Dearly Departed: Captain John Bollons

Written by Helen Yang, a fourth year student participating in the IMLS, “Strategic Stewardship for Sustaining the Archives of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology” project.

Equally as important as the researchers who study the MVZ’s specimens are the collectors who acquire these animals to make research possible in the first place. One such figure was John Peter Bollons, a sea captain, ethnographer, and naturalist from England. In his file are some of the oldest letters I’ve yet encountered – the earliest from 1923. His elegant handwriting on weathered but well-preserved paper answers a request from the MVZ’s first director, Joseph Grinnell, to obtain bird skins from New Zealand to add to our collection. (Specifically requested were Royal Albatross, Giant Fulmar, and Crested Penguin.) Although time constraints prevented Bollons from fulfilling the request, his correspondence remains in the archives as a fascinating glimpse into his life and the time period in which he lived.


Captain John Bollons. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Bollons was known for two passions: natural history and Maori culture. This latter interest began when he was shipwrecked near Bluff Harbor and was taken in and cared for by a Maori family. Endeared by their hospitality, he decided to remain in New Zealand, working on a variety of vessels until he became captain of the government service steamer Hinemoa. He was fluent in the Maori language and loved it so much that he gave each of his eight children Maori middle names.

Throughout his life, he sailed along the coasts of New Zealand performing a variety of jobs including servicing lighthouses, charting coasts, rescuing castaways, and carrying scientific expeditions. He did his own collecting along the way; over his lifetime he amassed an impressive collection of over 5000 natural history specimens and Maori artifacts. His correspondence with MVZ continues until 1927 – just two years before his death. It inspires me that even in the end of his life, he was still doing what he loved: exploring the coasts of New Zealand.


“Captain John Peter Bollons: a mariner and collector.” Museum of New Zealand, (accessed 6 March 2017)

Gavin McLean. “Bollons, John Peter”, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 6 March 2017)

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