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William Colenso (7 November 1811 – 10 February 1899) was a Christian missionary to New Zealand, and also a printer, botanist, explorer and politician.



Born in Penzance, Cornwall, he was the cousin of John William Colenso, Bishop of Natal. He trained as a printer's apprentice then travelled to New Zealand in 1834 to work for the Church Missionary Society as a printer/missionary. He was responsible for the first printing of the Treaty of Waitangi and a Māori language translation of the New Testament. He was an avid botanist; detailing and transmitting to Kew Gardens in England previously unrecorded New Zealand flora. In 1866 he was the first New Zealander to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. He wrote several books, and contributed over a hundred papers to scientific journals.

In the 1840s, from his mission station in Hawke's Bay, he made several long exploratory journeys through the central North Island in the company of Maori guides with the aim of reaching the inland Maori settlements of Patea, in the Taihape region, and converting them to Christianity. His travels took him through trackless forest, over the high Ruahine Range and across the Rangipo Desert and past the mountains of Ruapehu and Tongariro to the shores of Lake Taupo. In doing so he contributed greatly to the European exploration of the central North Island.

His standing in New Zealand colonial society and the Church Missionary Society, along with his fervent hope of ordination, was lost when it was discovered that he had sired a son (Wiremu) by Ripeka, the Māori maid of his wife, Elizabeth Fairburn Colenso. Following a long wilderness period during which he continued his botany work, he took an active role as a local politician in Napier. He had another son with a Maori woman from the North. His children have carried on the family name but some of the family have changed it over the years.

He died in Napier in 1899, leaving two sons and a daughter. His son from Ripeka, Wiremu/William, left New Zealand for Cornwall, married a cousin and lived in Penzance until his death. His son from Elizabeth Fairburn, Ridley Latimer, attended Cambridge University, and finally settled in Scotland. His daughter Frances Mary married William Henry Simcox and settled in Otaki, New Zealand. Neither of his sons had surviving children – Frances had nine.



  • William Colenso: Printer, Missionary, Botanist, Explorer, Politician by A. G. Bagnall & G. C. Petersen (1948, AH & AW Reed, Wellington)
  • The Controversial Colensos by A. L. Rowse (1989, Cornish Publications, Redruth, Cornwall) ISBN 1 85022 047 6 (Bishop Colenso of Natal and his cousin William Colenso, naturalist)
  • New Zealand Explorers by Philip Temple (1985, Whitcoulls Publishers, Christchurch, NZ)

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