Wholesome Words Home
Worldwide Missions
missionary biographies

Samuel Marsden in New Zealand

by Claud Field
A head for an axe!—First voyage to New Zealand—The Bay of Islands—Alarmed by a cow—Evils of the "taboo" system—Death of Duaterra—A widow's suicide—A defender of cannibalism—Blood-thirstiness of Hongi—Marsden as peace-maker—The last look—A missionary levee—Bishop Selwyn's testimony.

Samuel MarsdenOf all the inhabitants of Polynesia, the New Zealanders have exhibited the strongest characters and the greatest intelligence. When the Maori War broke out in 1863, Englishmen were startled to find themselves confronted by savages with as high a courage as their own. When first discovered, they were entirely destitute of the arts of civilisation. They did not know the use of metals, and were ignorant of writing. Unlike other savages, however, they despised beads and trinkets, and cared chiefly for iron. A striking instance of this was given by some chiefs who visited England soon after the island was discovered. They were not specially moved by the spectacle of St. Paul's or any other of the London sights, but went into ecstasies over an ironmonger's shop. A story is told of an old chief who followed a missionary for weeks, intent upon the acquisition of an axe. He offered this article and that, without avail. At last he offered his own head, which was handsomely tattooed. When asked what use such an article would be to him after he had lost his head, he said that he was an old man and would soon die, and that then his head would be properly cured and sent to the missionary!

The first pioneer of Christianity among this interesting people was Samuel Marsden, who had in the first instance gone as a chaplain to Sydney in 1794. Whilst there he had heard of the success of the London Missionary Society at Otaheite, and conceived the idea of a similar mission to New Zealand. This plan, however, received no encouragement from the English colonists, who looked upon it as chimerical, and pictured the New Zealanders in the darkest colours. Several crews who had landed on those islands had been surprised and murdered. In order to make himself well acquainted with the native character, Mr. Marsden took to his home from time to time individual New Zealanders, who came to Port Jackson in the whalers. He found them possessed of many excellent qualities, such as a readiness to show kindness to one another, and an evenness of temper which restrained them from turbulent excesses. They were also quick at retort. One chief, being criticised for having his face tattooed, asked his questioner why he loaded his hair with powder and grease, as was then the English custom.

In order to commence his mission, Mr. Marsden applied to the Church Missionary Society for two mechanics. Accordingly, a shoemaker and a carpenter were sent out to Sydney. Mr. Marsden, having purchased a vessel for the service of the mission, sent them on a trial trip to New Zealand. On their return, bringing a favourable report, he resolved to accompany them on the next voyage. It was not without much difficulty that he obtained leave from the Governor of Sydney, who looked upon the experiment as most dangerous.  At last, however, in the year 1814, the Governor gave his consent, and invested Mr. Kendall, a schoolmaster accompanying Mr. Marsden, with magisterial authority to check the outrages then so commonly perpetrated by the crews of English ships on the natives. Three intelligent New Zealand chiefs, Duaterra, Shunghi, and Korra-Korra, who had come over to Sydney, also accompanied Mr. Marsden. During the voyage these natives were observed to assume a very gloomy and morose demeanour, and when they were questioned, it was discovered that they had been informed by some ill-wisher to the missionary that this expedition was only a preliminary step to taking their land and reducing them to slavery. Mr. Marsden and his companions were much dismayed at the discovery of this state of mind on the part of the chiefs, as their residence in New Zealand would entirely depend on the goodwill of the latter. But on Mr. Marsden's telling Duaterra that he would order the ship back to Sydney, so great was that chiefs eagerness for the civilisation of his countrymen that, in spite of the suspicions which darkened his mind, he begged him to proceed.

On the arrival off the North Cape of New Zealand, numbers of natives in canoes came off to the ship for purposes of traffic, being especially anxious to procure iron tools.

When they landed, they found themselves near a large camp of armed natives. Duaterra and Shunghi fired off their loaded pistols into the air, in order to show that they came with no hostile purpose, and the chiefs in the camp did the same. The native warriors presented an imposing spectacle, being very tall, and wearing as ornaments the teeth of enemies slain in battle.

The friendly reception that Mr. Marsden and his companions met with was all the more striking as, not long before, the crew of an English ship had been murdered near that very spot. While the Europeans ate their first meal on shore, the natives, impelled by lively curiosity, crowded round them in a dense mass.

When the cattle were landed, the New Zealanders were perfectly amazed, not knowing what to think of animals which looked to them so extraordinary. Their astonishment, however, was soon turned into alarm. One of the cows, impatient of the restraint it had so long suffered on board the ship, rushed in among them, and so terrified them that, imagining some monster had been let loose upon them, they all took to flight.

On their return, Mr. Marsden mounted a horse, and rode up and down the beach, exciting their wonder in a still higher degree. To see a man seated on the back of so strange an animal seemed to them marvellous, and they gazed after him believing him to be more than mortal. Duaterra, when previously in those parts, had described to his countrymen the nature and use of the horse, but his account appeared so absurd in their eyes that it only excited their ridicule, as they had seen no animals larger than pigs and dogs. This, therefore, was a day of triumph for Duaterra, as it afforded his countrymen ocular proof of his statements.

On the first Sunday Mr. Marsden spent on shore, he conducted Divine Service in a rude enclosure erected by Duaterra, who acted as interpreter of the sermon which followed, to which the natives listened attentively.

When the service was ended, the missionaries left the enclosure, and as soon as they had got out of it, the natives, to the number of three or four hundred, surrounding them, commenced their war dance, with the idea that this demonstration of their joy would be the most suitable return they could make for the solemn spectacle they had witnessed.

Having taken up their residence at Rangi-houa, the missionaries endeavoured to teach the New Zealanders some of the more useful arts of life; but though quick and active in their dispositions, the fondness of the savages for a rambling life proved a great obstacle to their improvement. In these matters, Duaterra was very helpful in enlisting the natives' confidence in the missionaries. For instance, he had been given some wheat to sow, and the natives, though they had tasted biscuits, could not believe that these could be made from ears of corn. However, when they saw the flour flowing from a hand-mill, and presently a cake baked in a frying-pan, they clapped their hands with joy, and seeing Duaterra's assertion come right in this matter, believed him also regarding the missionaries, that they were good men. They had much need to be reassured on this head, as former voyagers had often robbed and maltreated them, and chance strangers who landed were liable to be killed in revenge.

Presently, to Mr. Marsden's distress, Duaterra fell ill, and the superstitious natives, as was their custom in such cases, put him under "taboo," i.e. would let no friend come near him, or even allow nourishment to be given him. They believed that an "Etua," or evil spirit, had taken up its abode in his stomach, whence no mortal power durst venture to expel him.

The unfortunate chief, thus deprived of nutriment and attendance, sank rapidly. Expecting his speedy dissolution, they wished to convey him to an adjacent island, but the chief, weak as he was, opposed this effectually, for, anticipating such an attempt, he kept a loaded pistol by him, and threatened to shoot the first person who should attempt to take him away.

At last Mr. Marsden, despairing of being admitted to see his dying friend, had to pretend that he would order the guns of his vessel to be turned upon the town, and at last the natives yielded him admittance. On getting into the enclosure, which had no roof, Mr. Marsden found the poor chief stretched upon the ground, exposed to the rays of the sun, and surrounded by his wives and relations, who watched for his dissolution in silent expectancy. Wine and rice were given him, but it was too late to do him any good.

After his death, his favourite wife was inconsolable, and while his near relatives were cutting themselves with knives till the blood gushed out, she stole away and hung herself. Her mother, though she wept while composing her limbs, applauded her daughter's resolution, while her father seemed quite unconcerned at the sight of her corpse.

Duaterra's death was especially felt by Mr. Marsden, as he seemed admirably adapted to help his countrymen to emerge out of their barbarism and superstition. He had said to Mr. Marsden with an air of triumph, "I have now introduced the cultivation of wheat into New Zealand; New Zealand will become a great country."

In 1815 Mr. Marsden left New Zealand for Australia, returning in 1819 with some more missionaries. Immediately after his arrival, he purchased land from Hongi, one of the native chiefs at Keri-Keri. It consisted of about thirteen thousand acres, and cost only forty-eight axes. On this occasion some of the chiefs, who had now begun to appreciate the temporal advantages resulting from the mission, manifested extreme disappointment that none of the settlers took up their abode with them. One chief told Mr. Marsden he was very angry he had not brought a blacksmith for him, and that when he heard there was no blacksmith for him, he and his wives sat down and wept.

Another chief, who was a cannibal, when Mr. Marsden expressed anxiety for some of the settlers he was leaving with him, reassured him by saying, "that as they had done him no harm, he had no satisfaction to demand, and that as for eating them, the flesh of a New Zealander was sweeter than that of a European, in consequence of the white people eating so much salt." He defended cannibalism on the ground that fishes, animals, and birds preyed upon one another, and that one god would devour another god; therefore there was in nature sufficient warrant for the practice.

Hongi, the chief from whom Mr. Marsden had purchased land, proved to be the evil genius of the mission. He had been on a visit to England, where he had seen the King, and the lesson he deduced was, "There is but one King in England. There shall be but one in New Zealand." His ferocity was also excited by the sight of the weapons and armour in the Tower of London. The Committee of the Church Missionary Society aroused his wrath by refusing to supply him with muskets and gunpowder.

Returning by way of Sydney, he told a New Zealand chief named Henaki, whom he met at Mr. Marsden's own table, that when he got to New Zealand he would fight him. The two chiefs proceeded thither in the same vessel, and on the way Henaki tried, by appeals to common sense, to moderate his savagery, but Hongi was implacable. In the battle that ensued on their landing, Hongi, having shot Henaki, devoured his eye and drank his blood, while the battlefield was covered with ovens in which the flesh of the prisoners was cooked. The New Zealand belief was that an enemy's eye, thus devoured, became a star, and conferred honour on his conqueror.

Mr. Marsden, owing to these barbarities, had great difficulty with the native chiefs, as he would not sell them firearms, nor allow his subordinates to do so. He wrote home to the Church Missionary Society, "I think it much more to the honour of religion and the good of New Zealand to give up the mission for the present, than to trade with the natives in these articles."

Some captains of ships that called at the coast also tried to poison the minds of the natives against the missionaries. They told them that the object of the missionaries was to get possession of their land, and that, when the natives were made Christians, they would be enslaved and sent out of the country. The report was very industriously circulated that it was the missionaries' intention to seize the chiefs and have them conveyed to England, and that for those who received instruction they were to be paid a certain number of dollars, according to the rank of the individual.

These slanders led to the natives treating the missionaries with an insolence and contempt they had not hitherto shown; they came into their houses whenever they pleased, demanded food from them, broke down their garden fences, entered the workshop of the smith, demanded his tools to repair their muskets or to cast balls, and took away whatever they thought proper.

On the other hand, when Mr. Marsden and some other missionaries were at a native village for several days and nights, they were readily supplied with food by the natives, who seem to have been a strange mixture of gentleness and ferocity. In order to avert the anarchy which threatened to break up mission work altogether, Mr. Marsden endeavoured to persuade the chiefs to unite under one head, but this plan was frustrated by their mutual jealousy. War was the natural condition of all the Maori tribes, and this, rendered more deadly by the introduction of firearms, was fearfully thinning their numbers from year to year. They were subject also to periodical returns of a disease resembling influenza, which cut off multitudes. Their population was rapidly diminishing, and English settlers were making their way into their best and most fertile lands. Mr. Marsden saw that New Zealand would become an English colony, and did his best to prepare the minds of the natives for the changes that would inevitably follow.

On his sixth visit to New Zealand, in 1880, he found affairs in a very critical state. The natives were at open war, and but a day or two before his arrival a great battle had been fought on the beach of the Bay of Islands, in which about fourteen hundred had been engaged. The cause of the war was an insult offered by a whaling captain to a chiefs daughter. One tribe espoused the cause of the captain, and another came forward to avenge the insult. Six chiefs had fallen in the battle, and a hundred lives were lost. The missionary stations were in the utmost peril from the vengeance of the victorious tribe, which lay encamped at Keri-Keri.

Mr. Marsden's arrival was therefore most opportune. He and a brother missionary visited both camps as mediators, and were received in a friendly way by the chiefs, who had   been formerly acquainted with Mr. Marsden. They then returned to the beach, which they found covered with war-canoes and armed men. Mr. Marsden was told that if the negotiations for peace were not successful, his life would be in danger.

The next day being Sunday, the east and west shores of the Bay—only two miles apart—presented a striking contrast. One was crowded with excited savages, and all the din and commotion of a military camp, while from the other came the sound of a church bell, summoning the decently-clothed congregation to worship.

On the following Tuesday morning Mr. Marsden was aroused from his bed by a chief calling at his window to tell him that the army was in motion, and that a battle seemed to be at hand. He arose immediately, and was informed that thirty-six war-canoes were approaching. When their occupants had landed, the whole day was spent by the two parties in passionate debate. At night, after a long speech, the great chief on one side clove a stick to signify that his anger was broken, and the two parties joined in a war-dance, firing off their muskets. Thus the war-cloud passed over for the time.

Every advance of civilisation and Christianity among savages is attended by frequent relapses, and it was so among the New Zealanders; but, on the whole, Mr. Marsden felt encouraged as he looked back on the unmitigated darkness which had prevailed on his first landing among them. During his sixth visit he wrote: "On one of my former visits to New Zealand, while I was sitting in the room I am at present in, the natives killed and ate a poor young woman just behind the house. But what a wonderful change the Gospel has wrought. In this little spot, where so lately hellish songs were sung and heathen rites performed, I now hear hymns and prayer."

On his seventh and last visit to New Zealand, in 1837, he received quite an ovation, the natives firing off muskets and executing war-dances to show their delight. One chieftain sat down upon the ground before him, gazing upon him in silence, without moving a limb or uttering a word for hours. He was gently reproved for what seemed a rudeness: "Let me alone," said he; "let me take a last look, for I shall never see him again."

At Kaitai Mr. Marsden held a constant levee, sitting in an arm-chair in an open field before the mission-house. It was attended by upwards of a thousand Maories, who poured in from every quarter, many coming a distance of twenty or thirty miles, contented to sit down and gaze on his venerable features; and so they continued to come and go till his departure. He presented each with a pipe and some tobacco, and when he was to embark at last, they carried him to the ship, a distance of six miles.

Mr. Marsden died in 1838, and when Bishop Selwyn landed in New Zealand, three years later, he gave this emphatic testimony to his predecesso'rs labours in a public address on the subject of missions: "The name of Samuel Marsden is indeed a memorable one in connection with New Zealand. I cannot help thinking of the state of New Zealand now, and comparing it with that eventful night when, after trying for two years to get a vessel to take him there, Samuel Marsden at length succeeded, and landing, slept there in safety, with the spears of the savages stuck around the stone on which, like Jacob, he had laid his head for a pillow, and it is to the exertions of Mr. Marsden and his companions that, under God, the difference is owing. Where will you find throughout the Christian world more signal manifestations of the presence of the Spirit, or more living evidences of the Kingdom of Christ?"


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Heroes of Missionary Enterprise... by Claud Field. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1908.

More Information on Samuel Marsden


Missionary Biographies Index

 Copyright ©2017 Wholesome Words. All Rights Reserved.