BULLER, Sir Walter Lawry, N.Z.C., K.C.M.G., F.R.S.
A new biography of Buller, Walter Lawry appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Walter Lawry Buller was born at the Bay of Islands on 9 October 1838, the eldest surviving son of the Wesleyan missionary, James Buller. He was brought up at the Tangiteroria Mission Station, educated at Wesley College, Auckland, and early acquired a deep interest in natural history and, particularly, ornithology. Following a brief period of service with the Union Bank in Auckland, he visited the Chatham Islands in 1855 and in the same year was appointed Official Interpreter at the Magistrate's Court in Wellington. James Buller had earlier been appointed to the Wellington circuit.
In September 1857, probably again on the initiative of his father, he issued the first number of Te Karere o Poneke, a newspaper intended for the information and improvement of its Maori readers. Buller, with discerning shrewdness, interested Donald McLean, then Native Secretary, in the project and sought official support which was eventually forthcoming.
In September 1859 he was appointed to a position in the Native Department at £200 a year, primarily to report on the state of the South Island Maori population and their land reserves. This task he carried out during the ensuing two years with a break during July-August 1860 when he acted as secretary to the Kohimarama conference of Maori chiefs. In addition to editing the proceedings of the conference he was for a time editor of the Maori Messenger and its successor, Te Manuhiri Tuarangi, or The Maori Intelligencer. In January 1862 he was gazetted a Justice of the Peace and in the following month, when only 25, a Resident Magistrate, in March taking appointment under the Native Circuits Act in Wellington and the Manawatu.
His studies in New Zealand bird life had extended considerably. In 1862 he was secretary of the New Zealand Society and was already in correspondence with other scientists. Official duties at the same time were pressing. At intervals throughout 1865 and 1866 he was assisting Dr I. E. Featherston as interpreter and mediator in the protracted negotiations for the purchase of the Manawatu Block. Writing to von Haast in 1864, he referred to his expectation of an appointment as Civil Commissioner for the South Island at £500 a year, the duties of the position being comparatively light with “heaps of time for science”. The expectation did not materialise, nor did his formal appointment with three others to the position of Native Land Court Judge under the 1862 Act lead to particular responsibilities.
1865, however, was one of Buller's years, for he was with Sir George Grey before Weraroa Pa in the Taranaki campaign, in which his action in carrying dispatches from Weraroa to Wanganui earned him the New Zealand Cross. Earlier in the same year he had completed his exhibition Essay on the Ornithology of New Zealand which was awarded a silver medal. It was an admirable summary for a student of 27, although, as the world authority Otto Finsch pointed out, it had been “compiled almost exclusively” from G. R. Gray's list in Ibis and the same writer's notes to the Erebus and Terror voyage.
It was, however, merely the prelude to full-length work on the subject for which Buller sought Government support. His request for £300 to guarantee him against loss on consideration of his presenting his collection of bird skins to the Colonial Museum was granted with qualifications, but the transaction was one which his enemies did not allow him to forget. He rejected the allegation that he was a dealer as “unpalatable and distasteful”. While he did not buy and sell bird skins in a strictly commercial sense, he nevertheless commissioned collectors throughout New Zealand to obtain birds for his successive collections and for selected sales or advantageous exchanges. He had meanwhile been laying the foundations of his later fortune for, when a mere interpreter, it was said that he lent sums from his slender income at up to 20 per cent interest while he certainly exercised the uncommon privilege of borrowing from his official chief, Donald McLean, at a presumably lower rate.
In 1871 he was granted leave on half pay and return fare to visit the United Kingdom to see the History of the Birds of New Zealand through the press, with the conditional responsibility of assisting his former associate and friend Featherston, now Agent-General, as secretary. He proved extremely useful in London, ably arranging, among other manifold duties, the New Zealand Court at the Vienna Exhibition. Delays in the hand colouring of the plates to the book – “colourists complain of my fastidiousness” – obliged him to seek an extension of leave with modification of the terms of his grant. Some of the history of this involved transaction is enshrined in parliamentary papers, but the unpublished recommendation of the Attorney-General, Prendergast, that there were grounds for pressing him for a refund of advances made was not acted upon. Buller, as recommended by Hector at the outset, presented the Government with 25 copies of the opus which met with general, justified acclaim.
While in London, again with characteristic energy and foresight, he had qualified for the Bar at the Inner Temple. Pressed to return immediately to relieve alleged Government embarrassment at his protracted stay, he resigned. Returning to New Zealand later in 1874 he immediately embarked upon an extremely lucrative practice, largely in Maori Land Court work. In 1884 he erected an ostentatious residence on Wellington Terrace, flanked and faced with Corinthian columns, and in 1891 he acquired the Papaitonga Lake estate, near Levin, which was to be his pride and a wildlife refuge during the time that he stayed in New Zealand.
The complex history of the Mua-upoko claims to the Horowhenua Block and Buller's part as trustee and adviser occupy some hundreds of pages of official reports, while Buller's trenchant denials of unethical conduct were issued as successive pamphlets. His actions at all stages may have been formally correct, but it would clearly have been wiser to have avoided grounds for misunderstanding. He was unsuccessful in his attempts to enter Parliament, but was a supporter of the Liberal administration in its early years, despite later bitterness with Sir John McKenzie over the Horowhenua Block. In 1891 he offered £2,500 to Ballance towards the party's purchase of a newspaper.
Meanwhile in ornithology his unchallenged pre-eminence had flowered in over 70 papers in the Transactions, some of them on other aspects of natural history. A photolithographic reproduction of the plates to the first edition with summary text was issued in 1882 as the Manual of the Birds of New Zealand. Once more in England in the 1880s he set about the preparation of the enlarged second edition of the masterpiece, prodding or cajoling his New Zealand correspondents into soliciting subscriptions. Following its issue in parts, the complete two-volume edition appeared in 1888. While again an outstanding and comprehensive survey, the colour reproduction was uneven in quality, but retains its position as the most sumptuous and complete representation of a section of the country's natural history. The Supplement, again in two volumes, with a smaller number of coloured plates, appeared in 1905.
Successive honours encouraged his labours – C.M.G., 1875; F.R.S., 1876; and K.C.M.G., 1886, with honorary degrees and many European distinctions. The History … is a truly monumental achievement of enduring interest and value. If the text does reflect the predominant contemporary interest in the number and varieties of species, there is still much of use to the wider ecological approach of today. Too frequently the work reflects the wasteful prodigality of nineteenth century collecting and often degenerates into a macabre recital of the relentless pursuit and destruction of species now extinct or very rare. Detailed observation of the life cycle was left to a later generation. In the Supplement Buller takes a righteous stand on the conservation policies then haltingly gaining acceptance – when his own collecting was virtually over. While aware of the influence of other factors, he ignores the moral aspects of the wholesale destruction which his own rapacity and that of other collectors had engendered.
Buller married Charlotte, daughter of Gilbert Mair, senior, in 1862. Lady Buller died in 1891, Buller dying in London in 1906. In his talents, energy, and successful pursuit of the full life in business, law, and science, matching an unwavering self-interest, he is the paradox of a Renaissance figure in nineteenth-century colonial society.
by Austin Graham Bagnall, M.A., A.L.A., Librarian, National Library Centre, Wellington.
- CS/75/2332, National Archives
- Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives: G. 29 (1871)
- G. 2, 2a, 2b (1898)
- Journals of the Legislative Council: L.C. No. 6 (1896)
- History of the Birds of New Zealand, Buller, W. L. (1873)
- Supplement (1905).