Friday, February 24, 2012

The Hungry Heart Journeys with William Colenso

Peter Wells has presented a wonderful book to us with Hungry Heart, his thorough biography of 19th century Cornish missionary, William Colenso.   The name Colenso is linked to many important parts of our nation’s history.  He arrived here as a young missionary and printer with a charismatic passion to spread the Good Word.  Peter Wells has made his name as a novelist, but his skills as a researcher and collector shine through in this book.  He charts the life of William in New Zealand from his marriage to Elizabeth, his presence and outspokenness at the signing of the Treaty at Waitangi and then his life and trials in the Hawke’s Bay where he spent the majority of his life.
The realities of colonial life, coping with every day trials and the political realities of being in the vanguard of settlers arriving on this land are well documented and beautifully described.  Colenso’s downfall when the truth of his relationship with his domestic servant, Ripeka, became public, causing the end of his marriage and indeed his family has dominated much of historical recall of his life. 
There is a small chapter on rumours that Colenso may have had sexual relations with Maori Men.  This surprised Wells and despite hearsay about what some lost diaries may have said, he found no evidence to enable anyone to know what nugget of truth there may or may not have been to this aspect of the missionary’s nature.
Colenso always spoke out.  Biting his tongue or showing tact was not his nature.  He also reflected and thought things through.  In his later life this made him a pioneer.  Wells tells us: “ Yet From today’s viewpoint it was just this insistence on a personal truth that seems so authentic.  Time – and the Waitangi Tribunal – has borne out so much of what he said.  He was speaking in December 1871 to an audience who were sure they were never going to be caught out. “
I wish I had personally known this more human and well-rounded Colenso, rather than the zealous Anglican Missionary from earlier chapters.  If more people had listened to what he had to say, our nation’s path to reconciliation might now have been completed.
Published in Express Newspaper 22 February 2012

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