Story: History and historians

Page 5. New types of historical writing since 1970

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International developments in history and local concerns about identity heightened the move away from history as ‘past politics’ and emphasised ‘history from below’. This meant scepticism about official documentary sources and an appreciation of informal evidence such as the diaries of ordinary people and oral history. Collections of oral histories opened up new areas of study, such as Māori women or people’s experiences of the First World War. There was also a new use of statistics and theoretical frameworks began to be used in examining history.

Māori history

The Māori protest movement and the demands of the Waitangi Tribunal sparked renewed interest in Māori history. Pākehā historians brought a range of approaches – a study of Parihaka by Dick Scott, an authorised biography of Te Puea Hērangi by Michael King, Anne Salmond’s books on the encounters between European explorers and Pacific peoples, Claudia Orange’s best-selling book on the Treaty of Waitangi, and Judith Binney’s deep involvement with Ngāi Tūhoe, which produced biographies of Rua Kēnana and Te Kooti, and a major history of the iwi. Māori historians also made important contributions, notably Ranginui Walker with a biography of Apirana Ngata and a powerful history of Māori resistance, Ka whawhai tonu mātou.

Social history

Until the 1970s there was little study of New Zealand social history. Historians began to ask questions about class and social relationships. In a strikingly original book, The ideal society and its enemies (1989), Miles Fairburn suggested that colonial New Zealand had weak social bonds. Erik Olssen, having pioneered serious labour history, drew on a large database of information about Caversham in south Dunedin for important books analysing work and social hierarchy. Stevan Eldred-Grigg and Jim McAloon debated the nature of the Canterbury elite. There was a new interest in immigration history sparked by works from Rollo Arnold on English settlers and Donald Akenson on Irish migrants.

Environmental history emerged, reflecting ecological concerns and international trends. There was a notable collection by Tom Brooking and Eric Pawson, and imaginative studies by Geoff Park and Chris Maclean.

Where women lead, men follow

The study of women’s history encouraged the study of men. Jock Phillips’s A man’s country? began the trend; and soon the different experiences of men and women were being compared in gender studies such as work by Caroline Daley.

Women’s history and gender

Traditional history, with its focus on ‘great men’ and political history, sidelined women and their experience. In response to this, the women’s movement and a lively international historiography (the study of history) encouraged research and writing on the history of women. This included important collections edited by Barbara Brookes, Charlotte Macdonald and Margaret Tennant, all of whom published major books themselves. There was excellent coverage of colonial women, immigrant women, and women in war. The centennial of women’s suffrage in 1993 saw many publications, notably Sandra Coney’s Standing in the sunshine.

Cultural history

Following Eric McCormick’s path-breaking centennial publication in 1940, there was little cultural history other than Allen Curnow’s introductions to poetry anthologies. The creation of art history departments encouraged serious examination of that subject in New Zealand by Leonard Bell, Francis Pound and Roger Blackley. There were important works on intellectual life by Peter Gibbons and Chris Hilliard.

Foreign relations and war history

Although there was little analytical political history, there were significant works exploring New Zealand’s foreign relations by David McIntyre and Malcolm McKinnon, and official histories of the diplomacy of the Korean and Vietnam wars by Ian McGibbon and Roberto Rabel.

Chris Pugsley and Terry Kinloch wrote outstanding works on New Zealand in the First World War. James Belich opened up interest in the New Zealand wars with his book emphasising Māori military prowess. This later became the basis of a popular television series.

History through biography

Lives of significant individuals often pioneer historical knowledge. Since the 1970s biographies were the main way political history progressed, with biographies of Michael Joseph Savage, Keith Holyoake and Robert Muldoon by Barry Gustafson, Walter Nash by Keith Sinclair, Jock McKenzie by Tom Brooking, and Michael Bassett’s studies of Joseph Ward, Gordon Coates and Peter Fraser (with Michael King). An important women’s biography was Jane Tolerton’s life of Ettie Rout; while lives of creative artists included Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame by Michael King, R. A. K. Mason by Rachel Barrowman, Douglas Lilburn by Philip Norman and Rita Angus by Jill Trevelyan.

General histories

The research and writing that had flowered since the 1970s was reflected in new general histories of New Zealand. The most original was James Belich’s two volumes, which combined lively writing with fresh interpretation; the most popular was Michael King’s, which counterpoised Māori and Pākehā history. The Oxford history of New Zealand, edited by W. H. Oliver and B. R. Williams, was hailed as the new standard reference work when it was published in 1981. A revised edition, edited by Geoffrey Rice, appeared in 1992. In the 2000s the New Oxford history of New Zealand, edited by Giselle Byrnes, challenged nationalist approaches, a point also emphasised by Tony Ballantyne in incisive essays about trans-national history. Frontier of dreams, the companion book to a major television series, appeared in 2005. This featured extensive colour illustrations, a practice that became much more common in history publications.

Popular history

New Zealand continued to produce other popular histories – biographies of sports figures and tours, personal memoirs, collections of old photographs and family histories. Films and novels were frequently located in historical settings; and historic sites such as the Waitangi Treaty Grounds and some of the battlefields of the New Zealand wars attracted growing numbers of visitors. New Zealand history was very much alive.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'History and historians - New types of historical writing since 1970', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 April 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 22 Oct 2014