SMITH, Stephenson Percy
Surveyor and ethnologist.
A new biography of Smith, Stephenson Percy appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Stephenson Percy Smith was born in June 1840 at Beccles, Suffolk, the eldest son of John Stephenson Smith. The family of eight arrived at New Plymouth by the Pekin in February 1850. Percy Smith at 14 joined the Survey Department in February 1855 and, on completing his cadetship two years later, was appointed Assistant Surveyor. In February 1857, with A. Standish, Frederick Murray, Wilson Hursthouse, and two others, he made what was probably the fifth ascent of Egmont. The following summer the same four, with J. McKellar, undertook a much more ambitious journey up the coast to the Mokau River, which was followed up to the Ohura, thence into the Wanganui basin and across country to the southern end of Lake Taupo. After a diversion north to Rotorua and adjacent lakes, the party returned round Lake Taupo to the Rangipo desert, the Hautapu River, and the Rangitikei basin to the coast and home. As Smith recorded, the party walked 500 miles, canoed 46, and rode a further 60 miles.
In October 1859 he was transferred to the Native Land Purchase Office in Auckland and for the next four years was surveying blocks in the district. A home transfer to Taranaki as District Surveyor followed in March 1865, his main duties being the survey of confiscated lands including Waitara township and vicinity. Further south, particularly in 1866, hazardous work on the military frontier brought him under fire on the Keteonetea Road between the Waitotara and Waingongoro Rivers.
In January 1868 he went to the Chathams to undertake the triangulation and subdivision of the group, his diaries fully recording the escape of Te Kooti and followers. He returned to Taranaki in February 1869, but was without survey work until October, during which time, among other tasks, he designed a blast furnace and smelting works. February 1870 saw him back in Auckland as Inspector of Surveys, his main task during the next six years being the triangulation of the North Island, his field work involving extensive journeys in the centre of the Island and on the East Coast. During the seasons of 1871 and 1873, for example, he was in the northern Ruahine and southern Kaimanawa Ranges, the Taupo, Kaingaroa, and Rotorua districts, and ascended peaks from Aorangi and Tauhara to Ruawahia.
He was appointed Chief Surveyor in the Auckland district in January 1877 and Assistant Surveyor-General in 1882. Immediately after the Tarawera eruption he was instructed to report on the disaster and made two visits to the region, the first a hasty survey from 14 to 17 June, and a more detailed exploration from 27 July to 12 August, his final report being embodied in The Eruption of Tarawera (1886).
In August 1887 he sailed with Captain Fairchild in the Stella to the Kermadec Islands to confirm New Zealand possession and to report on the group (The Kermadec Islands: Their Capabilities and Extent, 1887). His appointment as Surveyor-General on 29 January 1889 was the merited culmination of a career marked by energy, application, tact, and originality.
From his earliest Taranaki years Smith had made himself familiar with Maori language and custom, and increasingly throughout his life recorded tribal history and mythology. To provide a focal point for ethnological research in New Zealand, he convened a meeting in Wellington on 8 January 1892 at which the Polynesian Society was established. Smith at the outset acted as secretary, treasurer, and editor of the Journal, which latter position he held for the next 30 years. Despite pressing official duties he began the publication of a lengthy series of studies of Maori history. The first edition of his study of Polynesian origins, Hawaiki, the Whence of the Maori, appeared in 1898 when also he published The Peopling of the North, the Maori history of the Ngati Whatua tribe.
On his retirement on 31 October 1900 he was able to increase the tempo of his research. There was an interlude in 1902 with his appointment as Government Resident in Niue Island, where he spent five months instituting formal administration and a system of laws, later publishing material on the ethnology and, with Tregear, on the language of the island. In 1904 appeared one of his most enduring studies, The Wars of the Northern Against the Southern Tribes, which was revised as The Maori Wars of the Nineteenth Century. His later History and Traditions of the Maoris of the West Coast, North Island (1910) was a monumental study of the traditional history of the area which Smith knew best.
His careful recording of traditional material, cross checked as far as possible by varying tribal histories, left an invaluable contribution in the two works last cited. Although they can now be amplified or corrected on points of detail, the structure is substantially unchanged. In his studies on Maori origins he was more uncritical and framed hypotheses on what now seems slender linguistic and traditional evidence. The nevertheless high standard, for the period, of his own work and its publication provided a touchstone for later amplification which is being revised only today by more developed archaeological and critical techniques.
In 1863 Percy Smith married Mary Ann Crompton, daughter of W. M. Crompton, a Taranaki editor, schoolmaster, and provincial representative. Smith died at his home “Matai-Moana”, in New Plymouth, on 19 April 1922.
by Austin Graham Bagnall, M.A., A.L.A., Librarian, National Library Centre, Wellington.
- Early Travellers in New Zealand, Taylor, N. M. (ed.) (1959), “Notes of a Journey from Taranaki to Mokau …”, Smith, S. P.
- Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 31 (1922) (Obit)
- Taranaki Herald, 19 Apr 1922 (Obit).