Bagnall & Petersen wrote (p.21) that in his youth in Cornwall, William Colenso “was an active and keen member of the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society, his particular interest being in the characteristic botany of Cornwall. At the age of eighteen he read his first paper to the Society, dealing with the trade of the Phœnicians with West Cornwall (Colenso to Coupland Harding, 26th November, 1896).”
That is impossible as Colenso was 18 in 1829 and the Society was founded in 1839. In fact what he wrote to Harding was “… my first paper, written for Mechanics Institute in Penz.,when I was 18–19―on St. Michaels Mount, &c., &c.—and the trade of the ancient Phœnicians to West Cornwall….”20
Bagnall & Petersen wrote of his apprenticeship with John Thomas (p.18): “As well as carrying out the printing orders of his regular customers, Mr. Thomas published pamphlets and books dealing with politics and other matters of interest, and even wrote or compiled such works himself. In this he no doubt found an enthusiastic collaborator in young Colenso, who is said himself to have compiled a work on the history of his native town.”
The third edition (1831) of Ancient and Modern History of Mount's Bay. With every civil and military transaction in St. Michael's Mount, Marazion, Penzance, Paul, Buryan, Saint Levan, Sennen, St. Just, &c. (Penzance: John Thomas) is anonymous, but in 1878 was attributed to Colenso21 and is catalogued by the British Library as “Compiled by William Colenso.” This 108-page booklet was enlarged from an 82-page 1820 edition and published when Colenso was 19 or 20, and nearing the end of his apprenticeship with John Thomas. A good deal of the 1820 edition remains, but the new parts of this booklet are probably his first published writing, and indeed part of it may have been what he read to the Penzance Mechanics Institute—though it does not mention Phoenicians. It must be the work referred to in the last paragraph of his posthumously-published 1899 “Memorabilia, Ancient and Modern; being Remarks and Information respecting some of the Tin-mines in Cornwall, England”.22
In 1851 he did send a collection of New Zealand plants to the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society,23 andone paper, published in its Journal in 1884 on an edible fungus, that paper largely reprinted with additional information in GM Thomson’s ill-fated New Zealand Journal of Science. He is listed as a member of the Society from 1883–189124). Its library holds the following by Colenso: (574.9931) Articles on Botany & Zoology of New Zealand from Transactions of the New Zealand Institute Vol.19, 1886—inscribed by John Ralfs; (c082) A Classification and Description of Some Newly Discovered Ferns Collected in the Northern Island of New Zealand in the summer of 1841–2; (499.4) A Maori-English Lexicon.
In addition the Morrab Library in Penzance holds a sentimental essay on reminiscences about Cornish botany, sent for publication in 1885 and read before the Society, but never published; it is published here.
He had religious writing published anonymously in “Pilot” (a church magazine for seafarers) during his time in London in 1833.
Colenso came to New Zealand in 1834 as a printer, mostly producing tracts until the publication of the first complete New Testament in Māori (issued from 1838), and later the first complete Book of Common Prayer at the end of 1841. He also produced some secular works for the Hobson Government and sectarian tracts on his own account. When the New Zealand Auxiliary of the Religious Tract Society was established in 1839, he wrote and printed He pukapuka Aroha no te Aroha Pono,25 on the blessings of religion. His own tracts against Roman Catholicism appeared in 1840: He pukapuka waki and Ko te tuarua o te pukapuka waki26were both printed in Sydney because the CMS would not allow its press to be so used. His fourth anti-Catholic tract was He Kupu wakatupato nei e Aroha Pono,27which Colenso printed at his own expense. A fifth tract, He Manuwiri hou, ko te Wakakite,28appeared in 1849,29 and even in 1852 Colenso was working on an unpublished collection.30 These, his Māori lexicon and his Ko te A-nui a Wi, hei ako maana ki te reo Ingirihi. (Willie's first English book, 1872) and other pamphlets in Māori are not included here.31
Before the advent of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute in 1868 Colenso sent his scientific papers for publication to Tasmanian and British periodicals, and in a number of instances had booklets printed with similar content.
The Tasmanian connection
Colenso wrote to Ronald Campbell Gunn in Tasmania (at the suggestion of Lady Jane Franklin, who met Colenso when she visited Paihia 1–14 May 1841). Gunn published four Colenso papers in the Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science between 1842 and 1846. Two were also published as monographs by the Launceston Examiner.
There is no obvious direct link between the Launceston Examiner and the Tasmanian Journal, and although an examination of the type and layout shows the republished fern paper was printed at the Examiner from the same blocks as the original, the Examiner “Excursion” paper preceded its appearance in the Journal, and the type is different.
Hobart and Launceston were major centres in the 1840s. Hobart bookseller-publishers, notably Samuel Tegg,32 were involved in producing several early New Zealand prints, e.g. Joseph Merretts’s “The New Zealand Festival 1845”, and at least two Māori language pamphlets were printed in Hobart in 184133 (several had also been printed in Sydney before Colenso’s arrival in New Zealand in 1834).
In 1839 Gunn was private secretary to Sir John Franklin in Hobart, but in 1841 he resigned to become managing agent of the estates of William Lawrence of Launceston. While in Hobart he helped found the Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science and remained its editor 1842–1849. Volume 1 (1842) was printed by J. Barnard, Govt Printer, Hobart, but Volumes 2–3 (1846) were printed by Henry Dowling Jun., Stationer, Brisbane Street, Launceston.
The Launceston Examiner was co-founded 1842 by Rev. John West and by 1845 was owned by J.S. Waddell and James Aikenhead.
Gunn would have known the Launceston printers, and he is the link between Hobart and Launceston.
Colenso sent his famous Mungo Park-like account of his journey into the interior in 1841–1842 to his mentor WJ Hooker, and Hooker published it, with complimentary accompanying notes, in the London Journal of Botany (republished in Colenso’s collections). Colenso revised the text slightly, and sent the new version to Gunn for the Tasmanian Journal.
Hooker published exerpts from other Colenso letters in the London Journal of Botany and in his Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany.34
Annals and Magazine of Natural History
Colenso’s “account of some enormous fossil bones”, first published by the Tasmanian Journal in 1843, was reprinted (according to Colenso, it was “republished... by Professor Owen”) in the Annals the following year.
Owen had written his famous paper identifying moa bones as those of a giant bird in Annals volume V, No. 30 p.166. In his 1891 “Status quo” (below) Colenso wrote that he had not seen Owen’s paper before writing his own.35
Most of Allan Cunningham’s seminal papers on New Zealand botany36had been published serially in the Annals, and Colenso wrote to WJ Hooker on 20 July 1841,
“I hope to study A.C.’s able “Precursor”, ere I write you again, which I hope to do also at no very distant period…. I also want Nos. 1, 2, and 4, to complete the “Annals of Nat. Histy.”—the last No. of which is 25—I should wish to have the remaining Nos. of that vol. (IV) so as to complete it.”
He thus wanted the Annals only for Cunningham’s papers, and there would be a record in his letters to the Hookers had he ever ordered volume V (with Owen’s paper). There is not.
The Hawkes Bay Times was first published by the Yates brothers in 1861. In 1864 Thomas Bennick Harding bought the business and in 1873 his son Robert Coupland Harding purchased it. A year later the Times was discontinued, but Coupland Harding continued publishing, eleven issues of Harding’s Almanac, and his famous Typo. His close and longstanding friendship with Colenso began at a book auction. Harding published Colenso’s Fifty years ago in New Zealand, his Presidential address in 1888 and his Ancient tide-lore in 1889.
The Napier Daily Telegraph was established in 1870 “for the purpose of providing an independent newspaper, untrammelled by party or sect.... The ‘Telegraph’ is a well-written and outspoken paper, of democratic principles.”37 The Telegraph printed Colenso’s three literary papers (1883), In memoriam (1884) and his essay on the early Christian Church at Ahuriri (1889).
James Wood began the Hawke’s Bay Herald and Ahuriri Advocate in 1857. In 1871 WW Carlile, P Dinwiddie, T Morrison, and E Grigg bought the paper. Colenso had been a frequent correspondent from the start, wrote a paper on Captain Cook for the centennial of his visit to Hawke’s Bay, and had booklets printed by the Hawke’s Bay Herald on the condemned prisoner Kereopa (1871), collections of his public letters on the sabbath (1878) and on Certain errors of the Church of Rome in 1898.
Transactions of the New Zealand Institute
At the annual meeting of the Wellington Philosophical Society on 14 March 1899 the Chairman “drew attention to the loss the Society had sustained by the death of the late Rev. W. Colenso, and Sir James Hector moved that a record be made in the minutes of the great services rendered by the deceased gentleman. In speaking to that motion, Hector stated that Colenso ‘was the founder, with the late Sir George Grey, of the New Zealand Society, upon which the Wellington Philosophical Society was engrafted.’”38 The Society appeared to have been inspired by the successful Tasmanian Society, and met first in 1851. Bagnall and Petersen (p.415) rather doubted Hector’s account of Colenso’s involvement. Indeed, Colenso made no mention of it in his letters to the Hookers at the time.
The New Zealand Institute was established by an Act of Parliament in 1867. Hector was appointed its Manager and Editor of its Transactions and Proceedings.39 From the first issue in 1868 Colenso submitted most of his papers to the Transactions, resorting to local printers when his subject was not scientific, and when he ran into difficulty with Hector.
He was not the most published contributor to the Transactions—Hutton had 149 papers, Kirk 120, Cheeseman 81, Buller 85 and Colenso 76 (Hector 51, Thomson 30, Buchanan 29). Few were trained for the tasks they assumed: Hector was a medical doctor, self taught in geology, Kirk a nurseryman, Cheeseman self taught in botany, Buchanan a pattern-maker and surveyor, Hutton a Captain in the army; Haast was not trained as a geologist. Colenso was trained as a printer but became a missionary.
Colenso’s first two papers for the Transactions were the essays written for the Commissioners of the New Zealand Exhibition held in Dunedin in 1865. Five of the essays, including Colenso’s on botany, were published as monographs, but Colenso’s essay on Māori was not. The Commissioners, and Dr Alfred Eccles40 in particular, had considered some of Colenso’s notes “objectionable”,41 so the essay was published in the Transactions without his extensive notes. Colenso referred to the whole saga in his 29 November 1867 letter to JD Hooker.42
It is worth publishing in full Colenso’s very reasonable response (to Hector) to the news that his work was to be subjected to what must be the earliest, and perhaps the most shocking case of moral censorship in the history of New Zealand science.
Wellington, Septr.29th, 1865.
Jas. Hector, Esq., M.D.
&c &c &c
I have just received your note of this morning, covering an official note (no. 3024,) from the Hony. Secretary to the Dunedin Exhibition to you of the 25th inst., and also Ms. notes, 21, 22, & 29, to my Essay on “the Maori Races of N.Z.”—which notes are considered by the Commissioners to be “objectionable,” and such as “ought not to be printed.”
I have again closely perused them, and, failing to discover any thing objectionable in them, I confess I scarcely know how to reply.
It must be clear, that in my writing on the New Zealanders, (who have been, and are, so heavily charged with immodesty,) I wished to shew what they were—what the first navigators & visitors found them to be: of course, if those notes (collected from rare and authentic works,) are to be struck out, my own opinion & early knowledge of them (being contrary to the general modern estimation,) will appear still more peculiar; while by such suppression of the truth not only myself but also the N.Zealanders will not have justice done us.
—Pardon me, if I say, I had thought the day of ultra-fastidiousness in scientific enquiry had well-nigh passed away.—
In order, however, if possible to please all parties, I have no objection to the striking-out of the middle part of note 21,—(beginning “the writer recollects,” and ending at “comforted,”)—also, the first part (or the whole) of note 22 (at the same time I feel such would be a suppression of the truth)—and, the term “making water,” in note 29, could perhaps be modified by some more delicate word, or euphemism,—or given in Latin!—or, if still objected to, let this note (29) be struck out altogether.
Once more, and in conclusion, may I be permitted to observe—1. That, viewing the Ms. Essay and Notes as being the property of the Commissioners, they should deal with them as they please: but, if they should choose to print them with much alteration or suppression of parts, or of (necessary) notes, that I should be allowed to reprint them in full (say, at least 2 (two) years hence,) if by me desired.—2. That, if the Commissioners should on the whole prefer to decline the printing of them, I am quite willing to receive them back, leaving it entirely to them to make any allowance to me for trouble expense and loss.—
Should I live to complete my large projected work on N.Z.,43—statements and notes of a much more “objectionable” character than any to be found in the present Essay & Notes, will, of necessity, be found in it.—
On 23 November 1869 Colenso wrote to JD Hooker, saying,
“With this I send you a packet (registered) being my only single copy of the Essay on the Natives, with all the notes, & wanting appendix, in Ms.—I send you my copy, in order that you may have the proper places of the notes indicated, together with a few typos! corrections marked,—and that you may keep in your Libr. your own presentation copy.”
The manuscript has not survived in the Kew library, but the three contentious notes are bound with the final handwritten copy of the manuscript in the Alexander Turnbull Library,44 and part of an early handwritten copy containing drafts of all of the notes is in the Mitchell Library, Sydney,45 (among Coupland Harding’s papers). From that almost illegible scrawl we have copied the notes for publication here.
The Hawke’s Bay Philosophical Society was founded in 1874. In 1877 Colenso retired from paid employment at age 66, and as its secretary began to produce an eclectic mix of papers, read to the Society, and submitted for publication in the Transactions. His first botanical paper, on two new tree ferns, “… began that long series of descriptions of specimens which he alone considered to have specific validity” (Bagnall & Petersen p.425). Others sank many of his new species, but Colenso’s view has now, in many cases, been vindicated, and a good number of his rejected specific names have therefore been reinstated.
Hector rejected some of his papers—notably In memoriam (1884), Colenso’s account of his Ruahine crossings—apparently because there was too much personal reminiscence and too many literary quotations for a scientific journal. Indeed, In memoriam is full of them, though as Colenso wrote in its preface, he added many of the literary quotations later, after it was rejected. (Most of his narrowly scientific papers of botanical description avoid such embellishment).
Three other papers had been rejected, and Colenso published them as “Three literary papers”—two on nomenclature, and a learned piece on “Macaulay’s New Zealander” (1883). Even as late as 1896 he would write to Hooker, “I cannot any longer continue to write Papers to have them rejected by the quasi Board of Governors—all, more or less, unfriendly to me; who, also, admit much of rubbish, written by friends, that have often been complained of.”46
Colenso did not submit all his papers for publication. As Secretary he read one or two papers at most of the Hawke’s Bay Philosophical Institute’s meetings, but not all were worked up to publication standard.
Proceedings of the Linnæan Society, etc
Bagnall and Petersen included in their bibliography, “1886 Flowering plants from New Zealand. Proceedings of the Linnean Society (of London), 1883–6, p. 74”. Colenso had been elected FLS in 1865, and had sent specimens and copies of his published monographs to the Society. On 30 June 1883 he wrote to JD Hooker,
“And this reminds me to ask you (if correct to do so)—to get the Secy. Linn. Socy. to tell me how to act, in the way of my writing any paper for the L.S. Are such sent to the Secy.? Does he arrange for the reading, &c? And, are any received there for “Journal”, &c., that have been already published out here—say, in “Trans. N.Z. Inst.”? &c.
… and on 31 December 1884,
“…I have only just finished: a Paper for Linnæan Society, (don’t start!) containing descriptions of a few new plants….”
His paper was read at the 5 March 1885 meeting, and a note to that effect appeared in the Proc. Linn. Soc. Lond. Session 1883–1884, p74: ‘“On recently discovered Flowering Plants from the Interior of New Zealand (North Island), 1883-84.’ By the Rev. W. Colenso, F.L.S.”
To Colenso’s disappointment the paper was not published, and he wrote bitterly to Daydon-Jackson, Secretary of the Society, “apologizing, and deeply regretting the trouble I have unwittingly caused you,—which, however, is never likely to occur again.” They thought, wrongly, the plants were the same as those Colenso had already sent to Kew.
Bagnall and Petersen also included in their bibliography, “1893 Smelling sense and taste of the ancient Maoris. Living Age, Feb. 11, Boston; 196: 448.” Colenso sent reprints of his 1891 papers to WT Thiselton Dyer at Kew, asking him to forward copies to the editor of Nature.47An article appeared in Nature48entitled “Some reminiscences of the Maoris”, reporting at length the content of his 1891 “Vestiges”. An extract of this was in turn published in Littel’s Living Age, Boston, in 1893—the editor acknowledged Nature, but not the Transactions. Although there is no record that Colenso ever sent work for direct publication in Nature, it did carry many reports of his work published elsewhere (as did the Gardeners’ Chronicle).49
AA Sherrin included in Brett’s Historical Series: Early New Zealand (1890) a chapter by Colenso entitled “The first European fighting in Taranaki”. It seems to be the only contribution Colenso made to any book, and is taken from earlier articles published in the Waipawa Mail in 1881.
Why didn’t I learn about Colenso at school?
After all, I learned about Hobson, Grey, Pompallier, Selwyn—oh, and Burke and Wills, and Mungo Park, Livingstone and Stanley….
He must have been a commanding personality: Andreas Olsen’s grandson wrote that his forebear was one of “an enthusiastic band of amateurs, led by Henry Hill, who collected botanical specimens for Colenso in 1880–1890”. Colenso’s friends named their children after him (William Colenso Harding, Walter Colenso Winkelmann, William Colenso Drummond, Walter Colenso Johansen, Bernard Colenso Blacklock, William Colenso Reader, John Colenso Heath Simcox)50; Bagnall and Petersen rather dismissed the significance of such a profound expression of admiration.
He did achieve international recognition: Hooker was effusive in his praises in the Flora and the Handbook. The prestigious journal Nature often reported his work. He was elected FLS and FRS.
Was Colenso (“printer, missionary, botanist, explorer, politician”51) seen here as too broad, too much of a generalist to be really good at anything? Probably not, for in Victorian times “the man of letters was a generalist. He could not afford to be, nor did he want to be, a specialist. Like the journals in which they published, writers covered politics, theology, philosophy, literature, history and popular science”.52 Colenso was a true Victorian polymath, and was admired for it.
It cannot be that he wasn’t important enough. Is it because he was not respectable enough? Indeed, that is the issue.
He was emotionally alone and it was close to his 40th birthday when he began a relationship with Ripeka Meretene, his parishioner, his servant, and his adopted daughter.53 Was his church colleagues’ disapproval of that relationship (exacerbated by his refusal to acknowledge the enormity of his error and thus his indignation at the treatment he received) responsible for their belittling his achievements? responsible for what appears to have been an almost deliberate minimising of his place in our history?
His relationships with the important men of the Church of England in New Zealand have been canvassed to an extent by Bagnall and Petersen—his strongly Protestant evangelical background clashed with Selwyn’s high church views; his strongly worded pamphlets—using the nom-de-plume Aroha pono—pointing out the “errors” of the Roman Catholic Church seemed bigoted even in the early missionary years, and doubly so later.54
He famously offended the Scots, who had used their networks to have Donald McLean elected. The Hawke’s Bay Herald reported Colenso’s words on 10 January 1863, after he was elected the 5th member for the town of Napier by a casting vote. “...He was low on the poll, but the fact was, he was neither an Oddfellow nor a Freemason, and, above all, he did not belong to the miserable Scotch clique of Napier. He was an Englishman; he thanked God he was an Englishman; but had he not been born an Englishman, he would wish to have been born an Irishman, a free, open hearted, generous Irishman—anything rather than a mean, crawling, sly, close Scotchman.” He “indulged in this strain for some time”.
He wrote to Hooker about “the precious Scotch clique with wh. our Province is infected,” and transferred that suspicion to the Governors of the Dunedin Exhibition (“I believe the good Scotch commee. have latterly found fault with some of my ‘notes’”) and to Hector and the editorial board of the Transactions (“Dr Hector is a very superior man & a nice fellow: is he a Scotchman? I know not: if he is, he is wonderfully different from the many”). He didnt go out of his way to court academics and scientists, either.
He annoyed the land-owners by opposing the sale of Māori land,55 and he annoyed Māori land-owners wanting to sell for the same reason; then he embarrassed Christian Māori by committing adultery, his fall in Māori estimation encouraged by McLean.56 Colenso was thus out of favour with the clergy, viewed by the settlers as a friend of Māori, by Māori as no friend of theirs, no longer a “gentleman” in respectable Hawke’s Bay society and a challenge to the big city scientific establishment, its members, of course, as amateur as he.
His distress from the slights and setbacks he suffered at Christian hands are palpable from his “autobiography”. Most shameful is the discounting of the role he played in the early history of the Anglican church in William Williams’s 1867 Christianity among the New Zealanders, a historical account of Church Missionary Society endeavours in New Zealand. Colenso’s name does not appear once. Such a self-serving manipulation of history seems just as morally corrupt today as Colenso’s lapse by a sexual liaison with his parishioner did then. As late as 1895 the Williams family opposed Colenso’s reinstatement in the church.
Despite JD Hooker’s praise of Colenso in his preface, Colenso wrote a long and highly critical letter to Hooker pointing out what he regarded as errors in the Handbook.57Amicus Plato, amicus Socrates, sed magis amica veritas, he wrote:58 “Plato is my friend, Socrates is my friend, but truth is my greatest friend.”59 Although Hooker’s letters to Colenso are lost, in several of Colenso’s replies there are references to criticisms Hooker must have made, but there again, Colenso’s letters are patient and polite, despite years of participation in the cut and thrust of nasty colonial politics.60
Hooker wrote to Hector (14 February 1885), “Our old friend Col will come in for selection [for FRS] this yr again & I shall support him—As the fellow of N.Z. science & collecting as he did in the wilds without education, and encouragement it is wonderful what he has effected—many of the plants of NZ flora have been seen by him alone!! Oh, if only he had not written on Botany!—his claims would have been better acknowledged. I shall have to fight v. this in council....”
In March 1882 Colenso wrote a critique to GM Thomson. Thomson’s The ferns and fern allies of New Zealand was just published and in it he had sunk a number of Colenso’s species. Colenso pointed out with similar great patience (but this time in the language of imperious reproach) what he considered “errors”. He had earlier received Thomson’s invitation to contribute to his new New Zealand Journal of Science. He wrote (the first page is missing),
“A copy of your Ferns &c. I sat up to run through it:— and to tell you the truth, I felt ——————
well, surprised, & wish you had never published it in that form; for, as I view it, it contains much of error, particularly Chap.III. I should not thus venture to write plainly to you (if indeed, at all,) were you in the position of a private writer, or publisher of such a work, but it is because of your high position of “Science Teacher” in your “High Schools,” and the Editor (at least) of your new Journal of Science! Alas! say I, for the rising generation, if such re Ferns, & our N.Z. Ferns in particular, is what they are to be taught. The “Set Up” of your book is on the whole excellent for a Colonial work (barring a few figures in the plates): but your rude demolishing of species, which your predescessors, all able European Pteridologists of fame—had so patiently reared and supported after much examination of ample materials is to me unaccountable, and done too, I fear, without any fair authority on your part—of extensive Fern Library and Herbaria, & long experience & study in such matters; in fact, I am led to believe, that had you this necessary experience you would not have committed yourself to the publication of this work in its present guise. You profess to be guided by Sir W. Hooker’s “Species Filicum” & by his & Baker’s Synopsis Filicum, but in many instances you wholly abandon them your guides! I very much fear you have been led to look too much to Mr. Kirk, indeed, throughout your Book he is your main “authority”! And here I may remark that did not your Book prominently bear your name, I could almost affirm it was written by Kirk, for I detect much of his (besides the numerous quotations) throughout.—And here, permit me to observe, (as we are comparatively strangers) that my whole life—particularly these last 30 years,—has been spent in an eager search after Truth: whether in Religious, Ecclesiastical, Social and Natural Science, (as you yourself must have occasionally seen in the pages of the “Transactions N.Z.I.” I have not spared even my best & oldest friends mistakes) but then, in doing so, I have showed where, & sometimes, how, they have existed, although such has often taken me a very long time, both in the study & in research and in the writing. Had you published a work on your favourite pursuit & study (our N.Z. crustaceans)—in which I have with much pleasure seen you were at home & a master, I should have accepted all you would have said with pleasure; but in your taking up this peculiar one of Ferns,—& our N.Z. Ferns, too—I as an old & diligent Fern student of 50 years, easily detect wherein you are wrong,—& hence I write. Having said thus much, it behoves me to give you a few instances (out of many) but I must be brief.”
Colenso then proceeded to list and explain Thomson’s “errors” page by page, ending with
“And now to the conclusion.—On the whole, and only after much consideration, I have deemed it best not to send you the Ruahine Journey MSS. for your new serial; also, not to write for it a Memoir of A. Cunningham as intended. We seem so diametrically opposed in our Botanical views, &c, that I think I had better keep out of your arena altogether; because you there (and your Botanical authority Mr. Kirk) will have as a matter of course, to supplement & back up your publication for your students; & I have no desire to be either tacitly passing by or always correcting of error. Besides I have painfully known what it is to write against an Editor in his own paper. At the same time I confess, it has grieved me not a little to be obliged to come to this decision, re the above papers, & I shall have much to do with my friends here, I know, but I see at present no other honourable alternative (I wish I could) for there are passages in my MSS. which bear directly on some of your great alterations and you could not (perhaps) well insert them & I would not allow of their being struck out or modified; as I have had a little too long experience among our N.Z. Ferns &c &c to think of this. You, I know, will not (cannot) be pleased with my present letter; believe me, it has been an irksome task to me to write it, but I am borne up in believing that I have only attemptd honestly and plainly to perform a duty—and duties are frequently unpleasant—and to write upon a subject I think I fully understand.
I am, Dear Sir,
I have quoted this letter at length, for TM Hocken, the homely book-collector (who sat with Thomson on the Council of the Otago Institute) later marked Colenso’s letter with the rather exaggerated annotation, “The above is a good specimen of Colenso’s nasty, bitter way in criticism. He was a jealous man & was loth to allow that anyone in N.Z. knew much about N.Z. botany but himself”.
Hocken had enjoyed a very successful visit to Colenso in Napier with Augustus Hamilton, but later sent some of his writing for Colenso’s opinion and when Colenso gave it with his usual frankness, their correspondence ended.
Others were questioning Colenso’s expertise.
Kirk61 wrote mildly to Hooker (11 August 1883), “Is there any reason to suppose the Monoclea which I sent you some time back to be at all different from Forster’s plant? Colenso has described it as M. Hookeri—but as it seems to me without sufficient grounds.”62
Hector, ex-Otago but now in Wellington and editor of the Transactions, wrote to JD Hooker on 23 April 1883, “Cheeseman tells me that you have written to him expressing a wish to undertake the production of a new edition of the Handbook & the Flora. This is good news indeed, as when you last wrote to me on the subject I gathered that you thought we must now shift for ourselves in such matters. In my opinion this would be very unfortunate as after all our writers out here are mostly self taught amateurs whose work can only be made useful by being sat upon by some great authority like yourself....”.63 Which self taught amateur but Colenso would have considered himself a candidate for rewriting the Handbook?
Colenso was defensive about criticisms from Kew: “I was a little surprised, as you may well suppose, in reading what Prof. Oliver & Mr. Baker had written of the plants I sent you! I must still think, in many respects they are wrong, particularly Mr. Baker...”.64
He must have become aware, from Hooker, of his New Zealand colleagues’ criticisms too, and he was indignant. He railed bitterly to Hooker on 12 July 188465 about those who questioned his new species,
“... I cannot shut my eyes to two facts bearing hereon:—1. that Mr. Baker made similar errors on Ferns of mine (& of others too) in past years. Ex. gr. Hymen. villosumLindsæa viridis, Polypodium sylvaticum, etc., though latelyrestored by him, & inserted in his pubd. papers. And, 2.—that this is just exactly what ½ doz. of that chattering neophyte-botanists here in this Country, N. & S. of me, have done! and published in our Papers, &c., concerning my new ferns, &c., &c., (having moved thereto by sheer envy—as I take it),—although they have been obliged to allow—that they had never seen my ferns!—and for their conduct some of them have been privately taken to task by their patrons.
“You cannot form a correct idea of how these fellows,—first schoolmasters, then dubbed ‘Science-teachers’ (Pshaw!) then ‘Professors’ &c.,66—how they have banded together against me.! and that (as far as I know) only because of the success that has attended my labours in the dense unvisited forests and ravines, where these precious carpet knights (who make so much fuss of a one-day’s outing with a lot of ladies!) dare not show their noses!! They write over & over, usques ad nausm. of the introduced Brit. weeds, & such easy compilations—and Hector publishes their trash (some of it) in, the ‘Trans.’! (through influence of ‘Board’). They also write I know, to Kew,—and I regret to see Mr Baker too readily adopting their views of my ferns &c. Those are the Tyros whom I had in view when I wrote p.32 in my ‘3 Literary Papers’, and they know it. Gods! how I helped them all at first. This their old letters to me will show. They belong to the cunning mole-working class so well described by Sir Wm Fox as ‘Brain-suckers’! 67 But enough of this.”
“By separate post parcel I send you an early pull of the Section Botany of the XVI Vol. of the N.Z. Inst. Transactions which I hope to get out in about a month hence. You will be rather astonished I think at Colenso’s paper & the number of new species he makes. I don’t pretend to judge but I do think some botanist should make a deliverance (as the Scotch lawyers say) on the subject of whether such a paper is to be considered justified or not.”68
And on 12 September 1884,
“The only point on which Kirk & Colenso rely for distinguishing C. Indivisa of N. & S. Is. is the number of heads in the N.I. species—but of course that is no character at all.”69
Clearly GM Thomson had taken offence, and when the opportunity presented itself (1891) he responded with ill-concealed editorial glee in his NZ Journal of Science where he abstracted a paper by JG Baker which had reduced a couple of dozen Colenso ferns to synonymy with earlier species. He began,
Nearly every volume of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute for the past ten or fifteen years has contained descriptions of new species of plants, and among these new ferns have been frequently included. When the present writer brought out his “Ferns and Fern Allies of New Zealand” in 1882, he felt compelled to reduce many of these new species to the rank of mere varieties of already known forms, a course which subjected him in certain quarters to considerable obloquy. The latest number of the ‘Annals of Botany’ contains the first part of a paper by Mr. J.G. Baker in which all new ferns which have been discovered or described since 1874 are summarised. The following notes are extracted from this paper and will enable collectors of New Zealand ferns to reduce some of their aberrant forms to their correct species.—G.M.T.70
Who was right? Fern specialist Patrick Brownsey wrote, “Colenso had an eye for variation and was a good field botanist. Unfortunately, however, I think he was very definitely a splitter, didn’t have a good understanding of the modern concept of a species, and described every minor variant that he found. Baker was more critical and attempted to bring some order to what he perceived to be an overloaded taxonomy. However, he was herbarium based and a long way from New Zealand, so he made mistakes. A lot of Colenso’s names have stood the test of time simply because he described so many, rather than because he fully understood what he was observing.” (Brownsey P: pers. comm. 1 July 2009).
Michael Hoare wrote of Johann Reinhold Forster, “The Wales myth that Forster’s difficult temperament was matched by scientific ineptitude has been perpetuated and enlarged upon by many writers,”71 and Colenso has suffered the same fate. Those who didn’t like the negative aspects of his character have misdirected their argumenta ad hominem to his work and his writing. Colenso wrote , “assumption and abuse of an adversary is not argument”. He called his detractors “narrow minded orthodox men of small calibre”.
He wrote often about truth (see below), the importance of evidence, the scientific method and the weaknesses of those who took shortcuts: “No pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage-ground of truth,” he often quoted from Francis Bacon.
Perhaps for that reason too his work has not been given its due. Perhaps no pleasure is comparable to the taking down of one who too often claims to be standing upon the vantage ground of truth. As one correspondent, “XYZ”, wrote to the Hawke’s Bay Times (30 March 1869), Colenso should have heeded “...the words of Lord Dundonald —‘That they who, in political matters, propose to themselves a strict and rigid adherence to the truth of their convictions, irrespective of personal consequences, must expect obloquy rather than reward; and that they who obstinately pursue their professional duty in the face of routine and official prejudice, may think themselves lucky if they escape persecution.’”
Colenso wrote, “A man with an untrammeled mind is rare.—Generally all have so much to unlearn first” (letter to Andrew Luff 18 July 1878).
More than two hundred years after his birth we might untrammel our minds, unlearn the perceptions of the past, put aside the influence of his personal shortcomings and recognise Colenso’s astonishing contributions.
New Zealand had a pioneer scientist and writer of immense culture, capability and determination, and thus, inevitably and happily, of great achievement.