We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“GIVE YOUR THOUGHTS LIFE–William Colenso’s Letters to the Editor ”, compiled and edited by Ian St George (Otago University Press, $65)
It’s a rare thing to find myself, two weeks in succession, dealing with books about the same man, but such is the case now.
Last week I featured Peter Wells’ The Hungry Heart, his idiosyncratic book (not really a full biography) of reflections and interpretations of the life of William Colenso. It is driven very much by Wells’ own interests and it centres on psycho-sexual matters relating to the disintegration of Colenso’s marriage and the nature (at least as Peter Wells sees it) of Colenso’s private life.
This week, by coincidence, I find myself reviewing a capacious collection of William Colenso’s letters to the press. I have taken some weeks to read this big book. It is 500 large and closely-printed pages of nineteenth-century controversial prose. Its 51-year span is from letters written in 1847, when Colenso was 36, to letters written in 1898, one year before Colenso’s death at the age of 88. The letters are arranged into five sections, roughly corresponding to each decade of Colenso’s public letter-writing. Each section is preceded by a bare chronology of Colenso’s life omitting, I can’t help noting, the private matters that so concern Peter Wells. Collectively, these letters create a very different impression of the man from the one given by Peter Wells.
In Give Your Thoughts Life we see the public figure, the man communicating with his community, and not Colenso in his boudoir being analysed by an amateur Freud.
The title Give Your Thoughts Life comes from a letter Colenso wrote to the Hawke’s Bay Herald in 1859, urging readers to contribute more to the correspondence columns. He certainly followed his own advice. As Ian St George’s handy introduction says, Colenso wrote regularly to the New Zealand Herald in Auckland, and to Wellington and Taranaki newspapers. But living in Napier for most of the late nineteenth century, he contributed more to the Hawke’s Bay Herald than to any other journal. Ian St George estimates that in the second half of his life, Colenso would have written three long letters per day to newspapers and friends. Many of them are now lost, and St.George admits that he was confined to collecting those accessible in the “Papers Past” search-engine.
He categorises Colenso as typical of the “white, middle-aged, well-educated upper-middle-class man who was an avid reader, lived in the country and had strongly liberal political views”.
In those days, newspapers were eager for copy and imposed almost no length-limitations upon correspondents. They were just made for an autodidact polymath maverick like Colenso, who was always ready with an opinion, argument or observation on current affairs. Newspapers were then the chief means of community discussion. Nowadays virtually none of Colenso’s letters would see the light of print, in an age when newspapers want letters 300 words or fewer, maximum.
If the letters were expansive, however, the community they addressed was not. St. George notes that Napier had a total population of 900 when its chief newspaper began publication. The letters it ran (including most of Colenso’s) would have originally been read by an audience of a few hundred at most. Ploughing through this collection, the very personal note of many of Colenso’s letters, and the frequent references to specific individuals in the small settler community, made me feel as if I were eavesdropping on a family conversation.
I hope I do not have to spell out that a collection of this sort is a treasure trove for historians, who want to see what the concerns and opinions of an articulate person in another age were. But this does not necessarily make it a treasure trove for the general reader. I must admit I found myself nodding when Colenso’s letters discourse at length on desirable drainage and roading for Napier. Most readers will have a hard time wading through the 1858 series of letters which Colenso jocularly calls “Tracts for the Times” and in which he discusses the status of Hawke’s Bay as a province, whether it should separate from Wellington, how it needs more Pakeha population and so forth.
Colenso was himself involved in local, provincial and national politics, at various times being an MP (in the then capital, Auckland), an MPC (Member of the Provincial Council), and Hawke’s Bay’s Inspector of Schools. So among his letters there are many fulsome addresses around election times to “electors” – meaning that tiny handful of Pakeha males who were then permitted to vote. In the 1850s, he spends a lot of time in the letters columns arguing about local politics with a jackanapes called Robert Pharazyn. In 1863, there is a heated and unseemly correspondence about whether Colenso had or had not insulted the Scottish race in a speech he made on the hustings. So often we are faced with pompous declarations of principles and the impression that the issues being discussed are world-shattering. We can cure ourselves of this delusion by remembering that much of Colenso’s ink was expended on very small-scale local enterprises. How seriously they took themselves in those days, when they had a sense of Destiny opening up a new country to them!
Much more interesting to me than political matters are some of Colenso’s more enduring concerns.
One is his interest in botany. He is frequently offering advice on how to best care for plants. An early letter offers 18 numbered steps on how best to plant and care for fruit trees. Another expands on the best varieties of apple tree for local acclimatisation. He discusses the Maori names for varieties of olive. Late in the volume there are a number of his letters passing on advice from Dr Hooker of Kew Gardens, about strange insects and destructive fungi he has spotted.
Another of Colenso’s concerns is race relations in New Zealand. St.George calls him “philo-Maori”, and on the whole this is true. Colenso usually offers a remarkably conciliatory attitude towards Maori who have been accused of crime or of special violence in provincial wars. Written in 1847, the very first letter in this collection has him defending Maori against charges of stealing from a ship. Very occasionally in the early years he writes in Maori (signing himself “Koroneho”). In the press he defends the former HauHau Kereopa for his part in the murder of the Reverend Volkner. Regrettably, this volume does not reproduce the whole of his pamphlet about Kereopa – a footnote tells us that it will appear later in a collection of Colenso’s other writings. On 28 February 1883, Colenso writes a long and detailed letter supporting an amnesty for Te Kooti – a very brave thing to do in Hawke’s Bay at the time when Pakeha still feared Te Kooti as the marauder and raider of outlying farms.
Colenso obviously made many enemies for his attitudes. From 1874 right through the 1880s, he often has to respond to carping criticisms that he is taking too long to compile a promised Maori lexicon, which had been generously funded out of the public purse. It’s a reasonable inference that some of these criticisms were payback for his pro-Maori views.
Yet there are times when Colenso’s Pakeha perspective asserts itself. He wants justice for Maori, but he never doubts that British settlement and laws will and should prevail, that Maori should be assimilated to them, and that any attempts to hold up Pakeha settlement must be resisted. In his letter of 22 October 1859 he bemoans at length the existence of Maori land-leagues, which are attempting to block sale of tribal lands to Pakeha.
One major area of Colenso’s correspondence that interests me is his involvement in religious controversy. Sometimes he is apparently very broad-minded for his age, preaching the subordination of denomination to general Christian principle. In his letter of 7 June 1880, responding to the Protestant push for Bible readings in the newly-established secular state schools (the “Bible-in-Schools” movement), he very sensibly comments that Bible readings alone mean nothing without some exposition. In a series of letters in 1896, he opposes the Prohibition movement by supporting true and voluntary Temperance.
Yet you do also encounter in Colenso the ingrained prejudices (sometimes approaching bigotry) of the old Anglican Evangelical. In 1879, he whines about “the wretched Ritualistic clique” – meaning those “Anglo-Catholic” Anglicans who were attempting to make their drab church more colourful by imitating the ceremonies of the Catholic Church. On 23 April 1891, he severely rebukes two young men for daring to go hunting on the Sabbath day. On 7 April 1892 he wades in to the Seventh Day Adventist sect thus: “those wretched men the Adventists, one of the lowest and worst sects of falsely-called ‘Christians’ known to me, who… unsettle and lead astray the simple, the quiet and the unwary”.
As an Evangelical, his chief antagonism is towards the Catholic Church. In August 1884, he imprudently challenges the Catholic priest Le Menant Des Chenais over some facts the priest cited in a speech. A few letters later he has to grumpily apologise. It was Colenso who got his facts wrong. In his letter of 4 June 1895, he responds to ideas of ultimate church union with a warning against “the sophistries and blandishments, the music and fair speeches of erring meretricious Rome.” Interestingly, most such prejudiced letters come late in the collection, suggesting that Colenso’s spiritual arteries were hardening in old age.
Apart from letters on politics, Maori matters, botany and religion, there are some letters that startle by their sheer quirkiness. I was intrigued by the letter of 13 May 1864 in which Colenso questions whether it was really the historian Macaulay who initiated the familiar, oft-quoted thought about a future age in which a “New Zealander” (i.e. Maori) would sketch the ruins of St Paul’s from the broken arch of London Bridge. Then there’s a series of letters to the Otago Witness in which Colenso sets them straight on the history of printing in New Zealand.
Colenso can sometimes be an opinionated old fool. His letters are certainly verbose and he is always ready to pep them up with literary or classical quotation, to show that he is an English gentleman with the appropriate intellectual credentials. He is not good at taking criticism. As an example of having your cake and eating it, or pretending to turn the other cheek without really turning it, take this uncharacteristically brief letter of 19 January 1861:
Reading on Saturday last the letter signed ‘George Worgan’ in your paper of that date, I had nearly made up my mind to answer it fully in your next issue, but, having been led to think on him this day while using these words – “That it may please Thee to forgive our enemies, persecutors and slanderers, and to turn their hearts” – I feel it now to be a duty not to notice the sad letter of the poor unhappy old man.
I am etc.
The historical value of this book is high. But in the end I have to say that Colenso was no particular stylist, and many of these letters are nit-picking, peevish and egotistical. He often burbles on for far longer than he really need and he gives the impression of someone desperate to nail down topics and have the last word. A bit like today’s talkback hosts. Or, for that matter, the runners of book blogs.
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