I’m back working on my Colenso book of essays at the moment, trying to make up for lost time. I’ve been sifting through all my notes, especially the xeroxes I ordered bulk from the different archives.
The situation is this: you arrive for several days at an archive - you suddenly comprehend the vast amount of material you’ll need. There isn’t time to type it into your computer. So you make a quick calculation - and end up ordering pages of what turn out to be, usually, rather difficult-to-read xeroxes of what is faded hand writing anyway.
I’ve been trawling the ocean of Colenso’s writing. It feels like this at times - he wrote so much. There are different versions of the same thing, sometimes contemporaneously. Other times it is a different period entirely when he goes back and reinterprets an earlier part of his life ( an example here is his Autobiography, where he ‘reinterpretated’ his marriage and the reasons why it didn’t work. Also this segued into why he ended up having a child with Ripeka Meretene. (His wife cold and distant, Ripeka, warm and confiding, according to Colenso as an older man, writing to both his legitimate and illegimate son.)
Yesterday I felt a distinct sense of nausea from reading too much William Colenso. The period I’m concentrating on is his low point: his ejection from the Church Missionary Society, following the discovering of the existence of Wiremu, the son he had with Ripeka.
He’s scalded, self pitying, grandeoisly paranoid. Like many opinionated people he has a lot of enemies. And his downfall gives them the chance to put the boot in big time. He’s also sending off so many letters they become like shards flying off from an exploding bomb. But he’s the one who ends up covered in shit, blood and other viscera. But he’s also relentless - he just keeps on writing on.
It’s one of the things I usually like about him: his refusal to fit the male stereotype of the period. He is furiously emotional. He weeps, he throws himself on the floor. He accuses, he loves his children in an almost overwhelming way. (He was used to looking after his brothers and sisters when he was a boy growing up. He cooked, cleaned and decorated his house when he was a bachelor. He is a very feeling sort of man.)
But yesterday, nearing the end of yet another shreiking epistle, I felt I’d had enough.
Just the night before a Hawke’s Bay local, a pleasant man who had once been a history teacher, said to me, almost dismissively” are you finding out anything new about him? Is there anything new to find?”
I took note of the attitude. So often Hawke’s Bay people have this inbuilt attitude towards Colenso which is little short of contempt. But there’s also this thing that people think they know everything about him there is to know.
My thing is: you can ‘know’ the same facts but the facts need to be re-evaluated. You have to ‘read’ them differently.
And this morning when I grumpily entered my usual cafe for my morning latte - the barista called out ‘good morning young man’ which should have earnt her a large tip - I opened the Dom/Post and read a little about the new report to the Waitangi Tribunal. It’s about the land dealings relating to the sale of the Wairarapa.
The headline was that the report recommends reverting to an earlier version of the spelling of Rimatuka. A Maori spelling. (Interesting when you consider Maori was not a written language.) Anyway I thought: I don’t give a fuck. But when I read further the basis of the argument for restitution was this: too much land was bought too quickly for too low a price.
I thought: bingo! I felt a warm surge spread all over the surface of my skin. I thought: William Colenso, I love you!
Because this is exactly what Colenso said again and again and again, to anyone who would listen during this period. (A period when many Maori were overwhelmingly eager to sell land, to get money, to buy the version of the latest ipod and wide-screen tv and tickets to the World Cup.) Colenso could see the maelstrom happening all around him.
He had quite a large degree of moral authority pre-fall. Te Hapuku, a major local chief, called him (either insinuatingly or not) ‘our Governor’. And Colenso was adamant that the careless sale of Maori land by its ‘owners’ was ‘the very railroad to ruin’, to use his own term. He thought the most Maori should do is lease land, and then for a limited period. He also thought they should seperate out wide areas which were never to be leased.
His downfall was providential - for McLean and others interested in opening up the land for financial rape. Maori leaders colluded in this, of course. As did the Roman Catholics, so eager to chop Colenso down in the hope it would get a few more punters in the pews.
But the end effect was this: Colenso’s moral authority collapsed completely. His voice, a voice of sanity and reason, of deep insight gained over his six years of living in NZ pre-Treaty, was silenced pretty much completely.
But of course Colenso didn’t finish there. He re-invented himself and once again became a bantering, unsilenceable voice, talking, talking, talking....
In some ways he became the conscience for pakeha culture - a culture which really didn’t want to listen.
But this brings me back to this wide-spread disdain for Colenso, which is even shared by historians who should know better: (Colenso doesn’t do hiumself any favours by being so thin skinned and eager to insert himself into the historical narrative at every opportunity.)
But I think its source was the visceral hatred pakeha settlers felt for missionaries who tried to advice Maori not to sell their land. This hatred was raised in volume when the missionaries themselves bought land or obtained large tracts of land.
But at the time I am writing about - 1853 - Colenso owned no land. (He later owned quite substantial amounts of land within Napier town, but that is another story I’ll look at in more detail later.)
I sometimes wonder whether this visceral dislike of Colenso, remnants of which still exist, relates to his refusnik activities at this time: when land was slipping out of the grasp of one group of people and rushing and gushing into the grasp of another group. He tried to slow it down. He tried to ensure it wasn’t chaotic.
In the end he got trampled by the mob.
Various people, pakeha and Maori, really enjoyed dancing on what they thought was his political grave.
But this morning, as I closed the newspaper, I felt a sense of gratitude as I returned to my writing and researching: this is why Colenso is such an interesting person to write about: he was often insightful.
At times he saw the future.
A future we’re only just arriving at today. Like today. Now.