From Protestant zealot to kindly old man

WILLIAM COLENSO: His Life and Journeys<br><b>A.G. Bagnall and G.C. Petersen, edited by Ian St George<br></b><i>Otago University PressIn the 1930s when A.H. Reed and A.W. (Cliff) Reed were setting up their publishing business, they wondered if their fledgling firm would grow to become a leading publisher of missionary and other religious history.

That was not to be. Although A.H. developed his editing and writing skills on missionary diaries, nephew Cliff took the list in a more general direction as a mainly secular publisher.

Nevertheless, the Reeds kept an interest in colonial missionary history and Cliff regarded Bagnall and Petersen's massive 1948 biography of pioneer missionary, printer, politician, botanist and small businessman William Colenso as a flagship publication.

He was right. Even today Graham Bagnall's name resonates with librarians and researchers. There has been a big resurgence of interest in Colenso lately. In 2011, Otago University Press published a companion volume by editor Ian St George, Give Your Thoughts Life: William Colenso's Letters to the Editor.

Film-maker and writer Peter Wells has also given us The Hungry Heart: Travels With William Colenso.

So, why part with $65 for another Colenso publication? The main reason is the subject himself. Colenso seemed to have been involved in every big issue in early colonial New Zealand, from warning Maori against signing the Treaty of Waitangi through to rubbing shoulders with Bishop Selwyn, Donald McLean and a host of other big names.

His life was often turbulent, with a marriage break-up and financial worries being just some of the problems he created or faced. Peter Wells has given greater emphasis to Colenso's private life, but it would be hard to disagree with Bagnall and Petersen's verdict: ''His weakness was an almost pathological confidence in the justice and correctness of his own actions. To live with a man who could compromise with only one Master would surely be impossible. But New Zealand must always be grateful that he lived and has done him less than honour in many fields.''

Recent research has better highlighted Colenso's major contribution to fields such as Maori language and culture and to botany, but Bagnall and Petersen's book still stands up well.

St George has made few alterations to the text, which still carries that modern luxury, footnotes, not endnotes. His 18-page introduction summarises our changing understanding of Colenso and examines the man's evolution from an ''arrogant Protestant zealot'' to ''the kindly old man on the [Napier] hill who gave apples to passing schoolboys and preached against zealots.''

Dr McLean is a Wellington historian and reviewer.