Conference Review: James Hector Colonial Man of Science (1834-1907) Symposium, 8 November 2007, Te Papa Tongarewa / The Museum of New Zealand, Wellington

John P. Adam

This one day symposium was held at the Soundings Theatre of Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, on the 8th of November 2007. The Seminar was jointly sponsored by GNS Science, Te Papa and the Royal Society of New Zealand. About 100 people attended to hear fourteen speakers present a diverse range of explorations of the personal and professional life and times of Sir James Hector (1834-1907) some 100 years since his death. Other commemorative events were held in Wellington during the same week, including a Hector family reunion.

The Symposium was opened by the Acting High Commissioner for Canada (the Commissioner was out of town with a New Zealand Trade Delegation to Canada). A video was shown of Kicking Horse Pass, named in honour of the young scientist and explorer, James Hector, a team member of the Palliser Expedition, The British North American Exploring Expedition that surveyed western Canada, 1857-60. The video was forwarded by the Mayor of Golden whose town is located near Kicking Horse Pass. The film included historic footage from a train traversing the series of tunnels and steep ravens of the area and a contemporary “fly by” along the gorge which is now a very dense network of highways and railways but which is marked by a stone monument where the incident with his horse that kicked Hector leaving his fellow expedition presuming he was dead and proceeding to bury him alive. A special stone was also gifted to New Zealand by the Canadian Government and is on display in the Hector Library at Te Papa Museum.

Speakers in the two morning sessions were the organiser of Symposium, Simon Nathan, along with Peter Hector, Tony Hocken, Ian Speden, Conal McCarthy and Francis Reid who together ranged over Hector’s early career as scientist, explorer, naturalist, museum administrator and father.

Dr Tony Hocken, a retired medical doctor, who has just completed his Ph.D. at Otago University on James Hector’s Otago Expeditions made during 1862-1864, argued that he could read Hector’s handwriting because he was familiar with the Medical “shorthand” Hector had used throughout his life that has driven most scholars to despair.

The two afternoon sessions included the following speakers: Tim Beaglehole, Jock Phillips, George Gibbs, Ewan Fordyce, Winsome Shepherd and Walter Cook, John Adam and Chris Hector.

A panel discussion concluded the symposium and made three significant points. First, the panel argued that Hector related to all peoples, regardless of class or creed, and was a good delegator. Second, it concluded that Hector in fact got much of his science right and is much more underrated in New Zealand as compared to Canada. Third, the panel members discussed a regular yearly remembrance for Wellington and commented that Otago appears not to have celebrated Hector’s scientific contributions to their Province or the country.

Finally, to close off the celebrations, a public reserve that stood on the site where Hector and his wife lived for much of their lives was opened on the Saturday following the Symposium

Symposium proceedings are currently being edited and will be available from Simon Nathan. In this one will also be able to read one of Hector’s official expeditions made in 1863 and published in The Otago Provincial Government Gazette the same year [pp.438-468]. This report was the basis of his first New Zealand paper, ‘Geological Expedition to the West Coast of Otago’, published in the Journal of the Geological Society of London in 1863. Finally a Calgary based Canadian historian, Ernie Lakusta, last year published a biography of Sir James Hector, called The Intrepid Explorer: James Hector’s Explorations in the Canadian Rockies, that ‘tells the story of the famous Palliser Expedition’.