Printing the New Testament in Te Reo Maori

Today’s issue of the Otago Daily Times informs that on this day in 1837 “William Colenso” prints 5000 copies of a 356-page Bible translated into Maori.”[1] That sounds impressive in the extreme – so impressive that the urge for verification sent me scurrying for my copy of Peter Lineham’s Bible & Society.[2] And indeed, it transpires that the ODT’s history highlight is rather more impressive than it is historically accurate.

Most certainly Colenso and his assistant, William Wade, did produce 5000 copies of 356 pages each. However, these copies constituted just the New Testament – not the Bible in its Old and New Testament entirety. The small Stanhope printing machine which Colenso and Wade brought with them from England in 1834 proved less efficient than anticipated, taking some 22 months from March 1836 until December 1837 to print the pages of these 5000 New Testaments. But that was only the beginning …

Once printed, each of these 5000 sets of 356 pages required binding. Here, even further difficulties ensued. Necessity became the mother of invention in the Paihia Mission Station in Northland’s Bay of Islands: whatever material came to hand was pressed into service – including curtain fabric. Ultimately, most copies were sent either to New South Wales or London for proper binding. This, of course, not only increased the cost beyond an already expensive 3s 3d (3 shillings & 3 pence) but considerably delayed distribution of the scriptures until much later in 1838.

At the time it was estimated that of the 45 000 Maori in contact with missionaries  some  800 adult Maori were able to read as a result of access to certain portions of scripture in Te Reo Maori.

A little over 30 years later, after significant attention to the details of translation, checking revision and proofreading, a single volume of the entire Bible in Maori was published by the Bible Society in 1868.

As a postscript, it is interesting to note that a Maori Bible belonging to the Weslyan Methodist Missionary, Revd Thomas Buddle, is held by the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch. Buddle arrived in New Zealand in 1840, played a prominent role in Maori Mission in the North Island, was one of three Weslyan missioners who joined with four Anglicans between late 1858 and 1860 to revise the Old Testament translation, then between 1866 and 1870 served as Chairman to the extensive Methodist circuit centred on Christchurch. [3]

[1] Page 14

[2] Lineham, Peter J (1996) Bible & Society. A Sesquicentennial History of the Bible Society in New Zealand. Wellington: The Bible Society in New Zealand & Daphne Brasell Associates Press

[3] A grand-daughter (1940) Rev Thomas and Mrs Buddle: Pioneer Missionaries. Auckland:Methodist Literature Society