Kōrero: Intellectuals

Whārangi 2. Learned societies and journals, 1890s to 1930s

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

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.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Chris Hilliard, 'Intellectuals - Learned societies and journals, 1890s to 1930s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/intellectuals/page-2 (accessed 21 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Chris Hilliard, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014