The Bay of Islands is one of New Zealand’s most historically significant places. It’s the place where Captain Cook first stepped ashore, where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed and home to the country’s first capital.
But most of this history is English. When France is thought of in the Bay of Islands, it’s often in reference to the creation of the Treaty of Waitangi, NZ’s founding document, which was partially prompted by British desire to claim the area before the French. So it’s a bit of a surprise to find a place where French Catholics printed bibles in Te Reo Maori.
Pompallier Mission House is located in Russell, a now-charming town once known as “the hell-hole of the South Pacific”. I imagine Russell, which is home to New Zealand’s first licensed bar and the grave of a Nantucket whaler, was much once akin to Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. It was then named Kororareka, which translates to ‘tasty blue penguin’.
Bishop Jean Baptiste Pompallier originally came to NZ from Lyon in 1838 to establish the Catholic Mission to Western Oceania (his second-in-command, Father Pierre Chanel, is now Patron Saint of New Zealand and the Pacific). He did play a role in NZ's colonial development, ensuring the inclusion of freedom of religion in negotiations for the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.
In Russell, the French Mission began making bibles with a printing press brought from Paris. The Pompallier Mission House is New Zealand's oldest industrial building and was impressively restored in the early 1990s.
The process involved much more than printing. Even the leather that the books were bound in was created on site, with a tannery behind the main factory building. The process of preparing the leather, from slaughtering animals through smoothing it in a myriad of ways to binding the bibles, is incredibly complex. In addition, those setting the type had to do so in incredibly low light, due to lack of electricity.
The Bibles were then given away for free. Contrary to some ‘civilising’ narratives of colonisation, the Maori people were more literate than most Europeans in the area and were eager to obtain books and talk to the French missionaries. Due to their positive relationships, the Pompallier Mission House went unharmed during the battles of 1845.
Structurally, Pompallier Mission House is interesting. Unusually in NZ, it’s made with rammed earth. Pisé de terre wasn’t uncommon in nineteenth century France (due to timber shortages following the Napoleonic wars) and so was seen as an economical choice due to New Zealand’s high timber prices. The building was then rendered with a paste made from ground shells.
After the French Mission left in the 1850s, the property passed into private hands. The chapel, before its demolition in the 1950s, served firstly as home to the owner's cow, became a shed and then ended its days as a toilet, its traces rediscovered only in 1992. Other than the printing house itself, all the buildings on the once-crowded site have been demolished - in the early twentieth century a tennis court was built, which has now been replaced with gardens.