Apart from being New Zealand's first holder of the Victoria Cross, Charles Heaphy, like John Gully was a surveyor who distinguished himself in watercolour painting, exploration, and on having forsworn politics, as a senior public servant. His ever-changing, somewhat knock-about gentleman's lifestyle, and his attitudes to Mäori were typical of many educated Englishmen who came to improve their fortunes in a new country about the time of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Born in London in 1820, the youngest of five children of a professional water-colourist, Heaphy worked first as a draughtsman, entering the Royal Academy in 1837. He was hired by the New Zealand Company on which was set up to systematically colonise this country. Arriving aboard the Tory in May 1839, he set about to recording the landscape and chiefs of the Cook Strait area through his detailed watercolours. Based at Port Nicholson in Wellington, Heaphy went to the Chatham Islands and then with a party explored the West Coast of the North Island into Taranaki.
Some of his drawings and watercolours were used to publicise the New Zealand Company and he returned to England to write a report on colonial life in this country.
Heaphy's attempts to start a farm near Motueka were demanding of capital and he began an era of exploration into the hinterland and beyond the Buller River. Eventually, with Thomas Brunner, he reached the West Coast of the South Island. Their epic journey almost cost them their lives but did not change their estimation of the future prospects of the West Coast. Since Heaphy was associated with the over-optimistic sales talk of the New Zealand Company he was unpopular in Nelson. So in 1848 he became a Survey Office draftsman in Auckland. For the next 10 years he was actively associated with the development of Auckland province, including work in the Thames goldfields.
Shortly before the New Zealand Wars broke out Heaphy surveyed the military road south from Auckland, and became an advocate of military action against the Mäori. He was in command of 100 local volunteer troops, and worked as a surveyor under General Cameron. He won his Victoria Cross while tending a wounded soldier under intense fire near Te Awamutu. As Chief Surveyor to the central government from 1864 to 1865, he was fully occupied with surveys of the lands punitively confiscated from the Waikato tribes. These confiscations are known as the rauputu.
After two years as MP for Parnell in Auckland, he accepted that he was not a politician. He resigned to take up the post of commissioner of native reserves, which Native Minister Donald McLean offered him as a reward for political support. His final stint as a public servant was as part of McLean's tight web of subordinates, 'bound to him by loyalty and patronage' (1). He was an efficient administrator of the native reserves, but as much of his time was spent in arduous fieldwork, he became almost crippled with rheumatism.
Appointed Chief Judge of the Native Land Court in 1878, he retired in 1880, remaining a commissioner under the New Zealand Native Reserves Act. When his health collapsed in May 1881 he and his wife sailed to Brisbane where he died, childless, that August. He left this country an enduring legacy of topographical watercolours, lithographs, portrait studies, charts, and coastal profiles produced mainly in the service of the New Zealand Company. His sensitive depictions still provide us with an emotional connection to beautiful landscapes, so many of which have since all but vanished.
(1) Quote from The New Zealand Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 1 (1990). Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs. p 182.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database.