Kōrero: European exploration

Whārangi 3. William Colenso and the east coast

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

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 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 he 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, en route from Māhia. Colenso launched a verbal attack on this competitor for Māori souls. Later, after passing through Ruatāhuna and Rotorua, he 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, went with Chief Justice William Martin through the Manawatū Gorge into the Wairarapa and then 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 at Ahuriri. Within a month Colenso had set off with Māori porters across the Ruahine Range to visit a Māori congregation at inland Pātea, in the Rangitīkei valley. He failed to cross the ridges, 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 over 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 the Bay of Plenty to Rotorua. The Australian merchant John Carne Bidwill also headed inland from the Bay of Plenty to Rotorua in 1839, ignoring the Māori tapu (spiritual restriction) and climbing Mt Ngāuruhoe.

Kupu tāpiri
  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
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Jock Phillips, 'European exploration - William Colenso and the east coast', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/european-exploration/page-3 (accessed 4 December 2023)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 24 Sep 2007