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Topic: Biography of William Colenso

Printer, witness to the Treaty of Waitangi, notable amateur botanist and explorer, defrocked priest, and grand old man – this is the life of William Colenso, one of the more colourful figures of nineteenth century New Zealand. He was born in Penzance, Cornwall in 1811 yet lived to see New Zealand evolve from the 1835 Declaration of Independence towards Dominion status, granted soon after his death in 1899.

An industrious and upright young man, Colenso began working with the London firm of Richard Watts, printers to the Church Missionary Society (CMS), in 1833. Through them and his writing for a church journal it was discovered that Colenso had an interest in missionary work. This led to his appointment as printer to the CMS in Paihia, in the Bay of Islands, a centre of missionary activities. Labouring under some difficulties with his Stanhope Press, Colenso ('Koroneho' to the Maori) showed considerable ingenuity. He produced the first pamphlet ever printed in New Zealand, a sixteen-page translation into Maori of the Epistles of St Paul to the Philippians and Ephesians, which appeared on 17 February 1835.

Other publishing work followed, including the printing of William Williams' 356 page Maori New Testament in 1837 and 27,000 copies of the Book of Common Prayer. These activities gave the CMS a breakthrough in Maori conversion to christianity that had largely eluded it for the previous fifteen years. By 1840 Colenso had produced more than 74,000 copies of a variety of books and pamphlets.

It was also Colenso who, as the nation's first government printer, hastily set and ran off the formal invitations to chiefs to attend the discussions leading up to the Treaty of Waitangi. Even at this stage Colenso's developing grasp of Maori language and his commitment to an open treaty process revealed intelligence and considerable strength of character.

He also assembled the most detailed and important account of the Treaty negotiations. In his report, published by the government in 1890 on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing, he relates what leading chiefs said, how the watching traders felt and the role and influence of the missionaries, Protestant and Catholic. Both Hone Heke and Tamati Waka Nene were the chiefs who, on 6 February, would carry the decision to sign.

It was as Hone Heke stepped forward that Colenso challenged Governor William Hobson, asking him, 'May I ask your Excellency whether it is your opinion that these Natives understand the articles of the treaty which they are now called upon to sign?' The Governor replied, 'If the Native chiefs do not know the contents of this treaty it is no fault of mine. I wish them to fully understand it. I have done all that I could do to make them understand the same'. The Governor concluded the exchange by saying that 'we must endeavour to do the best we can with them' (1).

Colenso was also interested in botany, his work receiving a boost when he met Charles Darwin who arrived briefly in the Bay of Islands aboard the Beagle in 1835. He received some formal training from visiting botanists, including the distinguished Joseph Hooker. This enhanced his abilities as a collector. As Colenso travelled on misionary work, first to the north, then down the East Coast and Urewera country, he also botanised energetically. In 1843 he travelled in search of a Hawkes Bay mission site, covering the East Coast before sailing from Gisborne to the Wairarapa with William Williams. Then with Maori guides they walked back to Ahuriri, Hawkes Bay.

Because Colenso was dogmatic, Bishop Selwyn initially resisted his appeals for ordination. Once he married Elizabeth Fairburn, the daughter of a missionary, he was made a priest. The couple had a daughter and then, when they were stationed at Hawkes Bay, a son. Colenso's territory was as vast as his evangelism was aggressive but although his convert numbers were impressive, his losses were also significant.

He explored the Ruahine Ranges, crossing into the upper Rangitikei River area known as the Inland Patea. He made six visits to this area but not before scandal brought him down. Ripeka Meretene of Ngati Tapuhara, a sub-tribe of Ngati Kahungunu, was in his household when Colenso, possibly seeking solace from a loveless marriage, had an affair with her. This resulted in a child in 1851. Though Ripeka married someone else, Colenso was found out, suspended as a deacon and dismissed from the mission. He was already unpopular with the settlers because of his sympathetic attitude toward Maori, and Maori themselves could not square his actions with what he preached. He therefore entered a period of exile.

Nevertheless he recovered sufficiently to stand for provincial government and win. But like Charles Heaphy he was no politician. Increasingly he turned to botany and scientific writing, also producing a Maori dictionary in 1865. He outlived his enemies, was reinstated as a deacon in 1894, published his treaty account the following year and died in 1899. His contribution in so many fields was great, but was marred by his dogmatism and inability to listen and work with others.

(1) Colenso, William. (1984). The Authentic and Genuine History of the Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand, February 5 and 6, 1840. First published in 1890. p 3.

Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (2001).

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