Eye-witness, Francis McWhannell

William Colenso: His Life and Journeys by A G Bagnall and G C Petersen
Ian St George (ed)
Otago University Press, $65.00,
ISBN 9781877578151

When it was first published in 1948, A G Bagnall’s and G C Petersen’s William Colenso: His Life and Journeys was undoubtedly one of the more substantial biographies to have been published in New Zealand. It was also one of the more significant, raising as it did awareness of its subject, William Colenso, whose importance for the history of this country had long been underestimated. Sixty-five years after the publication of the work typically (and with no little affection) referred to as “Bagnall and Petersen”, Otago University Press and editor Ian St George have done us the good service of reprinting this now scarce landmark of New Zealand scholarship, correcting minor errors, and adding to it a new introduction, as well as a previously unpublished autobiographical work by Colenso.

A second subtitle to “Bagnall and Petersen” describes Colenso as printer, missionary, botanist, explorer and politician. This list of occupations is neither complete nor completely accurate, for Colenso contributed not only to botany, but also to other areas of natural history (for example, he wrote an early paper on the moa), as well as to the fields of ethnography, linguistics, history, and education. The diversity of Colenso’s interests might be less impressive had he been a casual dabbler, but he was not. Though to a large extent (and by necessity) self-taught, he was of singular discipline and determination, producing work of regional, national, and occasionally even international import.

In his capacity as printer for the Church Missionary Society at Paihia, Colenso was responsible for the first book ever printed in New Zealand (a religious text in te reo Maori); the first tract in English; the first New Testament in Maori; and the first printing of the Maori text of the Treaty of Waitangi. He was present at the signing of the Treaty and famously cautioned Lieutenant Governor William Hobson that many Maori did not adequately understand the meaning and consequences of the document. Though published many years after the event, Colenso’s history of the signing is considered the most reliable eyewitness account by a Pakeha.

As missionary, Colenso had dealings with Maori from various parts of the North Island, especially Heretaunga/Hawke’s Bay, where he lived for much of his life. In contrast to commonly held conceptions of the ruthless missionary, Colenso was greatly dedicated to and respectful of Maori. He consistently defended their rights and interests, especially in respect of land, and much to the anger of certain settlers. In his day, he was among the foremost authorities on Maori language, custom and folklore.

While living in the Bay of Islands, Colenso met the natural historians Charles Darwin, Allan Cunningham and Joseph Dalton Hooker. All contributed to his interest in science and the latter remained a correspondent for many years. Colenso’s travels took him to areas of New Zealand sometimes unknown to Pakeha. They also provided him with the opportunity to collect specimens of plants, insects, shells and so on, many of which were new to science. Colenso dutifully described his collections, dispatching numerous samples to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England. His tireless efforts contributed to his election as Fellow of the Linnaean and Royal Societies.

These achievements, and many more besides, are described in considerable detail in “Bagnall and Petersen”. The thoroughness of the work is remarkable given the great diversity of Colenso’s activities. There is something of an emphasis on Colenso’s travels, perhaps betraying an aspect of especial interest to the authors. Indeed, Bagnall and Petersen are apt to describe events better than they do the intellectual life of their subject. If they occasionally fail to do Colenso justice, however, it is not for want of passion or effort. As St George points out in his introduction, a multi-disciplinary team of scholars would be required to fully describe the work of this idiosyncratic polymath.

Despite its double authorship, “Bagnall and Petersen” is surprisingly coherent in terms of style. Both writers seem to have been at pains to write with a flair equal to that of Colenso. Though the language in places feels overwrought, old-fashioned or even downright clumsy, there are nevertheless many moments of virtuosity: “Tried beyond all provocation, tortured beyond his gloomiest imaginings, overwhelmed by contumely and slander, he followed his solitary shingle path home to the study.”

Passages such as this show that Bagnall and Petersen are not without psychological insight. Readers searching for a deeper exploration of Colenso’s personality, however, would do well to consult Peter Wells’s The Hungry Heart: Travels with William Colenso (2012). While similarly exhaustive in coverage, Wells’s work places a greater emphasis on Colenso’s emotional experiences, discussing with especial sensitivity the extramarital relationship with Ripeka Meretene that so marked his life and the lives of those near to him. Though it is given due prominence, this event is less fully examined in “Bagnall and Petersen”, presumably for reasons of decorum.

Colenso’s Autobiography (included as an appendix in the new edition) goes some way towards rounding out the picture of Colenso painted by the biography. Despite its brevity (it runs to some 30 pages and concentrates on the years 1833 to 1853), and despite being referred to extensively in Bagnall and Petersen, the Autobiography remains interesting and instructive. Sent by Colenso to his sons Latimer Ridley and Wiremu/William, the work is among other things an attempt to describe the complexities of Colenso’s marriage and its dissolution. While it no doubt represents an attempt to set the record straight, the Autobiography ultimately expresses Colenso’s love for his children and his regret at their mistreatment.

St George’s introduction to the new edition of “Bagnall and Petersen” offers further insights into Colenso’s life and character. A general practitioner by profession, St George makes enlightening comments on Colenso’s health. He briefly reassesses Colenso’s involvement in the field of botany, pointing to minor inaccuracies in “Bagnall and Petersen”. He speculates about Colenso’s relationship with his cousin, John William Colenso, Bishop of Natal. He briefly discusses Colenso’s attitude towards temperance, alludes to the literary aspect of Colenso’s writing, and asserts Colenso’s position in later life as a beloved Napier personality. Perhaps most importantly, St George stresses the value of Colenso’s copious writings for understanding the man himself.

While the Autobiography and St George’s introduction are both excellent, the new edition of “Bagnall and Petersen” is not without its disadvantages. Despite its high price and the availability of superior technologies, the new edition is inferior in production to the original, which was designed and made to the highest standards then available. In particular, the illustrations and maps are disappointing. They have been poorly reproduced (apparently scanned from the first edition) and lack clarity and contrast. This is perhaps partly due to the printing, since the text too is rather pale and lacking in crispness. These faults are hard to excuse, especially given Colenso’s status as New Zealand’s first printer.

The design of the book is generally pleasing, matching that of Give Your Thoughts Life: William Colenso’s Letters to the Editor, also edited by St George, and published by Otago University Press in 2011. One assumes that a forthcoming volume of Colenso’s published papers will be uniform also. There are a few editorial errors (an illustration is mislabelled, and the list of illustrations refers the reader to an unillustrated page), but these are perhaps to be expected in any publication. Use of footnotes, as opposed to the chapter endnotes of the original, is a decided improvement.

Ultimately, the new edition of “Bagnall and Petersen” is a worthy addition to the catalogue of works concerning William Colenso. This catalogue has grown steadily over the past few years, thanks to “Colensophiles” like St George. Indeed, St George has been especially tireless. In addition to Give Your Thoughts Life, he has edited a volume of materials relating to Colenso’s natural historical work, Colenso’s Collections, published by the New Zealand Native Orchid Group in 2009. He is Convenor of the Colenso Society and editor of its monthly newsletter, eColenso. He played a major role in the William Colenso Bicentenary Conference, held in Napier in late 2011. He is also a driving force behind the Colenso Project, which aims “to ignite public and academic interest in Colenso’s words – published, unpublished, private letters, journals – both in Maori and English, by sharing them with the world in digital form”.

This book is thus part of an ambitious and noble project to disseminate knowledge, a project that is at the very heart of the life and work of William Colenso.


Francis McWhannell is a bookseller and reviewer living in Hamilton.


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