Saturday, 4 June 2011

Reflections on the work of James McKerrow', explorer & surveyor

Left: James McKerrow, Explorer, surveyor and Surveyor General of New Zealand.

Later historians have been generous in their estimates of McKerrow’s work. Mr. R. O. Carrick for example describes him as “Mr. James McKerrow, one of the earliest and most enterprising of our Southern explorers . . . whose early explorations and considering the state of the country in those days astonishingly correct observations did far more towards settling the country and developing its resources than those of any other man”.

The Royal Astronomical Society’s tribute, paid on McKerrow’s death in 1919, indicates that his worth was
recognized by leading scientific bodies. “Years of arduous work . . . in the early days demonstrate to the full the loyalty, grit, and solid determination that he possessed and displayed in the carrying out of expert and scientific work at a time when means of communications were of the most primitive description, and when the surveying of the mountainous forest lands in the south necessitated the finest qualities that man can possess.

But, intent on doing his duty, he carried out his responsible work unappalled by dangers which rarely cross the path of a professional man”.

McKerrow’s intimate knowledge of the interior was fully utilized by those requiring information on the region. “Select Committee for Roads and their Construction” appointed by the Otago Provincial Council asked him his opinion about the possibility of running a road through to Queenstown via the Kawarau Gorge. McKerrow pointed out the inherent difficulties of making such a road, and the immense expenditure of time
and money required. In response to a series of questions he also gave his opinion on the most profitable and speedy way of getting supplies through immediately to the Wakatipu goldfield, and the measures he considered necessary to compete with Invercargill for the trade.

In a more specialized field, that of geology, McKerrow’s observations were of particular significance. In a paper read before the Otage Institute on July 19, 1870, and later printed in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, he discussed the “Physical Geography of the Lake Districts of Otago.

After referring briefly to the areas, dimensions, altitudes and positions of the lakes, he pointed out that they were long and thin, lay lengthwise in their valleys had precipitous sides, surfaces not differing greatly in altitude, and terminated at the point where the valleys broadened out into plains. On each side and at the
southern ends there invariably lay vast areas of shingle and large blocks of rock. It appeared that some great natural cause had had a uniform action in producing these lakes. McKerrow contended that the glaciers lying on the side of the mountains were puny descendants of glaciers which had formerly filled valley and lake bed, and had slid slowly but irresistibly forward, carrying with them the spoil of the mountain, gradually working
a bed deeper and deeper, and finally depositing their spoil as lateral and terminal moraines. Soundings taken of the depth of Lake Wakatipu supported certain corollaries of this theory, and McKerrow drew further support for his contentions by explaining why New Zealand was at one time cold enough to contain such large glaciers. The present condition of lake and river, he maintained, must however have been in existence for a long time if the conclusions he drew from the slow silting up at the heads of the lakes were valid. He pointed out that the rivers were gradually eroding their courses to a lower level, with the result that several small lakes had been transformed into valleys.

Rivers then ran through them and dashed over the moraine as rapids. From these observations and taking into consideration the great disintegrating power of frost, it could be readily understood to what an extent the mountains were denuded every year. “Speaking on the Lake Districts in a general manner”, he concluded “It may be observed that, considering the extent of agricultural, pastoral and forest land that abounds in them, their mineral products, their delightful climate, and extent of inland navigation, they have within their own borders all the man elements that render communities prosperous and ourishing.”

McKerrow’s paper was of great interest to geologists throughout New Zealand since by attributing the formation of Wakatipu to glacial erosion he rejected the theory of di erential subsidence propounded in 1869 by no less an authority than Sir James Hector

In 1876, F.W. Hutton, in a paper read before theWellington Philosophical Society said, “I need scarcely say that I agree with Mr. McKerrow . . . In his paper McKerrow points out, I believe for the first time, the very important fact that the constrained exure of a solid body like ice, when passing from one angle of inclination to another, would greatly increase the friction at this particular point”.

McKerrow’s theory in later years received support from such men as Sir Archibald Geikie, Professor Hein, Professor Penck and Tyndall the Physicist .

More recently the view has been than these two theories both contain elements of truth.

                       James McKerrow in his final years

It says much for McKerrow’s keen and analytical powers of observation and for his wide scientific knowledge that he, an amateur geologist, was able to contest points of geological theory with the geological authorities of the day. Such was the high regard in which McKerrow was held in geographical and geological circles that Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, the President of the Royal Geographical Society and a geologist
of world wide reputation, saw fit to link the young surveyor’s name with those of Hector and Haast. These three men had all had papers read in 1864 before the Society, McKerrow’s being his report to Mr. Thomson on the lake district previously published in the Otago Provincial Gazette. In his address to  the society at an anniversary meeting on the 23 May, 1864, the President said: “Three papers of great interest have been communicated to the Society, which throw additional light upon the physical geography of the hitherto unsur veyed districts of the great middle island of New Zealand, and certain new facts illustrative of glacial action. I consider it, indeed, to be a fortunate circumstance for our science, that these regions should
have been visited by such men as Dr. Hector, McKerrow and Dr. Haast”. McKerrow’s subsequent election as an F.R.G.S. can perhaps be attributed to Sir Roderick’s remarks.

Practically and scientifically McKerrow’s journeys were of value to his fellow men, but they also a ected him personally in such a way that for the rest of his life he had a nostalgia for the wide open spaces, the lakes and the bush-clad hills.

Professor James Park, an explorer of a later day describes some of the difficulties of such journeys, and then goes on “But the gains were great. The man has not yet been born who will ever forget the blazing campfire and itting shadows that chase one another from tree to tree, the blue sky overhead, the vitalizingwhiff of the mountain air, the scents of the forest, the murmur of the nearby stream, the boom of the bittern, the shrill cry
of the kakapo r the clear call of the kiwi. When to these we ad the quest of adventure and the joy of discovery we have a ombination of in uence that make a powerful appeal to the pimitive instincts of man”.

“For the time being the party forms a little self-governing, elf-contained community. For the common weal every man ust exercise patience and self-restraint, and in none are these qualities more required than in the leader. It is his duty to allot each man his particular task, to call the time of starting and of camping. The daily round, the close association, and perhaps more than all, the community of ideals which brings together
kindred souls for a common and tends to foster a spirit of comradeship that often ripens into lifelong friendship.”

James McKerrow was an ideal leader for such a small self- contained community. Daring without being foolhardy, never expecting more of his companions than of himself, quick to take a lead in apparently trivial matters such as changing wet clothes promptly or drinking sparingly of cold water on a hot  day, he contributed an impressive quality of leadership towards the success of the expedition. One incident typifies McKerrow the man. On one part of a return journey something went wrong with the compass, and McKerrow was forced to take bearings from the stars. Goldie was not satisfied with the results, and declared they were heading in the wrong direction.

He refused to proceed further, and after signing a paper to the effect that he was taking such a course of his own free will, he struck out by himself. Three days later he returned and to his astonishment found McKerrow still at the same place.

Goldie expressed his surprise. McKerrow replied “I know you would come back, John, so I waited.” No reference to Goldie’s obstinacy ever escaped McKerrow’s lips, but in John Goldie he had made a lifelong friend.

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