Story: History and historians

Page 1. Recording history before 1900

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Māori and history

Although a country with a short human past, New Zealand has a rich tradition of telling its history. The Māori way of thinking has been described as walking forward into the future, while looking back into the past. Whakapapa (genealogy) has a central place in Māori tradition, and the carvings of meeting houses usually portray historical figures and past incidents. In oratory on the marae speakers constantly draw upon historical precedent. The founding waka (canoes) and historical battles are often referenced.

History counts

When Māui Pōmare was trying to win the support of the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) for his candidacy for the Western Māori seat in Parliament in 1911, he reminded the Māori king, Mahuta, that Pōmare’s ancestor Te Rauparaha had once saved the life of the first Māori king, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, by warning him of an impending ambush. The king, suggested Pōmare, could repay the historical debt by supporting him.

Some Pākehā recorded the historical knowledge of kaumātua (elders) and brought it into written history. A few Māori compiled their history themselves, most notably Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikāheke, perhaps New Zealand’s first professional historian, who was paid a salary of £36 a year plus accommodation by Governor George Grey to write up Māori history, which Grey then drew on extensively in his own works.

British history

History was important to the people who settled New Zealand from the United Kingdom. History books were primarily about past politics and served to teach the elite lessons about effective rule. It also taught the ‘triumphant’ expansion of the British Empire, and what was considered to be the unique evolution of British liberty. British history became widely studied in New Zealand schools. In colonial university colleges no New Zealand history was taught or researched – the history curriculum covered England from 449 to 1850 and Britain’s constitutional development.

Early New Zealand history

In the 19th century the historical study of New Zealand was left to amateurs outside the university. The earliest publications with some historical content were the accounts of explorers, from James Cook to Dumont D’Urville, and the memoirs of early visitors or settlers such as Augustus Earle and Edward Jerningham Wakefield. Grey and missionary Richard Taylor began recording Māori tradition.

Costly history

In his book on the history of New Zealand, G. W. Rusden claimed that in 1868 John Bryce, then a lieutenant in a group of cavalry volunteers, had dashed upon a group of Māori women and children and ‘cut them down gleefully’1. When Rusden’s history came out, Bryce was minister for native affairs. He sued Rusden for libel. The final verdict was that the book was suppressed and Bryce was awarded £5,000 damages.

The first full history of New Zealand was the work of an army surgeon, A. S. Thomson, who published The story of New Zealand in 1859. During his 11 years in the country Thomson had observed the steady adoption of European ways by Māori. The major theme of his two volumes was the progress from what he saw as a barbarian cannibal society to a civilised one. He drew on his scientific background to show the progress of the colony statistically and to emphasise the healthy environment of New Zealand in comparison with other parts of the British Empire.

Over the next 40 years historical work was of several distinct kinds:

  • Some army veterans, such as James Alexander and Walter Gudgeon (although the works were credited to his father, T. W. Gudgeon), put together heroic one-sided military accounts of the New Zealand wars. In 1883 G. W. Rusden produced an idiosyncratic general history that had a very different pro-Māori perspective.
  • There were collections of Māori history by John White and J. W. Stack.
  • Ex-politicians Alfred Saunders, Alfred Cox and William Gisborne wrote about the political history of the colony. Gisborne’s New Zealand rulers and statesmen, which was beautifully written and contained many quotable phrases, was the most influential. These books continued the traditional British interest in judgements about political successes and failures.

A historian’s verdict

In the tradition of British history-writing, William Gisborne was adept at making judgements on politicians. He wrote of William Swainson that he ‘was an able lawyer, but an indifferent politician … He had a prudish horror of publicity and of the profane crowd. He liked to sit behind the throne and pull the strings. Sinuous and secretive in his nature, he worked underground. He prided himself on being a safe man, and yet he was a dangerous counsellor in public affairs.’2

William Pember Reeves

William Pember Reeves’s general history, The long white cloud: Ao Tea Roa, which appeared in 1898, two years after Reeves had left his ministerial role in the Liberal government to become agent general in London, was in many respects in the tradition of the political history. Reeves was interested in ‘great men’ and keen to make strong judgements about ‘Good Governor Grey’ or ‘Gore Brown’s bad bargain’. He never accepted the full implications of the colonisation process for Māori. But the grace of his writing and his interest in the distinctive character of New Zealand made this work the great 19th-century achievement in history.

Reeves’s judgements were hugely influential in New Zealanders’ understanding of their past – a sympathy for Māori as ‘the finest race of savages the world has seen,’3 an emphasis on the importance of Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the New Zealand Company and a belief that the liberal experiments of the 1890s represented a pragmatic response to frontier conditions and established New Zealand as a social laboratory. As many have noted, Reeves painted New Zealand as a liberal reforming society – ‘the land of the long pink cloud’.

  1. Quoted in Hazel Riseborough, ‘Bryce, John.’ Dictionary of New Zealand biography, (last accessed 26 June 2014). Back
  2. William Gisborne, New Zealand rulers and statesmen 18401885. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1886, p. 14. Back
  3. William Pember Reeves,The long white cloud: Ao Tea Roa. London: Horace Marshall & Son, 1898, p. 57. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'History and historians - Recording history before 1900', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 22 Oct 2014