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History and historians

by Jock Phillips

New Zealand’s human history may be comparatively short, but its unique characteristics mean there is a great richness in the country’s stories for historians to explore.

Recording history before 1900

Māori and history

Although a country with a short human past, New Zealand has a rich tradition of telling its history. The Māori way of thinking has been described as walking forward into the future, while looking back into the past. Whakapapa (genealogy) has a central place in Māori tradition, and the carvings of meeting houses usually portray historical figures and past incidents. In oratory on the marae speakers constantly draw upon historical precedent. The founding waka (canoes) and historical battles are often referenced.

History counts

When Māui Pōmare was trying to win the support of the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) for his candidacy for the Western Māori seat in Parliament in 1911, he reminded the Māori king, Mahuta, that Pōmare’s ancestor Te Rauparaha had once saved the life of the first Māori king, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, by warning him of an impending ambush. The king, suggested Pōmare, could repay the historical debt by supporting him.

Some Pākehā recorded the historical knowledge of kaumātua (elders) and brought it into written history. A few Māori compiled their history themselves, most notably Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikāheke, perhaps New Zealand’s first professional historian, who was paid a salary of £36 a year plus accommodation by Governor George Grey to write up Māori history, which Grey then drew on extensively in his own works.

British history

History was important to the people who settled New Zealand from the United Kingdom. History books were primarily about past politics and served to teach the elite lessons about effective rule. It also taught the ‘triumphant’ expansion of the British Empire, and what was considered to be the unique evolution of British liberty. British history became widely studied in New Zealand schools. In colonial university colleges no New Zealand history was taught or researched – the history curriculum covered England from 449 to 1850 and Britain’s constitutional development.

Early New Zealand history

In the 19th century the historical study of New Zealand was left to amateurs outside the university. The earliest publications with some historical content were the accounts of explorers, from James Cook to Dumont D’Urville, and the memoirs of early visitors or settlers such as Augustus Earle and Edward Jerningham Wakefield. Grey and missionary Richard Taylor began recording Māori tradition.

Costly history

In his book on the history of New Zealand, G. W. Rusden claimed that in 1868 John Bryce, then a lieutenant in a group of cavalry volunteers, had dashed upon a group of Māori women and children and ‘cut them down gleefully’1. When Rusden’s history came out, Bryce was minister for native affairs. He sued Rusden for libel. The final verdict was that the book was suppressed and Bryce was awarded £5,000 damages.

The first full history of New Zealand was the work of an army surgeon, A. S. Thomson, who published The story of New Zealand in 1859. During his 11 years in the country Thomson had observed the steady adoption of European ways by Māori. The major theme of his two volumes was the progress from what he saw as a barbarian cannibal society to a civilised one. He drew on his scientific background to show the progress of the colony statistically and to emphasise the healthy environment of New Zealand in comparison with other parts of the British Empire.

Over the next 40 years historical work was of several distinct kinds:

  • Some army veterans, such as James Alexander and Walter Gudgeon (although the works were credited to his father, T. W. Gudgeon), put together heroic one-sided military accounts of the New Zealand wars. In 1883 G. W. Rusden produced an idiosyncratic general history that had a very different pro-Māori perspective.
  • There were collections of Māori history by John White and J. W. Stack.
  • Ex-politicians Alfred Saunders, Alfred Cox and William Gisborne wrote about the political history of the colony. Gisborne’s New Zealand rulers and statesmen, which was beautifully written and contained many quotable phrases, was the most influential. These books continued the traditional British interest in judgements about political successes and failures.

A historian’s verdict

In the tradition of British history-writing, William Gisborne was adept at making judgements on politicians. He wrote of William Swainson that he ‘was an able lawyer, but an indifferent politician … He had a prudish horror of publicity and of the profane crowd. He liked to sit behind the throne and pull the strings. Sinuous and secretive in his nature, he worked underground. He prided himself on being a safe man, and yet he was a dangerous counsellor in public affairs.’2

William Pember Reeves

William Pember Reeves’s general history, The long white cloud: Ao Tea Roa, which appeared in 1898, two years after Reeves had left his ministerial role in the Liberal government to become agent general in London, was in many respects in the tradition of the political history. Reeves was interested in ‘great men’ and keen to make strong judgements about ‘Good Governor Grey’ or ‘Gore Brown’s bad bargain’. He never accepted the full implications of the colonisation process for Māori. But the grace of his writing and his interest in the distinctive character of New Zealand made this work the great 19th-century achievement in history.

Reeves’s judgements were hugely influential in New Zealanders’ understanding of their past – a sympathy for Māori as ‘the finest race of savages the world has seen,’3 an emphasis on the importance of Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the New Zealand Company and a belief that the liberal experiments of the 1890s represented a pragmatic response to frontier conditions and established New Zealand as a social laboratory. As many have noted, Reeves painted New Zealand as a liberal reforming society – ‘the land of the long pink cloud’.

    • Quoted in Hazel Riseborough, ‘Bryce, John.’ Dictionary of New Zealand biography, (last accessed 26 June 2014). Back
    • William Gisborne, New Zealand rulers and statesmen 18401885. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1886, p. 14. Back
    • William Pember Reeves,The long white cloud: Ao Tea Roa. London: Horace Marshall & Son, 1898, p. 57. Back

The first half of the 20th century – amateur history

Māori history

At the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, there was a growing concern to recapture history. The first focus was on Māori history, motivated by a widespread belief that Māori were a dying race and their culture and history should be preserved before it was too late. The Polynesian Society was founded in 1892 and its members began to publish Māori history. These included Pākehā scholars such as Elsdon Best, Johannes Andersen and Stephenson Percy Smith, and Māori scholars including Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), whose most popular work was Vikings of the sunrise (1938), a survey of all the Polynesian peoples.

James Cowan was also a member of the society, and was a passionate believer that New Zealand history was ‘rich … in episodes of adventure and romance.’1 A journalist who published much of his history initially in newspapers, he found his major theme in his official history, The New Zealand wars (1922–23). This two-volume work was based heavily on oral history which suggested that the wars ‘ended with a strong mutual respect, tinged with a real affection.’2 But too much of his writing degenerated into Hollywood-style romance.

Pioneer ingenuity

The local histories made great play of the endurance and resourcefulness of the pioneers. Airini Woodhouse, writing on George Rhodes, runholder of the Levels sheep station, said: ‘Saddles and bridles were even scarcer than horses, but the resourceful pioneer frequently made a satisfactory substitute for bridles from the fibrous leaves of the wild flax and rode bareback.’3

Local history

The ageing of the founding Pākehā settlers and the commemoration of national, provincial and city 50th anniversaries in the 1890s and 1900s also sparked an interest in capturing the history of the pioneers. The New Zealand Natives’ Association (a group of Europeans born in New Zealand) was started in the 1890s and early settlers’ associations or historical societies were established in small towns and in each of the main centres. There were gatherings of early settlers at the jubilee celebrations. As a result, many memoirs and local histories were put together by amateurs. They were heavy with facts and long quotations.


For similar reasons, at the turn of the century a few Pākehā such as Thomas Morland Hocken in Dunedin and Alexander Turnbull in Wellington began to collect books and historical artefacts. They set up libraries which became centres for those wanting to collect historical evidence and document the past. Hocken himself published writings on early history. Politician Robert McNab compiled several editions of Murihiku: a history of the South Island of New Zealand, plus two volumes of historical records. These were not analytical histories, but collections of primary materials such as log books and newspaper accounts – the result of research, ‘not the fruits of his thought,’ as McNab explained.4

A similar aim motivated a group of Wellington compilers who supported their historical work through journalism or library work. They included:

  • T. Lindsay Buick, whose books on Marlborough, Manawatū and the Treaty of Waitangi supplemented his extensive primary quotations with speculation, and who saw the treaty as a successful basis for Māori–Pākehā relations
  • Horace Fildes, who was essentially a collector and facilitator of others’ work
  • Guy Scholefield, parliamentary librarian, whose major achievement was a Dictionary of New Zealand biography (1940).

Academic history

While most New Zealand history had been the work of engaged amateurs, the 1920s saw the publication of the first serious academic monographs with professional referencing. They came initially from students completing British degrees in British imperial history and focused on early constitutional developments (1829–56) drawing largely on British sources. They included:

  • A. J. Harrop, who published both his masters and doctoral theses; the latter, England and New Zealand (1926), questioned the idea that the English and French had been in a race to claim New Zealand
  • the young J. C. Beaglehole, who published a doctorate on New Zealand’s first governor, William Hobson (1928)
  • William Morrell, who wrote both a history of British colonial policy in Otago and a book on New Zealand’s system of provincial government (1932).

Both Morrell and Beaglehole also wrote general histories of New Zealand, which in different ways explored issues of national identity.

Other academics who published work on New Zealand history included J. B. Condliffe, a Canterbury economist and author of pioneering economic history, New Zealand in the making (1930); and J. R. Elder, who collected the writings of missionary Samuel Marsden. But Condliffe, frustrated with New Zealand’s intellectual life, left for North America; and Elder began writing flabby popular histories more akin to the pioneer chroniclers. So, the scholarly output from universities remained small. The curriculum still focused largely on British and British Empire history, especially since history examinations were marked in England.

    • James Cowan, The New Zealand wars: a history of the Maori campaigns and the pioneering period. Vol. 1. Wellington: Government Printer, 1922, p. 1. Back
    • The New Zealand wars, vol. 1, p. 3. Back
    • A. E. Woodhouse, George Rhodes of the Levels and his brothers: early settlers of New Zealand. Auckland: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1937, p. 93. Back
    • Robert McNab, The old whaling days: a history of southern New Zealand from 1830 to 1840. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1913, p. vii. Back

Rise of academic history – 1940 to 1970

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.

    • 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
    • Keith Sinclair, The Maori Land League: an examination into the source of a New Zealand myth. Auckland: Auckland University College, 1950, p. 3. Back

The growth of history – since 1970

More academic historians

From the 1970s the output and range of history production in New Zealand expanded significantly. As the baby boomers reached adulthood and society demanded an educated urban workforce, a growing number of young New Zealanders came to university and many studied history. This increased the number of historians teaching in universities, and also produced a growing audience within the community of people who had studied history and knew about professional standards of documentation and evidence.

Alongside academics researching and writing history there were university-educated people outside the academy who were able to write serious history. Old distinctions between nostalgic anecdotal popular history and academic history broke down. There were new awards and forms of support for freelance historians such as Michael King.

Cultural nationalism

The baby boomer generation and developments such as the loss of the traditional market for New Zealand exports when Britain joined the European common market also brought about a self-conscious cultural nationalism, which encouraged New Zealanders to explore their history. More New Zealand publishers appeared, interested in producing books about history for an expanding audience. New and relaunched museums such as the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa gave increasing space to history; and many New Zealand films and novels drew upon historical situations.

Government history

Government projects provided support for serious history, often in new formats. This included the Dictionary of New Zealand biography, the Bateman New Zealand historical atlas: ko papatuanuku e takoto nei, Te Ara, the online encyclopedia of New Zealand, and both war and departmental histories from the Historical Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs (later the History Group of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage).

In 1984 the responsibility of the Waitangi Tribunal, which investigates Crown breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, was backdated to cover historical cases and not just those since 1975. This hugely expanded the requirement for historical researchers and heightened interest in Māori history.

The Waitangi Tribunal effect

One of the remarkable consequences of the Waitangi Tribunal was that it provided a huge stimulus for iwi to recover their own history. The preparation of claims and then the oral testimony given at hearings by Māori elders brought into the open much iwi history which had been buried and forgotten by many people.

Professional organisations

The increase of researching historians was reflected in the emergence of new organisations. These included:

  • the New Zealand Historical Association in 1979
  • the National Oral History Association of New Zealand (NOHANZ) in 1990
  • Te Pouhere Kōrero for Māori historians in 1992
  • the Professional Historians Association of New Zealand/Aotearoa (PHANZA) in 1994.

New types of historical writing since 1970

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.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'History and historians', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014