RUATARA - A Māori chief of New Zealand

The Rev. Marsden & Ruatara bring Christianity.

Anthony G Flude © 2004


Rev. Marsden

Samuel Marsden was recruited in the year 1786 by an Anglican evangelical group, then sent to the Magdalene College in Cambridge, England, two years later. He was ordained a minister and chaplain in 1793. He married Elizabeth Fristan and a year later in March 1794, set sail for Sydney Cove, Australia, with his wife and baby daughter Ann, the first of their eight children.

Marsden had taken up the appointment as assistant chaplain to the new convict settlement in New South Wales, under the control of the governor and his military officers and guards. He purchased a 100 block of land at Parramatta and began farming, tilling and planting the land for agricultural use and growing vegetables, fruit, wheat and corn for flour to supply the prison and missionary as well as the many immigrant families settling in the growing town.

As the colony developed, traders found that a lucrative profit could be gained from the whaling fisheries and also the seal pelts which could be taken on the South Island of New Zealand. Ships engaged in this industry often called into the Bay of Islands on the northern coast of New Zealand to restock supplies and obtain fresh water or to carry out repairs.
As the native Māori became more confident and less suspicious of the whalers and sealers, many sought to join the ships as crew members or even to travel with them as far as Port Jackson, Australia. It was in this way that the Rev. Samuel Marsden made contact with the maori people of New Zealand, often having as guests in his house at Parramatta some thirty or more natives whom he taught the English language, showing them around his farm, cattle and horses. Te Pahi and his sons from the Bay of Islands were among those who travelled to New South Wales and visited Marsden in 1804.

Marsden became excited at the prospect of finding a race of people whom he could teach and convert to Christianity, however , it would be some years before his hopes could be realised. Te Pahi's friendly contacts with the white man were to eventually lead to his death following the massacre of the passengers and crew of the ill-fated brigantine Boyd  in October 1809 at the Bay of Islands. [See the article  The Boyd Massacre]
In the mistaken belief that Te Pahi and his tribe had been involved with the massacre, armed whalers, out for revenge, stormed his pa[village] at Rangihoua, sacking and burning the village and killing many members of his tribe. Te Pahi was wounded and escaped but was shortly after persued and killed by the real culprits.
After Te Pahi's death in 1809, Ruatara became the high chief of the tribe and rebuilt his village.

Previous to this event, , the whaler ARGO had put into the Bay of Islands in 1805 for fresh supplies and water before beginning the hunt for whales off the south coast of New Zealand. Ruatara and two companions seeking adventure, joined the ship as crew members for five months and Ruatara, who had enjoyed his seafaring life stayed aboard when she sailed for Port Jackson. Sadly the captain put him ashore there without pay or reward and without a friend. Dismayed at being so badly treated, he shipped aboard the whaler ALBION under Captain Richardson, who treated him kindly and paid him for his services, returning him to his people in the Bay of Islands, after six months cruising around the coast of New Zealand.

Restless, Ruatara determined to see more of the outside world and joined the SANTA ANN heading for Norfolk Island and the Bounty Islands to hunt for seals. He and eighteen other sailors were put ashore on the deserted islands to hunt while the ship made its way to New Zealand to collect whale oil and procure pork and potatoes. Setting course back for Norfolk Island, the ship ran into a violent storm, lost most of her sails and was blown off course into the Pacific Ocean. Needing to carry out repairs the Captain made again for the Bay of Islands. Meanwhile, three months had elapsed  while Ruatata and his fellow sailors had been living on seal meat and seabirds eggs, near to starving point and without fresh water to drink. They had collected over 8000 seal skin pelts but unfortunately, three of the men had died on the island before the sails of the 'Santa Ann'  hove into view.
Made ready for the return passage to England, the captain promised Ruatara that if he accompanied them on the voyage he could meet King George III and visit him at his house. The 22 year old Ruatara seized this opportunity for travelling to a distant land to visit such an important person; it was an honor which few maori could ever experience.
The whaler Santa Ann docked in the river Thames in July 1809.

Ruatara, eager to get ashore, asked the captain to take him to visit King George as he had promised. Again he experienced the deceit of the white man as they laughed and made fun of him, saying that no-one was allowed to visit the King nor go to his house. He was not permitted to leave the ship or go on shore.
After fifteen days the vessel had discharged all her cargo and the captain told a bewildered Ruatara that he was being put aboard the vessel ANN which had been chartered by the British Government to take convicts to New South Wales and was now lying at Gravesend ready to put to sea.
Ruatara asked for his wages and some more clothing which was refused. He was told that two muskets had been left for him at Port Jackson which he could collect on his return as payment for his services.

Samuel Marsden was also in London in 1809, totally unaware of the fact that Ruatara was being placed aboard the same vessel as he was travelling aboard back to Sydney. After a few days at sea, Marsden noticed a dark skinned sailor on the fo'castle who looked sick and weak. He was wrapped in an old great-coat and had a violent cough and spitting up blood. He was a very sad and miserable man. This was Ruatara, a Māori chief of New Zealand.
Marsden recognised him at once and questioned him and the captain as to how he came aboard this ship in such a bad state of health. Ruatara told of the hardships he had suffered on Norfolk Island, the bad treatment aboard the 'Santa Ann' where the sailors had beaten him a great deal when he was ill and couldn't work. He related how he had received no wages and that the captain's promises had not been kept in allowing him to see the English King George.

Those on board the 'Ann' treated him kindly, fed him good food and nursed him back to a reasonable state of health. On arrival in Sydney, Marsden insisted that he come to stay at Parramatta on the farm for a few months until he regained his health. While there, Ruatara interested himself in farming, learning how to grow wheat and corn while teaching Marsden the basic words of the maori language.
As Ruatara's health improved, he asked if he could now return to New Zealand and his tribe at Rangihoua.

Marsden agreed to put him aboard the first ship calling into the Bay of Islands, but decided it was unsafe to send any missionaries with him, as he was aware of the recent massacre of the crew and passengers of the 'Boyd' and the retaliation mistakenly wrought on Te Pahi and his  tribe by the whalers. Ruatara took back with him a sackful of wheat to sow and a gift of three horses, two cows and a bull, presented  by the New South Wales Governor Macquarrie.

It was five years later in 1814 that it was considered safe to attempt to set up a mission station in the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. Marsden sent two missionaries, Kendall and Hall, to re-open communication with Ruatara and get the natives reaction to the missionaries living among them. They were well received and on the return of the vessel to Sydney on the 21st August, had on board several of the maori chiefs, including Ruatara and Hongi, who went to stay with Marsden at Parramatta.

On the 28th November, 1814, his schooner ACTIVE weighed anchor from Sydney Cove. On board on this occasion were the Rev. Samuel Marsden, Liddiard Nicolas, his friend,  missionaries Kendall, Hall, King and their families, Ruatara, Hongi and six other Māori from the Bay of Islands.
Calling at several places along the coast of New Zealand, they stayed the night among the Whangaroa Māori who had been the perpetrators of the massacre of the 'Boyd'.
"It was a clear moonlit night'"wrote Marsden, "we were directed to lie close to 'George' [Te Ara - a chieftain] and his wife and child. I did not sleep very much surrounded by the cannibals who now lay asleep on the grass close by me, who had massacred and devoured our countrymen."

The ACTIVE sailed into the Bay of Islands on the 22nd December and anchored off Rangihoua Pa which was the village of the chief Ruatara. On landing, the most prominent chiefs came down to meet them with greetings and re-assurances that all would be well.
Ruatara set about preparations for the Sabbath. He enclosed about half an acre of land by a fence, erected a pulpit and reading stand which he covered with a cloth and a tall flag pole. He advised the Rev. Marsden that all was ready.
On the Sunday morning, the 25th December and Christmas Day, Marsden prepared to go ashore at 10 o'clock. Ruatara had hoisted the English colours to the top of the flagpole.
On landing he found the chiefs Korokoro, Ruatara and Hongi dressed in regimental uniforms which the Governor of New South Wales had given each of them. Each wore a ceremonial sword and carried a 'switch' in their hand. The European inhabitants of the town, men women and children, gathered around in a half circle of the enclosure.
Xmas service 1814

There was complete silence among the crowd as Samuel Marsden stood with Ruatara standing proudly alongside the pulpit  in his uniform.
"I rose up and began the service by singing the Old Hundredth Psalm" wrote Marsden. "Then I read the service, during which time the natives stood up and sat down to the direction of Korokoro's switch. As it was Christmas Day I preached from the second chapter of St. Luke's Gospel and the tenth verse, 'Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy.'"

The natives later told Ruatara that they had enjoyed the service but hadn't understood a word spoken by Marsden. Ruatara assured then that he would explain the sermon's meaning  at a later time, to his best ability.
"In this manner,"wrote Marsden in his journals, "the gospel was introduced into New Zealand. I fervently pray that the glory of it may never depart from its inhabitants, till time shall be no more."

It was just a few days before Marsden was due to leave. Quite suddenly Ruatara was taken ill. Marsden tried to see him but the superstitious natives would not allow him near. As was the Māori custom, his people placed a fence around him and a number of persons were tattooed to attend to him. For two or three days Marsden's pleas to see him went unheeded. Ruatara was very ill and close to death. He sent word for Mr. Marsden to pray for him, while at the same time unable to prevent the maori rites performed over him by the native priests.

Marsden knew he must leave New Zealand and his friend Ruatara behind and set sail for Sydney with a sad heart. Ruatara survived for four more days before he died at the early age of 27 years. His corpse was then placed in a sitting position, his forehead encircled with feathers in the Māori  custom of respect for their chief. A few days later, his distraught wife, Rahu, took her own life just a short distance from her departed husband.

Marsden returned to Rangihoua Pa the following year but found things had dramatically changed after the death of Ruatara. The mission station had been plundered and robbed of the stores, the families forced to flee for their lives. During a brief visit in February, 1815, Marsden baptised into the christian faith the child of Hannah King, perhaps the first baby to receive this blessing in New Zealand.


[resources:(1) 'Christianity among the New Zealander's' by Rev. William Williams, Bishop of Waiapu, 1867
(2)Journals of the Rev. Samuel Marsden, (3)London Church Missionary Society.]