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Haast, Julius von

by Peter B. Maling, Simon Nathan


Julius von Haast was a foundational figure in New Zealand science, both as a researcher and as an institution builder. His geological and geographical surveys helped foster a better scientific understanding of New Zealand landscapes and natural resources, and he made important contributions to the study of its flora and fauna, notably his pioneering research into moa. He founded Canterbury Museum and led the campaign for a university to be established in Christchurch.

Early life

Johann Franz Haast was born in Bonn, then part of the Kingdom of Prussia, on 1 May 1822, one of nine children of Mathias Haast, tailor and merchant, and his wife Anna Eva Theodora Rüth. He attended school in Bonn and at the Höhere Bürgerschule in Cologne, which he left prematurely in 1838 to undertake a two-year apprenticeship, possibly as a mining technician.

The information available on Haast’s early life is incomplete. He recorded that his father wanted him to leave Bonn and sent him to live in Verviers, Belgium. By his own account he studied at Rhine University in Bonn, but there is no documentary evidence to support this. He nonetheless acquired a broad knowledge of the natural sciences, especially geology and mineralogy, was fluent in several languages, and was a capable artist and cartographer.

In 1844 Haast moved to Frankfurt am Main, where he was involved in a variety of commercial occupations, including textile seller, haulage contractor and bookseller’s salesman. On 26 October 1846 he married Antonie Schmitt, daughter of a well-known musician. They had one son, Mathias Robert, born in 1848.

Travels in New Zealand, 1858–60

In 1857, Haast was commissioned to translate Charles Hursthouse’s New Zealand, or Zealandia, the Britain of the south into German. The following year he accepted an offer from English shipowners Willis, Gann & Co. to travel to New Zealand and report on the prospects for German emigration. Haast reached Auckland on 21 December 1858, the day before the Austrian frigate Novara arrived, carrying German geologist Ferdinand Hochstetter.  Auckland’s provincial government commissioned Hochstetter to undertake a reconnaissance geological survey of the Auckland region, and Haast asked to join him. Hochstetter, who had limited command of English, was pleased to have a German-speaking companion who was also a competent English speaker. The two men formed an effective partnership and an enduring friendship, and Haast rapidly gained experience in geological and topographical mapping.

After the Auckland project was finished, Nelson’s provincial government asked Hochstetter to report on mineral prospects in its region. The work was incomplete when Hochstetter had to return to Vienna, and he recommended that Haast finish the survey. Haast explored the remote, mountainous country, and discovered what was to prove to be New Zealand’s largest bituminous coalfield near Westport. Based on the published report of his explorations, Hochstetter arranged for Haast to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Tübingen in Germany.

From the time he arrived in New Zealand Haast always signed himself Julius Haast. His wife Antonie, who had stayed in Frankfurt, died in October 1859, and their son was raised by her family. Haast decided to remain in New Zealand and start a new career as a geologist. He became a naturalised British subject in March 1861 and joined the Anglican Church. On 25 June 1863 he married Mary Dobson, daughter of Canterbury’s provincial engineer Edward Dobson. They were to have four sons and a daughter.

Exploring Canterbury

In late 1860 the Canterbury Provincial Council asked Haast to urgently examine the site of a planned railway tunnel between Lyttelton and the Canterbury Plains, as the contractor had abandoned the project after striking very hard rock. Haast correctly predicted that this was a localised feature which could be easily overcome, and the tunnel was duly completed within budget. This established his credibility in Canterbury, where he was appointed provincial geologist in February 1861 and asked to undertake a geological and topographical survey of the province.

Most of the flatter land near the coast had already been surveyed and subdivided for farming, but the steeper country and alpine regions were almost a blank on the map. Over the next five years Haast and his assistants systematically explored and traversed all the eastern catchments of the Southern Alps in Canterbury province, mapping mountains, valleys and glaciers. Haast also made significant field sketches of the major glaciers they encountered. The results of this work and subsequent geological surveys were published in reports to the Canterbury Provincial Council, and later summarised in Geology of the provinces of Canterbury and Westland, New Zealand (1879).

The exploring expeditions provided opportunities for Haast to name many topographical features, often after well-known scientists and other notables (including Franz Josef Glacier after the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph). In June 1862 he wrote to Sir William Hooker, the first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, informing him that he had named the Hooker Glacier after him and explaining that he was planning to create ‘a kind of Pantheon or Walhalla for my illustrious contemporaries’.1 It was an imaginative vision, which provided openings to initiate correspondence with leading scientists in Britain, Europe and North America. However, it also overlooked long-established Māori names for these features.

Canterbury Museum and scientific research

Haast was keen to establish scientific institutions modelled on those he had seen in Europe. He founded the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury and started to publish the results of his research in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute. He inaugurated a museum in unused rooms in the Provincial Council building, based on material he had collected during his explorations. He took advantage of the discovery of a rich store of excellently preserved moa bones at Glenmark, north Canterbury, and supervised their excavation and transportation to Christchurch, where he and his assistant reassembled them into complete skeletons.

Research into moa had been the closely guarded preserve of the British palaeontologist Richard Owen, but with a copious supply of new material Haast started to publish his own identifications of species. Owen reluctantly conceded in 1874, ‘I begin to feel that my share in the work of the restoration of the extinct birds of New Zealand is over…. You stand at the head of my successors in that Work, and merit every honour & recompense for your share in the Natural History of your fair islands’.2 The Glenmark swamp excavations also revealed fragments of a giant bird of prey, which Haast named Harpagornis moorei. It has subsequently become known as Haast’s eagle, one of the largest birds of prey known to have ever existed.

Haast sent moa skeletons, bird skins and other material overseas to major institutions, exchanging them for valuable material for his own museum. The development of Canterbury Museum became his passion, and he raised funds for the construction of a fine stone building that was opened in 1870. With an impressive building, and spectacular displays of moa skeletons and material imported from European museums, Canterbury outshone other New Zealand museums in the late nineteenth century.

In addition to his museum work, Haast had wide interests in the natural sciences. He regularly collected alpine plants, and several species were named after him by William Hooker’s son Joseph Hooker, who had succeeded his father as director of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Excavation of early Māori sites under his supervision led to important ethnological papers. He predicted the presence of artesian water beneath the gravels of the Canterbury Plains and recognised the former widespread extent of glaciation in the Southern Alps. Papers on his New Zealand discoveries were read before the Geological and Zoological Societies in London, and the Royal Geographical Society awarded him a gold medal for his explorations.

Later life and legacy

Bishop H. J. C. Harper and Haast led the movement to establish Canterbury University College, and to affiliate it with the University of New Zealand. Haast became its first professor of geology and also taught palaeontology. He served on the senate of the University of New Zealand from 1879 until 1887.

An entirely self-made man, Haast was an effective self-publicist, which helped him to gain many awards. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1867. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria awarded him a hereditary knighthood in 1875, which entitled him to be called von Haast. In 1885 he was appointed to lead New Zealand’s contribution to the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, held in London in 1886. He was knighted by Queen Victoria for his work on the exhibition.

Haast died unexpectedly in Christchurch on 16 August 1887, aged 65, soon after returning from Europe. On his gravestone, in the graveyard of the now-demolished Holy Trinity Church, Avonside, his name is recorded as Julius von Haast, the first name he chose for himself; the title ‘von’ he was awarded; and the family name ‘Haast’ was the only constant name throughout his life.

Julius von Haast was an extrovert, energetic and enthusiastic in his many interests, including the development of the musical and artistic life of Christchurch. His impetuosity and outspokenness led to avoidable public and scientific arguments, but those disputes do not diminish his achievements. Canterbury Museum is his lasting memorial.

Peter B. Maling’s original 1990 entry was substantially revised by Simon Nathan in 2023, including changing the subject’s name from Johann Franz Julius von Haast to the name he used at the time of his death, Julius von Haast.

  1. J. Haast to W. Hooker, 9 June 1862. Quoted in S. Nolden, R. Burns, and S. Nathan. The correspondence of Julius Haast and Joseph Dalton Hooker. Wellington, 2013: 23. Back
  2. R. Owen to J. Haast, 13 Octo­ber 1874. Haast collection, Alexander Turnbull Library. Back

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How to cite this page:

Peter B. Maling and Simon Nathan. 'Haast, Julius von', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2023. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)