07 November 2011

Happy Birthday, William Colenso

From the biography of William Colenso
by A. S. Bagnall and G. C. Petersen.
Wellington: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1948.
7 November 2011 marks the bicentennial of the birth of William Colenso (181199), New Zealand's pioneer printer (he was also a missionary, botanist and politician).

[Update: Despite what is stated in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, the Bagnall-Petersen biography, and doubtless other resources, Colenso was actually born on 17 November. This is recorded in his earliest surviving journal for 1833 (held by the Turnbull Library) and is also etched on Colenso's tombstone. Thanks are due to Ian St George for this correction.]

The honour of producing the first printed matter on New Zealand shores actually falls to the Rev. William Yate (180277), whose Ko te Katekihama III, a six-page printing of the third catechism in Maori, appeared in 1830 and survives in two known copies only. Yate's printing venture, however, was unsuccessful. He produced just the catechism and a few hymn sheets before his press was shipped back to Sydney.

William Colenso arrived in New Zealand as printer for the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in December 1834. He served as the CMS printer for eight years and produced a large body of work with little efficient help. An estimated 74,100 books and pamphlets were printed by Colenso between January 1835 and January 1840. Among his most important pieces of printing are: The Epistles to the Philippians and the Ephesians in Maori (1835), the first book printed in New Zealand; the Declaration of Independence of New Zealand (1836), the first printings of the New Testament and Book of Common Prayer in Maori (1838 and 1839 respectively), and the Treaty of Waitangi (1840).

Opening of the Gospel of St. John
New Testament in Maori (1838)
Colenso took an inventive approach to the layout of his type cases. He organised them in a way that was most effective for arranging lines of type in the Maori language, the alphabet for which (developed by church missionaries from the Maori oral tradition) includes about half the number of letters used in English. The Alembic Press website has some very useful examples of the distribution in Colenso's cases, as described in D. F. McKenzie's Oral Culture: Literacy & Print in Early New Zealand (Wellington, 1985): Maori (upper case) and Maori (lower case).

For more information on the life of William Colenso, see his entry in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.


  1. Colenso said (and he should know) his birthday was 17 November 1811. The error of 7 November is oft repeated.... Ian St George