The colony’s resident expert of choice, Simon Upton

James Hector: Explorer, Scientist, Leader
Simon Nathan
Geoscience Society of New Zealand, $45.00
ISBN 9781877480461

Simon Nathan’s biography of Sir James Hector fills a major gap in the nation’s historical bibliography. The reasons why the gap remained unfilled for over a century following Hector’s death are worth pondering. A cursory glance through Nathan’s bibliography reveals full length biographies of several of Hector’s scientific contemporaries, McKay, Haast, Buller, Davis and Murchison among them. But Hector’s life, despite his towering public stature in the development of 19th-century New Zealand, remained confined to an MA thesis in 1936 and a more recent doctoral thesis devoted to his early life.

Nathan’s appreciation of the breadth of Hector’s achievements crystallised in the process of helping to organise a symposium to mark the centenary of Hector’s death. As he points out, if Hector were to be studied in the depth that Haast’s son devoted to his father in a 1,142 page tome in 1948, a truly voluminous work would have been required. In the circumstances, Nathan has opted for a concise, chronologically arranged account of Hector’s life and career which will provide a secure reference point for future studies.

That is no mean feat given the extraordinary scope of Hector’s activities. From his arrival in Dunedin as provincial geologist in 1862, to his effective retirement in 1903, few areas of scientific enquiry in the emerging Dominion escaped his active engagement or institution-building talents. Putting all this in order requires recourse to a large official archive but, even more importantly, a voluminous correspondence conducted with both local and London-based peers. The latter sources evidently posed a particular challenge, given Hector’s nearly illegible handwriting.

But the challenge Hector poses to a biographer is more than one of sources and calligraphy. It is the nature of the man and his achievement that resist an easy and engrossing account. He was resourceful, physically adept, well-balanced, personable and, very simply, successful. His romance and family life were secure and conventional (the tragic death of a favoured son notwithstanding). Successful people are hard to write about, especially when their legacy is – as Hector’s is – largely institutional. A more stormy or mercurially brilliant mind makes for an easier subject. One is somehow not surprised to learn that the New Zealand Institute, his own creation, failed to publish an obituary until 1923, 16 years after his death!

He was indispensable, tireless and very much a part of the establishment that emerged in the closing years of the 19th century – the go-to expert whenever politicians wanted a safe pair of hands to deliver an opinion on which they could rely. His personal qualities must have been cardinal in winning the confidence of successive colonial administrations. As such, one suspects he was taken for granted, notwithstanding the celebrity that attached to him.

Qualified in medicine, he prosecuted scientific enquiries across a vast array of fields. He occupied a moment in-between some of the great advances of the age – Darwin’s On the Origins of Species appeared in 1859 – and the rapid specialisation which overtook scientific enquiry in the early 20th century. It would have been unthinkable, even half a century later, that one man would be covering mining geology, soil fertility, meteorology and botany, not to mention being tasked with assessing mullet fisheries and labour relations in the coal industry, as well as an intense engagement with education at all levels, including the organisation of music examinations.

He was the right man in the right place at the right time. A fast-developing colony that pursued a recklessly developmental path needed people who could put leading-edge analysis at the service of industry and agriculture. Geological and soil surveying, meteorological and seismic monitoring, experimenting with forestry species – all these activities continue to this day in New Zealand and all can be traced back to Hector.

It was an age of note-taking and recording – Hector, it seems, was incapable of stepping ashore anywhere without pulling out a notebook in which to record or sketch his observations. He was the archetypal observer, cataloguer, compiler and editor. And all of these observations needed to be communicated to a wider public. So he instigated the Colonial Museum just behind Parliament on the street that still bears its name, and the Colonial Botanic Garden which, as the Wellington Botanical Garden, still harbours conifers that date back to his era.

Hector’s dedication to scientific display and publication was rooted in the scientific mores of the day. As a founding member of the Council of the University of New Zealand (remaining there for 30 years), he was deeply implicated in the genesis of New Zealand as a “knowledge economy”, to use the jargon of our age. But, given the heroic developmental forces that dominated the age – and New Zealand’s position as something of an economic laboratory – display and interpretation were never far from commercial ends.

Indeed, the management and staging of exhibitions emerges as a recurring element of Hector’s professional life: Dunedin, Philadelphia, Sydney, Melbourne, Wellington and Vienna. All of them international and all designed to promote the colony’s prowess and resources. Contemporary New Zealand politicians and officials consider the country to have outgrown the need for expos, but in the late 19th century, before the advent of modern communications, the need to be there with a pavilion and displays was beyond question. Whether the commercial benefits justified the investments or not, these showcases were an assertion of nationhood. And Hector was an enthusiastic advocate for his adopted New Zealand.

Despite his seniority, he remained a hands-on operator – literally. We read of him personally constructing a 22-foot-long coloured relief model of New Zealand for the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition and assembling the Washington National Museum’s moa. But beyond the exotic nature of New Zealand’s natural history heritage and its Māori population, one has the feeling that mining and minerals as an engine for economic development were never far from the surface in these colonial promotions. And Hector, who arrived as the Otago gold rush got under way and devoted much of his career proving coal seams and disproving gold claims, was never far from the roots of a developmental dream that remains alive and well a century after his death.

If he were alive today he would no doubt have been advising governments on seafloor mining and oil and gas exploration, or enquiring into the Pike River mine disaster, whose parallels with the 1896 Brunner Mine disaster are striking. Hector was on the Commission of Enquiry in that case, endorsing findings that have remained controversial.

As the colony’s resident expert of choice, it would be easy to cast him as a guardian of established interests, and he does indeed emerge as a conservative who had less traction with the more radical politics of the Liberal governments of the 1890s. His interpretation of scientific evidence didn’t always back what eventually emerged as settled wisdom, whether we are talking about glaciers or the mechanism at work in the Tarawera eruption. But he also made some far-sighted calls – notably in recognising the value of New Zealand’s native forests as providing irreplaceable catchment protection, and correctly identifying New Zealand as a largely submerged continental fragment. Such is the ever-provisional nature of scientific enquiry.

Above all, Hector emerges as a scientist with genuinely international fluency. Indoctrinated as we are to writing off New Zealand’s fervent imperial attachment as a particularly acute form of colonial cringe, it is refreshing to read an account of a figure who clearly regarded himself as being seamlessly part of a global enterprise. In regular written contact with key London-based figures in the Royal Society, this upwardly mobile Scot felt himself to be no more isolated in Wellington than he would have been in his native Edinburgh. The figure Nathan paints is one who engaged in a global scientific community and deployed leading-edge technologies. As New Zealand wallows in the provincialism of its flag debate, one can’t help feeling there were aspects of Victorian New Zealand that were altogether more metropolitan and outward-looking.

Perhaps inevitably, given the breadth and duration of Hector’s endeavours, Nathan’s account lingers in the mind as a succession of field trips, institutions, exhibitions and offices. But, in putting these all in order, he has erected a valuable platform for a range of thematic studies which are, at this stage, probably confined to university theses and research papers closed to most readers.

Simon Upton was Minister of Research, Science and Technology during the 1990s and responsible for setting up the Crown Research Institutes.

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Posted in Biography, History, Natural History, Non-fiction, Review, Science
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