe. 'Morgan, John', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1m55/morgan-john (accessed 14 April 2024)