Story: History and historians

Page 3. Rise of academic history – 1940 to 1970

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New Zealand’s centennial

The commemoration of the nation’s centennial in 1940 brought people educated at, or working in, universities into an official centennial project which produced 11 book-length surveys and a 30-part magazine, Making New Zealand. Led by E. H. McCormick, with input from J. C. Beaglehole, the series had high academic standards and attempted to bring New Zealand’s written history into the 20th century. Volumes by Beaglehole on the European discovery of New Zealand, Fred Wood on foreign relations and McCormick on culture were major contributions. But the coverage was thin on Māori content (the volume by Māori leader Apirana Ngata on Māori remained unfinished) and matters of conflict were avoided.

Unofficial centenary publications included many books praising the pioneers, such as two volumes on women: Brave days and Tales of pioneer women.

‘A generation of pedants’

In the years after the Second World War there was a new commitment to professional history. Several conditions made this possible. The number of people going to university increased swiftly in the 1950s and history departments grew. While their courses remained focused on non-New Zealand history, there were about a dozen theses on New Zealand being written each year in the 1950s. New sources – in New Zealand, newspapers and personal papers – were combed; but the document remained king – oral history was still viewed with suspicion.

Wanted: historical pedants

In the early 1950s two of the country’s leading historians called for a period of pedantry by their colleagues. At Victoria University J. C. Beaglehole requested ‘technical accomplishment, for professional standards, even to the point of pedantry’1, while in Auckland a young Keith Sinclair wanted ‘a generation of pedants … to toil at the definition of minutiae’2.

In addition, the government sponsored public history projects: a history of Parliament, an encyclopedia of New Zealand and a massive official history of New Zealand in the Second World War, which eventually produced 44 titles. These projects had a strong commitment to exhaustive research and high standards of accuracy. Several of the war histories, such as those by Dan Davin and N. C. Phillips, were outstanding.

The effect was the appearance of serious monographs, scholarly debates and, in 1967, the creation of the New Zealand Journal of History to host such discussion and facilitate serious reviews.

Areas of interest

The focus of debate largely remained the first half of the 19th century, but there were new perspectives – from John Miller and Michael Turnbull questioning the contribution and ethics of the New Zealand Company, to Keith Sinclair, Harrison Wright, Alan Ward and Keith Sorrenson on race relations and the origins and effects of the New Zealand wars. Beaglehole continued his definitive documentation of the voyages of English explorer James Cook. Apart from race relations, politics remained a central preoccupation, and detailed studies of Liberal and Labour party politics began. But, leaving aside war history, much of the 20th century remained unexplored, as were major questions of social history, immigration and cultural history.

For the first time local histories became serious works of research, with W. J. Gardner’s Amuri and Philip May’s The West Coast gold rushes.

The style of the leading historians continued within the British model – an emphasis on fine writing (Sinclair, W. H. Oliver and Beaglehole were published poets) and an avoidance of theory or social science.

General histories

A major achievement was the appearance of two general histories of New Zealand – one in 1959 by Keith Sinclair and another in 1960 by W. H. Oliver – which replaced William Pember Reeves’s as the definitive history of New Zealand 60 years after its appearance. Both were heavily based on the thesis work of the period and were interested in explaining New Zealand’s character. Oliver emphasised adaptation and was ever-mindful of the perpetuation of old-world inheritance; Sinclair vigorously asserted the search for national identity, which he explored explicitly several decades later in A destiny apart (1986).


The period saw a number of thoroughly researched biographies – James Rutherford on Governor George Grey, Antony Alpers on writer Katherine Mansfield, Keith Sinclair on Reeves and, to a lesser extent, R. M. Burdon on Premier Richard Seddon in King Dick.

Popular history

Outside the universities, traditional styles of popular and amateur history continued. There were books of Māori tales (many produced by publishers A. H. and A. W. Reed), along with pioneer memoirs and local histories. There were sporting histories and biographies of war heroes.

  1. J. C. Beaglehole, ‘The New Zealand scholar.’ In The feel of truth: essays in New Zealand and Pacific history edited by Peter Munz. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed for Victoria University of Wellington, 1969, p. 251. Back
  2. Keith Sinclair, The Maori Land League: an examination into the source of a New Zealand myth. Auckland: Auckland University College, 1950, p. 3. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'History and historians - Rise of academic history – 1940 to 1970', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 April 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 22 Oct 2014