Colenso, Elizabeth [Fairburn] (1821-1904) and William (1811-1899)
Elizabeth Fairburn was born of British missionary parents in New Zealand. She taught at her father’s Church Missionary Society (CMS) station at Otahuhu. William Colenso came from England as a CMS printer in 1834. He produced the New Testament in Maori in 1837 and made several exploratory journeys combining his interests in botany and missionary outreach. They married in 1843 and worked at St. John’s College, where William was ordained a deacon in 1844. They moved to a remote mission station at Ahuriri. William’s stubborn evangelical zeal alienated him from Bishop G.A. Selwyn and many Maori. A child he had by a Maori woman resulted in his suspension in 1852.
Elizabeth Colenso separated from her husband and taught at Taupiri from 1854 to 1861. She went to London and acted as a Maori interpreter for the Colonial Office and during the presentation of Maori to Queen Victoria in 1863. While in London she also contributed to the revision of the complete Maori Bible printed in 1868. From 1869 to 1875 she taught Maori at Paihia, New Zealand. She then went with the Melanesian mission to Norfolk Island, where she trained girls and translated the Book of Common Prayer into Mota, retiring in 1898. William Colenso became a largely unsuccessful colonial politician but continued his significant botanical and scientific contributions and wrote in defense of Maori rights. He was rehabilitated as a deacon in 1894.
Allan K. Davidson, “Colenso, Elizabeth (Fairburn) and William,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 143-4.
This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Elizabeth and William Colenso papers are at the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Colenso, William. Essays on the Botany of the North Island of New Zealand. Otago, N.Z.: n.p., 1865.
_____. An Account of Visits to, and Crossings Over, the Ruahine Mountain Range, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand; and of the Natural History of that Region, 1845-1847. Two Papers Read Before the Hawke’s Bay Philosophical Institute. Napier: n.p., 1884.
_____. Ancient Tide-Lore and Tales of the Sea, from the Two Ends of the World: Also Some Highly Curious Ancient and Legendary Little-Known East Coast Maori Stories; Translated with Explanatory Notes on the Same. Napier, N.Z: W. Colenso, 1889.
Colenso, Elizabeth. Diaries and Notebooks, 1862-1895. Microfilm. Yale University Sterling Memorial Library, New Haven, CT.
Colenso, William. Excursion in the Northern Island of New Zealand. Launceston: n.p., 1844.
_____. On the Maori Races of New Zealand. Dunedin, N.Z.: n.p., 1865. New edition, Christchurch: Kiwi Publishers, 2001.
_____. Traditions of the Maoris. n.p.: n.p., [c.1880]. New Edition, Christchurch: Kiwi Publishers, 2001.
_____. The Authentic and Genuine History of the Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand, February 5 and 6, 1840: Being a Faithful and Circumstantial, though Brief, Narration of Events that Happened on that Memorable Occassion; with Copies of the Treaty in English and Maori, and of the Three Early Proclamations Respecting the Founding of the Colony. Wellington, N.Z.: Government Printer, 1890. New edition, Christchurch: Kiwi Publishers, 1996.
_____. An Enumeration of Fungi Recently Discovered in New Zealand. Wellington, N.Z.: n.p., 1891.
_____. Plain and Practical Thoughts and Notes on New Zealand Botany. Wellington, N.Z.: n.p., 1892.
_____. A Maori-English Lexicon: Being a Comprehensive Dictionary of the New Zealand Tongue; Including Mythical, Mythological, “Taboo” or Sacred, Geneaological…and Other Names and Terms of and Allusions to Persons, Things, Acts, and Places in Ancient Times; Also Showing Their Affinities with Cognate Polynesian Dialects and Foreign Languages; with Copius Pure Maori Examples…By the Rev. W. Colenso. Wellington, N.Z.: J. Mackay, Government Printer, 1898.
Bagnall, A.G. and G.D. Peterson. William Colenso: Printer, Missionary, Botanist, Explorer, Politician: His Life and Journeys. Wellington, N.Z.: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1948.
“Elizabeth Colenso on Norfolk Island.” In Aukland-Waikato Historical Journal 29 (1976): 9-12.
Hooker, Joseph Dalton, Sir. “William Colenso.” In Yearbook of the Royal Society, no. 5, 1901.
Knobbs, K.J. William Colenso and His Friends at Bachelor’s Hall. Oparangi, N.Z.: K.J. Knobbs, 1989.
Murray, Janet. “Elizabeth Colenso.” In The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 1, 1769-1869. Edited by W.H. Oliver, 86-7. Wellington, N.Z.: Allen & Unwin, 1990.
Ross, Catherine R. “More Than Wives: Helpmeets, Heroines or Partners?” In Mission Studies 20 no. 1/2 (2003): 140-67.
_____. “The Legacy of Elizabeth Fairburn Colenso.” In International Bulletin of Missionary Research 30 no. 3 (July 2006): 148-52.
_____. Women with a Mission: Rediscovering Missionary Wives in Early New Zealand. Auckland, N.Z.: Penguin Books, 2006.
Rowse, A.L. The Controversial Colensos. Trewolsta, Trewirgie, Redruth, Cornwall: Dyllansow Truran, 1989.
Sargison, Patricia. “Elizabeth Colenso.” In The Book of New Zealand Women = Ko Kui Ma Te Kaupapa. Edited by Charlotte Macdonald, Merimeri Penfold, and Bridget Williams, 145-9. Wellington, N.Z.: Bridget Williams Books, 1991.
Swabey, Barbara. “Elizabeth Colenso (née Fairburn).” Otaki Historical Journal 13 (1990): 50-9.
“The Fairburn-Colenso Story.” In Aukland-Waikato Historical Journal 27 (1975): 10-15; 28 (1976): 31-3.
Mackay, David. “Colenso, William, 1811-1899: Printer, Missionary, Explorer, Naturalist, Politician.” In Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Online resource, with photo portrait of W. Colenso (c.1868)
Murray, Janet E. “Colenso, Elizabeth, 1821-1904: Missionary, Teacher, Translator.” In Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Online resource, with photo portrait of E. Colenso (c.1879).
Biography of William Colenso at the Museum of New Zealand website, with photo portrait of W. Colenso (c.1880).
Three sketches by William Colenso of sites in New Zealand (c.1838).
Portrait of E. Colenso by Hemus & Hanna (Auckland) fl 1879-1882, Reference Number: PA2-0894, used by permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
Portrait of William Colenso, 1868, Reference Number: 1/2-005028-F, used by permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.