William Colenso (7 November 1811 – 10 February 1899) was a CornishChristian missionary to New Zealand, and also a printer, botanist, explorer and politician. He attended the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and later wrote an account of the events at Waitangi.
Born in Penzance, Cornwall, he was the cousin of John William Colenso, bishop of Natal. He trained as a printer’s apprentice then traveled to New Zealand in 1834 to work for the Church Missionary Society as a printer/missionary. He was responsible for the printing of the Māori language translation of the New Testament. In July 1827 Colenso printed the first Māori Bible comprising three chapters of Genesis, the 20th chapter of Exodus, the first chapter of the Gospel of St John, 30 verses of the fifth chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew, the Lord’s Prayer and some hymns. He was ordained a Deacon on 22 September 1844 following his theological studies at St John’s College, which was then located at Te Waimate mission.
He was an avid botanist; detailing and transmitting to Kew Gardens in England previously unrecorded New Zealand flora. In 1866 he was the first New Zealander to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. He wrote several books, and contributed over a hundred papers to scientific journals.
William and Elizabeth Colenso worked at the Waitangi (Ahuriri, Napier) Mission from 1844, In the 1840s, from his mission station in Hawke’s Bay, he made several long exploratory journeys through the central North Island in the company of Maori guides with the aim of reaching the inland Maori settlements of Patea, in the Taihape region, and converting them to Christianity. His travels took him through trackless forest, over the high Ruahine Rangeand across the Rangipo Desert and past the mountains of Ruapehu and Tongariro to the shores of Lake Taupo. In doing so he contributed greatly to the European exploration of the central North Island. One of his journeys, between December 1841 and February 1842, was across the North Island and up to the Kaipara Harbour.
From 1845 Colenso undertook lengthy journeys every spring and autumn. In 1847 he travelled to Taupo then south to pass by the Tongariro and Ruapehu mountains. He regularly visited the Wairapara and Hutt districts, where he was frequently at odds with the European lessees of sheep and cattle stations such as Kelly, McMaster, Grindell and Gillies. In 1845 about 12 sheep and cattle farmers had leased large areas of land from local Maori by mutual agreement. Maori owners regularly raised the annual lease fee to the annoyance of the farmers. The farmers regularly pressed Maori to sell land. Many younger chiefs were keen sellers but were thwarted by conservative older chiefs. The farmers also paid Maori to assist in building roads to help economic development. Colenso regularly counselled Maori against selling any land or helping build roads which he claimed would be disastrous for them. Colenso was especially vociferous about the farmers living with Maori women as their wives, without a Christian marriage. Colenso also had strong views about drinking and horse racing which were a regular part of colonial life that Maori as well as settlers enjoyed. This put him in opposition to a wide range of New Zealanders. In 1847 judge Chapman, doctor Featherston, bank manager McDonald and merchant Waitt visited the Hutt valley. There was criticism of what was called “the malicious interference of Colenso”.
His standing in New Zealand colonial society and the Church Missionary Society, along with his fervent hope of ordination, was lost when it was discovered that he was the father of a son (Wiremu) by Ripeka, the Māori maid of his wife, Elizabeth Fairburn Colenso in May 1850. In November 1851 he was suspended as a deacon and dismissed from the mission in 1852. In 1853 he was convicted of a technical assault over an argument about Ripeka and their son.
Following a long wilderness period during which he continued his botany work, he took an active role as a local politician in Napier. He represented Napier as the Member of Parliament for the Napier electorate from the 1861 by-election to 1866, when he retired.
In 1871 Colenso was the speaker at the Hawkes Bay Provincial Council when Ngati Kahungunu had been persuaded by farmers, the Russell Brothers, that they could get their land back in what came to be known as the Repudiation Movement. Their chief Henare Matua had already pronounced all land dealing with both the crown and private sales illegal. The brothers persuaded Maori that legal action against large land owners such as Donald McLean would succeed. Colenso advised Maori not to take a legal path that would leave them deep in debt. Lawyer and later Government Native Minister John Sheehan who spoke fluent Maori, acted on behalf of the Repudiation Movement. Matua attempted to stand as an MP but lost and the movement, deep in debt, petered out.
He died in Napier in 1899, leaving two sons and a daughter. His son from Ripeka, Wiremu/William, left New Zealand for Cornwall, married a cousin and lived in Penzance until his death. His son from Elizabeth Fairburn, Ridley Latimer, attended Cambridge University, and finally settled in Scotland. His daughter Frances Mary married William Henry Simcox and settled in Otaki, New Zealand. Neither of his sons had surviving children – Frances had nine.