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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


HAAST, Sir Julius von, K.C.M.G., F.R.S.


Geologist and explorer.

A new biography of Haast, Johann Franz Julius von appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Julius von Haast was born on 1 May 1822 at Bonn, Germany, the son of Mathias Haast, a merchant, sometime burgomaster. He seldom used his full name, Johann Franz Julius Haast. He studied geology and mineralogy at the University of the Rhine but did not graduate. Little is known of his early life; apparently he travelled as a merchant, and had some connection with August Krantz, dealer in minerals. His first wife died before he left Germany.

In 1858 Haast came to New Zealand to report on immigration prospects for a shipping firm. He accompanied Hochstetter in his explorations (1859), and remained to make a topographical and geological survey of the West Coast on behalf of Nelson Provincial Government, in an arduous journey (1860) down the Buller and Grey Valleys, in company with James Burnett and five others. He reported favourably on the Greymouth coalfield, discovered by Brunner, discovered the Westport coalfield (Mt. Rochfort), and found traces of gold in West Coast rivers.

In November 1860, W. S. Moorhouse, Superintendent of Canterbury, urgently asked Haast to report on the Port Hills, where contractors for the Lyttelton Tunnel had abandoned their contract on striking hard rock. Haast suggested that hard lava would be limited, and a new contract led ultimately to completion of the tunnel. Meantime he was appointed as Provincial Geologist (February 1861). Haast's Canterbury explorations (1861–68) included journeys to the Rangitata, Ashburton, and Rakaia headwaters, to the glacier region near Mt. Cook, and to the West Coast south to Franz Josef Glacier (which he named). He also traversed Haast Pass. These and many lesser investigations resulted in the publication of The Geology of Canterbury and Westland (1879).

In 1863 he married Mary Dobson, daughter of Edward Dobson, Provincial Engineer, sister of (Sir) A. D. Dobson. Haast played an active part in the intellectual life of Christchurch, founding the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury (1862) and Canterbury Museum (opened 1870), of which he was the first director (1869) and to which he devoted his later life. He built up the collection by using moa bones from Glenmark Swamp for advantageous exchanges. After the termination of the Provincial Geological Survey, Haast reported on Canterbury subjects to the Colonial Geological Survey in Wellington. With Bishop Harper he founded Canterbury Collegiate Union (1872), precursor of Canterbury University College (affiliated with the University of New Zealand in 1874), and lectured there in geology, and, later, also at Lincoln College. He was appointed professor of geology in 1876 and was a member of the Senate of the University of New Zealand (1880–87). He visited Europe in 1886 as New Zealand Commissioner at the Indian and Colonial Exhibition (London, 1886). The foundation of the Imperial Institute resulted from his memorandum, written on the suggestion of the Prince of Wales. Haast died on 16 August 1887, shortly after his return to Christchurch.

Haast's contributions to science brought him a world reputation. He was awarded a doctorate of philosophy of the University of Tübingen (1862), was elected F.R.S. (1867), and received the honorary degree of D.Sc. (Cambridge) in 1886. The Emperor of Austria conferred on him a hereditary knighthood in 1875. He was created C.M.G. in 1883 and K.C.M.G. in 1886, and was honoured by many learned societies.

Versatility of interest is reflected by Haast's voluminous publications, which include accounts of expeditions and geological surveys, descriptions of fishes, whales, and fossil birds, reports on building stones, plant distribution, underground water, coalfields, goldfields, and earthquakes, discussions of Pleistocene glaciation, moa hunters, rock paintings, humanism and realism in education, and the moral influences of horticulture. He lectured on art and produced competent landscape sketches, sang in public, and played the violin. He named many South Island rivers and glaciers, creating (in his own words) a kind of Pantheon for his illustrious predecessors and contemporaries in science, exploration, and politics – for example, Hooker and Mueller Glaciers, Mounts Elie de Beaumont and De la Beche, the Lyell Range, the Clyde River, and Lake Hochstetter. His geological studies are the basis for later work: his classification of Canterbury rocks, his recognition of the effects of past glaciation, his interpretation of the Canterbury Plains as “fans”, and his views on the structure of Banks Peninsula. Much of his work on the extinct moas and eagle Harpagornis (which he named) is retained in modern classifications. He brought a geologist's stratigraphic approach to problems of early human succession in New Zealand. In explorations in the Southern Alps Haast collected many new alpine plants (e.g., Haastia) which were described by J. D. Hooker, one of a wide circle of European correspondents.

The modern reader may find Haast's writings on natural science prolix, but those who have built upon his foundations are unstinting in their praise of his acute observation and sound judgment. Likewise his museum, once hailed as the best south of the line, seemed but an overcrowded storehouse 60 years later, yet students continue to benefit from his discoveries and collections.

Haast's pursuit of his objectives won him critics and enemies as well as admirers – he quarrelled with T. W. Hackett, antagonised W. T. L. Travers, and fell out with Hector when he publicly accused A. McKay of appropriating the results of his Moa Bone Point excavations. Moreover, he solicited honours more avidly than many might think proper. Yet such traits were offset by his jovial personality and lively enthusiasm for his science, amounting to a lifelong devoted passion that fully entitles him to his place as one of the greatest pioneers in New Zealand science.

by Charles Alexander Fleming, O.B.E., B.A., D.SC., F.R.S.N.Z., Chief Paleontologist, New Zealand Geological Survey, Lower Hutt.

  • The Life and Times of Sir Julius von Haast, Haast, H. F. von (1948).


Charles Alexander Fleming, O.B.E., B.A., D.SC., F.R.S.N.Z., Chief Paleontologist, New Zealand Geological Survey, Lower Hutt.