Henry Williams – adventurer to the ends of the earth

Whanganui River

The swine plummeted into the abyss. But this was no cliff above Galilee. It was a precipice above the Whanganui River. Henry Williams, now barefoot for greater grip, clung to the roots and branches on the side of the near vertical track. He watched as the pig tumbled over, and down, crashing through the bush to the bottom of the valley. His Māori companions clambered after it. Williams records, “Detained for two hours, while the boys cut up the pig.” (1)

It was Christmas Day 1839. Rev Henry Williams was not at home with his family, or leading services at Paihia. Instead, this intrepid missionary was on another expedition. For Williams, adventure was in his DNA.

After leaving the Royal Navy two decades earlier, Williams looked to the south seas for new excitement. He offered to captain supply vessels around the coast of New Zealand for the Church Missionary Society (CMS). They suggested he go as a missionary instead. (2) Williams took up the challenge. Becoming the leader of the CMS mission in Paihia in 1823 in no way cramped his adventurous spirit. It just gave him greater opportunity. Now his exploits would not just be on the high seas, but through dense forest and swamps, across rivers, and upon mountains. Te rongopai, the gospel, needed feet. In this wild and rugged land, he would provide them.

An 1835 journey to the Waikato interior saw Williams sail from Paihia to Whakatiwai on the Firth of Thames. From there his party proceeded via waka up the Waihou River to a meeting with the great chief Waharoa. They then battled through bush all the way to near Pirongia. Rain was a constant presence in Williams’ journal, where he also noted crossing the Waikato river and other challenges.

March 13… We had to cross over the river where the stream is extremely rapid, upon a rudely native-constructed bridge, consisting of a few slender trees thrown across, over which we passed on our hands and knees. 

March 14… had to pass through a dangerous bog; all that appeared to keep us from sinking, I know not what depth, was the roots of  weed, which seemed to float upon the surface, and bend under us like weak ice, obliging us to move quickly. lest we should fall through. (3)

Williams and his companions then paddled down the Waipa to Ngaruawahia and a meeting with Te Wherowhero. From there, more river and bush-bashing returned them to Whakatiwai and a sea voyage to Paihia. It was a six week journey of relationship building, sharing te rongopai, and mediating peace between various tribes.

There were many such expeditions. Once Williams traversed the entire North Island after sailing to from Paihia to Wellington with Octavius Hadfield. After climbing the hills and crossing fourteen rivers they came to Otaki, where Hadfield remained to live among local Māori. But Williams continued home via an arduous overland route. His party followed the Whanganui to its source (losing the plummeting pig en-route). After a night below the  Mt Ruapehu snowline they trekked for hours “over most barren ground. No vegetation of any kind, one continued bed of pumice stone.” (4) Lake Taupo was crossed via waka to Rangatira Point where he was glad “to find a chapel and that all professed to be believers”. (5) At Wairakei Williams poked his stick at a geyser which immediately erupted causing him “to retreat with all despatch”. (6) Then it was on through more endless bush to Tauranga, from where they sailed to Paihia. He arrived home after three long months away – just in time to translate the Treaty of Waitangi. 

Of course on all his adventures Williams was not alone. He often had missionary colleagues. And Māori companions acted as guides on routes which, for them, were simply business-as-usual. There was too, another faithful companion. The latter became apparent in moments of great danger. 

One such moment was April 1832. Sailing home from a peace-making mission to Tauranga, Williams and his crew were engulfed in a furious storm off Great Barrier Island. From the time of year, and his description, it was likely an ex-tropical cyclone. Williams records violent north-east gales and rain so dense they could not see the other end of their small vessel. With the boat becoming unmanageable and in danger of being dis-masted, they took down all sails and were driven before the fury of the storm. As night fell the storm intensified. None slept. At dawn, cliffs loomed over them. They hoisted sail to try and escape. But it only drove them faster towards the rocks and inevitable destruction. Henry’s brother William later wrote of the moment,

Every countenance spoke alarm, and it was declared impossible to save her. But what is impossible with man is possible with God. They watched a smooth of the sea to put the helm down, and at that interval there was a lull. The vessel came around in a surprising manner, though to all human appearance it was impossible… (7)

Henry himself later admitted to being “seriously impressed with our great danger” but also to having “felt a strong faith, or secret conviction” that the One who had always protected him on his many journeys, would do so once again. (8) He was proven right. It was such faith that made him one of our greatest adventurers.

Ewen McQueen
May 2020

(1) Rogers, Lawrence (ed), The Early Journals of Henry Williams, Pegasus Press, Christchurch 1961, NZETC, Victoria University, page 468

(2) Fitzgerald, Caroline (ed), Te Wiremu – Henry Williams: Early Years in the North, Huia Publishers, Wellington, 2011, page 15

(3) Rogers, page 422

(4) Rogers, page 469

(5) Fitzgerald, page 308

(6) Fitzgerald, page 309

(7) Williams, William, Christianity Among the New Zealanders, Seeley, Jackson & Halliday, London, 1867, University of Auckland Library, ENZB, page 142

(8) Rogers, page 242

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

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