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by Chris Hilliard

New Zealand has sometimes been criticised for being anti-intellectual and lacking intellectuals. However, the country has been home to a broad range of cultural commentators and intellectuals, both inside and outside academia.

Colonial absence of intellectuals

What is an intellectual?

The intellectual was essentially a person whose achievements in one sphere of learning or creativity provided the basis for a general authority, a capacity to interpret the world on a range of subjects to a wider public. This required a certain independence of income or an occupation that encouraged creative thinking, so that the person was free to critique the world around them.

Colonial conditions

Colonial conditions were not conducive to this social type. The life of the mind was sometimes a vocation, but it was rarely a profession. There was too much else to do, it was often said: once the land had been ‘broken in’, roads and houses built, and forms of government appropriate to a new society set in place, only then could citizens turn to art and culture.

The art of pioneering

The conflict of culture and pioneering was famously described in a dialogue imagined by politician William Pember Reeves in 1904:

‘No Art?’ Who serve an art more great
Than we, rough architects of State
With the old Earth at Strife?
‘No colour?’ On the silent waste
In pigments not to be effaced,
We paint the hues of life.1

Cultural infrastructure

In Britain many of the hubs of intellectual debate and even research were privately organised and funded. The infrastructure of intellectual life in 19th-century New Zealand, by contrast, was largely organised by the state. Larger New Zealand towns began to establish public libraries, art galleries and museums, which made existing art and knowledge available to citizens. They did not generally yield new knowledge or provide writers and artists with opportunities to produce new work. Municipal governments with tight budgets did not take an expansive or liberal view of their cultural patronage. Public provision often depended on private philanthropy. The country’s two most important libraries, the Hocken and the Turnbull, were both founded by wealthy book collectors.


The public university colleges that were established in the major cities – Otago in 1869, Canterbury in 1873, Auckland in 1883 and Victoria in 1897– brought in a cadre of academics, many of them graduates of English and Scottish universities. A professor was often an important public figure in a colonial town, called upon to address local clubs and societies on a wide range of subjects. Expertise in a specialised field could license a broader authority.

Too outspoken

William Steadman Aldis, who became professor of mathematics at Auckland University College in 1884, was an outspoken advocate for many social causes, including women’s suffrage. He made many enemies, not least the New Zealand Herald and the college council, which dismissed him in 1893. Another academic who paid for his public views was Alexander Bickerton, chemistry professor at Canterbury College. He took public stands on socialism, the jingoism of the South African War and companionate marriage. He too lost his college job in 1902.

However, most of the new universities’ academics made little contribution to scholarship or public life. The universities were primarily teaching institutions, not research ones, and professors could not find time for sustained writing or responsible interventions in public debate.

Isolated individuals

In the absence of institutional bases for intellectuals, isolated individuals played that role in colonial New Zealand. Samuel Butler, a short-term settler and later utopian novelist, wrote about Charles Darwin for the Christchurch Press from his frontier farm in the Canterbury high country.

Some politicians, having developed a following in public life, contributed on other matters and in other literary forms. They included George Grey, a keen naturalist and scholar of Māori culture; Alfred Domett, who wrote a massive epic poem about a British adventurer and a Maori ‘princess’, Ranolf and Amohia (1872); and Julius Vogel, author of a utopian novel, Anno Domini 2000 (1889).

William Pember Reeves, another politician and poet, wrote a famous poem suggesting that nation-building and the life of the mind were incompatible. He went to London in 1896 as agent-general, discovered the intellectual circle of the Fabians and never returned.

    • William Pember Reeves, ‘A colonist in his garden.’ In The Penguin book of New Zealand verse, edited by Allen Curnow. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1960, p. 100. Back

Learned societies and journals, 1890s to 1930s

New Zealand Institute

To a limited extent learned societies brought scholars and curious laypeople together in intellectual pursuits, beginning with the sciences. Founded in 1867, the New Zealand Institute connected networks of individuals and groups interested in different branches of science and published an annual volume of papers and research reports. A prominent member and medical doctor, Alfred Kingcome Newman, campaigned in 1882 to establish a New Zealand Association of Science which would promote scientific knowledge to a wider public.

Before scientific research became highly professionalised, the New Zealand Institute also provided a forum for self-taught students of natural history and Māori culture. For many settlers learning about birds and plants and geology was part of the mental work of being or becoming New Zealanders.

The New Zealand Institute did not speculate more widely about New Zealand society, but it did encourage an interest in Māori subjects. Its members learnt snippets of Māori legends or indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants or animal behaviour. Ethnology – the study of Māori culture and the pre-colonial past, especially insofar as the prehistory of the Pacific could be divined from cultural and linguistic rather than archaeological evidence – was the subject of a great deal of formal research as well as informal curiosity and speculation.

The Polynesian Society

In time, Pākehā ethnologists – many of them former missionaries, land surveyors and colonial officials – formed their own organisation, the Polynesian Society, to encourage this work. From 1892 the Journal of the Polynesian Society published a large amount of research findings and debates about the Māori and Polynesian past. However, no other field of intellectual endeavour had such a dependable forum. There was no equivalent study of Pākehā society.

Early magazines

New Zealand was also too small to sustain anything like the ‘great reviews’ that were the mainstays of Victorian intellectual life. British journals such as the Fortnightly Review, the Edinburgh Review, the Nineteenth Century and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine covered a wide range of issues, giving their contributors a lot of leeway in the ways they explored their subject matter and expounded their arguments. They also paid enough for men and women ‘of letters’ to earn a comfortable living.

The expatriate intellectual

In the early 20th century New Zealanders wanting to be part of a radical intellectual circle felt forced to head offshore. The poet and novelist Arthur Adams went to join the Bulletin community in Sydney. Writer Katherine Mansfield found a home among the Bloomsbury intellectuals of London.

Charles Baeyertz began the Triad in Dunedin in 1893 as a magazine for the study of music, art and science, but until its departure for Sydney in 1914 it remained largely a journal of cultural and literary criticism rather than a broad-ranging forum for public opinion. The New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, launched in 1899 by a group of university graduates, also sought to provide a forum of this kind, publishing contributions by economists, historians, and anthropologists as well as creative writers, but it only lasted until 1905.


In the absence of durable ‘journals of ideas’, New Zealand writers and scholars who sought to play the role of controversialist, or address a general audience, were forced back onto the daily and weekly press. Journalists like Pat Lawlor and James Cowan, together with the writers Johannes Andersen and Alan Mulgan, did create a literary subculture in interwar Wellington, but they focused more on encouraging literary production and institutions than wide-ranging critical discussion of matters of public interest.

‘Professor of Maori’

Henry Stowell of Ngāpuhi, also known as Hare Hongi, lived a bohemian existence in Wellington from the 1920s to the 1940s while trying to establish himself as a commentator on Māori issues – a market dominated by Pākehā. He sometimes signed his work ‘Professor of Maori’ (a position that did not exist in any of the universities). Most of his publications were short informative articles or critical squibs, but some were longer essays. However, Stowell failed to find a publisher for a collection of his critiques. The manuscript rests unpublished in the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Newspapers necessarily had a short attention span, and in many cases the New Zealand press’s staid reputation was well deserved. However, there were exceptions on both counts. From 1898 the Otago Witness employed the poet and feminist Jessie Mackay as a columnist. In the 1920s the editor of the Christchurch Press’s weekly magazine agreed to publish a number of longer essays by Henry Stowell. With their forensic probing and witty scorn, these essays – detailed and devastating critiques of Pākehā speculations about ‘the whence of the Maori’ – were unlike anything else published in New Zealand until this time. But Stowell lost his platform when the Weekly Press suspended publication.

Māori intellectuals

Stowell was unusual in claiming the role of a Māori authority in a forum dominated by Pākehā, such as the press. Some Māori leaders like Apirana Ngata and Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck) also fulfilled the role of the intellectual, speaking publicly and at times critically about a huge range of issues, from contemporary rights to the origin of Māori. However, their influence among Māori people was not dependent on the same channels of discussion as those of Pākehā intellectuals.

New outlets


In July 1934 the first edition of Tomorrow magazine appeared. It would last until its suppression by the Labour government in 1940. A fortnightly, based largely on subscription, Tomorrow’s main focus was politics and current affairs, but it also published poetry and fiction, and critical essays on literature and art. As left-wing politics became more sharply drawn as the 1930s wore on, the eclecticism of the magazine’s early years waned.

Wake up, New Zealand

As Frederick Sinclaire explained in the pilot issue, Tomorrow was intended to break the country’s ‘uncanny and ill-boding silence … New Zealand is the country in which no one says anything, in which no one is expected to say anything’.1 Sinclaire’s silence resembles the ‘fretful sleep’ of Pākehā society in Bill Pearson’s much-talked-about 1952 Landfall essay about the country’s philistinism and cultural anxieties. One of the routine tasks of the New Zealand intellectual was to criticise New Zealand anti-intellectualism.

The editor, Kennaway Henderson, was a radical cartoonist. Some involved were academics such as Frederick Sinclaire and Winston Rhodes from Canterbury College’s English department; others were a new generation of ‘New Zealand’ voices, such as Denis Glover, A. R. D. Fairburn, Frank Sargeson, Allen Curnow and Robin Hyde (Iris Wilkinson). There were public servants like Bill Sutch and politicians like Ormond Wilson and Martyn Finlay. Most were vaguely left-wing, and developed a role as critics of their society.

Tomorrow magazine formed part of an intellectual community in Christchurch in the 1930s and 1940s, along with the Caxton Press, the Left Book Club (an international movement that had branches in other New Zealand cities as well) and The Group of modernist artists including Rita Angus, Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon. In Wellington in the 1940s similar left-wing intellectual groups congregated in the French Maid Coffee Bar, Modern Books and Unity Theatre, while in Auckland Progressive Books and R. A. K. Mason’s People’s Theatre were homes to clusters of intellectuals.


From 1947 the quarterly magazine Landfall dominated New Zealand literary discussion for several decades. Landfall was edited by the poet Charles Brasch and kept afloat by his personal wealth. In its pages, alongside short stories and poems, appeared major social critiques by authors such as Bob Chapman, Bill Pearson and Leslie Hall (the pen-name of Phoebe Meikle).

Other periodicals

Other independent, non-commercial magazines played important roles in New Zealand intellectual life. From 1949 to 1957 Here and Now was a slightly tamer successor to Tomorrow, while from the late 1950s to the early 1980s the quarterly Comment hosted political discussion. The New Zealand Listener began in 1940 as an official guide to radio and then television programmes. Its lack of independence at times thwarted its social criticism, but it attempted to provide a home for debate and cultural reviews, and its correspondence columns were frequently a place of intellectual discussion.

Feminist and socialist periodicals

Socialist and feminist periodicals operated at a greater distance from the mainstream, though sometimes their voices were eventually drawn into commercial publications or public broadcasting. Bruce Jesson’s The Republican, launched in 1974, became a significant forum for dissident ideas. Jesson became a prominent interpreter of neo-liberal economics and 1980s culture when he complemented his work for The Republican with columns and features for Metro, a glossy magazine that combined lifestyle features and Auckland boosterism with powerful investigative journalism and polemics. Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle’s essay on ‘the unfortunate experiment’ with cervical-cancer patients at National Women’s Hospital appeared in Metro.

Coney was also a member of a feminist collective which edited a lively feminist magazine, Broadsheet. This undertook a searching critique of New Zealand society and values. It was in the pages of Broadsheet that Donna Awatere’s Maori sovereignty (published as a book in 1984) first appeared.

    • F.S., ‘Notes by the way.’ Tomorrow, specimen issue (July 1934), p. 3. Back

University intellectuals

Although these periodicals were independent of the academy, many Landfall and Comment writers were university lecturers. Commentators such as Conrad Bollinger, who wrote on alcohol and New Zealand culture; Ranginui Walker, who provided an independent Māori voice; Jane Kelsey, who critiqued new-right economics; Lloyd Geering, a challenging writer on morality and faith; and Paul Callaghan, a prominent physicist with ideas about future growth prospects, all spoke from positions as tenured academics. Many contributors to the radical press, such as Chris Trotter and Nicky Hager, had backgrounds in student politics.

The expansion of higher education in the decades after 1945 wrought dramatic changes in New Zealand intellectual life. The most straightforward effect was that more people were employed to write and think and debate. It became more feasible to conceive of, and pursue, a career as a writer and thinker, and there was more freedom to contribute to debate in fields broader than an academic speciality. Academic jobs offered scholars a security and time to reflect that a freelancer living from commission to commission did not enjoy.

Late developer

New Zealand (like Australia) was very slow to introduce sociology into the university curriculum. This may partly follow the influence of the British universities, which also resisted the subject. Sociology had long been an important part of public and academic discussion in the United States, Germany and France.


Public discussion in the second half of the 20th century was also shaped by newer forms of knowledge encouraged by universities. With the establishment of university departments of sociology in the 1960s, the structures of Pākehā society were subjected to unprecedented scrutiny. Comparable aspects of Māori society had long been regarded as appropriate subjects for anthropological research.

Political science and economics

As political science became established in universities in the late 1940s, voting and other kinds of political behaviour became the subject of sophisticated empirical study. The discipline’s findings and approach were then brokered to a general audience through radio and television coverage of election campaigns. In the 1960s Austin Mitchell, a Yorkshireman who taught political science at Canterbury University, enjoyed a level of celebrity as a television commentator that few New Zealand intellectuals have matched.

The lay audience for informed comment on politics and economics meant that journalists were complemented by figures who combined aspects of the role of the academic specialist with the functions of the columnist. The economist and Listener columnist Brian Easton has been a notable example.

Literature and the modern New Zealand intellectual

Literature, culture and identity

Academic disciplines were not the only sources of intellectual traditions. Much 20th-century reflection on New Zealand identity took the form of literature or writing about literature. Allen Curnow’s forceful arguments about how readers might come to ‘recognise New Zealand by’ poems proved enormously influential.1 Curnow eventually became a university teacher, but his models as he formulated his critical and poetic manifestos in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were poets and poet-critics such as T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats, not academic critics such as F. R. Leavis, William Empson or Cleanth Brooks.

Literary criticism sometimes functioned as cultural criticism for intellectuals whose formal expertise lay in other fields. Robert Chapman’s 1954 Landfall essay ‘Fiction and the social pattern’ charted the ways recent novels had revealed Pākehā social mores – a subject at some remove from Chapman’s research as a lecturer in political science. James K. Baxter also used his standing as a poet to emerge as a prophet of counter-cultural Aotearoa. The historians J. C. Beaglehole, Keith Sinclair and W. H. Oliver all played the role of the public intellectual, explaining aspects of New Zealand history and interpreting contemporary issues in historical perspective – but each was also a poet, and the general histories of New Zealand that they wrote sought to capture a poetic truth about the country’s past.

21st-century intellectuals

Since the mid-20th century New Zealand artists and experts have been able to function as intellectuals, addressing a broad public in a complex but not specialised way to a degree that was not possible earlier. The emergence of blogging has also provided a platform for many younger social critics.

Some have complained that New Zealand lacks the sort of intellectuals found in countries where philosophers are celebrities – a complement to the long-standing complaint that New Zealand society is philistine. Like criticisms of New Zealand anti-intellectualism, laments about the dearth of intellectuals are regularly made by people whom others might recognise as intellectuals themselves.

    • Allen Curnow, ed., A book of New Zealand verse, 1932–45. Christchurch: Caxton, 1945, p. 22. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Chris Hilliard, 'Intellectuals', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Chris Hilliard, published 22 October 2014