This article was first published in the Greymouth Star, the newspaper covering the Westland region.
Westland explorer Charles Douglas was noted for his cynicism and wry sense of humour so it would be interesting to know what he would have said about his geological maps of Westland being exhibited as Wellington treasures.
The two huge maps have pride of place in the Archives New Zealand exhibition for the Wellington 150 celebrations even though they commemorate a corner of the world far removed from life in New Zealand’s capital city. This is the first time the maps have been exhibited publicly in over 100 years
Born to a wealthy Scottish family, Charles Douglas was too restless to settle down to life as a banker in Edinburgh. Sailing for Otago in 1862, where he worked briefly as a cadet on a farm, he was soon on the move again.
In Westland he found the place he had been looking for. Musing on his life in his ‘Soliloquy Letter’ of 1902, he wrote of the impulse that had driven him out into the world. An excerpt from the letter reads: “… but the desire to settle down must have been omitted. As here I am, after forty years, mostly crouched under a piece of calico or a sheet of bark a homeless almost friendless vagabond, with a past that has little to show – to the general public at least - of work done, and a dreary future. Still I have never regretted the life I have been leading and can see that even if I and hundreds of others fail in life and perhaps die miserably, the impulse which impells some people to search for knowledge in the unknown is for the benefit of the world and cheaply bought at any price … I have now been wandering about the uninhabited parts of New Zealand for over five & thirty years always finding something in nature new to me & the world. Whether I’ll ever give what I have found to the world, or leave it for someone to publish after I am dead, I neither know nor do I care.”
During a lifetime spent exploring the wilds of Westland, Charles Douglas became the stuff of local legend. He has left the region a wonderful legacy of diaries, reports and field books crammed with detailed information of local fauna and flora, exquisite paintings and acerbic commentary on life. His geological maps brought together all the data he had collected during his life as an explorer.
The story is best told by Charles Douglas in his own words, with his unique spelling preserved. In 1896, in a letter to his friend and fellow explorer Arthur Harper he wrote of the Hokitika to Okarito map: “I have been six months in Hokitika making up my geological map of Westland. It was a ponderous undertaking for one man to draw out a map eighteen feet long & five broad. It took me two months to arrange my old tracings and collect field books &c before commencing. It is now finished, but it is sealed up either till I die or finish overhauling the numberless reefs and lodes I know of & which are marked down in the map. There is a prospecting boom on at present, and I am not quite so green as to show the public my discoveries, till I find out whether they are any good. So I am now as it were washing up as the diggers say. Whether I will be able to finish I am doubtfull, as I am braking up fast, and whatever happens I’ll come out of it a cripple … Then no doubt some fraud will get hold of my map & notes & get any credit that is to be got out of them.”
The first map (Hokitika to Okarito) was completed in 1896. Two years later Douglas was busy exploring in the glaciers region and the Whataroa, Totara and Waitangi valleys. He spent the winters in Hokitika working on his second geological map (Okarito to Big Bay) which he finished in 1906.
In all Douglas spent almost 40 years exploring the valleys of Westland from the mountains to the sea, enduring incredibly tough conditions. While his employers wanted him to find exploitable minerals and passes through the mountains, his own interests were much wider ranging. His interest in wildlife and conservation is apparent in his writing as is his interest in the diverse people of Westland.
Mildred Mueller, the daughter of his friend, surveyor Gerhard Mueller, said this of his work on the Okarito to Big Bay map: “(it) must be Douglas’s Swan Song. It could only have been done by someone who had all the time in the world, and few duties; which was Douglas’ condition for some time as he gradually became less & less able to do anything. It is beautiful – beautiful in colour and workmanship – detailed to the last degree. One can imagine that poor lonely-hearted man putting his soul into it – each detail of each valley, each river curve, mountain mass and mineral contents being put in with the remembrance of the thrills and intense interest the discovery & exploration of things gave him. In doing it, he must have escaped from the office, in spirit, and re-travelled hundreds of miles, hearing and seeing again (as aging people do, who work upon their past) all the loveliness, all the surprises, as well as the hardships that were theirs.”
Both maps were displayed by the Mines Department in the New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch in 1906-07. After this they disappeared from view and given Douglas’s cynical views on bureaucracy, this seems particularly ironic. They somehow made their way to the Lands and Survey Department in Wellington from whence they were transferred to Archives New Zealand in 1976. Labelled just as “Two Maps” they resided in obscurity for the next 40 years. After a request by a researcher, a Wellington archivist spent several days digging through records of transfers from Lands and Survey and they were eventually found.
Obviously it was Douglas’s own intention that the maps should be kept from public view for a while, but he would surely have been amused that bureaucratic error and indifference kept them hidden for over a century.
The Douglas maps are easy to find now. They are listed on Archives New Zealand’s online finding aid www.archway.archives.govt.nz . And with the best technology the twenty first century has to offer, Archives New Zealand also has available high resolution digital facsimiles. There’s nothing like the originals though and these maps are truly treasures.