Charles Edward Douglas was born on 1 July 1840 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the sixth and youngest child of Martha Brook and her husband, James Douglas, an accountant with the Commercial Bank of Scotland. Douglas completed his education at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and from February 1857 to September 1862 was employed in the accountant's office of the bank where his father and brothers worked.
Douglas then emigrated to New Zealand, arriving at Port Chalmers in late December 1862 on the Pladda. He may have been encouraged to go to Otago by old boys of his school, one of whom was John McGlashan. From 1863 to 1866 he was possibly a sheep station cadet, then a goldminer in Central Otago. He was based at Okarito on the West Coast by 1867. While goldmining there, he earned a living by stock droving and carrying food supplies to remote mining camps.
By 1868, when Douglas travelled further south with Julius Haast, he was acquiring his lifelong interest in the geology, flora and fauna of south Westland. Charlie Douglas (as he was known) devoted about half his time until 1888 to roaming the valleys of south Westland alone. Living very simply, he explored, mapped and recorded. He reported his findings to Gerhard Mueller, Westland's chief surveyor, who encouraged him in this work. When not exploring, Douglas earned a meagre living from stock droving, packing and track cutting. He possibly received some money from his family.
Douglas's territory from Ross south to Big Bay and Mt Aspiring was a harsh environment, a land of mountains, rivers and rain forest where he had to swag his own food, shelter and equipment. Exploration was a physical struggle. Patience and endurance were needed to cope with the weather, and the trackless, broken landscape. But the area had a beauty and variety of interest, and Douglas became fascinated by it.
He ran cattle in the Paringa River district in 1874 with a partner, T. Ward, but soon returned to exploring and friends could never persuade him to live a more settled life. He acquired further surveying skills and helped G. J. Roberts to establish trig points for the triangulation of Westland.
By the late 1870s Douglas was based at Jackson Bay, and was paid for his expeditions by the Survey Department. He began his best and most thorough exploration in south Westland, in the valleys of the Paringa, Haast, Landsborough, Okuru, Turnbull, Blue (Moeraki), Waiatoto, Arawata and Cascade rivers. Douglas was now an expert at living in the mountains. He or his dog could catch food such as eels or birds for both of them. Fording rivers was important – and he knew his limits. He once told a friend that not being able to swim had saved his life many a time.
Douglas began to extend his journeys to the heads of valleys. A major achievement was the ascent of Mt Ionia with Mueller, on a trip up the Arawata valley in February 1885. Douglas explored other high and remote country in the northern part of the Olivine Range and from 1886 to 1888 traversed glaciers such as the McKerrow, Balfour and Fox.
From 1889 to 1903 Douglas was exploring full time for the Survey Department and its successor the Department of Lands and Survey, and was occasionally referred to in official reports as 'Mr Explorer Douglas'. At 8s. a day he was not well paid, but it was a regular income. Map making and report writing during the winters complemented exploration in the warmer months. Well known in Westland, he preferred his own company and never married, although he had important friends such as the Scott, Macfarlane and Gunn families, surveyor William Wilson and fellow explorer A. P. Harper, who appreciated the shy but lovable Douglas. Even when the worse for alcohol, Douglas was a gentleman, and in spite of his own poverty he was always generous.
One of his finest surveying achievements was his exploration of the Waiatoto valley in early 1891 at the age of 50. As on other trips, solitude and the weather allowed Douglas to record not just his route, but his observations of geology, birds and the bush, and his personal philosophy. Often whimsical in his humour – he once said that the barometer 'did not seem to have much effect on the weather on the Coast!' – he could also be cynical, and he deplored the encroachment of people and pests on his natural world.
His many expeditions during the 1890s included one up the Copland River attempting to find a pass suitable for a mule track to the Hermitage. Douglas also explored more difficult country around the Cook, Whitcombe and Wanganui rivers. Rheumatism increasingly forced him to curtail his activities, however, and after the turn of the century his writings reveal that he had had enough. There was some bitterness as perhaps he realised what he had missed in life. In 1903 he wrote: 'it is my only regret that I came to a small country like New Zealand. I ought to have gone to a continent where there was unlimited scope for exploring & roaming about, but alass [ sic ] I didn't find out my mistake till too late. Making money I never could do or ever felt any inclination that way. If I made any discovery other people got the credit for it. I never could be bothered bargaining & haggling over terms with anyone. So constitutionally & from what some call a perverse inclination I have been doomed to be a solatary [ sic ], & as some people say a failure.'
Douglas received scant recognition for his work. His self-effacing nature combined with Survey Department policy helped prevent him from becoming better known in his own lifetime. Mueller and Roberts in the Survey Department certainly recognised his worth, acknowledging his work in their reports. A. P. Harper's book Pioneer work in the alps of New Zealand (1896) recorded some of Douglas's activities. This, with Harper's advocacy to the Royal Geographical Society in London, led to Douglas being awarded the Gill Memorial Prize in 1897. The wider world, however, knew nothing of his years of toil, surveying some of the most difficult terrain in New Zealand, in the search for resources and routes. Although his geological maps of south Westland were used, his observations of flora and fauna were little known until well after his death. He remained obscure until Harper's record of his deeds helped inspire a new generation of mountaineers in the 1930s.
In the range of territory he covered and the diversity and quality of his work, Charles Douglas proved himself one of New Zealand's greatest explorers. The peak, glacier, pass and river named after him are worthy tributes.