“Behold i bring you glad tidings of great joy.”
When Samuel Marsden proclaimed these words at the first Christmas service in New Zealand 190 years ago, he felt his “soul melt” as he looked out at his congregation on the green hillside overlooking the sea. Maori and European stood together for the Christian ceremony, and no doubt this was how Marsden envisaged the future for the two races in New Zealand. He had planned and fought hard for this moment, and now, after 10 years’ effort, his dream of establishing the first Christian settlement in New Zealand was finally coming to fruition with the three missionary families he had brought with him. A minister of his times, he could not imagine any finer gift for a people he had long admired and yearned to help.
Evaluating the man and his dream nearly two centuries on is not easy, for we are inclined to view Marsden with post-colonial eyes. It would be easy to dismiss him as deluded, arrogant or self-important. Even in his own times he was the centre of much controversy, as people either loved or loathed him. Portraits show an unprepossessing man—plump, with a bulbous nose and a humourless expression—but can we read anything into this? Who among us would like to be judged on their passport photograph? Yet we live with the legacy of Marsden’s dream. Whether we like it or not, he opened New Zealand up—for where missionaries went, settlers were bound to follow.
It isn’t easy to imagine what his pioneering voyage to an exciting—and greatly feared—land almost 200 years ago must have been like. Fortunately, we possess two journals that describe the journey. Marsden himself kept a meticulous diary, while John Nicholas, a young Englishman who had begged a place on what he anticipated would be an incomparable adventure, chronicled in exuberant detail everything that he saw and experienced. The two men’s blithe use of terms such as savage, heathen and cannibal jars on the modern ear, and their unquestioning sense of superiority infuriates. Yet it is possible to see beyond their condescension to an underlying respect for Maori and, in Marsden’s case, an ever-growing affection for them.
To understand Marsden, it is important to appreciate his tenacity. The vision of settling New Zealand had first come to him more than a decade earlier, when he had become friendly with several Maori visiting Port Jackson. He had put them up in his own house and educated them. In particular, he had spent a lot of time with Te Pahi, a chief from the Bay of Islands, and the two had formed a close bond as early as 1805.
Believing Maori possessed sterling qualities that deserved guidance from the civilising hand of Christianity, Marsden went to London in 1807 to petition the Church Missionary Society. While he was there, however, horrific news of a massacre at Whangaroa, in which the crew of the English brigantine Boyd had been butchered, reached England. The massacre itself was terrible but what truly shocked people was the cannibalism that had followed. Suddenly all plans were called off, for, as Marsden ruefully but realistically noted, “few would venture out to a country where they could anticipate nothing less than to be killed and eaten by the natives”.
Marsden was, of course, greatly pained by the savagery of the attack, but he was equally appalled to hear that whalers, believing Te Pahi a participant in the massacre, had taken revenge by attacking his village. They had slaughtered almost every man, woman and child, including Te Pahi himself, but Marsden was convinced the whalers had been mistaken and should really have been seeking a neighbouring chief, Te Puhi. The minister resolved that one day he would hear the Maori version of the Boyd incident and establish the innocence of his old friend.
By 1814 the horror of the memory had faded sufficiently for Marsden finally to obtain the support of the Church Missionary Society; and so it was that after many years of dreaming and organising he set sail with three missionary families and six Maori chiefs who had been instrumental in helping him with his plans. Three of the chiefs were particularly close to him: a young relative of Te Pahi whom he had rescued in London called Duaterra (Marsden’s spelling; today he would be known as Ruatara), Shunghee (Hongi) and Korokoro.
The Active—a ship Marsden had bought with his own funds for the New Zealand project sailed from Sydney on November 19, 1814. Immediately there were problems. Nicholas described how Duaterra, normally a very lively young man of 28, suddenly became “quite dejected, a kind of morose melancholy overspread his countenance, and it entirely lost that vivacious animation which it used to display before”. Several other chiefs became likewise withdrawn. It was only after some coaxing that Duaterra explained that a man in Sydney “had said that the Missionaries then going, would shortly introduce a much greater number; and thus, in some time, become so powerful as to possess themselves of the whole island, and either destroy the natives, or reduce them to slavery”.
The missionaries were dismayed to hear this, and Marsden warmly assured Duaterra that they were “prompted by no motives of ambition or avarice…but on the contrary were actuated by the most disinterested and benevolent solicitude for the happiness of the New Zealanders”. He offered to turn the ship around immediately and return to Sydney Cove, abandoning all plans for a mission, if that was what the Maori chiefs desired. This convinced Duaterra and the others of the minister’s sincerity and he immediately pledged his support once more, though he warned that he could not vouch for tribes other than his own (Nga Puhi). Trust aboard, however, had been secured.
The voyage itself was largely uneventful apart from heavy seas, which rendered many seasick. Nicholas related the misadventures colourfully:
Mr. Marsden was most severely attacked, and could find no rest either in his cot or on deck; above or below was all the same, he continued a prey to convulsive retchings, and the disorder of his stomach would yield to nothing that was offered either as a remedy or palliative. This disagreeable complaint had a strange effect on poor Mr. Kendall [a school‑master]; it made him forget for the moment that he had a wig upon his head; which falling off, in his endeavours to relieve his stomach, dropped over‑board, and left him under the necessity of tying a red handkerchief round his temples, which, with the death-like paleness of his face and the grim languor of his eyes, made him appear so complete a spectre,that he forcibly reminded me of Banquo’s ghost.
On Wednesday December 14, flocks of gannets and petrels alerted the voyagers to the promise of land ahead, and on Friday morning they arrived off the Three Kings Islands, which presented “to the eye a most picturesque appearance”. From there they sailed past Cape Maria van Dieman, and on Saturday they anchored immediately off North Cape, where preparations were made to go ashore. The six Maori chiefs, appearing on deck “arrayed in their uniforms, made quite a showy and martial appearance, and being armed with swords, pistols and muskets, were prepared to resist any hostilities that might be offered to them on their landing.”
Marsden was keen to go with them, saying, “I was anxious to have an interview with the chiefs in order that I might explain to them the object of my voyage, introduce the settlers to them, and prepare the way for my future attempts to promote their welfare.” Duaterra opposed this plan, for the people they were about to encounter had been known to attack other boats, so the Maori set off alone to ascertain what sort of welcome awaited them.
Even before their boat reached shore, however, a canoe arrived alongside Active bearing a chief and his son, who were immediately invited on board. Amicable discussions followed as Marsden showed the guests Governor of New South Wales Lachlan Macquarie’s Instructions to Masters of Vessels, which stated that all boats bound for New Zealand or other South Pacific islands must pay a bond of £1000, which would be forfeited if they were involved in any “misconduct with regard to the natives”. The chief “received these instructions with much satisfaction” for the many indignities which visiting seamen visited on the locals were legendary.
More canoes drew alongside, Duaterra and his companions returned and happy relations were established with the exchange of gifts and food. The North Cape Maori found much to intrigue them, from the cattle and horses in the hold to Marsden’s shaving implements and Nicholas’s spectacles. Marsden summed up this first crucial meeting with the words:“This was one of the most interesting and pleasant days I had ever enjoyed.”
Nicholas was more verbose:
They all appeared extremely anxious to conciliate our friendships, by voluntary testimonies of attachment towards us. These were frequently so marked and affecting, that callous indeed must be the soul that could not be moved by them. They would come up to us with all the kindliest feelings of the heart beaming in their countenances, and clasping their arms round our waists, tell us repeatedly we were miti, which means good, seeming at the same time particularly desirous that we should be convinced of their affection. My heart was deeply affected with the scene—the thought of their being cannibals immediately vanished from my recollection, and I viewed them only as the children of genuine sensibility. Never was my mind so prepared as at this moment to believe the opinion of the wayward philosopher of Geneva [Rousseau], that the best and kindest affections of the human heart are found only in the man who has neither been born amidst luxuries, nor educated in the refinements of civilized society.
This initial encounter having gone so well, Marsden was buoyed with optimism for the next shore visit—at Whangaroa, which they reached several days later. Duaterra again was worried, and Marsden related their discussion:
I told him how anxious I was to make peace…for this would secure the lives of the Europeans and tend to the general benefit of their country. I expressed my wish to visit the camp of the Wangarooa people and hear what the chiefs had to say on the subject. As he had never met these people since the loss of the Boyd except in the field of battle, he hesitated for some time. I did all I could to induce him to try the experiment. He was not afraid for himself but was apprehensive for my party. He at length consented to go on shore with me. Shunghee and Korokoro agreed to accompany us, and Messrs. Nicholas, Kendall, King, and Hanson volunteered to do the same.
The party, armed with muskets and pistols, rowed to shore and began to walk cautiously towards the village. Their apprehension was not one-sided, for on seeing the Europeans a group of women and children fled into the surrounding bush. An old man remained. Nicholas noted: “He was sitting on the ground…and betrayed not the least indications of fear as we approached him. Saluting him in the usual respectful manner, by applying our noses to his, he received us with much apparent kindness.”
They continued on their way to the village, and Nicholas’s journal details his enchantment with the beautiful views and the foliage about him. Marsden was more concerned with other matters, his diary recording instead how Duaterra smoothed the way so that the local chiefs, including one of the principal assailants of the Boyd, known as George, agreed to meet them.
The Europeans thus enjoyed their first powhiri, which both Marsden and Nicholas described with a fitting sense of ceremony and solemnity. At the end, muskets on both sides were discharged into the air and Nicholas “thought it proper to follow their example and immediately discharged my fowling piece”. Celebrations followed, with a feast and discussions. Finally, after many years, Marsden was able to hear about the Boyd incident from George.
George had been working on the Boyd but one day had been too ill to complete his duties. Disregarding his rank as chief, the captain had had him flogged, and this disrespect had spread to the crew, so that for the rest of the voyage George “was subject to their taunts and scurrilities, and they persecuted him, he said, in every possible way they could devise”. Marsden accepted the truth of this for, as he said, “the many abusive terms which he mentioned…are but too commonly used by British soldiers”. Not surprisingly, when the Boyd had anchored in Whangaroa harbour and George’s people had seen his lacerated back and heard of the treatment meted out to him, they had immediately sworn revenge. Boyd had been attacked, all crew and passengers, save four, being slain and later eaten. Marsden dealt with this recital in a few sentences, more concerned finally to confirm Te Pahi’s innocence than to dwell on the details of the event.
Nicholas, however, devoted a number of pages to a blow-by-blow account, liberally seeded with his own views on the incident. His feelings were conflicted:
Led away by the horror I felt at such indiscriminate carnage, I had almost wished at the moment, that the barbarous perpetrators were all swept away in the vengeance of heaven off the face of the creation… And yet perhaps the most strict moralist will not hesitate to allow even to these atrocities, shocking as they are to human nature, a degree of palliation from the circumstances in which they originated.
At the end of the evening Marsden, as a gesture of trust, proposed spending the night on shore with the Maori. Nicholas joined him in this venture, fully alive to the drama of the situation.
The scene now became awfully appalling. Night threw its gloomy shade over the ruthless murderers of our countrymen, while we, but two in number, remained perfectly defenceless in the midst of them; trusting only to the internal dictates of their hearts, for the privilege of existing a single instance… Yet reflecting on their disposition which is never vengeful without sufficient cause, we felt no alarms for our safety…and feared not to close our eyes in the very centre of these cannibals.
Marsden also was filled with strong emotions.
I viewed our present situation with new sensations and feelings I cannot express. Surrounded by cannibals, who had massacred and devoured our countrymen, I wondered much at the mysteries of Providence, and how these things could be… I did not sleep much during the night; my mind was too seriously occupied by the present scene and the new and strange ideas it naturally excited.
Everyone was up before dawn, the Maori, as Nicholas rather enviously noted, “being invigorated and refreshed by that profound sleep which health is always sure to invite”. George and “Tippouie” (Te Puhi?) were invited on board for breakfast, and later that morning the Active set sail after a further exchange of gifts and good wishes, with Nicholas stating, “Thus has the laudable enterprise of Mr. Marsden succeeded, to all appearance, in conciliating the natives in Wangeroa.” However, he added that he would still recommend caution to all captains.
Marsden was more optimistic, writing:
I expressed my hopes that they would have no more wars, but from that time would be reconciled to each other. Duaterra, Shunghee, and Korokoro all shook hands with the chiefs of Wangarooa and saluted each other as a token of reconciliation by joining their noses together. I was much gratified to see these men at amity once more, and sincerely wished that this peace may never be broken.
The voyage ended at 3 p.m. on Thursday, December 22, when the Active anchored off Duaterra’s village of Rangihoua, in the Bay of Islands. The boat was immediately surrounded by waka, while the shore was thick with people delirious at seeing their chiefs once more. Marsden described the scene:
On going ashore, Duaterra and Shunghee found all their friends and relatives well, who wept much tears for joy at their return, and the women cut themselves…with shells and flints, till the blood flowed down. It was in vain to attempt to persuade them not to do this, as they considered it the strongest proof of their affections.
The following day the horses and cattle were unloaded. Nicholas enjoyed the reactions of the Maori to these:
extraordinary looking animals. Cows or horses they had never seen before, and diverted now from every thing else, they regarded them as stupendous prodigies. However, their astonishment was soon turned into alarm and confusion; for one of the cows that was wild and unmanageable, being impatient of restraint, rushed in among them, and caused such violent terror through the whole assemblage, that imagining some preternatural monster had been let loose to destroy them, they all immediately betook themselves to flight.
But this cause of their panic being removed, they did not hesitate to return, and Mr. Marsden, mounting a horse, rode up and down the beach, exciting their wonder in a tenfold degree.
Nicholas himself wondered in turn at the many new sights about him. He admired the immaculate gardens, was impressed by the strong fortifications and found the practice of polygamy intriguing. He wrote in detail of the houses and many of the customs he observed. Korokoro, who had remained in Whangaroa, arrived with 10 wakaloads of warriors, and he and Duaterra staged a mock battle for the entertainment of the Europeans. Nicholas penned a rousing description, covering everything from the warriors’ appearance, to the haka (“which set every nerve in motion”) and the sounds of battle itself (“the wildest vociferations of savage clamour”). Several breathless pages on he concluded: “From this mock encounter, which was carried on, while it lasted, with impetuous activity, and was an exact representation of their real mode of fighting, we had an opportunity of estimating how formidable these savage warriors must always prove themselves in a serious conflict.”
Duaterra spent the rest of the day preparing for the following morning, which “was rendered doubly sacred by being the Sabbath, and also the anniversary of that day which gave birth to the Divine Redeemer of mankind”. The young chief fenced in about half an acre of land and then, with some planks and an old canoe, set up a pulpit and a reading desk, which he covered with a black flax cloth. Marsden was well pleased, saying, “The whole was becoming and had a solemn appearance.” Duaterra even erected a flag-pole on the highest hill, and Marsden, when he rose on Christmas morning, was delighted to see the British flag flying. “I considered it the signal for the dawn of civilization, liberty and religion in that dark and benighted land.”
At 10 o’clock the missionary party went ashore, where they were greeted by Korokoro, Duaterra and Shunghee dressed in the regimental uniforms Governor Macquarie had given them.
We entered the enclosure and were placed in the seats on each side of the pulpit. Korokoro marched his men in and placed them on my right hand in the rear of the Europeans and Duaterra placed his men on the left. The inhabitants of the town with the women and children and a number of other chiefs formed a circle round the whole. A very solemn silence prevailed—the sight was truly impressive. I got up and began the service with singing the Old Hundred Psalm, and felt my very soul melt within me when I viewed my congregation and considered the state we were in. After reading the service, during which the natives stood up and sat down at the signal given by the motion of Korokoro’s switch which was regulated by the movements of the Europeans, it being Christmas Day I preached from the second chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, the tenth verse: “Behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy.”
Nicholas provided less reverent detail, describing how Korokoro, if he caught sight of anyone whispering, would tap the offender on the head with his cane. When Marsden had finished his sermon, Duaterra translated it, and Nicholas noted how “to several importunate questions from his countrymen, regarding the minute particulars of the subject, he made no other reply than that they would be fully acquainted with them at a future time”.
The service over, the congregation poured out of the enclosure, and immediately:
three or four hundred surrounding Mr. Marsden and myself, commenced their war dance, yelling and shouting in their usual style, which they did, I suppose, from the idea that this furious demonstration of their joy would be the most grateful return they could make us for the solemn spectacle they had witnessed.
Thus passed the first Christian service on New Zealand soil, and so did the missionaries take possession of a tiny corner of the land. Marsden’s and Nicholas’s journals by no means provide a complete record of the momentous early meetings of Maori and missionary. The missionaries’ wives, for example, would no doubt have told the story very differently, although the greatest pity is that there are no first-hand accounts of what the Maori made of the strange little group of Europeans whom they made so welcome. Generally it would appear that there was considerable goodwill on both sides, although Nicholas did note that during the Whangaroa feast some old men:
regarded us with silent contemplation and seemed rather occupied in forming conjectures as to the motives that induced us to visit their country… Looking on us with an air of dignified gravity and serious reflection, they never uttered a word, and strange ideas formed in my mind some resemblance between them and the Roman senators, when Brennus came with hostile vengeance to destroy the city.
However, he briskly dismissed this empathic moment, continuing with cheerful patronage: “But they had nothing of this kind to dread from us as we wished rather to improve, than demolish, their wretched capital.”
Of course, none of the participants could have had any idea of what would unfold over the next two centuries, and it would appear that on that Sunday morning the future to many seemed bright. The last word goes to Samuel Marsden:
“Thus I have informed you how we devoted our first Sabbath day at New Zealand. I assure you it was much more congenial to our feelings than any gratification we had previously anticipated.”