Monday, September 28, 2009

The Biggest Erection in the Graveyard

I was shocked today when I was in the Napier Hill cemetery to realise that Jane Williams is buried just along from her old enemy, the fallen missionary William Colenso. She was a bishop’s wife who thought Colenso presumptuous to think of marrying her neice, Marianne. She saw Colenso as a lowly mechanic.

Ironically her neice went on to marry a surgeon, a Mr Davis who himself was accused of adultery with a Maori woman. Davis’s sister bore an illegitimate child to Maori man by the name of Toa. This is all mid nineteenth century NZ. (In short, everyone was at it, or almost everyone.) 

But at the stage Jane wrote to her friend about how shocked she was at Colenso’s cheek, she was in hoity-toity heaven, looking down a long telescope to the insect Colensois. 

Strange to see her buried just along the aisle from a man she so despiced. She’s buried with all the other Williams - quite a few Anglican bishops - massed like battleships in an ocean formation - but seemingly neglected, the face of the graves mossy and damp and without any sign of a flower or recent attentions. 

By contrast, their old adversary enjoys a sunny place and his grave generally looks well tended: more so, it is brightly lit and, ironically, Rinso-white.


The Williams became an aristocracy of sorts in New Zealand but now suffer a malodorous name. The irony is contemporary people are infinitely forgiving and even interested in sexual pecadilloes of the sort that ruined Colenso in his own life time: but crimes against indigenous people rank as a supreme sin in the contemporary moral order. 

The Williams became seen as ‘land grabbers’ (regardless of the truth) in popular postcolonial imagination. The same is true of Sir Donald Mclean, Native Minister. His truly monumental grave sits ignored in the Napier Hill cemetery. (The biggest erection in the cemetery, I call it.) When we did our recent tour of fifteen interesting graves in the cemetery he was left out. This was by common consent. So there is something melancholy about Maclean’s immense Celtic cross, rising into the sky like a skyscraper vacated by people. It appears a monument to vanity.

But my shock was real, almost physical, sighting Jane William’s grave. I had just been reading her waspish, lively remarks that day. I seemed to carry a sense of voltage from a living person. But there she lay, seemingly forgotten. 

In death, Colenso and Jane Williams, nearby neighbours, seem equals. 


  1. When I returned to NZ in 1996 for my only visit since I left as a child in 1965, I wanted to call in on Napier to take a dekko at Colenso's grave. He and the Bishop (of Natal) were first cousins of my maternal grandfather's great-great grandfather (I think it was).

    When I asked the woman at the Napier visitor’s centre about the deacon, she replied "Oh yes, we remember him because he had an affair with a Maori girl!" I tried to tell her that there was much more to the man than that – that he was lay missionary, printer, botanist and explorer, as well as a fervent advocate of Maori rights, but her eyes glazed over. She wasn't interested and she didn't want to know.

    Speaking as an outsider, and as a Pommie bastard Irish-Cornishman born in Valletta but living in FNQ since 1994, I have to admit that I find Pakeha women's obsession with the deacon's tapu relationship with Ripeka a never ending source of amused irritation.

    To me, and to many other Colensos I might add, it perfectly symbolises the narrow-minded, prurient preoccupation with miscegenation that, to my mind, has always been the single, most defining characteristic of female Pakeha society in NZ.

    Even today, Pakeha women generally know nothing of Colenso’s efforts on Maori behalf to look after Maori interests and protect them from the white land grabbers: and the little they know they find uninteresting and unimportant.

    But bring up the titillating subject of Colenso and Repeka, and their tiny, little brains light up with delight. (Most of ‘em would never have heard of their son Willie – too much detail).

    It’s not surprising of course – look at the shock that millions of brainless females went into around the world when Princess Di died after being pursued by the paparazzi paid by the publishers of magazines for these women, spruiking the corrosive tosh that these morons devour in their millions.

  2. For an example of what I mean about Colenso’s efforts on the behalf of Maori, only Colenso tried to impress on the Governor at the SIGNING OF THE TREATY OF WAITANGI that many of the signatories simply had no idea to what it was that they were agreeing.

    Here is an extract from Colenso’s account of the signing, published by the Government Printer in 1890:

    “All being now ready for the signing, the Native chiefs were called on in a body to come forward and sign the document. Not one, however, made any move nor seemed desirous of doing so till Mr. Busby, hitting on an expedient, proposed calling them singly by their names as they stood in his (private) list, in which list the name of Hoani Heke (known, too, to be the most favourable towards the treaty) happened to be the first -at least, of those who were this day present. On his being called by name to come and sign, he advanced to the table on which the treaty lay. At this moment I, addressing myself to the Governor, said, -

    "Will your Excellency allow me to make a remark or two before that chief signs the treaty?"

    The Governor: "Certainly, sir."

    Mr. Colenso: "May I ask your Excellency whether it is your opinion that these Natives understand the articles of the treaty which they are now called upon to sign? I this morning" - -

    The Governor: "If the Native chiefs do not know the contents of this treaty it is no fault of mine. I wish them fully to understand it. I have done all that I could do to make them understand the same, and I really don't know how I shall be enabled to get them to do so. They have heard the treaty read by Mr. Williams."

    Mr. Colenso: "True, your Excellency; but the Natives are quite children in their ideas. It is no easy matter, I well know, to get them to understand -fully to comprehend a document of this kind; still, I think they ought to know somewhat of it to constitute its legality. I speak under correction, your Excellency. I have spoken to some chiefs concerning it, who had no idea whatever as to the purport of the treaty."

    Mr. Busby here said, "The best answer that could be given to that observation would be found in the speech made yesterday by the very chief about to sign, Hoani Heke, who said, 'The Native mind could not comprehend these things: they must trust to the advice of their missionaries.' "

    Mr. Colenso: "Yes; and that is the very thing to which I was going to allude. The missionaries should do so; but at the same time the missionaries should explain the thing in all its bearings to the Natives, so that it should be their own very act and deed. Then, in case of a reaction taking place, the Natives could not turn round on the missionary and say, ' You advised me to sign that paper, but never told me what were the contents thereof.' "

    The Governor: "I am in hopes that no such reaction will take place. I think that the people under your care will be peaceable enough: I'm sure you will endeavour to make them so. And as to those that are without, why we must endeavour to do the best we can with them."

    Mr. Colenso: "I thank your Excellency for the patient healing you have given me. What I had to say arose from a conscientious feeling on the subject. Having said what I have I consider that I have discharged my duty;"

  3. What a frothing misogynist rant against women!

    As a woman who married into a family whose late-19th century German ancestor took not one but two Maori 'wives' I feel insulted by the suggestion that the female brain is too small to comprehend [without salaciousness]the fact.
    What a sweeping and anachronistic generalisation!

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