the written word

Our extensive taonga Māori collection dates from the days of the Athenaeum established in 1865 and includes the collections of Donald McLean, G J Black and George Ebbett. Numerous Māori related items also appear in the archive including photographs, manuscripts and collections of maps.

As a curator there are times when you stumble upon major treasure troves. This stumble was more of a casual conversation with archivist Gail Pope who brought my attention to Māori items in the William Colenso collection.

It is important to first understand the significance of the Māori language to William Colenso and his family. He arrived in New Zealand as a missionary from England and understood the importance of learning Māori to his position. Letters to and from local rangatira and other manuscripts show Colenso signed off as Te Koreneho, a transliterised Māori version of his name. Te Koreneho’s household was a Māori speaking household. His wife Elizabeth Colenso and two children, Fanny and Latimer, were all fluent speakers of Māori. Both children spoke only Māori until the ages of 7 and 8. Elizabeth, a teacher, had translated English stories into Māori, two of which, ‘The Little Wanderers’ and ‘Rocky Island’ by Samuel Wilberforce were published by the Bishop Press in Waimate in 1843 and 1844.


Ko ngā Tamariki Haereere Noa 1843 and Te Motu Kowhatu 1844, written by Samuel Wilberforce, translations by Elizabeth Colenso. Collection of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 38/208 and 28/207

In terms of publishing Māori material and resources to teach Māori speakers ‘the written word’ Te Koreneho undertook Māori language projects that were turning points in 19th Century development of Māori. This was a crucial time for printing in Māori as Māori people themselves were only beginning to interpret their own language in writing.

Formerly these would have been created to teach Māori to read the Bible – Te Koreneho had translated the complete New Testament into Māori in 1838. However, this work to familiarise Māori with reading and writing in their own language enabled them to do the same with English.

So devoted was Te Koreneho to developing the learning of Māori speakers that he was contracted by the Government to formulate a complete Māori lexicon in seven years for which he was paid a remuneration of £300 a year. A change of government over that time meant serious complications for the progress of this lexicon, for example, the withdrawal of the free postal service had a dramatic impact on his communication with the government. Three and a half years passed and he was notified that a large portion of the lexicon should be in the press. After he replied that this was impossible he was notified that his remuneration would cease to continue until further notice. He continued to work unpaid to the point where he was ordered to provide a ‘sample’ of his approved lexicon. He had only in retaliation to what he perceived as inappropriate treatment and in 1898 had only completed and printed the letter block A.

Mr. Colenso’s Māori-English Lexicon (specimen of); Manuscript. New Zealand. William Colenso (b.1811, d.1899) Collection of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 45/372

Te Koreneho also printed Te A-nui a Wi, Willie’s First English Book in 1872 but only parts one and two of three. The name of this publication can be interpreted as ‘The big A of Wi’ or ‘The alphabet of Wi’. Within the series, the target language is English delivered in Māori. We can interpret from the title that the resource was dedicated to Te Koreneho’s son Wiremu, who much like Te Koreneho’s older children, did not converse in English. We can further allude to the dedication being made to the Māori children of the community, providing an important and unique resource for learning English as a second language.

Willie’s First English Book, Part I; William Colenso (b.1811, d.1899), George Didsbury, Government Printer (est. 1865, closed 1893) Collection of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 4577

It has been a privilege for me to return to my whenua and have the opportunity to work amongst my iwi specifically, the opportunity to develop an intimate relationship with our taonga Māori collection and Māori archival material.

Migoto Eria
Curator Taonga Māori
December 2012