By the death of Sir Walter Lawry Buller, K.C.M.G., F.R.S., D.Sc., the scientific world has sustained a heavy loss, more especially in ornithological circles, for his beautiful and exhaustive works on the history of the birds of New Zealand are well and widely known.
Sir Walter was the descendant of an ancient Cornish family, and the eldest son of the late Rev. James Buller, a veteran missionary, and was born at Newark, in the Bay of Islands, on the 9th October, 1838. From early boyhood he displayed a natural taste for scientific pursuits, and made ornithology a life-long study.
He received his early training at Wesley College, Auckland, and on leaving school entered the banking profession in that city. There he won rapid promotion, but finding that his health would not stand the strain, and acting on medical advice, he took a year's rest at Wellington, devoting himself during that period principally to literary and scientific pursuits. During this time of enforced leisure he enjoyed the friendship of the late William Swainson, a celebrated ornithologist of his day, whose extensive collections in natural history, and valuable stores of information, were always at the command of his willing disciple.
He was appointed Native Commissioner in 1859 for the Southern Provinces, and during his location in Christchurch undertook and carried through to a most successful issue the experimental partition and individualisation of the Kaiapoi Reserve.
In 1861 he gained the first prize for an essay on “The Moral Welfare of New Zealand,” offered by the Auckland Association, and open to the competition of all colonists under the age of twenty-six.
In the same year, by the desire of Governor Browne, he acted as honorary secretary of the Kohimarama conference of Native chiefs, and prepared the proceedings for publication.
Early in 1862 he was appointed Resident Magistrate in the Manawatu District.
In 1865 he was gazetted a Judge of the Native Land Court, and during that disturbed period he performed many special services in connection with Native affairs, for which he received on eight different occasions the official thanks of the Government.
As a volunteer on Sir George Grey's staff at the taking of the Weraroa Pa he received the New Zealand War Medal. On that occasion, declining the protection of a military escort, he carried the Governor's despatches, at night, through forty miles of the enemy's country, attended only by a Maori orderly—a piece of work which was mentioned in despatches as “an act of conspicuous personal courage, and a service which, in the Imperial Army, would have been rewarded by some special mark of distinction.”
He was awarded by the Royal Commissioners the silver medal of the New Zealand Exhibition for an “Essay on the Ornithology of New Zealand,” which was published by command, and afterwards reprinted with other essays in the “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute.”
In 1866 he was appointed Resident Magistrate of Wanganui, which position he held till 1871, when he went to England as secretary to the Agent-General (Dr. Featherston). Before his return to the colony, three years later, he was called to the bar by the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple, and had produced his well-known work “A History of the Birds of New Zealand,” every copy of this beautifully illustrated book having been subscribed for before the last page went to press, several crowned heads being amongst the subscribers.
He also took an active part in the Vienna Exhibition of 1872, and Dr. Featherston, in his official report to the Government, declared that the great success which had attended the New Zealand Court was mainly owing to his individual zeal and energy.
But it will be by reason of his researches in New Zealand ornithology that the name of Sir Walter Buller will be best remembered, and we believe it was his peculiar distinction to be the first native-born New-Zealander to gain recognition throughout the world for his exertions in the field of science, just as he was also, as we believe, the first native-born New-Zealander to receive the honour of a title from the hands of his Sovereign.
The University of Tubingen conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Science, and he received decorations from the Emperor of Austria, the King of Wurtemburg, and the Grand Duke of Hesse; and the London Daily Telegraph in a leading article described the author of the “Birds of New Zealand” as “the Audubon of New Zealand.”
On his return to New Zealand in 1874 Dr. Buller was admitted a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court, and for some years was actively engaged in the practice of his profession. He devoted himself largely to Native work, and on one occasion received from Mr. Justice Gillies the graceful tribute of being “the supreme advocate for the Maori race.” In 1875 Dr. Buller was made a C.M.G., in recognition of his labours, and in 1876 he achieved the “blue riband of science” by election as a Fellow of the Royal Society.
In the midst of professional business he continued to make contributions to zoological literature, besides publishing some interesting papers on Maori subjects, and in 1882, at the invitation of the New Zealand Government, he prepared for official publication a “Manual of the Birds of New Zealand,” illustrated by photo-lithographic prints from the plates in his larger work. In 1883 he received from the New Zealand Exhibition the gold medal for science and literature.
In 1886 he returned to England as New Zealand Commissioner at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, and in the same year was promoted to the rank of K.C.M.G. In 1887 he was awarded the Galleian medal by the Royal University of Florence, and in 1888 he published a much larger edition of the “Birds of New Zealand” (two volumes).
Besides the honours already mentioned, Sir Walter Buller held the rank of Officier of the Legion of Honour, besides being Officier of l'Instruction Publique (Gold Palm of the Academy), Knight First Class of the Order of Francis Joseph of Austria, and Knight Commander of the Crown of Italy. For many years he represented the colony on the permanent governing body of the Imperial Institute.
Sir Walter Buller returned to New Zealand for a few years in the early nineties, living at Wellington, his country residence being near Levin, on the shores of the beautiful Lake Papaitonga—“the beauty of the south,” as it has been called by the Maoris from time immemorial.
In addition to numerous papers on ornithological subjects contributed to the “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute,” extending over a period of many years, Sir Walter wrote, in 1888, “Illustrations on Darwinism.”
He returned to England in 1899, and the degree of Doctor of Science was conferred upon him by the University of Cambridge in the following year.
In 1906 he produced a “Supplement to the Birds of New Zealand,” in two volumes, correcting the proof-sheets of this last great work during the illness which shortly afterwards terminated a life of remarkable strenuousness.
He died at Fleet, Hampshire, England, on the 19th July, 1906, where he was buried. A memorial service was afterwards held in St. Paul's Cathedral, London, in the Chapel of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, and a tablet is there placed to his memory in the Knights' stalls.