Proclaiming to the barbarians, Philip Temple

The Mediator: A Life of Richard Taylor 1805-1873
J M R Owens
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0864734646

Richard Taylor was one of the more effective and influential of Church Missionary Society (CMS) workers during that golden age for missionaries, from the late 1830s to the period of the New Zealand Wars, when they pursued not only the Christianisation of the Maori – “to proclaim to the barbarians of New Zealand the gospel”, as Taylor put it – but also acted as vital political intermediaries between Maori and agents of the Crown. As the title of this biography indicates, Taylor was pre-eminent in mediating the expectations and attitudes of settlers to the Maori, and promoting the needs of the Maori, in a time of burgeoning demand for land, and in that most turbulent of missionary fields, the Wanganui-Rangitikei.

Taylor arrived in the district in April 1843, just before the Wairau incident ignited conflict all along the coast from Wellington to Wanganui, and he was still active as a missionary at the time of the Hauhau attacks on Wanganui town more than 20 years later. It seems unlikely that any other missionary would have survived in the region throughout that time and achieved the kind of success that earned Taylor the enduring respect of both Maori and Pakeha. He demonstrated a strength of belief, both in his God and his own abilities, and an obduracy of mind and spirit that survived every conflict and overcame physical difficulties and ailments that would be seen as almost insurmountable today.

Richard Taylor arrived in the Bay of Islands with his family in March 1839. Born in south Yorkshire in 1805, he lost his mother at the age of five and his father, a “man of affairs” dealing in land, farming and property, when he was 13. Rather than follow a similar career, he was prompted by the loss of his father to enter the church three years later. Characteristically of the time, he decided to follow a path in life where he would be, at all times, ready for death, ready to give account to a God who sat in judgement as a father both loved and feared. The year he turned 24, he graduated from Cambridge, was ordained deacon in the Church of England and married Caroline Fox. Over the following six years they produced two sons and two daughters while Taylor worked as a country parson near Ely.

In 1834 he offered himself as a missionary to the CMS, without consulting his wife who, when told, prevailed on him to tell the CMS that they should not be sent to West Africa or Australasia. Nonetheless, the family found themselves on the Prince Regent  two years later, outward bound for New South Wales where they spent three years before moving on to New Zealand.

The most notorious incident attached to Taylor at this juncture is his role as witness for the prosecution against fellow missionary William Yate, for his homosexual liaison with third mate of the Prince Regent, Edwin Denison. Biographer Owens relates how Taylor wrote privately to Yate warning him that his behaviour was attracting dangerous comment. When he received a “scornful and patronising reply”, Taylor advised CMS elder Samuel Marsden who, “hideously embarrassed”, did nothing. Taylor also did nothing more but the rumour-machine eventually provoked a full-scale enquiry and ruined Yate’s career.

Yate placed Taylor foremost in the “infamous plot” against him, saying that he wished to supplant him in his post at St James Church in Sydney. Owens writes:

[Taylor] is unlikely to have wanted the position … as all his ambition was to get to New Zealand. He collected evidence about Yate but this was probably because he saw it as necessary to protect the name of the mission, given the law and the viewpoint of the time. Later it became a matter of self-defence when Yate sought to defend himself by ruining Taylor’s reputation.


This was the first of numerous disputes or disagreements that Taylor had with his fellow missionaries, occasioned more by his strength of character and a determination to fight for what he considered to be right, than by any propensity for cantankerous disputation. Like any good Yorkshireman, he was forthright to the point of bluntness and was unafraid of contending the actions or views of those he thought in the wrong, regardless of their class or status. He had famous tussles with the high-church establishment of Bishop Selwyn, and these concluded in mutual respect.

Taylor had less trouble with governors and politicians and could count George Grey a friend who valued his advice and knowledge in Maori affairs and could share an enthusiasm for natural science. Like fellow missionary William Colenso, Taylor liaised with palaeontologist Richard Owen over moa bones, and the Hookers at Kew over New Zealand botany. His book Te Ika a Maui and other writings, especially his extensive journals, have remained a valuable resource for historians seeking to understand mid-19th century New Zealand and, in particular, the strands of stress, conflict and misunderstandings that led to the New Zealand Wars.

First-hand experience soon changed Taylor’s English view of the Maori as “barbarians” and “people dwelling in darkness”, and he became their convinced and tireless advocate as the pressures of British settlers and the actions of their government began to destroy the mana and substance of Maori society. In September 1854, he prevailed upon his friendship with Donald McLean, then Chief Land Purchase Commissioner, writing to him: “We must keep our promises otherwise we can not expect them [Maori] to keep theirs & they may make our non fulfillment an excuse for drawing back, I am no croaker but I feel very fearful for the future there is a very bad spirit abroad and it is increasing … .”  He queried why, though Maori were British subjects, they held no public office higher than that of a common policeman. Although Taylor always stood out for the welfare of Maori, he never resiled from his belief that “it is evidently better for them that they shd. be amalgamated with our race rather than continue thus aloof and unimproved by civilised man living amongst them.” Ironically, he often had cause to decry the debauched and heathen behaviour of Wanganui settlers.

In late 1859, when the Pakeha population had begun to outstrip the Maori, and on the eve of open race conflict, Taylor preached a sermon in which he lamented the backsliding from Christianity that had begun under the influence of the King Movement: “After the service the king’s deputies attacked me and said that whilst we tried to raise their eyes to heaven the pakehas came behind and stole their land from under them.” This was a sentiment Donald McLean had long confided to his journal, notwithstanding Taylor’s friendly remonstrations, when he wrote in 1851 that Christianity was “one of the principal causes of our easy conquest and retention of the New Zealand islands.”

Taylor’s mission of taking Christianity to the Maori, and Maori to the Christians, may not have collapsed as early and comprehensively as the house he built of white pine. But if he was The Mediator then, inevitably, he acted most effectively on behalf of the beliefs of his own people.

J M R Owens’ book is thorough and worthy, a valuable and overdue record rather than a searching and enlivening biography. The narrative comes alive most when the detail and colour of character and event are revealed through the words of Taylor and his contemporaries. Too often, however, the story is more told than shown and there is a frustrating paucity of political, social and even wider biographical contexts to put Taylor and his family in their place, society and times. The Mediator is the kind of essential reference work that enables fuller, more creative, biographies to be ventured in the future.


Philip Temple is a Dunedin writer whose latest book is White Shadows, Memories of Marienbad.


Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category