Story: Ideas in New Zealand

Page 2. Enlightenment science

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Cook’s scientists

The first people to apply western ideas to New Zealand were British explorer James Cook and his scientists. They came in the spirit of the Enlightenment, which assumed that through observation and reason humans could understand the universal laws which God had used to create the world. In 1758, 11 years before Cook’s arrival, the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus had published his system for classifying living things, which promised to give order to the natural world. This turned the art of collecting into the science of botany.

Why come to New Zealand?

Johann Reinhold Forster, the botanist on Cook’s second voyage, explained why he was keen to join the party: ‘The thirst for knowledge, the desire of discovering new animals, new plants and to be happy to find one or more substances that might be useful to mankind in general and to the Dominions of Great Britain in particular, were the motives that animated me to go on this Expedition.’1

Along with Joseph Banks, a rational science enthusiast and an opponent of mysticism, the scientists on Cook’s ship the Endeavour included botanist Daniel Solander and draughtsman Herman Spöring (both pupils of Linnaeus), astronomer Charles Green, botanical artist Sydney Parkinson and landscape artist John Buchanan. On Cook’s second voyage Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg were ardent promoters of the Linnaean system.

Distinguished visitors

These scientists set out to document an unknown natural world and to collect plants which might benefit humans. New Zealand thus became a place of interest to international naturalists. In later years prominent figures visited in pursuit of the unique flora and fauna. Charles Darwin went to the Bay of Islands in 1835. Distinguished botanist Joseph Hooker, son of the director of London’s Kew Gardens, established his reputation on the basis of describing the plants of New Zealand, the subantarctic islands and Tasmania during his 1840–41 visit.

New Zealand correspondents

Subsequently the leading naturalists of Britain corresponded directly with New Zealand collectors and scientists. William Colenso, who had shown Hooker around the Bay of Islands, sent him specimens for many years. Colenso and Richard Taylor also corresponded with Richard Owen, the leading naturalist at the British Museum, who cemented his reputation through announcing the discovery of the previously unknown moa.

New Zealand Company scientist Ernst Dieffenbach had contact with Darwin, Owen and geologist Charles Lyell. Walter Mantell, son of the famous paleontologist Gideon Mantell, sent crates of moa bones across the oceans. In the 1860s and 1870s Julius Haast, the head of Canterbury Museum, used his store of moa bones to establish his credibility and make connections with international science. Thus New Zealand was for some time an important location for western naturalists, and New Zealand residents contributed bones and specimens (often) and ideas (occasionally) to international debates.

From the later 19th century New Zealand was of less interest to naturalists overseas, but the Enlightenment conviction that accurate observation and rational analysis were the way to understand the universe remained a primary principle for New Zealand scientists.


Enlightenment science informed questions about peoples too. Linnaeus had included humans in his classification system. Many philosophers included people near the top of the Great Chain of Being. Collecting artefacts became transformed into anthropology. Although some believed that the races had been created separately, most observers believed in one creation (monogenesis). But how to characterise the races? Cook, Banks and Forster, examining the language, appearance and traditions of Māori and other Polynesians, decided Māori were related to other Pacific peoples. They convinced the pioneering German anthropologist Johann Blumenbach that his division of humanity into Caucasians, Asiatics, Americans and Ethiopians should be expanded to add Malays (which included Polynesians).

Evidence from New Zealand was also used in the French Enlightenment debate between followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who considered so-called primitive people to be virtuous and innocent, and those who believed that they were savages, inferior to civilised people. When French explorer Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne and his men were killed in the Bay of Islands in 1772, this was used to prove the folly of ideas about the noble savage. Cook himself was too much the man of observation rather than ideology to take sides. He recognised the cannibalism of Māori, but respected them for their humanity to friends and kin.

As with natural history, New Zealand was an important site for Enlightenment debates about anthropology.

  1. Quoted in Michael Hoare, The tactless philosopher: Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-98). Melbourne: Hawthorn Press, 1976, p. 102. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Ideas in New Zealand - Enlightenment science', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 22 Oct 2014