Volume 31 1922 > Volume 31, No. 122 > The Late Stephenson Percy Smith, president and founder of the Polynesian Society and editor of its journal, p 67-74
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IT is with the deepest regret that we have to announce to the members of the Polynesian Society the death of Mr. Stephenson Percy Smith, the Founder of the Society, and Editor of the Journal from its inception to the day of his death. Mr. Smith passed away at his late residence “Matai-Moana,” New Plymouth, on the morning of Wednesday, 19th April, 1922, in his eighty-second year. We offer our sympathy to the members of the deceased's family in their loss, which is also a loss to the community at large. He was held in the highest esteem and respect by all with whom he was brought into contact, and his place will indeed be difficult to fill.

The late Mr. Smith was the eldest son of John Stephenson Smith, at one time Commissioner of Crown Lands for Taranaki, and was born in June, 1840, at Beccles, Suffolk, of an old East Anglian family. With his parents and other members of the family he came to New Zealand by the ship “Pekin,” arriving at New Plymouth on February 7th, 1850. On February 4th, 1855, he joined the Survey Department at New Plymouth, and on the completion of his cadetship in 1857, was appointed an assistant-surveyor. It was whilst surveying the bush lands surrounding New Plymouth in the fifties of last century, and when the survey hands were all Natives, that Mr. Smith began to acquire a knowledge of the Maori language, and his efforts to obtain a mastery over that language were so persistent that he came to be regarded as one of the most accomplished Maori scholars in the Dominion. In 1857-58, in company with four other young Taranaki settlers, he made an adventurous journey from New Plymouth to the Mokau, and up that river to its source, thence to Taupo and Rotorua, returning by way of the Turakina Valley to the coast, and from there via Wanganui and the coastal track back to New Plymouth, a canoeing and walking journey through a wild uncharted country which occupied four months and in which they endured many hardships and risks.

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He joined the Native Land Purchase Office at Auckland, as surveyor, in October, 1859, and up to 1863 was engaged on the survey of many blocks of Native land around Auckland. In 1865 he was transferred to the Taranaki district as district surveyor to conduct the surveys of the military settlement blocks, cut out of the confiscated Native lands, much of the work being carried out under covering parties, as the country was harassed by hostile Natives. On the completion of this work he undertook, in conjunction with two other surveyors, the survey—for military settlement purposes—of the district extending from the Waitotara River to the Waingongoro River (Hawera), a service of great danger, the survey parties often being under fire, and on one occasion Mr. Smith had a very narrow escape from death while riding with Mr. O. Carrington and a few others through the hostile country where the town of Hawera now stands. A body of Hauhaus lying in ambush in the fern and scrub poured a volley into the party at a range of a few yards, but fortunately the bullets flew wide and the surveyors galloped off unhurt.

In January, 1868, Mr. Smith was entrusted with the triangulation and sub-division of the Chatham Islands, and was there when Te Kooti and his fellow prisoners, having overpowered their armed guards, escaped in the schooner “Rifleman” back to Poverty Bay. In this visit to the Chathams he was accompanied by Mrs. Smith, and at the expiration of a year returned to New Zealand in February, 1869, and resumed work in the Taranaki district, laying off roads and Native reserves. In February, 1870, he was transferred to the Inspector of Surveys Department, Auckland, and from that time to the end of 1876 he was engaged upon the major triangulation of the North Island of New Zealand, embracing all the country lying between Mongonui in the north and Manawatu Gorge in the south. On one occasion, whilst carrying out this trigonometrical survey, the whole party was snowed up at 4,000 feet elevation on the Kaimanawa mountains for seven days.

On the amalgamation of the various provincial survey districts into one department, Mr. Smith was appointed first, or chief geodesical surveyor, but directly after he relinquished that office to take up the position of chief surveyor of the Auckland district on January 25th, 1877, and in September, 1882, he succeeded Mr. James M'Kerrow as Assistant-Surveyor-General.

Immediately after the eruption of Tarawera—June 10th, 1886—he, in conjunction with Messrs. E. C. Gold-Smith and H. D. Hazzard, made a topographical survey of the country affected by this great upheaval, the work being carried out at great risk to the surveyors and assistants. The results of this survey were published by the Government in a volume entitled “The Eruption of Tarawera, 1886.”

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In 1887, with Captain Fairchild, of the “Stella,” he journeyed to the Kermadec Islands, under instructions to take possession of the group for the New Zealand Government, the British flag having been hoisted there the previous year by one of Her Majesty's ships of war.

On January 29th, 1889, Mr. Smith was appointed Surveyor-General and Secretary for Crown Lands and Mines, which most important and responsible position he retained until his retirement from the Civil Service on October 31st, 1900, having thus completed a term of unbroken service in the Provincial and General Governments extending over forty-five years, a service probably unique for this Dominion in its varieties, dangers and responsibilities, and of the unfailing trust and confidence placed in him by the different Governments of the day.

In 1897 Mr. Smith was granted six months' leave to enable him to visit at his own cost the principal island groups of the Pacific occupied by the Polynesian race, with a view to the elucidation of the question of the immediate origin of the great migration of the 13th century from the Central Pacific to New Zealand. This tour was productive of valuable results, which have been published in the journal of the Polynesian Society and in his interesting book, “Hawaiki, the Original Home of the Maori.” A work that has been more widely read and more often quoted than any other recent work on the Pacific.

In 1902 he was requested by the then Governor of New Zealand, Lord Ranfurly, to proceed to Niue, or Savage Island, as Government Resident, to institute a system of laws and Government for that island. This he did, remaining there five months, and the system of Government he then inaugurated still obtains. On his return he published a work entitled “Niue-Fekai (or Savage Island) and its People,” also in conjunction with Mr. Ed. Tregear, a vocabulary of its language.

In the same year he acted as chairman to the Scenic Commission, a body which traversed New Zealand from end to end, and by whose recommendations numerous scenic and historic reserves of the utmost value were permanently set aside for those purposes

Long and important as was Mr. Smith's work as a civil servant, it is overshadowed by his extremely valuable labour in the field of Polynesian ethnology. To enable him and co-workers to develop this interesting branch of science, he, at a meeting held in Wellington on January 8th, 1892, established the Polynesian Society, and to assure the success of the venture undertook the duties of joint secretary and treasurer, and the responsibilities of editing the Polynesian Journal, a quarterly review of the work embraced by the Society. This latter position he held from the inception of the Society in 1892 up to the end of his life, in which period 30 volumes of the - 70 Journal have appeared without a break or delay in issue. He was also president of the Society from 1904 to the time of his death. No greater ethnographic work, or anything approaching it, has been carried out in southern latitudes than this, in the recording and in the preservation of the story of the Polynesians and their intensely interesting past, which, had it not been mainly for Mr. Smith's splendid work, would to a very great extent have been lost. Future students will appraise his work at its true value; the present generation has been slow to recognise its merits.

Mr. Smith was author of the following books, etc.:—“A Journey from Taranaki to Taupo, etc., in 1858-59,” “The Eruption of Tarawera” (1886), “The Kermadec Islands” (1887), “The Peopling of the North (N.Z.),” “Maori Wars of the 19th Century” (two editions), “Niue Island and its People” (1903), “Hawaiki, or the Whence of the Maori” (four editions), “The Maori History of the Taranaki Coast” (a work covering 562 pages), “Lore of the Whare-wananga” (translation in two volumes), “History and Traditions of Rarotonga” (translation).

Besides the above he has written many papers in the “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute,” and over 100 articles, etc., in the “Journal of the Polynesian Society.” Also papers in “Reports of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science,” and other scientific journals.

Mr. Smith was also a Fellow or member of the following societies and institutions:—A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (since 1880); a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute (one of the first 20 Fellows elected); Hector Medalist for Polynesian ethnology, 1919; an honorary member of The Spalding Gentlemen's Society, of Spalding, Lincolnshire (the oldest antiquarian society in England); an honorary member of the Auckland Institute since 1889; a corresponding member of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain, 1914; a corresponding member of the Societa d'Anthropologia d'Italia; corresponding member of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia; corresponding member of the Hawaiian Historical Society.

With the money grant accompanying the bestowal of the Hector Medal, he founded a prize in anthropology in the University of Otago, to which the University Council gave the name of “The Percy Smith Prize.”

As a citizen he also took a full share in the activities of the town and district, although of late years, as was only natural with advancing years, he had to relinquish much of this voluntary work. He was a valued member of the Pukekura Park Board, also of the High School and Egmont National Park Boards. Always a staunch churchman, he was elected to various offices of trust connected with - 71 the Anglican Church. He was chairman of the Taranaki Church Trustees, an administrative body dealing with endowments, etc., also a trustee of the Taranaki bishopric fund and other offices.

No one could meet S. Percy Smith without being conscious of the strength and range of his intellectual activities. He rendered ready help alike to great and small, and his loss will be felt not only by those who knew him, who will ever cherish his memory, but by every student who begins research in the field of which he was the unchallenged master.


ANY one who has personally known our late President, Mr. S. Percy Smith, and who attempts to write a Memoir of his life, must feel at once pride and sorrow—pride that he has been permitted to know so great a man, and sorrow that the influence of that benign presence will be ours no longer. From the commencement of the Polynesian Society, Percy Smith (as he was generally called) was the very heart of that Society, and therefore its members feel a double bereavement in losing also with the faithful Friend the wise, tender Master.

I have said “so great a man.” The unthinking person who is ready to call “great” the popular idol of the moment, may grudge such an epithet to Percy Smith, whose path in life led over no garish heights, nor did he tread it in tinsel robes. It is, of course, almost a platitude to repeat that “the world knows little of its greatest men,” but it is sterling truth nevertheless, and I trust to be able to show that we had a great man living among us. Not unwisely old Homer said, “The Immortals are difficult to discern.” When a man has courage, industry, temperance, initiative, imagination, prudence, generosity and common-sense; when such potential powers are used through a long life in singleness of heart, and with high efficiency for the advancement of the race in knowledge and usefulness, then greatness falls like a beam of light upon his record, and thus it is with the record of Percy Smith. Honoured by the country he served, beloved by all who knew him, spoken of with respect and reverence by wise men all over the world, his memory stands “four-square to all the winds that blow.”

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Let me write a little more in detail as to these excellencies which made up the character of Percy Smith. The first thing to be noted is his intrepid and unfailing courage. Such a quality is, of course, a primal necessity in a man of action; it is the old Latin virtus, which with us has become a word covering all the virtues, feminine as well as masculine, but which basically means courage and all manly (vir) characteristics. Such courage Percy Smith showed from his early youth when he went on long exploring expeditions through unknown country, until he graduated as a pioneer surveyor in the roughest parts of New Zealand. The modern traveller, flying through what is now open country, in railway train or motor car, along highways of traffic and over noble bridges, can have no conception of the primitive aspect of such localities when first explored and surveyed. Broad rivers had to be swam or forded, mountain torrents to be crossed at risk of life or limb, precipices to be scaled, endless miles of dense and almost impenetrable forest to be traversed; all this with food (often only native food) of the scantiest and poorest, and with responsibility for the safety of the whole party dependent on the resource and watchfulness of its leader. Such conditions necessitated in the pioneer surveyor not only strength and endurance but an undaunted heart. Any one who had sailed with me round the rough uninhabited part of Rekohu, the largest island of the Chatham Group, and had seen the mountainous razor-edged ridges, the deep and almost impassable ravines, the outer fringe of basalt cliffs falling sheer for hundreds of feet to the breakers rolling up from the Antarctic; had such an one been told, “Percy Smith surveyed that ghastly country inland,” he would have felt firmly assured that such a task needed not only great executive ability but absolute fearlessness of soul. To such courage was added, however, quite another kind of courage, viz., military courage, for he executed some of his surveys under fire from a daring enemy. To carry on scientific work and make necessary observations while snipers are at work (or even the probability of a volley) from the nearest clump of bushes, needs a very calm and well-balanced disregard of danger when duty is in question. Still more, he had the bravery of unfailing tenacity, of “carrying on” to the very end of a long life. Resolutely he went on with his studies and his work till an advanced old age. When, under the weight of years, with the bodily functions failing one after the other, as they do, with the mind itself less and less able to sustain the strain of life, a man persists in working till he “drops in the traces,” that conduct shows pluck of the highest class. It was only when his fatal illness fell upon Percy Smith that the pen dropped from the gallant hand that had fought so well for truth's sake.

Of his incessant and tireless industry I was for a long time a close observer. On the first formation of the Polynesian Society, Percy - 73 Smith and I became joint Secretaries and Editors of the Polynesian Journal—our literary partnership lasted about eleven years. At that time Mr. Smith was Surveyor General, and he not only carried on his arduous duties as head of the Survey Department but filled his (nominally) leisure hours with intense application to his Polynesian studies. He drew on his memory and on old diaries for historical data concerning the wars and movements of the Maori people. He spent many hours in earnest conversation with aged natives—some of them friends of his boyhood—from their lips he patiently wrote out long traditions, old songs and seemingly endless genealogies. He would then commence translating these relics of the past, comparing them with other legends from Samoa, Hawaii, Tahiti and other places. His correspondence was very large and of wide scope; letters went to and from missionaries, sailors, explorers, contributors to the Journal, curators of museums and secretaries of learned Societies all over Europe, Asia and America. He would read hundreds of books and pamphlets pertaining to his subject, extracting notes and vocabularies in endless variety. Then came the reading and selection of articles sent in for the “Journal”—and after that, a task demanding the utmost carefulness and patience, the reading and correction of printers' “proofs.” This was difficult, because the publication of documents in the various dialects of the Pacific was complicated by the printers having to “set up” the text “Chinese-fashion,” that is, to read the copy letter by letter instead of in words they understood and could spell. This necessitated the proofs being read again and again to delete errors, and added enormously to the work. All this translating, compiling, comparing and corresponding, demanded industry of a high order.

Percy Smith was a temperate man, not only in body but in mind. Calmly, impartially, he weighed and tested the information he received, without bias or predilection. However plausible and attractive a theory might seem to be, he was never led away by its beauty or by any passionate advocacy into accepting it as proven. He had his own views, and sometimes would guess at the solution of some mystery, but only advanced such surmises as conjectures, not stating them to be facts until the evidence was undoubted and undoubtable—it was the reasonable position up to the moment of statement, nothing more.

Let us now consider the meaning and value of his work. I cannot here attempt even to enumerate his different articles and books on ethnological subjects. The knowledge contained in them would require volumes of comment, and will certainly be written about and enlarged upon by numerous students of many different countries and centuries. Nor can I speak of his voyages to the South Sea Island groups, nor of the priceless value of the translations from Maori and Oceanic traditions which only he could have made, for he had the gift - 74 of understanding the “genius” of the Polynesian language and the Polynesian people. No mere grammarian, no “dry-as-dust” professor of erudition can acquire this precious and inborn gift. I but wish to emphasize that the dominant idea in all his diligent research and publication was a very simple one. It was to him an absolute necessity to gather together information for the scholar of the future, because the Polynesian languages, traditions and religions were fast passing away. Not that the race itself is everywhere approaching extinction but that European ideas and education are eliminating the old elements and affecting the survivors so quickly that unless the aged people and the few men learned in the old ceremonies, prayers, customs and usages can be induced to exert their memories and put on record the ancient lore within their knowledge, it must soon be lost for ever, and the student be left without antiquarian material in this part of the world. It is one of the paradoxes of research that often those enquirers who are very far off in point of time have more historical material at hand, for study of a long-past period, than those who were comparatively close to their subject. In this way the modern scholar exploring the mysteries of Babylonia and Assyria can draw information from the cuneiform tablets unknown a thousand years ago. Percy Smith knew that if the men of his generation did not use every effort to put the oral information obtained in the South Seas at once into print and diffuse it widely, all after-efforts will be in vain. His other books and papers apart, the thirty volumes of the Polynesian Journal will be Percy Smith's splendid monument, more enduring than the tombs of kings.

In conclusion, I cannot refrain from saying that I believe our belovèd President's moral strength, purity of life and conduct, and his high ideals had their source in a religious belief too deep for words, but moulding every thought and action. His life was a mute but perfect witness to the sincerity of his faith and hope. During that eventful, beneficent life, he, like the three Wise Men in the gospel story, “followed his star,” and now, like them, he has presented his offerings—Gold and Frankincense and Myrrh.


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Taken at his home “Matai-Moana.”