Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

A Pre-Settlement Record of Life in the Waikato: The Journals of Benjamin Yate Ashwell

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

A Pre-Settlement Record of Life in the Waikato: The Journals of Benjamin Yate Ashwell

Article excerpt

Much that was written in the earliest years of European settlement in New Zealand remains unpublished. This paper is simply a presentation of some passages from the Journals of the missionary Benjamin Yate Ashwell, who lived and worked in the Waikato from 1837 until the wars of the 1860s put an end to missionary activity (though not to Christianity) in the region. Ashwell's Journals up to 1869 can be found in a two volume typescript made in 1937,1 and also on microfilm in the 1950s Australian Joint Copying Project collection, which includes almost all of the Church Missionary Society's journals from this part of the world. The originals, which I have consulted, are in the archival section of the University of Birmingham Library. I am at present preparing an annotated edition of Ashwell's Journal, about three hundred pages long in all, for publication by Reed (NZ) Publishers. Other missionaries whose journals are foundation documents in the history of the Waikato and the neighbouring regions of the Bay of Plenty, Rotorua, and Taupo, include John Morgan, who worked at Otawhao/Te Awamutu, Alfred Nesbit Brown, who worked in Tauranga, Thomas Chapman at Rotorua, and Thomas Grace at Taupo.

Since the Church Missionary Society (CMS) has been somewhat marginalized in the standard histories of New Zealand, it will be as well begin with a very brief account of it.2 The members of the CMS were evangelical or Low Church Anglicans, though the society was not created by the Church of England, and was not even recognized by it for its first twenty years. It was a private subscription society, created by the members and connections of the Clapham Sect in the 1790s (whose best remembered member was the emancipist William Wilberforce), dedicated to preaching Christianity to non-European peoples, and to educating them in literacy, agriculture and the like. They were deeply committed to upholding the integrity of the indigenous people. As an organization the CMS was not part of the Imperial program. It was in fact opposed to colonialism. But some individuals did find sympathies with the colonial push, like John Morgan for example, who became a government informer when the King Movement gained momentum in the late 1850s, until he was expelled by Rewi Manipototo when war in the Waikato became imminent in 1863.3 Against the wishes of most, all were to some degree compromised by the land wars, when they had to abandon their mission stations, and even Benjamin Ashwell had to act as chaplain to the British military forces.

The journals of the missionaries were reports to their headquarters in London. To some extent pietistic and formulaic, they were primarily concerned with religious details, like the number of baptisms year by year, the number of communicants, the number of children in the mission schools, and so on. But the journals also inevitably participated in the main popular discourses of the time. I want to illustrate this by quoting a few passages from Ashwell's Journals. Ashwell arrived in NZ in 1834, and after three years in Northland he moved into the Waikato in 1837, initially to Maraetai at the mouth of the Waikato River to help the missionary Robert Maunsell,4 then at Otawhao, (later called Te Awamutu), where he set up the station later administered by John Morgan; then to Taupiri, firstly at Pepepe about midway between Taupiri and Ngaruawahia, then at Kaitotehe, next door to Te Wherowhero's pa.5 He was of course invited to do so by the Maori people. But although he always had a base, for a long time his work was essentially itinerant, and for many years he traveled incessantly through much of the central North Island. As a result, much of the early Journals belongs to the discourse of travel literature. The following passage records an early stage of his journey on foot to Wairoa near Gisborne. The journey was really one of emotional and psychological recovery after the death of his only son, the third of his children to die in the space of five years. …

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