Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

BIDWILL, John Carne

(1815–53).

Botanist and explorer.

John Carne Bidwill was born at St. Thomas, Exeter, on 5 February 1815, the eldest son of Joseph Green Bidwill and Charlotte, née Carne, of Falmouth. Of a roving disposition, he sailed for Canada in April 1832 at the age of 17, returning in November 1834. In April 1838 he set out for Sydney in company with his sister Elizabeth. After only a few months in Australia he left on his first visit to New Zealand, arriving at the Bay of Islands on 5 February 1839. He commented succinctly on the scenic and agricultural limitations of the area and noted that Kororareka probably contained “a greater number of rogues than any other spot of equal size in the universe”.

The main purpose of his journey was to reach the mountains of the interior and he immediately took passage in a small schooner for the Thames, Mercury Bay, and Tauranga. Here he made preparations for the inland journey. The welcome assistance and generosity of J. W. Stack, who induced some of his Maori servants to accompany Bidwill, enabled him to overcome the shortage of Maori bearers. On 17 February the expedition of seven Maoris and two Europeans – one an unnamed European interpreter – set out, Bidwill taking careful note of the vegetation through which they passed.

At Rotorua he met the Rev. Thomas Chapman who had just arrived from Taupo, the first recorded visit to the area by a European. It was for Bidwill a fortunate meeting and he waited some days until Chapman was able to assist him further with additional Maori porters. The party set out again on the twenty-third, arriving at Lake Taupo near the village of Tapuaeharuru (not named) three days later. On 28 February they crossed the lake in a large canoe, reaching Te Rapa, close to the present village of Waihi, in the evening after calling at two villages on the eastern shore. Bidwill's guide apparently accompanied him no further than Taupo, although a mission-trained Maori “Peter” was most helpful on the last section.

On 1 March they climbed over an unnamed mountain–almost certainly Pihanga–to Rotoaira, called “Rotuite” by Bidwill. Ruapehu and the cone of Ngauruhoe were obscured, making it difficult for them to obtain accurate bearings during the approach. On the third, after a night by a stream, probably the headwaters of the Wanganui, he climbed over a hill to face an unexpected descent into another stream, probably the Mangatepopo, before ascending the cone. Ngauruhoe was a tiring obstacle and “Had it not been for the idea of standing where no man ever stood before, I shoud certainly have given up the undertaking.” Precise and observant as Bidwill is on so many features of his journey, the account of his actual climb and accompanying detail are disappointing. The absence of an interpreter probably accounts for the lack of all but a few inaccurately recorded place names. However, his climb of the peak is authenticated not merely by his very approximate reference to the diameter of the crater and his noting that the lip was higher on the eastern side, but more particularly from his sighting of the Blue Lake on Tongariro, visible only from the upper slopes.

After the ascent he returned to Te Rapa where he met a very angry Te Heuheu (Te Heuheu Tukino II), who upbraided him for climbing the mountain. The party, however, returned safely to Rotorua whence, after a further stay, they made their way to Tauranga on 24 March carefully avoiding a Waikato war party. Bidwill continued on to Te Aroha, Waihou, Matamata, and Tauranga before joining the missionary vessel Columbine on the first stage of his return to Sydney. He had successfully completed a bold and determined journey aided, certainly, by a fortunate conjunction of circumstances, but, so far as the Ngauruhoe climb was concerned, to be repeated once only during the next 30 years.

Business interests provided the excuse for another New Zealand journey in August 1840, this time to Port Nicholson, which enabled him to provide a postscript to Rambles in New Zealand, published the following year. Despite his comparatively brief visit and lack of knowledge of Maori, Bidwill formed balanced and judicious impressions, while his observations on the flora and Maori agriculture are still significant. The specimens he had collected, including those from Ngauruhoe, the first from any alpine terrain in New Zealand, were sent to Lindley, who, however, failed to publish them, although some duplicates were sent to Sir William Hooker at Kew.

Bidwill returned to England in the second half of 1843, presumably in connection with family business interests, but left again for Australia on the Arachne, this time with his sister Mary. In February 1845 he left for Tahiti, where he spent a year, returning to Australia. In September 1847 he was appointed Government Botanist and Director of the Sydney Botanic Garden, but was replaced in January 1848 by Charles Moore, a Colonial Office appointee.

It was immediately after this, in March 1848, that he paid his last visit to New Zealand, this time to Nelson, where he botanised around the town and extensively at the head of the Motupiko in the Top-house area. It is clear from letters to Hooker at Kew that he climbed to about 6,000 ft in two areas to which he gives the name “Morses (?) Mountain” and “Cypress Mountain”, perhaps in the St. Arnaud Range and to the northward in the Red Hill district. Probably one of the first Europeans to ascend above the bush line in these areas, he intended to send Hooker “a short sketch of my late trip in New Zealand which… you might be able to publish.” Regrettably, however, it appears not to have been written.

On his return to Australia he was appointed Commissioner of Crown Lands at Wide Bay. He was reported to have discovered gold at Gympie. In 1853, after an exhausting journey between Wide and Moreton Bays, he fell critically ill from the effects of starvation and died. In both countries he was one of the most assiduous collectors of plants, normally sending his collections to Kew, corresponding with Sir William Hooker, and accompanying his son J. D. Hooker, then a naturalist on the Erebus and Terror expedition, on excursions around Port Jackson. J. D. Hooker in the Flora Novae-zelandiae quotes Bidwill as the collector of about 90 species, of which 60 were from the South Island, while in the Handbook of the New Zealand Flora (1864) he cites Bidwill as the first explorer of the Southern Alps “making extensive and very important collections on the Nelson mountains….” Many well known alpine plants were discovered by him, while his name is perpetuated in the bog pine Dacrydium bidwilli, the small alpine perennial Forstera bidwilli, and a number of others.

by Austin Graham Bagnall, M.A., A.L.A., Librarian, National Library Centre, Wellington.

  • Correspondence with Sir W. J. Hooker, (MSS), Library of the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew
  • Bidwill Family Bible, Turnbull Library
  • Rambles in New Zealand, Bidwill, J. C. (1952).


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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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