Newspaper Article 2011 – Life and travels of complex British missionary Colenso

Life and travels of complex British missionary Colenso

The Hungry Heart: Journeys with William Colenso
by Peter Wells
Random House, $49.99

Emerging in the bicentennial year of William Colenso’s birth, this book is a work of creative non-fiction.

The author takes the novelist approach, intertwining the historical narrative to delve into selected sections of Colenso’s life. The selection is based upon Colenso’s journeys from Penzance and London to New Zealand. It focuses in turn on his work at Paihia from 1834 as New Zealand’s first printer of significance; at his speaking up at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi when he realised many Maori did not understand exactly what they were signing and to his missionary work at Waimate North and at Waitangi, near Napier.

There are also sections on Colenso’s perspectives on Maori views and culture and his explorations resulting in his extensive contributions to New Zealand botany. Throughout, the reader glimpses the endless curiosity of an intellectual outsider who remained compulsive, difficult and challenging.

Quite different from the detailed biography, written by A G Bagnall and G C Petersen in 1948, this book takes the reader on an adventure of the imaginative past. This is nowhere more evident than in the sections dealing with the collapse of Colenso’s marriage to Elizabeth and his being dismissed by the Anglican Church following the birth of his illegitimate child, Wiremu, in 1851.

Wells draws upon extensive primary source material to weave an intriguing tale of infidelity, passion, scandal and the inevitable isolation. Yet, Colenso refuses to leave Hawke’s Bay and stages a comeback into the higher levels of settler society and the New Zealand scientific community. At times, the alternative explorations of the multi-faceted dimensions of Colenso’s life go almost too far; the profanities and commentator speculation being two examples. However, overall, Wells has succeeded with this very readable text about Colenso, resuscitating this extraordinary historical figure and bringing his complex character to life.

Kay Morris Matthews

Photo caption – OUT NOW: Peter Wells. Napier author of The Hungry Heart: Journeys with William Colenso, at the book launch.

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Date published

November 2011

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Newspaper article


Hawke's Bay Today


Published with permission of Hawke's Bay Today


  • Peter Wells
  • A G Bagnall
  • G C Petersen
  • Kay Morris Matthews
  • William Colenso

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