Story: European exploration

Page 3. William Colenso and the east coast

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Into the Urewera

Much of the east coast of the North Island was explored by William Colenso. A Cornish layman, he arrived at the Paihia mission station in 1834 as the country’s first printer. Driven by a desire to convert Māori to Christianity, and by a love of nature as ‘the living garment in which the Invisible has robed His mysterious loveliness’, he found his true home ‘in the wild’. 1

In 1841, Colenso set off from Poverty Bay into the mountainous Urewera region with a party of Māori as guides and porters. At Waikaremoana on Christmas Eve he met a Catholic missionary, Father Claude-André Baty, who was en route from Māhia. Colenso launched a verbal attack on this competitor for Māori souls. After passing through Ruatāhuna and Rotorua, he eventually reached the Bay of Islands. Along the way he collected 1,000 botanical specimens and some moa bones.

Bishop Selwyn

In 1842 Colenso’s boss, Bishop George Augustus Selwyn, walked with Chief Justice William Martin through the Manawatū Gorge into northern Wairarapa, and then trudged north to Ahuriri (Napier), Wairoa and Tokomaru Bay. At the Waiapu valley they turned west and crossed the challenging Raukūmara Range.

Ruahine Range

In 1845 Bishop Selwyn sent Colenso, now an ordained deacon, to establish a mission station at Ahuriri. Within a month of his arrival Colenso set off with Māori porters across the Ruahine Range to visit a Māori congregation at inland Pātea, in the Rangitīkei valley. He found the kainga deserted, but did discover an ‘enchanting scene’ of mountain flowers. An enthusiastic botanist, Colenso turned his jacket and shirt into bags and stuffed them with plants.

Sweet dreams?

After an afternoon collecting flowers on the Ruahine mountain tops in 1845, William Colenso spent a restless night: ‘Often, indeed, did the words of the great Teacher come to memory. “Consider the lilies!” … That night I was wholly occupied with my darling specimens … only getting about 2 hours sleep towards morning.’ 2

Two years later Colenso finally reached the Māori of inland Pātea, going via Lake Taupō then heading south. He returned over the Ruahine Range, a trip he repeated five times in the next five years. Colenso made an important contribution to the botanical and geographical exploration of New Zealand.


While missionaries explored the North Island for souls, others were looking for wealth. In 1830 the trader Charles Marshall travelled up the Waikato River. The next year Phillip Tapsell, a whaler turned trader, went inland from Maketū in Bay of Plenty to Rotorua. The merchant John Carne Bidwill also headed inland from Bay of Plenty to Rotorua in 1839. He ignored a Māori tapu (spiritual restriction) and climbed to the summit of Mt Ngāuruhoe.

  1. Quoted in Philip Temple, New Zealand explorers: great journeys of discovery. Christchurch: Whitcoulls, 1985, pp. 12, 18. › Back
  2. New Zealand explorers, p. 21. › Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'European exploration - William Colenso and the east coast', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 May 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 24 Sep 2007