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Man of Science

James Hector: Explorer, Scientist, Leader
by Simon Nathan (Geoscience Society of New Zealand, $45)
Reviewed by Michael Szabo

HectorCover-001s-1Publication of this comprehensive 274-page account of the life and work of James Hector by the Geoscience Society of New Zealand marks the 150th anniversary of James Hector’s appointment as New Zealand’s first government scientist. It spans his early years in Edinburgh from 1834, follows his career in Canada and New Zealand until his retirement in the Hutt Valley in 1903, including everything from his scientific and administrative achievements and failures to domestic arrangements in the family home.

The chronological narrative starts with Hector’s birth in Edinburgh in 1834 and subsequent graduation from the University of Edinburgh in 1856 as a doctor with interests in geology, botany and tramping. After making his own journeys to remote parts of the British Isles he was selected in 1857 to join a one-off three year survey of north-west Canada as a geologist and medic. The survey was deemed a success and he returned to England in 1861 as a recognised field explorer and scientist. But the survey was not all plain sailing. He was kicked by a horse while searching for a pass

Cartoonist Bob Brockie's visualisation of an incident in Canada's northwest when James Hector was kicked by a horse, and thought to be dead.

Cartoonist Bob Brockie’s visualisation of an incident in Canada’s northwest when James Hector was kicked by a horse, and thought to be dead.

through the Rocky Mountains and knocked unconscious for so long that the survey team dug a grave thinking him dead until unexpectedly he came around a few hours later. The episode is recorded in the names Kicking Horse River and Kicking Horse Pass.

After this he moved to London where he met other scientists and became familiar with the scientific issues of the day by attending scientific society meetings and visiting museums. In the course of writing up the Canadian expedition, he met the director of Kew Botanical Gardens, the eminent Scottish explorer, botanist and geologist, Joseph Dalton Hooker, who was Charles Darwin’s closest friend and who later became president of the Royal Society in London. Hooker became his mentor, corresponding with Hector for 38 years, supplying him with news of scientific developments in London and, in turn, Hector supplied Hooker with New Zealand plants.

Hector was now well placed to find a new geological role, this time with the Otago Provincial Council, conducting another one-off, three-year geological survey, this time of Otago and Southland during 1862-65. The survey sought out minerals and coal, and a new route from Otago to the West Coast. He also planned to establish an Otago Museum to exhibit the findings of the survey. While exploring Fiordland he was able to identify a land route linking Otago to the West Coast and in various locations also found new coal and mineral deposits. However, he did not manage to establish an Otago Museum.

During this time Hector also visited other parts of the country, including Wellington, where the capital moved in 1865. Perhaps helped by his British origin and eminent scientific connections in the heart of the British Empire, he became the first scientist employed by the colonial government when he was appointed in 1865 to establish the New Zealand Geological Survey, the forerunner of today’s GNS Science, and to survey and map the geology and mineral deposits of the whole country. Over the next few years he also founded the Colonial Museum, the forerunner of Te Papa, and the New Zealand Institute, which is now the Royal Society of New Zealand.

An ‘Establishment Figure’

After moving to Wellington, Hector married Georgiana Monro, eldest daughter of Sir David Monro, Speaker of the House of Representatives, botanist and a governor of the NZ Institute. He was now an “establishment figure”. During the next two decades his star rose even higher as he accrued responsibility for the Colonial Botanic Garden in Wellington, the Colonial Laboratory that is now ESR, the chancellorship of the University of New Zealand, organising a number of exhibitions showcasing New Zealand’s resources and products, and establishing a nationwide earthquake recording system – to name but a few. Among the more unusual tasks he was entrusted with by the government was standardising time throughout New Zealand in 1868, which was a world first.

In retrospect it was perhaps fortuitous for Hector that his varied scientific expertise and interests in geology and minerals, whales and dolphins, and trees and plants all had utility in their potential applications to mining, forestry, agriculture and whaling in what was still a relatively young colony.

And like other leading scientists in New Zealand during the colonial era, such as Haast and Buller, various geographic features and species were renamed after him, including Mt Hector in the Tararua

A locally-created sculpture of two Hector's dolphins, on the foreshore of Hector township.

A locally-created sculpture of two Hector’s dolphins, on the foreshore of Hector township.

Ranges; Lake Hector in Fiordland; the coal mining township of Hector on the West Coast; the Hector Mountains above Lake Wakatipu in Otago; Hector’s dolphin (C. hectorii); Hector’s beaked whale (M. hectorii); and New Zealand’s alpine vegetable sheep (R. hectorii).

His research at the Colonial Botanic Gardens led to Pinus radiata, Cupressus macrocarp and various Australian eucalypt species being distributed across the country, making yet another contribution to New Zealand’s landscapes.

Mining Inquiries

In recognition of his service as the government’s leading scientist for over two decades he was knighted in 1887. Then in a new departure in 1890 the government chose him to chair a commission on industrial relations in the Grey Valley coal mines, perhaps because they “saw Hector as a reliable chairman of a potentially tricky investigation”. The commission’s report did not, however, address the miners’ main grievance that intermittent work often left mining communities unemployed for weeks at a time and “was largely a defence of laissez-faire capitalism with no acknowledgement that the local shipping cartel and mining companies had abused their monopoly position to manipulate the labour market”.

His star dimmed through the 1890s. The decline in his influence also coincided with the election of the new Liberal government of 1891 led by John Ballance, “after which he was hardly ever called on for advice on technical matters” and a perception grew that he was part of the “conservative old guard”. Ballance’s government was committed to giving legal protections to trade unions and promoting collective bargaining. The anti-union note struck by Hector’s Grey Valley report seems to have given ammunition “to those who wanted to see change”.

It was not difficult to see that he had been assigned too many responsibilities over the years. Soon after the new government took office the staff of the NZ Geological Survey, who reported to Hector, was transferred to the Minister of Mines and the running of the Colonial Botanic Gardens transferred to the city council. Some long-term problems at the Colonial Museum that had been neglected for years also came back to bite. In 1893 an independent report was damning of the cluttered and disordered state of the museum collection and building.

Nevertheless, he still possessed a perceptive scientific mind. In 1895, after an extended voyage to New Zealand’s subantarctic islands that took in the Snares, Auckland, Campbell, Antipodes and Chatham Islands he wrote in the Transactions of the NZ Institute that, “The results of the voyage indicate so far that New Zealand is the remnant of a mountain chain that formed the crest of a great continental area that stretched far to the south and east, and which is now submerged to a depth of not much more than 2000 feet.” On this point Hector was ahead of his time, yet it was not until later the following century that it became more widely accepted that New Zealand is, in fact, the emergent part of a much larger, submerged continent, known now by the name Zealandia.

The following year he was appointed to chair another inquiry, this time into the Brunner mine explosion which killed all 65 miners working in an underground coal mine, and which still ranks today as NZ’s worst industrial disaster. While there has never been a robust technical rebuttal of its conclusions, the subsequent report was seen by some as a cover-up because it exonerated the mine owners.

Hector was eventually invited to retire in 1903 at the age of 69 by Prime Minister Richard Seddon, which he accepted. After retiring he returned to Canada with his son Douglas later in the year but after his son died tragically young from appendicitis he cut short the trip and came back to New Zealand, looking considerably aged by the ordeal. He continued to live at home in the Hutt Valley with Georgiana until his death in 1907.

‘A Safe Pair of Hands’

In an Afterword, the author of this biography, Simon Nathan, reflects on what sort of person Hector was. Refuting the claim by an earlier author that Hector “became more autocratic as he got older”, Nathan argues that he was fair-minded and diplomatic in his dealings with other scientists throughout his long and distinguished career. In comparison with his German-born New Zealand contemporary, Julius von Haast, Hector was the more serious, modest and even tempered of the two. He is also described as having been seen as “a safe pair of hands” by politicians in government during the 1870s and 1880s, being himself part of the same colonial elite. Outside of science, some of Hector’s views seem decidedly conservative in hindsight. For example, he is said to have viewed universal adult suffrage as misguided socialism and is described as disliking “foreigners”. That said, the University of New Zealand, of which he was Chancellor, was the first to allow women entry on the same basis as men. This episode indicates that his personal views did not always colour his professional work.

Looking back on his life, one wonders if there was an element of luck in the early years of his career. Was he in the right place at the right time with the right connections when he arrived in New Zealand? He was undoubtedly suitably qualified, energetic and keen. He had impeccable connections back in London such as Hooker and other leading lights in the Royal Society. He was young and fit enough for the physically demanding field work that he undertook and at the same time capable enough to found a series of new and long-lasting institutions in a relatively short time. New Zealand was a relatively new colony in 1865 and plenty of opportunities presented themselves in his spheres of expertise. He was as far from the centre of empire as he could get, so perhaps there weren’t so many similarly qualified scientists from Britain to ‘compete’ with him. The start of his career in New Zealand also coincided with a period of capitalist development that meant coal and minerals were in high demand, so he had more merit and value to the government than, say, an ornithologist would have had.

It also bears mentioning that various of the institutions he founded followed a template that already existed elsewhere in the British Empire with which he was personally familiar, such as London’s museums, Kew Botanical Gardens, the British Geological Survey, and the Royal Society.

Michel Foucault, the French historian of ideas, would have approved of the phrase “the Hector hegemony” quoted in Nathan’s Afterword as describing the period of Hector’s pre-eminence, such was his singular role in establishing the dominance of empirical scientific institutions and discourse in colonial New Zealand. As Foucault once said, “power is omnipresent”; in Hector’s case, his power became omnipresent in New Zealand science.

The book’s author, himself a geologist and science historian,  formerly of GNS and science editor of Te Ara, the online Encyclopedia of NZ, succeeds in presenting a very large body of material in a clear, concise and logical way. The writing is both scholarly and accessible, set out in chronological chapters divided into a number of thematic sub-sections. These recount a lifetime of surveys, travels, family events, founding of institutions, and milestone achievements along the way, even including a short sub-section on Hector’s unsuccessful attempt to observe the Transit of Venus. The inclusion of several brief accounts of Hector’s involvement in various coal mining inquiries adds depth to the overall picture painted of the man, although in some of the later chapters this reader would have appreciated a little more background on the leading politicians of the day to help throw more light on the power relations that he operated within.

The book is thoughtfully designed with over 130 fascinating and eclectic black-and-white and colour illustrations placed throughout. The inclusion of Hector’s original drawing of Hector’s dolphin is a nice touch, although I noticed the absence of a photograph of the species that most people probably associate with him. The meticulous sourcing and referencing of the historical illustrations is creditable, as are the informative captions.

If you have an interest in James Hector and the history of New Zealand science and its institutions during the Victorian period this book is well worth reading.

Two giant sequoia trees in Queenstown grown from seed provided by James Hector.

Two giant sequoia trees in Queenstown grown from seed provided by James Hector.

Michael Szabo is a freelance writer and editor.