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New Zealanders and Science

3 — The Pioneers

page 17

The Pioneers

As white settlers began to arrive in considerable numbers, the period of sporadic investigation drew to its close. The country was explored more systematically, and scientific work was no longer confined to the enthusiastic but brief researches of the visitor. Men now devoted their lives to the scientific exploration of New Zealand. Hence the period from the late fifties to 1880 may well be termed the era of the explorer scientist. In these years small parties of men went out into the wilderness, firstly to explore and chart an unknown country, secondly to serve the interests of science by studying geological and botanical features so far as time (largely a matter of provisions) would permit. A true judgment of the work of these pioneers can be formed only if we recollect the position of science in general in their time and, not less important, the conditions under which they worked.

What, then, was the position of science in the early years of Victoria's reign? Observational science had page 18been carried on more or less through the ages, but rational science remained very much where the Greeks left it after the extraordinary flowering that occurred in the lower end of the Attic peninsula round about 300 b.c. mathematics, of course, progressed steadily through the centuries, and scientific geology was developed and had its 'heroic age' from 1790 to 1820; but it was only after the publication of the Origin of Species that the other natural sciences had any triumphs to compare with 'the glory that was Greece'. Chemistry had only a charlatan existence till Robert Boyle placed chemical analysis on a sound footing about 1650; but it was not till the nineteenth century that tables of atomic weights first led men to suspect that all was not stable with even the known elements. Thus began the ferment of thought that led to the discoveries of Rutherford, Soddy, and Bohr.

Botany and biology stood where Aristotle had left them until Linnaeus (1707-78) and Cuvier (1769-1832) laid the foundations for a new edifice. It was not till 1859, however, that the Origin of Species caused the men of the scientific world to stand for a moment awed and breathless, as if from 'a peak in Darien' they glimpsed a new ocean of thought.

Heat and light had received very inadequate treatment until the nineteenth century. In 1824 Carnot developed one of the most amazing and beautiful pieces of synthetic reasoning the world has ever seen, and proved that even in a perfect engine heat could page 19not be converted into work without a serious loss of energy. The interdependence of heat and work was not enunciated by Joule till 1843, and it was not until 1865 that Maxwell defined heat as a mode of motion, and light as an electro-magnetic vibration. Even to-day the problems of heat and light are imperfectly understood and are the subjects of intensive research.

In the sixteenth century Copernicus re-discovered the facts about the earth's motion round the sun, known perfectly well to Aristarchus or his school 2,000 years before. Later Kepler, Newton, and Laplace invoked the powerful aid of mathematics to plot the motion of the spheres with meticulous exactitude. It was the invention of the spectroscope and the publication of Bickerton's theory in the latter half of the nineteenth century, which made possible the modern attacks on the theories of the genesis of the stars, attacks which have resulted in the new and rational science of astronomy or stellar physics, of which Gifford is an outstanding exponent.

Such was the scientific world with which New Zealand made contact when men of science arrived to stay not for a few months, but for years, and in some cases for a lifetime. The life and growth of New Zealand is thus seen to be contemporaneous with the life and growth of modern science. This explains why much of the work of the early provincial scientists appears mechanical to the wisdom of to-day, wisdom that will no doubt be the folly of to-morrow.

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To the men who undertook the systematic scientific work in an unknown wilderness all honour is due. The forests were tangled and trackless, the rivers unbridged and treacherous, the mountains rugged and precipitous, and all these took their toll of the early observers and natural historians who laboured during the first thirty or forty years of New Zealand's colonisation. No danger or hardship was allowed to daunt them. Consider that tragic expedition of Haast and Dr Andrew Sinclair, the veteran botanist, in 1861, to explore the Rangitata and Ashburton rivers to their sources in 'mountain gloom and glory'. Dr Sinclair was drowned while crossing the main stream of the Rangitata a few days after leaving the Mesopotamia homestead, where Samuel Butler, of Erewhon and Note Books fame, had established himself. Haast writes of the tragedy eloquently and sincerely: 'We brought the body of my lamented friend to Mesopotamia and buried him on March 29th. Near the banks of the river, just where it emerges from the Alps, with their perpetual snowfields glistening in the sun, amidst Veronicas and Senecios and covered with Celmisias and Gentians, there lies his lonely grave. With almost juvenile alacrity he had climbed and searched the mountain sides, showing that, notwithstanding his advanced age, his love for his cherished science had supplied him with strength for his pursuits, until at last, overrating his powers, and not sufficiently aware of the treacherous nature of alpine page 21torrents, he fell a victim to his zeal. Great and deep was my sorrow, and with a saddened heart I had to continue alone the work upon which we had set out together.' To turn back did not occur to the heroes of science in those early days; only, with so much to do and so little done, 'with a saddened heart I had to continue alone the work upon which we had set out together.'

Often an expedition entailed long and arduous travel through an unknown country. For months at a time scientists disappeared from the haunts of men, tramping and climbing among jungle-choked cliffs above the snow-fed torrents, camping among boulders with the thunder and roar of the swollen river always in their ears, till at last, perchance, they reached their goal on the western ocean beach and 'stood in the surf, giving three hearty cheers', or reached the far-out homestead in the lonely valley in rags, shoeless, and without provisions. Safely home again, they prepared, with no clerical assistance, voluminous reports, in longhand, to the superintendent of their province (if they happened to be in the service) merely prefacing them with some such words as these (I quote an actual record): 'Sir—I have the honour to forward herewith my report on the Geology of Otago, with maps and sections. I have to tender my thanks to W. M. Hodgkins, Esq., for the two spirited sketches of Milford Sound and Mount Aspiring; and also to J. McKerrow, Esq., for the valuable table of altitudes page 22attached to the report.—I have the honour to be, Your obedient servant, F. W. Hutton. Provincial Geologist'. This report was the result of about fifteen months' exploration, principally alone and on horseback, although the government steamer Luna provided transport to Stewart Island and several of the West Coast sounds. It had the fortune to be printed, but while the sketches of Hodgkins are undoubtedly spirited, the author sadly observes: 'It cannot be supposed that in such a rapid survey as I have made of the Province, I could, single-handed, have filled in quite accurately all the boundaries of the different formations; but I feel tolerably confident in the general accuracy of the work, and hope that it will be found a safe foundation for future detailed surveys.'

The report as printed covered 151 pages of octavo size and showed that Hutton personally examined virtually every square mile of the 20,876 square miles in his area (Southland and Stewart Island were then included in Otago), but it pains me to learn, on the authority of James Park, that certain rocks were ascribed by Hutton to the Laurentian series, whereas 'the association of the Maniototoan with the graptolite-bearing formation is so close that there is no reason to suppose that its age is older than Cambrian'!

The scientists in the provincial services were not alone; a band of amateur searchers was always in evidence. These men, too, braved the rigour of the hills and the hardships of the wilds with devoted zeal page 23for their 'self-appointed task'. As Wentworth Thompson puts it: 'Deep down in the love of nature, whether it be of the sensual or intellectual kind, and in the art of observation which is its outcome and first expression, he the roots of all our Natural Science. All the world over these are the heritage of all men, though the inheritance be richer or poorer here and there: they are shown forth in the lore and wisdom of hunter and fisherman, of shepherd and husbandman, of artist and poet.' Surely we can claim that the heritage was as rich here as elsewhere! The material finds of these men provided the nucleus of collections in our provincial museums, and their records formed a share of the transactions of the philosophical societies that flourished in each centre.

Possibly much of the work of these men was done on the 'mechanic side of science', but this was inevitable in the circumstances, and the great majority of the workers were animated by the true scientific spirit to find a rational explanation for all things. As for 'mechanic' work, this was absolutely necessary in a new country where fresh facts in natural history were waiting for discovery and were discovered in such profusion that time for examination and classification was difficult to find. During the feverish rush of discovery from 1860 to 1875, hundreds of botanical and palæontological specimens had to be shipped to England for detailed examination because the local scientists were too busy to deal with them. It must be page 24remembered that the modern 'rational' side of science was developed for the sciences, other than mathematics and geology, only after 1860.

Of the personalities of these years, two visiting scientists, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker and Dr Ferdinand von Hochstetter, bridge the gap between the forerunners and the scientists who were New Zealanders either by birth or adoption. Joseph Dalton Hooker, son of the great botanist Sir William Hooker, visited New Zealand in 1841 when he was assistant surgeon and botanist to the Antarctic expedition of Sir James Ross. He arrived at the Bay of Islands on 16 August 1841 and remained there for three months. Under the guidance of William Colenso, Hooker made many excursions into the country, although the swampy nature of the district prevented him from making any extensive tours. He collected many specimens however, especially Cryptogams, before the expedition continued on a second journey to the Great Barrier. The expedition returned to England in September 1843 and early in the following year £1,000 was promised for the publication of the botany of the Antarctic voyage. Hooker decided to publish his work in three parts, the first on the antarctic portion, the second on the flora of New Zealand, and the third on the flora of Van Diemen's Land. The Flora Antarctica appeared in 1847, but it was not till 1853 after page 25Hooker's famous exploration in the Kangchenjunga regions, that the publication of Flora Novae-Zelandiae was taken in hand. Out of his private purse he paid Colenso to make collections in all parts of New Zealand, and much of the latter's work appeared in the book. Hooker concluded that the appearance of the same species in lands separated by thousands of miles of ocean indicated the disappearance of considerable areas of land. His particular life work was the study of the geographical distribution of plants, an important factor in the substantiation of Darwin's theory, to which he was a very early convert. His own extensive travels and the care he took to keep in touch with botanical research in many parts of the world enabled Hooker to become a foremost authority on the geographical distribution of plants. He maintained his interest in New Zealand flora, and extensively revised his book on New Zealand. By arrangement with the government he published in 1864-7 his classical Handbook of the New Zealand Flora, a comprehensive botanical dictionary of New Zealand plants, with thorough descriptions of each species and notes on their distribution in other parts of the world. In this book he incorporated the earlier researches of Banks and Solander, Forster, the Cunninghams, d'Urville, Raoul, Dieffenbach, Lyall, and the later researches of Colenso, Haast, Lauder Lindsay, Hector, Buchanan, Sinclair, W.T.L. Travers, Monro, and others. It was one of the many excellent standard works page 26written by Hooker in the period when the gradual acceptance of Darwin's theory was revolutionising the science of plant classification. Cockayne tells us: 'The great botanist died in 1911. He had seen almost the beginning of New Zealand botany. He himself had laid truly and well an enduring foundation; during more than seventy years he had watched the building rise, until at the time of his lamented death he saw it well advanced, and its labourers men either New Zealand-born or who for many years had made that land their home. To many of these men he was a friend, a guide, a counsellor. There is, indeed, no worker of real moment in the later botanical investigation of New Zealand but is deeply indebted to Hooker's influence and assistance, generously given.' The force of this tribute is seen not only in Cockayne's own work but notably in that of T. F. Cheeseman who, stimulated by Hooker's Handbook, conceived that interest in New Zealand flora which led to the publication in 1906 of the Manual, a monument alike to Cheeseman's patient research and to Hooker's guiding influence.

Hochstetter arrived at Auckland on 22 December 1858 as geologist on the Austrian warship Novara. Sir George Grey, then Governor of Cape Colony, had already informed the expedition of the wonders that New Zealand offered the scientist. On his arrival Hochstetter was immediately commissioned by the commander of the expedition to undertake a close page 27examination of the coalfield near Auckland, which he did from 24 December until 2 January. As the geological nature of the country was so imperfectly known, the New Zealand Government hastened to take advantage of the presence of a first-class geologist, and applied to the commodore for the loan of Hochstetter to make geological surveys in the country, especially in the Auckland province. Hochstetter remained for nine months in New Zealand.

The government provided the scientist with a small house at Auckland to serve as a depot for his collections and as an infant museum. Hochstetter always endeavoured to collect several specimens of plants, rocks, and fossils, so that he could deposit duplicates there for the benefit of Auckland citizens. He found the neighbourhood of Auckland rich in interesting volcanic phenomena, and he noted sixty-one points of eruption in the immediate vicinity of the town. He made two short excursions before his main tour through the thermal regions. The first was south from Manukau harbour to the mouth of the Waikato river, when he discovered valuable fossils, and the second was north to the Waitakerei river and the Whangaparaoa peninsula. As no naturalist had visited the thermal country since Dieffenbach in 1840, a more comprehensive survey was needed and this Hochstetter undertook. With his newly acquired friend, Haast, he organised an expedition on an unusually grand scale for those days, the party page 28boasting fifteen native porters. They left Auckland on 6 March 1859 and proceeded down to the Waikato, then up the Waipa river to Whaingaroa, Aotea, and Kawhia, where fossils were to be found. They proceeded as far south as Mokau and then turned inland across country to Lake Taupo. They sketched the lake, examined the hot springs on its shores, and then followed the remarkable line of boiling springs, solfataras, and fumaroles from where the Waikato leaves the lake out to White Island. In his account Hochstetter drew particular attention to the 'grandeur and peculiarity of the natural scenery' at Orakei Korako. He too saw the wonders of Lake Rotomahana, and even camped rather fearfully on a small hot island in the centre of the lake. 'Iceland excepted,' said Hochstetter, 'I consider this the most extensive hot-spring territory known.'

In May he reached the east coast near Maketu and proceeded along the coast to Tauranga, turned inland towards the Thames valley, and again struck the Waikato near Maungatautari. After visiting the Maori King Potatau Te Wherowhero at Ngaruawahia he returned to Auckland. During this period of three months the expedition collected 'a considerable store of geographical, botanical, and zoological material' and 'found ample opportunities for ethnographical studies.' Hochstetter made an excellent geological map of the country, a task for which he adopted, by means of the azimuth compass, a system of triangulationpage 29 based on Captain Drury's nautical survey. Charles Heaphy, the artist, made valuable sketches, and the expedition took some fine photographs. A brief visit to the Cape Colville goldfield completed Hochstetter's work in Auckland.

At the request of the Nelson superintendent Hochstetter, accompanied by Haast, proceeded to Nelson, then New Zealand's leading mineral and metal district. The Nelson government did all it could to assist the scientists in their geological survey of the province, and placed the steamer Tasmanian Maid at their disposal so that they could examine points on the shores of Blind Bay and Golden Bay in rapid succession. Hochstetter examined the gold and coalfields in the vicinity of Nelson and traced a geological map of northern parts of the province. He was convinced of the richness of the goldfields at Aorere and Takaka, and he considered that they would be followed by the discovery of similar deposits in the mountain ranges of the South Island. He prophesied correctly, for the Aorere and Takaka districts gave a steady yield over a long period, although eclipsed by the wealth of the Otago and West Coast goldfields. Hochstetter again prophesied correctly the existence of workable coalfields in the Pakawau district, near Collingwood.

Hochstetter's expedition in Nelson was important not only for his study of minerals. He also increased his plant and fossil collections: 'The limestone caves of the Aorere Valley opened to us rich stores of Moa page 30bones. Through the exertions of my companion Dr Haast not only single bones but more or less complete skeletons were brought to light. To these was added an almost complete skeleton of Palapteryx ingens * . . .' From Lake Arthur (now called Rotoiti), the southernmost point reached by Hochstetter, he saw 'the stupendous peaks of the southern mountain-ranges with their summits of perpetual ice and snow glistening towards me'. In spite of his longing to visit these mountains he had to leave their exploration to his fellow geologist, Haast. After a farewell lecture in Nelson on the geology of the province, he left for Sydney on 2 October 1859.

In 1863 Hochstetter, now a professor at Vienna, published in German a book on his adventures in New Zealand. It was revised and published in English in 1867 under the title, New Zealand: Its Physical Geography, Geology and Natural History. The first part of the book is an interesting narrative of his journeys, the second part is devoted more exclusively to his scientific observations. He remarked on the peculiar geographical position of New Zealand. The system of mountains running from south-west to north-east formed a distinctly marked line of elevation in the Pacific Ocean. This longitudinal line was crossed almost at right angles by a line indicated by the direction of Foveaux Strait and Cook Strait, which was designated by Dana as the axis of the greatest page 31depression in the Pacific Ocean. The principal eruptions, plutonic and volcanic, corresponded to the north-easterly line of elevation. Some of the ancient fossils which he found in the Richmond district led him to confirm Professor Agassiz's thesis that the older the formations, the more analogy is exhibited in their fossils, even in countries at a great distance from each other. Incorporating the researches of Dana, Haast, Hector, and Lauder Lindsay, he gave a list of the types of geological deposits and where they were to be found in New Zealand. He also provided summaries of the principal types of flora and fauna in New Zealand, and an unsympathetic chapter on the Maoris whom he regarded as a doomed race.

In nine brief months Hochstetter had laid the foundations of the geological history of the North Island and of those parts of the South Island outside Otago and Canterbury. New Zealand was indeed fortunate to secure the services of this eminent scientist even for so short a time, and it was fortunate too that Haast remained to devote a lifetime in this country to the work he had begun with his friend.

During this period, and indeed till the end of last century, the Rev. William Colenso was, as Hooker testified, the outstanding figure among New Zealand botanists. He arrived at the Bay of Islands as a missionary printer in 1834, and for sixty-five years was an ardent investigator in ethnology, botany, page 32zoology, and the Maori language. Under other circumstances—and, indeed, if he had not spread his energies over a field so vast, even in his circumstances—he would have been a scientist of the very highest eminence. As it was, he became a figure of world-wide repute, acknowledged by his contemporaries as a very great man. For many years he collected botanical specimens to be incorporated, as already mentioned, in Sir J. D. Hooker's Handbook of the New Zealand Flora, and Hooker gratefully acknowledges the excellent services of this missionary botanist. Of his diverse scientific writings, which would form a fair-sized library in themselves, the greatest was his essay, On the Maori Races of New Zealand, written for the New Zealand Exhibition of 1865. This comprehensive review is equally praiseworthy for the tremendous amount of information gathered concerning Maori habits, customs, and modes of thought, for the extensive display of scientific knowledge of every description which illuminated it, and for the strong common sense and breadth of mind by which it was characterised. The fact that he was able to gain the confidence of the Maoris to such an extent that they, a secretive people, gave him full information concerning their customs, rites, and thoughts, and that having gathered this information he dealt with it so sympathetically and sensibly, shows that Colenso was a great man as well as a great scientist.

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Other noteworthy scientists of the period were Crawford, Mantell, Buller, the elder Travers, the elder Kirk, William Skey, the analyst and chemist, and Alexander McKay, that venerable and romantic figure of geological history. To single out even these men for mention is an invidious task; but the array of scientific observers of the period and the range of the information they accumulated are well illustrated by the fact that such men must be dismissed with so cursory and ungracious a reference. When one considers the work of Sir Walter Buller on our native birds and realises that the other men I have named, and indeed a whole army of observers, devoted their lives to their self-appointed task just as wholeheartedly as he did, one is filled with admiration for their lives and attainments.

Because his work is less known to the public, and for no other reason, I must mention that in 1868 Skey, in a paper read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, first advanced the proposal to use cyanide in the amalgamation processes for the extraction of gold. The development of the process was largely, if not entirely, the work of William Skey and his successor, Dr Maclaurin. The tracing of their process would be a book that cannot be written here, but one that should be written to their honour and to the glory of New Zealand.

Overshadowing even these eminent scientists, however, were three great men — Haast, Hector, and page 34Hutton — who were the leaders in New Zealand science until at least 1890. This is the order of their arrival and possibly also reflects the order of their scientific attainments. Each was appointed provincial geologist—Haast to Canterbury in 1860 and afterwards curator of the Canterbury Museum; Hector to Otago in 1861, where he remained until in 1865 he became director of the geological survey of New Zealand; Hutton to Otago in 1873. He left there in 1879 to become professor of biology at Canterbury College, and in 1893 he also became curator of the Canterbury Museum. But they were not only geologists; each was also a botanist and a zoologist of no mean order.

There are two 'miracles' associated with the growth of science in New Zealand. The first was the finding of these three outstanding scientists when the provincial and central governments recognised the necessity of instituting scientific exploration and survey. Consider the first geological survey of New Zealand. Sir James Hector was in command and associated with him were:

Sir Julius von Haast, k.c.m.g., ph.d. (Bonn), f.r.s., f.g.s. (63 publications)

Professor F. W. Hutton, f.r.s., f.g.s. (105 publications)

E. H. Davis (2 publications)

Professor S. H. Cox, f.g.s. (58 publications)

Alexander McKay, f.g.s., field geologist (130 publications)

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Professor J. Park, f.g.s., field geologist (113 publications)

William Skey, f.c.s., analyst

John Buchanan,f.l.s., botanist and draughtsman (3 publications).

The publications referred to are those listed in the very excellent geological bibliography appended to James Park's The Geology of New Zealand (1910). The list refers to books, pamphlets, and papers read before the philosophical societies and other scientific bodies, or incorporated in the geological survey publications, but includes only publications of geologic interest. Sir James Hector's name appears ninety-five times in the same list. In most cases their activities in botany and zoology were equally extensive.

The appointment of these three men, endowed alike with talent, character, robust manliness, and administrative ability was, then, the first of these 'miracles'. The second was the foundation of a scientific university and the selection of professors who were as eminent in their own spheres as the three explorer scientists. It is in terms of these men and their work that the history of the second phase in New Zealand science can best be unfolded.

* A type of moa.