Rangihou Reserve: a slice of New Zealand history in Parramatta

Signs of Parramatta's links with New Zealand (pic: Peter Clayworth)

Signs of Parramatta's links with New Zealand (pic: Peter Clayworth)

On a recent visit to Sydney I found traces of an important part of New Zealand history located in the suburb of Parramatta. Sydney has a long association with New Zealand. It is doubtful whether British colonisation of this country would have occurred without the initial convict settlement in New South Wales. The British invaders established Sydney on the land of the indigenous Cadigal people in January 1788. Ten months later the British colonists founded the town of Parramatta on the land of the Burramattagal clan of the Darug people.

Within a few years of British settlement in Australia, sealers and traders from Sydney began to visit New Zealand. New Zealanders, a term at that time applied exclusively to Māori, began visiting Sydney. They took careful note of the British systems of government, commerce and military organisation, and in particular the fate of the indigenous Australians under British rule.

Parramatta became of particular importance to Māori. It was the base from which Samuel Marsden, the Anglican rector of Parramattas St Johns church, launched the Church Missionary Societys mission to New Zealand. The landing of the first Church of England missionaries, at Rangihoua in the Bay of Islands, occurred in 1814. Thomas and Jane Kendall, William and Dinah Hall, and John and Hannah King settled with their families to begin the long and difficult task of promulgating the Anglican version of Christianity to Māori. Marsden gave what is reputed to be the first Christian sermon in New Zealand on Christmas Day 1814.

Samuel Marsden (17651838) is an ambiguous and controversial figure in Australasian history. In New Zealand he is known for his role as the initiator of the first Christian mission to this country. He attempted to direct the mission from his base in Parramatta, but came into conflict with some of the New Zealand-based missionaries. In Australia he is seen by some commentators as a pillar of the colonial establishment, by others as the flogging parson. Marsden was assistant and later head chaplain of New South Wales. He was also a pioneer of sheep farming in Australia. In his role as a magistrate he gained a bad reputation among many of the convicts and other working people of the colony. Marsden became notorious for the severity of the sentences he imposed on offenders. He was also known for his bitter anti-Catholic prejudices, a significant factor when dealing with the high proportion of Irish Catholics among the convict and free settler populations of New South Wales.

Marsden was always interested in evangelism, but made little progress with either the local Aborigines or the nominally Christian convicts. His interest turned to New Zealand through meeting Māori visitors to Sydney and Parramatta. He began to regularly invite Māori leaders to stay at his Parramatta home. Returning from a visit to Britain in 1809, Marsden met the globe-trotting Ngāpuhi chief Ruatara, who encouraged him to establish a mission on his peoples land at Rangihoua. Ruatara stayed with Marsden at Parramatta for eight months, teaching him aspects of Māori language and culture.

With the establishment of the New Zealand mission, Marsden set up a seminary college and farm in Parramatta for the education of young Māori. He purchased around 100 acres (40 hectares) of land on the northern bank of the Parramatta River and built Rangihou College, presumably named after Rangihoua. The school provided accommodation for visiting Māori and missionaries, and taught practical skills such as agriculture and gardening. It remained open until the late 1820s. It is not clear exactly when Rangihou ceased to operate, but it appears it was deemed unnecessary once the mission in New Zealand was strongly established.

Parramatta is no longer a separate city geographically, having been absorbed into greater Sydney. Traces of Rangihou College and Marsdens mission can still be found in modern Parramatta. Part of the original land of Rangihou College is now a pleasant riverside park named Rangihou Reserve. Immediately north of the reserve is New Zealand Street, a street that has borne this name since at least the 1830s.

The Rangihou Reserve site is considered of great importance by the Māori community of Sydney. In addition to being the site of the college, it also contains the unmarked graves of 13 Māori children who died while attending the school. One tragic aspect of Marsdens project was that the Māori scholars at Rangihou were vulnerable to European diseases. The exact location of these graves is no longer known.

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