Story: Cultural go-betweens

Page 3. Missionaries

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Missionaries were based in New Zealand from 1814, and many were vitally important cultural go-betweens. They were usually better educated or more highly trained than Pākehā–Māori and, unlike them, almost never married Māori women. However, like Pākehā–Māori, missionaries needed a good knowledge of Māori language and customs, and aimed to win and retain the respect of both peoples. They were usually the first schoolteachers in Māori communities, teaching adults as well as children to read and write, and to use European tools and farming methods.

Missionaries as farmers

By the 1850s the region around the mission station at Te Awamutu in the Waikato had mills, ox carts and a postal service. Missionary John Morgan imagined ‘[e]ach family with their neat boarded cottage, surrounded by their orchards and wheatfields, the men employed in driving their Carts … training their children in the habits of honest industry.’1 Another missionary, Thomas Grace, taught Māori in the Taupō area to raise livestock, build and sail their own ships, and ask for a fair price for their produce.

The first missionaries

English missionary Samuel Marsden first arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1814. He was accompanied by Ruatara, a local chief returning to his own people; fellow missionaries William Hall, a joiner, John King, a ropemaker, and schoolmaster Thomas Kendall; and others including Thomas Hansen. Marsden favoured teaching the Māori useful skills and agriculture to encourage them to convert to Christianity. He was so successful that he transformed the traditional economy of the Bay of Islands and laid the foundations for New Zealand agriculture.

Māori missionaries

The early missionaries were appalled at the sight of Ngāpuhi raiding parties returning from other tribal areas with large numbers of captured slaves. Some of these Ngāpuhi became Christians and agreed to release their slaves. The slaves themselves then sometimes converted to Christianity and returned to preach to their own people.

The missionary tohunga

Thomas Kendall, a missionary who arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1814, had a keen interest in Māori ideas on religion and the sacred. He began a relationship with Tohungaroa, the daughter of a tohunga named Rākau, later saying he did so ‘to obtain accurate information as to [Māori] religious opinions and tenets’.2 For a year he lived with Tohungaroa and was taught the traditions of the whare wānanga (school of learning).

Piripi Taumata-ā-Kura of Ngāti Porou was taken to the Bay of Islands as a slave in 1823. He later returned to the East Coast to preach Christianity, teach reading and writing, and prepare the way for the first English missionaries to his region. Minarapa Rangihatuake of Taranaki was the first to preach Christianity to Te Āti Awa people in Port Nicholson (later Wellington). He also built the first Christian church in the town. In 1928 Frederick Bennett of Te Arawa was consecrated as the first Māori bishop.

Māori-language scholars

One of the first tasks for European missionaries was to learn the local language. Some became so expert at Māori that they made major contributions to the written form of the language. With the help of the missionary printer William Colenso, the Reverend William Williams produced a large number of biblical and other publications in the Māori language.

His son and grandson continued his tradition of Māori scholarship, preparing and revising the first substantial Māori-language dictionary and several important collections of written Māori. The Catholic missionary Louis Servant also wrote a detailed and valuable account of early Māori society, published as Customs and habits of the New Zealanders.

Go-betweens with other cultures

Most early New Zealand missionaries worked with Māori communities, but some also worked with other non-European cultures. In 1879 Alexander Don became a Presbyterian missionary to Chinese gold miners in Otago. He was sent to China to learn their language and in 1897 opened the Chinese Mission Church in Dunedin. Don also set up a mission in the Canton (Guangzhou) district of China, where most Otago Chinese had come from, linked to his New Zealand mission.

  1. Quoted in K. R. Howe, 'Morgan, John 1806/1807?–1865.' Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (last accessed 4 March 2010). Back
  2. Quoted in Judith Binney, 'Kendall, Thomas 1778?–1832.' Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (last accessed 4 March 2010). Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Cultural go-betweens - Missionaries', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 22 May 2018