William Colenso 1811–1899, Victorian polymath

Ian St. George[1]

The publication of A. G. Bagnall and G. C. Petersen’s biography of William Colenso in 1949, along with the celebrations at Mokai Patea in 1948, the unveiling of a memorial plaque there in 1951, and the unveiling of the plaque at the site of his mission station at Waitangi (south) in 1959, marked more or less the end of the first century following the missionary phase of Colenso’s life.

Activities during the last twelve months have marked 200 years since his birth. In November 2011 the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery (HBMAG) and the Colenso Society held a two-day Colenso Bicentennial conference in Napier, Colenso’s home for 45 years. The proceedings of that event are to be published soon.

Associated with the Conference were the unveiling of a new portrait of Colenso by Gavin Hurley, to be hung in the Museum that Colenso founded, and the launch of The Hungry Heart: —Travels with William Colenso by Peter Wells, a wonderful melding of accurate historical investigation and insightful subjective interpretation. Otago University Press published Give Your Thoughts Life, a compilation of Colenso’s letters to the editors of newspapers. The Hastings Art Gallery mounted Terrie Reddish’s beautiful exhibition ‘Billy K and me’, and Stuart Webster’s history of the Napier law firm, Sainsbury, Logan and Williams, containing a chapter on Colenso’s will, was launched.

Two years earlier the New Zealand Native Orchid Group had published Colenso’s collections, on Colenso’s New Zealand plants held at Te Papa, as well as the letters he sent to Kew and the lists of plants — and birds, bones, bats, bark, belts, bread, butterflies, moths, mats, rocks, rats, crabs, eels, shells, leeches, insects, dishes, fishes, fossils, flotsam, fabrics, twine, wood, worms, slugs and other things collected and despatched.

A group of enthusiasts formed the Colenso Society in 2010, attracting to its membership Colensophiles including botanists, theologians, writers, teachers, collectors, printers, educationalists, Ruahine trampers, family genealogists and others. The Society publishes a monthly electronic newsletter, eColenso, and, with the Leicester Kyle Literary Estate, published Kyle’s epic modernist poem ‘Koroneho’, about Colenso’s descriptions of a number of orchids that were rejected by botanical authority and were thus without identity.

Now, along with the HBMAG and Victoria University of Wellington, the Colenso Society is sponsoring ‘The Colenso Project’, which aspires to make all of Colenso’s writing available online for future Colenso scholars.

While the events described above have marked concentrations of Colenso-related activity, the intervening years have seen other highlights. Perhaps Colenso the school inspector and educationalist would have been most proud of the founding of Colenso High School (now William Colenso College) in Napier (coinciding with the closure of Colenso House at Napier Boys’ High School). Maraenui Bilingual School is graced by an extraordinary two-metre wooden statue of Colenso, a pou called ‘The bearer of knowledge’. A bronze plaque has been placed at Colenso Spur in the Ruahine, marking the spot where his track left the Makaroro riverbed. Colenso’s account of the Treaty of Waitangi is recognised as the best we have and is examined and re-examined almost as much as the Treaty itself. His records of land transactions in Hawke’s Bay and his visits to the Wairarapa have been noted by the Waitangi Tribunal. Jim Endersby has explored his interactions with the botanists William and J. D. Hooker at Kew. D. F. McKenzie has discussed his printing output. Lydia Wevers has discussed his adventure prose. There have been a number of television programmes devoted to his travels. Dianne Bardsley has studied his use of language, Sydney Shep his relationship with Coupland Harding, Tanya Zoe Robinson his contributions to the museum and Kay Morris Matthews his role as an educationalist. Paul Goldsmith wrote an MA thesis and a paper about him. Matthew Wright wrote a series of newspaper articles 1994–2004; the prestigious Curtis’s Botanical Magazine carried a new biography by Audrey le Lièvre; his route over the northern Ruahine has been named the Ruahine Trail of Neho, and Geoff Bil presented ‘The nature of ethnology: Plants and peoples from Colenso to Katherine Mansfield’ to the Stout Research Centre in 2012. Colenso’s letters to Māori language newspapers are being collated by Frith Driver-Burgess. At auction Colenso memorabilia are attracting increasing interest, and thus escalating prices. The list expands almost daily.

Finally family genealogists Sarah Carter, Gillian Bell and Ann Collins have provided detailed accounts of Colenso’s forbears and the lives of his wife Elizabeth and his children Frances and Latimer. Sarah Carter is studying the life of his third child Wiremu (Willie) Colenso.

Why so much fuss?

Perhaps the more pertinent question is, why has it taken us so long to recognise and celebrate this extraordinary man, exceptional even among the extraordinary Victorians who were his contemporaries?

He was the first decent printer in New Zealand; he was at Waitangi (north) for the signing of the Treaty; he was the first white man in Hawke’s Bay, from his mission station near Napier at Waitangi south preaching and converting west to Taihape and south to Wellington; he collected more botanical specimens on these journeys than anyone before him; he was the first Inspector of Schools for Hawke’s Bay, and developed significant ideas about education; he was a member of the local Provincial Council, a Member of the national House of Representatives a parliamentarian in Auckland and in Wellington; he almost single-handedly ran the Hawke’s Bay Philosophical Institute. He founded the Napier Museum. He boasted that he had the best library in the Colony.

Best of all, he was a perfectionist who recorded for posterity. He wrote almost 100 scientific papers for the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, as well as a number of monographs published privately. He wrote hundreds of letters to the editors of newspapers, and he wrote thousands of private letters: we know from his own accounts that he wrote about 1000 letters annually in his last few years.

Most of these have been destroyed of course, but many have survived, some of them allowing us a peep into private intimacies and personal revelations.

Private letters, along with old newspapers and diaries, immerse us in the writer’s times. If you want to know about nineteenth century Hawke’s Bay Colenso’s letters will show you his place and time more vividly than any secondhand history. The apparently insignificant experiences he relates combine to recreate a complex reality that we cannot experience directly, yet which provide material for an understanding of the little world of that Victorian time and place.

For the most part Colenso’s letters are unselfconscious, ordinary, replies to enquirers or the senders of specimens, purposeful and businesslike. But there are also several groups of protracted correspondence over several years: Those to Donald McLean metamorphosing from friendly, generous, to guarded, to suspicious, to formal and coldly polite. Those to David Balfour, John Drummond and Andrew Luff relaxing into easy gossip and a considerable degree of personal revelation as he wrote to Luff: ‘I trust you will see that I have again written to you in my old free open & friendly style just as you were here in this room with me, and we were conversing together as of old.’

None, however, of those letters that have survived, are as rich in detail and revealing in intimacy as those to Robert Coupland Harding over 24 years from 1875 to 1898. They were both printers: they shared a love of type, of books and newspapers (they met at a book auction), and Colenso’s letters are full of items of such mutual interest. He continually updates his young friend, exiled from Napier to Wellington, with the local news and Napier doings. But the letters are full of much more than that. Harding acted not only as a kind of sounding board, but also as a proxy son for the lonely old man on Napier Hill the kind of son he never had: One who shared his values, his profession and his interests.

The letters to Harding are an outlet for Colenso to express his grief, loss, worry, suspicion, grievance, jealousy, remorse and his joy, childish delight, self-satisfaction, pride, sentimental reflection, gratitude and love. This is a taonga. It must rate as one of the most important collections of letters to have survived from New Zealand’s past.

Colenso was celebrated overseas in his lifetime honoured by the Linnaean Society and the Royal Society with their Fellowships. Great men like Hooker and Darwin recognised his ability (Hooker, Darwin’s closest friend, wrote to Haast, seeking his support for Colenso’s Fellowship of the Royal Society, adding that ‘Darwin would gladly have signed, had he been alive, for he knew Colenso when in the Beagle’). The prestigious journal Nature featured his work in many issues. The Inland Printer (Chicago) published Coupland Harding’s essay on Colenso the pioneer printer.

What went wrong?

He was less celebrated in New Zealand. Great men found fault with him, but even as late as 1948 Bagnall and Petersen perhaps found it risky to criticise such eminent names among our pioneers Henry and William Williams, George Augustus Selwyn, Donald McLean, Te Hapuku, Ormond, Russell, Karaitiana, Katene, Te Moananui. We are better now, I think, at seeing historical figures as human beings not polarised into good guys and bad guys, but ordinary people with all their faults as well as their positive qualities.

Some of these men damaged Colenso’s reputation for many years, ostensibly because of his affair with the girl Ripeka Meretene and indeed, it was a spectacular fall from grace. But behind their rejection of him was a longer-standing resentment of Colenso’s criticism of their self-serving acquisition or sale of land, or (in Selwyn’s case) a smouldering resentment with strong hints of class and educational snobbery. We don’t have to pussy-foot around the reputations of ‘great men’ any more.

In recent times Colenso has been portrayed as an anti-Māori hypocrite by those who view his nineteenth-century paternalism through twenty-first century liberal lenses, or who have looked at his property investments with superficial understanding or naked prejudice. How, they ask, could he have argued so strongly against Māori selling their land to whites, how could he have come out so fiercely against the runholders, the ‘squattocracy’ of Hawke’s Bay and the Wairarapa, and yet have become a wealthy man himself as a result of land speculation?

It is worth looking at this more carefully. In 1840 he wrote to the Church Missionary Society secretaries in London, ‘I have kept myself from purchasing Land (having not a single foot of ground) in order that no obstacle should thus arise through me against the Gospel …. Oh! how thankful should I be to the Lord, (though I sometimes feel my poverty,) that He has kept me from becoming possessed of Land, and, by that means seeking my own welfare before that of my Redeemer, the Society, or the poor New Zealander!’

The following year he wrote a long veiled passage obliquely directed at Henry Williams’ acquisition of land for a cattle farm, concluding ‘… it is almost a matter of Impossibility for a man to be a Missionary among the Heathen and a possessor of Lands and Cattle, &c, &c, the same having to be looked after or attended to, in any way, by himself’. He was thirty years old.

Thus, even in his early Bay of Islands years, Colenso perceived (much more clearly than his senior colleagues) the conflict of interest involved: He would acquire no land from Māori when other missionaries were doing so. Later in Hawke’s Bay and the Wairarapa he famously opposed the direct acquisition of land by runholders from Māori, and later still the large sales by Māori to McLean on behalf of the Government. It was only when McLean’s systems of Government land purchase had been completed (and Colenso was no longer a missionary) that his conscience was clear, and he began in about 1851 to buy land from the Government.

By 1855 he could buy 30 acres on Napier Hill, and by 1891 would be referred to as ‘a gentleman of ample means’.

Any inference that Colenso somehow exploited Māori in his land purchases not only disregards the evidence to the contrary, but attributes to him an activity he found morally wrong. His support for Māori to retain their land earned him the lasting resentment of the Williams brothers, of McLean, of the Wairarapa squatter H. R. Russell (later to buy in Waipukurau), of the Ngati Kahungunu paramount chief Te Hapuku (who gained handsomely from land sales) and others. All took their opportunities, as they arose in later years, to damage Colenso.

He forgave those who trespassed against him. Harding wrote: ‘Of his really beautiful and genuine piety, his simple and unfaltering trust in Divine Providence, it is well to speak, as it shaped and influenced his whole character.’ The less forgiving of us can only wonder at Colenso’s ability to put ill-treatment aside and re-establish good terms with his detractors.

We can see clearly now the importance of his infidelity as a turning point in Colenso’s life. We might now even celebrate the affair not just as a passionate interlude in a rather bleak, narrow and celibate existence but as an intimation to him of his humanity, a recognition of his own fallibility: the end of his years of arrogant protestant zeal and the beginning of the softer, broader, more accepting and more forgiving Colenso the kindly and temperate old man on the hill who gave apples to passing schoolboys, who preached against zealots and who was portrayed by Gottfried Lindauer as benign, gentle, generous.

Pride came before the fall and the fall did good.

Above all the Reverend William Colenso was a Victorian, whose life almost coincided with the Record Reign, who began as a religious zealot, for whom the only certainty was the Bible, but in whom, in the breadth of his intellect and the honesty of his search, his God became evident in nature and in scientific discovery as much as in the words of the Bible.

Colenso has been recognised not only by historians, but by artists (Lindauer, George Woods, Gavin Hurley, Terrie Reddish), cartoonists (Frederick Rayner, Augustus Koch), satirists (in The Ballad of Billy K’lenso and The Knifegrinders Society), photographers (Samuel Carnell), novelists, playwrights and poets.

The great men who criticised and marginalised him have rarely been so honoured.

Otago University Press will be publishing a second edition of Bagnall and Petersen’s biography next month. Further publication of Colenso’s writing is planned.

[1]Dr. Ian St. George is a Wellington general practitioner and an expert on New Zealand’s native orchids.