31 Jan 2021

John Bluck explores Pakeha identity today through the example of a long-forgotten Victorian missionary

From John Bluck writes, 4:06 pm on 31 January 2021
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In a talk specially recorded for RNZ, John Bluck puts forward the case that the life of a forgotten Victorian missionary Charles Reay (1810-1848) is a good role model for Pakeha in Aotearoa / New Zealand.

Detail of James Cook's map of New Zealand

Detail of James Cook's map of New Zealand Photo: Archives NZ

My friend the missionary

Chapter One

This is a strange time to be a Pakeha New Zealander, even for those who resist that label. What used to give us a place to stand and a way to belong here has now become a slippery and sometimes volatile description of who we are: the New Zealanders who are not Māori but have no other place to call home.

And the legacy that defines a Pakeha, namely a history that stretches back for 150 years and more, is suddenly up for grabs. The place names that shape that legacy – Auckland, Hastings, Napier and the statues of Hamilton, Grey, Wakefield, Cook, Tasman and Nixon are all under fire, some of them already tucked away in cold storage. How we teach this history to our children is equally under the gun.

I choose that image deliberately because it is an explosive time. Just about as polarised as the climate change debate. You have the Pakeha deniers on one end who can’t see there’s a problem and even if there is we should just get over it; and on the other end are Māori leaders who call Hamilton a “murderous arsehole”, Cook a “syphilitic bastard” and the Government’s treaty settlers “Clowns from the Crown.”

Detail of poster from late 1970s expressing the frustration of the Māori land-rights movement.

Detail of poster from late 1970s expressing the frustration of the Māori land-rights movement. Photo: Waikato Museum

No one with half an eye on what’s happening in Aotearoa since the ’70s should be surprised by any of this. With the slow return of the Treaty of Waitangi to centre stage and a groundswell of Māori renaissance, we’ve all had to rethink our colonial past and refocus on what a mixed bag it is.

If your settler forebears won land and a livelihood from that history then you got lucky. If your forebears had their land confiscated and were plunged into poverty and disease, that inheritance is catastrophic.

Somehow in this early 21st century, we have to find a way of justice and restoration through that divide.

So how do we do that without continuing to abuse or ignore each other in the process? Where do we look for role models and stories of how justice and restoration can be found, piece by piece, and how real bicultural partnership can be achieved?

Pakeha people have to reach a long way back in our history because so much of it is lopsided, especially since the NZ Wars of the 1860s, where the seeds of Māori poverty and dispossession were first planted.

But there is a period before that, understudied and stereotyped by historians, where Pakeha men and women lived as a minority alongside Māori and made the first steps in shaping a partnership that we take for granted today. Some of the earliest were sealers and whalers, ships’ crews, traders and shopkeepers. But the ones that provided the most powerful role models were European missionaries – Anglican, Catholic, Wesleyan.

By 1840 there were about 300 of them in the country, out of a total Pakeha population of around 2000. And although the Treaty had been signed and the Crown thought they’d secured sovereignty, it was Māori, all 80,000 of them, who were really in charge.

The missionaries had no doubt about that, which is the first comparison they have to offer us today. They knew they were guests in this land, dependent on the grace and favour of their Māori hosts, under the protection of the local chief, reliant on the hapu for food, shelter and survival. And what’s more, they had come to New Zealand in order to serve Māori rather than get rich and famous themselves.

Maori chiefs Hongi Hika and Waikato meet with Missionary Thomas Kendall.

Maori chiefs Hongi Hika and Waikato meet with Missionary Thomas Kendall. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington Ref:G-618

You may disagree with their motives and argue that Māori didn’t need or ask for the Christian faith. But in the context of the time, being a missionary was an honourable career for clergy, much admired by the folks back home, in the same way that astronauts and medical volunteers are today.

These missionaries were the first canaries in the Pakeha cage we still live in today. What can we learn from them as we struggle now to work out what this partnership with Māori is all about, even as the ground beneath our feet keeps slip-sliding away?

Best way I know to do that is to introduce you to one of those missionaries and ask of him the same questions that we face as we go on struggling to learn the art of living in a bicultural society.

The missionary who has become my friend as I’ve spent years reading his diaries and trying to figure him out is Charles Reay. Not a well-known name like Marsden or Williams. There are no statues or memorials in your honour, not even a street name. And if there were, I doubt anyone would want to pull them down if they knew his real story.

But few people do. History has not been kind to you, Mr Reay. You might have expected more credit for leaving your privileged life among the English gentry and coming to the other side of the world to work with people your countrymen and women back home considered to be savages, however noble. Happily, you have been largely forgotten by our historians, who haven’t liked missionaries much anyway, and ignored all but the well-known ones like Henry Williams and Bishop Selwyn.

Bishop Selwyn

Bishop Selwyn Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

That bishop was your boss and even though you started out as one of his best and brightest, a college friend from your days at Oxford together, and sailed with him to New Zealand as ship’s chaplain, learning te Reo on the voyage, you quickly fell out of favour. In your short, downwardly mobile career of six years you managed to upset him time and again, helped along by the adventures of your wife Marianne who was considered by the tight circle of respectable missionary wives to be a little strange, a wanoke as they called her, an immoderate person.

We’ll never know how Mr Reay would have coped with New Zealand in the 2020s, but we can take heart from how he coped with his much greater difficulties in the 1840s as he laid the foundations of what it means to be Pakeha in Aotearoa. He didn’t live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his work, but his son certainly did.

Robert Charles was taken back to England by his mother Marianne after his father’s death, but returned to work as a surveyor in the Bay of Plenty, had a daughter with a Te Arawa woman called Huhana, then later married a Hannah Paraki in Wairoa and produced a large family that continues to honour the Reay legacy to this day.

The short career of this obscure Victorian parson, the vicar of Swanbourne who ended his life as the missionary at Rangitukia, lives on in the Māori world far more vividly than in the Pakeha memory. Which says something about the way our two cultures keep bumping into each other, mostly in the dark.

St Swithun's Church, Swanbourne, UK

St Swithun's Church, Swanbourne, UK Photo: Flickr / Michael Brace

Chapter two

New Zealand was a very different place in 1842 but were our Pakeha forebears so different in fact? We’re trying to find out by comparing the way Pakeha back then and now, cope with the challenges to who they are and where they fit into a bicultural society. And we’re using the story of a Victorian-era missionary called Charles Reay to help us in our search.

The country that greeted him in 1842 was still a Māori-driven one, even though the Treaty had been signed and Pakeha settlements were forming, in the Bay of Islands and Auckland, Wellington and then more recently Nelson. Christchurch and Dunedin were yet to be invented. The first cricket match had already been played in Wellington, and the first horse races held in Petone. Six newspapers in English and Māori were in circulation.

Missionaries were finally starting to make some headway with their teaching and evangelising, thanks to the help of Māori catechists and teachers, after a quarter of a century of little success. Charles Reay as a leading light in the newly appointed Bishop Selwyn's staff was set to ride this wave. Here was a highly educated, socially presentable and well-connected Pakeha man, fluent in te Reo, sympathetic to the Māori cause, eager to help. He should have been the very model of a modern major missionary, and yet, ever so slowly, the wheels began to fall off. His privileged beginning in New Zealand quickly started to unwind.

Wood engraving showing a group outside a missionary school at Otawhao

Wood engraving showing a group outside a missionary school at Otawhao Photo: National Library

The first unravelling began with news that Bishop Selwyn received soon after arriving in New Zealand that his bright young friend Charles was escaping from a debt built up back home in England. £30 and 15 shillings, to be precise. About $10,000 in our money. He hadn’t disclosed this to his missionary society sponsors who had hired him and paid for his passage but didn’t find out until after the ship had sailed. And they were very, very upset. Charles left his wife Marianne behind to try and sort out the debt and join him later.

That got things off to a rough start with his bishop in New Zealand, which may explain why Charles was posted quickly off to Nelson, about as far away from Auckland as major Pakeha settlements had reached.

And while Charles’s work did win the admiration of his boss, particularly his championing of Māori education and setting up schools in Nelson, his peacemaking work among warring tribes, and his long and often hazardous journeys around Marlborough bringing books and medicines, he still managed to annoy the bishop, most dramatically by taking off to Sydney to support a cousin in trouble with the law.

The cousin came back to Nelson and eventually became superintendent of the province, which just goes to show that ex-prisoners from Australia can prosper here, both then and now.

Hicks Bay

Hicks Bay Photo: Flickr / Kristina D.C. Hoeppner

This unauthorised leave-taking was too much for Selwyn’s stern standards and Charles was transferred soon after to Hicks Bay on the East Coast, the most remote and challenging of mission stations, where both his predecessors had succumbed to sickness and mental breakdown.

Charles was probably not the easiest of characters. He had an acid tongue. One of the good settler ladies of Wakefield remarked on the church that he’d helped to build with his wife Marianne’s help in the design. “I’m sure it will do us proud’, she said. “That depends, Madam, on how well you fill it”, Charles replied.

And he certainly didn’t endear himself to Nelson’s new settlers when he took the side of Māori following the Wairau Massacre, so-called at the time. The leader of the German settlers he branded as an old scoundrel, and that led to formal complaints to the bishop.

Scene of the Wairau Massacre

Scene of the Wairau Massacre Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

But for all the difficulties, both imposed and self-inflicted, Charles worked tirelessly to build a community where settler and Māori could coexist respectfully and justly. He understood the conventions that governed the world of Te Ao Māori, the constraints of tapu and tikanga, because he lived within constraints himself – the severe Victorian conventions of class and social respectability that left him and Marianne on the edges of polite society, even more than other missionaries who struggled as the poor cousins of the rising middle class. He was a man under orders as rigid as the ones that governed Māoridom. His bishop could be as autocratic as any tribal chief.

Charles Reay knew that the future of this still fledgeling bicultural society depended on both parties making room for each other, treating each other with dignity. He knew how fragile this contract was, with the Wairau killings erupting only a year after he arrived in Nelson, the settlers barricaded themselves against the imaginary threat of invasion, just as the Auckland settlers were frightened into a similar mindset twenty years later. But despite that hysteria, he continued to travel around the region, visiting Māori communities, holding services, settling disputes when invited, dispelling conspiracies, and there were plenty of them swirling about.

Henry and William Williams calm hostile Maori by speaking extracts of the Bible in Maori.

Henry and William Williams calm hostile Maori by speaking extracts of the Bible in Maori. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

“The great evil to which we on this island are subject,” he wrote, “is perpetual anxiety and uncertainty arising from reports and rumours. For example, (it’s been said) that all native chiefs are to be sent to the island where Napoleon Bonaparte died and short work will be made of the residue left behind. I have had to go to this pa for several days to show them the utter absurdity of this idea.”

Then, as now, Charles lived as a Pakeha in the middle of tension and distrust about the founding partners. The fact that he was part of a small and nervous minority didn’t seem to make it easier than it is today where Pakeha live as the comfortable majority, but it certainly made it clearer.

But who is it that has tried to honour Charles’s story? Not his Pakeha community for he is among the most neglected of English missionaries, perhaps because his track record was less than straightforward. But the Māori side of the Reay family has embraced and celebrated his life and claimed him as their own.

All of which says to me that there is much excavating to be done in the spaces that lie between our often-separated histories as Pakeha and Māori, without always forcing a choice as to which side of the debate you must choose to stand on. The space between is at least as interesting as either side.

I doubt that Charles would have wanted to polarise the argument in that way. He lived his short life in New Zealand refusing to do so.

Putiki Waranui pah, Whanganui

Putiki Waranui pah, Whanganui Photo: National Library

Chapter three

As we try to work out what it means to be Pakeha in Aotearoa, who better to look to than the men and women who first wore the label. For those earliest settlers, being Pakeha was a perfectly acceptable description. The term New Zealander was reserved for Māori only. It took a generation or two before everyone who lived here could claim it. Charles Reay the missionary understood very clearly what it meant to be Pakeha. We ought to be able to work him out and discover any lessons he might have for us. It was only 180 years ago, after all, and he left us his diaries, a gravestone, a church or two and a whole canoe-load of descendants.

That ought to be enough, but the more you learn about him, the more mysterious his story becomes. Which is strangely reassuring. He refuses to fit the stereotype of a pious man of God; the kind of missionary preacher that historians love to mock. His life is as complicated and conflicted as the rest of us.

There is no photograph or portrait of Charles, no image to ponder as we wonder what he was really like. But there is a photograph of his son Robert as an adult, full-bearded and solemn as was the Victorian fashion. I like to think that Charles would not have looked so solemn, given his sharp wit and propensity to annoy his bishop. In several of his diary entries, we meet a cheerful, outgoing and optimistic man.

There is nothing dour in his account of meeting with an old Māori catechist called Caleb and his family, where he spends several hours chatting, “reading to them, singing and eating potatoes.” And his diaries also reveal someone open to surprise and delight, from encounters with the beauty of bush and sea to the endless variety of the characters he met on marae and the villages he visited.

Detail of  Church Missionary Society illustration

Photo: National Library

Central to the mystery that surrounds this man is why he came here in the first place. He had a perfectly good church career ahead of him as the vicar of Swanbourne and chaplain to an Irish earl, Baron of Ghuznee, Afghanistan and Cappoquin no less. There was, of course, the small matter of a debt that Charles and Marianne fell into, and that Marianne stayed behind to try and pay off while Charles headed off to New Zealand.

But that hardly answers the question of why he would sail to the other side of the world with little hope of ever being able to return.

Whole books have been written about what really motivated the missionaries to come so far and give up so much, with little hope of ever going home. It wasn’t any sort of upwardly mobile career in Victorian times, romanticised though it did become. A missionary lucky enough to have a passage back to England found a ready audience in crowded lecture halls as he told often lurid tales of converting cannibals and savage warriors in exotic lands afar.

Charles never had the chance to do that. And I doubt that his stories would have been lurid. Though he was fond of telling his friends back home how rugged life was among the New Zealanders. He writes in ornate prose about his early journeys, affecting surprise at the hardships they inflicted.

Makakahi River looking north, circa 1875, by James Bragge.

Makakahi River looking north, circa 1875, by James Bragge. Photo: Te Papa

“I was necessitated to climb up some precipitous hills to the great risk of life and limb, and the serious detriment of my attire.” That surprise soon wears off as he settles into the drudgery of slogging through wet bush and uncharted coastline.

“You know not of the wearisome walking over heavy and sometimes trackless sandhills and sandy beaches. You know not the cliffs and hills and the burdens which often have to be carried in the shape of books, medicines and tents.”

It was a tough life and it took its toll on body and spirit. Charles’s two predecessors on the East Coast both had to be withdrawn on medical grounds, one of them a severe mental breakdown. And the illness that killed Charles after less than a year there was probably due to cold and exhaustion.

So why did he do the job? Explaining that is a growth industry among historians, often cynical in their stereotypes of pious Victorians inflicting their beliefs on the supposedly uncivilised.

We can only go on what he wrote, what he achieved in his short six years in New Zealand and how he is remembered. By those fruits, we know him and they were considerable: founding schools, settling bitter disputes, on several occasions by placing himself physically between warring parties, championing the cause of Māori among often-hostile settlers, supporting colleagues during times of illness and anxiety, and heading off to Sydney to secure the release of a jailed relative.

Head and shoulders profile portrait of Maori man, probably of Motueka and a past student of Rev. C.Reay. 	[Coates, Isaac] Piki. Kohiri tribe. "Rather a genius well versed in reading and writing."

Head and shoulders profile portrait of Maori man, probably of Motueka and a past student of Rev. C.Reay. [Coates, Isaac] Piki. Kohiri tribe. "Rather a genius well versed in reading and writing." Photo: National Library

He baptised and married and buried and taught hundreds of Māori, and a few settlers too, though his Māori congregations reminded him often he was there for them, and they couldn’t see the point of him having anything to do with Pakeha.

As a good Victorian parson and a man of his time, he, of course, believed he was bringing with him a superior faith and civilisation, but there is little evidence he saw his Māori audiences as in any way inferior or less intelligent.

His diaries show no hint of condescension or disdain. Is the mix of altruism and self-interest that drove him as an early Pakeha any less admirable than what drives us today?

When we examine the reasons for our coming to live here, or the reasons for our own forebears arriving, a generation or three ago, have we more to be proud of than the missionaries of Reay’s time? There is many a later story of settler greed and ambition that make the missionaries look rosy by comparison.

A Bush Settler’s Home in New Zealand, 1884, Auckland, by Samuel Stuart.

A Bush Settler’s Home in New Zealand, 1884, Auckland, by Samuel Stuart. Photo: Te Papa

People in colonial glasshouses should not throw stones. We are all compromised and judged by this colonial history that brought us here and still waits to be honestly told and taught in our schools. And as we get into that difficult work of decoding and retelling, we need to draw heavily on the early missionary chapters of the story because they shaped our understanding of what it means to be Pakeha, far more sharply and vividly than the later chapters, where we ended up pretending we were all New Zealanders together and the differences didn’t matter.

Why Charles Reay came here, and why he stayed on has to be answered as honestly as why we came here as later Pakeha and why we stay?

Answering those questions soon dispels the simple stereotypes of goodies and baddies that dominate the way we tell our story as New Zealanders, both Māori and Pakeha, I dare to say. Because in the end, it is a shared story, with both cultures claiming the right to tell not only their own side but also how the stories interact in the middle ground between us.

It was Archbishop Whakahuihui Vercoe of blessed memory, who said of the divided and divisive history of Māori and Pakeha, “Remember that you are stuck with us and we are stuck with you.”

Charles Reay would understand that. And so do the whanau who remember him so fondly. I think Charles would be pleased about that.

Missionary establishment at Paihia, by Louis Auguste de Sainson

Missionary establishment at Paihia, by Louis Auguste de Sainson Photo: National Library

Chapter four

When missionary Charles Reay arrived in Paihia in 1842, he, not surprisingly, attended a church service. “The tout ensemble of the Māori congregation is most peculiar,” he wrote in his diary, “because of the strange mixture of their attire; but their countenance I like.”

A little later he preached to another Māori congregation in te Reo newly mastered during his long sea voyage and was startled by their questions, as they pointed out to him the sins of his own people. “Why was it,” they demanded, “that Pakeha swore so profusely, especially the sailors, and why didn’t they go to church every day if they claimed to be Christian?” On a later occasion, he was interrogated by another group of Māori converts on why women were not allowed to be ministers when the New Testament records the ministry of women like Phoebe.

Rev. William Yate

Rev. William Yate Photo: National Library of Australia

This very frank and robust dialogue with Māori grew and deepened during Charles’s short career in New Zealand, as did his appreciation of the New Zealanders and his concern for what he could see lay ahead for them under colonial rule.

All of which is extraordinary given the crude way he’d been prepared for meeting Māori. There was precious little at the time by way of reliable written material on Te Ao Māori.

The only contemporary account was written by a disgraced missionary called William Yate which portrayed Māori as cruel, lazy and licentious with a nice mix of kindness, courage and sincerity, but decidedly savage and addicted to cannibalism.

Charles would have read Yates's book, and perhaps a briefing or two from the Church Missionary Society which relied on letters from staff like James Kemp in Kerikeri who warned Samuel Marsden, “The object of Māori in letting us live among them is to get all they can from us.”

With this sort of less-than-helpful preparation, it’s amazing that Charles began his career here with anything other than prejudice and suspicion of the people he’d come to serve. Yet he very quickly formed his own opinion and developed respectful friendships with Māori, to the point that several of them entrusted their children to his care.

The Wairau confrontation between NZ Company settlers and Nga Toa warriors happened in Charles’s first year in Nelson. 22 settlers and four Māori were killed in what used to be called a massacre and is now coyly labelled an affray.

Wairau, 1851.

Wairau, 1851. Photo: National Library

The Nelson settlers fortified themselves in the town, deeply shocked by this first armed clash since the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. And their anger only deepened when their new minister who was travelling north at the time, returned to take the side of Māori, and find out what the clash was all about.

 “Spies hiding in the fern challenged me as I went to the pa to inquire what was happening,” he wrote, trying his best to act as a peacemaker. But the Nelson settlers branded him as a traitor for daring to take sides against them.

Charles did the same thing two years later when Ngapuhi warriors chopped down the flag pole and took the town of Kororareka or Russell. “This attack,’ he wrote, “resulted not from any ill will to the settlers… but entirely from a desire to remove the authority of the British Government… because (Māori) have ascertained that the surrender of their sovereign rights… implies much more than the reception of trifling presents.”

All of which suggests that Charles was unimpressed with the Treaty signed the year before his arrival in Waitangi. His critique is carefully considered, knowing how unpopular it would have made him.

“Whether colonisation in New Zealand in the first instance was desirable may be a question,” he wrote. “But now that it’s proceeding, the question is how it may proceed with the greatest advantage and the least injustice to Māori.”

Residences of the Rev'd C L Reay and the Rev'd H F Butt, near Nelson. H. Maplestone, 1819 - 1884.

Residences of the Rev'd C L Reay and the Rev'd H F Butt, near Nelson. H. Maplestone, 1819 - 1884. Photo: British Library

The evidence of that injustice kept piling up for Charles in Nelson and later on the East Coast, deeply involved as he was in peacemaking over land issues. “In all the land disputes I’ve been involved in, never the slightest allusion to the Treaty of Waitangi has ever been mentioned. Most natives are ignorant of its existence, let alone its Māori version.”

And as for the Crown’s right of pre-emption under the Treaty, that said Charles is nothing less than a “considerable injustice."

“There’s not a dozen natives in New Zealand who know anything about a NZ flag. It’s a treaty of only one party… how could Māori have ceded their sovereignty yet retained full, exclusive and undisturbed possession of their lands? The two are inseparable, therefore they never understood the meaning of the Treaty.”

Chief Justice Sir James Prendergast (1826 – 1921).

Chief Justice Sir James Prendergast (1826 – 1921). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Opinions like this were incendiary stuff in 1840’s settler society. From ignoring it completely, Pakeha hostility to the Treaty slowly built as it stood in the way of easy land grabbing, but to criticise it as disadvantaging Māori was to make yourself very unpopular, very quickly.

As we recall the chequered history of the Treaty by Pakeha lawmakers, to the point where it was declared null and void by Justice Prendergast in 1877 and had to wait for another century before our parliament reinstated it; pause to remember Charles Reay’s warnings, unheeded at the time.

When Pakeha today are accused of still neglecting the Treaty, it helps to recall there were at least some of our forebears who made their voices heard about its dishonouring, right from the start. And many of them were missionaries.

There’s something else equally admirable about this early Pakeha role model. And that is the courage of the man, putting himself in the middle of Māori disputes, acting as a broker, sometimes managing to be a peacemaker.

An 1860 Taranki Punch cartoon shows Bishop George Selwyn intercepting a soldier who is trying to shoot a Maori with his rifle.The caption reads: "Perchance it was his hand, that burned down thy cot, But, savage, here I stand, Thy gun shall harm him not."

An 1860 Taranki Punch cartoon shows Bishop George Selwyn intercepting a soldier who is trying to shoot a Maori with his rifle.The caption reads: "Perchance it was his hand, that burned down thy cot, But, savage, here I stand, Thy gun shall harm him not." Photo: National Library

In 1847, soon after his arrival on the East Coast, Charles ran into a war party 200-strong, armed with pikes, muskets, swords and spears, set to wreak vengeance over a quarrel about pigeon poaching. “I prevailed on them to return,” Charles writes in his diary, “but they replied, who was I, a Pakeha, to tell them what to do?”

“Surely we are all brethren together?” Charles pleaded. “So was Cain and Abel,” they replied, displaying a biblical knowledge that he couldn’t argue with. But he persisted in standing between the opponents, offering medicines and food, and stayed with the korero until peace eventually was reached.

There are many stories like that, with Charles and sometimes Marianne as well, staying on marae for days until a resolution is reached. “Who are you, a Pakeha, to tell us anything?” was a frequent warning, but was not always the last word in the story.

The warning didn’t seem to stop Charles from trying to be heard. Modern-day Pakeha are much more inclined to avoid joining debates with Māori and distance themselves when they are not welcome. We shut up for fear of offending, which does nothing to help the partnership.

Kawakawa Bay

Kawakawa Bay Photo: Flickr / Mark in NZ

Chapter five

The novelty of being Pakeha in NZ has worn off since Charles Reay’s time. We’ve become the majority rather than the tiny minority as he was. When he landed in Kawakawa in April 1847 to begin the final and fatal stage in his journey as a missionary, there was a large group on the beach to welcome him. “Visitors came from some distance,” he wrote, “to see their new Pakeha.” No danger back then of forgetting your place in this still-to-be-forged bicultural partnership, fragile as it was.

No danger of forgetting about it, and taking it for granted as we do, even not bothering to use the name given by Māori to describe who we are and how we belong.

The whole notion of being dependent on Māori for a place to stand here in Aotearoa is easy to ignore when you have no Māori neighbours or workmates or friends or teammates. You’d be hard-pressed to ignore Māori if you played or watched rugby or netball instead of cricket or motor racing.

For Charles, it was very clear where he stood and who he was indebted to for both his physical protection and groceries.

A view from the Rangitukia-Tikitiki Road 1963

A view from the Rangitukia-Tikitiki Road 1963 Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library / Ans Westra

I first met Charles Reay when I visited Rangitukia on the East Coast where he was finally stationed and died, after an arduous trip through the bush down to Gisborne.

The old St John's Anglican Church Rangitukia

The old St John's Anglican Church Rangitukia Photo: John Bluck

Though he’d been there for less than a year, it was long enough to win the affection and respect of the locals. Afraid that someone from his family in Auckland might come and claim his body the locals decided to keep him with them and bury him in a secret grave, outside the churchyard. The burial site is marked by a holly tree, a very English tree that to my knowledge isn’t seen anywhere else on the coast.

This much-loved missionary was deeply mourned by Māori: much less so by the Pakeha world who had long considered him a misfit out on the edge of respectability; and his wife even further out. The diaries of Bishop Selwyn and Archdeacon Williams record his passing with little regret or gratitude for his ministry.

And historians ever since have largely ignored his story. But Māori have more than made up for that carelessness, and he continues to be honoured by his large whanau that son Robert founded.

Mrs Reay’s life as a widow is another story again, taking Robert off to England, living in poverty, begging from relatives - one of whom, a sister-in-law, wrote scathing letters about her, claiming that Robert was in fact an orphan, secretly adopted.

Marianne’s life was as full of mystery as her husband’s, but she ended his story in grand style with an impressive gravestone. The memorial had its own eventful journey from Auckland to Nelson to Wairoa and finally Rangitukia, broken but glued together outside the church, but never over the secret grave.

The inscription is worth reading in full, for it offers an early exemplar, told simply and elegantly, of what it is to be Pakeha in Aotearoa, how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go.

A widow mourning at a graveside. George John Pinwell (1842 – 1875).

A widow mourning at a graveside. George John Pinwell (1842 – 1875). Photo: Racked.com

Here Lies
All that could die of
The Rev Charles Lucas Reay
Formerly of Queen’s College, Oxford, B.A.
And vicar of Swanbourne Buckinghamshire
In England.
He was an Israelite in deed in whom
There was no guile.
Learned and brave yet mild as a child.
A fond husband and tender parent,
A faithful friend to the commands of
His great Master,
To go forth and preach the gospel among all nations.
He left a Christian home and Christian friends
And here born down by the weight of his labour
In the Lord’s Vineyard,
He sank to rest March 31st, 1848, aged 38.
In the hope and faith of a joyful resurrection
A volume would not tell of his many virtues,
But this stone
Is erected to his memory
By his widow.

This is Marianne’s story of Charles, set out more clearly than his missionary colleagues at the time and the historians who came later could ever manage to do.

And for Pakeha who come much later and still struggle to work out how to make this partnership with Māori work in just and mutually respectful ways, it could be our story too.

I love the story of Charles precisely because it is so mixed and mysterious. Some bits are admirable, some frankly dodgy. He was less than forthcoming to his bishop but entirely without guile, according to Marianne.

You have to judge him inside the context of his time, which was as full of racism and ignorance as ours, but he rose above all that and as a minority partner, worked out a coexistence with Māori, that we have yet to better as the majority partner today.

You see, it makes all the difference in the world whether you see yourself living inside a partnership, or not. Or even worse, living alongside a partnership: observing but not engaging. Especially when you’re looking at issues like who manages and guards the rivers, lakes and coastlines. Who chooses place names? And how decisions about health care are made. What language we use. Even how the seasons are celebrated.

And Charles knew, he had to live inside that partnership if he was to live long at all in this country.

I’d love to know what he thought about the state of the bicultural society we’re still trying to build 175 years later. I think he’d be baffled by our reluctance to acknowledge just how central that partnership is to the well-being of all New Zealanders, how reluctant we are to own the mistakes we’ve made, even though how readily we celebrate its successes.

1940 centennial re-enactment, Christchurch

1940 centennial re-enactment, Christchurch Photo: Kete Christchurch

I think Charles would have enjoyed Denis Glover’s poem written in 1940 for the Centennial of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. It begins:

In the year of centennial splendours
There were fireworks and decorated cars
And pungas hanging from the verandahs
But no one remembered our failures.

80 years on we can’t help but remember them, and as long as we own and honour the partnership with Māori, the kind of country Charles came to build might be starting to happen. 

Māori and Pakeha boys at school swimming pool, Auckland, 1970.

Māori and Pakeha boys at school swimming pool, Auckland, 1970. Photo: Archives NZ