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by Alex Calder

Non-fiction authors aim to create books and articles that are interesting, truthful sources of important information. While the content may date, some works of non-fiction remain popular because of the writing’s quality.


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.

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

Frontier reports


As Pākehā came ashore, they reported on a frontier between worlds. Sketchy narratives survive that were written or dictated by semi-literate Pākehā-Māori (the 19th-century term for Europeans who chose to live among Māori as part of the tribe), such as Barnet Burns and John Rutherford. However, they were vastly out-penned by the missionaries.

The writings of these pious observers routinely supply rose-tinted reports of evangelical success, ‘shocking’ accounts of heathen ‘savagery’, and snippy reports on each other’s conduct. However, missionaries could read ‘between worlds’ perceptively too. The letters and journals of Samuel Marsden, edited by J. R. Elder in 1932, offers a rich trove of insights into the personality of a complex observer as well as the people and places observed. Meanwhile, some have found William Yate’s An account of New Zealand (1835) of special interest at least partly because he was soon to be dismissed from his post under a cloud of allegations of homosexual conduct.

Emigration organisers

The New Zealand Company brought talented scribes with ambitious plans for settlement. Edward Jerningham Wakefield’s Adventure in New Zealand (1845) exceeds its brief as public relations for the company and information for prospective migrants. Wakefield has a gift for Romantic scene-painting and incisive character sketches; his pages reveal a sociable man with a great fund of curiosity, who, like an inquisitive tourist, becomes dismissive the moment he ceases to be charmed.

In Travels in New Zealand (1843) Wakefield’s scientific colleague on the Tory, Ernst Dieffenbach, looks beyond flora and fauna to comment with dismay on the fate of Māori in a colony governed by an ‘imported race of shop-keepers … who pride themselves on their own ignorance regarding everything that belongs to the original inhabitants’.1

Funny and serious

Describing the manuscript of Old New Zealand to Donald McLean in a letter of 25 October 1862, F. E. Maning wrote: ‘it is ironical, satirical semipolitical with lots of fun, and many serious and striking scenes from old native life and habits, and in a word shews indirectly without ostencibly pretending to do so what sort of a creature this Maori is who we have to deal with’.2


Among the earliest of the colony’s actual ‘shopkeepers’ were the traders Joel Polack and John Logan Campbell. Both gave colourful accounts of their dealings with Māori, Polack in New Zealand: being a narrative of travels and adventures (1838) and Manners and customs of the New Zealanders (1840), and Campbell as the elderly memoirist of Poenamo (1881). As with most commentators in this period, they constructed a view of Māori as an able, likeable people, strong of limb and martially inclined, but subject to the inconvenient restrictions of tapu and having a deserved reputation for cannibalism.

Three writers are notably more insightful. Artist Augustus Earle’s compelling Narrative of a nine months’ residence in New Zealand (1832) recounts his visit to the Bay of Islands, at the tail end of the musket wars, at a time of inter-hapū tension. Earle has a painter’s eye for how everything looks. Although the full significance of what he sees may escape him, the reader of E. H. McCormick’s carefully annotated edition becomes aware of a drama unfolding in the background, leading towards a tragic denouement with the death of Earle’s friend, Te Whareumu.

F. E. Maning’s first book also memorialises a death. His History of the war in the north of New Zealand against the chief Heke (1862) is told in the semi-comical voice of a Hokianga chief who fought as a proud ally of the British, but whose sympathies resemble those of Māori who fought against the Crown. Maning uses unreliable narration to convey a multi-faceted history. The chief’s narration reflects the perspective and priorities of Maning’s own whānau – the death of Maning’s brother-in-law Hauraki takes centre stage – but the author is also warning his fellow settlers not to make the mistake of assuming his relatives were a primitive people grateful for British rule.

These complexities are taken further in Maning’s tour de force, Old New Zealand (1863). Set in the 1830s, this semi-autobiographical collection of yarns and digressions by an ostensibly naïve Pākehā–Māori is written to an agenda, but the literary performance is so vivid and dramatic, that Maning’s storytelling outflanks his polemical intentions.

Edward Shortland is lucid rather than literary, but his Traditions and superstitions of the New Zealanders (1854) is impressive as the work of someone who looks beyond the intellectual horizons of his times with an intuitive understanding of the difference culture makes.

    • Ernest Dieffenbach, Travels in New Zealand. Vol. 2. London: Murray, 1843, p. 175. Back
    • Quoted in F. E. Maning, Old New Zealand and other writings. London: Leicester University Press, 2001, pp. 213–214. Back


War stories

Non-fiction writers have documented how New Zealand changed from a cross-cultural frontier into a settled region dominated by Pākehā. Colonists needed land, and Māori resistance to its sale is the subject of Octavius Hadfield’s One of England’s little wars (1860) and John Gorst’s The Maori king (1864). Later, the wars themselves were interestingly described by James Cowan in The adventures of Kimble Bent (1911), the story of a deserter who preferred to fight for the Māori, and his two-volume study, The New Zealand wars (19221923). A prolific journalist, Cowan aimed to bring the romance of the American West to the New Zealand past, but his work also shows a comparative historical understanding drawn from his American models.

Practical concerns

Samuel Butler’s A first year in Canterbury settlement (1863) is typical of many pioneering narratives in being even more concerned with markets than with the perils of fording wild rivers or breaking in farmland. ‘People here are busy making money’, he writes, and stories such as one about his race against a rival squatter to reach the land registry first reinforce the comment. 1 Butler observes the practical orientation found everywhere in the new colony. ‘I am forgetting myself into admiring a mountain which is of no use for sheep,’ he remarks drily. 2

In Station life in New Zealand (1870) Lady Mary Anne Barker similarly finds a self-deprecating comedy in the collision of genteel assumptions and the realities of hill-country farming. Like Butler she is surprised by the egalitarian economy – the opposite of Britain’s – where the cost of labour is high, yet almost anyone can aspire to own land. She particularly enjoys the freedom from gender norms in this new society, but is less happy with social mobility among servants.

Buller’s birds

Walter Buller believed native species were doomed to extinction; the best a nature lover could do was conserve examples. A surviving chick from his kiwi hunt was given prussic acid: ‘I sacrificed his little life on the altar of science and made a pretty cabinet specimen of the skin’.3

Flora and fauna

The loss of native bush and wetlands, and the restocking of the land with alien plants and animals was accompanied by misgivings as well as a confidence in the values of progress. Walter Buller’s A history of the birds of New Zealand (1888) demonstrates the extent to which these apparently contradictory values could coexist. Buller sincerely describes the beauties of nature, yet on a ‘kiwi hunt’ in the King Country, he uses dogs to drag the birds from their burrows. Those not spoiled in their jaws are rated fine specimens for stuffing and mounting.

Māori life

Assimilation of Māori into the larger culture seemed inevitable to many settlers, and Buller’s natural history project had numerous parallels in works designed to record the passing of an ancient way of life.

Māori legends in George Grey’s compilation Polynesian mythology (1855) became for many readers the authorised versions. Around the turn of the century Percy Smith and other members of the Polynesian Society began compiling books of tribal history and traditions. The most notable of these is Elsdon Best’s Tuhoe: the children of the mist (1925). Narrated at times in a grand bardic manner, the work, based on first-hand Māori accounts, constitutes an extraordinary bicultural performance.

Pākehā identity

By the mid-1880s a majority of the population were New Zealand-born. Anything that was uniquely New Zealand had a special value, and it seemed possible that Pākehā had become a distinct people too, with a scenery as well as a history of their own. In Studies in New Zealand scenery (1916), a radiant piece of travel writing, poet Blanche Baughan describes a journey by canoe up the Whanganui River that takes her deep into the heart of nature and culminates in a visit to a marae. For Baughan, nature and Māori went hand in hand, and helped facilitate the discovery of Pākehā identity.

William Pember Reeves in The long white cloud: Ao Tea Roa (1898, rev. 1924) tells how a modern progressive state, with some of the most advanced social legislation in the world, came into existence. This is not like other contemporary works of confident boosterism. Reeves appreciates irony; he deflates large reputations with acerbic barbs; perhaps only another expatriate, J. G. A. Pocock, matches him as a master of historical prose.

    • Samuel Butler, A first year in Canterbury settlement. London: Longman, 1863, pp. 51. Back
    • A first year in Canterbury settlement, p. 70. Back
    • Walter Buller, ‘The kiwi hunt.’ In The writing of New Zealand, edited by Alex Calder. Auckland: Reed, 1993, p. 74. Back

Becoming at home

Looking beyond New Zealand

The earliest settlers imagined the prosperous farms and the bustling towns that would one day replace their tin shacks and trading posts, but those who were eventually born into that bright colonial future often loathed it. The commonest storyline in New Zealand life-writing involved a gifted young person growing up in a small-minded province where art and intellect were likely to wither. One option was exile: Katherine Mansfield left as soon as she could for bohemian London; her letters and journals are among the masterpieces of New Zealand non-fiction.

A few strutted like peacocks in what they saw as a dull literary garden. D’Arcy Cresswell’s dandyish autobiographies The poet’s progress (1930) and Present without leave (1939) displayed the nerve of a writer whose aspiration would always exceed his achievement.

Living in New Zealand

Major autobiographical trilogies by Frank Sargeson in the 1970s (Once is enough, More than enough and Never enough!) and Janet Frame in the 1980s (To the is-land, An angel at my table and The envoy from mirror city) were stories of artists making a life here. Sargeson lived, poor as a monk, in his hut behind a hedge in the suburbs. Frame found ‘the true desirable dwelling place’ in what she called ‘mirror city’, the ordinary world transformed by acts of imagination.1 C. K. Stead’s evocation of mid-century Auckland, South-west of Eden (2010), contributed a third intersecting strand to the recollections of Frame and Sargeson.

Outside of literary autobiography’s populous field, there were superb coming-of-age memoirs – Sage tea (1980) by the painter Toss Woollaston and Ghost dance (2004) by the dancer Douglas Wright.

Cultural stock-taking

Distinctions between literary and social criticism tended to blur in the nationalist 1930s to 1950s. The centennial of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi provided the occasion for a series of government-funded surveys, of which E. H. McCormick’s Letters and art in New Zealand (1940) was a landmark. Allen Curnow’s anthology introductions and essays were key assertions of a critical, stock-taking nationalism, while important essays in the quarterly Landfall by Bill Pearson (‘Fretful sleepers’, 1952) and Bob Chapman (‘Fiction and the social pattern,’ 1953), explored the death-grip of puritanism and its decay into conformism and gentility.

The major historical work of this generation was Keith Sinclair’s A history of New Zealand (1959). Its epilogue, ‘The search for identity,’ dovetailed with Curnow’s myth-busting search for a reality that is ‘local and special at the point where we pick up the traces’.2

Lament for the land

In Tutira, Herbert Guthrie-Smith lamented Pākehā disrespect for the environment: ‘When a block of land passes … through the hands of ten holders in half a century, how can long views be taken of its rights? Who under these conditions can give his acres their due? Aue, taukari e, ano te kuware o te pakeha kahore nei i whakaaro ki te mauri o te whenua. Alas! Alas! That the pakeha should so neglect the rights of the land, so forget the traditions of the Maori race, a people who recognised in it something more than the ability to grow meat and wool’.3

Studying the local

Perhaps no New Zealand work is more assiduously local than Herbert Guthrie-Smith’s Tutira (first published in 1921, with several later editions). It is a study of the interaction of humans, animals and plants, on one patch of ground, as observed by the author for over half a century. Both Māori and Pākehā have a place in the story of this sheep station, but it is shared with sparrows, rabbits, weeds and Merino sheep (‘the most miserably home-sick beast on earth’)4as agents of subtle, interlocking, and unpredictable change. Guthrie-Smith writes both as a farmer in love with development (contemplating a new fence, he pictures the ‘shining wire, its mighty strainers … the glory of the grass that was to be’)5 and as a conservationist ‘in concern for his soul’.6

Yet behind the usual binaries of progress and environmental degradation, he sees deeper patterns formed by ‘the cumulative result of trivialities’7.Guthrie-Smith could be said to have invented the discipline of environmental history and Tutira is an epic masterpiece of non-fiction writing.

    • Janet Frame, An autobiography. Auckland: Century Hutchison, 1989, p. 407. Back
    • Allen Curnow, Look back harder: critical writings 1935–1984. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1987, p. 133. Back
    • H. Guthrie-Smith, Tutira: the story of a New Zealand sheep station. Auckland: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1969, p. 325. Back
    • Tutira, p. 141 Back
    • Tutira, p. 136 Back
    • Tutira, p. xiii Back
    • Tutira, p. 195 Back

Men in non-fiction

The strong silent type

In 1942 John Mulgan, feeling out of sorts with his English regiment, met a column of Anzacs in the North African desert. The New Zealanders ‘remained quiet and aloof and self-contained’, he wrote. ‘They had confidence in themselves ... like a football team in a more deadly game, coherent, practical, successful’.1 Mulgan’s Report on experience (1947) is the story of his own difficult war behind enemy lines in Greece, but it also celebrates a style of masculinity that New Zealand continued to praise in the conduct of All Black heroes and iconic figures such as Edmund Hillary.

Thousands of volumes have been written by or about supposedly taciturn, good kiwi blokes. Mountaineer John Pascoe’s Unclimbed New Zealand (1939), Denis Glover’s Hot water sailor (1962) and Jim Henderson’s Gunner inglorious (1945) are among the best in this tradition. All feature a nonchalant self-deprecating humour, especially when life and limb are threatened. A similar quality is found in the political memoirs of the fine raconteur John A. Lee, in Simple on a soapbox (1963) and Rhetoric at the red dawn (1965).

Geometry in the trenches

Alexander Aitken, badly wounded, and stuck in no-man’s land, owed his life to his mathematical brain. He noticed ‘a regularity, a periodicity, in a particular type of explosion … shells from a 5.9 or 4.1 howitzer were coming closer every two minutes, apparently in a straight line … I visualized the German gunners lowering their howitzers by a fraction of angle each time; I reckoned that in about ten minutes one of these shells would fall near my crater, possibly on it’2.

First World War non-fiction

Of the First World War memoirs, Alexander Aitken’s Gallipoli to the Somme (1963) is unusual in that it records horrors through the sensibility of a brilliant mathematician who could recall rifle serial numbers as easily as the names of his men. Archibald Baxter’s We will not cease (1939) is the story of a conscientious objector sent to the front where he endured bouts of field punishment designed to break his spirit.

According to John A. Lee, the most important book about that war was written by a 30-year-old woman who had had no obvious experience of it: Robin Hyde’s Passport to hell (1936) is a documentary novel about a soldier as conspicuous for gallantry as for reckless insubordination. In this book, as in her other non-fiction writings, we see that Hyde, in common with the nation’s wives, sweethearts and children, had a deep knowledge of those silent traumatised men who returned from the war.

Later perspectives

Decades later, Jock Phillips’s A man’s country? (1987) was a highly influential analysis that highlighted the evasions and gaps in earlier writings by and about men.

    • John Mulgan, Report on experience. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2010, p. 49. Back
    • Alexander Aitken, Gallipoli to the Somme. London: Oxford University Press, 1963, p.171. Back

Questioning orthodoxies

New voices

In the years after the Second World War, in remote Māori primary schools in the East Cape, an experiment was taking place. ‘It’s not beauty to abruptly halt the growth of a young mind and to overlay it with the frame of an imposed culture’1, wrote the pioneering writer and editor Sylvia Ashton-Warner in Teacher (1963). She felt every child had a ‘key vocabulary’, that the first words a child should read and spell should not be nice, conventional words, but words of intensity like ‘ghost’ and ‘jet’. If Teacher was her declaration of independence as an educator, her autobiography, I passed this way (1979), was one of several non-fiction works of that decade to insist on independence as a watch-word for both women and Māori.

Trail-blazing activist Sonja Davies somehow found time to write a compelling autobiography, Bread and roses (1984), while an autobiographical trilogy (Hot October, 1989, Bonfires in the rain, 1991, and The quick world, 1992) by Lauris Edmond records an obstructed, but no less determined, search for a public voice. Her son, Martin Edmond, contributed to his family’s story with An autobiography of my father (1992), the first of several innovative non-fiction works by this author.

Radical writing

In 1987 Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle exposed a national scandal with the publication of ‘An “Unfortunate Experiment” at National Women’s’ in Metro magazine. The article criticised the abuse of women patients in cancer research. As with much non-fiction writing of the time, the authors sought out oral testimony and aimed to recover the overlooked experience of women. Metro continued to be an important outlet for non-fiction writers under the editorship of Warwick Roger, while Coney’s Out of the frying pan: inflammatory writings 1972–89 (1990) is a highly readable collection of her work.

Writing about and by Māori

Michael King began his career with several books about Māori, including biographies of Te Puea Hērangi (Te Puea, 1977) and Whina Cooper (Whina, 1983). In the mid-1980s, mindful of a call to let Māori speak for themselves, he turned to other subject matter with Being Pakeha (1985), biographies of Frank Sargeson (1995) and Janet Frame (Wrestling with the angel, 2000) and his popular Penguin History of New Zealand (2003).

An updated edition of Ranginui Walker’s 1990 history of Māori, Ka whawhai tonu matou, appeared from the same publisher in 2004. Walker also produced biographies of carver Paki Harrison (Tohunga whakairo, 2008) and the politician Apirana Ngata (He tipua, 2002).

The film-maker Barry Barclay was also a particularly gifted non-fiction writer. Our own image (1990) offers an engaging and practical philosophy for makers of indigenous television and cinema, while Mana tuturu (2005) moves from that base to consider wider issues of intellectual property rights.

A natural inclination

A large proportion of New Zealand non-fiction deals with natural history. One of New Zealand’s most respected writers in this field is Philip Simpson, whose books focus on the significance – both cultural and environmental – of particular native trees. In 2013 he had written books about tī kōuka (cabbage trees), pōhutukawa, rātā and tōtara.

Revisionist histories

It is striking – but unsurprising – that much of our most respected non-fiction in the post-Waitangi Tribunal era continues to be historical in character. Major revisionist general histories of New Zealand by James Belich, Making peoples (1996) and Paradise reforged (2001), alongside Judith Binney’s innovative biography of Te Kooti, Redemption songs (1995), and her prize-winning history of Tūhoe, Encircled lands (2009), are just four of many works about a country coming to terms not only with the past, but also with the different kinds of pasts in which memories are embedded.

These issues have concerned poets Wystan Curnow and Ian Wedde in their art writing and general essays, and register too in works as diverse as the environmental writings of Geoff Park (Nga uruora, 1995, Theatre country, 2006) and Chris Bourke’s Blue smoke (2010), an account of the ‘lost dawn’ of New Zealand popular music, which won the Book of the Year award in 2011.

Perennial themes

A Book of the Year prizewinner from 2010, Al Brown’s Go fish (2009), reminds us that those perennial themes of childhood and identity, of feelings for land and sea, appear, as they should, even in New Zealand’s best cookbooks.

Non-fiction about non-fiction

Any commentator on New Zealand non-fiction owes a debt of gratitude to Peter Gibbons for his comprehensive treatment of the topic in the Oxford history of New Zealand literature (1991, revised 1998). He and other contributors looked back at colonial and nationalist writings from a culture that could no longer be defined by these terms.

    • Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Teacher. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971, p. 34. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Alex Calder, 'Non-fiction', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Alex Calder, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014