William Colenso – scientist

In a long and active career, William Colenso (1811–99) was a printer, missionary, explorer, politician and botanist. Always argumentative and outspoken, Colenso was often in the news. A notice close to his grave summarises him as a ‘rebel churchman and radical thinker’ as well as ‘Napier’s leading eccentric’.

William Colenso's headstone, Napier

William Colenso's headstone, Napier

Unfortunately, the colourful aspects of Colenso’s career have tended to overshadow his substantial achievements. I want to draw attention to his scientific career. He made important contributions to natural science and ethnology in New Zealand, but these have been overlooked or downplayed by most who have written about him. They get only passing mention in his entry in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, which fails to mention that he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London (FRS) in 1886 – superior to a knighthood in the eyes of most scientists. To achieve this distinction he was nominated by the three other local Fellows, Julius Haast, James Hector and Walter Buller, and supported by Joseph Hooker, director of Kew Gardens and a former president of the Royal Society. Colenso’s achievement is all the more remarkable because he spent the later part of his life in Napier, a small provincial town lacking a scientific library, equipment, or other professional scientists to discuss ideas with. He regularly presented the results of his researches to the Hawke’s Bay Philosophical Institute.

William Colenso arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1834 to work as a printer for the Anglican Church Missionary Society. Joseph Hooker visited the area in 1841, and spent time there exploring and collecting plants with Colenso. This was the beginning of a friendship and correspondence that lasted for almost 60 years until Colenso’s death in 1899. Hooker helped Colenso obtain a microscope in 1885 – a greatly treasured instrument which enabled him to examine plants in fine detail. The recent publication of Colenso’s collections, which includes transcriptions of Colenso’s letters, provides new insights into the extent of Colenso’s botanical work.

Through the 1840s and 1850s Colenso collected plants for Hooker as he travelled around the North Island, and forwarded them to England to be described. He gradually developed confidence, and started to publish his own descriptions of plants and animals in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute. Colenso published 76 papers, mainly on plants and animals, but also recording observations of Māori tribes he had visited. Now that the Transactions are available online, Colenso’s considerable scientific contribution is readily available. All his scientific work was unpaid and done in his spare time.

A drawing of a huia with a curiously deformed beak, from one of Colenso's papers

A drawing of a huia with a curiously deformed beak, from one of Colenso's papers

Colenso’s knowledge was acknowledged in New Zealand’s small 19th-century scientific community. James Hector wanted to prepare a series of essays on scientific topics for the 1865 Dunedin exhibition, and he was advised to approach Colenso. Colenso’s first contribution was an essay on the botany of the North Island. Subsequently Hector asked him to write an ethnological essay on Māori culture. Colenso jumped at the chance to distil his experience of living and working with Māori for the preceding 30 years, and produced ‘On the Māori races of New Zealand‘. To our eyes the language is rather patronising, but it was the most authoritative account of Māori life and customs to that time.

The Colenso Society publishes a monthly electronic newsletter, which contains much new information about William Colenso and his times. To celebrate the bicentenary of Colenso’s birth, a week of celebrations is planned on 9–13 November 2011 in Napier, including a two-day academic conference. I hope that this will include recognition of his scientific achievements.

2 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Richard Bear || August 15th, 2011

    I enjoyed reading about Rev William Colenso. I have read some of his writngs held by the National Library of Australia The Rev William Colenso was my Second Great Great Uncle.
    Can you advise how I might join the Colenso Society and receive the newsletter.
    Richard Bear
    Canberra Australia

  2. Comment made by Smithy Neho || February 14th, 2012

    Very interesting journey and an interesting man! Rev William Colenso was my Great, Great, Great, Grandfather.
    Smithy Neho
    Christchurch, New Zealand

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