Counter Culture
September 24, 2015 posted by Unity Wellington

AFTERGLOW: James Hector by Simon Nathan

AFTERGLOW: James Hector by Simon Nathan

Thursday 17 September was an evening of family and friends, science and history. More precisely, it was the launch of James Hector: Explorer, Scientist, Leader, by Simon Nathan, and it was quite the affair.


Unity’s own Rachel Graham welcomed guests and introduced the first speaker of the evening, Dr Mike McWilliams of GNS Science, who referred to the ‘two sets of Hector descendants’. The Hector family itself was well-represented, with members from across the generations in attendance – but the other descendant in question was what Mike referred to as Hector’s ‘organisational descendant’ – Mike himself. ‘150 years ago James Hector got Geoscience started – we’ve had 15 directors since. And it’s a great honour to lead an organisation like GNS Science.’

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Mike spoke both about Hector and his role in the organisation’s infancy – through to what they do today. He wondered at how on earth Hector managed to oversee so many organisations (10 in total) – ‘well, they were smaller – and there wasn’t any email to respond to!’. He described how Hector developed the earliest precursor to today’s GeoNet, with telegraph operators reporting when they felt earthquakes.

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James Hector’s great-grandson, Dr Chris Hector, was the next speaker, representing the family. He told us that five decades ago his father and a neighbour discussed how Hector was about the only significant colonial era New Zealander who wasn’t biographised. But ‘the right author had to be someone unusual – and I mean that in the best way’. So many years later, it has finally happened, and Chris thoroughly agrees that Simon was the man for the job – pointing out that ‘mastering Hector’s handwriting is a skill in itself’.

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Simon Nathan, the book’s author, took to the microphone next – and he was ‘delighted to be at Unity, the best bookshop in Wellington and, I think, the best in New Zealand’. Through the process of researching the book, he said that one of the best bits of advice he was given was ‘ask a librarian’, following up with special thanks to Kristin from the GNS library and Jennifer from the Te Papa Archives.


He talked about the development of the book and the importance of the people who helped out – pointing out that Chris located Hector’s MD thesis, which was thought (by the University of Edinburgh) to be lost. He talked about the process of decoding the ‘virtually illegible’ handwriting of the prolific letter writer, and how the summer scholar he took on at Victoria University proved indispensable in this part of the process.


Simon thanked and acknowledged those organisations and individuals that helped in the development of the book – from the Stout Trust and Brian Mason Trust to his wife, Judith. Finally, he acknowledged Hector himself – ‘you can’t write a decent biography without an interesting figure’.

As a delightful coda to the speeches, we were treated to a re-enactment of a speech by Hector that had been recorded on a cylinder – a message sent to Chicago for the World’s Fair, concluding with ‘All hail to the great World’s Fair – this has been recorded from Petone, New Zealand’s youngest town’.

James Hector: Explorer, Scientist, Leader (Geoscience Society of New Zealand) is $45 and available in store now or from our online shop HERE.

Photos by Matt Bialostocki and words by Briar Lawry

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