WOHLERS OF RUAPUKE
A Tohunga by Adoption
About ten years ago, when Southland Province was celebrating its hundredth year of existence, two memorials—one in Invercargill, the other on Stewart Island—were dedicated to the missionary J. F. H. Wohlers. There was no mention of Wohlers in our school history books, nor would he have expected it. All he asked was to push quietly on with his work.
Should any civilisation impose its teaching and preaching on another culture? In Wohlers' day there was no doubt about the answer, though there were always those who thought the home community was the most in need of mission work—‘not that they ever did any,’ said Wohlers. He had been brought up as a ploughboy in North Germany; he had a terrific thirst for learning (and little chance to do anything about it); and when he stumbled upon a pamphlet called Pity Poor Fiji he thought he would be able to expand his horizons by going out to the heathen. He wasn't sent to the tropics, as he hoped, but to New Zealand.
When Wohlers and three other mission workers arrived in Nelson in 1844, they found the Maori population already flourishing prayerbooks. Though a little apt to ‘unrest’ (this was the year of the Wairau affair) the people were already Christianised. The missionaries settled for a while in the Moutere, where their flax-and-raupo hut was washed out. ‘Thus must the people have fled at the time of Noah's Flood!’ cried one, as they headed for higher ground. The ship that had brought them to New Zealand had also brought German immigrants, who settled along with them in the flood-prone valley, later moving to the Waimea. There was at least some church work to be done among these people.
When the survey-vessel Deborah set off to look for a site for what is now Dunedin, Wohlers went too, hoping to find some wild corner of New Zealand where he could do real mission work. At Port Cooper (now Lyttelton), he met the southern chief Tuhawaiki, who sugested his home island—Ruapuke in Foveaux Strait—as a good centre for mission work. Wohlers was accordingly put ashore there, with his few belongings (he had been warned to travel light because of muru), a good mission school grounding in Hebrew and Greek, and a smattering of Maori. What a wonderful chance, he thought, to learn about these people and their language!
One thing had shocked him about the mission school: the learned squabbles that went on about whether it was holier to be Lutheran Church or Reformed Church. Out here in New Zealand he found people arguing the point about the respective merits of Methodism, Anglicanism and all the rest. He couldn't be bothered with ‘isms’ himself: his teaching was straight from the Bible.
But he needed to be able to put it in Maori. Ruapuke at this time was still an important place, where chiefs from all over the South Island gathered in conference, but it was an uneasy mixture of Maori and European cultures. The pakehas had brought fleas and swear words and measles, as well as a few rough-and-ready seamanlike virtues; the old Maori traditions and cultural patterns were on the wane. A very few of the old tohungas were left; and it was to these old wise ones that Wohlers went, evening after evening, to learn Maori.
Hearing the old tales told in Southern Maori, for almost the last time, was a memorable experience. The old men looked upon him as their successor, who would pass the stories on; and he did. They are printed in the Trans-
actions of the New Zealand Insurute, mostly in Maori as well as English—good everyday English, interesting to compare with Sir George Grey's stately translations. It fascinated Wohlers to find so much common ground between the Biblical and Maori accounts of creation: ‘then he returned and saw what he had done—kua pai.’ When he later prepared his notes for the New Zealand Institute he omitted repetitions, but kept the Murihiku turn of phrase: unfortunately, he altered the spelling to standard (northern) Maori. In his own memoirs, he writes of ‘Rangiura’ and ‘ngaeo’ for Stewart Island and the edible sea-squirt, though the ng is pronounced k in the south.
To a nineteenth-century European whose homeland was, geographically, an extension of spotless Holland, cleanliness came a very close second to godliness. Wohlers began by making his bedroom flea-proof; and he built a garden: ‘these flowers were sermons.’ He travelled about the island, preaching in turn at each of the seven little villages there. Later he built a church, mainly with his own hands, but helped by a few old Maoris—‘for tobacco’. People came along to be baptised. One woman told him: ‘I think of [myself as] a shag, a koao: it swims in the waves, dives under, comes up—flies off—perches on a rock. And Christ is that rock.’
He went by whaleboat to other settlements: The Neck, Williams' and Tupouri's Bay, Otaku and Port William; Whakaputaputa, Koraka Pe and Jacob's River. Some of these Foveaux Strait villages were whaling bases, some kaikas, some mixed. With his limited funds (his home mission thought New Zealand was a cheap place to live in), he sent away for improving literature: A Book of Common Prayer. The Art of Correspondence and The Medical Guide for the use of the Clergi, heads of families, and practitioners in Medicine and Surgery, comprising a practical Dispensatory and Treatise on the Sumtoms, Causes, Prevention and Cure of the Diseases incident to the human frame; with the latest discoveries in Medicine.
Whaling households where Maori wives were encouraged in Pakeha notions of hygiene set a good example, but Wohlers was saddened to find poor health among the full-blooded Maori population. In spite of his medical books, he couldn't really cope with the ‘sumtoms’. His own health, mental and physical, began to suffer. At last his mission friends at Waikouaiti asked him up for a holiday; later, when he had to revisit Nelson and call at Wellington, he had with him a letter of introduction to ‘a pious female’, view matrimony. ‘Es wirkte’, wrote Wohlers: it worked!
Mrs Wohlers was a tower of strength and character. Cries of, ‘Here comes Mata!’ sent the Maori housewives scurrying with their brooms; patches of many colours began appearing on Sunday clothes; sick children were no longer allowed to be shaken in the belief that it kept them alert and alive. She ran home-science classes in the mission house, and
Where is that community now? A handful of its descendants farm the descendants of the
original Ruapuke sheep. By the 1880's most families had moved to Stewart Island, where there were better anchorages for the growing industry of fishing. There Gretchen Wohlers, married to an Orkneyman, helped him carry on her father's eductional and missionary work. The old man himself died at the age of seventy-three, worn out by his years of unrelenting work. ‘The heartfelt sorrow of the Maoris,’ wrote an observer, ‘is very touching.’
‘No world-shaking misionary life this,’ said the North German Mission Society, editing Wohlers' memoirs. Perhaps not; but he had been an important and comforting figure in those forgotten communities of Foveaux Strait, and he must emerge as one of the most likeable, if least obtrusive, of our early missionaries.