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New Zealanders and Science

4 — Von Haast

page 36

Von Haast

Julius Haast was born on 1 May 1824 at Bonn, where his father was a burgomaster. He was educated at the grammar schools of Bonn and Cologne and afterwards studied geology and mineralogy at the University of Bonn, then the home of such brilliant geologists as Roemer, Goldfuss, Bischof, and vom Rath. After leaving the university he travelled extensively in Europe in order to widen his knowledge of field geology. The special study which he made of Etna and Vesuvius proved of great value in his later work in New Zealand. In 1858 he accepted the offer from an English shipping firm to come out to New Zealand and report on its suitability as a home for German emigrants.

Haast arrived at Auckland in the Evening Star on 21 December 1858, a day before the Austrian frigate Novara put into port with Dr Hochstetter on board. The journeys undertaken by Hochstetter and Haast in the Auckland and Nelson provinces have already been mentioned. The twenty-seven years of Haast's page break
The Whitcombe Pass

The Whitcombe Pass

Ranunculus Insignis On Mount Hector

Ranunculus Insignis On Mount Hector

page 37life which followed the departure of Hochstetter from the Nelson province late in 1859 may be taken as a continuation of the pioneering scientific work begun by him and Hochstetter together.

The Nelson provincial council, recognising the necessity for extending the researches so well begun, engaged Haast to conduct a geological examination of the country in order to ascertain what minerals of practical value were in or near the various ranges between Nelson and the Grey river, to look for suitable passes and routes, and to report on the feasibility of communication with the southernmost parts of the district, Westland being included in the Nelson province at that date. Finally Haast was to construct a rough topographical map that should serve as a basis for future operations. This arduous task, undertaken in January 1860, occupied eight months. The difficulties and dangers of the work can hardly be exaggerated. They were vividly described by Haast himself in his report to the Nelson provincial government, published in 1861. With packs weighing seventy pounds the small party had to fight its way up mountain sides, through dense bush entangled with supplejack and lawyers, over swamps, across deep rivers. At one stage their rations were reduced 'to a small pot of lillipe (or boiled flour) twice a day, with hoped-for additions of wekas or eels'. 'Our gun,' Haast continues, 'unfortunately was useless, having been entirely spoiled by the wet in frequently crossing page 38rivers, without our having any means of protecting it from the water'.

The hardships were not suffered in vain, however. The seams of coal in the Grey valley, observed by Brunner, were found by Haast to be not of the brown coal already known in many parts of the province, but of a 'real coal, its compactness, lustre and combustibility, leaving no tiling to be desired.' Encouraged to make a more detailed study of the strata of the district, Haast discovered in the small valley of a tributary to the Buller several seams of fine black coal, one of which dipped so regularly as to suggest that the deposits would be of considerable value. He christened the valley by a name which has since become famous, 'Coalbrook Dale', now a centre of the Westport coal industry. In addition to the discovery of two coalfields, Haast found ample evidence of gold in the rivers. Haast's report concludes with a fairly comprehensive geological survey of the district covered, together with notes on botany and zoology.

Although the Nelson people appear not to have realised the value of Haast's work, he found in William Moorhouse, the superintendent of Canterbury, an appreciative patron. Towards the end of 1860 he received from Moorhouse a letter requesting him to make a geological examination of the mountain range separating Lyttelton from the Canterbury plains. A tunnel for the Lyttelton-Christchurch railway, a tremendous undertaking for a small settlement, page 39had been projected. But the English contractors had met with some specially hard basaltic rocks at the Lyttelton end, and on Mount Pleasant had struck one of the hardest dykes in the system. Consequently they had thrown up the contract. Haast commenced a geological survey of Banks Peninsula on I December 1860 and on the 19th presented to the superintendent a report, together with thirty-four geological specimens. As a result, work on the tunnel was resumed.

Christchurch expressed its gratitude by offering Haast the post of provincial geologist to Canterbury, an office which he held with distinction from 1861-8. During these years he explored much of Canterbury and south Westland, charted the main topographical features, and studied the geological structure of these regions.

From February till June 1861 he explored the upper reaches of the Rangitata and Ashburton rivers. On this expedition he discovered three tributaries and glaciers and was rewarded further by finding some fossils of younger Palæozoic age. The expedition had its tragic aspect however, and the fate of Dr Sinclair, the botanist, reminds us of the perils ever attendant on the scientists of that period.

A second expedition in that year, on this occasion to the Malvern Hills and Mount Torlesse, produced some extremely interesting geological information quite apart from the discovery of a fine seam of coal in the valley of the Kowai. Mount Torlesse, the page 40Thirteen Mile Bush, as well as the higher parts of the Malvern Hills, were found to be built up of the same type of sedimentary rocks as Haast had first seen in the country between the Waiau and Awatere rivers in Marlborough. The rocks had been so greatly changed in position by the flexure of the strata that in many cases the dip was nearly vertical, giving the high rocky ranges a ribboned appearance; in some spots they had actually been inverted, so that the lower beds appeared to be the upper ones. On the summits of these ranges a harvest of particularly interesting plants was reaped. On Mount Torlesse alone 200 flowering plants were collected, thirty of which were new to science.

Early in 1862 Haast and Arthur Dudley Dobson proceeded to the Mount Cook region to search for gold deposits, at the same time continuing the regular geological survey. The extensive river system which forms Lakes Tekapo, Pukaki, and Ohau was surveyed. Among the glaciers visited and named were the Godley, Tasman, Classen, Macaulay, Murchison, Faraday, Hooker, and Mueller. Numerous observations, sketches, and measurements were taken and Haast returned as usual laden with botanical and geological booty. A glance at a map will show the extent of country explored and surveyed in a few short months. It was on this occasion that Haast observed that the Mackenzie plains had formerly been the bed of an enormous glacier, and after the retreat page 41of the ice had been filled with morainic accumulations and alluvial deposits.

On his return to Christchurch Haast was instrumental in the establishment of the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury. In his inaugural address, he not only reviewed the scientific research so far accomplished in New Zealand, touching on the Glacial Epoch and the possibility of a race of inhabitants prior to the Maori, but he also drew attention to scientific movements in the world at large, acclaiming the Origin of Species as the great work of the age in natural history.

The next six years were extremely strenuous. In 1863 he attempted successfully to reach the West Coast by Lake Wanaka and the headwaters of the Makarora, over what is now known as the Haast pass. The following year he returned to the Rangitata and Ashburton districts where he had previously discovered fossil remains. These two years of toil resulted in 6,000 geological, zoological, and botanical specimens either gained during his expeditions or acquired by exchanges with collectors in other countries. He spent many months classifying his collection in preparation for the founding of a museum. Then followed a journey to the Franz Josef glacier, so named by him, explorations at the headwaters of the Rakaia and Waimakariri rivers, and four visits from 1866-7 to the Waipara in order to secure saurian remains. When large quantities of moa page 42bones were discovered in the swampy grounds at Glenmark, Haast was invited to conduct excavations there. No time was lost in accepting this invitation, and the geologist duly rejoiced as he conveyed a large American wagon load of dinornithic remains to Christchurch, where Mr Fuller, the taxidermist, built up the first seven complete moa skeletons. There was evidence that these ungainly birds had already been in existence in the Great Glacier period of New Zealand, and that they had continued to flourish till a very recent date.

The piercing of the Lyttelton tunnel provided such a wonderful opportunity to view the strata from the interior of an old volcanic peak, that as often as he could find the time between his expeditions, Haast spent from midnight Saturday till midnight Sunday studying the rocks exposed. No other day was available, as the tunnellers worked three eight-hour shifts. Public holidays were no doubt gala days for the lonely geologist. His work was so thorough that he was able in 1867 to send a copy of an excellent geological survey of the tunnel together with two hundred geological specimens by way of illustration to the Paris Exhibition.

Notwithstanding the physical exertions demanded by these long exploring journeys and the many hours required for the sorting and classifying of the treasures gathered by the way, Haast found time to read countless addresses, including a course of lectures on page 43geology for the Boys' High School in 1867, and to publish numerous articles in the leading scientific papers of the world. In 1868 when the provincial council decided to dispense with the geological survey as a provincial institution, Haast was able to present the provincial government with two maps of the province, both on the scale of four miles to the inch, accompanied by 138 sections on twenty-four large sheets, and 7,887 natural history specimens of which he himself had collected 4,312 during the progress of the survey, the other 3,575 being secured, by his efforts, from foreign countries.

In 1868 the exploring period of Haast's life virtually ended, although he made many excursions in later years, principally for the purpose of more detailed geological study. The record of the early adventurous years, the Geology of Canterbury and Westland, published in 1879, is a romance. The scientific section is written clearly and simply, while the narrative is executed with a vividness which recalls Robinson Crusoe. 'I have endeavoured,' said Haast in the preface, 'to make the reader acquainted with the peculiarly grand features of the Southern Alps, to make him participate in the difficulties, dangers, and joys of an explorer's life, and, at the same time, to show him that the work of the Geologist in an unknown country, in which, moreover, he had to seek his way, construct his own map and carry often a heavy load on his back, is not an easy page 44one, and that it cannot be accomplished without considerable loss of time.'

When at last the provincial government was able to set aside a sum of money for the erection of a public museum to house the collections accumulated by Haast, that geologist was inevitably appointed its first curator, a post which he held from 1870 until the time of his death. His material contribution to science was the organising, building, financing, and stocking of the Canterbury Museum, for the scientific collections displayed therein were practically all the result of his industry and associations. This alone was a worthy monument.

Far more material had been collected in these early years than the museum authorities could deal with. When Allan Thomson settled down to the investigation of New Zealand fossils, he found his material to his hand. Some forty tons of treasure trove had been gathered by various individuals and expeditions, mostly during the early decades, and had gradually accumulated in the dusty and virtually unexplored recesses and garrets of the old wooden building that has been so recently demolished. Writing in 1878, Haast said that more than ten years before he had proposed sending a large series of fossils collected by him to Europe to be described by a palæontologist of high position (I suppose this would be arranged through Hochstetter), but that the director of the colonial geological survey requested him not to do page 45so, assuring him that the assistance of an expert palæontologist would be procured at an early date. Haast continued, 'However, I am truly sorry that hitherto the necessary work has not been accomplished.' I have no doubt that these fossils formed portion of the large deposit that Thomson fell heir to, when in 1907 the palæontologist was duly appointed. The greater part of the treasure was packed in whisky cases, which appears to date the collection to a period before 1880, as from then on till 1910 kerosene cases were the favourite means of packing, to be replaced in their turn by old motor cases. This information may possibly be of some aid to a scientist in the future.

Haast's theoretic contributions are numberless, the most spectacular being his reconstruction of firstly the vast glacial activities that held sway over the southern portion of New Zealand, and secondly the volcanic activities that rocked Banks Peninsula. In addition his discovery of polished stone implements in Bruce Bay in 1868, together with the results of excavations in a cave on the Sumner road and in the moa-hunter encampments on the north bank of the Rakaia, led him to the conclusion that a race had existed in New Zealand prior to the Maoris, and that this race of moa hunters had reached a point analogous to that of the neolithic inhabitants of Europe and America. This 'interesting people', who had associations with India or Ceylon, were not cannibals and page 46did not possess a domesticated dog or implements of greenstone.

Haast devoted his later years chiefly to setting in order his beloved Canterbury Museum. When Canterbury University College was established, Haast was appointed its first lecturer in geology in 1873, becoming professor in that subject three years later, a position which he held conjointly with that of curator of the museum. In 1886 he went to London as the colony's commissioner to the Colonial and Indian Exhibition. He died in 1887 shortly after his return to New Zealand.

For many years Haast's work had received the recognition of the scientific world. As early as 1862 the University of Tübingen had conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy in recognition of his report on the Nelson province. In the same year he was elected corresponding member of the Imperial Geographical, Zoological, and Geological Societies of Vienna, to be followed in 1863 by similar honours bestowed by the Geological Societies of London, Edinburgh, Berlin, the Royal Societies of Dublin and Victoria, and the Linnaean Society of London. In 1865 the Ritterkreuz of the Imperial and Royal Austrian order of Francis Joseph was conferred upon him. Two years later came his election as Fellow of the Royal Society of London and as foreign corresponding member of the Société de Géographie. He became a Fellow of the Naturforschendepage 47 Gesellschaft in Berlin in 1869, and received the hereditary distinction of the prefix 'von' in 1876. In 1884 Dr von Haast received the royal medal of the Royal Geographical Society, and finally was made k.c.m.g. in 1886 at the instance of the Prince of Wales.

Sir Julius von Haast was a geologist of outstanding eminence, possessed of a considerable acquaintance with botany and zoology. He was foremost among the geomorphologists of New Zealand in the last century. He was indisputably a great scientist. Withal he was a man full of human interest, a good singer and violinist, a charming companion, one who made friends everywhere and who forced his friends to become interested in his schemes and projects for the advancement of science. He was the Seddon of science, and like Seddon had the fortune to find in the New Zealand of his day an ideal opportunity for the development of his strong personality, boundless energy, and great talent.