This stunning painting was made by the British artist, James Barry, in London in 1820. For nearly a hundred years, it hung in pride of place in the hallowed mahogany-panelled halls of the Church Missionary Society’s London headquarters.
That was because the powers-that-be in the Church Missionary Society (CMS) had mistakenly believed it depicted the Reverend Samuel Marsden, the pioneer Anglican missionary to New Zealand, with two of his Māori converts.
It wasn’t until the early 1900s, when a New Zealand art collector T.E. Donne saw the picture, that he casually observed that the missionary depicted wasn’t Samuel Marsden at all, but his associate Thomas Kendall. And the Māori “converts” were nothing of the sort. They were the Nga Puhi warrior chiefs, Waikato (left) and Hongi Hika (centre). Both are wearing kiwi feather cloaks and flax skirts, and, far from having become peace-loving Christians, they each hold a mere, a type of short, broad-bladed weapon, and Hongi is shown holding a taiaha, or spear.
In 1820, the two chiefs were in Britain, hoping to buy muskets for their ongoing fight against colonialists and other Māori tribes.
That was awkward enough, but it was the appearance of Thomas Kendall (albeit with a Bible prominently displayed on his knee) that embarrassed the leaders of the CMS the most.
T.E. Donne offered to take the picture off the church’s hands and they happily agreed. That’s how it eventually ended up in the National Library of New Zealand where it’s currently stored.
So who was Thomas Kendall and why did the CMS dispense with his portrait as soon as they knew it was of him?
Kendall was an associate of the aforementioned Samuel Marsden, who had conducted the first Christian service on New Zealand soil on Christmas Day, 1814. Marsden had been a patron to two Māori chiefs, Ruatara (who had lived with him in Australia), and a junior war leader, Hongi Hika, and they had agreed to allow the Anglicans to establish a mission in their country, Bay of Islands, in the far north of New Zealand. Marsden commissioned a young missionary, Thomas Kendall to build a base at Rangihoua Bay, later moved to Kerikeri.
During this time, Kendall was described as “an emotional, idealistic and self-torturing man, driven by evangelical zeal and seeking perfection, although believing at the same time in his own deep imperfection; when opposed… he was subject to outbursts of ungovernable temper.”
Barry’s portrait captures the intensity of the young clergyman.
Money was tight for the fledgling mission and when Kendall realised Hongi Hika needed weapons to defeat his Māori enemies, he began trading him firearms to help make ends meet.
The Kerikeri Anglican Mission was led by a disturbed missionary and partly funded by arms dealing.
Marsden wasn’t happy. Intertribal warfare between Māori was beginning to escalate. The provision of firearms could be disastrous. Indeed, it was. But Kendall’s aptitude for the Māori language and his skills as an interpreter were invaluable, and these bought him some time with his superiors.
If arms dealing wasn’t enough to get you fired, Kendall’s next scandal was. He abandoned his wife for the daughter of a Māori tohunga (priest). Even worse for the Anglicans, Kendall was also beginning to embrace aspects of Māori traditional religion.
In 1820, to curry favour with Hongi Hika, Kendall travelled with him to England where they met King George IV, who gave the Māori chief a suit of armour. Hongi liked the English. He believed they were a ruthless warrior tribe like his own. Kendall helped him procure a cache of muskets to take back to New Zealand.
By this time, Marsden, living in Australia, had had enough and sailed to New Zealand to fire Kendall.
Anxious about the impending end of his missionary vocation, Kendall ended his affair with his Māori lover and his long-suffering wife took him back. Not that he was particularly apologetic about his infidelity. He rationalised the relationship by saying it was “in order to obtain accurate information as to their religious opinions and tenets, which he would in no other way have obtained.”
Neither was Kendall embarrassed about his flirtation with Māori religious beliefs.
In 1822, he wrote that the “sublimity” of Māori spirituality saw him “almost completely turned from a Christian to a Heathen.”
Nonetheless, the Anglican Church reversed their decision to remove him from the mission. However, they knew he couldn’t be trusted around the Māori. In those days there was a saying that described missionaries who embraced their host cultures too enthusiastically. They were said to have “gone native.” The only solution, it was believed, was to remove them forthwith.
The Kendalls were packed off to Chile, where Thomas was appointed the chaplain to the British consulate at Valparaiso. They didn’t last there long. They returned to New South Wales where Thomas Kendall drowned in 1832 when the ship he was aboard sank with all hands off Sydney.
Meanwhile, Hongi Hika continued to wage the intertribal battles known as the “Musket Wars” until January 1827, when he was shot in the chest. His death was a drawn out affair. He invited those around him to listen to the wind whistle through his punctured lungs as he struggled to breathe. Some claimed they could see right through when they looked into the wound.
Hongi Hika lingered for 14 months before dying of infection from this wound on 6 March 1828 at Whangaroa. During this time he gave increasingly delusional speeches, calling his warriors to avenge his impending death.
In the decade after Hongi died and Kendall left New Zealand, the widescale conversion of Māori to Christianity occurred. It was miraculous. And it occurred thanks in part to Thomas Kendall’s Māori translation of the Bible.
Thomas Kendall appeared to be at home in neither Western nor Māori society. His story has been swept under the carpet by the Church Missionary Society, but their subsequent efforts in New Zealand are in no small measure due to him, as strange as that might seem.