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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




New Zealand biography has been hampered by several inhibiting factors, including the smallness of the stage (as well as the market) and the consequent intimacy of society and politics; the understandable feelings of a prominent man's family in such a community; the difficulties of combining free access to private papers with objective assessment; and the careless or deliberate destruction of records common in colonial societies. These points may be illustrated succinctly by the fact that so far-sighted and articulate a statesman as Sir Francis Bell gave orders that his political papers should be destroyed at his death. The results have been that very few full-scale biographies have been written; that the collection of material has been either impossible or left too late; that many of the best biographies are about relatively minor uncontroversial figures; and that our most important men have been presented in outlines smoother and larger than life.

Biography requires experience of men and affairs in those who attempt it, but there has not been found among later parliamentarians another William Gisborne or another William Pember Reeves, who sketched their fellow politicians in firm but lasting lines; the former in New Zealand Rulers and Statesmen (1897), and the latter in the Long White Cloud. To a certain extent the scholar-statesman W. Downie Stewart has approached them, though his two valuable studies, Sir Francis Bell (1937) and William Rolleston (q.v.) (1940), illustrate most of the difficulties surrounding New Zealand political biography. The standard and comprehensive work in this field is G. H. Scholefield'sDictionary of New Zealand Biography (two vols., 1940).

Our most active biographer has been R. M. Burdon, who has dealt with a wide range of men in his New Zealand Notables (1941, 1945, 1950), his chief work being a perceptive study of Seddon's character, King Dick (1955). Other noteworthy studies have been those of A. G. Bagnall and G. C. Peterson on William Colenso (1948), and L. J. Wild on Sir James Wilson (1953). The outstanding biography so far written in New Zealand is James Rutherford's Sir George Grey (q.v.) (1961), which deals with a remarkable career in South Africa and Australia as well as in this country.

The dilemmas of the New Zealand biographer are shown in the contrast between W. H. Dunn and I. L. M. Richardson's Sir Robert Stout (q.v.) (1961) and D. A. Hamer's as yet unpublished M.A. thesis on Stout's political career (1960); at times they hardly seem to concern the same man. The former is competent and conventional; the latter lays bare the contradictions between Stout's radical professions and his professional interests. Hamer's study is not written in a “debunking” spirit, but the general reader would find that its effect is to “debunk” the Stout he knows. Perhaps Hamer has demonstrated the difficulties of reducing a man to life size, both in his own times and in the eyes of posterity, and generally of keeping biography in perspective. Namierite studies of New Zealand institutions are badly needed. They would possibly show that Stout went into Parliament for the same reasons as the great majority of his fellows, and that his radicalism must be more realistically but sympathetically viewed in this context. Though practically all our major figures await definitive biographies, there is much groundwork to be done in institutional studies and in revising both popular and academic attitudes to personality and motive before such studies can be undertaken with real confidence.

The following may be singled out among valuable recent work in various fields:

  1. Biography: Sir George Grey, Rutherford, J. (1961);

  2. Collections of documents: Richmond-Atkinson Papers, Scholefield, G. H. (1961); Early Travellers in New Zealand, Taylor, N. M. (1959);

  3. Economic history: New Zealand in the Making, Condliffe, J. B. (1959); Welfare State in New Zealand, Condliffe, J. B. (1959); Open Account, Sinclair, K., and Mandle, W. F. (1961);

  4. Maori history and Maori-Pakeha relations: Moahunter Period of Maori Culture, Duff, R. S. (1950); Ancient Voyagers in the Pacific, Sharp, C. A. (1956); Origins of the Maori Wars, Sinclair, K. (1957); The Maori King, Gorst, J. E., Sinclair, K. (ed.) (1959);

  5. Military history: Italy, Vol. I, Phillips, N. C. (1957); New Zealand People at War, Wood, F. L. (1958);

  6. Pacific: The Journals of Captain Cook on His Voyages of Discovery, Beaglehole, J. C. (ed.) (1955);

  7. Political history: Crown Colony Government in New Zealand, McLintock, A. H. (1958); History of the New Zealand Labour Party, Brown, B. M. (1962);

  8. Provincial and local histories: History of Otago, McLintock, A. H. (1948); and the Otago local histories under his editorship (17 vols., 1948–58); History of Canterbury, Vol. I, Hight, J., and Straubel, C. R. (eds.) (1957);

  9. Social history: Early Victorian New Zealand, Miller, J. O. (1958); West Coast Gold Rushes, May, P. R. (1962).

by William James Gardner, M.A., Senior Lecturer, History Department, University of Canterbury.