Augustus Hamilton was born at Poole, Dorset, in the year 1854. He was educated at Dorset County School and at the Epsom Medical College.
In 1876 he came to New Zealand, and taught successively at Thorndon, Okarito, and Petane. While at the last-named school he began his long connection with the New Zealand Institute by becoming Secretary to the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Society. The museum of this Society is a memorial of his work. In 1890 Hamilton was appointed Registrar of the University of Otago. The period of his Registrarship was by far the most productive in his life, as is indicated by the great list of papers on botany, zoology, and ethnology in the “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute” for those years. In his later years at Otago he was engaged on his great work “Maori Art,” which overshadows all his other contributions to science. In 1903 he was appointed Director of the Colonial Museum, and his energies thereafter were employed in increasing the ethnological, historical, and entomological collections of that institution. Latterly he was troubled by ill health, and his death, which occurred at the Bay of Islands on the 12th October, 1913, came as the result of a paralytic stroke.
The range of Hamilton's knowledge was remarkable. At one time or another he wrote papers of value on almost every branch of natural science. His achievement in the field of ethnology will be discussed later. Next in importance comes his long series of hand-lists or bibliographies. These are all of great practical value to students, and deal with such varied subjects as New Zealand botany, ferns, fossil Bryozoa, Dinornithidae, fishes and fishing, geology, and the Maori race.
He was, above all things, a collector and systematizer, whether as a zoologist among the bones at Castle Rocks, or as a botanist in the wilds of southern Westland and on Macquarie Island, or as the gatherer of his unrivalled collection of New Zealand stamps, or, most of all, as a collector of objects throwing light on the life, industry, and art of the ancient Maori.
Hamilton was the sole worker among New Zealand ethnologists in a department that among the ethnologists of Europe and America is perhaps more strongly manned than any other. Avoiding the investigations already afoot as to sociology, anthropometry, linguistics, and the history and mythology of the Maoris, he turned his energies entirely to the study of industrial processes and to the collection and description of objects of every kind that threw light upon Maori art. It is remarkable that though each of those other fields has had many workers, and in each some excellent work has been done, there has as yet been only one systematic worker in the field of Maori technology and art—a department which, from the tangible nature of its subject-matter, its aesthetic appeal, and the information it may yield on race-history and race-affinities, is the most attractive of them all. The history of Hamilton's ethnological work is the history of this department of the science in New Zealand.
The foundations of his Maori collection were laid in the early years of his residence in New Zealand, when he collected with characteristic energy and thoroughness in the region centred at Hawke's Bay. Here he secured most of the wood-carving, the flax fabrics, and the articles connected with fishing—in all, the largest part of his collection. To this period belong his first field expeditions among the ancient village sites of the East Coast and about Porirua. Though he had visited Okarito, the stay had not, I believe, contributed anything to his ethnological material. The most interesting period, though the articles collected bulked less largely than those of Hawke's Bay, came with his removal to Dunedin on his appointment to the Registrarship of Otago University. The beaches along the east coast of Otago are the classic collecting-ground of New Zealand, and here the most interesting part of his collection was brought together. In company with Mr. (now Mr. Justice) Chapman he excavated the camping-ground of the moa-hunters at Shag Point. The tedious work of digging and sifting sand was carefully carried out, and an observation of some importance historically was made—namely, that greenstone was known to and worked by the men who hunted the moa.
When, on the retirement of Sir James Hector, Augustus Hamilton was appointed Director of what is now the Dominion Museum the Government acquired his collection, and he devoted his powers to the augmentation of the national collection. His work at the Dominion Museum was in all but one respect a complete success. The confidence he inspired in other collectors and ethnologists was shown by the splendid gifts to the Museum of the Buller collection, the Turnbull collection, the objects brought to England by Captain Cook and presented by Lord St. Oswald, and by many other gifts. The one respect in which he fell short of complete success was his failure to persuade successive Ministers of Finance to house adequately the material he had brought together.
But whatever fame the future may give him will come to him more as a writer than as a collector. The whole of his written contributions to the science of ethnology are descriptive: accounts of Maori artifacts and designs or of the results of archaeological work, and the conclusions that might safely be deduced from them. The two outstanding features of these contributions are, first, complete detachment from the influence of theories as to the origin or relationships of artifacts and designs, and, second, thoroughness and accuracy. In “Maori Art” and in the Bulletins of the Dominion Museum he brought together and systematized a great mass of facts which must form the starting-point of all future research in these fields. The whole theory of the subject has yet to be written, but the ground has been cleared and the foundation laid by the work of Augustus Hamilton.
In a stimulating chapter on Maori art, Max Hertz affirms it the chief defect in Hamilton's work that he advanced no theory as to its origin or affinities. But in truth this avoidance of all theory was one of his greatest merits. It is not rash to say that the bulk of the writings on Maori ethnology have been warped by the influence of preconceived theory. It needed strength of purpose to resist an influence which thus flowed in from every quarter. Hamilton knew that facts enough had not yet been recorded to form the basis of scientific theory, and he resolutely set himself to the accumulation of facts. It is from such a groundwork that students of the future will be able to venture with some certainty into the region of hypothesis.
When he died, Augustus Hamilton, though not an old man, was the last of the old generation of New Zealand naturalists. He had, in some degree, made a name as a botanist, as a geologist, and as a zoologist; but his fame, if the future holds fame for him, will come to him as one who made a national collection as no one else could have done, and as one who laid the foundations on which will rest the science of Maori technology and Maori art.
In closing this brief review, a student of that subject which Augustus Hamilton made his own may pay a tribute to the unfailing kindliness which put at the service of the youngest inquirer his immense stores of information, and to his exhaustless patience in rendering accessible the treasures placed with such inadequate equipment under his guardianship and control.
H. D. Skinner.