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Sinclair, Keith


Historian, poet

This biography, written by Tony Ballantyne, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019.

In the second half of the twentieth century, Keith Sinclair transformed how New Zealanders understood themselves and their history. A prominent poet and New Zealand’s most important historian of the 1950s and 1960s, his work was energised by a deep commitment to New Zealand and a strong cultural nationalism. Throughout his career he was concerned with the question of national character and what made New Zealanders distinctive. He pioneered a range of approaches to New Zealand history and shared his insights and arguments widely. He was also a very effective institution-builder, leading the emergence of a robust tradition of New Zealand history at the University of Auckland and initiating the New Zealand Journal of History.

Early life

Keith Sinclair was born on 5 December 1922 in Epsom, Auckland, the first of the 10 children of Ernest Duncan Sinclair and Florence Pyrenes Kennedy. Ernest and Florence initially lived with Keith in boarding houses before the growing family moved to a small house in Ellerslie. Although the family was poor, Sinclair’s childhood was active and adventurous, especially after the family moved to Point Chevalier in 1931. Ernest worked as a shipping clerk, then lost his job during the Depression of the early 1930s, before working as a watersider, a tally clerk and a labourer. While the young Sinclair was aware of the family’s limited resources and the tension between his parents resulting from his father’s lack of financial discipline, he was happy and engaged with the world.

As a boy, he enjoyed games, sport, collecting cards and stamps, and keeping birds. He loved exploring Point Chevalier, Meola Creek, and the tidal edges of Waitematā Harbour. Sinclair was talkative, a voracious reader, and an enthusiastic writer, producing verse, short stories and jokes, exhibiting an interest in the power of words that shaped his subsequent life and career. Point Chevalier Public Library enabled his forays into the world of books, a curiosity he shared with Kendrick Smithyman, who became a noted poet and remained a close friend throughout Sinclair’s adult life.

Education and war service

Sinclair was educated at Point Chevalier Primary and then Mount Albert Grammar School. At high school, he was not particularly engaged by his academic work and was generally more interested in sport, particularly boxing. A fractured pelvis – sustained playing rugby – trained his attention on writing, the one thing he had retained enthusiasm for throughout his schooling. He began submitting short stories to newspapers and helped edit the school magazine. He also served as a school librarian, building a strong friendship with future colleague Bruce Biggs that was underpinned by a shared love of books and language. In 1938 Sinclair passed the matriculation exams, and the following year he completed his Higher School Certificate. In 1940 he commenced his studies at Auckland Teachers’ College. He found it intellectually mediocre and socially conservative, but he was able to study Arts papers at Auckland University College, where he took English and French initially, and then history.

Sinclair was called up in December 1941 for three months’ training with the Territorial Army, initiating a sustained period of military service. In June 1942 he trained as an infantry instructor at Trentham Camp, and the following year he became a small-arms instructor at Papakura Camp. In 1943 he took up a place in the Royal Navy Officer Cadet Training course in the United Kingdom. The long sea-voyage, via Melbourne, Perth, Durban and Cape Town, gave Sinclair opportunities to further advance his studies and to explore new places where he keenly observed social interactions, especially the ways in which race and class operated. During his training in Britain, he experienced the imperial and class-based prejudices that produced significant differences within the British forces and between the British and servicemen from the dominions, developing a strong dislike of the weight attached to class in British society.

Sinclair was commissioned as a Sub-Lieutenant after the Second World War ended. By that point, he had completed his BA studies extramurally through Auckland and on his discharge from the navy, he stayed in the United Kingdom with financial support from the New Zealand Rehabilitation Board in order to begin research for an MA. After some uncertainty, he fixed upon studying an influential nineteenth-century humanitarian organisation, the Aborigines Protection Society, and its influence on debates over race and colonisation in New Zealand. After travelling briefly through war-ravaged western Europe, he returned to Auckland in 1946, taking the papers required for the MA degree and completing the archival research for the thesis in Auckland and Wellington.

University of Auckland

Sinclair renewed his friendship with Smithyman, who had also returned from war service. He forged an important friendship with Robert Chapman, who shared Sinclair’s interest in poetry and was initially a colleague in the History Department before becoming the first Professor of Political Studies at Auckland in 1963. He became romantically connected with Mary Edith Land, a zoology postgraduate student from a wealthy Wellington family, and they were married in Wellington on 10 November 1947.

In 1947, Sinclair was appointed as a lecturer in history at Auckland University College. He and Mary settled in Māngere East and later Takapuna. Their first son, Mark, was born in 1949, followed by Cameron in 1952, Stephen in 1956 and Harry in 1959. Sinclair enjoyed fatherhood, in particular spending time at the family’s bach at Coromandel, where he took pleasure in fishing, boating, and socialising with friends.

Sinclair worked in the History Department until his retirement from teaching in 1987. After completing his PhD in 1954, he rose through the ranks, being promoted to associate professor in 1960 and professor in 1963. He was a powerful figure in institutional politics. In the 1950s, he was part of a cohort of younger New Zealand academics who chafed against the hierarchical culture of institutions in which senior colleagues were protective of their own authority and resistant to change. He was central in the development of the History Department, undertaking his first stint as its head from 1963 to 1970 during a boom driven by strong growth in enrolments and marked by the recruitment of new staff. He consistently championed New Zealand history, but valued excellence generally and students or colleagues, male or female, he believed to be intellectually capable. His history of the University of Auckland, published in 1983, emphasised the importance of the growing confidence and quality of the New Zealand academics who were increasingly central to its development.

Poet and historian

In the early 1950s Sinclair was more prominent as a poet than as a historian, and literature remained a central preoccupation as he delivered readings, published widely, and won a Landfall poetry prize in 1953. Across his career he published five volumes of verse, and his poems were prominent in the anthologies that shaped New Zealand literature in the 1950s and 1960s. His verse reflected a broad intellectual vision and wide reading, but was anchored in the landscape of Auckland and part of the city’s emergence as a key literary centre. The poet and editor Allen Curnow noted that Sinclair was ‘both poet and historian, and in his best poems the two are not divided.’ 1

Sinclair’s standing as a poet has not proved as durable as the significance of his historical work. The foundations of his reputation as a historian were firmly established by two books published in the late 1950s. The origins of the Maori Wars, based on his Auckland doctoral dissertation, was published in 1957. This close reading of the interconnections between land and sovereignty in the 1850s and 1860s was widely praised: Gerald Hensley suggested in Landfall that it was ‘very possibly … the best monograph yet written on New Zealand history.’2 Two years later, Penguin published Sinclair’s History of New Zealand. In clear, accessible and energetic prose, he laced together narrative and argument, stressing the importance of the environment and Māori in shaping New Zealand and New Zealanders. This approach diverged from the greater emphasis on the importance of the British inheritance in The story of New Zealand (1960), the elegant general history produced by W. H. Oliver, an important intellectual friend and interlocutor of Sinclair throughout his career. Sinclair’s History of New Zealand has been a durable and influential text, selling well and appearing in a number of editions, including a version updated by Raewyn Dalziel in 2000.

While Sinclair’s verse often had a lyrical quality, his prose was lean, written in a New Zealand voice. He was invested in recovering the distinctiveness of New Zealand experience and he was also deeply committed to the importance of archival research. This sensibility was evident in his finely crafted biographies, William Pember Reeves: New Zealand Fabian (1965) and Walter Nash (1976). These volumes set a new standard for historical biography in New Zealand and demonstrated that life-writing could help illuminate the broader contours of a national story.

In the 1960s and 1970s Sinclair was pivotal in the consolidation of New Zealand history as a field for both research and teaching: the noted historian J. G. A. Pocock later identified him as the ‘founding father’ of New Zealand history.3 In 1950 Sinclair had called for a ‘generation of pedants’ to build a national history through detailed archival research and specialist studies.4 He helped translate that vision into reality, suggesting research topics for students and supervising many theses that helped build the scholarly framework for the field. He was the driving force behind the establishment of the New Zealand Journal of History in 1967 and remained its editor until 1987. He was heavily involved in the early discussions about creating the Dictionary of New Zealand biography, encouraging Prime Minister Robert Muldoon to support the project. He was subsequently influential in the Dictionary’s development, even if he disliked its lengthy committee meetings and disagreed with some of the choices made by its general editor, W. H. Oliver.

Oliver described Sinclair as ‘a major historical intellect … with a formidable capacity for research’, and he displayed these qualities throughout his career.5 He had a broad vision and opened up significant new ways of approaching the past for New Zealand scholars, whether through the importance of photographs and the visual record, the centrality of connections across the Tasman Sea, or the study of New Zealand nationalism. He shared his historical expertise widely, embracing print, radio and television as ways to reach New Zealand audiences, and he embodied the role of the academic as critic and conscience of society. Given his own youthful passion for books, it is not surprising that he saw children and young people as important members of the national community. In addition to co-authoring an accessible history of New Zealand for younger readers with Marcia Stenson and Judith Bassett, he also drew upon his Point Chevalier upbringing in his 1977 children’s book, Reefs of fire.

Although patriotism animated his work, Sinclair’s nationalism was never naïve. He played an active role in the sesquicentennial celebrations in 1990 and was optimistic about the role of the Waitangi Tribunal in helping heal the divides created by colonialism. However, he also articulated concerns about political claims made by some Māori which he felt lacked solid historical grounding, and he believed that there were fundamental differences between critical historical scholarship and Māori traditional knowledge. These positions reflected the primacy he attached to the nation, but Sinclair’s cultural outlook was not parochial. He greatly valued his visits to historic sites, galleries, and museums in Britain and Europe during and after his military service, enjoyed his extensive travels as a scholar of global standing, and developed a significant interest in the history and politics of both Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Politics and character

A man of the left, Sinclair had an abiding interest in political life. His research attached significant weight to parliamentary politics, and he was engaged with a range of debates about government policy and international relations. In 1969 he stood as the Labour Party candidate in the Eden electorate, winning the seat on election night by 35 votes; this result was reversed by postal and special votes. This ended Sinclair’s aspirations for a parliamentary career, but he remained a powerful figure in Auckland University politics and in New Zealand cultural life. He served on numerous bodies relating to history, libraries, and academic life, including the New Zealand Book Council, the New Zealand Authors’ Fund Advisory Committee, the National Library Trust, and the New Zealand Historical Association.

Marti Friedlander’s famous portraits of Sinclair capture his self-possession and some of his charisma. Of average height, just under 5 foot 8, he was an energetic figure. In person, he was quick-witted and enjoyed discussion and debate, but disliked bureaucracy, rigid hierarchies and ‘mealy-mouthed’ academics or cultural figures.6 He could be dismissive and verbally sharp and did not shy away from disagreements, in person or in print. He was competitive, outwardly confident and assertive: Frank Sargeson described him as having a ‘proletarian bounce’, while others admired or feared his ‘larrikin style’.7 He was sceptical of religion, puritans and wowsers, and was sociable by nature.

Sinclair entered a relationship with Raewyn Mary Dalziel, who had joined the History Department as a lecturer, and married her on 15 October 1976 after divorcing Mary and leaving the family home in Takapuna. Sinclair and Dalziel settled in Birkenhead.

After his retirement from teaching in 1987, he continued to write. He finished his Kinds of peace: Maori people after the wars, 1870–85 (1991), and also crafted incisive letters to the editor, responses to reviews, and corrections to misrepresentations of New Zealand and its history. He completed a final volume of verse and also a candid memoir, Halfway round the harbour (1993).

Death and legacy

The latter volume appeared posthumously, soon after his sudden death from a brain haemorrhage in Toronto, Canada on 20 June 1993, aged 70. After his body was returned home, he lay in state, surrounded by Mary, their four sons, and Raewyn, at the University of Auckland’s Waipapa Marae, marking his vast contribution to the university.

Sinclair had been recognised with a CBE in 1983 for services to literature and a KB in 1985 for services to historical research and literature. After his death, his legacy was marked in a variety of ways at the University of Auckland. An eponymous chair was established in the Department of History, along with a memorial scholarship to support doctoral research on New Zealand history and a Keith Sinclair Lecture.

Sinclair’s most enduring legacy, however, are his words: his verse, but especially his historical writing. His essays and books had a wide reach and created new vantage points on the past, sketching many of the possibilities of New Zealand history as a field for scholarly endeavour. When a journalist asked W. H. Oliver about Sinclair’s significance after his death, Oliver replied: ‘He made New Zealand history’.8 Sinclair’s ideas and words have had a lasting impact, fashioning new narratives and arguments that gave a nation that was uncertain about itself and its place in the world a much greater degree of self-knowledge.

  1. Allen Curnow. The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. Harmondsworth, 1960, p.326. Back
  2. Gerald Hensley. Review of The Origins of the Maori Wars by Keith Sinclair. Landfall 47, September 1958. Back
  3. J.G.A. Pocock. The discovery of islands: essays in British history. Cambridge, 2005, p.13. Back
  4. Keith Sinclair. The Maori Land League: an examination into the source of a New Zealand myth. PhD thesis, Auckland, 1950, p.3. Back
  5. W.H. Oliver. ‘A Destiny at home’. New Zealand Journal of History 21 n.1 (1987), p.10. Back
  6. Keith Sinclair. Halfway round the harbour: an autobiography. Auckland, 1993, p.191. Back
  7. Frank Sargeson to Dan Davin, 10 December 1954. In Letters of Frank Sargeson. Ed. Sarah Shieff. Auckland, 2012, p.187. Back
  8. W. H. Oliver. ‘Obituary’. New Zealand Journal of History 27 n.2 (1993), p.220. Back
How to cite this page:

Tony Ballantyne. 'Sinclair, Keith', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2019. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6s5/sinclair-keith (accessed 15 July 2024)