Thursday, April 30, 2009

The father of NZ geology

Christian Gottlieb Ferdinand Ritter von Hochstetter, a German geologist famous for his work in the Antipodes, was born 180 years ago today. He was one of the leading scientists appointed for an Austrian expedition to circumnavigate the world in the mid-1850s, and made a particular impression in the Antipodes. Both he and at least one of his colleagues kept diaries during the voyage; some extracts from these are available online and in English thanks to Australian and New Zealand websites.

The son of a clergyman and scientist, Hochstetter was born at Esslingen, Germany, 180 years ago today. He was educated at the evangelical seminary in Maulbronn and at the university of Tübingen where he studied geology. In 1852, he joined the staff of the Imperial Geological Survey of Austria and became chief geologist for Bohemia. He was selected, along with a group of other scientists, to take part in the Novara expedition, starting in 1857, which aimed to circumnavigate the world. After visiting South America, Asia and South Africa, the ship’s captain was encouraged to make a diversion to New Zealand to allow scientific examination of the North Island volcanic regions.

While in New Zealand, in 1859, Hochstetter was chosen to make a geological survey of the islands, and remained behind after the Novara sailed for Europe. He returned to Austria the following year, and was appointed professor of mineralogy and geology at the Vienna Polytechnic Institute. The following year he married Georgiana Bengough, the daughter of an Englishman who was director of the Vienna city gasworks. They had four sons and four daughters.

Apart from his teaching work - during which he introduced new teaching practices, built up teaching collections, and led popular fieldwork expeditions - Hochstetter also served as president of the Geographical Society of Vienna from 1866 to 1882. In 1876, he was appointed the first intendant of the Imperial Natural History Museum. Just before his death in 1884, he was granted a hereditary knighthood by the Austrian emperor. Today, he is considered one of the founders of engineering geology. Wikipedia has a short bio, but a more substantial biography can be found in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

Indeed New Zealand remembers Hochstetter fondly - calling him the Father of New Zealand Geology. In 1863 he published Neu-Seeland, the first substantial work about New Zealand to appear in the German language. It contains vivid descriptions of his New Zealand travels, geological observations, and encounters with indigenous communities. An English translation appeared in 1867. (Original copies can be found on Abebooks, but cost several hundreds of pounds.)

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Novara in Auckland in December 1858, the Auckland City Libraries organised an Hochstetter exhibition. An online version of the exhibition - called Ferdinand von Hochstetter: Father of New Zealand Geology - can be accessed via the Libraries website. It includes many photographs, and images of documents and maps. But there are also images of Hochstetter’s diary, the one surviving volume of five he wrote during his time in New Zealand.

Hochstetter is also a bit of a historical hero in Australia. Michael Organ, a one-time Green Australian politician and academic, runs a website with substantial information about the Navara expedition, and the work undertaken by the Austrian scientists - including Hochstetter and his colleague Karl Scherzer  - when visiting New South Wales. This site also includes transcripts of a journal kept by Scherzer, and these mention Hochstetter a number of times. Here are two extracts.

23 November 1858
‘Fancy dress ball given by the citizens of Sydney to the Right Worshipful Mayor & Lady Mayoress to reciprocate the ball recently given by the Mayor (reputedly at a cost of £800). The Commodore and all the officers had been invited to attend, and so I went there at about 9 o’clock. The ball took place in the Prince of Wales Theatre. The company was very mixed, there was pushing and shoving. Very few respectable families. Hill was also there. By chance I was introduced to a certain Dr. Berncastle, a local doctor, who looks and behaves like an adventurer. He claimed to have earned the gratitude of the Expedition because he had shown Dr Hochstetter the shortest route to Bathurst! This gentleman made a terrible fool of himself later on which served him right for his arrogance.’

25 November 1858
‘At 6 o’clock in the evening a dinner was given in the German Club by a number of Germans in honour of the presence of an Imperial Austrian warship. The great dining-room was very elegant and decorated in keeping with the occasion. Perhaps about 40 persons took their seats. The customary toasts concluded proceedings: - the Queen! - The Emperor of Austria! - the members of the Austrian Imperial family! To which the Commodore responded with a toast to Prince Albert. Then: - to the Commodore and the officers of the Novara - responded to by the Commodore with a very pretty toast - to the Germans in Australia, responded to - German Science! - to which I replied with a toast to the unity, might and greatness of our common Fatherland - in which I endeavoured to stress that in recent years no German state had, by fusing material and national economic interests, contributed so much to German unity as the new regenerated Austria! Dr. Hochstetter spoke a few very moving words in memory of Leichhardt [a Prussian explorer who had disappeared earlier that year while in northern Australia, and whose expedition inspired Patrick White’s novel Voss], whereupon all those present rose in silence from their seats. This was followed by toasts to Alexander von Humboldt, Sir William Denison, etc. The festivities closed at 11 p.m.’

Michael Organ also provides the only significant extract from Hochstetter’s diary I can find on the internet. It concerns a visit the Novara made to an island - then called Sikyana, now part of the Soloman Islands - in October 1858, and an alleged incident in which the Novara crew robbed the island’s natives of livestock. Organ provides a learned and referenced essay on the incident. It includes a rebuttal of the accusations made by Hochstetter along with quotes from his diary.

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