William Colenso was born probably on 17 November 1811 and was baptised on 13 December 1811 in Penzance, Cornwall, England. He was the eldest child of Samuel May Colenso, a saddler and town councillor of Penzance, and his wife, Mary Veale Thomas, the daughter of a solicitor. Privately educated by a local tutor, Colenso was apprenticed to a printer at St Ives in 1826, learning the craft which was to take him to New Zealand eight years later.
In 1833 he began work with the London firm of Richard Watts, printers to the Church Missionary Society. Through this contact, and some writing for a religious journal, Colenso came to the attention of the CMS. At the time the society was looking for someone to run a small printing press at Paihia in the Bay of Islands. Colenso secured the job and departed on the Prince Regent in June 1834. He arrived at Paihia on 30 December on the schooner Blackbird from Sydney.
The failure of the CMS to supply proper equipment and stationery for his small Stanhope press hampered Colenso's work for the first few years. He showed great ingenuity, and his early productions were a considerable achievement. The first pamphlet printed in New Zealand was a 16 page translation into Māori of the Epistles of Paul to the Philippians and to the Ephesians, which appeared on 17 February 1835. More ambitious was the production of 5,000 copies of William Williams's Māori New Testament. The first of these 356 page books were produced in December 1837. Māori demand was high: a Māori leader in Kaitāia sent a messenger for a copy, bearing the only gold sovereign Colenso had seen in the country. His next major undertaking was 27,000 copies of the Book of Common Prayer in Māori. These publications came at a critical time for the missions, which had made little progress in their first 15 years. But from 1830 the pace of conversions quickened, as the desire for European goods increased, along with the mana of the missionaries themselves. Colenso's output attracted great Māori interest and increased the authority and extent of missionary influence.
By 1840 Colenso had produced over 74,000 copies of various books and pamphlets, not all religious publications. In October 1835 the first tract produced in English was printed by order of the British Resident, James Busby, warning settlers about the imperialist ambitions of Baron Charles de Thierry. Over the following nine years other official notices and publications appeared, including the first New Zealand government Gazette on 30 December 1840. Colenso's most memorable work of this sort was the printing of the Māori text of the Treaty of Waitangi on 17 February 1840. At the signing his cautious representations to Lieutenant Governor William Hobson that many Māori were unaware of the meaning of the treaty were brusquely set aside. His observations recorded at the time were published as The authentic and genuine history of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi (1890), the most reliable contemporary European account of the signing.
At the Bay of Islands his growing enthusiasm for natural history was boosted by the brief visit of Charles Darwin on the Beagle in 1835. Although Colenso's skills were those of the collector, he did receive some systematic training through the visit in 1838 of Allan Cunningham, the New South Wales government botanist. This six month sojourn, together with that of Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1841, provided Colenso with useful contacts and friendships, which allowed him to develop his interests.
There was plenty of scope for collecting on Colenso's many journeys. His impatience to expand the missionary aspect of his job drove him to carry the word to districts outside the mission fold and unknown to Europeans. Helped by his rapid grasp of Māori he extended his journeys within Northland, and with William Williams and Richard Matthews took his first overland trip down the East Coast from Hicks Bay to Poverty Bay in 1838. The main objective was to find a mission site, but Colenso botanised and established useful contacts with East Coast Māori.
In 1841–42 and 1843–44 Colenso undertook more ambitious, inland explorations. On the first he travelled from Hicks Bay to Tūranganui, the site of William Williams's new mission station near present day Gisborne. Heading south and then westward he explored Waikaremoana and the Urewera region. This traverse presented remarkable opportunities for plant collecting. He adopted the rather unsystematic practice of stuffing botanical specimens down the front of his shirt while on the move. Leaving the Urewera, he travelled to Rotorua, Matamata, Waikato and home to the Bay of Islands via the Manukau and Kaipara harbours.
The journey from October 1843 to February 1844 to select a Hawke's Bay mission site was the longest Colenso undertook. He travelled the now familiar East Coast from Hicks Bay, and then embarked at Tūranganui on the Columbine with William Williams and landed on the Wairarapa coast at present day Castlepoint. With their Māori guides and bearers they walked north to the Ahuriri district. A small area on the banks of the Waitangi Stream, near present day Clive, was eventually selected for the mission. After moving north to Wairoa Colenso went inland to Waikaremoana and the Urewera country, scrupulously compiling a census of the remote villages. He returned to Paihia via Tauranga, Waikato, Ōtāhuhu and Kaipara Harbour.
By 1840 Colenso had tired of both his task as a printer and what he perceived as the high church establishment in the Bay of Islands. His rather dogmatic, self-scrutinising form of evangelism sought an outlet in missionary activity in remote areas. The CMS, fearful of his proselytising zealotry, fobbed off his applications. Bishop G. A. Selwyn's establishment of St John's College at Waimate North increased Colenso's persistence, and the bishop reluctantly accepted him as a candidate for ordination.
On 27 April 1843 at Ōtāhuhu, Auckland, Colenso satisfied one of Selwyn's prerequisites for ordination by a marriage (arranged and subsequently loveless), to Elizabeth Fairburn, daughter of the CMS lay missionary W. T. Fairburn. Their first child, Frances Mary, was born a little over nine months later. On 22 September 1844 Colenso was ordained deacon and on 13 December headed south with his wife and daughter to take over the new mission station in Hawke's Bay. Nine months later, in September 1845, a son, Ridley Latimer, was born.
Colenso's responsibilities in his new job were enormous. His parish stretched as far south as Palliser Bay and beyond the Ruahine Range to the upper reaches of the Rangitīkei River. The missionary pursued unregenerates throughout this huge area with a fervour which bespoke his aggressive spirituality, his taste for travel and his need to escape from a tortuous and decaying domestic situation. Each spring and autumn he journeyed south to Palliser Bay and sometimes to Wellington, holding religious services and baptising Māori. While his initial success was impressive, as the years went by his impact diminished and many Māori fell away, offended by Colenso's intolerance and haughtiness.
A zeal to convert, to explore and to botanise was behind Colenso's ambition to cross the Ruahine Range to the upper Rangitīkei district, known as inland Pātea. With a Māori guide and five bearers he made his first attempt one month after arriving at Ahuriri. But the western villages were deserted and the party was forced to return, short of supplies and energy. A successful crossing was achieved two years later, but from the western side. In February 1847 Colenso travelled from Ahuriri to Lake Taupō. Heading south from the lake he crossed the Onetapu and Rangipō deserts to the banks of the Moawhango River, reaching the fortified pā of Matuku. Two days later, ill and weak, he crossed the range which had defeated him in 1845. In his remaining years at the mission he made five more visits to the inland Pātea villages.
The four years before Colenso's suspension in 1852 were times of increasing dissension and difficulty at the Hawke's Bay mission. His inflexible, overbearing and humourless nature led to friction with some of the foremost Māori leaders. His opposition to Māori land sales earned him the hostility of the growing number of settlers in Wairarapa and Hawke's Bay, and threatened conflict with Donald McLean. His relationship with his fellow missionaries and the Anglican establishment deteriorated further after 1845. When the missionary with such a highly developed sense of sin brought disaster on himself, there were many who took quiet pleasure in his misfortunes.
Rīpeka Meretene, of Ngāi Tapuhara hapu of Ngāti Kahungunu, had been brought from Paihia by Colenso as a member of his household. Seeking solace from the coldness of his marriage, Colenso began an affair with the girl, probably in 1848. When Rīpeka married Hamuera Te Nehu in 1850 she was already carrying the missionary's child. A boy, Wiremu (William), was born on 28 May 1851. Shortly after, Elizabeth Colenso learned of her husband's infidelity. In September 1852 her own children were taken to Auckland by her brother John Fairburn and she followed with Wiremu a year later. The child was not accepted by the Fairburn family and was sent to relatives in the north before returning to his father's care in 1861. But Colenso did not see his wife and daughter again. In November 1852 he was suspended as a deacon and dismissed from the mission.
For four years Colenso became a virtual recluse, without family and with few friends, living apparently from trading and land sales. Despite a fire at the mission and Selwyn's injunction that he should leave, he stayed on at Waitangi. For a man of such self-righteousness, who had earlier ruthlessly suppressed the 'worldly disposition' he had noticed in himself, and who had chastised Māori for adultery, these were no doubt years of inner torment. He became a figure of ridicule among the Māori community he had enjoined against sin.
When he emerged from obscurity in 1858 Colenso entered the fray of provincial politics, against the local runholders. On 16 February 1859 he was elected to the Hawke's Bay Provincial Council for Napier Town, and became provincial auditor and later provincial treasurer, as well as a member of the provincial executive. In 1861 he was elected to the General Assembly, representing Napier, and held the seat until ousted by Donald McLean, backed by the runholders, in 1866. Although a conscientious member of both provincial council and General Assembly, Colenso was a failure as a politician. He lacked tact, an ability to listen and a capacity to compromise. He lost no opportunity to speak in Parliament, but his speeches were prolix and obscure. He took stands on matters of principle which were often unclear to all but himself.
Although he remained on the provincial council until its abolition, Colenso increasingly turned to writing and botanical work. In 1865 he was commissioned by the General Assembly to produce a Māori dictionary. Funding ran out before its completion, leading to more acrimony. He continued to work on it until his death, but only a section was published. This met with considerable criticism. Much more valuable were the historical pamphlets describing the early years at Paihia, the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, and his own inland explorations. He also made an important contribution to science, publishing numerous papers on a wide range of biological and ethnological topics in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute. He was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society (FLS) in 1865, and in 1886 received the ultimate scientific honour: election as a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS).
In his final years Colenso was regarded as something of a character, a man who had outlived his adversaries. He received a tolerance denied him in his more active years. In 1894 his suspension as deacon was revoked and he was readmitted to the Anglican clergy. He died at Napier on 10 February 1899.
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 Māori 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.