Scoop Review of Books

Geography and Genocide

Ferdinand von Hochstetter: Father of New Zealand Geology by Sascha Nolden
Auckland City Public Libraries, Auckland, 2008. Reviewed by Scott Hamilton

accounts_thumb.jpgTwo thousand and eight marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of the Austrian geologist and explorer Ferdinand von Hochstetter in Auckland. Hochstetter reached these shores on the frigate Novara, which had been dispatched on an around-the-world scientific expedition by the Hapsburg rulers of the Austrian Empire. When the Novara left Auckland at the beginning of 1859 Hochstetter stayed behind to work for the Auckland provincial government. He was soon travelling through the hinterlands of the North Island, climbing mountains, recording mineral deposits, and creating a series of rather attractive maps. Although he left these shores in October 1859, Hochstetter followed events here closely, and in 1867 he published a large book called Neu Seeland.

Hochstetter described and mapped some of this country’s richest mineral deposits, but for much of the twentieth century anti-German prejudices stirred by the two World Wars meant that his name was not given the prominence it deserved in textbooks and histories. A new exhibition at the Auckland Central Library’s Special Collections Exhibition Room is intended to raise Hochstetter’s profile amongst Kiwis. The exhibition is curated by Sascha Nolden, who also compiled and introduced this modest catalogue. Nolden wrote a PhD on Hochstetter for the German Studies Department of the University of Auckland, but his exhibition fails to do justice to the complexity of the man.

Nolden’s Hochstetter is a rather bloodless figure, a disinterested man of science who appears out of nowhere, renders selfless service to the settler government in Auckland for a few months, then fades into obscurity. Nolden’s exhibition features material drawn from overseas collections as well as the rich archives of the Auckland City Library, but the texts and images on display tell little more than a bald narrative of Hochstetter’s time in this part of the world. Nolden refrains from exploring either the context for or the consequences of the geologist’s wanderings through the North Island.

Nolden offers us no clues about the ulterior motives behind the visit of the Novara to these shores. The huge ship was filled with hundreds of scientists, but it was nonetheless a frigate provisioned and directed by an imperial government. In the nineteenth century science was inextricably bound up with imperialism, and the Hapsburgs were deeply interested in the commercial exploitation of the regions the Novara was intended to explore. In 1858 Austria was Britain’s closest ally in Europe, and the Hapsburgs had no interest in treading on the toes of Britain by undermining the authority of the fledgling colonial government in Auckland. They hoped, nonetheless, that Austrian capital might be involved in the development of the colony. Hochstetter’s reports on the mineral riches of the North Island were received with interest in Austria, as well as Auckland.

Hochstetter himself was never a disinterested scientist, dedicated simply to analysing and cataloguing rocks. He was a fervent supporter of the Austrian Empire and a believer in the right of all the European powers to colonise other parts of the world. Hochstetter’s beliefs helped determine his response to the Maori he encountered on his travels. Many of the regions the geologist visited were devoid of European inhabitants, and he was often reliant on Maori to guide, feed, and shelter him. When he was not in the remoter parts of the North Island Hochstetter spent time in frontier settlements like Otahuhu and Drury, where Maori and settlers lived together and traded.

In the late 1850s relations between the two peoples were very uneasy. Maori unhappiness about growing Pakeha demands for land had led to the creation of the Kingitanga Movement, and the crowning of the first Maori monarch. Many of King Potatau’s subjects refused to sell more Maori land, preferring to export food grown in the rich fields of the Waikato, and the Auckland Hochstetter arrived in at the end of 1858 was full of frustrated would-be settlers unable to move south. In less than five years disputes over land and authority would lead to the bloody invasion of the Kingdom founded by Potatau.

Hochstetter’s travels exposed him to the troubled relations between Maori and Pakeha, and he was not inclined to take a neutral stance on the conflict between the two peoples. Hochstetter was a strong advocate for the provincial and national governments in Auckland, and he hoped that his expeditions might help the cause of the settlers. Hochstetter had no sympathy for the cause of the Maori opponents of settler power: he regarded Maori as hopelessly inferior to Europeans, and therefore doomed to extinction. Like many nineteenth century racists, Hochstetter defended his bigotry with pseudo-scientific appeals to the glamorous new theory of evolution. In his 1867 book, for instance, Hochstetter argued that:

We know [struggle] to be a law of nature, on which the development of all creatures depends…this struggle is not only a destructive one, but in the same measure a preserving and creating one. None but the weaker, the inferior, perish; the stronger and nobler remains victorious.

Hochstetter believed that the ‘moral power and mental superiority’ of Europeans gave them the right to settle the whole of the North and South Islands. The North Island would be much more ‘charming’, he insisted, once it was ‘studded with European towns and villages’. In one section of Neu Seeland Hochstetter notes that the Maori population fell by a fifth in the 1850s and early 1860s, as a result of disease and Pakeha invasion. Hochstetter sees the decline as not only inevitable but desirable, and even ventures some predictions about the speed with which Maori will continue to decline. Hochstetter’s genocidal imagination is evidenced again and again in his book: discussing the logging of kauri, for instance, he predicts that the tree’s ‘final extinction is as certain as that of the natives of New Zealand’.

Hochstetter had been treated well by the Maori of the remoter regions of the North Island, probably because these peoples had seldom seen Pakeha before, and hoped that economic benefits might flow from guiding and housing an important white man like Hochstetter. The geologist held a sort of patronising Rousseauan regard for the ‘primitive’ Maori of the remote areas, but he detested the more assertive Maori of the trading settlements, whom he regarded ‘lazy’ and ‘money-grubbing’.

Although Hochstetter left these shores before the outbreak of the war of 1863-64, he followed the conflict closely, and recorded his strong support for the invasion of the Waikato Kingdom in Neu Seeland. Hochstetter’s map of the North Island included the locations of many Maori pa, and the geologist would have been delighted to know that it was used in the field by British commanders during the Waikato war. Hochstetter’s work was also useful to the settler regime in Auckland after the war, when vast tracts of Maori land were confiscated, ostensibly to punish rebellious iwi. It is no coincidence that land seized and sold to cronies of the regime included some of the North Island’s richest mineral deposits.

Sascha Nolden does not consider the connection between Hochstetter’s journeys across the North Island and the aggressive imperialist policies the ‘father of New Zealand geology’ championed. Instead of examining the role Hochstetter played in the conflict between Maori and Pakeha, Nolden downplays this conflict by excluding Maori perspectives from his exhibition. The display of images and texts in the Special Collections Exhibition Room is organised into thirteen cases, each of which has a title and theme. There is a case devoted to native birds, but none to the native people of these islands. The few images and texts with Maori content are scattered in ones and twos in cases largely devoted to other subjects.

Nolden devotes some of his space to a feast prepared for the scientists of the Novara by the great northern rangatira Patuone, but he does not mention that Patuone was one of the most ‘friendly’ of Maori leaders, and that his support for colonisation was unpopular with many other rangatira. Nor does Nolden mention that the ethnologists on board the Novara used Patuone’s welcome as an opportunity to carry out a series of unpleasant ‘diagnostic’ examinations of the chief’s people. These ‘scientists’ bewildered their hosts by insisting on examining their hair, noses and foreheads, in order to discover where they fitted into the ‘hierarchy of man’ worked out by European racists. When we read about these bizarre exercises in pseudo-anthropology today we cannot help but think of the similar tests that other German pseudo-scientists made in the 1930s and ‘40s to determine the ‘racial characteristics’ of their subjects.

Sascha Nolden’s neglect of Maori is symbolised by his shabby treatment of two of the most remarkable men that Hochstetter met during his stay on these shores. Hemara Rerehau and Wiremu Toetoe were widely-respected Waikato rangatira who were invited by Hochstetter to travel to the Austrian Empire aboard the Novara when it left Auckland. The two men were shown around the Hapsburg court in Vienna and feted by the leading families of the city, who hoped that they would become advocates for Austrian imperialism and European civilisation upon their return home.

Rerehau and Toeote learnt the art of printing during their stay in Austria, and the Hapsburgs gave them a printing press to take home to the Waikato. Instead of proselytizing on behalf of imperialism, though, the two men founded the famous newspaper Te Hokioi e Rere Atu Na (The Mythical Bird that Flies Up There), which promoted the cause of the Maori King and attacked the land-greed of the Pakeha. Te Hokioi proved so popular that the government in Auckland set up a printing press to Te Awamutu and began to publish Te Pihoihoi Moke Moke (The Lone Sparrow on the Rooftop), which offended many Maori with its criticism of their King and advocacy of Pakeha settlement of the Waikato. The eventual removal of the Pakeha printing press from the Waikato Kingdom seriously strained relations between the colonial government and the King movement, and helped set the stage for the invasion of July 1863. When war came to the Waikato Rerehau and Toetoe ended the publication of Te Hokioi and joined in the defence of their homeland. (Te Hokioi would be revived in 1960s, at the beginning of the ‘Maori renaissance’, by a group of young radicals.)

Hochstetter, who had hoped that Rerehau and Toetoe would become ‘reformed’ Maori after visiting Vienna, was outraged by Te Hokioi, and by its publishers’ decision to join in the ‘rebellion’ of 1863-64. It is easy to understand why the geologist was angered by his old acquaintances, and by the Waikato Kingdom as a whole. Rerehau, Toetoe and the country they defended confounded all the dogmas of Hochstetter and other European racists. The Waikato Maori neither completely rejected nor slavishly submitted to European civilisation, but rather borrowed from it what was compatible with their traditions and their ambitions. They thus failed to fit the competing racist stereotypes of the ‘savage’ and the ‘reformed Maori’.
The Waikato Kingdom’s economy was based on export gardening for the foreign markets of Auckland and Sydney, but Waikato iwi and hapu continued to own land collectively, and to organise their labour collectively. (Sociologist Dave Bedggood has named this fusion of elements of capitalism and pre-contact economics ‘the Polynesian mode of production’.) The Waikato peoples took aspects of Christianity and fused them with traditional beliefs to create a religion centred around the second Maori King, Tawhiao. They appropriated the Pakeha alphabet, but insisted on using it to write their own language.

The Waikato Kingdom was largely destroyed by the events of 1863-64, but that does not mean it should be forgotten by historians. Along with the south Taranaki nation of Parihaka which flourished in the 1870s, the Kingdom represented an alternative path which economic and social development might have taken in these islands. Instead of giving Rerehau and Toetoe the attention they deserve, though, Nolden provides two small photos of them, alongside a caption which informs us that they founded ‘a Maori newspaper’.

It is not only Nolden’s selection of facts that is problematic. The concepts which he has used to organise his exhibition and catalogue betray a profoundly unbalanced view of the context and consequences of Hochstetter’s visit to these shores. Nolden writes continually about ‘New Zealand’, without attempting any sort of qualification – he refers to Hochstetter’s ‘geological research in New Zealand’ and ‘journeys in New Zealand’, calls Auckland the ‘capital of New Zealand’, and so on. Such references ignore the fact that, in the late 1850s, the authority of the ‘New Zealand government’ did not cover large areas of the North Island. After the war of 1863-64 and the subsequent wars in the Taranaki the authority of the settler government was greatly extended, and today it perhaps takes an effort of the imagination to recall the situation of the late 1850s and early 1860s. As a historian, Sascha Nolden should have made such an effort, rather than lazily projecting the realities of the present back into the past.

It is perhaps not so hard to understand why Sascha Nolden has produced such a poor exhibition for Auckland City Library. Nolden is aware that the World Wars triggered the suppression of much of the German contribution to the early history of these islands, and he rightly wants to shine a light on the German part in our past. At the same time, Nolden is surely aware that Hochstetter was an ardent imperialist who was only too eager to see the extermination of the tangata whenua of this part of the world. It would be absurd and ahistorical to call Hochstetter a Nazi, but there is an undeniable connection between some of his beliefs and the ideology that cast a shadow over the world in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Hochstetter is not, then, the best advertisement for the German contribution to the history of ‘Neu Seeland’. (If only the Auckland Public Library had asked Nolden to curate an exhibition on the redoubtable and humane German missionaries to the Chatham Islands, or the Bohemian settlers who built a thriving community at Puhoi!) Nolden appears to have tried to suppress discussion of the darker side of Hochstetter, by constructing a highly selective narrative using a dubious set of concepts. But whitewashing Hochstetter does history a disservice.


Auckland City Library Hochstetter site


Scott Hamilton is an Auckland writer and reviewer. More of Scott’s writing can be found at the Reading the Maps Blog.


  1. puzzled patriot, 28. October 2008, 14:54

    Why does Scott Hamilton always attack his own history?
    Is he a self-hating Pakeha?
    Does he not have any self-respect?

  2. Skyler, 29. October 2008, 10:12

    Scott is not attacking his own history. He is being truthful about it. That doesn’t make him a “self-hating Pakeha”. It also does not mean he is denying positive Pakeha history. He is saying, let’s just be honest about what that period in history was really like. I feel that “puzzled patriot” is indeed puzzled, confused, fearful and probably doesn’t know much about history.

  3. Ernie, 31. October 2008, 13:44

    Maori have made such a big deal out of stating Pakeha cant be trusted, The party is named after a race, and i really cant see the Maori party standing in parliment arguing what is right for the asians. LOL They keep stating and i heard a speech of Pita Sharples we are elected by Maori to represent Maori, They just want to us our our party vote so they can get more seats in Parliment, they will not represent Pakeha at all, so i think its a heart vote to give it to Maori not a sesible one.

    Since Maori has started Race related Politics I think the next will be the Asian Party that actually would poll closer to 10% of the population and become a huge influence…..

  4. Josie, 9. March 2009, 16:21

    Kia ora koutou,
    Lets not give Ferdinand Von Hochstetter credit for the land wars of 1860’s. We must remember he was here for only but a short time doing what geologist do gathering stones and dirt samples and other such things.

    There are more notable european settlers and politicians of that time living in NZ who can and have been accredited to the land wars. You can find the evidence in the Appendices to the House of Representatives, the Government Gazette, the British Parliamentary papers and the New Zealand Parliamentary debates from the 1855 – present time.

    I have viewed the physical exhibition at the Auckland Public library and I enjoyed it. The exhibition delivered what the title of the exhibition says “father of New Zealand Geology”. It was thorough in its research, which made it interesting and supported by visual documentary for the browsing audience.
    We can however accredit Ferdinand for the beautiful1859 map of the isthmus of Auckland with its extinct volcanoes, but one of the legacies he has left for all NZers to enjoy.

  5. Mike, 12. March 2009, 15:06

    I have only recently come across this astonishing article. It is littered with basic errors (“The huge ship was filled with hundreds of scientists” – there were 7, “calls Auckland the ‘capital of New Zealand’” – um, it was). Its main offence though is the relentless assumption that a nineteenth centrury scientist should be condemned for expressing common nineteenth centrury attitudes and that an exhibition on Hochstetter’s life should be dammned unless it condems his (retrospectively determined) faults. Such nonsense!