Politician and historian.
A new biography of McNab, Robert appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Robert McNab was born on 1 October 1864 at Dunraggit, Southland, son of Alexander McNab, runholder, and a prominent figure in the political life of Otago and Southland. His mother was Janet, née McQueen. Robert was educated at the Invercargill Grammar School where he was dux in 1879, and entered Otago University in 1880, where he graduated B.A. in 1883 and was senior mathematical scholar. He graduated M.A. in 1884 with honours in mathematics and physics.
He then turned his attention to law. He entered the firm of Chapman, Sinclair, and White in Dunedin, was called to the Bar in 1889, graduated LL.B. in 1890, and commenced the practice of law in Invercargill with J. L. M. Watson as partner. In 1896 he left the law and took up farming on his late father's estate at Knapdale, Gore, which he retained for the rest of his life. Here, at considerable expense, he experimented in forestry and set a much-needed example in tree planting to the farmers of Southland. One of his earliest works was Forestry in Relation to the Farmer, published at Gore in 1903.
McNab entered public life in 1891 when he was elected to the Southland Education Board and in the following year to the Board of Governors of the Southland Boys' and Girls' High School. In 1893 he stood for Parliament in the Liberal interest for the Mataura electorate, defeating G. F. Richardson. Richardson regained his seat in the elections of 1896, but retired in 1898. McNab was again elected for this seat, which he retained until his defeat 10 years later. In 1911 he unsuccessfully contested the Palmerston seat, but succeeded in re-entering Parliament in 1914 for the Hawke's Bay electorate, which he held until his death.
Seddon offered McNab the portfolio of Lands but he made conditions, evidently to Seddon's surprise, and the offer was withdrawn. Eventually, however, he agreed to become Minister of Lands and Agriculture under Ward in 1906. His strong, conscientious advocacy of leasehold tenure ran counter to the increasing body of freehold sentiment in the country, and his only large-scale attempt to make his mark in politics, by strengthening the leasehold legislation passed by Ballance and Seddon, was rebuffed by the more politically sensitive and astute Ward who withdrew McNab's Bill. This discomforture, combined with his advocacy of strict regulation in the dairy industry, contributed to his defeat at the polls in 1908.
In August 1915 McNab was appointed Minister of Justice and Marine in the wartime National Ministry, more for his reputation as a “safe” man than for his other qualities. This post he accepted reluctantly because of his absorbing outside interests, but with typically conscientious thoroughness he applied himself to his task with outstanding industry and earnestness.
It appears that McNab entered politics more from a sense of duty than for desire for fame or power. He had little imagination or sensitivity to political trends and pressures; he was no orator (although a keen debater and a cogent speaker), and he had little of the verve or sparkle that brings popularity. But patriotism and conviction drove him on to do his duty as he saw it to his country, his party, and his constituents in the face of discomforture and in spite of his increasing concentration on interests that lay right outside political affairs.
One of these outside interests had been the advocacy of compulsory military training. From his university days McNab had been an energetic volunteer, first in the Dunedin B Battery, then as commander of the North Dunedin Rifles, and, later, as commander of the Invercargill G Battery. He was also a keen rifle-club man and, for a time, represented Otago on the New Zealand Rifle Association. This early interest in military training stayed with him unabated. In 1909, spontaneously and at his own expense and in his own time, he began a national campaign for the introduction of compulsory military training for all fit young men. This campaign caught the public imagination and it may be fairly said that the Military Service Act of 1911, which replaced the old volunteer system with territorial training, was passed on the strength of the interest that had been aroused during McNab's campaign. It is no exaggeration to call McNab one of the founders of the Territorial Army.
The manifestation of McNab's keen patriotism had another, and quite different aspect – that of interest in his country's history. From a modest beginning of research into the early days of Southland, it developed to embrace the whole of New Zealand and took him searching round the world for records dealing with the history of the country since its first contact with Europeans. To this he increasingly devoted his fortune, his time, and his dogged energy, to achieve results which have not yet been surpassed. There is no doubt now that his fame rests on his work for New Zealand history rather than on his political career.
His earliest excursion into historical research began in 1898, when he started gathering material for a small history of Southland. The first-fruits of this work was the publication at Gore in 1905 of Murihiku. McNab was dissatisfied at the incompleteness of this, and, an opportunity presenting itself for a visit to America where he knew there was much material on his subject, he resolved to suppress this edition and to rewrite and expand it into a more satisfactory and complete form. The revised edition which appeared in 1907 included much new material and brought the history down to 1829. A further revised and extended edition, which came out in 1909, included material covering the whole of the South Island (and the southern shores of the North Island) down to 1835.
These later editions of Murihiku were based on records and books that McNab had unearthed in libraries and archives in Australia (notably Sydney and Hobart), the United States, Great Britain, and Europe. The Public Record Office of London, the French National Archives, and the maritime collections of the eastern seaboard of America all revealed material dealing with New Zealand's early days which, together with the information he had gleaned in New Zealand, were strung together by McNab in narrative form. He was the first to acknowledge that his method might not please either the serious student of history or the more general reader, but the fact remains that his book is a mine of information which, for the most part, has still considerable value today.
Acting on a suggestion made to him by Seddon, McNab edited and made available to the Government Printer for publication much of the raw material he had collected in the course of his researches. The result was the Historical Records of New Zealand, the first volume of which appeared in 1908. This was a frank imitation of the Historical Records of New South Wales, and the first volume consists largely of copies from the latter work, the rest of the volume being made up of transcripts from unpublished New South Wales records. The documents in the first volume run from 1770 to 1839, from Cook's first voyage to Hobson's departure from England. The second volume covers the same period, but extends back to Tasman's discovery of New Zealand in 1642.
While there are notable omissions in this collection of documents, which McNab intended to fill later, it is still unsurpassed. Any defects, which are small compared to the magnitude of the achievement, were not due to carelessness but to McNab's generous eagerness to make available to the public with the least possible delay the remarkable and exciting discoveries that he had made. His anxious desire to avoid mistakes in transcription and his wish to present the original documents with exactitude led him to conclude that the best method to be followed in a work of this sort would be to publish photographic facsimiles. The techniques then available made such a proceeding impracticable on a large scale, but with recent developments in photocopying it is interesting to note that this method of publication is coming increasingly into favour.
The Old Whaling Days, which was published in 1913, covers the years 1830–40 and deals with the bay whaling period of southern New Zealand's history. The next year Tasman to Marsden was published. This deals with the history of the northern parts of New Zealand from 1642 to 1818. Both these works are similar to Murihiku in that they consist of extracts from or paraphrases of original documents placed together in narrative form. McNab explained that this method arose from his wish to give the reader the results of his research and not the fruits of his thought, and that he believed that this manner of presentation was sufficiently near to the original form of the documents to be quoted as a record and sufficiently connected chronologically to be read as a narrative.
For these works McNab received the degree of D.Litt. in 1914 – the first time this degree had been conferred by the University of New Zealand. This was, without doubt, a well-deserved recognition of his long and thorough work on behalf of New Zealand scholarship.
The mechanics of McNab's works are, however imperfect: if there are bibliographies they are incomplete, and references to source materials are often too vague or altogether lacking. This can be irritating, and a higher standard in these matters is now expected. Admittedly, McNab meant his works to be read by all who evinced a curiosity about the history of their country, but the watering down of his scholarship to suit popular taste has weakened the value of his work. This is by no means intended to reduce the magnitude of his achievement, not the least aspect of which was to arouse an interest in the early history of New Zealand and to foster a respect for the documents and books in which it is recorded. Nor should it be forgotten that McNab achieved what he did without expectation of reward, unaided, spontaneously, in his own time, and at his own expense. Few scholars, if any, could now do this, much less combine such work with a long and active participation in political affairs. The wonder is not that his work was done so well, but that it was done at all.
McNab was a robust, sturdy Scot, with a marked Scottish accent. It is peculiarly characteristic of him that he was a keen temperance supporter, but his breadth of view and intelligence never permitted him to become an obnoxious bigot. He died, unmarried, in Wellington on 3 February 1917. His large and valuable collection of books on New Zealand and the Pacific was left to the Dunedin Public Library, and his papers were deposited in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.
by Michael Wordsworth Standish, M.A. (1920–62), late Dominion Chief Archivist, Wellington.
- New Zealand Times, 5 Feb 1917 (Obit)
- Evening Post,5 Feb 1917 (Obit)
- Dominion, 5 Feb 1917 (Obit).