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The New Zealand journal, 1842-1844 of John B. Williams of Salem, Massachussetts


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I First became familiar with the Journal of John B. Williams at the Peabody Museum, Salem, while preparing an article on Yankee Whalers at the Bay of Islands (American Neptune, Vol. XII, January 1952), a brief study of American whaling activities in New Zealand. Williams's narrative, rather memoir than journal, was written during his first residence at the Bay of Islands as United States consul during 1842-1844. The Journal is broken off abruptly rather than finished, and I surmise that Williams brought it to Salem uncompleted when he came home on leave late in 1844. The Journal is an omnium gatherum of fact and opinion. Williams describes the early white settlements of the North Island, navigational aids for use in approaching harbors, the character and customs of the Maori tribes, the flora and fauna of the region, native products of possible commercial value, the colonial policy of Her Majesty's Government, the conduct of certain of Her Majesty's not very high-minded servants, the equally censurable behavior of some of the crews of American whalers while on shore, and the labors in the vineyard of two great missionary groups—the Anglicans and the Wesleyans.

New Zealand had been under British rule only a little more than two years when Williams assumed his duties at the Bay of Islands, and the settlements in the vicinity still retained many of the lawless habits of the frontier. Williams seems, at this point in his life at least, to have had a very strong sense of sin, combined with a very low boiling point. As a result his Journal is replete with diatribes against the immoral habits of the white settlers at the Bay of Islands. Without warning he breaks off a clear and vivid description of a native village or an anchorage and in rhetorical flourishes of tiresome prolixity warns the erring of the wrath to come.

However, except when Williams is obsessed with sin and punishment, his Journal makes entertaining and historically valuable reading for the picture it gives of a frontier society, an aboriginal society and the world in which both whites and Maoris lived. Williams appears as a somewhat chauvinistic Yankee, strongly anti-British, and an ardent believer in using the United States Navy to further the commercial interests of her citizens.

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He had more than the average layman's knowledge of botany, zoology, and geology and with keen perception recorded the environment in which he lived. The salubrious climate and beautiful scenery of New Zealand frequently moved him to rhapsodic passages which were, unfortunately, marred by a vocabulary of excessive latinity.

John B. Williams's Journal is reproduced as he wrote it with, I believe, the minimum of editorial comment or interpolation. Occasionally a verb has been supplied to complete a meaning. Place names have, when necessary, been followed by the modern spelling of the word. For the rest, Williams's orthographical eccentricities and his occasional grammatical infelicities are retained. His often unflattering opinions of early New Zealand characters are unaltered in the text.

I have been aided in the editing of the Journal and in the preparation of the short life of John B. Williams by many patient, good-natured and knowledgable people to whom I wish now to acknowledge my indebtedness.

The staff of the Peabody Museum, Salem, has been most coöperative, particularly Mr. Ernest S. Dodge and Mr. Charles H. P. Copeland who have given generously of their time and knowledge of Salem town and maritime history. At the Essex Institute, Salem, I have been helped on numerous occasions by the Misses Florence Osborne and Esther Usher. In Providence I was assisted by Dr. Lawrence C. Wroth of the John Carter Brown Library and Professor Benjamin C. Clough of Brown University. Dr. Wroth's suggestions on textual matters have been most welcome. Professor Clough, a native of Martha's Vineyard and the possessor of a fund of nautical lore, has saved me many a faux pas on sea-going matters. I would have been badly bogged down among the birds, fish, and flowers of New Zealand but for the expert knowledge of Mrs. Lucy Cranwell Smith, formerly of Auckland and now a resident of Tucson, Arizona. Mrs. Smith spent many hours on the scientific portion of the text. I am greatly in her debt. I wish to thank Mr. Joseph E. Motherway of Brown University and Mr. Robert E. Schmidt of the Rhode Island School of Design for the drawing of the maps which accompany the text.

Overseas help has been prompt, generous and enthusiastic. Professor page viiJohn C. Beaglehole of Victoria University College, Wellington, first suggested to me that an edition of John B. Williams's Journal would be most helpful to New Zealand scholars. He then put me in communication with Mrs. Ruth M. Ross of Takapuna, Auckland, who has patiently provided answers to many queries about New Zealand history and has been especially helpful in selecting New Zealand illustrations for the text and arranging for their use. My particular thanks to Mrs. Ross. Through Mr. C. R. H. Taylor, Librarian of the Turnbull Library, Wellington, I wish to thank Mr. Rex Nan Kivell for permission to use prints from his collection of early New Zealand pictures and also the Turnbull Library for the use of the other New Zealand prints.

I trust that the publication of the John B. Williams Journal will prove useful to students of New Zealand history: political, social, and natural. I have hazarded few conjectures on my own as I believe that the study of the Journal is a fit and pleasant task for scholars in New Zealand where Williams's facts and fancies can be checked with other source material and properly evaluated.

I first visited New Zealand as a member of the United States Army in the grim days of 1942. The courage, cheerfulness and hospitality of New Zealanders impressed me greatly at that time. The work on John B. Williams's Journal has in a sense renewed the memory of those days, and awakened a desire to see again the land that Williams so much admired, whatever his reservations about some of the inhabitants.

Robert W. Kenny

Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island
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