What we call the past, Martin Edmond

The Hungry Heart: Journeys with William Colenso
Peter Wells
Vintage, $49.99,
ISBN 9781869794743


Give Your Thoughts Life: William Colenso’s Letters to the Editor 
Ian St George (ed)
Otago University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9781877578144


The Greek word historia, from which we derive our history, has a neglected verbal sense: it can mean, not a chronicle or a chronology, but an inquiry, a way of finding out. American poet Charles Olson preferred this variation; for him it revived an idiosyncratic point of view upon, and an active engagement with, something more usually treated as an abstract, inhuman force, a deus ex machina amongst whose coils we are entrammelled; as if we do not make history but are made by it. Peter Wells’s consummate study of William Colenso, The Hungry Heart, is notable for many reasons; one is that he restores the practice of historia in this sense: a verb, to find out for yourself.

He begins his inquiry locally, at the site of Colenso’s original mission station on the foreshore of Hawke’s Bay – a place from which, it seems, all traces of the complex and beautiful settlement that once stood there have disappeared. This visit, which is narrated in the first person, elegantly introduces one of his major themes: the impermeability, perhaps the actual absence, of a past we nevertheless know existed. This theme is explored by means of a desire, bordering on the obsessional, to animate, by whatever means possible, some sense of what this past was like. The passion of Wells’s commitment to his task reminded me of John Dee, the Elizabethan magus, who, it is said, made his study of how to join together those two incommensurables, light and soul, by always thinking unto them.

Wells revisits this placeless place, then called Waitangi, at several points in his narrative and closes his book with another survey of its present-day shape; it remains, shimmering in and out of view, a (sub)liminal presence throughout; and when he rebuilds, as it were, the mission station as it must have been in Colenso’s time (the middle years of the 19th century), you begin to see the house, the study, the environs, conjured, magus-like, into view. This is a remarkable achievement, which comes out of an intense imaginative focus upon those few, and fugitive, descriptive facts available to the writer.

He is equally focused, again to an hallucinatory degree, on those material objects from the past which have survived into our conflicted present, probing them for evidence of psychic as much as physical traces of those who once owned them. Beyond that is an insistence on the magical function of objects in early exchanges between European and Maori, during which the entire panoply, the cornucopia, of early Victorian material culture came before Maori eyes in such a way that they were not so much persuaded as compelled to relinquish gods, land, taonga, themselves and what spiritual verities they possessed in exchange for ownership of things they very often could not use or even understand – though not always: along with an evocation of the vanished mission station are some precious glimpses of entrepreneurial, even bourgeois Maori in the 1840s and 50s, when the promise of the Treaty had not yet been extinguished by the calamities of the 1860s and 70s.

Wells’s inquiries are wide-ranging – he describes trips to various locales in the Bay of Islands and elsewhere in the north, goes to see relatives of Colenso, is visited in Napier by interested parties and travels to Canberra in search of lost papers – but all these journeys are, as the subtitle accurately says, with Colenso. In other words, the places he goes, the people he meets and the things he does, reads or sees are in service of a revelation of character as much as the look and feel of a patiently resurrected past: for why are we interested in the past if not for what it can tell us about who we are, what we might once have been, what we could yet become?

The Colenso that emerges is a character in a Fellanosan sense; that is, character as ideogram: enigmatic, many-faceted, vivid, a jewel which captures as much light as it emits. Although the narration of Colenso’s long and extraordinary life is chronological, Wells’s speculation upon its significance is not and so we are given, on the one hand, the main biographical facts in the order of their unfolding and, on the other, a concurrent investigative commentary on their meaning that ranges back and forth across time in such a way as to include the contemporary, the future, the unknowable in among what can be established as fact in what we call the past.

This is a risky strategy which, in less assured hands, might cause confusion; instead we are led, serendipitously, digressively, transgressively, through a progressive enrichment of understanding of a contradictory man; and along the way are shown also how there are some things we will simply never know about him.

This is true of any biographical subject; the challenge of biography, and history writing too, is to include, without strain, both the known and the unknown in one frame. This Wells does gracefully, with an extra dimension that goes beyond mere technical skill to become something that might be called wisdom. I particularly enjoyed the way he was able to include in his commentary observations upon contemporary mores as a way of amplifying the mysteries of the past.

The great mystery, then as now, is sexuality. Colenso – Cornishman, printer, missionary, botanist, explorer, scholar – was a man of prodigious energy and, Wells speculates, must have had some form of sexual outlet from his youth until the collapse of his marriage and the subsequent solitary, apparently abstinent, decades that followed. But sexuality in those times, and especially among the protestant devout, could not be written about; or, if it was written about, that writing could not be published. Colenso was certainly active: his fall came after the revelation that he had fathered a child by a Maori woman who, along with her husband, the missionary, his wife and their two children, lived in the same house at the Waitangi mission.

Colenso was a compulsive, prolific writer; before his death he destroyed much of what he wrote; his papers were shamefully treated and many valuable things disappeared – including, poignantly, a packet of accounts of oral testimony by East Coast Maori who, as children, had witnessed James Cook’s visits. This, during passage from shore to ship, fell into the sea and was lost.

Other documents survived, only to fade from view in later days; crucial among these are some private diaries, so sensitive they were kept in a bank vault and only issued to a researcher in the 1940s on a daily basis; she had to return them to the bank manager at close of business. The import of these diaries is that Colenso’s sexual adventures with Maori might have been extensive and long-lasting (and might have included liaisons with both sexes); concomitantly it appears that there may be among us many Colenso descendants – in the same way that there are, some believe, many scions of the more flagrantly rakish George Grey.

Here speculation about the sexual habits of colonists is less to the point than the complications inherent in cross-cultural relationships that might include such dalliances; which complications brought Colenso down. Wells is meticulous in his analysis of the byzantine political alliances and misalliances with Maori Colenso was bound to negotiate in order to remain at Waitangi; as he is in his grasp of the equally complex, although quite differently expressed, politics of the Church Missionary Society, exemplified in the conduct of those self-styled mandarins of the New Zealand mission, Bishop Selwyn and the Williams clan.

Wells is also alive to Colenso’s anomalous position in early colonial society: the only person to protest on behalf of Maori at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi; 30 years later one of the few to demand justice for the condemned Pai Marire leader Kereopa te Rau, executed after summary proceedings in Napier in 1872; someone who could, in the prevailing hysteria, write sympathetically of Te Kooti Rikirangi.

The practice of historia goes against the tendency towards embalmment of the past, is contra any sequestration of then from now; it is not only about identifying the lines of transmission but also dedicated to keeping them open, pertinent, useful. It’s in this sense that The Hungry Heart is most innovative, most profound. Wells’s insertion of himself into the text makes of Colenso an ancestor and of himself, the author, an inheritor; gentlemen, albeit unconventional, scholars in the Bay. It also allows the possibility of influence on the present, and therefore the future, by someone as ungovernable as Colenso; which less adventurous practice might try, half unconsciously, to suppress. Colenso thus becomes, through the agency of this book, a contemporary whose paradoxes and contradictions we must still deal with, as well as an aid to their further negotiation.

The second book under review is a selection of Colenso’s public correspondence; that is, letters to newspapers he wrote between 1847 and 1898 – half a century’s worth of a voluminous output that attests, perhaps, to the tendency for suppressed sexuality to flower elsewhere, especially in writing. The compiler, Ian St George, who came to Colenso through his enthusiasm for native orchids, has put together another book, Colenso’s Collections (2008), which I have not seen but which Wells praises. Here St George gives us a generous introduction to a seductive voice that is native in its inflections, profligate in its enthusiasms and inclusive in its allowance of many other voices – indeed, a cacophony – to be heard.

For St George has contextualised the entries, providing background, provocations, replies, weirdly apt divagations, on Colenso’s missives. Together they make up something like a snapshot of a group mind of the literate in colonial times; and especially that section localised in Napier. The shining light of that mind is Colenso himself, with his remarkable reach, his range of knowledge and experience in the fields of botany, exploration and printing, his passion for accuracy, his astute grasp of political realities, his care for education policy, his eccentricity, his insouciance.

Many of the letters are written to correct errors in newspaper reporting: the selection begins with Colenso contradicting a report of an alleged robbery by Maori of a ship’s cargo in Napier in 1847; and ends, on Christmas Eve, 1898, with him expatiating upon the circumstances of the discovery of the wrecks of French explorer La Perouse’s ships on the island of Vanikoro by Peter Dillon, in which we learn that Colenso made the voyage out from England in 1834 in the company of this man, usually known as the Chevalier. In between, delightfully, we find him denying that Bishop Selwyn was in the habit of turning to the East when he recited the creed in church.

Wells remarks several times that Colenso’s true subject was memory; Give Your Thoughts Life is a window onto aspects of that memory as preserved in documentary form and so makes an excellent companion to the more discursive The Hungry Heart. The two books between them seem to allow you, though this cannot really be, to hold in your hands the whole man.


Martin Edmond’s Dark Night: Walking with McCahon is reviewed on p17 of this issue. 

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