Story: History and historians

Page 2. The first half of the 20th century – amateur history

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Māori history

At the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, there was a growing concern to recapture history. The first focus was on Māori history, motivated by a widespread belief that Māori were a dying race and their culture and history should be preserved before it was too late. The Polynesian Society was founded in 1892 and its members began to publish Māori history. These included Pākehā scholars such as Elsdon Best, Johannes Andersen and Stephenson Percy Smith, and Māori scholars including Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), whose most popular work was Vikings of the sunrise (1938), a survey of all the Polynesian peoples.

James Cowan was also a member of the society, and was a passionate believer that New Zealand history was ‘rich … in episodes of adventure and romance.’1 A journalist who published much of his history initially in newspapers, he found his major theme in his official history, The New Zealand wars (1922–23). This two-volume work was based heavily on oral history which suggested that the wars ‘ended with a strong mutual respect, tinged with a real affection.’2 But too much of his writing degenerated into Hollywood-style romance.

Pioneer ingenuity

The local histories made great play of the endurance and resourcefulness of the pioneers. Airini Woodhouse, writing on George Rhodes, runholder of the Levels sheep station, said: ‘Saddles and bridles were even scarcer than horses, but the resourceful pioneer frequently made a satisfactory substitute for bridles from the fibrous leaves of the wild flax and rode bareback.’3

Local history

The ageing of the founding Pākehā settlers and the commemoration of national, provincial and city 50th anniversaries in the 1890s and 1900s also sparked an interest in capturing the history of the pioneers. The New Zealand Natives’ Association (a group of Europeans born in New Zealand) was started in the 1890s and early settlers’ associations or historical societies were established in small towns and in each of the main centres. There were gatherings of early settlers at the jubilee celebrations. As a result, many memoirs and local histories were put together by amateurs. They were heavy with facts and long quotations.


For similar reasons, at the turn of the century a few Pākehā such as Thomas Morland Hocken in Dunedin and Alexander Turnbull in Wellington began to collect books and historical artefacts. They set up libraries which became centres for those wanting to collect historical evidence and document the past. Hocken himself published writings on early history. Politician Robert McNab compiled several editions of Murihiku: a history of the South Island of New Zealand, plus two volumes of historical records. These were not analytical histories, but collections of primary materials such as log books and newspaper accounts – the result of research, ‘not the fruits of his thought,’ as McNab explained.4

A similar aim motivated a group of Wellington compilers who supported their historical work through journalism or library work. They included:

  • T. Lindsay Buick, whose books on Marlborough, Manawatū and the Treaty of Waitangi supplemented his extensive primary quotations with speculation, and who saw the treaty as a successful basis for Māori–Pākehā relations
  • Horace Fildes, who was essentially a collector and facilitator of others’ work
  • Guy Scholefield, parliamentary librarian, whose major achievement was a Dictionary of New Zealand biography (1940).

Academic history

While most New Zealand history had been the work of engaged amateurs, the 1920s saw the publication of the first serious academic monographs with professional referencing. They came initially from students completing British degrees in British imperial history and focused on early constitutional developments (1829–56) drawing largely on British sources. They included:

  • A. J. Harrop, who published both his masters and doctoral theses; the latter, England and New Zealand (1926), questioned the idea that the English and French had been in a race to claim New Zealand
  • the young J. C. Beaglehole, who published a doctorate on New Zealand’s first governor, William Hobson (1928)
  • William Morrell, who wrote both a history of British colonial policy in Otago and a book on New Zealand’s system of provincial government (1932).

Both Morrell and Beaglehole also wrote general histories of New Zealand, which in different ways explored issues of national identity.

Other academics who published work on New Zealand history included J. B. Condliffe, a Canterbury economist and author of pioneering economic history, New Zealand in the making (1930); and J. R. Elder, who collected the writings of missionary Samuel Marsden. But Condliffe, frustrated with New Zealand’s intellectual life, left for North America; and Elder began writing flabby popular histories more akin to the pioneer chroniclers. So, the scholarly output from universities remained small. The curriculum still focused largely on British and British Empire history, especially since history examinations were marked in England.

  1. James Cowan, The New Zealand wars: a history of the Maori campaigns and the pioneering period. Vol. 1. Wellington: Government Printer, 1922, p. 1. Back
  2. The New Zealand wars, vol. 1, p. 3. Back
  3. A. E. Woodhouse, George Rhodes of the Levels and his brothers: early settlers of New Zealand. Auckland: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1937, p. 93. Back
  4. Robert McNab, The old whaling days: a history of southern New Zealand from 1830 to 1840. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1913, p. vii. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'History and historians - The first half of the 20th century – amateur history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 April 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 22 Oct 2014