Reverend Traitor?

Today is the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi – a critical document in the history and law of New Zealand – and February 6 is celebrated as the country’s national day. Like Australia Day here, the choice of date and the event that it commemorates are not without controversy in Kiwi society.

There remains debate as to whether the Treaty was a good or bad deal for the Maori in establishing their legal relationship with the British Crown. And the numerous military skirmishes between Maori tribes and British settlers and soldiers in the subsequent years have contributed indelible dark red, bloody hues to any picture of the relationship between the two peoples which have been incorporated into one modern society and nation.

As part of my commemoration of Waitangi Day, I commend to readers the story of a man who played a key role in the Treaty arrangement in 1840 between the Maori chiefs and the Queen of the Pakeha (i.e. the name for European settlers). Henry Williams was the most significant Christian missionary to the Maori in the early history of New Zealand’s “settlement” by British colonists. He was sent by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in England to teach Maori the gospel and ways of Jesus Christ.

Rev. Henry Williams

Williams demonstrated a sincere care for both the spiritual and overall welfare of the Maori people he lived and worked amongst and was put in a very difficult position when he became the translator of the proposed Treaty from English to Maori, and effectively the mediator of dialogue between British Governor Hobson and the Maori chiefs he sought to win over. Williams had the unenviable dilemma of ending up something of a negotiator representing the British to the Maori, whilst being an advocate of the Maori to certain British officials. This tension could not last…

Williams was branded a traitor by many in the British military ranks stationed in New Zealand for the way in which he acted in the interests of the Maori he knew and loved, including several who were openly hostile towards the British authorities and their troops. He himself seems to have had some remorse that he was unable to prevent hostilities from escalating and secure better conditions for his Maori friends under British rule.

He suffered unjustly at the hands of both Church and State as both the third Governor George Grey and the first Anglican bishop in NZ, took actions against his interests that made his life very difficult.
He was dismissed from CMS as a result of the political machinations against him, but stayed on to continue living and ministering in the country and was later reinstated as a CMS missionary at the request of the two aforementioned gentlemen who had previously done him wrong.

You can read about his life and ministry at his Wikipedia biography:

Or watch a classic New Zealand miniseries The Governor, the first episode of which “The Reverend Traitor” deals (relatively fairly) with Williams’ role in the Treaty process and the grief later caused to him by hostilities between local Maori and British colonisers and the accusations made against him.


In my assessment, Henry Williams was unjustly dubbed “the Reverend Traitor” by elements in the British forces who were unsympathetic to the work of the gospel and who viewed the Maori as enemy savages to be subjugated. They could not tolerate a man who did not blindly comply with imperial interests, but sought the welfare of the native people of the land they were colonising.

He could more justly be seen as a sterling example of a frontier missionary who was forced to struggle with satanic opposition in the form of worldly settlers and colonial powers as he strove to bring the light and love of Christ to a land the gospel had thereunto barely touched.

He ministered in New Zealand during the period it came into being as a modern nation and his role in translating the treaty and working towards the reality of the phrase “He iwi tahi tatou” (which he may have formulated as a means of bridging the gap between Governor Hobson and the Maori chiefs at the Treaty signing) surely make him one of the founding fathers of today’s NZ.

And while it’s Jesus, not me, who gets to make the assessment of whether he was a “good and faithful servant”, I’m inclined to believe he was greeted with those words as he entered into his eternal rest, in place of the aspersions cast on his motives and character by his adversaries in this age.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s