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Story: Ward, Alan Dudley

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Ward, Alan Dudley



This biography, written by Ross Webb, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2023.

Historian Alan Ward was central to the reappraisal of New Zealand’s colonial history which began in the 1970s. In his landmark book A show of justice (1974), he argued forcefully that the Crown had committed injustices against Māori under the terms of Te Tiriti o Waitangi which had a lasting and detrimental impact on Māori communities. Ward became a key figure in the development of the Waitangi Tribunal and the treaty settlement process, and an expert in customary land tenure and land reform in the South Pacific. He was a practitioner of ‘participant history’, in which historians apply the lessons of their historical research to real-world contemporary problems.

Early life

Alan Dudley Ward was born in Gisborne on 11 June 1935, the youngest of four children of Beatrice Annie Newman and her husband, William Edgar Ward. He grew up in the small village of Waipāoa, on the Poverty Bay plain. His father trained in law but worked as a small dairy farmer, and sometimes as a drover, for extra money. Anxieties about money and health weighed on the family. Ward’s elder brother died of diphtheria and Ward himself struggled with poor health throughout his childhood, contracting whooping cough and pneumonia. He spent long periods in bed with bronchitis.

Ward’s family were National Party supporters who nonetheless accepted and embraced many of the tenets of state involvement in education and health. He later described the reforms of the first Labour government, particularly the passage of the Social Security Act of 1938, as the defining moment in New Zealand becoming an independent and humane nation. He praised the Labour Party’s ‘profound humanism’ in treating the economic system as something that should serve ordinary people.1 Ward felt lifelong gratitude for the education and healthcare he received as a child, which left him ‘an unwavering social democrat’.2 He emerged from his ‘model working-class Tory’ boyhood as a Labour Party supporter, hostile towards landlords and banks but also suspicious of trade unions and people who, he said,‘bludged’ off state generosity.3

Ward grew up in a district with a high proportion of Māori, which shaped his perception of the relationships between Māori and Pākehā. He observed a ‘strange contradiction’ in the attitudes of Pākehā towards Māori: respectful and friendly relationships with individual Māori concealed ‘negative stereotypes and generalisations’ towards Māori as a group. The marginal rural Pākehā who Ward grew up among were a ‘contradictory and complex’ people, with a ‘darned sharp nose for right and wrong… They believed that theft is theft, and fraud is fraud’.4 Ward came to believe that they would have agreed that Māori had been ‘ripped off in major ways’, and viewed the Crown’s treatment of Māori as shameful, had they been aware of it.5 He believed the two groups had much in common, but there were ‘historical wounds below the surface’ that needed to be addressed.6 Ward credited his Māori classmates with rescuing him from his adolescent low self-esteem, and his early interactions with Māori led him to revolt against the racism that he witnessed, both growing up and in later life.


Ward attended Te Karaka District High School from 1948 to 1950 and boarded at Gisborne High School in 1951 and 1952. He then left the East Coast to study for a BA at Victoria University College (VUC) in Wellington, graduating in 1956. He trained at Auckland Teachers’ College before returning to VUC in 1957 and 1958 to complete an MA thesis. For his research topic, he returned to his rural Gisborne roots. After discussions with Hetekia Te Kani Te Ua, father of his Te Karaka classmate and future broadcaster Henare Te Ua, Ward decided to research the history of the East Coast Māori Trust, with financial assistance from the Māori Affairs Department. The trust, which managed to both retain and develop iwi land, was a rare success story in the ongoing saga of Māori land loss, but the study left Ward ‘angry and ashamed’ about how the state had treated Māori.7 The project drew his attention to the broader historical processes that had shaped the last century of Māori history, which would become defining themes of his subsequent career as a historian.

Following his MA, Ward made a series of abrupt career shifts. He spent a year training for the Anglican priesthood in 1959, before being drawn towards Roman Catholicism. He eventually identified as a Christian humanist. He also explored the idea of becoming a diplomat and worked at the Department of External Affairs in 1961. There he briefed the government on the apartheid policies of South African Prime Minister Hendrick Verwoerd. He resigned after just 10 months, citing departmental mismanagement, and secured work on the Wellington wharves.8

Doctoral research and A show of justice

Historical research remained his major passion. Encouraged by his VUC mentors Fred Wood and Peter Munz, Ward enrolled at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra in 1962. He commenced a PhD thesis on Anglican missionaries in the Solomon Islands under the supervision of Pacific historian J.W. Davidson. At ANU Ward met Helen Ainslie Tremaine Park, whom he married in Canberra on 25 August 1962. They were to have five children together.

Restless, Ward abandoned his PhD; the couple moved to Auckland, where Ward took up teaching at Mount Roskill Grammar School. At Davidson’s encouragement Ward returned to ANU in 1965 to complete his doctoral degree, where he switched to a new thesis topic inspired by recent political developments in New Zealand. In 1961, the National government had adopted the recommendations of the Hunn Report, which outlined a programme of assimilating Māori, who were then moving into the cities in large numbers, into Pākehā society. Ward’s thesis, ‘Towards one New Zealand: the government and the Māori people, 1861–93’ (1968), sought to understand the historical roots of the modern drive for assimilation. From 1967 Ward taught at La Trobe University in Melbourne, serving as lecturer, senior lecturer and then reader in history over the next 19 years.

Ward’s doctoral research laid the foundations for his 1974 book, A show of justice: racial ‘amalgamation’ in nineteenth century New Zealand. With a focus on state policy, particularly the development of the Native Department and Native Land Court, the book detailed how the Crown had systematically undermined Māori autonomy by devising policies to strip Māori of their land. The Crown, Ward argued, had failed to live up to the terms of Te Tiriti o Waitangi by refusing Māori a genuine share in the management of the new state. Historian Judith Binney called it ‘undoubtedly the best book on nineteenth century New Zealand’s racial policies’ and ‘also probably the angriest’.9 Yet the book was not simply an indictment of colonisation, but rather a story of lost opportunities and of Crown officials not delivering on promises made to Māori. It remains an essential overview of nineteenth-century Crown policy towards Māori, which set the tone for historical research conducted for Waitangi Tribunal inquiries. The book was republished in 1995 to meet ongoing demand.

Teaching in Australia and work in the Pacific

Ward’s career in Australia also saw him play an advisory role in the movements towards the political independence of Pacific nations. Like his mentor, Davidson, Ward was a practitioner of ‘participant history’, a role that saw him applying an historical perspective to contemporary land tenure issues in the Pacific. In 1971, Professor Ken Inglis invited Ward to teach at the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby, Papua. While he was there, Ward agreed to advise the House of Assembly of Papua and New Guinea on a number of land bills being introduced by the Australian administration. At the time the territories were preparing for independence from Australia. The Australian proposals reminded Ward of the individualisation of title that defined New Zealand’s nineteenth-century land law, and which had facilitated Māori land loss. He opposed the proposals, which were subsequently withdrawn, ostensibly because of his assessments. Ward was invited back to Port Moresby in 1972 to serve as a consultant to the Commission of Inquiry into Land Matters set up under pressure from the pro-independence Pangu Pati, and in 1973 as a consultant to the Lands Department. Papua New Guinea became self-governing in 1973 and independent in 1975.

Ward also served as Director of Rural Land for the Republic of Vanuatu in 1981 and 1982. He was uncomfortable in the role, and expressed concern about the possibility of stripping customary land – without compensation – from participants in a pre-independence coup in 1980 and some other settlers. He realised these comments might lead to him facing deportation as a dissident, so resigned from the position 15 months early.

Between 1979 and 1986, Ward worked with French academic colleagues studying land reform in New Caledonia. He joined the Australian Labor Party and advised Labor ministers on Pacific issues. He was also a committed scholar of the Pacific, serving as co-editor of the Journal of Pacific History between 1994 and 1996.

In 1987, Ward was appointed professor of history at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales. He retired from that role in 1996 and subsequently became professor emeritus.

The Waitangi Tribunal and treaty settlement process

In 1985 New Zealand’s Labour government extended the Waitangi Tribunal’s jurisdiction to investigate historical claims dating back to 1840, vastly enlarging its ability to study the effects of nineteenth-century Crown policy and actions on Māori communities. Ward was well placed to contribute to the development of historical research. From 1987 he led a group of researchers in the Ngāi Tahu inquiry, the first of the tribunal’s major regional and historical inquiries. He subsequently participated in a number of other inquiries, including Whanganui, the northern South Island (Te Tau Ihu) and Wellington. He also made a leading contribution to the writing of the tribunal’s Hauraki report.

As the massive scale of the historical investigation required by the Tribunal became evident, the Tribunal commissioned Ward to complete what became known as the Rangahaua Whānui (national overview) report. Published in three volumes in 1997, this was a massive research project that provided a comprehensive summary of the major themes to be explored in the tribunal’s district inquiry programme. It informed the Tribunal’s work for years to come.

In 1992, Ward served as the chief historian for the Crown/Māori Congress Joint Working Party; the group produced historical research that facilitated the return of surplus railway land to iwi. He presented evidence for Te Āti Awa in the Te Tau Ihu inquiry, and later for the Crown in the Te Paparahi o te Raki (Northland) inquiry. He also worked as an expert reviewer for the Office of Treaty Settlements, providing advice and feedback on the historical accounts that were produced as part of treaty settlement negotiations.

Concerned by public discourse about the Waitangi Tribunal and treaty settlement process, and by the political pressure to complete the process as soon as possible, Ward produced another book, An unsettled history: treaty claims in New Zealand today (1999), to explain the importance of properly addressing treaty claims. To underline his message, he toured the country to discuss the book’s themes. He argued that the tribunal should not be seen as a temporary, if necessary, evil, but rather as an important body charged with a ‘great national task’, which deserved more resources so it could be ‘recognised as a fundamental institution in the land’.10 Its efforts to hear claims should be a ‘carefully-reflected, deliberate, possibly slower but truly national process’.11 Ward also contributed to the academic debate about New Zealand’s nineteenth-century history, and the role of historians before the Waitangi Tribunal, in the pages of the New Zealand Journal of History and elsewhere. He later contributed to Tāngata whenua: an illustrated history (2014), a landmark, multi-authored overview of Māori history.

Later life and legacy

Ward played a fundamental role in shaping the way in which historians understood New Zealand’s nineteenth century, and how the Waitangi Tribunal approached its ongoing investigation of historic treaty claims. His work established a framework and a language for assessing the promises made and broken by the Crown since 1840. Ward believed in the powerful explanatory force of history and the importance of detailing historical wrongs in the past as a necessary first step to building a better future. He was driven by a ‘sense of anger’ about what he had discovered about the past.12 Yet he also maintained that the Crown was not wholly or inherently a malign force, and that often good intentions were perverted by greed and land grabbing. Ward was dedicated above all to historical accuracy. He argued that through exhaustive historical research and an understanding of context, historians could ‘get closer to concepts of truth’.13 Ward’s half-century contribution to historical research was recognised in 2009 when he was appointed an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit ‘for services to New Zealand history’.14 He received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Victoria University of Wellington in 2010.

Alan Ward died of cancer in Newcastle on 12 December 2014, aged 79. He was survived by his wife, Helen, and their five children.

  1. A. Ward. ‘A social democrat’s perspective on the Treaty of Waitangi’. Waitangi Rua Rautau Lectures, 2009. Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision, 163114. Back
  2. L. Ashton. ‘A sense of anger’. Mana 28 (June–July 1999): 37. Back
  3. P. Hempenstall. ‘Tasman epiphanies: the “participant history” of Alan Ward’. Journal of New Zealand Studies, n.4/5 (2006): 67. Back
  4. Ashton, ‘A Sense of Anger’: 36. Back
  5. Ibid: 36–37. Back
  6. Ward. ‘A social democrat's perspective on the Treaty of Waitangi’. Back
  7. T. Burnard. ‘The continuing relevance of the Treaty of Waitangi: an interview with Alan Ward’. History Now v.5 n.2 (1999): 7. Back
  8. A. Ward to Secretary of External Affairs, September 1961. Private collection. Back
  9. J. Binney. ‘Review: A show of justice: racial ‘amalgamation’ in nineteenth century New Zealand’. New Zealand Journal of History v.9 n.2 (1975): 194. Back
  10. Ashton. ‘A sense of anger’: 38. Back
  11. Evening Post. 20 January 1994. Back
  12. Ashton. ‘A sense of anger’: 36–37. Back
  13. A. Ward. ‘History and historians before the Waitangi Tribunal’. New Zealand Journal of History v.24 n.2 (1990): 155. Back
  14. New Years Honours List 2009. https://dpmc.govt.nz/publications/new-year-honours-list-2009 (accessed 15 July 2022). Back
How to cite this page:

Ross Webb. 'Ward, Alan Dudley', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2023. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6w9/ward-alan-dudley (accessed 13 July 2024)