February 6 is Waitangi Day in New Zealand, marking the anniversary of the signing of a Treaty between the Crown and Māori chiefs at Waitangi, in the north of New Zealand. William Colenso, a Cornish missionary and future Fellow of the Royal Society, was present on this historic day.


William Colenso, ca. 1880, photographer unknown. Te Papa (O.012380)


To many, William Colenso is best known for his role as missionary and printer of Māori versions of the New Testament and other religious publications. He was also known for raising concerns with Governor Hobson at the Waitangi meetings that the Māori version of the Treaty was problematic and not well understood. He kept an account of the Waitangi meetings and signings, later published as ‘The Authentic and Genuine History of the Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi’.

Perhaps less widely known are his scientific endeavours. Colenso had a keen interest in botany, likely to have been sparked by the visit to New Zealand in 1835 of Charles Darwin aboard HMS Beagle. Although Darwin had a generally negative view of New Zealand at the time, he had an ongoing interest in its wildlife and maintained a correspondence with NZ-based naturalists such as Julius von Haast. In 1863 Darwin remarked to von Haast: “I really think there is hardly a point in the world so interesting with respect to geographical distribution as New Zealand.”

Colenso was more of a collector than a trained scientist, but he learnt from Allan Cunningham, the New South Wales government botanist, and also from Joseph Hooker during a visit to New Zealand in 1841. He embarked on increasingly ambitious expeditions into remote parts of the North Island of New Zealand, particularly the East Coast and Te Urewera, and had the unorthodox approach of stuffing specimens down his shirt while on the move. Colenso corresponded with Hooker and sent a large number of specimens to Kew.

A major personal setback for Colenso came in 1852 when he was suspended as a deacon following an extra-marital affair. He had also developed a reputation for being over-zealous and abrasive, and had antagonised many friends and the Anglican community. He withdrew from society for several years, before briefly pursuing a political career and then throwing himself back into writing.

As well as botany, he took a scientific approach to recording Māori settlements and observations of Māori culture, many of which were published in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute. He was also engaged by the NZ government in 1865 to write a Māori-English dictionary, however funds ran out and it was never completed. This was clearly a source of great frustration for him, and he suffered from ill health over this period. A proof of the first sections is held in the Royal Society Library:


Maori-English Lexicon_cropped


In the last years of his life, Colenso seems to have made amends: he was readmitted to the Anglican clergy in 1894, and continued to write for scientific journals until his death five years later. He had been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1886, which would have been a welcome recognition of his work from his peers. He was proposed by James Hector, director of the Colonial Museum in Wellington, and his other supporters included George Bentham, Hooker and von Haast. In a letter to the Royal Society he wrote of the “high honour” that had been conferred upon him and of his hope that it “may serve to stimulate me yet more in pursuing in the paths of science”.


Letter from William Colenso to the Royal Society, August 1886 (MC/14/144)


  • Polly Martin

    Tena koe Anna! Every year I learn something new about Waitangi Day. Tis my new learning for Waitangi weekend 2017. It is the last Waitangi weekend where we have Te Tiriti o Waitangi housed at Te Rua Mahara o te Kawanatanga/Archives New Zealand so a poignant occasion. Nga mihi aroha xx