Story: King, Michael

Being Pākehā

Michael King’s meditations on Pākehā identity were a central theme of his body of writing. He explored the question in his two memoirs, Being Pākehā (1985) and Being Pākehā now (1999), arguing that Pākehā were a second indigenous culture, distinct from their European antecedents and shaped by interactions with Māori culture and the country’s unique landscape and social conditions. He particularly identified with the coastal landscapes of Paremata, where he lived as a child, and Ōpoutere, on the Coromandel Peninsula, where he lived from 1993 and which is pictured in this photograph. In this 1985 recording, King reflects on his own identity as a Pākehā in the final instalment of a series of radio talks about his life.


To be Pākehā in the 1940s and 1950s was to enjoy a way of life that changed almost beyond recognition in the succeeding decades. At the outset, for almost all of us, Britain was home, the centre of an empire of which our country was the most far-flung dominion. The visit of the reigning monarch was the highlight of our primary school years. Girls were girls and men were men, in the words of the popular song, and each sex was allocated a set of predetermined roles. Families were nuclear, mother and father, married, with three or four children. Inflation and demonstrations were things that happen abroad or in history. Criminals seemed a remote class, and neighbours were invariably of European descent and Christian. Unless you were Māori, it was possible and forgivable, in the 1940s, to view New Zealand as a single-culture society. The country’s major institutions were based on European models, the systems of government and law derived from Britain, the dominant values were post-industrial revolution, Western and Christian. Most New Zealanders accepted this package without question, and new immigrants were expected to conform to it. So were Māoris when they moved out of their rural communities into the nation’s towns. Suspicion and hostility fell upon those who behaved differently or spoke any language other than English. New Zealand’s xenophobia was intensified by the fact that the country lacked borders with any other.

Nobody could be said to be responsible for this social pattern. Like all forceful cultures, it simply carried individuals and communities along like a river. The factors which might have disturbed its course lay upstream – the European colonists’ major crimes against the Māori, the wars of the 1840s and 1860s, the land grabs, the setting up of institutions designed to limit or annihilate the practice of Polynesian values in New Zealand – most of these had occurred in the 19th century. In the 20th, Māori and Pākehā had lived by and large in separate parts of the country, segregated geographically and socially. When Māori did come to the cities, they tended to behave like Pākehā. They were only embraced by Pākehā New Zealand when they became All Blacks and, in time of crisis, soldiers.

The pattern changed drastically after World War Two. A trickle of Māori migrants to the towns and cities in search of work, and opportunities for material betterment, became a stream, and the stream a torrent. For the first time in New Zealand since the 19th century, the country’s two major cultural traditions collided and generated the white water of confusion and hostility. Nobody was prepared for this outcome. Māori experienced discrimination in accommodation, employment and hotel bars. They were confronted by a world that was aggressively European in orientation, at the very time that they had severed bonds with many of the sources of their own culture, traditional marae, hapū, extended families. Many of them became marginal people, weakened both by what they had relinquished and by what confronted them. They were soon disproportionately represented in the ranks of convicted criminals, problem drinkers and, when the economy slumped, the unemployed. All this led civic planners and back-fence gossipers to eventually recognise and discuss what they regarded as ‘the Māori problem’. It must have been Māori, they assumed, because it had not been apparent until the Māori became urban. It was they who had altered the status quo, not Pākehā.

Pākehā adjustment to the new Māori presence, and to the rise of mana Māori which followed it, with demands that Māori views be taken into account in all decision making on public issues, proceeded at different rates in different areas of the national life. The guardians of the education system were among the first to begin to make changes, guardians of the law among the last to even consider them. Some individual Pākehā responded by learning the Māori language, and trying to equip themselves with Māori views of New Zealand experience and knowledge of Māori protocol. Others withdrew into professional and suburban enclaves, and resisted efforts to change their personal lifestyle, or the national one. A former prime minister said it was time to speak up for the superiority of British traditions in New Zealand, to recognise that Pākehā had contributed more to New Zealand life than Māori. It would be a long time before such divergent Pākehā responses would be reconciled. Meanwhile, cracks in the edifice of Pākehā racial and cultural superiority added to the momentum of Māori cultural revival.

For myself, to be a citizen of Aotearoa in the 1980s is to be affected by mana Māori in a variety of ways. Awareness of the length and nature of the Māori occupation of New Zealand, for example, has given the country an historical echo, a resonance it would otherwise lack. It has put me in touch with symbols that may arise out of men’s collective subconsciousness, but which here are Māori, and therefore New Zealand, in idiom. It has exposed me to concepts – the mauri of people and places, for example – which I believe have universal value and application. And it has revealed to me more about life and death, and about living and dying, than I had encountered in 20 previous years of purely Pākehā existence. None of which makes me Māori. What I’ve always been interested in is New Zealand history, its Māori and its Pākehā components. But the very fact of living and working in New Zealand, and especially of working on aspects of Māori history, makes it inevitable that I’ve shared experiences with Māori, and been as influenced by them as they have been by the presence of Pākehā in New Zealand. This is an entirely natural and inevitable process. It ought not to be a source of regret for either party, any more than one ought to object to the mingling of Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Celts and Scandinavians in English history. What has happened has happened and can’t be undone.

What kind of New Zealander am I then, as a result of the journey described in part in these talks? Given the vulgar fractions of my genealogy – two Irish grandparents and one Scot – I come from predominantly Celtic stock, and yet our lives were never touched by pure Celtic culture. Our last connection with a Gaelic language died with my Irish great-grandfather. On the Scottish side of the family, it had long since been extinguished by the cultural imperialism of the English within the United Kingdom. Our tribalism, too, had died with the brutal attacks of Cromwell and Montrose. The final violence to the Celtic pattern of our ancestors’ lives had been accomplished by the combination of rural famine with the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, which uprooted our ancestors from the villages and clan territories where their families had lived for centuries. It drew them to towns and cities that promised work and money, but delivered, for most of them, slums, poverty and squalor. The process was almost identical to that which Māori were to undergo in a more concentrated manner a century later. At the end of it, the Celtic branches of our family had no strong roots in the places in which they lived, no language of their forefathers, no sacred shrines, other than the Catholic ones in the north of England. They had only the options of remaining displaced in England and Glasgow, trapped in the lower orders of the class system, or emigrating to a spacious country where individuals and families could make new beginnings and uplift themselves by the sweat of their brow. They chose the second option, as I have described. As a consequence, the first and second generations of both sides of the family in New Zealand developed strong preoccupations with material security and social improvement, because they were sharply aware of the deprivations suffered by parents and grandparents.

My generation, the third in New Zealand, was not allowed to forget where we had come from, but consciousness of our Irish and Scottish origins was diluted by the passage of time, and by the wider British and European reference points imposed on us by secondary and tertiary education. New Zealand’s history, as we learned it, as a British colony, the dominance of European mythology and symbols in our lives, from the reading of Grimms’ fairy tales to the summer Christmas cards with snow and holly, a suggestion that the great figures in history were British and usually English, Nelson, Wellington, Scott and Churchill. In spite of all this, the values we lived, the things that gave us cohesion as a family and a community, were those derived from the Irish and Catholic ingredients in our background. I remember thinking at the age of six that Roman Catholic was an odd way to describe our religion. We were Irish Catholics, or perhaps, New Zealand Catholics. Subsequent experience grafted other cultural shoots, New Zealand, Māori, Polynesian, English, Jewish, French, American, Austrian, Polish, Asian, onto my Irish–Scottish stock. I have been especially admiring, for example, of the refugees from Hitler’s Europe, who brought to New Zealand skills, sensitivities and insights unrepresented in our British and Māori heritages. They helped change our culture, our theatre, our music, our eating habits, and change it for the better. I’m a different and a richer person for having known them.

While I find myself most strongly engaged by those things, historical, cultural and political, which arise out of the country in which I live, the works of Saul Bellow, Gabriel García Márquez and Patrick White jostle on my bookshelves with those of Mulgan, Sargeson and Gee, with Ihimaera, Grace and Hulme. T. S. Eliot, Auden and Yeats share shelves with Baxter, Campbell and Tuwhare. I tried to keep my French alive by reading Baudelaire, Gide and Camus. Bloomsbury biographies sit alongside those of Katherine Mansfield, Frances Hodgkins and Walter Nash. I listen with exhilaration, and sometimes tears, to the music of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, and yet something less complex but more fundamental awakens in me when I hear karanga, waiata tangi, and pātere, or the songs of Tuini Ngāwai and Ngoingoi Pēwhairangi. In idle moments, driving, fishing, washing dishes, the Irish songs and ballads of my childhood burst to the surface of my mind.

My cosmology is an amalgam of Irish Catholic and Māori elements, the Māori ones compelling because they have arisen from their long association with the country in which I live, and from phenomena I have experienced directly. The manner in which I relate to people is conditioned by upbringing, by my family, and by the people with whom I have shared friendship and exchanged views of life. Heeni Wharemaru, Sally Marshall Tūwhangai, Lei LeLaulu, Tony Haast, Liesl Heller, Maria and June Jungowska. All these people have brought their own values and life experience into fertile association with my own and extended the dimensions of what I know and feel. Pākehā New Zealanders, from Jim Baxter, Frank Sargeson, Keith Sinclair, Christine Cole Catley, George Fraser, Jack Shallcrass, Ormond Wilson, have all done the same, and reinforced my conviction that New Zealanders have the capacity to be a people characterised by sanity, imagination and compassion.

My sense of family, that thread of continuity that links us directly to the past and the future, grows stronger as I grow older. I value an increasing ease and depth of communication with my parents, who have been spared to know their children and their grandchildren, not simply as relatives, but also as friends. I draw continuing pleasure from the company of my brother and sisters, and from the fact that our lives and interests are complementary rather than identical. I marvel at the passage of my own children from adolescence to adulthood and enjoy with them the experience of an emotional umbilical cord that can never be severed. They too have grown from offspring to friends, a process that widens and deepens feelings of kinship. There is something special about us, the ingredients of our lives, the proportions of their combination, and there is not. There is something special about New Zealand, and there is not.

As I complete these talks, I am impressed not only by the singularity of our experience, but also by its universality. The novel I have just finished reading is one of Saul Bellow’s, on the European migrant culture of North America. Its elements are Russian, Polish, Italian and Spanish, tumbling about in the kaleidoscope of American society. Its themes the culture that this movement excites, the compulsion of people who have known deprivation to pursue physical security, and the strength of immigrant family bonds. It is true of the unique combination of time and place from which Bellow writes, but it also resonates strongly in the circumstances, time and place in which I read.

That latter place, where I have written these talks, illustrates another feature of life in particular and life in general. The circular patterns in which history and personal experience seem to arrange themselves. I am working on another piece of land for which I have formed a strong attachment, because of its geographical features and its associations. The limestone headland at my back, Maungaruawahine, was fortified 400 years ago by Māori-quarried stone. Fern, mānuka and rangiora leaves filter light through my window. By day, wood pigeons swoop and loop on the air currents above me, and at dusk herons beat their way home to roost in the surrounding trees. The harbour below, like Paremata, is surrounded by terraced fortifications and middens, evidence of human occupation that bridges a thousand years. I am drawn to it for its shape, its colours and its estuarine life, and for its resemblance to that other place where I grew up. Here as there, one is always conscious of the past in the present, the two dimensions constantly rubbing against one another to produce a frisson and a friction, sparks that illuminate and animate everything one sees and feels. As I watch this land and seascape, wrapped around by recollections of relationships in remembrance of times past, I find I am Pākehā, I am New Zealander, I am Irish, I am Scottish, I am European, and I am, in parts of my spirit, Māori. I am all these things simultaneously. Most of all, though, and most gratefully of all, I am human, and I am alive. I rejoice in the gifts that my antecedents and associations have bequeathed me. ‘Love’, says Saul Bellow in the book I have just finished, ‘is simply gratitude for being.’

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How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips. 'King, Michael', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2022. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 June 2023)