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King, Michael


Historian, biographer, journalist, writer

This biography, written by Jock Phillips, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2022.

Michael King was New Zealand’s most popular late twentieth-century historian. His best work combined the research-based scholarship of a historian with the fluent accessible style of a journalist. His output was prolific: at his death 37 volumes carried his name, including a dozen substantial monographs. He was a generous collaborator who produced four edited collections and nine books working with others’ photographs. In his early work he sought to communicate Māori culture and history to the wider public, and then produced major biographies of two leading New Zealand fiction writers, Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame. He also wrote an important history of Moriori and several ground-breaking works of memoir exploring Pākehā identity. His acclaimed general history of New Zealand, which appeared shortly before his early death, was a publishing phenomenon which marked the high point of his popularity. King was also a distinguished book reviewer, and pioneered in-depth exploration of Māori content on television in the series, Tāngata whenua.

Early life and shaping influences

Michael King was born in Wellington on 15 December 1945, the second of four children of Eleanor Frances (Nellie) Smith and her husband, advertising executive Lewis King. Michael and his siblings grew up in a household shaped by strong Irish Catholic influences and military traditions. His maternal grandmother, Nellie Smith, a singer of Irish songs and teller of stories, spoke of the Reformation ‘as a setback soon to be rectified’.1 Lewis King had a distinguished naval record in the Second World War, being awarded a DSC after escorting a convoy to northern Russia. King spent his early years in suburban Ngaio, Wellington, where he was taught by Irish Brigidine nuns at St John’s school. In 1951 the family moved to Paremata, north of Wellington, where they lived for six years, and King attended St Teresa’s Convent School in Plimmerton. King grew up steeped in Irish Catholicism, but at Paremata, playing in boats on the inlet, he developed a life-long love of fishing and the natural world, the birds and the bush, that evolved into a strong affinity with New Zealand rather than his European ancestry.

As a child King also discovered the lure of history. Close to the inlet he saw pā sites, Fort Paremata and Thom’s whaling station, and found an argillite chisel. ‘I felt the presence of people who had gone before’, he later wrote.2 Books were crucial to this awakening. His father provided Stephen Gerard’s Strait of adventure and James Cowan’s The New Zealand Wars, which described the 1840s conflicts in and around Paremata. The family library included Dickens, Thackeray, and Kipling; and his father mixed with writers such as Pat Lawlor, M.K. Joseph and James K. Baxter. Poet Denis Glover was employed in his father’s firm. Writing became a career option. The family and a neighbour, the socialist pioneer J.T. Paul, also encouraged a respect for the Labour Party’s response to the Depression of the 1930s.

In 1955 King caught polio. Two years later the family moved to Auckland, living first at Kohimarama and then in Remuera. King attended Sacred Heart College, finding it a harsh, masculine environment leavened by piety. Matters improved in 1960, when the family returned to Wellington and King boarded at St Patrick’s College at Silverstream until 1963. He learnt to play rugby well and read widely, encouraged by his history teacher, Spiro Zavos. He became active in debating and head librarian. King’s spiritual life remained important to him, and he considered becoming a priest until his horrified father dissuaded him.

Instead in 1964 he went to Victoria University of Wellington, gaining a BA in History and English, after attending lectures by the stimulating European historian Peter Munz. He served as secretary of the Students’ Association, participated in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and apartheid South Africa, and wrote for the student newspaper, Salient.

Waikato and the discovery of Māori history

On 13 May 1967, during his last year at Victoria, King married a fellow student, Rosamond Margaret Henry, in Hamilton. The couple moved to Hamilton to be close to Ros’s family, which was helpful once their two children, Jonathan and Rachael, arrived. King completed an MA in History there and became vice-president of the Students’ Association. He worked part-time at the Waikato Times while completing his degree, as well as teaching part-time at the Catholic secondary school, St John’s College.

King completed his MA in 1968 and became a full-time reporter at the Waikato Times, with a focus on education, politics and Māori affairs. He attended tangi and hui as Māori reporter, but quickly discovered he could not follow the proceedings without an understanding of te reo Māori and the broader cultural context. Finding no help at the Pākehā-dominated historical and archaeological societies, he turned to local elders – Pei Te Hurinui Jones, Tuaiwa (Eva) Rickard, Piri Poutapu and Wetere and Emily Paki. At their suggestion he took continuing education classes in te reo Māori, and before long he had a simple understanding of the language, improved pronunciation and a useable pepeha.

King covered Māori stories in the tradition of earlier Pākehā reporters of Māori, such as James Cowan and Eric Ramsden, and his contact with the Māori community led him to his first book project. Hori Paki, a centenarian, told him about a kuia, Ngakahikatea Whirihana of Matahura, who was even older. Visiting her on a winter’s day in the late 1960s, King felt she was ‘walking out of history’ as she approached him through the fog. She smoked a pipe, belonged to the Pai Mārire faith, and had a memory that stretched back to the aftermath of the Waikato War and the second Māori king, Tāwhiao. Over the next three years, King recorded her stories, songs and chants. Ngakahikatea had a moko, and King decided to seek out other kuia with facial tattoos. On weekend trips along North Island back roads, he met 70 women who were willing to share stories about their moko. He developed warm relationships with these honorary grandmothers, which resulted in his first book, Moko (1972), which was richly illustrated by Marti Friedlander’s photographs of those women who were willing to have their moko documented.

King had returned to Wellington in 1971 to teach a journalism course at Wellington Polytechnic with his friend Christine Cole Catley; he settled back at Paremata, where he developed friendships with the poets Sam Hunt and Alistair Campbell and the painters Robin White and Don Binney. As television reviewer for the New Zealand Listener, King was struck by the absence of television content about Māori and, inspired by the kuia moko, he set out to communicate Māori stories to the public through television. He received warm support from John O’Shea and Barry Barclay at Pacific Films, which was then entering a fruitful period of producing television series with strong New Zealand content. Barclay directed the resulting six-part series, Tāngata Whenua, which he co-wrote with King; the pair spent 1973 on the road filming it. Each episode focused on a specific theme or community, and featured footage of community activities and interviews conducted by King. He saw himself as a facilitator and co-ordinator, providing a platform for Māori to communicate their views, values and traditions directly to the wider public.

The programmes were generally well-reviewed when they aired in late 1974. Keith Sinclair described them as ‘the best New Zealand television series I have ever seen.’3 Māori generally welcomed the programmes, and they were an important introduction to Māori culture for many Pākehā, who were largely ignorant of individual iwi traditions. The programme was made at a personal cost. King’s marriage collapsed while he was on the road, and was dissolved in November 1977.

Following Moko and Tāngata whenua, King embarked on a major biography of the Kīngitanga leader Te Puea Hērangi, who had died in 1952. The kuia moko had spoken of how important the Kīngitanga was to Māori, and how central Te Puea had been to the movement’s twentieth-century revival. King approached the Māori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, and the kāhui ariki (royal family), for approval to write a biography of Te Puea, which was granted under certain conditions. King saw the book as a means of opening new areas of scholarship for Māori history. He was aware that some Māori felt that Pākehā historians neglected Māori and discussed the country’s history as though Māori did not exist; King ‘accepted wholly the force of this argument and … set out to redress the imbalance.’4

King resigned from the Polytechnic and set to work supported by grants from the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand, the State Literary Fund and the Māori Purposes Fund. He interviewed surviving members of his subject’s inner circle and conducted extensive archival research, simultaneously completing a doctoral thesis comparing oral and documentary sources on Te Puea at the University of Waikato. In 1976 a Katherine Mansfield Fellowship enabled him to complete the book at Menton, France, and it was launched at Tūrangawaewae Marae in 1977, on the 25th anniversary of Te Puea’s death. The first scholarly biography of a Māori community leader (as distinct from a western-educated national figure), it was generally well-received as an accurate and accessible account, and won the 1978 New Zealand Book Award for Non-Fiction.

While working on Te Puea, King put together two collections of essays by Māori scholars, Te ao hurihuri (1975) and Tihe mauri ora (1978), which, like Tāngata whenua, were intended as platforms for Māori to articulate aspects of their culture to the broader public. By that time some Māori were beginning to voice their disquiet that a Pākehā was producing books about such important Māori subjects. Professor Hirini Mead accused King of indulging in ‘a new sort of do-gooding’ in trying to communicate Māori ideas to the public, while activist Syd Jackson described the Kīngitanga decision to entrust the Te Puea biography to a Pākehā as ‘a crazy unforgivable blunder.’5 Sensitive to such accusations, King withdrew temporarily from Māori history; but his European sojourn convinced him that ‘my place is in New Zealand, New Zealand is my place’.6

King moved to Auckland in 1979 to take up a post-doctoral fellowship, and to be closer to his children. He began work on a biography of Prime Minister Peter Fraser, sparked by his association with diplomat Alister McIntosh, and published several books on non-Māori subjects. The collector (1981) chronicled the life of Andreas Reischek, a nineteenth-century Austrian taxidermist who plundered Māori graves for museum artefacts, and two photographic books for a popular market, New Zealanders at war (1981) and New Zealand in colour (1982).

Despite his misgivings, King returned to Māori history in the early 1980s. Māori: a photographic and social history (1983), a social history of Māori told through photographs, won the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Award in 1984. He followed this with a biography of Whina Cooper, the charismatic leader of the 1975 Māori land march who had invited King to write her life story. As a subject she appealed to King – an inspirational older woman ‘who seemed to be a medium between the spirits of her ancestors and the modern world.’7 King acknowledged that Cooper was a controversial figure in te ao Māori, and that his biography presented Cooper’s own view of her life rather than trying to reconcile conflicting perspectives. He wrote the text while writing fellow at Victoria University, although Whina (1983) was aimed primarily at a popular rather than an academic audience.

These two books reignited the debate about whether King should be writing Māori history at all. Though they were well-received by some Māori commentators, such as Ranginui Walker, others shared the view of Ngāti Porou kuia Keri Kaa that ‘We have kept quiet for too long about how we truly feel about what is written about us by people of another culture’, and it was time Māori ‘set the record straight by … writing about ourselves.’8 King, long sympathetic to the view that Māori should be telling their own stories, decided to write no more Māori history.

In 1984 King tried to continue the Fraser biography but became seriously ill with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue syndrome), exacerbated by the long-term effects of childhood polio. He had collected many documents and interviews and penned three chapters, but in 1996 turned the material over to Michael Bassett to complete. He turned his attention to Pākehā society, producing an ‘ethnic autobiography’, Being Pākehā (1985), ‘about culture, about belonging and not belonging in New Zealand.’9 It was a vivid account of his own whakapapa, his emerging sense of himself as a Pākehā New Zealander, and his sometimes troubled engagement with te ao Māori. It was a powerful attempt to explain his motivations and justify his earlier writing of Māori history, and to assert that Pākehā constituted ‘a second indigenous New Zealand culture’, distinct from their European antecedents and shaped by interactions with Māori culture and the country’s unique landscape and social conditions.10

Journalism and non-Māori history

King continued to teach writing workshops after he shifted to Auckland, and in one class he met Maria Teresa Jungowska, English-born of Polish parents, who worked in publishing. The pair married at King’s parents’ home in Kutarere, Bay of Plenty, on 17 October 1987; it was to be a happy relationship. In the late 1980s they bought land near Ōpoutere, on the Coromandel Peninsula; King observed that, with a good harbour for fishing, bush, birds and pā sites on the headlands, it was ‘Paremata with improvements’.11 The couple built a house and moved there permanently in 1993.

By the late 1980s King was receiving more recognition and financial assistance. He was made an OBE and awarded a Fulbright writer’s fellowship in 1988, and earned money from his steady output of book reviews for Metro magazine. Two books aimed at a popular audience emerged: Death of the Rainbow Warrior (1986), about the sinking of Greenpeace’s anti-nuclear ship by French agents, building on his articles on the subject for the Listener, and, characteristically, heavily based on interviews with the investigating team; and After the war (1988), a photographic history of New Zealand since 1945.

In 1986, Moriori leader Maui Solomon invited King to write a history that would underpin the restoration of Moriori identity. In the light of the deeply entrenched myths among Pākehā about Moriori, and the contested treaty claims between Moriori and Ngāti Mutunga, King believed that a scholarly history based on both oral history and documents would be an important contribution to New Zealand scholarship. He worked quickly but thoroughly, and Moriori: a people rediscovered (1989) was typical of his finest work: well-researched, yet highly readable and with a powerful sense of landscape. Moriori deservedly won the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Award for 1990 and helped inspire a Moriori renaissance.

Biographies of writers

For the next decade King focused on the history of New Zealand creative writing, producing major biographies of Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame. A committed cultural nationalist who regarded himself as much part of the community of writers as the circle of historians, King saw both works as documenting the emergence of world-class imaginative writing in New Zealand. He knew both writers personally, having visited Sargeson regularly from the late 1970s until his death in 1982, and interviewed Frame extensively while working on her biography. As with most of King’s works, interviews were crucial. Both writers had experienced personal crises as young people – Sargeson arrested as a homosexual, and Frame treated harshly in mental hospitals. Both had ultimately rejected expatriation and forged successful careers from home, and both had already told their stories in three-part memoirs.

King approached the biographies not as a literary critic, but as a historian determined to recount their lives in an accurate and engaging way. He had always been concerned about the difficulty of making a living as a creative writer; he spoke often of the lack of financial support for writers, and was an active member and president (1979–80) of the New Zealand Society of Authors. Consequently, the details of how Sargeson and Frame earned money loom large in both books, as do their housing conditions, publishing arrangements and circle of literary acquaintances. King received the National Library Fellowship, the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship and a University of Waikato writers’ residency to work on Sargeson, and the University of Auckland Fellowship in Humanities and the University of Otago’s Robert Burns Fellowship for the Frame biography. Both Frank Sargeson: a life (1995) and Wrestling with the angel: a life of Janet Frame (2000) were widely applauded: the Frame biography won the Medal for Non-fiction, the Award for History and Biography and the Readers’ Choice Award at the 2001 Montana Book Awards, and also that year’s Nielsen Book Data Booksellers’ Choice Award.

While literary biography received much of King’s attention in the 1990s, he found time for several other ventures. Reflecting his love of place, he collaborated with photographer Robin Morrison on books about the Chatham Islands and the Coromandel. He wrote a light but enjoyable history of the Catholic Church in New Zealand, though by that time he no longer believed in the Christian God. He edited two collections of essays, one on Pākehā identity and the other on New Zealand masculinity. He reworked Being Pākehā as Being Pākehā now (1999), to emphasise even more strongly the indigeneity of Pākehā. He also issued two collections of reflective autobiographical essays, Hidden places (1992) and Tread softly for you tread on my life (2001), and in 2002 an intriguing family saga about a Jewish relative, At the edge of memory. If this astonishing output was not enough, he remained a regular book reviewer and was named Montana Reviewer of the Year in 2000 and 2004.

King, a good-looking man with a trademark beard and often on public occasions wearing a cream linen jacket, continued to entertain in the Coromandel his many friends; he had a genius for friendship, always warm, enquiring and loyal, and was a stimulating conversationalist.

Later life

In 2001, as the Fulbright Distinguished Visiting Professor at Georgetown University, King began working on a general history which was published in 2003 as The Penguin history of New Zealand. He acknowledged that it was not written for his professional peers but for ‘curious and intelligent general readers, Maori and Pakeha, who are not historians’.12 The book was a skilful synthesis of recent scholarship, especially strong in the areas of interest to King: Māori history, literary history, wars and the left-wing political tradition. There were no provocative reinterpretations, but it was written with pace and good sense and was easy to read. It reached his target audience, with more than 60,000 copies sold within two years, and was widely honoured. In 2004 it won the Montana Readers’ Choice Award and the Nielsen Book Data Booksellers’ Choice Award. It was an important milestone in King’s career, bringing his vision of New Zealand society to a wider audience than ever before.

King’s hugely productive career was appropriately recognised in 2003, when he won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Non-fiction. At that time he was receiving treatment for throat cancer, which led him to say publicly that he felt he had done most of what he wanted to do. When his cancer became publicly known, he received 900 letters from readers wishing him well. The New Zealand Herald named him its ‘New Zealander of the Year’ in December 2003, noting: ‘He has at times been our memory, at others our conscience’.13 In interviews, King expressed his hope for tolerance in relations between Māori and Pākehā.

On 30 March 2004, King and Jungowska were killed when the car they were travelling in left the road and hit a tree just south of Maramarua. Police and the coroner found no obvious explanation for the accident, other than inattention. King was 58 years old, and Jungowska 54. There was a huge outpouring of tributes to both, with King, dying suddenly at the height of his fame, hailed as the New Zealand peoples’ foremost historian and biographer. His legacy was later commemorated through the establishment of the Michael King Writers Centre in Devonport.

  1. M. King. Being Pākehā: an encounter with New Zealand and the Māori renaissance. Auckland, 1984: 22. Back
  2. M. King. Being Pākehā now: reflections and recollections of a white native. Auckland, 1999: 23. Back
  3. King. Being Pākehā: 126. Back
  4. King. Being Pākehā now: 181. Back
  5. Ibid: 182. Back
  6. Ibid: 180. Back
  7. M. King. Whina: a biography of Whina Cooper. Auckland, 1991: preface. Back
  8. King. Being Pākehā now: 184. Back
  9. M. King. Hidden places: a memoir in journalism. Auckland, 1992: 1. Back
  10. M. King. The silence beyond: selected writings by Michael King. Ed. R. King. Auckland, 2011: 40. Back
  11. New Zealand Herald, 20–21 December 2003: B7. Back
  12. M. King. The Penguin history of New Zealand. Auckland, 2003: 11. Back
  13. New Zealand Herald, 20–21 December 2003: B7. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips. 'King, Michael', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2022. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6k3/king-michael (accessed 18 June 2024)