Henry Williams – the inveterate learner

The chocks were kicked away. Fifty tonnes of sailing vessel glided down rollers, over the Paihia sand and plunged into the water. The multitude of Māori onlookers were briefly silenced. Astonished. Then they erupted. Hundreds splashed wildly into the water throwing spears and clambered aboard. On shore, thousands burst into a thundering haka of celebration. No waka had ever been launched this way! The gathered Pākehā joined with “three hearty cheers”. (1)

So was launched the Herald, in January 1826. A sixty-foot schooner, it would enable regular supply trips to be made across the Tasman. It was a response to the shortages often experienced at the Paihia mission station. And it was a response typical of Rev Henry Williams. Without prior experience in boat-building, Williams simply turned to books, and some advice he had obtained from a ship’s carpenter. He then supervised the construction of the solution to their supply problems, which now floated before them.

Resourceful, abounding in initiative, Williams was an inveterate learner. Faced with a challenge, he would apply himself to learning what was needed to overcome it.

And for Williams his greatest challenge was not crossing oceans, it was crossing cultures. To this task he applied himself with the same determination to learn. Upon arriving in 1823 he refocused the mission’s routine. Now there would be daily Māori language lessons for everyone from 8am to 10am. After this Henry and his brother would spend three more hours on preparing a dictionary. (2)

Some modern historians have claimed that in these efforts they fashioned a form of “missionary Māori”. However the evidence shows they took particular care to be accurate. In a letter home Williams records that an early problem in learning the language was the “mixed jargon” which Māori had picked up from the trading ships. He notes his team had first to learn, and then unlearn this. To this end,

...a proclamation was issued that none should speak in this confused manner to us. By degrees we suppressed it, and they have long spoken the pure tongue. Yet even now it is necessary to be very careful that we do not confound their words to accommodate us. (3)

Williams himself initially struggled with learning the language, but with perseverance came progress. It wasn’t long before he was conversing with confidence wherever he went. On his many adventures he invariably finished the day at his tent door in “close conversation” with Māori among whom he was staying. This is a recurring phrase in his journal.

Often the conversation went well into the night. After journeying into the Waikato interior in 1835, Williams returned to Thames where he “was kept in conversation with Wharerahi and others till midnight.”(4) In his traverse of the North Island in 1839 he arrived at a settlement on the upper Whanganui River where no European had been before. He reported in his journal,

I was kept in close conversation for about two hours, the people having gathered round for that purpose…   Some natives, hearing that I was in the neighbourhood, came down the river to see me. Two young men, in particular, took up their position close to me, and kept me in close conversation, till I could talk no more. (5) 

On the same journey he came across a party of Maori near Taupō who were very much surprised at finding a European in the bush, “especially when they discovered that he could speak to them in their own language.” A few days later near Lake Rotoaira, under the slopes of Mt Tongariro, Williams recorded,

Dec 30…  In the evening had much conversation with the people assembled around my Tent who were full of curiosity and wonder at all they saw and heard…                           Jan 1…  Had a good assembly around the Tent till late..  (6)

Henry Williams engaged eagerly with Māori wherever he went. And many of them were just as keen to talk with him. But it was not only language Williams was learning. Understanding the customs, or tikanga, of those he had come to serve was equally as important to him. Hence we find him in 1835, upon meeting the great chief Waharoa, maintaining a respectful silence, “As is the custom, no one spoke for some time…” (7)  Even where customs were not to his liking, he had the wisdom to see past the form, to the heart of what was being expressed. Williams was not a fan of haka, but of one expedition in 1833 he writes,

As we approached the beach, the troops were turned out to salute us, and gave us one of their infernal dances…  however, as it was intended as a compliment, it was needful to receive it as such. (8)

The ultimate success of Henry Williams, in learning to cross the cultural divide, is summed up in a story told by Mary Ann Martin, wife of the Chief Justice. In 1843 she attended a Waimate hui. Local Māori were opposing plans for the recently arrived Bishop Selwyn to relocate to Auckland. One chief was particularly animated. Martin wrote,

It was very amusing to see the two brothers Williams stand up to answer him. They had lived so long in the land that they used Maori action…  Archdeacon Henry Williams, a stout, old-fashioned looking clergyman, with broad-brimmed hat and spectacles, marched up and down with a spear in his hand, and elicited shouts of applause. (9)

Rev Henry Williams had clearly won the hearts of his hearers. Today it is fashionable to criticise Williams. However his life is an outstanding example of one who was willing to learn, in order to reach across cultures. He deserves as much applause from us, as he received that day at Waimate.

Ewen McQueen
May 2020

(1) Fitzgerald, Caroline (ed), Te Wiremu – Henry Williams: Early Years in the North, Huia Publishers, Wellington, 2011, page 65

(2) Williams, William, Christianity Among the New Zealanders, Seeley, Jackson & Halliday, London, 1867, University of Auckland Library, ENZB, page 68

(3) Fitzgerald, page 92

(4) Rogers, Lawrence (ed), The Early Journals of Henry Williams, Pegasus Press, Christchurch 1961, NZETC, Victoria University, page 431

(5) Rogers, page 467-468

(6) Rogers, page 470-471

(7) Rogers, page 420

(8) Rogers, page 298

(9) Drummond, Alison, Married & Gone to New Zealand: being extracts from the writings of women pioneers, Oxford University Press, 1960, page 154

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

4 Responses to Henry Williams – the inveterate learner

  1. Rosanna Ball says:

    Wonderful confirmation of an amazing man.


  2. John and Lilian Dunlop says:

    Thanks for sharing that. I read his wife’s book – inspiring.


    • Ewen McQueen says:

      Hi John & Lilian – this is one of a series over the last few weeks. You can see the earlier ones (if you haven’t already) by looking for all the posts beginning with Henry Williams. There will be one more soon…
      Kind regards


  3. Jenn Falconer says:

    Thanks for that – such a treat to read a positive story about early pakeha settlement. Jenn Falconer


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