John O'Hare, from Heritage New Zealand-Pouhere Taonga, writes about a determined early missionary.


People wanting cosmetic surgery were probably few and far between in the Bay of Islands in the 1830s. One, however, was missionary James Hamlin, whose second son George was born with a cleft lip.

James was keen to get his son under the surgeon's knife so the problem could be sorted out – though as he recorded in his diary, the operation – and recovery – had its own set of challenges.

James Hamlin was living at Te Waimate Mission with his family, and was one of the pioneer missionaries who helped establish the Church Missionary Society's inland mission in 1830.

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According to his diary, in January 1831 an unnamed naval ship arrived in Paihia prompting James and George to leave Te Waimate Mission to see whether the ship's surgeon could operate on George's lip.

The following day the surgeon and his assistant rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

As Hamlin wrote: "[At] about 3 o'clock the painful operation was commenced, it did not last long it was then pinned together and tied with a silk thread round the end of the pins, a plaster was then put on which remained till the Friday following."

Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga's Te Waimate Mission manager Alex Bell said the surgery would have been done without anaesthetics and antiseptic.

"Pain killers were also fairly rudimentary, so the recovery time was probably almost as uncomfortable as the surgery itself.

''Even the ship's surgeon was probably a bit rough in his approach – and was possibly more used to carrying out amputations on battle-injured sailors than delicate cosmetic surgery on children."

George's response was not recorded, though it appears he kept a stiff upper lip throughout – helped, no doubt, by the two pins and silk thread.

When it came to pioneering, James Hamlin blazed a trail.

Charles Hamlin, respected missionary and speaker of te reo.
Charles Hamlin, respected missionary and speaker of te reo.

Initially stationed at the Kerikeri Mission Station when he first arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1826, Hamlin and his wife Elizabeth helped establish the Church Missionary Society's inland mission at Te Waimate.

Both mission stations are now cared for by Heritage New Zealand-Pouhere Taonga.

"Hamlin was an unlikely choice as a missionary to New Zealand," Kerikeri Mission Station manager Liz Bigwood said.

"He came from very humble origins – only barely literate as a result of attending Sunday Schools as a child at a time when these provided basic lessons in reading and writing to children of the poor.

''Nevertheless, James hung in there with school, displaying a determination to better himself – a trait he was to show throughout his life."

It may have been skills other than his education or determination that got him the position of missionary to New Zealand, however.

"Hamlin grew up near Norton-sub-Hamdon, known for a superior quality of sail cloth manufactured from linen fibre, and was apprenticed as a flax dresser," Bigwood said.

"As luck would have it, Samuel Marsden was keen to establish a flax processing operation with Māori in association with a Christian mission. Hamlin probably seemed a good fit."

Practical, earnest and with a wide range of skills essential for frontier life, Hamlin also had one other string to his bow – an almost unparalleled ability to speak Māori.

"Even reading through his missionary diaries, it's interesting to see Hamlin peppering his entries with Māori words like tutu (used to describe a disobedient horse), kete (flax basket) and moki (a raft made from bundles of raupo).

''It showed that the language was in him and was able to give it expression without self-consciousness."

When Bishop Selwyn arrived in New Zealand in 1842 he quickly latched on to Hamlin's ability with the language.

"Selwyn was so impressed with Hamlin's abilities, he appointed him to the committee overseeing the translation of the New Testament into Māori," Bigwood said.

"Not bad for a semi-literate lad from Somerset."

Hamlin was willing to go where no missionary had gone before. He accompanied Reverend A. N. Brown on a gruelling exploratory trip to the Waikato, the party traipsing through thick bush, fording rivers and living off the land most of the way.

When Hamlin proposed himself for ordination, Bishop Selwyn, somewhat reluctantly accepted as long as Hamlin would go to the East Coast, ''amongst the body of natives for whom he is peculiarly fitted''.

A lack of education in New Testament Greek meant Hamlin was not permitted to work with European congregations. It seems one thing emerging European congregations in New Zealand needed in their pastoral leadership more than anything else was a thorough grounding in New Testament Greek.

"Hamlin nevertheless served faithfully on the East Coast at the Wairoa mission for a number of years, his skill with the Māori language standing him in very good stead," Bigwood said.

He died in 1865. Later in his life a group of Māori in Wairoa wrote to Hamlin, then living in Auckland, offering to pay his boat fare so he could go and minister to them.

"In the letter they paid him the compliment of describing him as 'he hawhekekaihe he maori a roto he pakeha a waho' – literally 'Māori inside, Pakeha outside'.''