Christianity has been attacked for its role in supporting and promoting European colonialism. According to some critics of Christianity, its character as a universalist religion and mission to convert those outside the faith was used to support European imperialism and the conquest and displacement of indigenous peoples. Christian evangelism provided the pretext and legitimised the dispossession of indigenous, non-Christian peoples from their lands, the destruction of their way of life, and their exploitation and enslavement by their new colonial masters.
Now some of the most vicious and expoitative imperialist regimes did indeed attempt to justify their conquest of and expoitation of their new, non-European subjects through the claim that they were saving the souls of the indigenous peoples by bringing them Christianity. The Spanish Conquest of the New World, for example, was based on the theological notion originating from the Crusades, that as God was lord of all creation, pagan states and political structures, which failed to recognise Him had no validity. It was the duty of the Amerindian nations to convert to Christianity. If they did not, the Spanish crown had the right to impose Christianity by force and overthrow them. 1The atrocities committed by the Spanish against the Amerindians during the conquest of South America became notorious, though they were hardly alone. Other nations, such as the Portuguese and British, also committed atrocities in their campaigns of imperialist expansion and colonisation.
Demand for Missionaries and Missionary Opposition to Imperialism in New Zealand
However, the justification of European imperialism was one aspect of a complex relationship between European states, the churches and indigenous peoples. Elsewhere Christian evangelism was invited and encouraged by indigenous leaders because it brought their peoples literacy, modern medical care, and access to European goods and markets, while Christian missionaries also acted as peacemakers between warring indigenous nations. Nor did Christian missionaries always see indigenous peoples as inferiors to be colonised by Europeans. While most, if not all, certainly believed in the superiority of European culture, many also took the view that contact with Europeans brutalised and exploited extra-European peoples. As a result, some missionaries were strongly opposed to imperialism, while others supported it as a means of controlling and punishing the lawless behaviour of European traders and settlers who were already encroaching on indigenous territories. This was the case in New Zealand in the early 19th century, where British missionaries such as Henry and Edward Williams, and Dandeson Coates of the Church Missionary Society, supported the annexation of New Zealand by Britain under the Treaty of Waitangi as a means of protecting the Maori against oppression by European colonists.
Beginnings of Christians Missionary Work in New Zealand
Missions to New Zealand by citizens of the British Empire began in the second decade of the 19th century. In 1808 the Anglican Church’s Church Missionary Society proposed sending missionaries to New Zealand. Six years later, in 1814, Thomas Kendall and William Hall, two Anglican lay readers from New South Wales, and the Anglican clergyman Samuel Marsden established a mission at the Bay of Islands. They were followed by the Wesleyan Methodists, who under Leigh and William White, established a missionat Whangaroa in 1821. Their activities were closely monitored by Maori chiefs, who, in return for allowing the missionaries to preach the Gospel and attempt to convert their subjects, expected the missionaries to promote trade between themselves and the Europeans, teaching their subjects the necessary skills for successful commerce. If the missionaries failed to provide these practical, commercial benefits, they were threatened with dismissal and being replaced by those of a rival denomination. 2 Furthermore, missions were vulnerable to attack and looting by the Maori. In January 1827 the Wesleyan mission at Whangaroa was destroyed, forcing the missionaries to flee to Kerikeri, and the Church Missionary Society’s stations at Rotorua and Tauranga were also occasionally attacked and looted in the 1830s. At least in the early 19th century Christianity was not imposed on the Maoris by force. Indeed, the Maoris themselves welcomed the missions, with distant Maori communities demanding their own missionary. 3
Opposition of Christian Missionaries and British Imperial Authorities to Exploitation by European Colonists
Europeans began trading with the Maori in the late 18th century, with merchants and traders arriving from Britain and Australia to acquire kauri wood for ship’s masts, and hunt whales and seals. 4 Most of the traders viewed Maoris with contempt as savages, and frequently abused and exploited them. The only groups that did not do so and treated the Maori with respect were the Quakers and Congregationalists from New England. 5 The British government, however, soon became concerned at the lawlessness and brutality of many of the European colonists and settlers towards the Maori. By 1813, the governor of New South Wales, Lachlan MacQuarrie, declared that the Maori were under British protection in order to stop their brutalisation and exploitation. In 1817 the British parliament passed an act that, while recognising New Zealand as an independent state, provided for the punishment of those committing murder or manslaughter outside British imperial territory. It granted the authorities of Britain and New South Wale the powers to enforce British law on British subjects in New Zealand. Further acts were passed in 1823 and 1828 granting the courts of New South Wales and Tasmania the powers to try Britons for misdemeanours committed in New Zealand. Missionaries were granted powers to act as justices of the peace and enforce the law. In 1831 the governor of New South Wales also prohibited the trade in tattooed heads. Under pressure from the missionaries to bring law to New Zealand, and permit colonisation from the land speculators, the British government sent James Busby from Sydney to New Zealand as the official British Resident in 1833. 6 These measures to bring law to New Zealand and protect the Maori were strongly supported by Marsden. Although he considered Maori culture as ‘barbarous’, he also declared them to be ‘a noble and intelligent race and prepared to receive the blessings of civilisation and the knowledge of the Christian religion’. 7 He and the other missionaries believed that the Maoris had become suspicious and violent towards Europeans because of their maltreatment by them. He believed firmly that Maori confidence in Europeans would be restored through contact with Europeans, and the acquisition of new skills and practical and religious instruction. When the expected change in Maori attitudes was slow in appearing, Marsden blamed the lack of improvement on the absence of a recognised authority, the lack of regulations governing settlement and trade, disputes over trade in alcohol, firearms and women, and European involvement in local conflicts. 8 In 1837 he lamented the lawlessness in Waimate, complaining that Europeans were running public houses and encouraging every type of criminality, including drunkenness, adultery, and murder without any laws, judges or magistrates. He concluded that ‘Some civilized government must take New Zealand under its protection or themost dreadful evils will be committed from runaway convcts, sailors and publicans.’ 9 Marsden’s view of the brutalisation and corruption of the Maori by lawless Europeans agreed strongly with the conclusions of a House of Commons Select Committee which met in 1836-7 to debate the question of securing justice for the indigenous peoples of British colonies, as well as promoting civilisation and the spread of Christianity. The Select Committee on Aborigines was the result of a campaign by the great antislavery campaigner T.F. Buxton to protect the indigenous peoples of the British – Canadian Indians, Polynesians, Aboriginal Australians and the Black and Khoi-San peoples of South Africa, as well as the Maoris, who were threatened by European expansion and colonisation. 10 It concluded that contact with Europeans had been disaster for indigenous peoples, that Europeans were generally responsible for the conflicts generated. The only way the situation could be improved was through government intervention. In fact, the Committee declared that from the view of economy, security, trade and Britain’s reputation, non-intervention was a disastrous policy. It also viewed that the British had been granted their immense global power for reasons beyond commercial prosperity and military success glory. Britain had a responsibility under God for educating and civilising indigenous peoples, and giving them the Christianity and commercial benefits under which Britain had prospered. The Select Committee’s Report stated
‘The British empire has been signally blessed by Providence and her … advantages, are so many reasons for peculiar obedience to the laws of Him who guides the destinies of nations. These were given for some higher purpose than commercial prosperity and military renown … He who has made Great Brtain what she is, will inquire at our hands how we have employed the influence He has lent to us in our dealings with the untutored and defenceless savage; whether it has been engaged in seizing their lands, warring up on their people, and transplanting unknown disease and deeper degradation … or whether we have, as far as we have been able, informed their ignorance, and … afforded them the opportunity of becoming partakers of that civilization, that innocent commerce, that knowledge and that faith with which it has pleased a gracious Providence to bless our own country.’ 11
Public Demand for Colonisation, British and French Colonial Rivalry and the British Annexation of New Zealand
However, without an established system of courts, enforced by a police force and supported, if necessary, by the army and navy, the missionaries were unable to prevent the violence and criminality. Furthermore, there was pressure in Britain and Australia for a programme of commercial colonisation. This began in 1829 with the publication in the Morning Chronicle of two articles, ‘The Act of a Proposal for Colonising Australasia’ by Robert Couger, and ‘A letter from Sydney’ by Edward Gibbon Wakefield. These recommended the colonisation of Australia and New Zealand through the sale of land and the establishment of planned settlements and the British class system there. Busby attempted to end the lawlessness by making the missionaries Justices of the Peace and the Maori chiefs constables, but he was unable to enforce his authority and on several occasions the criminals successfully defended themselves from arrest with firearms. His authority was further challenged by Baron de Thierry from France, who, laid claim to a large block of territory and styled himself ‘sovereign chief of New Zealand’. 12 The French arrived in New Zealand 1838, and by 1844 had established 12 missionares staffed by 41 missionaries, strongly supported by the French navy and diplomatic service. The British annexation of New Zealand was therefore motivated party by religious rivalry between Protestants and Roman Catholics, as well as geopolitical rivalry between Britain and France. 13 In order to defend the Maori from such colonialist claims and force the Maori chiefs themselves to become responsible for justice, Busby in October 1835 Busby persuaded 35 northern chiefs to sign a declaration of independence, proclaiming them as the ‘united tribes of New Zealand’ under British protection. Furthermore, British policy in the 1830s was of indirect rather than direct rule by advising and placing diplomatic pressure on indigenous institutions. It is possible that if the new tribal federation had been supported by Maori militia and police force under British officers, annexation would have been postponed. However, parliament was under increasing pressure from the New Zealand Association and land agents in Sydney to promote colonisation and sales of land there, as well as the increasing opinion that the British crown had the right to demand foreign territories to submit to British administration in return for protection. Thus the British government eventually decided to annex New Zealand in order to bring law and justice to both the Maori and British. New Zealand was to become a dependency of New South Wales, administered by a lieutenant-governor under the governor of New South Wales. A British naval captain, William Hobson, was despatched to make the final arrangements with the governor, George Gipps, before acquiring sovereignty from the Maori through their ‘free and intelligent consent … expressed according to their established usage’, and become the nation’s first consul and lieutenant-governor. 14
The Treaty of Waitangi and the Dispossession of the Maori the Result of Cultural Misunderstanding not Fraud
The Treaty of Waitangi was translated into Maori on the 4th February 1840 Henry Williams and his son, Edward. It was read to 40 Maori chiefs from Hokianga and the Bay of Islands at Busby’s house the next day. After considerable debate, with some influential chiefs urging its rejection, it was signed by 43 chiefs on the 6th February. 15 The Treaty of Waitangi has been extremely controversial because of its role in giving legality to the British annexation of New Zealand, and the appropriation of Maori lands by the colonial authorities and the subordination and replacement of Maori tribal authority by British governmental institutions. In the 1980s many Maori felt that the true intentions of the Treaty of Waitangi, which in their view retained Maori autonomy and lands, had been betrayed by the British colonial authorities. There were Maori demonstrations in New Zealand demanding that the Treaty should be honoured and the return of Maori lands unfairly appropriated by the colonial authorities.
Many New Zealand historians, on the other hand, believe that the Treaty was not a deliberate fraud, and that rather than being a deliberate deception it was a case of both sides mistakenly assuming that their concept of landholding was shared and understood by the other side. The first article ceded to the British crown complete sovereignty over all New Zealand ‘without reservation’. It did not, however, suggest that the Maori would become subject to British law or be required to assume the roles and duties of British subjects. Thus the Maori assumed that while they would be under the protection and authority of the British Crown, traditional Maori tribal institutions and authority would still be preserved.
The Treaty’s second article was also a cause of serious misunderstanding between the British and Maori. The Treaty stated that the Maori would retain the ownership of their lands, estates, forests, fisheries and other properties. However, the British assumed that the Maoris owned only the lands that they immediately occupied, such as the marae, pas and the land immediately surrounding them. The rest of country was seen as unoccupied waste land whose ownership would naturally pass to the British government, to be disposed of and developed in whatever manner they considered suitable. 16 The Maori, however, viewed the unoccupied lands as rightfully theirs. Although these lands were not permanently settled, the Maoris nevertheless considered the land their possession as it was used and exploited by the Maori as a source of a wide variety of foods in the Maori hunter-gatherer culture. They were also culturally important as the site of tribal marae, sacred burial grounds, and memorials to ancient battles and the heroic events of ancient legends. The Maori therefore assumed that they would still retain their ancient rights to this unoccupied land, with the British Crown merely acting as an overall guardian. 17 These misunderstandings over the nature and role of Crown authority and Maori landownership, with the assumption of cultural superiority by the British, led to the eventual subjection and dispossession of the Maori as New Zealand was annexed by the British Empire.
Missionary Support for Treaty of Waitangi
The missionaries played a leading role in the drafting of the Treaty and its translation into Maori. Six of them had assisted Hobson when he drew it up, and it has been alleged that Williams was deliberately vague in his translation of the Treaty through his political support for annexation. However, while the missionaries supported Crown involvement and control in New Zealand, they were strongly opposed to colonisation. They advocated the extension of British authority to New Zealand as a way of protecting themselves and the Maori against European criminals and occupation by the Roman Catholic French. 18 Moreover, there was considerable pressure in New South Wales and Britain to annexe New Zealand regardless of the attitudes of the missionaries. New Zealand was regarded as a highly suitable territory for British colonisation, as was made clear to Hobson in the orders for the country’s annexation given to him on 14 August 1839. These stated that regarding New Zealand, ‘there is probably no part of the earth in which colonisation would be effected with a greater or surer prospect of national advantage’. 19 New Zealand possessed valuable natural resources, but the increasing violence and lawlessness of European settlers, provocative acts by American merchant ships and a major outbreak of tribal warfare in 1837 convinced the British authorities that the system of government under a British resident and tribal federation had failed to provide stability and order. The British thus considered that they to annexe New Zealand in order to impose peace and law in the islands, while taking possession of the country’s economic resources. Some historians have therefore suggested that New Zealand’s annexation and colonisation by the British was inevitable in these circumstances. 20
As for Williams personally, it has been suggested that his possession of land made him an interested party and so led to his support for annexation. However, the missionaries had been informed that following annexation there would be an official investigation of land claims. If Williams’ possession of his lands had been illegal or in any sense dubious, then he would not have supported Hobson in bringing New Zealand into British possession. Williams has also been criticised for the term he used to translated ‘governorship’ in the Treaty. Instead of using the existing Maori term ‘mana’, Williams coined a new term ‘kawanatanga’, and this may have played a role in the misconception of the nature of British authority that led the Maori to cede complete authority to the British Crown without really understanding the full implications for their own traditional political structures. 21 However, ‘Protestant Missionary Maori’ was the common Maori of the time, and that the Waitangi Tribunal in 1985 declared that it considered that Williams’ use of ‘kawanatanga’ for ‘governorship’ was ‘fair and apt’ and ‘an appropriate choice of words’. 22 Thus, rather than deliberately deceiving the Maori, Williams and the other missionaries were genuinely trying to protect them through the Treaty, which they saw mainly as a device for restraining and controlling European abuse of the indigenous New Zealand peoples.
‘Williams saw the Treaty mainly as a device for controlling British settlers, Faced with a unilateral decision by Britain to annex New Zealand, he saw it his duty to assist the government in such as way that his flock would be best advantaged. He did not perpetrate a ‘pious fraud’. Later misuse of the Treaty to defraud its Maori signatories should not impugn evil intentions to missionaries who were forced to translate and advice their charges ina matter of days, and who for a time believed they could control the hand that held the sword of state’. 23
Conclusion: British Missionaries Reluctant Imperialists, who Supported British Imperialism as Action against Colonisation
Thus, far from being enthusiastic supporters of British imperialism and the exploitation of indigenous peoples, the Protestant missionaries in New Zealand were hostile towards European colonisation. The complete annexation of the country by the British was very much a last resort, after gradual, piecemeal attempts to impose British authority on the European colonists who had already settled there, including the creation of a united, independent Maori state under British protection, had failed. The missionaries supported British imperialism out of a genuine belief that it was the only way the Maoris could be protected from further European brutalisation, exploitation and corruption. Furthermore, rather than being imposed upon the indigenous peoples by force through a powerful, expansionist European state, Christianity, at least at this period in New Zealand history, was not imposed through military conquest but by missionary work from the religious denominations themselves beyond the British imperial state. The missions also had the support of the Maori themselves through the educational and trading opportunities they offered to aspiring chiefs and tribes, and missionary expansion was initially at the request of the indigenous peoples, who subjected the missions to their own tribal authority. In this instance, rather than being enthusiastic supporters of an imperialist campaign to exploit and dispossess indigenous peoples through the imposition of Christianity by force, missionary support for British imperialism was very much a last resort, taken in order to protect the Maori from a process of exploitation and dispossession that was already occurring, and which, to the missionaries, could only be restrained, regulated and corrected through the power of the British state. In fact the annexation of New Zealand did indeed lead to the dispossession of the Maori and its colonisation by the British. While this process was arguably almost inevitable given European cultural, and economic and political assumptions of the time, it was against the missionaries’ will. It was a tragedy of history that the missionaries who worked hard to gain protection for the Maori against other European from the British state ended up through the imposition of imperial rule inadvertently causing the very dispossession they wished to avoid and so vehemently condemned.
1. Mark A. Burkholder and Lyman L. Johnson, Colonial Latin America (Oxford, OUP 2004).
2. Laurie Barber, New Zealand: A Short History (London, Hutchinson 1989), p. 32.
3. Barber, New Zealand, p. 34.
4. Barber, New Zealand, p. 34.
5. Barber, New Zealand, p. 35.
6. Barber, New Zealand, p. 38.
7. Letter from Marsden and others to the Secretary of the Church Missionary Society of 25 October 1815, cited in Andrew Porter, Religion Versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700-1914 (Manchester, Manchester University Press 2004), p. 141.
8. Porter, Religion Versus Empire?, p. 141.
9. Porter, Religion Versus Empire?, p. 142.
10. Porter, Religion Versus Empire?, p. 139.
11. Report from the Select Committee on Aborigines (British Settlements) (1837), cited in Porter, Religion Versus Empire?, p. 143.
12. Barber, New Zealand, p. 38.
13. Porter, Religion Versus Empire, pp. 154-5.
14. Barber, New Zealand, p. 39.
15. Barber, New Zealand, p. 40.
16. Barber, New Zealand, p. 41.
17. Barber, New Zealand, p. 41.
18. Barber, New Zealand, p. 42.
19. Barber, New Zealand, p. 43.
20. Barber, New Zealand, p. 43.
21. Barber, New Zealand, pp. 41, 43.
22. Barber, New Zealand, p. 43.
23. Barber, New Zealand, p. 43.