Barzillai Quaife was born at Lenham, Kent, England, on 29 December 1798, the son of Thomas Quaife, a farmer, and his wife, Amelia Austin. He married Maria Smith on 4 November 1834, in the parish of St Anne, Soho, Westminster, London; they were to have four sons. Quaife was educated at Hoxton Academy, London, and worked as a teacher and Congregational minister before emigrating with his wife and son to South Australia in 1839. There he ran a religious bookshop in Adelaide and was leader writer for the Southern Australian newspaper, until its publisher persuaded him to establish a paper in New Zealand.
Quaife arrived with his family at Kororareka (Russell) on the Agenoria in May 1840. On 15 June the first issue of the New Zealand Advertiser and Bay of Islands Gazette, the colony's second newspaper, appeared. Although it carried government proclamations, this did not stop Quaife exercising a fiercely independent and critical editorial policy. A trenchant supporter of Maori rights and critic of erring public servants, he focused on Maori interests, particularly the issue of land, and criminal justice. Arguably New Zealand's first public anti-racist, he defended the right of the Maori to ownership of their land: 'when…the Governor…lays it down as an axiom…that the natives have no independent right over their own property…we see no end – looking at the Cape as an example – of the catalogue of miseries which may be entailed on this inoffensive people.' He argued that Governor George Gipps's land act of August 1840, empowering the New South Wales governor to appoint commissioners to investigate land claims in New Zealand, was unenforceable and would lead to conflict.
Quaife was destined for a clash with authority. His liberal nonconformist education, and experience of a free colony and an unfettered, anti-government press, conflicted with the experience of the chief police magistrate and acting colonial secretary, Willoughby Shortland, recently arrived from New South Wales, a convict colony where the press was controlled. In December 1840 Shortland, recalling an old New South Wales ordinance, ordered Quaife to post several hundred pounds surety and pay a fine or face transportation should he publish 'expressions tending to bring the Government into hatred or contempt.' The last edition of the Advertiser appeared on 10 December 1840.
Quaife, however, was undeterred. On 24 February 1842 he launched the Bay of Islands Observer. Again he belaboured an inefficient and corrupt government, until he foolishly printed gossip about the former colonial treasurer, George Cooper. Although Quaife apologised publicly, he was dismissed by the paper's proprietors. Thereafter he devoted himself to the Kororareka Congregational Church, which he had founded in 1840, the first Congregational church in New Zealand, and to teaching and running a bookshop.
In May 1844, financially exhausted, he set out to return to England. Instead, however, he settled in New South Wales. For the next 30 years he served there as a minister, lectured, wrote for newspapers, and published three books, notably The intellectual sciences (Sydney, 1872), which has been described as the first serious philosophical work published in Australia. After the death of Maria Quaife in January 1857 he married Eliza Buttrey, on 29 May 1857, at Paddington, Sydney; they had two children. He died at Woollahra, Sydney, on 3 March 1873. Although his time in New Zealand was brief, Barzillai Quaife holds an honoured place in the history of the press and of race relations in New Zealand as an outspoken opponent of government injustice and an early advocate of Maori rights.