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Māori Culture

It has been said that they did not greatly engage with Māori culture. It is true that neither they nor their immediate descendants married into Māori families or vice versa, and they disapproved of those (few) missionaries who took Māori wives or were involved in extra-marital relationships.[1] Some cultural practices-cannibalism, slavery, polygamy, tattooing and certain burial practices – they objected to and tried to change within the framework of conversion.[2] They possessed a few Māori artefacts, mostly gifts, but could not be said to be serious collectors, although Henry Williams sent an accumulation of artefacts to his family in England in early 1829.[3] Jane Williams sent Catherine Heathcote some greenstone pieces, a carved box, a bone mere, and some mats.[4] Finally, they maintained English modes of dress, food, and housing, and where they could, passed these on to Māori. Church and school ceremonies, such as prize-givings, were conducted in the English fashion. But all this said how could they not, at a certain level, engage with Māori culture when their contact was close, on a daily basis, and lasted for years? 


They did not demonstrate a deep interest in ethnology. Their understanding of Māori cosmogony and belief was that they were ‘gross superstition’ contrary to their own beliefs, and impeded conversion.[5] Henry Williams, it seems, did not always hold himself aloof from Māori cultural practices, especially when in their company, observing or taking part in such ceremonies and rituals that did not clash with his beliefs.[6] He adopted the practice of whaikorero, striding backward and forward to address his audience as part of formal speechmaking.[7]  The one area they engaged with on a regular basis was te reo, the language, the essential bridge to their communication with Māori, the key to proselytising, and simply meeting the demands of everyday life. Whole families were fluent and, even when writing to each other in English, Māori words were often borrowed for emphasis. William Williams began a family tradition in Māori-English dictionary writing and led the missionary translation syndicate. 


From the beginning they needed to become aware of the Māori concepts of mana, utu, and tapu, an interconnected set of values that governed Māori life and relationships. Even in the European world the stature of an individual, the concept of balance in the exchange of deeds, or the sacred nature of certain sites and activities, had recognisable counterparts. The challenge for missionaries was how these principles were acted on or enforced in the Māori world, especially when they led to conflict and loss of life.


Crossing cultural divides was problematical if vigorously pursued. Alienation from both worlds might result, a problem seen in relation to Māori converts who forsook their spiritual world for the Christian one, but also seen in missionaries like Kendall who, apart from engaging in an adulterous relationship with a Māori woman, took what his brethren regarded as an unhealthy interest in Māori cosmology.[8] Rejection by one’s parent culture and self-doubt were possible consequences. An impediment to a thorough understanding of each other’s world-view was the difficulty in engaging in deep philosophical debate across language barriers. Māori told William Williams that they could understand the missionaries when discussing everyday matters, but lost track when the debate entered unfamiliar concepts.[9] Nevertheless, just as the missionaries’ teaching and other activities impacted Māori culture, the reverse was also true. It did not however amount to cultural assimilation – in either direction.



[1] Although they had no problem officiating at Maori-European marriage ceremonies for the lay population.

[2] In those days even other forms of Christianity were highly contested or rejected. High Church Anglicanisim and Catholicism were barely tolerated.

[3] p. 115, Fitzgerald, C. (ed.) 2011. Te Wiremu, Henry Williams, Early Years in the North. Huia Publishers, Wellington, 349 pp.

[4] p. 142 Porter, F. (ed) 1974. Loc.cit. In a box that included her husband’s fern collection and some Clematis seed.

[5] pp. 19, 20, Williams, W.1867. Christianity Among the New Zealanders. Seeley, Jackson and Halliday, London., 384 pp.

[6] p. 78, Rogers, L.M. 1973. Te Wiremu – a Biography of Henry Williams. Pegasus Press Christchurch, 335 pp.

[7] p. 85, Middleton, A., 2014. Pewhairangi, Bay of Islands Missionaries and Maori, 1814-1845. Otago University Press, Dunedin, 336 pp.

[8] p. 41, Porter, F. (ed.) , 1974. The Turanga Journals. Price Milburn and the Victoria University Press. Wellington, 659 pp.

[9] p. 44, Porter, F. (ed.) 1974. loc. cit.


Hoeroa, presented to Henry Williams, Williams Museum Collection. Photo, Priscilla Williams

Henry Williams addressing Maori gatherin

Henry Williams (standing left) addressing Maori. Sketch, Thomas Biddulph Hutton. W C Cotton Journals, v. 8, 66A, Dixson Library, State Library of NSW.

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