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Warfare, inter-tribal and against the British, was a threat throughout their lives in New Zealand. As Henry Williams lay on his deathbed the Ngāti Hauata and Ngāti Kawa were poised to battle the Uritaniwha. Only his passing brought a halt to the fighting. With the Hauhau uprising and engagement with British militia, William and Jane Williams were compelled to leave their home at Waerenga-a-hika, in 1865 – it was later in ruins. In spite of a range of battles and disputes, and other occasions when missionary property was destroyed or stolen, missionary lives were seldom taken, even when they stood in the line of fire.[1]


Inter-tribal warfare was a major impediment to spreading the gospel. Days, sometimes weeks, were taken up settling disputes ranging from the trivial to life threatening. Sometimes the missionaries sat between two taua, or raiding parties, about to engage in armed conflict. At others they mediated disputes over perceived insults, or stolen property – dealing with utu was a major occupation.


A notable example was the “War in the North”, as it was later called. One stimulus for this was the fate of Maketu, who was to be tried under English Law for the murder of a settler family with familial connections to northern hapu. A stern test of the recently signed Treaty and the understandings taken from it, some regarded it as a matter for Māori justice and retribution whereas others, including Henry Williams and some Ngāpuhi Chiefs, sided with those who thought the British justice system should decide his guilt. In the end the latter prevailed. Heke and some other chiefs were vehemently opposed, thus setting up major divisions among Ngāpuhi, and between Ngāpuhi factions and the British.


Between 8 July 1844 and 10 March 1845, simmering discontent led Heke and his supporters to a series of attacks on the flagpole at Kororāreka, challenging both the British and mana whenua. On the last occasion the Government called in British forces, including HMS Hazard, an 18-gun sloop armed with carronades[2], and the Government brig Victoria. The Hazard’s Captain Robertson died leading a shore party against Kawiti’s men. Kororāreka was evacuated and then destroyed, first by the explosion of a cask of gunpowder and subsequent fire and then, inexplicably, by Hazard – now under the command of the volatile Lieutenant Philpotts – bombarding the town over two days. Heke’s forces had by this time felled the flagstaff, killed its defenders, and entered Kororareka. Māori and returning settlers plundered what remained of the town.


In the midst of the turmoil Henry Williams conducted negotiations for a ceasefire – a thankless task interrupted by Philpotts’ bombardment, and for which the latter called him a ‘traitor’. It is hard to see why -Williams, accompanied by fellow missionaries and Bishop Selwyn, buried the dead in the town, and took the bodies of slain soldiers back to the Hazard. A veteran of the British Navy's bombardment of Copenhagen during the Napoleonic wars, the scene must have been depressingly familiar to Henry Williams.


Battles between rival factions and Government forces continued, with heavy defeats suffered by the British. At the battle of Ohaewai, Heke allowed Williams to enter the pa to bury the English dead, amongst them Lieutenant Philpotts who had joined the ground forces. Finally, at Ruapekapeka, the British claimed a victory of sorts and hostilities sputtered to an end. The parties concluded a peace between Heke and his collaborator Kawiti and Waka Nene and Governor Grey. Later, Grey’s gross distortion of the missionary role would come back to haunt Henry Williams.


Earlier, William Williams tried to persuade Heke to take a less destructive path, with limited success and in spite of trying to find a balance between Māori and Government views. In July 1847, he wrote to the Church Missionary Society in London, stating that the Government’s marginalising of the Treaty in relation to Māori land would only lend substance to those who saw Heke as a saviour.[3]


Government actions would continue to provoke Māori and, for the most part, act as the root cause of war until the 1870s, leaving the missionaries to protest from the sidelines. Prior to the Treaty the missionaries had gained growing acceptance as peacemakers by the Ngāpuhi, themselves growing increasingly weary of the constant bloodshed.[4]


Mention needs to be made of the effect of all this on the wives and families of missionaries who, if not barricading themselves in their homes, waited in trepidation for the safe return of their husbands and fathers, from fields of dispute or battle.



[1] A notable exception being the killing of the Rev. Volkner at Opotiki, during the Pai Marire (Hauhau) rebellion.

[2] Carronades, originally manufactured by the Carron Company in Scotland, were effective short-range cannon.

[3] pp. 290, 296, 435, 436.  Porter, F. (ed.) 1974, loc. cit.

[4] pp. 46, 47. Porter, F. (ed.) 1974, loc. cit.


Maketu [1842] by Joseph Jenner Merrett [The Hobson Album] Ref. E-216-f-011, Alexander Turnbull Library


The Warrior Chieftains of New Zealand [1846] by Joseph Jenner Merrett, 1815-1864, Ref. C-012-019, Alexander Turnbull Library. Heke (centre) Kawiti (right) Heke's wife Harriet (left).


Kororareka (Russell) 1845, by Captain Clayton. Ref. C-010-022. Alexander Turnbull Library. Painted the day before the bombardment, left to right, HMS Hazard, HMS Victoria, and Matilda.


Memorial to two marines and four sailors from HMS Hazard, Christ Church, Russell

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