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Migrations of Empire: Comparative Studies of Colonialism, Religion, and GenderMigrations au sein des empires : études comparatives du colonialisme, de la religion et du genre

Between religion and empire: Sarah Selwyn’s Aotearoa/New Zealand, Eton and Lichfield, England, c.1840s-1900

  • Charlotte MacDonald

Corps de l’article

By the time Sarah Selwyn reached Aotearoa/New Zealand in June 1842, religion, empire and gender had been entangled in a local history for nearly three decades. [1] Sarah, wife of the first Church of England bishop to New Zealand, was greeted by a largely christianised Maori crowd calling to her “Haere mai, haere mai Mata Pihopa” – welcome, welcome Mother Bishop. After much shaking of hands, and what she describes as her own shy words of greeting using “her Maori language” [2] Sarah was invited to tea in the house of the leaders of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) station and residents in the Bay of Islands for almost twenty years, Marianne and Henry Williams (with eight of their eleven children). The preceding ten months had taken Sarah from the heart of English elite institutions to the newest and most distant of the British Empire’s formal possessions, [3] six months spent at sea, the preceding three in rapid elevation from curate to bishop’s wife and preparations for what some of her friends clearly considered her impending exile. She had been living at Eton College where husband George was both tutor and curate at nearby St George’s chapel, Windsor. Sarah Selwyn was to live in New Zealand for twenty-five years, 1842 – 68, from the age of thirty-two to fifty-nine years. She returned permanently to England when George was recalled, reluctantly, to take up the position as Bishop of Lichfield. He died in 1878. Sarah, despite being known for her frail health, lived on in the close of Lichfield Cathedral until 1907, when she died at the age of ninety-eight. [4]

Like other women for whom marriage in the mid-nineteenth century brought a life spanning the imperial world, Sarah Selwyn wrote intensely about place. Where she put her head to rest may not have been a matter of her own choosing but it was a subject of intense interest, in her own accounting, and in the correspondence that so vitally connected the particular localities she came to inhabit. [5] Marriage in 1839 to George Selwyn, a rising star of conservative reform within High Church Anglicanism, took Sarah first to England’s Eton and Windsor then to New Zealand’s Waimate, Parnell and “Bishop’s Auckland,” [6] on several lengthy voyages around the Western Pacific ocean (what came to be known as “Melanesia”) with sojourns on Norfolk Island, three return voyages from Portsmouth to Auckland and finally to Lichfield in the heart of provincial England. The circuits and webs of empire were lived out by individuals as well as defining the imperial world. [7] For Sarah Selwyn these were geographies whose co-ordinates were defined by wifely obedience, bishop’s mitre and union jack. Sarah’s life presents a working example of the dynamics of connection by which the imperial world came to be constituted in and across diverse spaces and communities, via patronage, social and personal networks as well as systems of governance. [8] To follow Sarah Selwyn between these enormously disparate locations is to track the crossroads of empire and religion: to further explore the knotty problem which tied but did not bind the diffusion of Christianity to the expansion of the British Empire. Did Christian missions and church on the one hand, and British imperial authority on the other, reinforce or undermine each other? The question remains highly contested. [9]

Towards the end of her life Sarah Selwyn wrote to a younger friend recalling “the faces that were made about my dear Husbands going to New Zealand, ‘Such a man – such a waste of him! Wanted at home!’’’ [10] The shock at George’s appointment to the newly established bishopric of New Zealand in 1841 was widespread and real. For the Church of England, and especially its high church wing, to select one of its favoured sons from the highest enclave of court and social privilege to serve in the distant and evangelically-dominated CMS mission field, was unprecedented. George’s appointment, and with it, Sarah’s destiny, [11] emerged from mid-nineteenth century currents that briefly saw mission, church and colonization as bridgeable, if not exactly compatible, projects. [12] The early 1840s marked the high point of convergence between an outward-looking and mission-inspired Church of England, and a humanitarian-influenced colonial office. As Andrew Porter notes, the 1840s was a “heady decade,” the high tide of the evangelical-humanitarian movement’s influence on British public opinion and colonial policy. Support for the missionary movement was such that: “Even the SPG’s [Society for Propagation of the Gospel] high-churchmen now began to jump aboard the bandwagon.” [13] George Selwyn was the first of fifteen bishops appointed to colonial positions in the 1840s, most with the assistance of the Colonial Bishoprics Fund established in 1841. Selwyn, regarded as the “hero-bishop” of his generation, [14] epitomized that zenith of idealism and expansiveness, along with the influence of the episcopacy movement of the 1830s. As a “missionary bishop” (no longer an oxymoron but a term of the times) Selwyn and his successors were to lead rather than follow in transplanting the church to new fields of settlement.  [15]Sarah’s story was part of the expansion of church as well as mission, and specifically high church involvement in empire recently highlighted by Howard Le Couteur. [16]

Sarah and George embarked on their lives as “colonials” not only with humanitarian and church-inspired missionary idealism, but also with the reforming fervour of the Oxford movement then gaining ground within Victorian church and intellectual circles. A few days following George’s consecration in the chapel at Lambeth Cathedral on 17 October 1841, he and Sarah, along with their closest supporters, Thomas Whytehead and Edward Coleridge, spent two days visiting key figures at Oxford. [17] New Zealand offered the hugely energetic and high-principled George Selwyn a fresh field in which revived traditions would support a spiritually powerful and independent church headed by a bishop whose authority derived from an invigorated notion of divine apostolic succession. The new church was also to be uniquely inclusive, welcoming and recognizing equally as worshippers and as clergy, English and “native New Zealanders.” [18] Swept along in the high tide of late 1830s “protectionism” the Selwyns envisaged a church in which racial difference was a malleable base, where souls stood equal and where social advancement was an optimistic possibility to be achieved through the unity of a common faith. Sarah and George’s twenty-five years in New Zealand, however, were to demonstrate the fragility and ultimately, the failure, of those ideals. The spaces that Sarah came to occupy across the imperial world were those in which the 1830s-40s notions of “race” as inclusiveness, amalgamation and “civilisation” were tried and tested, and finally, abandoned. That failure was, in part, their failure.

By the time Sarah returned to England in the late 1860s the vision of an inclusive common community had evaporated. At the metropolitan centre harsher understandings of race justified punitive rather than protective policies towards colonial subjects, while in New Zealand the mission and church presence had been subordinated to the now numerically and politically dominant settler population and interests. If this outcome was the common fate of Christianity in what became the British settler societies, the exact timing and processes by which the secular empire came to prevail over religion deserves attention. The transition was neither uniform or uncontested. And while the evangelical aspect of this history is well known, the place of the Church, and especially the High Church, in these processes is much less so.

Sarah Selwyn played a part in supporting the practical work of the church in the new colony of New Zealand and mission field of Melanesia, and in the wider cultural work of empire. As wife of the bishop Sarah occupied a position, along with the wife of the governor, at the apex of colonial society, a superiority reinforced by her background as the daughter of the prominent judge Sir John, and Harriet Richardson. [19] In New Zealand, as elsewhere, gender was central in the making of colonial relations. British and protestant influence dominated the European side of the colonial encounter. The model of marriage and family was a strong thread in New Zealand’s nineteenth-century history uniting the British projects of mission, church and colonization against both French Roman Catholicism and rejected models of British colonization based on convictism and coerced labour. The evangelical CMS missionaries active from 1814 were sent to their work as married couples and families. The model was one of both moral and worldly economy, designed to demonstrate the benefits of a Christian life against both heathenism and the dissolute habits of sojourning European whalers, sailors and traders. The first British Resident, James Busby (1835-40), governor William Hobson (1840-42) and bishop George Selwyn, followed in the same model: men whose governance over territory and church ran in parallel with their authority as heads of households; intimate relations also forming ties of empire. [20]

If marriage was the foundation for church and colonization, High Anglicanism was to make Sarah’s “path of duty” as an Episcopal wife an isolated one. [21] Higher in class, younger in age than the mission wives who welcomed her to the Bay of Islands in the winter of 1842, and married to the man in whose person lay the powers bestowed by apostolic succession, Sarah Selwyn had no direct equal in New Zealand. Sarah’s personal qualities were such as not to press her advantage. She is variously described by contemporaries, both the few intimates for whom she was “dear Sasa,” and more numerous acquaintances, as quiet, reserved, and “very good.” [22] These attributes were cast into stronger relief when compared with husband George. To formal position and upper class background George brought a remarkable force of person, a man universally recognized, if not always liked, for his imposing presence. In history, as in life, Sarah has lingered in his shadow. Gender not only opened the path of higher education and formal office to him, but amongst contemporaries George was widely admired for his exemplary, and rare, combination of manly spiritual and physical strength. He rowed in the Cambridge Eight in the first Oxford – Cambridge Thames boat race in 1829, taught Eton boys to swim (thereby reducing drowning fatalities) and navigated boats around the Pacific with great skill. In the words of a sailor, “to see the bishop handle a boat was almost enough to make a man a Christian.” [23] But he was not just a muscular Christian. His deep conviction and high principles made him known as “the thirteenth apostle,” and “the royal George,” someone who was naturally dominant, even autocratic. [24] George Selwyn drew lifelong devotion and reverence from an influential circle including W. E. Gladstone and Edward Coleridge. To Henry Harper, Edmund Hobhouse, Charles Abraham, William Martin, men of learning and similar background, he was a loved leader, no less than their lodestar, his decisions giving shape to their lives. In contrast to this embodied gender identity Sarah appears in contemporary and historical narratives as “long-suffering,” careworn, having “a lonely time,” “a hard lot,” “delicate and anxious.” [25] She is the frail and vulnerable figure alongside George’s legendary vigour and practicality. He was the skilled navigator, she the poor sailor. [26]

Eton, with its comfortable drawing rooms, stone walls and conscious invocation of tradition was Sarah’s last place of residence before embarking for New Zealand. Her married life existed within its walls, her first child William was born here (1840), and it was at Eton that thirty-one-year-old Sarah lived out the momentous year 1841: the death of her father in March, the infant steps of young Willie’s first year, the appointment and consecration of her husband George as bishop (October) and the consequent frenetic round of preparation and packing for departure for New Zealand (leaving Eton in early December, and Portsmouth on 26 December). While much of Sarah’s life was simply packed up to travel: furniture, books, clothing, and the like, recruiting funds and fellow workers for what was to be the foundation of a whole church enterprise remained the most pressing tasks. The “Eton circle,” as Sarah termed it, provided much of both, at this point, and throughout their life in New Zealand. W. E. Gladstone later described George Selwyn’s attachment to Eton, as “a love surpassing even the love of Etonians.” [27] Sarah’s was of equal measure. [28] Edward Coleridge, assistant master at Eton, served as one of Sarah’s sustaining correspondents and greatest supporters of their work in New Zealand. [29] It was Coleridge who made the final words of farewell flung across the water as their ship left Plymouth harbour: “God bless you God bless you ‘Floreat Ecclesia’ ‘Floreat Etona.’” [30]

For his last major service before leaving England, at Exeter Cathedral on 13 December 1841, Selwyn chose as his text: Psalm 137, verse 4: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Expounding on the meaning of “we” in the text he pointed to those remaining in England as much as to his own party about to embark for “foreign shores.” Their task, he suggested, was also to learn what this song might be — not just in prayers, but in all the practical and political support the new church in New Zealand would need. The “we” also had a conjugal and familial meaning. George accepted his appointment as a married man with a young child. Sarah was part of his life and work. This was no mere recital of marital duty. George had taken the New Zealand post in the wake of his elder brother’s acceding to the opposition of his wife and father-in-law and declining it. To George this was a source of “astonishment and shame.” [31] His understanding of ecclesiastical and patriarchal authority admitted “no limit to the duty of obedience either of a Priest to the Church, or of a wife to her husband.” [32] Neither of Sarah’s parents were alive to voice dissent even if they had been emboldened to challenge George’s conviction. If George assumed Sarah’s part through the principle of obedience, others took the trouble to remind him of her interests and qualities (all the more to be noted given the disappointingly small final party embarking for New Zealand). In his valedictory letter of 30 November 1841 Archbishop Howley wrote to George Selwyn:

Among the blessings which will lighten your labours there is one

which I mention, not for the purpose of increasing your sense of its

value, which you know from experience, but in order to gratify my own

feelings in regard to the amiable daughter of the late excellent Judge

Richardson, and as it appears to Mrs. Howley and myself, the inheritress

of his estimable qualities. The influence of Mrs. Selwyn’s kindness and piety

will, I am persuaded, not only promote the comfort and happiness of her

domestic circle, but will be extensively useful in bettering the condition

and improving the morals of all who come within its sphere. [33]

The greeting called to Sarah on her arrival at the Bay of Islands of “Mata Pihopa” not only marked paternal relationships between European and Maori but was also recognition, fully apparent to Maori as well as local missionaries and other Europeans, that the Selwyns brought a new layer of status into the community. Maori society, like mid-nineteenth century Victorian society, was highly attuned to rank and status. If Bishop Selwyn was addressed by missionary colleagues as “His Lordship” and commanded new levels of deference, then Sarah was accorded equivalent respect through appellation as “Mata Pihopa” (and was expected to reciprocate in her acknowledgement of the status of rangatira – tribal leaders, male and female). [34] George and Sarah Selwyn, it was hoped, would provide a “head” for the body of the church in the colony. [35] A local bishop would recognize the existence and achievement of the substantial indigenous Christian population, the product of three decades hard won missionary endeavour, while also providing the crucial power of ordination to promote “native” teachers as well as lay missionaries. [36] At the same time, a bishop signaled to the tiny nuclei of “systematic colonies” set in motion by the New Zealand Company, that colonization would proceed within reassuring structures of social, educational and spiritual order. Sarah brought a particular novelty to northern New Zealand as a bishop’s spouse – an as yet unseen variation on European religious offices. The only other bishop resident in the Bay at the time was the celibate French Roman Catholic, Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pompallier. Religious pluralism was only one of a number of layers to the history of interaction at the Bay of Islands. [37]

By the time of Sarah’s arrival, sixty or so years of interaction between Maori and newcomers at the Bay of Islands had resulted in a well established trading and cultural entrepôt, revolving around two rival centres. On one side of the main anchorage was Paihia with its neat buildings erected by the CMS, on the other the straggle of rougher structures along the Kororareka (later known as Russell) beachfront serving the trading, drinking and shore pursuits of Pacific sailors and whalers. A key meeting ground for the major iwi (tribes) of the northern region, and a natural waterway for Maori as well as European shipping, the Bay was the only place where there was any semblance of concentrated European settlement. Most of the 100,000 or so Maori inhabitants of New Zealand were also to be found in the northern coastal districts of Te Ika a Maui (the North Island), in which the Bay of Islands was one of the major centres of population. Approximately one half of the estimated 2,000 Europeans living in New Zealand in 1840 were located here with tiny pockets scattered elsewhere, largely around the timber and flax trading ports of the northern coasts, and the whaling and sealing shores of the central Cook Strait and southern Otago and Foveaux Straits. Aotearoa/New Zealand in 1840 was still very much a Maori world. [38] Missionaries and missionary families comprised perhaps a third of all Europeans in New Zealand in 1840, the initial CMS groups planted by Samuel Marsden from New South Wales in 1814 added to by larger influxes in the mid 1820s and 1830s, when they were joined (in some rivalry) by representatives of the Wesleyan Missionary Society [39] and a little later by the Marist party led by Bishop Pompallier from Lyons. The pattern of settlement and balance between numbers of Maori and European was to change quickly from the mid-1840s. The New Zealand Company as a vehicle for “systematic colonisation” and speculative gain had ships at sea by late 1839 sending parties of emigrants to settlements in Wellington/Port Nicholson at the southern most tip of the North Island, and soon after, to New Plymouth in Taranaki and Nelson. These were emigrants largely drawn from skilled working and lower middle class backgrounds with small numbers of investing capitalists who had also chosen the risk of becoming colonists.

Sarah’s first years in New Zealand were spent at Waimate, where the bishop’s party was literally transplanted into the CMS structure. [40] Taking up residence at the most substantial home built by the mission (and thereby conveniently relieving the CMS of what had proved an expensive asset) rather than choosing to settle in any of the New Zealand Company settlements, signaled the priority accorded to the Maori church. [41] But it was left to Sarah and the remaining party from the Tomatin to establish an episcopal centre — a strong diocesan community being at the heart of George Selwyn’s vision for the church in New Zealand. [42] Within a fortnight of Sarah’s arrival in New Zealand George departed on what would be a six-month long Visitation of his new diocese, traveling over 2000 miles by schooner, canoe and foot. George anticipated that while his duties would require him to be often absent traveling around his district, Sarah would anchor his work as his representative in situ. The Selwyns’ closest confidante and chaplain Reverend Thomas Whytehead was to be “a stationary man” “for Sarah” while the second chaplain would be his “travelling man.” Whytehead’s serious illness made for a change of plans. Sarah was left to nurse Whytehead through the final stages of tuberculosis (he died in March 1843), while setting up the establishment with the assistance of the mercurial young Reverend William Cotton.

With priority on education it was a collegial rather than domestic model over which Sarah came to preside. St John’s College, Waimate, named after George’s Cambridge college, drew its structure from Eton but its residents from much more diverse backgrounds than its English original. Alongside the English students and ordination candidates, decked in proper college caps and gowns, were children of the mission families seeking education, Maori adults and children, and other members of the bishop’s party also expecting continued instruction. Students of all kinds were expected to live in residence and to take their meals in a common dining hall. [43] As in the English colleges, there was a high table and common tables. In marked contrast, however, at Waimate women and men took their places in the dining hall, Maori alongside Pakeha, students alongside teachers. [44] Sarah considered it “a duty to help George’s young staff in homey ways lest their influence should be lowered. So we assembled in evening attire at our tea without milk and our bread without butter and made ourselves agreeable according to our lights and behaved ‘pretty’ as the nurses used to say.” [45] The setting might have been novel but the habits of the high table were there to serve the successful transfer of culture along with church. [46] “Homey ways” existed in contrast to “colonial ways,” connoting not so much a bourgeois domesticity but an upper class decorum. [47] The homosocial world of Eton and Cambridge was modified at Waimate to incorporate married couples and children. Learning how to be Christian required learning how to behave as men and women. The higher standards that had been set by the bishop and Sarah’s arrival were indicated also in the rules set down for admission of adult Maori men to the School for Native Teachers. No teacher was admitted into the first class of the school “who will not pledge himself to adopt English habits, to divide his house into rooms, to abstain from smoking, to take care of his wife and children, and attend to their improvement, to wear English clothes constantly; and above all to be regular in his attendance at Church and School.” Those admitted to the third class were candidates who wished “to learn English, but have not yet made up their minds to give up native habits.” [48]

The aspirations might have been high but Sarah was sorely aware of the gap between the ancient, tradition-filled stone buildings of college and church life she had left behind at Eton and Windsor and those she was now occupying at Waimate. Stone and glass had been exchanged for wood and canvas. Writing to her cousin Caroline (Cary) Palmer, Sarah described the rooms of the house as “above, about and underneath, is nothing but kauri wood, so that…it is very like being inside a box.” [49] In a later letter she commented ironically on the bishop’s palace to which English friends referred, being the “large wooden box in which we dwell.” [50] She counted it a rare surprise and treat a few years later to sleep in a room with papered walls. [51] Only at the Stone Store, Kerikeri, where the Bishop’s library was housed from mid-1842 till late 1844 did Sarah feel a sense of ease in a colonial interior. She had a rare chance to enjoy it when waiting for favourable winds and tides before sailing to Auckland in October 1843. “The library was a great resource” she told Cary, the “room has just been lined and to sit within the massive stone walls surrounded by large grave folios was most pleasant and anti-colonial.” [52]

After the first few months at Waimate improvising with very little, the Selwyns’ possessions were hauled from where they had lain in storage at the last navigable waterway up the twenty or so kilometres inland to Waimate. Included was the classic marker of female presence in the empire, the piano. Although “banged about” in the Tomatin and then carried by wagon over very uneven ground in a “a nest of fern to soften its fate” [53] its arrival brought a little more semblance of the material substance of an Episcopal home and college. For all that Sarah welcomed the normality that proceeded from being reunified with her possessions, the sight of her Eton furniture in the house at Waimate was unnerving rather than reassuring. “The way in which our old Eton furniture sits with our present room is curious” she wrote to her cousin. Unusually, she seemed stuck for words. In the midst of the page she stopped to draw a sketch. It is of the room in which she is writing. The anomaly of objects from the old world placed in the unfamiliar and crude setting of the new, provoked ambivalence. Her Eton furniture she describes around the room, noting its strangeness. Even more at odds is the figure in the middle of the room, seated at the table: “my place” her note on the sketch indicates. [54] Furniture out of place, herself out of place. Letters were crucial links between the places Sarah occupied in the past of her former life in England and her present in New Zealand. But they were not always sufficient to salve the strain between the two. The long intervals between dispatch and receipt of a reply, and uncertainty as to whether letters would even reach their destination, made correspondence both a fragile but treasured link. Letters between New Zealand and England in the 1840s and 50s could take from three to six months in each direction requiring patience for response. [55] Colonial space did not just invert the usual order but mixed things up in a way Sarah could not yet describe. It was, at very least, unsettling. For several months in mid-1843 Sarah suffered a major collapse in health, describing it as resulting from “extra strain upon my nerves.” [56] In the quiet home of Reverend and Mrs Burrows at Paihia she was able to rest away from the constant presence of people and noise of the bustling community at Waimate. For all the concern, Sarah’s collapse in health was much less severe than that of Reverend Dudley who lost his reason altogether for several months after landing in New Zealand. [57]

Figure 1

Eton furniture in the wooden Waimate house, New Zealand sketched by Sarah Selwyn in her letter to cousin Caroline Palmer, 5 January 1843.

MS-Papers-7188-05, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington
Eton furniture in the wooden Waimate house, New Zealand sketched by Sarah Selwyn in her letter to cousin Caroline Palmer, 5 January 1843.

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The Selwyns’ shift from Waimate to Auckland at the end of 1844 did not signal any deflection from George’s vision of a single church in which Christians, both Maori and European, would combine for worship and education. His ambition for a composite institution combining grammar school education along with preparation of those who would go on to ordination was one which absorbed much of his attention and resources in the following eight years. The community which formed at St John’s reflected that vision. Buildings in stone were George Selwyn’s preference for the permanent St John’s College which took shape from 1845 at what became known as “Bishop’s Auckland,” a few miles distance from the township of Auckland, now the colony’s capital. Sarah’s role as the “placeholder” for the bishop continued undimmed as George Selwyn’s absences conducting work throughout his extensive diocese were longer than his times spent “at home.” Jane Williams, the longserving CMS member who had been in New Zealand since the 1820s, and who had one son attending the College and her husband one of Selwyn’s principal clergy, was relieved to hear Sarah Selwyn was in residence in June 1846. “Mrs S.,” she told her sister-in-law Catherine Heathcote, “is quite a stay to the establishment in his Lordship’s absence, which makes me rejoice to find she is once more among them.” [58]

As the “stay” to George’s itineracy, Sarah maintained an Episcopal presence in Auckland. At St John’s it was her authority that was required for use of the college schooner, and her responsibility to conduct the weekly audit of supplies. It was no jest that Governor George Grey referred to her as the “deputy bishop.” [59] The community at St John’s included Maori men training for the ministry, notably Rota Waitoa and Henare Taratoa, along with the groups of young Melanesian men George brought to Auckland each summer from 1847. [60] To Rota Waitoa and Henare Taratoa Sarah was “Mata Pihopa” in a more personal way. As residents at St John’s Sarah spent more time with the College students than did George. To the Maori and Melanesian students as much as to the young European students at the college, Sarah was the female head of household — an extension of George’s authority as leader and teacher — but one encountered in the intimate daily rounds of meals, child rearing, prayers, house and farm work. Her role as “parent” was enacted in her Christian, as well cultural behavior and demeanour, a model of pious, civilized femininity. [61]

As part of the head of the church in New Zealand and centre of a diocese extending throughout New Zealand and further north and west into a huge area of the Pacific, it was also Sarah’s duty to offer hospitality to a wide range of visitors. [62] In September 1846 a large contingent of Williamses, the leaders of the CMS mission community, gathered at St John’s to celebrate the wedding of Samuel and Mary Williams. [63] Sarah played a leading role in making the occasion. Four years later it was Sarah Selwyn to whom Lieutenant-Governor Edward Eyre turned in his star crossed courtship of Ada Ormond. [64] With her assistance, and hospitality over several weeks extended to both Eyre and Miss Ormond, misunderstandings were finally overcome. George performed their wedding on 3 April 1850 in St John’s Chapel in a joint ceremony at which Henare Taratoa and Emily Te Rua were also married.  [65]The wedding breakfast was held in the dining hall at St John’s, George Selwyn sitting at one end of the table with Edward and Ada, while Sarah sat at the other with Henare and Emily, the college choir of Maori and settler boys singing for the 150 guests. For the Williams, and later Eyre/Ormond and Taratoa/Te Rua weddings, Sarah was acting as “Mata Pihopa,” her ladyship (to George’s lordship) — head of the church, and as a leading member of the small but distinctly layered colonial society. Governor and Bishop signed as witnesses to both marriages, the event attracting notice in the local press as a high point of the season’s social calendar. The seating plan at the joint wedding breakfast reflected the Selwyns’ vision for a civilized, just, Christian community — an inclusive yet ordered set of balanced hierarchies: church and state, male and female, Maori and European. All had a place at the table. Bringing couples together for marriage was not simply a rite of passage. Sarah and George’s efforts on these occasions testified to a conviction as to the centrality of marriage in the Christian life. There was ample evidence around them as to the necessity, and the fragility, of marriage in colonial settings. George Grey’s return to Auckland in 1861 for his second term as governor without his wife Eliza, to whom he had become estranged following an alleged affair, was only to become the most prominent instance. [66]

While George’s ambitions for St John’s College were considerable (as were the funds raised by Edward Coleridge amongst the old Eton circle for the project) after a decade’s work, they lay in figurative if not literal ashes. Doomed in part by over-reach, the College was also resented by settler parents who baulked at seeing their sons educated alongside Maori. The final and fatal blow came with the revelation of homosexuality amongst some of the European residents at the end of 1852. [67] The college community was dispersed. Locating the College a few miles distant from the main Auckland township had been designed to remove the distractions of secular port life, but isolation had presented its own temptations.

Even before this final calamity in late 1852, George’s buildings at St John’s had provoked controversy confirming suspicions which had earlier swirled about his and his party’s High Church and Tractarian tendencies. [68] Stone walls and steep roofs signaled Puseyism in the eyes of evangelical missionaries and low church laity. Even Constantine Dillon, a well connected Nelson colonist, regarded Selwyn’s massively ambitious college project at St John’s as nothing but “popish monkery.” [69] But it was Sarah Selwyn who had first attracted criticism on this score. Observed by the CMS’s Richard Taylor wearing a large gold cross suspended from her waist, she was reproved. She removed it at the time, but was seen wearing it again later. [70] The missionaries were disdainful of the “fast days” kept by the bishop’s party at Waimate in the early years and even more so by the attempt to introduce handsome silver candlesticks into church services. Some of the offending candlesticks came from a farewell gift of plate presented by the Windsor congregation. While they may have failed to impress the CMS, Sarah noted that Maori worshippers had quite a different reaction – not to the ritual spectacle of the objects, but rather, their associations: “the interest that the natives took in it when they knew that it came from the Bishop’s former congregation was very great.” [71] A font sent from England for the St John’s chapel inscribed with Maori words “excited …wonder” and provoked the question “if people talked Maori in London.” [72] Objects traveled easily between places in the empire even if their meanings took on local forms. To Maori the candlesticks had a genealogy, conveying a sense of the bishop and Sarah’s lineage and prestige. To Sarah the familiar forms of her Eton furniture in unfamiliar Waimate spoke of her own disjuncture, the meaning had been mislaid in transit.

Even if the fate of St John’s had been different, Sarah and George’s sons William (born Eton 1840) and John (born Waimate May 1844) were destined for schooling at Eton. The difficult conundrum of where and by whom children of missionaries should be educated was not a question for Sarah and George. At the age of seven years, Willie was sent to England in the care of the captain of the Dido to begin his Eton years. John followed, aged ten. The strong bond between the Selwyns and Eton College, forged through family, class, affiliation, friendship and fund raising, was not broken by colonial service. Children connected disparate localities Sarah inhabited while parenthood was also a shared source of joy and sorrow in the mixed community she lived within in New Zealand. Both Sarah and Te Rina Hinehuka, Rota Waitoa’s wife, [73] were pregnant through 1850, giving birth within a fortnight of each other in September (both daughters). The joy of the newborn later turned to tragedy when Rota and Te Rina’s baby died of fever at the end of January, just four months old. Within a month Sarah’s own daughter, Margaret, her precious fourth child (a third had been still born) and only daughter, also succumbed to fever and died at just five months. In George’s absence (he had only seen his daughter for the first twelve days of her life), it was Caroline and Charles Abraham and the Waitoas with whom Sarah sought comfort. [74]

In 1854-5 Sarah and George Selwyn traveled briefly back to England. Funding, men for the church and support for a bishopric in Melanesia were what they hoped to return with. What Sarah and George crucially took to England was knowledge about New Zealand and about the colonial project more broadly. As Susan Thorne has suggested, it was missions and church people who were key producers of information about the empire “at home.” [75] In the Selwyns’ case their position and connections gave them access to the highest circles. While Sarah clearly enjoyed the visit, noting the “rush of pleasure” [76] she felt when approaching English shores for the first time after an absence of twelve years and four months, she was also irked by the many demands on George to preach and travel to speak at public meetings when this was supposed to be an opportunity for rest. That men in England — and good men too — simply did not realize what pressure George was usually under or the ease of their own situation made her impatient. She noted that home clergy went “to their daily toil without wetting their shoes, or indeed going on tramp to their objects. I should like to have taken them on a bush journey in New Zealand going on foot with swamps to wade through, and rivers to swim.” [77] Dry feet and fine shoes were the privileges of a “home” rather than “colonial” man. Even by comparison with Australia, New Zealand presented special demands. A couple of years earlier when the Bishop of Newcastle (New South Wales), W. Tyrrell, a fellow-student of George’s from Cambridge, had visited them in Auckland, Sarah had been startled and bemused by his “thin, trim shoes.” They excited “almost as much surprise as did George’s sturdy double soles in Sydney.” [78]

Towards the end of their English visit, Sarah and George were invited to dine with the Queen at Windsor. The occasion was significant to Sarah for how she would be called on to describe it when back in New Zealand. “I took note of everything knowing how I should be questioned by my Maori friends, no particulars would be too small. Her majesty walked round the room after dinner speaking to all her guests in turn and happily she asked me some question about them [ie Maori], which greatly added to the halo this event threw around me.” Amidst the worst of the Crimean campaigns, Sarah found the Queen and her Ladies busily occupied after dinner knitting comforters for the “freezing soldiers in the trenches.” Her Maori listeners, she noted, “took a keen interest in Her Majesty’s knitting.” [79] Sarah’s role as a conduit of knowledge worked in both directions. For Maori the Treaty signed in 1840 had created a personal relationship between themselves and the British sovereign, one that was alive and maintained through such exchanges. [80]

Relations between crown, church and Maori were not long to continue on such a cordial footing. As a “missionary bishop” George Selwyn was expected to consolidate the work of missionaries in creating a community of Maori Christian converts as well as act as leader of the church to a growing settler population. The tensions between these diverse aspects of his work were always present but were most sharply felt in the period from 1859. By the late 1850s the settler population had increased exponentially [81] from its miniscule and scattered presence in the early 1840s. Within less than twenty years incoming Europeans, predominantly from the British Isles and Ireland, reached numbers to match, and then quickly surpass, the local Maori population. To the northern centres of early and sustained contact had been added settlements in Wellington, Taranaki, Nelson, Otago and Canterbury, all with immigrant populations impatient for land and control in places they had been coaxed to believe offered fresh beginnings, opportunities for material advancement, social and political autonomy. [82] Arguments over land, especially terms of sale, became the critical pressure point. Sarah shared the views of George and others of church and missionary party in vehemently disagreeing with the actions of Governor Gore Browne in endorsing the Waitara purchase in 1859. [83] The sale of a large block of land by a person widely acknowledged as lacking the authority to sell and doing so directly in opposition to the leading figures in the tribe was the catalyst for what became known as the Taranaki war, 1859-61. She shared deep indignation at what was perceived as a flagrant disregard of guarantees given under Treaty of Waitangi, recognition of Maori as citizens with rights and protections of British subjects under law, including property rights. But as the wife of the bishop it was difficult for Sarah to articulate public dissent in colonial Auckland. George Selwyn sent a “solemn protest” to the Governor, as did others, but such voices (largely church and missionary) represented a small if vocal minority against a rising tide of settler belligerence. [84] The pro and anti voices were not only heard in New Zealand but also in London where requests from New Zealand for imperial troops to suppress the Maori “rebels” were hotly debated.

In this context Sarah Selwyn’s private letters home on the issue — opposing the sending of troops and the governor’s actions — were the most prominent among those published as Extracts of Letters from New Zealand on the War Question in 1861 as part of the pamphlet war waging in Britain. [85] What for Sarah could only be uttered privately in New Zealand, appeared in print in England where it was hoped some influence might be wrought on colonial office instructions to the governor. Extracts of Letters was printed by F. J. Wilson, 1 Great Russell Street, London, and marked “for private circulation only.” Five of Sarah Selwyn’s letters, along with three written by Mary Ann Martin, one by Caroline Abraham, and several others which had appeared in the New Zealand press and a copy of the highly objectionable Native Offenders Bill, deeply opposed by Sarah and her circle, made up the 106 page booklet. Definitive evidence is elusive but it seems highly probable that Sarah Selwyn assented to a printed compilation of letters and documents while on a visit to England to see her schoolboy sons between May 1861 and early 1862. In the critical interlude following the cessation of hostilities in Taranaki and the recall of Governor Gore Browne in 1861 there was an opportunity to influence colonial policy. There was added urgency following the disappointingly weak defence of the Selwyns’ circle position in the House of Commons debate on the subject which took place while Sarah was sailing from Auckland to Portsmouth between February and May. While George Selwyn, and like-minded clergy, notably Octavius Hadfield, had spoken out in public in the New Zealand press, Selwyn was reluctant to utilize the informal route of his personal connections to people in power in England as a means to influence policy. [86] For Sarah, and her friends Mary Ann Martin and Caroline Abraham, there was no constraint of public office. These were private letters, written to friends, and now in print to enable circulation in circles where some influence might be wielded. In the pamphlet Sarah is deprecating of her own capacities to state her position, deferring both to her friends and to George’s pastoral letter to church members in Taranaki (included in Extracts of Letters). If typical of her usual inclination to stand in the background, it misrepresents what is a fervent and cogent statement of position. [87]

In her 30 August 1860 letter printed in Extracts from Letters Sarah berated the government for having “rushed into a bloody quarrel without trying all other methods of settling the dispute first; assuming that the natives are rebels before they have done one single thing to prove themselves to be so, and denying them the ordinary privileges of British subjects, which the Treaty of Waitangi declares them to be…Oh! We are sinking so low in the eyes of the Maories. Where is our good faith? Where our assurances that the Queen would never do them wrong?...it goes to our hearts to see a noble race of people stigmatized as rebel, and driven to desperation, by the misrule of those who are at the same time lowering their own people in their eyes.” [88] Colonial space had become one of confrontation and threat. In that space the views of Sarah and George were deeply unpopular. Within the tense ties of politics between Maori and settler (Crown) interests, Sarah Selwyn became a dissenting political agent of empire.

The situation was highly volatile. By late 1862-3, a spreading Maori resistance, both in actions against particular settlers and in the King movement, an expression of Maori political autonomy, was seen as threatening and unlawful by government and settlers. The Selwyns, along with most of those who had previously been highly critical of the colonial government, now supported plans for military action against those sections of Maori who were judged as having gone “too far.” Maori were now seen to be transgressors of the law under whose protection they had previously been defended, and as threats to the common authority and loyalty owed to the British Crown under the Treaty of Waitangi. In the military campaigns fought against “rebel” Maori in 1863-4 Selwyn accompanied imperial troops as their chaplain, and while he ministered to any in his path — Maori or Pakeha — his prominent role at the front of fighting alienated him from those Maori among whom he had previously circulated and won respect. Widespread belief amongst Maori that Bishop Selwyn had betrayed them at Rangiowahia in June 1864, where a pa (fortified village) used as a refuge for women and children was attacked and a large number of lives lost, left a particularly deep wound. By 1865 he was deeply out of favour with both sides. As Sarah noted later, of this time: “We were all highly unpopular, though it was only George who had real as well as abusive stones thrown at him.” [89] Alienated from both settler opinion, in whose eyes the Selwyns headed a “church party” weakly and naively defending belligerent Maori, and Maori to whom the church had apparently sided with its political rather than religious allies, there had ceased to be any middle or meeting ground. Rota Waitoa’s death from illness in 1866 only added another blow to this low point in Sarah and George’s time in New Zealand, the end of an era of co-operation and of a church led by Maori alongside European. [90]

The course of the Selwyns’ tenure in New Zealand had seen the arc of humanitarian idealism flourish and then dissipate. Indigenous peoples seen not to comply with the policy of amalgamation but to defy the imposition of colonial authority and settler expansion were militarily quashed. The church had been established but at a cost to the broader vision. By the late 1860s it was moving to replicate the colonial hierarchy rather than critique it. The transfer of Episcopal authority failed to secure a leading role for religion in the direction of colonial policy. By 1860 the church or religion as the “conscience” of colonial direction had been marginalized, and by 1863, being persuaded of the need for “belligerent” Maori to be chastened by force, had alienated any loyalty it had once gathered. The New Zealand experience in the early 1860s was one that contributed to a wider hardening of colonial policy, and underlying ideas which came to support it: a more rigid notion of race, civilization and the meaning of empire as a place of white dominance. In New Zealand the era of religion – missions and church – as a critic of colonization and colonial processes ceased. That role was not to be resumed on any significant scale until the late twentieth century brought the challenge of postcolonial politics within the church and wider polity. [91]

By the time the Selwyns left New Zealand in the late 1860s, the colonial state had established sovereignty; settler power, rather than Maori power, was in the ascendant. Missions and the Maori church had fallen away and what remained had been relegated to the periphery. Christianity had not disappeared but was no longer the meeting ground it had once promised to be. New syncretic religious movements emerged drawing popular support in many parts of Maoridom while the church increasingly became an institution of the settler society. [92]

Sarah’s life shifted from New Zealand to England when George accepted the position as bishop of Lichfield at the end of 1867. For George it was a move made with sorrow, and one he first refused. As he explained, my “heart is in New Zealand and Melanesia.” [93] They were the first incumbents for 200 years to live in the neglected bishop’s residence at Lichfield which “to our colonial eyes” looked palatial. [94] Two wings were added to the house, one of which was fitted with cubicles in the manner of ship’s cabins where visiting clergy or candidates for ordination were housed. A new chapel contained items with what contemporary observer, H. W. Tucker, described as “the fragrant memories of New Zealand.” [95] These included a memorial window dedicated to Henare Taratoa, Selwyn’s former student and co-worker at St John’s and Melanesia, who had been married in the double ceremony with Edward Eyre. Taratoa was later killed in battle on 21 June 1864 fighting against imperial troops. He was revered for holding fast to a code of chivalrous conduct while taking up arms against his enemy, dying with verses from Romans found on his body. [96] That it was the chiefly, chivalrous, learned but unordained Henare Taratoa rather than the loyal, steadfast, ordained, but by tribal background commoner, Rota Waitoa, who the Selwyns honoured testifies to the contradictory heart of their New Zealand legacy. [97] Taratoa, considered “too impetuous for the ministry,” had not become a leader in Selwyn’s church, but had maintained the highest standard of noble conduct; his commemoration in the Lichfield cathedral window making him little less than a martyr in the struggle for Maori justice against colonial power. [98]

It was not only in these material ways that Sarah and George’s life in Lichfield continued to be “colonial.” Provincial England was perceived by contemporaries in the church to be likely to benefit from the “fresh colonial air” George and Sarah Selwyn would bring. [99] The diocese of Lichfield included the mining districts around Wolverhampton and Stafford where mission experience was seen to be relevant. In the wider church communion, New Zealand experience in devising a constitutional structure for a national church, managing a voluntary compact, stretching scarce resources in a pluralist society, and doing so pragmatically from a position of high principled conservatism gave George Selwyn an influential voice. [100] A number of colonial clergy were recruited from the diocese including W. G. Cowie, Selwyn’s successor, and S. T. Nevill, later bishop of Dunedin. [101] Sarah, in particular, was often hosting friends and acquaintances from New Zealand at Lichfield, even those with whom they had had tense relations. In 1871 Richard Taylor, the clergyman who had reproved her for wearing a cross, was shown around the cathedral and given lunch. [102] Members of the old Eton circle who George had recruited to work in New Zealand were now drawn to Lichfield. [103] Sarah’s close companionship with Mary Ann Martin, dating back to her original voyage from England on the Tomatin in 1841-2 was renewed when the Martins returned to England in 1874, settling at Lichfield. With Caroline Abraham, the three women’s close bond in England was united by their shared experience of New Zealand.

The violent death and subsequent framing of J.C. “Coley” Patteson’s death at Nukapu (Solomon Islands) in 1871 as a bishop martyrdom deepened the connections between the Selwyns, Lichfield and the Melanesian mission. The sensational story of a martyred bishop, body floating dead in a distant lagoon, shot fast through church and public at large. Establishing the Melanesian Mission had been a major preoccupation between 1847-59, one in which Sarah was deeply involved, both as a teacher of Melanesian students brought to Auckland, and as teacher and traveler in Melanesia herself (especially at Norfolk Island). The students there had presented her with a surf board they had made, an object she later reflected “could only have been a useless trophy in the Diocese of Lichfield, where a whiff of salt is not to be had, more’s the pity, so it is well that it was not there to exalt me over the heads of other Bishops’ wives who never had the chance of such a testimonial.” [104] The link between the places, and the mission field, became even more tightly bound when Sarah and George’s younger son, John, succeeded Patteson as Bishop of Melanesia in 1877. [105]

After George’s death in 1878, Sarah continued to live at Lichfield, a keeper of the Selwyn flame. The “hero bishop” was rapidly constructed into a memory that was tidier and more assilimable than the man had been in life, the work of memorializing beginning immediately with his death. Within a year a substantial two-volume work was published: The Life and Episcopate of G.A.Selwyn, the dedication indicating that the work was written at Sarah’s request. [106] Selwyn College, Cambridge, was opened in 1882 as a memorial to continue his work, the principal instigators being his long term friends and co-workers Charles Abraham (the chief benefactor), Edmund Hobhouse and Sir William Martin. [107] Selwyn College at New Zealand’s oldest university, Otago in the city of Dunedin, followed soon after, founded by another of Selwyn’s protégés, Bishop Nevill.

The Selwyn memory became a strand in the narrative of empire building, the expansion of England and Christianity enunciated with pride at that high moment of empire at the end of the nineteenth century. [108] The transplantation of the church to the expanding realm of Britain’s formal world of empire united those parts of the globe under the union jack and in a single communion of believers (where the Church of England was dominant if not the only presence). Selwyn was a powerful symbolic figure of the achievement, arguably more influential in memory than in contemporary life.

In 1892, ostensibly at the urging of her sons, Sarah wrote her Reminiscences. Although the work opens with demur that she does “not very willingly comply with your request that I should leave some record of my life,” the account is lengthy: 220 pages [109] and was clearly not hastily written but composed with care and with some reference back to letters or journals. In memory (and fourteen years a widow), Sarah presented her gendered position in telling “our” rather than “her” life, explaining that her account was of “our New Zealand lives. I say ‘our’ because though the risk and the toil mental and bodily and the wear and tear and work were George’s much larger share, in which I had no part, mine was to speed him off ever and again (and he liked to be speeded) and then to wait and hear nothing and know nothing and hope the best till he came back, and watch the signal staff, as the time drew near that he might come, for the signal of a schooner.” [110] Her life in New Zealand occupies by far the greater part, the account concluding with her return to England in 1867-8. Is she suggesting that her life after that point is known and does not need telling, or that what is interesting has ceased? Or that her readers, her sons in the first instance, know the story from then on and therefore do not need to be told? Colonial space occupied and shaped her life.

The Reminiscences offer a tidy narrative in which Sarah constitutes herself as an imperial subject. To look back on her early years in New Zealand was not just to look back on her own early life — her self as a young adult across the distance of time — but also to look back on a very different point in the imperial project. Now, in the 1890s, British sovereignty was in the ascendant built on the “natural” hierarchy between white and non-white, settler and indigenous. A smooth narrative culminating at this point made what had been strange and uncomfortable now natural and normal. And it has been Sarah Selwyn’s Reminiscences, the smoothed story rather than the raw correspondence, that has been influential in shaping historical imagination of the colonial encounter in New Zealand. [111]

Sarah Selwyn was no Mrs Proudie cutting a swathe through contemporary life by taking up the bishop’s mitre as her own. [112] Sarah lived a more orthodox life as a wife. But her story is replete with the ambiguity of Christianity in the colonial world of the mid to late nineteenth century: an agent of empire at the same time as a fierce critic of imperial policy; an upper class High Church person in the midst of an evangelical mission community; someone for whom life in New Zealand was both a profound disjuncture and a defining narrative. Between England and New Zealand, the 1840s and early 1900s, Sarah’s personal circumstances exemplified the broader shifts between religion and empire, church and state. What had been a brief convergence in the 1840s had become by the 1860s, divergent tracks. Maori Christians looked to their own prophetic leaders rather than “Mata Pihopa” while what had become the Church of the Province of New Zealand was largely a settler institution.

Lines which connected Sarah Selwyn to disparate places in which she lived her life are those we have come to understand as an intermeshed imperial world. Eton and Lichfield were provincialised to some degree by the same processes through which Waimate and Auckland became colonial. [113] The contending forces of religion and empire shaped these places and those who lived in them. As an individual moving between these spaces Sarah Selwyn gave voice to their uneasiness. In New Zealand, where Sarah Selwyn was part of the founding of the church following a period of missionary endeavour, the vision of a uniting Christianity failed in the face of settler expansion. The cultural work of Anglicisation pushed the church to a subordinate role within colonization. The space Sarah occupied during her time in New Zealand proved increasingly impossible to reconcile in terms of purpose, even as it became more familiar as her home. Yet it is not so much the language of displacement or unsettlement that best characterizes this condition. For her, as for her contemporaries, Maori and European, indigenous and newcomer, to be colonial was to be “out of place.” [114] As a bishop’s wife, linked by the sacrament of marriage by which ‘two were made one’ and in which the husband also carried the authority of apostolic succession, Sarah was caught up both in the “struggles for sacred power” [115] across low and high church as well as in the broader attempt to combine cultural imperialism with an equality in Christian faith.

Parties annexes