12 January 2015

Colenso's grave

Grave of Rev William Colenso, Napier, 27 October 2014
The Rev William Colenso (1811-99), a prominent figure in the early colonial history of New Zealand, is buried at the Old Napier Cemetery atop the hill, with the following inscription:

In loving memory of the REVd. Wm. Colenso FRS
Born at Penzance 17th Nov. 1811
He was the first printer in these islands, and the first Missionary in Hawkes Bay
Died at Napier Feb. 10th 1899
Aged 88 years.
Following his arrival from Sydney at Paihia in the Bay of Islands on the schooner Blackbird in December 1834, Colenso took up the role of the Church Mission Society printer and subsequently became a pioneer of printing in New Zealand, including impressive runs such as 5000 copies of the Maori New Testament from December 1837 and 27,000 copies of the Book of Common Prayer in Maori. Colenso also produced important non-religious work, such as the Maori text of the Treaty of Waitangi on 17 February 1840 and the first New Zealand Government Gazette on 30 December 1840. His printing work was undertaken despite the considerable challenges posed by a lack of decent equipment and stationery.

Despite a later career as a missionary, explorer and naturalist, plus representing Napier in Parliament's General Assembly from 1861 to 1866, Colenso's life and works were dominated by the reaction to an extra-marital affair he conducted with a member of his household, Ripeka Meretene, probably from 1848 onwards. Meretene had Colenso's illegitimate son Wiremu, and following the discovery of the affair he was suspended as a deacon of the church in 1852 and dismissed from the mission. His status as a deacon was not restored until 1894!

Part of the social isolation and exclusion that dogged Colenso's life in New Zealand was due to his inflexible and unsympathetic nature, as recorded by the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography:

Colenso was a man of great energy, dedication and perseverance. His journeys revealed his courage and endurance, and paradoxically paved the way for the settlement he had opposed. His botanical collecting was of great value to others and his achievements were acknowledged by eminent scientists. Colenso founded the printing industry in New Zealand, and set high standards despite the inadequacies of his equipment.
However, in all matters involving human relations Colenso's career was an unhappy one. Despite his genuine concern for the Maori people he saw them as fickle children, and his behaviour towards them was overbearing. He could be crudely undiplomatic and insensitive to their traditions and sense of honour. His narrow religious views and self-righteous behaviour offended his missionary colleagues. The charges of a lack of spirituality he aimed at them earned him the undying enmity of George Selwyn and William Williams. In politics he revealed a lack of skill and an uncompromising nature. With his quick temper and capacity to harbour a grudge he often descended to bitter and vindictive personal attacks. Unsympathetic to moral laxity in others, when his own great tragic moment came there was no one to sympathise with him.

- David Mackay, 'Colenso, William', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 30 October 2012

A detailed and respectful obituary appeared in the Hawke's Bay Herald on 11 February 1899, the day after Colenso's death. It contained no allusion to his extra-marital affair, but does mention that even as late as Colenso's arrival in Sydney in 1834 'there were only three clergymen of the Church of England residing in all Australia - two of them (the Revs. Messrs Cowper and Hill) in Sydney, and the Rev S[amuel] Marsden at Parramatta'. If this is true, then Colenso's arrival at Paihia meant there were more Church of England missionaries in New Zealand than there were in Australia!  

See also:
History: The oldest building in New Zealand, 29 August 2011
History: Forest lords & mission houses, 16 January 2009
HistoryEach slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds, 23 March 2009
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