Story: Non-fiction

Page 1. Beginnings

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Defining non-fiction

Non-fiction has two meanings. As a classification it simply points to everything published that happens not to be fiction, poetry or drama. As a tradition or genre it refers to prose that has lasting value because of the intrinsic interest of the material, its impact, and its literary merit. Such works are sometimes termed ‘creative non-fiction’. Most non-fiction loses value when the information becomes dated, but a small percentage will always be worth the reader’s attention.

Pacific exploration

Some of New Zealand’s most distinctive non-fiction arises from the study of Pacific exploration. J. C. Beaglehole made it his life’s work to edit journals from all three of James Cook’s voyages. His landmark biography The life of Captain James Cook appeared posthumously in 1974.

Beaglehole was a historian. Anne Salmond, the pre-eminent Cook scholar of the next generation, was an anthropologist. The titles of two of her studies – Two worlds (1991) and Between worlds (1997) – signalled a shift in direction. For Beaglehole, Cook was a heroic figure who put new lands on the map. Salmond was just as interested in the Māori who discovered Cook, and in the beach as a zone of contact and exchange between Europe and Polynesia.


On 6 October 1769 a boy named Nick Young sang out, ‘Land-ho!’ from the masthead of HMS Endeavour. James Cook and Joseph Banks both described that moment in their journals. The words they wrote that day and two days later, when they first encountered Māori, might be regarded as a starting-point for non-fiction writing – in English – in New Zealand.

European accounts of Māori origins

A hundred years earlier Pākehā interested in how our ‘two worlds’ touched asked a different set of questions. Europeans had a record of discovery and arrival – surely Māori had one too?

The ‘great fleet’ theory, as espoused by S. Percy Smith in Hawaiki: the original home of the Maori (1904) introduced Kupe as a Māori navigator to rival Cook. It described the migration of Māori to these islands within a larger history of Polynesians that could be traced back to India, and ultimately to ancient Egypt, where deities like Ra seemed linguistically preserved in the Māori name for the sun.

Edward Tregear’s The Aryan Maori (1885) suggested that Māori had the same ancestry and motivations as Pākehā: ‘No freebooting Huns or Vandals, mad for plunder and the sack of towns, were they, but colonists seeking new homes beneath strange stars’.1 His ‘Aryans’, some turning north towards England, some moving east into the Pacific, were long-lost brothers under the skin.

Smith and Tregear’s relatively un-racist racialism reads quaintly now, but their confidence that oral tradition is more than fairytale and that Māori planned their migration is important. It led to a spate of debunking books, which were debunked in their turn by re-enactors of migration paths in seagoing waka (canoes). It also prepared the way for two masterworks of New Zealand non-fiction by Māori scholar Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa).

Different interpretations

Before the arrival of Pākehā, a Māori seer prophesied: ‘Kei tua i te awe mapara, he tangata ke. Mana e noho te ao nei – he ma. Behind the tattooed face, a stranger stands. He will inherit this world – he is white.’ One 19th-century interpretation of this was the eventual extinction of the Māori race. Peter Buck recalled the saying in The coming of the Maori, and re-interpreted it more optimistically: ‘Behind the tattooed face, a different man appears. He will continue to inhabit this land – he is untattooed.’2

Māori accounts of Māori origins

Buck’s Vikings of the sunrise (1938) draws on old chants and sayings, as well as the science of the day, to tell a heroic story of Polynesian voyaging, but it is the charm and humour of his personal anecdotes that made this much-reprinted book sparkle for a general audience.

The coming of the Maori (1949) is a specialist study of Māori material culture. It documents fine points of raranga (weaving) and whakairo (carving), yet there is barely a page without an enlivening aside drawn from the author’s life as athlete, soldier, doctor, public health administrator, politician, fieldworker, museum director and Māori leader. As a study of the adaptation of old Polynesian techniques to a new environment, it is a history of how Māori settled these islands – one of very few to counterbalance a post-contact history written largely by Pākehā.

  1. Edward Tregear, The Aryan Maori. Wellington: Government Printer, 1885, p.105. Back
  2. Peter Buck, The coming of the Maori. 2nd ed. Wellington: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1950, pp. 537–538. Back
How to cite this page:

Alex Calder, 'Non-fiction - Beginnings', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by Alex Calder, published 22 Oct 2014