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A younger son of farmer Edward Kendall and Susanna Surflit, Thomas Kendall was born in 1778. He grew up in North Thoresby, Lincolnshire, England, where influenced by his local minister Reverend William Myers he came under the spell of the evangelical revival within the Anglican Church. Dates of his early careers are disputed. While a teenager he moved with Myers to North Somercotes, where he was assistant schoolmaster and also helped run Myers' 15-acre (6.1 ha) farm. Kendall also tutored a gentleman's children in Immingham, where he met Jane Quickfall. On 21 November 1803, he married her and set up business as a draper and grocer. The business did not prosper.
In 1805, while attempting to sell a cargo of hops in London, Kendall visited Bentinck Chapel, Marylebone, and underwent some form of religious experience following the preaching of Basil Woodd and William Mann. He sold his business and moved his family to live in London, joining the congregation of that church and taking a job as a schoolmaster. In 1808, he decided to become a missionary.
The Anglican Church Missionary Society was, at the time, a powerful organisation with a number of political connections, including the Colonial Secretary. It had recently adopted an experimental policy of sending lay preachers with practical skills to new missions, with the idea of bringing native peoples the benefits of English culture and religion – and the hope that men who could make their living from a trade might be welcomed by indigenous people where theologians were not.
More than 150 years previously, Dutch sailor Abel Tasman and his crew had become the first Europeans to sight New Zealand, and 40 years previously the coast had been mapped by Captain James Cook. However, extensive European contact with the Māori people had only begun in the previous decade. This was mostly by whalers operating out of shore bases; however, a few traders had formed a small settlement at Kororareka in the natural harbour of the Bay of Islands. This had gained a reputation for drunken lawlessness and corruption, with the sailors accused of encouraging prostitution and alcoholism among the Māori as well as kidnapping or press-ganging them. While there was some truth to this the sailors were in a poor position to present a threat to Maori, and lived largely by grace of these martial people. Nevertheless, as far as the Church Missionary Society was concerned, they were heathen souls to be converted.
After some delays and fundraising, Kendall and his family left for Sydney in May 1813. After further delays in Australia, Kendall and Hall took Marsden's vessel, the Active, and set out on 14 March 1814 on an exploratory journey to the Bay of Islands. They met Rangatira, including Ruatara and the rising war leader of the Ngapuhi, Hongi Hika, who had helped pioneer the introduction of the musket to Māori warfare. Hongi Hika and Ruatara travelled with Kendall when he returned to Australia on 22 August. The Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, gave permission for the foundation of the mission in November and appointed Kendall Justice of the Peace and magistrate. The governor also presumed to extend his own powers over New Zealand, issuing a proclamation that "natives are not to be carried off from New Zealand or the Bay of Islands by masters of vessels, or seamen or other persons without permission of chiefs, made in writing under hand of Revd Thomas Kendall, resident magistrate".
Thomas Kendall gained knowledge of the Māori language while in New Zealand and subsequently published, A Korao no New Zealand! The New Zealanders First Book! (1815).
To defend his work Kendall made an unauthorised return to London in 1820, travelling with Hongi Hika and minor chief Waikato on the whaling ship the New Zealander. It is possible that Hongi Hika wished to visit Britain and from his perspective Kendall was accompanying him. Although the Church Missionary Society disapproved of the trip, Hongi Hika and Waikato were a social success. Kendall was ordained a priest on 12 November 1820 by the Bishop of Ely (though limited to New Zealand because of his lack of classical languages). The Rangatira and Kendall spent five months in Britain, mostly working with Professor Samuel Lee in Cambridge, where Kendall's views about the language were justified (if some of his other theories were not; for example, Kendall believed the Māori were descended from Egyptians). Lee and Kendall's A grammar and vocabulary of the language of New Zealand was published in 1820.
While in England, Hongi Hika was introduced to King George as the "King of New Zealand". He was shown over the Woolwich arsenal and given a suit of armour by the King along with other gifts. At Cambridge Kendall and Hongi met the exiled French adventurer Charles de Thierry with whom Hongi did a land for muskets deal-purchasing 30,000 acres in the Bay of Islands. The 500 muskets, powder, ball, swords and daggers were uplifted from Port Jackson (Sydney) on their return voyage. In the following years, the guns helped him conquer a significant northern portion of the North Island in the Musket Wars and made him a man of considerable importance.
Kendall returned to New Zealand in July 1821. Kendall relied upon his friendship with Hongi Hika to assert leadership among other settlers, but it was a friendship bought in part by supporting the trade in firearms for Hongi Hika's warriors, a trade Kendall himself profited by. The Church Missionary Society were understandably opposed, but Kendall felt they failed to understand the practicality of the situation, where the Anglican mission existed at Hongi Hika's pleasure. On 27 September 1821 all the missionaries signed a letter written by Kendall defending the gun trade, saying he could not dictate what was sold to Maori: "They dictate to us! It is evident that ambition and self interest are amongst the principal causes of our security amongst them."
Around this time Kendall had begun an affair with Tungaroa, one of his school pupils who worked as a servant in his household. She was the daughter of a Rakau, a prominent Māori tohunga or priest and wise man. When the affair was discovered the pair eloped, living among nearby Maori. However, the relationship had ended by April 1822. Jane took Kendall back, although he was unapologetic. One sailor wrote his rationalisation of the relationship with a Māori woman was "in order to obtain accurate information as to their religious opinions and tenets, which he would in no other way have obtained". Kendall indeed began a serious flirtation with Māori religious beliefs, an exploration he set out in a series of seven letters between 1822 and 1824. In 1822 he wrote that the "sublimity" of Māori spirituality saw him "almost completely turned from a Christian to a Heathen".
As a result of the letter of 27 September 1821 the Church Missionary Society dismissed Kendall in August 1822. Samuel Marsden, who also knew of Kendall's affair and his close relationship with Hongi Hika, returned to New Zealand in August 1823 to sack him in person. When the Kendalls' ship, the Brampton, ran aground while leaving, Kendall decided to stay, claiming divine intervention. In a letter of 25 July 1824 to the Church Missionary Society, Kendall confessed his past "errors".
The Kendall family remained living in the Bay of Islands until 1825, when he accepted a position as clergyman at the British consulate at Valparaiso, Chile. This job did not last, and his family settled in New South Wales, where he obtained a grant of 1,280 acres (5.2 km2), including large stands of cedar at Narrawallee Creek, Ulladulla. His son Thomas Surfleet Kendall acquired the neighbouring farm. He bought the cutter "Brisbane".
Thomas Kendall died in 1832 when the "Brisbane" sank with all hands off Sydney while bringing wood and cheese from his farm to market.
In the decade after Hongi Hika died and Kendall left in 1825, widescale conversion of Māori to Christianity occurred. Kendall attempted to continue his work on the Māori language in Australia, having drafted a substantially improved Māori grammar, but Marsden prevented its publication.
He had ten children by Jane Quickfall, eight of whom survived him:
One of his grandsons, Henry Kendall, was an Australian poet.
A biography is The Legacy of Guilt: a life of Thomas Kendall by Judith Binney.