William Gilbert Puckey (5 May 1805 - 27 March 1878), born in Penryn, England, was a prominent missionary in New Zealand. He accompanied his parents to New Zealand at the age of 14 and quickly learned the Māori language, speaking it fluently by age 16, and becoming widely regarded as one of the best interpreters of Māori in the fledging mission. He was able to form relationships of trust with many influential Māori from a young age, and in particular, with Nopera Panakareao, of Te Rarawa iwi at Kaitaia.
The night before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi at Kaitaia, Panakareao called for Puckey and spent a long time discussing and questioning the meaning, translation, and significance of the term "kawanatanga" which Henry Williams had used in the Treaty. In Panakareo's speech to assembled chiefs, (translated by Puckey and recorded by Richard Taylor at the time), he endorsed the Treaty. He said he understood the words of the Treaty to mean that "the shadow of the land was passing to the Queen, while the substance remained with Māori", a view he perceptively and presciently reversed a year later in light of increasingly bitter practical experience in subsequent dealings with Pākehā authorities, when he stated that he saw that the substance of the land had passed to the Queen, and that the shadow had remained with Maori.
Signature of WG Puckey on Treaty of Waitangi
Puckey's fluency and empathy in te reo Māori helped him establish effective relationships and understandings with Māori in Northland. Few other Pākehā in the early years of contact could communicate as effectively between races. Puckey often referred to himself and his wife in his Journals as mere 'labourers in the vineyard', and though he was both modest and humble, the actual effect of his labours may have been under-rated, in his lifetime by Bishop Selwyn, who refused to consider him as a candidate for ordination, ostensibly because of his lack of Greek and Latin, ( ignoring his well recognised ability to provide accurate translations of Maori), and by subsequent historians.
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“I often think its comical
How Nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal,
Thats born into the world alive,
Is either a little Liberal,
Or else a little Conservative!”
—Sir William Schwenck Gilbert (18361911)