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New Zealanders and Science

2 — The Forerunners

page 9

The Forerunners

In the pre-settlement and early settlement days New Zealand formed a happy hunting-ground for many eminent men of science attracted here from distant centres of civilisation. By nature the country was fitted to make valuable scientific contributions, particularly in the spheres of geology and botany, and long before colonisation began, visiting scientists were impressed by the rich field of research that lay open to them. The earliest of these visiting scientists was Sir Joseph Banks who, with a party comprising Dr Daniel Carl Solander and several assistants, accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage. Banks considered that New Zealand plant life lacked variety, but he was not without compensations: 'The entire novelty, however, of the greater part of what we found recompensed us as natural historians for the want of variety.' Of the many species noted by Banks and Solander, only a dozen, a few of which were common to many parts of the world, had been described by any botanist. 'We botanised with our usual good success, page 10which could not be doubted in a country so totally new' is a typical entry in Banks's journal.

The results of the expedition were all that could be expected from scientific knowledge and enthusiasm released in a field so novel. The party collected 360 species of plants and ferns, and Solander wrote descriptions of more than 300 of them, while, on his return, Banks had numerous folio copper engravings prepared. As Cockayne lamented, these remained for over a century in the archives of the British Museum, until at length their publication was undertaken in 1900. Banks made preparations to accompany Cook on the second voyage, but owing to a difference with the sailors over the accommodation for the scientists and their equipment, he had reluctantly to cancel his plans. Dr J. R. Forster, a German naturalist, and his son were appointed instead and made the trip, but with less successful results. The scholarly surgeon of the third voyage, Dr Anderson, completes the list of scientists who visited New Zealand under the command of the greatest of English navigators.

Cook's achievements opened the way for an increasing number of expeditions—British, French, and American. Captain Vancouver, who had sailed on the second voyage as a midshipman in the Resolution, arrived in 1791 bringing with him Dr Archibald Menzies as collector. Menzies was an able worker, and some of his results were to have the distinction of illustrating Sir W. J. Hooker's Musci Exotici and page break page 11 Icones Filicum. Comparable with Cook's in their scope and thoroughness were the two expeditions under the command of Dumont d'Urville, the first in 1827, the second during the year when New Zealand was finally recognised as a British possession. Before that, however, in the period when New Zealand was vaguely thought of as a dependency of New South Wales, the official botanist of that colony, Allan Cunningham, had paid two visits. In 1826 he spent four months at the Bay of Islands and he came again in 1838. His premature death as the result of a chill caught on the second visit makes him the first martyr to science in this country. The flora of New Zealand must have had unusual attractions for the Cunningham family, since Allan's brother, Richard, deserted from the navy in 1833 to undertake a similar botanical excursion.

Two distinguished names remain to be added to the list of visitors during this period, and both are linked with the scene and the personalities of the Treaty of Waitangi. Charles Darwin arrived at the Bay of Islands on 21 December 1835 as naturalist on the Beagle expedition commanded by New Zealand's future governor, Captain Robert FitzRoy. During their ten days in the Bay Darwin met James Busby, who accompanied him on several walks and provided him with Maori guides. 'Mr Bushby', as Darwin called him, informed the naturalist 'that a little quiet irony would frequently silence any one of these natives in their most blustering moments.' The page 12naturalist also met the 'missionary gentlemen', Messrs Williams, Davis, Clarke, and Baker. Darwin was delighted at the Williams's establishment at Waimate, which brought England vividly before his mind, and inspired high hopes for the future progress of this fine island. The United States Exploring Expedition, commanded by Charles Wilkes, with J. D. Dana as geologist, reached the Bay of Islands at the time of Hobson's arrival. Dana's stay was short and his observations cursory and limited, but they—and the critical account of the signing of the Treaty—make the records of the expedition of permanent interest to New Zealanders.

Even earlier than the establishment of British sovereignty began the systematic colonisation of New Zealand which was to add enormously to the scientific knowledge of the country. This phase of scientific investigation opened most auspiciously with the work of Dr Ernst Dieffenbach whom the directors of the New Zealand Company had selected as surgeon and naturalist of the Tory expedition. This German scientist had a wide acquaintance with many branches of science including botany, geology, and anthropology. He was moreover a man of broad sympathies who grasped the essential problems of the contact between European colonisers and an intelligent native race. His Travels in New Zealand gives an extraordinarily interesting and informative account of the wanderings of a man of science in a country where the page 13influences of European settlement and culture were beginning to penetrate.

On his arrival in New Zealand in August 1839 he first studied the principal geological features of the Marlborough sounds district together with its flora and fauna. While the Tory was at Port Nicholson, Dieffenbach went on a sixteen-day excursion up the Hutt valley, partly to carry out geological observations, partly to ascertain whether Port Nicholson had ready access to fertile country. From then until 1841 he undertook most extensive and arduous journeys to which we owe the first systematic information about the geology of the North Island. With the whaler, Heberley, he made the first ascent by Europeans of Mount Egmont after being forced by the weather to abandon an earlier attempt. Dieffenbach calculated the height of the mountain as 8,839 feet, an extremely accurate measurement under the circumstances. (The height of Egmont is now estimated at 8,260 feet.)

After a journey to the Chatham islands in the Cuba, the scientist returned to New Zealand, landing at the Bay of Islands in October 1840. Accompanied by Captain Bernard, 'an adventurous Frenchman', he undertook a geological excursion to North Auckland, where he noted and lamented the tendency of colonists to burn forests indiscriminately. From North Cape he moved downwards via Hokianga, Kaitaia, Whangaroa, Kaipara, and the Thames, to Auckland.

Dieffenbach then conducted the first examination page 14by a European scientist of the thermal regions. He came south to the Waikato river and then down the Waipa valley to Lake Taupo. To such extremes did his scientific zeal lead him that he tasted the waters of the various hot springs and geysers which he encountered. His description of the thermal activity round Lake Taupo is extremely thorough and scientifically accurate. It is also of interest to the general reader, for Dieffenbach could describe with amusing eloquence such uncomfortable experiences as crossing the lake in bad weather in a small Maori canoe. With no little courage he followed native guides into places where only a treacherous crust of earth one foot in depth separated him from a morass of boiling mud.

From Taupo Dieffenbach followed the thermal lake system through the centre of the North Island, travelling via Lakes Roto Aira, Rotomahana, Rotorua, and their subsidiary lakes. He was bitterly disappointed that the tapu on Mount Tongariro prevented him from examining the crater of an active volcano, but he was not prepared to pay the four sovereigns conscience money which the Maoris demanded to allow him to break the tapu. Lake Rotomahana, which he believed to have been seen by only one European, Mr Chapman, was described as the most beautiful scene he had ever beheld. His was the earliest published description of the Pink and White Terraces and of the native pa on the shores of Lake page 15Tarawera, so tragically destroyed in 1886. After tracing the line of thermal activity out to White Island, Dieffenbach returned to Auckland.

The second volume of Travels in New Zealand consists of a section on the Maori race, a grammar and dictionary of the Maori language, written by Dieffenbach, and a section on New Zealand fauna written by Dr Gray of the British Museum. In his study of the Maori people, Dieffenbach shows qualities worthy of the finest type of scientific mind. As an anthropologist he studied Maori physiognomy, noting the fine development of the skull. His observations led him to state that the Polynesians were more akin to the Phoenicians, Syrians, and Carthaginians of Asia than to the Malayans and Javans. As a medical man he studied the diseases common to the natives — skin irritations due to the adoption of the blanket as an article of clothing, and lung troubles due to the dampness of native dwellings. Foreseeing the evil consequences of driving the natives from their land, he hoped that the New Zealand colonists would spare Maori civilisation, so that the native would be left to work happy and respected among his own people, with an allotment of arable land sufficient to support him. It is unfortunate that a man of such ability and integrity did not remain longer in the colony, but after two adventurous years here, he left in October 1841 for England.

If the Company did not again employ a scientist of page 16Dieffenbach's varied attainments, it maintained a desultory patronage of science and, towards the close of its existence, shared in the expenses of the famous Acheron survey expedition (1848-51) which brought with it Dr Charles Forbes as geologist and David Lyall as surgeon. As the ship moved along the coast, both men assiduously explored and collected, Lyall's name being immortalised in Ranunculus lyallii, 'the largest buttercup in the world'. Finally, reference must be made to the French expedition to Akaroa in 1840. With it came an enthusiastic botanist, Raoul, medical officer on the frigate Aube. For three years he studied plant life at Banks Peninsula and the Bay of Islands, finally returning to France in the sloop Allier. His works, Choix de Plantes de la Nouvelle-Zélande (1846) and Fleurs Sauvages et Bois Précieux de la Nouvelle-Zélande (1889), were later published to form an extremely valuable contribution to New Zealand botany.

These scientists, French, American, and British, showed by the results of their excursions that New Zealand was indeed a land of promise for men of their profession. By their numerous writings and some excellently-produced maps, charts, and engravings, they attracted attention to a New Zealand in which, after British colonisation, the field lay open to the men of the next phase—the explorer scientists.