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Typo: A Monthly Newspaper and Literary Review, Volume 4

Worthies of the Craft — William Colenso.

page 41

Worthies of the Craft.

William Colenso.

Former biographical sketches in these pages have dealt only with English and American printers, and we have not been able, like our contemporaries to whom we were indebted for the articles, to publish portraits of the gentlemen in question. Our subscribers this month, we are sure, will be gratified to receive the fine plate representing New Zealand's earliest printer, the Rev. W. Colenso, F.R.S., F.L.S. The portrait is a most successful and faithful reproduction, by an American process of photoengraving, of a life-like photograph taken very recently by Mr S. Carnell, of Napier. So many references to Mr Colenso and his work have appeared in former issues of Typo, that it is not necessary to add greatly to what we have already published: nevertheless a few additional details will not be out of place.

William Colenso belongs to an old Cornish family, and was born at Penzance in 1811. He is a first cousin to the late Bishop of Natal, John William Colenso, celebrated as a mathematician and biblical critic. In his youth he learned the arts of printing and bookbinding, and worked in the office of Watts & Son, 2 Temple Bar, Crown Court, where he was for a time engaged on work for the British and Foreign Bible Society.

In the year 1833, the Church Missionary Society—after many and urgent appeals from the resident missionaries—decided to send out a press and outfit to far-distant New Zealand; but had some difficulty in finding a printer to take charge. About the end of the year, Mr Colenso was introduced to the secretaries of the mission, and was definitely engaged, in the double capacity of missionary and printer. Events justified the choice, for no better man could have been found. Some six months' delay took place before everything was ready for despatch, all details being arranged by the secretaries of the mission, who loftily ignored all suggestions by the printer himself as to the materials necessary for his work. Types, ink, a press, and lastly, a ponderous roller-mould, were apparently in their opinion all that a reasonable man had a right to expect. They refused to supply page-cord—would not the native flax answer every purpose? As for an imposing-stone, it was absurd to ship such a thing to the land « where the handsome greenstone abounds »! (This mineral, chiefly used for ornaments, is a species of jade, exceedingly hard and heavy, and is found only in one locality, on the West Coast of the South Island.) Printer and plant at last started, and after a voyage of seventeen weeks, reached New South Wales. Two months' delay occurred in Sydney before a skipper could be found to risk a voyage to the « cannibal islands; » and indeed this dread of the natives was well founded. At last, on the 10th December, Mr Colenso sailed in a wretched little schooner, and after a twenty-days' passage, reached the Bay of Islands. On the 3rd January, 1835, the press and plant were landed.

All was now anxiety to get to work; but a less resourceful man would have been in despair. On taking stock, the printer found that he had no cases, leads, rule, ink-table, roller-stocks nor frames, lye-brush nor potash, and no paper! Fortunately he had provided himself with his own composing-stick; the resident missionaries had a little writing-paper among their stores; necessity, the mother of invention, enabled him to supply other requirements after a fashion; and on the 17th February, 1835, was worked off, in the presence of admiring spectators, the first copy of the first book printed in New Zealand— the Epistles to the Ephesians and Philippians, in the Maori language. After long delay, supplies of paper arrived; and in December, 1837, under difficulties such as perhaps no printer ever had to surmount since the first invention of the art, Mr Colenso completed his great work—the entire New Testament, in octavo, small-pica type. Out of the large edition of six thousand copies, only one is now known to exist—the volume in Mr Colenso's own possession. It is an excellent piece of work, admirably printed throughout, and strongly and neatly bound. No one looking over the pages of this interesting relic would suspect under what circumstances of difficulty it was produced. For a vivid account of the difficulties attending the work, and its many hindrances (for a full share of the ordinary mission-work devolved on the printer in addition to his special duty) readers are referred to Mr Colenso's interesting little book, « Fifty Years ago in New Zealand, » published in 1888.

Other presses were afterwards imported by the mission, and the month of April, 1840, saw the birth of the newspaper press. Mr Colenso's time was thenceforward chiefly devoted to the ordinary mission-work, in the course of which he traversed nearly the whole of the North Island on foot—a tremendous undertaking in the days before roads and bridges existed. Twice he crossed the great snowy range of the Ruahine—a feat few would venture to imitate. For two years he resided with Bishop Selwyn, at St John's College, Waimate; in 1844 he took orders, and in the same year took up his abode in Hawke's Bay, where he has since remained.

Mr Colenso is the only surviving European who was present on the important occasion of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, on the 6th February, 1840; and his latest-published work, issued from the Government press, is a detailed account of the proceedings, written at the time.

As a man of science, Mr Colenso has a wide reputation. There is no greater authority on Maori arts, antiquities, myths, and legendary lore, or on the natural history of the Islands. He is a Fellow of the Linnean Society, and in recognition of his distinguished contributions to botanical science was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. From the first foundation of the New Zealand Institute he has been the largest and most valued contributor to its Transactions. He was the first to identify the fossil remains of the gigantic dinornis—the moa of Maori proverb—as those of a bird. He has in manuscript a voluminous lexicon of the Polynesian language, the labor of many years. It was undertaken by request of the government, at the public cost, and was approaching completion when a new administration reversed the order, and succeeding governments have declined to carry out the work officially, or to permit the author to find a private publisher. Since his retirement from active ministerial work, he has filled important public offices. In 1861 he was elected to represent Napier in the first General Assembly, and retained the seat for many years. Under the provincial system he was one of the town representatives in the Provincial Council, and at various times filled the offices of provincial treasurer and inspector of schools.

Advancing age has neither quenched his old fire, nor dimmed his intellect, and as his years increase, so does his love of nature. Most of his time is now spent in his favorite woods far inland, where he still finds new ferns and lovely plants hitherto unknown. He knows of rare trees in many hidden nooks as yet untouched by fire and steel, and watches for perfect blossoms and ripened seeds, to send as tokens to friends in distant lands. On many a quiet sabbath day he preaches from a country pulpit or the desk of a village school. He is esteemed by all, and beloved by those who know him well. In his home in Napier, he has a unique collection of natural specimens and curiosities of native art, and a large and valuable library; but of all these treasures there is none so highly prized as his copy of the sacred volume, printed amid such strange surroundings and under such extraordinary difficulties, fifty-three years ago.