Out of Time: Southwell’s William Williams and the First Māori Dictionary

Illustrations: Natalie Owen
Friday 27 December 2019
reading time: min, words

As New Zealand prepares to remember the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the country, we take a look back at the life of WIlliam Williams, the Nottingham Bishop and linguist who created the first Māori to English dictionary, grammar book and Bible...


Controversy has arisen as to whether the milestone of Captain Cook’s arrival in New Zealand should be greeted with celebration or grief. The Government’s decision to build a replica of his ship, the HMS Endeavour, and sail it around the New Zealand coast has been met with derision from some Māori and Pākehā (white New Zealanders). For some, Cook’s arrival heralded a new era of opportunity, laying the foundations of the modern, multi-national New Zealand we see today. For others, it represented a catastrophic intervention into the Māori way of life; a tragedy that began with the murder of nine Māori almost immediately after Cook’s arrival, and culminated in the attempted decimation of Māori culture and the loss of sovereignty over their land.

Among those who attempted to bridge the linguistic gap between the two cultures was Nottingham-born William Williams, who would go on to have an enormous influence on the future of the Māori language. Raised in Southwell by a family of Dissenters (nonconformist Protestants), Williams showed great linguistic ability from an early age and, after completing a surgical apprenticeship and marrying Jane Nelson in Newark, he followed his brother Henry to the Church Missionary Society station in Paihia, Bay of Islands in 1826. 

Later that year, with Williams already fluent in the Māori language, he began the first serious, sustained effort to produce the first Māori Bible. After eleven painstaking years, he finally completed the whole of the New Testament and most of the Book of Common Prayer. During this time, Williams travelled extensively throughout the country, regularly visiting Waikato, the East Cape, Hawke’s Bay and Waikaremoana. Eventually, he was appointed Bishop of the predominantly Māori diocese of Waiapu in 1859. 

From being named as the first Anglican Bishop of Waiapu, the Nottingham-born Williams had grown to see the unjust nature of British colonialism and the policy of land confiscation

It was throughout these travels that Williams began to find something of a common cause amongst the Māori population, growing increasingly critical of the fragile state of the country, and becoming an outspoken opponent to the Waitara Purchase. This act, which saw the attempted purchase of land in the Taranaki region of New Zealand from its Māori owners, was highly contested and led to the loss of hundreds in the Taranaki wars. While those wars ended in a brittle stalemate, the following Invasion of Waikato saw British forces confiscate over 12,000 square kilometres of Māori land. Having once supported the Government policy of subjugating ‘rebel’ Māori, Williams wrote in 1868, “As a community and as a government we have been puffed up, first with an idea that we were in the right, and secondly that we were able to put down the natives by our own strength…. We are now brought very low.” From being named as the first Anglican Bishop of Waiapu, the Nottingham-born Williams had grown to see the unjust nature of British colonialism and the policy of land confiscation.

As a man, Williams is a complex and intriguing figure in the history of New Zealand’s colonial past. He’s far from the ‘white saviour’ figure that Hollywood likes to present in stories of British colonialism; he often showed little interest in Māori culture other than when it came to his mission and linguistic work, and expressed disapproval at many traditional Māori customs. His colleagues, both Māori and Pākehā, found him a pleasant, kindly man who was easy to get along with, but who became instantly resolute once his principles were crossed. But, as an early missionary to the country, he was uniquely placed to witness some of the most drastic power shifts in the country’s history, and did more than almost any other to understand the Māori language. His shift in attitude toward the treatment of the Māori people is a telling insight into the unjust nature of Governmental policy and land seizure. 

Williams’ later years were spent writing Christianity among the New Zealanders, which was intended as something of an apologia for the CMS mission in New Zealand, as well as an early dictionary and grammar of the Māori language. After suffering a stroke, Williams died in February 1878 at the age of 77, leaving behind him a complicated legacy that at once partook in the indoctrination and colonisation of the Māori population, while fascinating in their native language and growing to loathe the English Government policies that had stripped them of their land.

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