The queer history of Aotearoa New Zealand is fascinating – it can also be funny, moving, and tragic. In this first episode of the new series Queer Tales that history can also be a bit creepy. This is the story of William Yate the Perverted Priest.
If you don’t wish to watch the video, a transcript of it is below:
Reverend William Yate first arrived in New Zealand in 1828 – his mission was to study the Maori language and convert Maori to Christianity.
He stayed for seven years and then returned to England where he met King William IV and printed a manuscript of his time in New Zealand.
In 1836 he set sail again for New Zealand aboard the Prince Regent. During the voyage he shared a cabin with the third mate Edwin Denison. Fellow passengers were horrified, but Yate claimed it wasn’t uncommon for men to sleep in the same bed.
When the ship reached Sydney he began living with Denison and also shared a bed with another sailor called Dick Deck.
Yes, his name was Dick Deck. This scandalised Sydney, and things became worse for Yate when stories of his exploits during his earlier time in New Zealand began to surface.
An enquiry in to Yate was begun by the bishop of Australia, and testimony from young Maori men was sent over from New Zealand.
One man said Yate told him to ‘Unbutton your trousers.’ When asked why, Yate replied, ‘in order to masturbate each other.’ A man called Philip Tohi said ‘Mr Yate took my hand and dragged me on his bed.”
And “We took hold of each others penis. I cannot count haw many times I went to him.”
Another man claimed, ‘When I was a little boy, he saw my penis and said it was no bigger than a rat’s tail and we masturbated.’
What is interesting about the testimony is that at the time, Maori were perfectly ok with homosexuality. It was when they were colonised and converted to Christianity that those attitudes changed.
However, all of this evidence horrified Yate’s fellow missionaries, and they wanted him to be tried and hanged. But despite the stories of mutual masturbation and oral sex, the enquiry couldn’t find him guilty because it couldn’t be proven that Yate had committed the mortal sin and crime of buggery.
Also, at this time, New Zealand was not part of the British Empire and therefore it was outside the jurisdiction of British justice.
Yate insisted he was innocent, but it didn’t matter, he was kicked out of the Mission, his possessions were burned and his fellow priests, bent on vengeance, shot his poor horse.
Now William Yate wasn’t the only one engaging in sexual activity. There were others, and it wasn’t just homosexual activity, some missionaries were preying on young Maori girls as well.
As a result of all this, the Mission issued the following decree in order to stamp out depravity, “single men of this mission be recommended to withdraw from the land as early as possible.”
From then on, only married missionaries would be able to carry on god’s work in the antipodes.
So what happened to the perpetrators? Well the church did what churches have always done when their priests molest their flocks – they covered it up, moved the offenders on, and blamed their indiscretions on the temptations of Satan.
But what about William Yate? Remember they wanted to hang him, and they shot his horse.
Well Yate returned to England in late 1836 and failed to clear his name. He still had some friends who believed in him and eventually they put him in charge of a Mission for Seamen in Dover where he died at the age of 74.
And so ends the tale of the Perverted Priest – despite the scandal he died in a situation he probably enjoyed, surrounded by a whole load of sailors.