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MARIANNE WILLIAMS accompanied her husband Henry, a former naval officer,
when, having volunteered to serve with the Church Missionary Society, he was
sent to New Zealand after three years’ training for ordination. They made the
11-month journey, via Sydney, on a women’s convict ship. Marianne regularly
wrote home, describing life in New Zealand between 1822 and 1838.
Volunteering as a missionary in the early 19th century was a life sentence.
Neither Henry nor Marianne saw their families again, although both lived to
ripe old age. Letters and parcels took nine to 12 months to arrive, and were
often lost. Life in New Zealand was lonely and frightening. Marianne’s faith
supported her in the face of the elements, the bickering and unco-operativeness
of the artisans sent as missionaries by CMS, who refused to help them to build
accommodation; and during her husband’s long absences on dangerous sea voyages,
assuming the role of a tobunga or Maori priest, mediating between
The warlike Maoris either wanted a missionary as a status symbol for their
tribe or village, or behaved hair-raisingly belligerently towards the
missionaries. Chiefs could be manipulative, fickle and unpredictable towards
the Williamses. Marianne bore eight of her 11 children in New Zealand,
supported and cared for the wives and children of other missionaries, taught
her own children and those of missionaries and Maoris, and ran an orderly
pre-Victorian family, training Maori girls to sew, wash, starch and iron.
She was constantly aware of divine providence working in their lives,
although whether this was to chastise or to protect them sometimes seemed
a puzzle. In 1828 she noted that Maoris “begin to understand that we came not
to seek our own good, but theirs, and consequently they place confidence in
us”. The Williams’s concern for the good of those to whom they came to preach
the gospel never wavered, and included protecting them from exploitation by
These letters provide a valuable resource for the history of New Zealand;
the study of the part played by missionaries’ wives; and the methods of CMS
missionaries. They make a good read about the courage, determination, and faith
of a pioneer-missionary family.
The Ven. Dr W. M. Jacob is Archdeacon of Charing Cross.
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