The story of James Watkin & Matiahau
It was Maori who first bought the gospel to their own people in South Island after Wesleyans John Hobbs and John Bumby dropped off indigenous teachers there in June 1839.
Taawao, later baptized as Rawiri Kingi, was the first Maori teacher in Canterbury who taught many to read and write and held regular church services. While CMS missionaries left scriptures with local Maori after being blown off course in November 1839 the first European missionary to preach and be stationed there was Wesleyan James Watkin.
John Jones, a ship-owner who ran the Waikouaiti whaling station and local Maori chiefs had been asking the Wesleyan Mission Board for a full-time missionary to counter the influence of the whalers.
Rev. James Watkin, a Welshman, with ‘a natural gift for acquiring languages’ had been in Tonga where he had expert on their language and won many to Christ after recovering from a severe illness took up the challenge.
He with his wife Sarah and five children arrived in Otago on 16 May 1840 and he preached the first Christian service in the South island a day later. The first settlers had just arrived and within weeks British officials would come to collect signatures for the Treaty of Waitangi.
Watkin soon discovered the Maori Bible books supplied to him weren’t much use as the southern dialect was quite different that that of the north where the translations were done. Within four months he was preaching in the local dialect and had begun creating a dictionary of
vocabulary and pronunciation.
Watkin’s nine-year-old son James learned directly from chief Haereroa and Watkin having spent time with many local Maori, soon translated the Gospel of Matthew which was printed in Sydney in 1841.
Commitment to share
Many came to hear Watkin preach and he went by horse, whale boat and on foot to reach as many iwi (tribes) and family groups (hapu) as he could. Maori learned prayers, hymns, liturgy and catechism which Watkin wrote down for them and the Ten Commandments were recited almost daily
Another Wesleyan missionary Rev. Samuel Ironside, arrived at Cloudy Bay on 20 December 1840, to take over the circuit between Queen Charlotte Sound and Tory Channel, and often as far as Nelson and Motueka.
Within two years his converts were teaching throughout the East Coast of the South Island. Late 1842, CMS Maori missionaries Tamihana Te Rauparaha and Matene Te Whiwhi, began their South Island mission. Over nine months they travelled as far as Stewart Island, sharing their faith and asking forgiveness from those who had suffered at the hands of warrior chief Te Rauparaha in the Ngāti Toa incursions.
Many thought they should fear for their lives but the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” was well known by those who had listened to Watkin and Ironside and their teachers.
Watkin was concerned for his work and the impact of the CMS, in the light of Bishop Selwyn’s tendency to reject the Wesleyan efforts as not being of the true church. Even the CMS record fails to recognise the pioneering efforts of Watkin and Ironside, attributing much of the success in evangelising the south to the Kapiti Coast cousins.
Within days of the Wairau incident, where the first lives were lost over the failure of the New Zealand Company to determine the true ownership of land before sending in the surveyors, 200 Maori turned up at the unfinished chapel being built by Māori at Moeraki.
Watkin baptised 21 Maori on 18 June 1843, among them was chief Horomona Pohio, the first Māori pastor and teacher at Ruapuke, and Ngāi Tahu chiefs Hoani Weteri (John Wesley) Korako and Tare Weteri ( Charles Wesley) Te Kahu, who both became pastors and teachers at Otakou (Otago).
An unrivalled teacher
When Moeraki the building was dedicated on 30 July 1843 other chiefs were baptised, among them Matiaha Tiramorehu, Watkin’s main teacher at Moeraki who was unrivalled in his knowledge of Maori history, traditions and the higher mysteries.
In April 1844 James Watkin and his family moved to Port Nicholson (Wellington). His successor Rev. Charles Creed, from Taranaki, arrived with officials to put southern colonisation on a more just footing.
By the end of the 1843 Watkin had baptised over 200 converts and trained 26 Māori pastors and teachers. It is said that without his influence, relationships with the Ngāi Tahu chiefs, the settlers and the purchasing company would not have been so harmonious: of the 25 Maori
signatories 23 were baptised by the Wesleyans.[i]
In many ways the legacy of Watkin was seen in the great Ngai Tahu statesman Matiahau Tiramorehu who encouraged his people at Moeraki to adopt European agriculture, become farmers and grow crops. He ensured customary rights were awarded in the Kaiapoi district (part of the Wairau block purchase) and helped broker land deals for settlements in Canterbury, advising who should receive compensation after early payments “grew wings”.
He challenged Governor Grey and land purchasers Kemp and Mantel for their deceptive practices, complained reserves were much smaller than promised and pursued promises for schools for Maori, then opposed fees charged for Maori to attend.
Tiramorehu’s firm grasp of English, the law and injustice changed the relationships between the governors and the governed to become a much more supportive one. In his old age Tiramorehu renewed his efforts to oppose shady land deals and acquire more land for the Ngai Tahu people.
His earnest desire that Europeans and Maori would live together as brothers is emblazoned across the front of the Christchurch City Council buildings which are now owned by Ngai Tahu.
[i] John Jones of Otago, Eccles and Reed cited in Pybus footnote, p. 73