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LETTERS FROM THE BAY OF ISLANDS: The story of Marianne Williams

02 November 2006


Sutton Publishing £20 (0-7509-3696-7) Church Times Bookshop £18

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 warring tribes.

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 English settlers.

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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