Charles Heaphy 1820-1881


Artist, draughtsman and explorer

The young Charles Heaphy was initially employed by the New Zealand Company as an artist and draughtsman, but his duties were varied and included helping to chart the coastline and channels of the new colony.

Charles HeaphyCharles Heaphy The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection 68969/3
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Heaphy was an ideal colonist as he was an acute observer, energetic, persistent and versatile. He arrived in Wellington in 1839 and was soon convinced there was flat, farmable land in the centre of the South Island. The New Zealand Company employed him as an explorer.

In February 1846, Heaphy set off to search for land with William Fox, Thomas Brunner and their guide, Kehu (Ngati Tumatakokiri). They reached the beginning of the Buller Gorge and returned to Nelson via the Hope Saddle.

In March, Heaphy persuaded Brunner and Kehu to accompany him in search of the mouth of the Buller River. Both Heaphy and Brunner may not have survived without the hospitality of Maori along the coast and Kehu's expert guidance.

Heaphy's account of the grueling five month adventure, which followed the coastline from Farewell Spit to Arahura, north of Hokitika, was published in the Nelson Examiner on September 5 and 12, 1846.  Here are some excerpts:

April 8: "At the Kahurangi, the geological formation of the country changes, and a coarse red granatoid appears in the place of the fossiliferous clay and limestone rocks which prevail from the coal strata at Wanganui to this place. With this change in the formation, the character of the coast also alters, and precipitous cliffs with rugged offshore rocks begin....Here, therefore the difficulties of the path commence."

They continued southwards from Kahurangi. "On April 27, we came to the Mokinui River. It was undoubtedly the most dangerous ford which I have met with in New Zealand. A hundred yards to seaward of us were the rollers on the beach, into which anyone who might miss his footing must have been swept in a minute."

Heaphy went on to recommend the river-crossing method he and Brunner used, with poles tied together and held abreast as they crossed the river. "I cannot but recommend the plan is worthy of the attention of settlers in a district in which so many valuable lives have been lost in the swollen streams."

Climbing the massive Miko Cliff (Perpendicular Point) north of Punakaiki tested nerves and endurance as they climbed flax-lashed ladders left by Maori.

Food from land and sea and Maori hospitality supplemented their supplies, but by 18 July as they were returning home, they found their provisions were so low that Heaphy wrote: "we were now about as low condition as it was possible to be still to retain health...and the weight of our blankets, boots and etc, amounting to about 25 lbs each, became a more painful and tiring load than was 50 lbs at commencement of our expedition."

In 1848, Heaphy was appointed to the Auckland survey office by Governor Grey. While he continued to travel extensively, there are no known accounts of his other expeditions. Heaphy became chief surveyor of the Auckland survey department, fought in the Maori Wars and was in Parliament for two years. He was appointed a Native Reserves Commissioner and judge of the Native Land Court. He left many fine watercolour paintings recording the earliest days of European settlement.


This article is paraphrased from a series of columns written by Joy Stephens and published in the Nelson Mail in 2007.

 Updated April 07, 2020



Sources used in this story

  • Heaphy, C. (1846) Notes of an Expedition to Kawatiri and Araura, on the Western Coast of the Middle Island, performed by Messrs Heaphy and Brunner. In Nelson Examiner; instalments from 5.9.1846 to 17.10.1846
  • Heaphy, C. (1843, March 7) Letter to New Zealand Journal [Nelson Provinicial Museum] 
  • Lash, M. (1992) Nelson Notables Nelson, NZ : Nelson Historical Society 

Want to find out more about the Charles Heaphy 1820-1881 ? View Further Sources here.

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  • I think Charles Heaphy was a nutty krackpot

    Posted by Jakob Poulsen, 10/03/2019 11:10am (5 years ago)

  • Heaphy was blamed by many Nelson settlers for over-confident estimations to the NZ Co. of the extent of arable land in Nelson available for cultivation

    Posted by Donald, ()

  • I think charles was an amazing man and he was an amazing artist and I agnolage that.

    Posted by Anna, ()

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Further sources - Charles Heaphy 1820-1881



  • Baskett, P. (1992, December 9). A memory for survival. New Zealand Herald: s.2, 7.
  • Charles Heaphy - soldier, artist and surveyor. (1971) New Zealand's heritage, v. 3. Sydney: Hamlyn Paul, pp.891-896
  • Mackie, J. B.(1999). Early surveying and surveyors in the Nelson region. New Zealand Map Society Journal, 12, 4-13.
  • McCormick, E. H. (1951).From Charles Heaphy to Frances Hodgkins: a biographical view of New Zealand painting. Arts Year Book, .7, 145-152.
  • Murray-Oliver, A. (1971, October).An enquiry into certain nineteenth century prints: the Heaphy lithographs. Turnbull Library Record 4 (2),. 74-94.
  • Sharp, I. (2008, October 19). On Heaphy's track. Sunday Star Times, C7.
  • Sharp, I. (2008). Sharp point. Bravado 12, 25-26.


Held Nelson Provincial Museum

  • Heaphy, C. (1843, March 7) Letter to New Zealand Journal 

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