Monday, February 18, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“WILLIAM COLENSO – HIS LIFE AND JOURNEYS” by A.G. Bagnall and G.C.Petersen. Edited by Ian St George – a new edition of the biography first published in 1948 by A.H. and A.W. Reed  (Otago University Press $NZ65)

            Last year I had the pleasure of reviewing on this blog two books about the nineteenth century printer, sometime Anglican missionary, explorer and gadfly William Colenso. They were Peter Wells’ idiosyncratic biography of Colenso The Hungry Heart; and Ian St.George’s edition of a selection of Colenso’s letters to the press, Give Your Thoughts Life. [Check out my comments on them via the index at right].

I noted at the time how much Wells’ book reflected Wells’ own concerns – especially sexual ones, as Wells focussed on the breakdown of Colenso’s marriage – and how much the author pushed himself to the forefront of the narrative. There is much that is postmodernist about Wells’ style. By contrast, Ian St.George’s edition of the letters gave us the public face that Colenso himself chose to display. Neither book played up Colenso the explorer, which, I said, was one of the main concerns of an earlier full-length book about Colenso, A.G. Bagnall and G.C. Petersen’s William Colenso, His Life and Journeys. This biography first appeared in 1948 under the imprint of A.H. and A.W. Reed.

I admit that extensive notes on Bagnall and Petersen’s book have sat in one of my study folders for years. I read it when I was doing a degree in church history and taking papers on nineteenth century missionary endeavour. William Colenso, His Life and Journeys has now been republished by Otago University Press. This is a new edition of the book; not just a reprinting. It was edited by Ian St.George, and includes his new 20-page introduction. Among its appendices, it also prints for the first time a 30-page “autobiography” which Colenso penned.

St.George’s introduction notes that the bicentennial of Colenso’s birth, commemorated in 2011, set off various celebrations (especially in Napier, where Colenso spent his later years). There was an outpouring of scholarly writings on all aspects of the man’s life. The introduction serves both to present Ian St.George’s ideas on Colenso (as distinct from Bagnall and Petersen’s) and to correct a few minor things in the 65-year-old biography. The editor says that Bagnall and Petersen, in 1948, still found it “risky to criticise” all the eminent 19th century figures who got offside with Colenso, especially Bishop Selwyn, head of the Anglican mission in New Zealand. St.George interprets Selwyn as a social snob prejudiced against a Cornishman of humbler birth like Colenso. Referring to the affair that broke up Colenso’s marriage, St George adds:

We are better now at seeing historical figures as human beings – not polarised into good guys and bad guys, but authentic people with faults as well as outstanding qualities. Some of Colenso’s contemporaries damaged his reputation for many years, ostensibly because of his affair with Ripeka Meretene, but more realistically because he publicly criticised their self-serving acquisition or sale of land.” (Pg.13)

Moving into a slightly more defensive tone, St.George (on pp.14-15) seeks to clear Colenso of the charge that, having at first vigorously opposed those Anglican missionaries who enriched themselves by the extensive purchase of Maori land, Colenso himself later acquired extensive holding. St.George says Colenso did so only after the system of purchasing land directly from Maori had changed into a system of purchasing land from the settler government. Personally, I’m not sure that this clears Colenso entirely of a certain hypocrisy, but other readers might decide otherwise.

Ian St.George corrects some factual errors in Bagnall and Petersen’s biography, such as their belief that Colenso was an active botanist before he left his native Cornwall. He also notes that Bagnall and Petersen make little of Colenso’s controversial defence of Kereopa te Rau, who was implicated in the killing of the missionary Volkner. The introduction tells us about Colenso’s attitude to drink and his voluminous correspondence; and gives details that are now known about Colenso’s fluctuating health even though Colenso was “a fit athlete who covered more ground on foot than any other New Zealand explorer before him.” (Pg.21)

Ian St. George ends by noting that he has made only one or two minor alterations (largely of literals) to Bagnall and Petersen’s text.

This introduction is, I think, a model of what such introductions should be. While clearly acknowledging that modern scholarship has revealed some things the earlier biographers did not know, and while setting out how his own views differ from theirs, St.George also makes clear the continuing documentary value of the 1948 book.

As for the other material that is new to this edition, Colenso’s “autobiography”, not intended for publication, was addressed to his son Latimer and deals specifically with the years from 1833 to 1853. It cuts off in 1853 after Colenso has given a reasonably frank account of his affair with Ripeka, and his tense and hostile confrontations with Bishop Selwyn. It then jumps to 1883, when Colenso was writing, and gives some further rueful reflections on his failed marriage and his former wife’s relatives.

And what of Bagnall and Petersen’s text itself, which I have hardly examined yet?
This is a solid, densely-detailed text, upwards of 450 large pages of smallish print (exclusive of appendices etc.). Ian St George’s introduction refers (Pg.9) to the “ambitious scope, scholarly research, vivid travelogues and wine-dark passages of Homeric prose” of Bagnall and Petersen’s work, and this is fair comment. Upon re-reading it I am more aware of the stylistic conventions of the time in which it was written. As one example, consider a passage like the following (and it is typical of the book):

After a day’s rest the indefatigable traveller again set out, passing through a beautiful park-like countryside dotted with small lakes and groves of kahikatea and stopping for the night at Toiti, just short of the banks of the Waipa River. Here the aspect of the country had again changed, and Colenso found it ‘a weary, desolate wild; not a single plant found!’ After what was for Colenso a night of continual torment because of the attacks of his old enemies the sandflies, they set off for the Waipa, which was reached at Whatawhata after half an hour’s walk. Here they expected they would easily procure a canoe for the river voyage to Waikato heads, but Colenso was much incensed at the extreme avarice of the chief, called Donald, who at first declared that it was impossible to find a canoe. All were wanted for the transport of pigs to Auckland, there being at that time a pakeha buyer at the pa. At length a canoe was grudgingly produced, but when the hire of it was paid for in a Testament and books it was withdrawn, this form of tender being unacceptable to Donald, who had adopted the standards of exchange of the pakeha more readily than his religious precepts. However, as a concession, he might be able to find another canoe, providing the fetching of it was paid for. There being no escape, Colenso was forced to accept these terms, and a small canoe was eventually found. Colenso, when paying for this service, insisted, with heavy irony, on paying for the drink of water he had had, the fern stalk he had pulled to cover the bottom of the canoe, and the specimens of caterpillars he had gathered from the chief’s crops. This punctilious reckoning had its effect, and on their leaving Donald produced as a farewell peace offering a few potatoes, gratis, for use during the voyage.” (pp.137-138)

The anecdote told here is lively and clear. But for one single paragraph, this is almost too clogged with specific narrative matter –the journey; the geographical features; the nature of the place; the specific place names; the haggling over the canoe; and Colenso’s ironic reaction.

Most of the book is written thus, and over the long haul it makes for a detailed chronological plod.

Bagnall and Petersen were hugely dependent on Colenso’s own journals and articles, as their original bibliography shows; and their biography can sometimes resemble an arranged editing thereof. This is not the thematic style of more recent biographies.

In terms of values and attitudes there are inevitably signs of the 1948 text’s age. Beginning at p.316 are the two chapters entitled “Nemesis” and “Retribution”, leading up to Selwyn’s revoking Colenso’s licence as a minister. Bagnall and Petersen choose to deal at one and the same time with Colenso’s ideological differences with Donald McLean and his marital difficulties. They are very delicate about Colenso’s relationship with his wife Elizabeth, and the extra-marital affair that led to their parting. Of the married couple, they announce a little pompously:

 “It would be as unpardonable to dwell on the crisis in a partisan spirit as to dwell at unnecessary length on this final parting, while there is little satisfaction in attempting an incalculable balance of character differences and personal problems against the influence of religion and family.” (Pg.333)

But they then proceed to pass judgement on William and Elizabeth anyway.

In one matter, the two authors show great good judgement. Clearly they wish to celebrate Colenso as an important and admirable figure. But they are aware that he was, especially in his earlier years, an evangelical “low church” zealot and he engaged in much sectarian controversy, especially with Catholic missionaries whose very presence in New Zealand enraged him. When they have to chronicle Colenso’s attempts to argue with those Catholic priests whom he encountered, they do not engage in any triumphalism, or presume to say who “won” any such debate. Generally, they simply note that such a debate happened. That could teach a few things to at least one later New Zealand historian, who repeats sectarian reports of such debates as if they are objective statements of fact.

I’ll conclude with some miscellaneous remarks.

Ian St John clearly has a very different perspective on William Colenso from the one Peter Wells has in The Hungry Heart. But in his introduction he refers generously to Wells’ book as “a wonderful melding of accurate historical investigation and insightful subjective interpretation.” (Pg.9). Later (Pg.17) there is a passing reference to Wells, dealing with Colenso’s relationship with his cousin John William Colenso, the Anglican Bishop of Natal in South Africa, who shared many of Colenso’s “advanced” theological views. Nevertheless, the blurb to this new edition of Bagnall and Petersen calls the republished book “the most thoroughly researched and comprehensive biography of this forceful individual, deserving a new edition”. Vis-a-vis Wells’ effort, I think this judgement still stands.

In many respects, the 1948 book is a type of biography that is no longer written. That may be a pity. St.George’s introduction ends with the words “The next biography will require a multi-disciplinary team, reflecting the many facets of this intriguing polymath’s life.” (Pg.27) Frankly, I’m not sure that this prospect enthuses me. I am over-familiar with multi-authored tomes whose essays provide academics with research points for their PBRF rating, but which are often colourless congeries.

Finally a personal comment. I am reviewing here a book about Colenso. I am not passing judgement on Colenso himself. But as I noted in my review of Give Your Thoughts Life, I probably find Colenso a less attractive figure than Ian St George does. For all his “advanced” thought and (relatively) wise dealing with Maori, Colenso was still a man of his times who, even in his mellower old age, shared many of the prejudices of his contemporaries. As I read this new edition of William Colenso: His Life and Journeys, I kept thinking of two other books about a nineteenth century cleric in New Zealand, which Otago University Press published a decade ago. These were John Crockett’s translations of books by the Italian Catholic priest Felice Vaggioli, A Deserter’s Adventures and History of New Zealand and its Inhabitants. Vaggioli’s views on just about any issue were the diametric opposite of Colenso’s, but just as worth knowing as part of the historical record. And this is the point about any revival in print of a controversialist from the past.  He is being remembered. He is not necessarily being endorsed.

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