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No relatives at William Colenso’s graveside

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William Colenso was born in Penzance, England in 1811. At the age of 14 years, he became an apprentice printer and, in 1833, accepted the position as Church Missionary Society printer for Aotearoa / New Zealand. Colenso arrived with a small Stanhope printing press at Paihia on 30th December 1834 and was greeted by Māori, who gave him the name Koroneho. When the printing press was set up, Colenso produced the first Aotearoa publication - a Māori translation by William Williams of the “Epistle of Paul”. Demand by Māori for written material was insatiable and Colenso’s publications subsequently increased the authority and extent of missionary influence. By 1840 Colenso had produced over 74,000 books and pamphlets - not all religious.

For clergymen like Colenso, the study of nature was often seen as the study of God’s handiwork. While living in Paihia, he developed an interest in botany, and his many missionary journeys to localities unknown and unexplored by Pākehā, provided him with remarkable opportunities for plant collecting and exploration. He grew to love Aotearoa’s flora and fauna. In 1896 he wrote: “In every aspect of nature there is joy;  whether it be the purity of virgin morning, or the sombre grey of a day of clouds, or the solemn pomp and majesty of night;  whether it be the chaste lines of the crystal on yonder … mountain range, or the waving ever-changing outlines of distant hills tremulously visible through the slanting rays of the setting sun;  the minute petals of the New Zealand daisy, or the overhanging forms of mysterious forests;  it is a pure delight to see.” 

Bishop Selwyn accepted Colenso as a candidate for ordination on the prerequisite that he acquired a wife to support him in his work. Colenso proposed to Elizabeth Fairburn, the daughter of missionary parents, and they married in April 1843. During a trip to Te Matau-a-Māui / Hawke’s Bay with Reverend William Williams in 1843 it was agreed, in consultation with local Māori, to establish a mission station at Waitangi - situated at the mouth of the Ngaruroro River.

Colenso was ordained as deacon September 1844 at Waimate, Bay of Islands. Three months later, Colenso, Elizabeth, their daughter Frances, along with two Māori servants, Rīpeka Meretene and Hāmuera, left to establish the Waitangi Mission Station in Te Matau-a-Māui.

Elizabeth, a competent Māori scholar, fluent in te reo Māori and skilled in homeopathic medicine, taught local Māori children and women to read and write, as well as providing nursing care to the community. Whenever Colenso was away on his extensive expeditions, it was Elizabeth who ran the mission.

The discovery that Colenso was the father of Wiremu, born 28th May 1851 to Rīpeka Meretene, was a great shock to Elizabeth. As a result of his indiscretion, Colenso was suspended as deacon in November 1852 and dismissed from the mission. Elizabeth, with Wiremu, left the following year and Colenso lived on alone at Waitangi, becoming a virtual recluse. In 1861 he moved to Napier township (Colenso Avenue) and, during the latter part of his life, increasingly turned to writing and botanical work.

The Hawke’s Bay Philosophical Institute (MTG Hawke’s Bay’s predecessor) was established by a group of ‘important and influential men’ at a meeting held 14 September 1874. Under its constitution, the Institute was founded for “the advancement of Science, Literature and Art as well as for the development of the resources of the Colony”. From its inception, Colenso was a driving force and mainstay behind the Institute, appointed both Secretary and Treasurer, positions he held for ten years.

A Gottfried Lindauer painting of Colenso was commissioned by the Philosophical Institute to hang in pride of place on one of the walls of the Athenaeum. On 14 November 1894, before the oil painting was officially hung at the Athenaeum, it was displayed in John Craig’s shop window on Hastings Street, Napier where, according to the Daily Telegraph newspaper, it “attracted a great deal of public attention”. Lindauer’s portrait of William Colenso shows a venerable gentleman, dressed in clerical garb, with a kindly face, engaging brown eyes and long-flowing grey hair and beard. His overall demure is one of a man who had lived a long and interesting life.

Also in 1894, Colenso was re-admitted to the Anglican clergy, acting as a relieving minister. William Colenso died 10 February 1899 and was buried in the Napier Cemetery. Henry Hill, friend and colleague, wrote of the funeral “The scene…was sad, and withal, beautiful. An old man full of years and honours was borne to his last resting place. Yet no wife, no child, no relative was there to mourn his passing…”

Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today newspaper on 11 May 2024 and written by Gail Pope, Social History Curator at MTG Hawke’s Bay.

Image: Oil painting of Reverend William Colenso by Gottried Lindauer

13 May 2024

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