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Language and Literacy

Initially, Henry Williams did not regard himself as competent in spoken Māori. Little more than three years after arrival he said “ I shall never make an orator among the natives” and admired the progress of his children who could speak the language “nearly as well as their own”.[1] Also, he was impressed with his brother’s fluency: “ (the language).. seems to flow naturally from him”.[2] However many years in the field were to follow, with earnest and lengthy conversations with Maori on all manner of subjects including religion and belief. By the time of the drafting of the Treaty in 1840, 17 years had elapsed since his arrival and it was evident that he could speak at length on his feet and conduct two-way translations.[3] As leader of the Church Missionary Society in New Zealand it was his responsibility to promote literacy, and practices that led to it.


Conveying a religious message through printed works was a time- honoured tradition. For centuries, the few printed books to be found in English households tended to be religious in nature. The missionaries knew the power of the printed word and the demand by Māori for printed works in their own language proved insatiable. Hand in hand with Māori literacy was the missionaries’ growing facility in te reo, the ability to translate works from English into Māori, and then enable them to be printed and distributed.


Learning the language and translation was a priority for the missionaries and they were organised for the purpose. Mornings were given to meetings where the language was studied and the scriptures translated. [4] This group evolved into the “translation syndicate” whose members were the most experienced the mission had to offer. William Williams quickly established himself as a competent linguist, and was the predominant language scholar until the arrival of Robert Maunsell in 1835. Others, like William Puckey and James Hamlin, had a good knowledge of colloquial Māori and made important contributions. This laid the groundwork for Māori to pass on written language skills to their people, as trained teachers materialized among the Māori pastorate.


Māori language activity can be divided into three parts: the study of Māori grammar and pronunciation; Māori-English dictionaries; and the translation into Māori and printing of hymns, Old and New Testaments, and the Prayer Book.  Many hands were involved and the quality varied, but improved with time and experience. As late as 1847 there were calls for additional refinements and achievement of still greater levels of erudition.[5]


Thomas Kendall published A Korau on New Zealand, or the New Zealander’s First Book, in Sydney in 1815. This was followed by Samuel Lee and Thomas Kendall’s A Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language of New Zealand compiled in England with the assistance of Waikato and Heke, and published in 1820. In New Zealand, work on dictionaries and grammars gained impetus with the arrival of Colenso and a printing press. William Williams worked on a grammar and dictionary parts of which were printed at Paihia in 1837. A primer for those unable to read appeared in 1839.[6] Robert Maunsell’s Grammar of the New Zealand Language was published in Auckland in 1842. Then in 1844 Williams’ A Dictionary of the New Zealand Language and Concise Grammar was published at Paihia. The works of both authors went into several editions and work on the Williams dictionary was continued by his son and grandson well into the 20th C.


The number of works suggests that translation and printing of the liturgy and scriptures took precedence. Among the first missionaries sent by Marsden, James Shepherd’s facility with the language enabled him to translate hymns and some of the Gospels into Māori by 1824, some of which was published in Sydney in 1827, and more in the 1830s.[7] William Williams accompanied by members of the Paihia mission – including the competent William Puckey - started translation of parts of the Old and New Testaments in 1826, and by 1837 the whole of the New Testament and Anglican Prayer Book had been published. Five thousand copies of the New Testament were printed in 1837 by William Colenso at Paihia. Together William Williams and Maunsell collaborated on the translation of the complete Bible, work that was finished in the late 1850s. The translation committee comprised a useful blend of biblical and language scholars, along with those who had a good knowledge of everyday Māori, their hard work printed by the industrious Colenso. Books are heavy and one can only imagine the labour involved in distributing them throughout the North Island, by boat, packhorse, and on on their backs.


The availability of printed works was for some time hampered by the lack of a press and competent printer in New Zealand. In 1830 the Rev. William Yate brought back a printing press from Sydney, but little came from it, and works continued to be printed across the Tasman until the arrival, in 1834, of William Colenso, followed in 1835 by a suitable press. Thus the first major printery in New Zealand was established at Paihia. That same year he printed William Williams’ translation of the Epistles to the Ephesians and the Philippians. Colenso was the missionary printer until 1843, when Telford succeeded him. Initially installed in Taiwhanga’s vacated house at Horotutu, the press then moved with Colenso to William and Jane Williams’ stone house at Paihia after they departed for Waimate in 1835. The house was destroyed by fire in 1856, and the ruins of this important building are still to be found in Paihia.[8]




[1] pp. 77, 90. Fitzgerald, C. (ed.) 2011, loc.cit.

[2] pp. 37,38. Porter, F. 1974, loc. cit.

[3] Criticisms of his language skills focused on his oratory and translation skills at the time of the Treaty drafting and signing, but to an extent rely on assessments of his abilities at a much earlier date, failing to allow for improvements over time.

[4] p. 63. Rogers, L.M. 1973, loc. cit.

[5] p. 315, Porter, F. 1974, Loc.cit. 

[6] Details of this and many other early works can found in H. W. Williams, 1926. A Bibliography of Printed Maori to 1900. Dominion Museum Monograph No. 7. (Reprinted by A R Shearer, Wellington, 1975).

[7] p. 159. Rogers, L.M. 1973. Loc. cit.

[8] The restored Pompallier House and Printery is said to be “oldest industrial printery still standing” although it was not the first, which is marked by the Williams house ruins at Paihia: - the Wesleyans had also established a small printery under William Woon, which operated in 1836.


Rev. Henry Williams c. 1865. Photographer unknown.Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2/-052461-F.


Rev. William Williams, c. 1870s, Photographer unknown. Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-061688-F. 


Rev. Robert Maunsell, c. 1880. Photographer unknown. Alexander Turnbull Library , 1/2-127076-F.


William Colenso, 1868. Photographer unknown. Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-005028-F.


Columbian printing press. Photo Trevor Ulyatt. Alexander Turnbull Library. 1/2-005037-8-F.

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