He never won New Zealander of the Year Award. But in the two decades from 1823 to 1845 he should have – multiple times. Rev Henry Williams, former Royal Navy officer turned missionary, was an outstanding character in those pivotal years when our nation was formed. Indeed one early historian has described him as “one of the greatest men who ever influenced the destinies of New Zealand” (1). It is an apt description.
Today Henry Williams is most well known as the missionary who translated the Treaty of Waitangi and garnered Māori support for this foundational agreement. For these honourable efforts he has, in recent years, been much maligned. But Williams’ role in the forming of our nation goes far beyond the Treaty. And his character towers above the caricature of our missionary pioneers normally presented in media and academia today. Petty, bumbling, self-interested, and culturally illiterate, is now the standard portrayal. However any honest appraisal of our history gives an utterly different picture – especially when it come to Henry Williams.
In Williams we find a man of action, courage, integrity, and adventure. We find a man compelled by love to cross oceans, mountains and swamps. He was fired by a vision of bringing hope to a people who needed it as much as his own people had. He entered their world, lived among them, and learned their language and their customs. He was known and respected by them throughout the land – his reputation often going before him. One Ngati Porou chief opened meetings among his East Coast people, declaring – “I have come from Paihia, and have seen Williams of the four eyes”.(2) The bespectacled Williams was affectionately known as Karu Wha (four eyes) by Māori all around New Zealand.
Henry Williams was in no way the feeble, dog-collared distortion that some today love to sneer at. The only thing “wet” about Williams was the sea-soaked and rain-drenched clothes in which he journeyed to the far corners of these islands. He was a giant of our history. Perhaps the greatest ever New Zealander. His life is an inspiration. Over the next few weeks I will highlight different aspects of that amazing life in a mini-series of blogs. Watch this space and be inspired!
(1) Buick, Lindsay T, New Zealand’s First War: Or the Rebellion of Hone Heke, Government Printer, Wellington, 1926, page 276
(2) Apirana T. Mahuika and Steven Oliver, Taumata-a-Kura, Piripi, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, 1990