Henry Williams (RN) – the fighter on a new mission

HMS Endymion fires on the USS President – Auckland Museum Library – PD-1964-2-13

The canon misfired, blowing the young man down the bank. Festivities at Paihia were abruptly interrupted.

It was December 1828 and hundreds had gathered at the Paihia mission station for the end of year huihuinga. George Clarke junior, a boy at the time, later recalled how the head of mission, Rev Henry Williams, had set up four canons on the hill above the station. His plan  – to add some “bang” to the occasion from his Royal Navy experience. Unfortunately things didn’t go quite as intended. An over-enthusiastic young man reloaded one gun too quickly, causing an explosion. Clarke notes the lad lost some fingers, was temporarily blinded, and suffered “other bodily dilapidation” (1)

The records show more huihuinga were held at Paihia over the years, but canons do not feature again! However there is no doubt that Henry Williams continued to bring his Royal Navy experience to the mission. It was experience forged after 1806 when he volunteered aged 14. By the time he retired a decade later as a lieutenant, he had fought in battles off the coasts of Africa, America and Europe. In one encounter his ship the HMS Endymion engaged and captured the USS President. Williams joined a boarding party which then sailed the sinking vessel through a storm to the Bermudas. Some of the captured sailors escaped and a violent struggle ensued before they were subdued.(2) Williams later painted the naval battle. It is now held in the Auckland Museum.

Māori were well aware of William’s fighting past. On one occasion they even tried to utilise his military skills. Williams had accompanied a war party south to try and mediate. However his Ngāpuhi companions were more interested in some canons they had acquired from a sailing vessel. They sought his advice on how to use them. Williams notes wryly in his journal – “I declined the honour.” (3).

His friends should have known better. Karu Whā was now fighting another battle. And from the moment he arrived in New Zealand he had made clear his position. In early altercations with some of his new neighbours at Paihia he resisted strongly any intimidation – but without resort to weapons. After one incident in 1824 Marianne Williams recorded in her journal,

Henry told them he knew how to fight, but he did not come here to fight, neither would he fight. He would sit in peace and deliver his message to them, or he would go to another place. (4)

Williams earned the respect of Māori for his approach. They knew he was a fighter, and the battle he was now engaged in required no less determination, spirit and courage. And it often saw him still involved in the heat of warfare. Only now it was as a peacemaker, defying bullets to save lives and end violence. In 1830 a war broke out among tribes in the Bay of Islands over an insult to a chief’s daughter. Several had already been killed and tensions were rising when on March 6th a furious battle broke out at Kororāreka. Williams immediately sailed over and interposed himself between the parties waving a white flag. He records in his journal,

…went on shore to endeavour to put a stop to the firing. Landed at the scene of action, but could not see anyone of any rank, as all were concealed by fences and screens. The parties were about 20 yards apart. I made as much noise as I could, but to no immediate effect. (5)

Williams had landed in the middle of a beach, from either end of which, both parties continued to fire at each other. Eventually he convinced them to cease and all were dismayed to find many had been killed and wounded. Such peacemaking efforts became increasingly common for Williams. Not surprisingly, they were a source of much anxiety to his wife and family. After Henry avoided becoming a target in another mediating journey, Marianne wrote in a letter home of her relief that he was not shot at, as “Henry you know presents a broad front”. (6)

Combative, forceful, uncompromising. These are not words typically used to portray missionaries. But for Williams they fit.  Rev Henry Williams, ex-Royal Navy, was a fighter on a new mission. It was a mission of peace and reconciliation, but he brought to it the same fighting spirit with which had seen action on the high seas.

It is also fitting that he was sent to a people for whom honour and respect was won on the field of battle. Such is the wisdom of the One who sent him. 

Ewen McQueen
April 2020

(1) Clarke, George, Notes on Early Life in New Zealand, Walch & Sons, 1903, NZETC, Victoria University, Page 15

(2) Fitzgerald, Caroline (ed), Te Wiremu – Henry Williams: Early Years in the North, Huia Publishers, Wellington, 2011, page 9

(3) Rogers, Lawrence (ed), The Early Journals of Henry Williams, Pegasus Press, Christchurch 1961, NZETC, Victoria University, page 231

(4) Fitzgerald, page 49

(5) Rogers, page 156

(6) Fitzgerald, page 143

This entry was posted in Cultural Renewal, Spiritual Renewal, Treaty of Waitangi and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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