A peculiarly contemporary figure, Erik Olssen

The Verse of Edward Tregear
K R Howe (ed),
Nagare Press, Palmerston North, 1991, $20

The Singer in a Songless Land, A Life of Edward Tregear 1846-1931
K R Howe,
Auckland University Press, 1991, $39.95

Edward Tregear was one of those remarkable Victorians who played a very active part in public life and maintained wide-ranging intellectual interests. The scope of his activities and the ease with which he crossed so many boundaries is little short of staggering to somebody in the late twentieth century. The fact that so many of the scholarly fields in which he worked had scarcely begun their separate lives might lessen our astonishment but not by much. Like many Victorians of his sort Tregear also wrote verse. KR Howe, one of New Zealand’s leading historians of the Pacific, has devoted several years to writing his biography and at the same time has gathered together Tregear’s verse from different sources. If the scope and energy of Tregear’s activities make him seem like a citizen of a foreign place then the same is true of almost all his verse. It is not easy to imagine any but avid enthusiasts of 19th-century colonial writing rushing out to buy the verse, although ‘Te Whetu Plains’ are still surprisingly fresh. If the verse has lost interest the life has not. Tregear’s attraction to Maori and Polynesian studies together with his role as Secretary of the Department of Labour during the Liberal era make him seem a peculiarly contemporary figure (at least to those critical of the direction in which this Government and the last have moved).

The first chapters of Howe’s life of Edward Tregear are absorbing both about the man and the colony. The chapters dealing with his developing enthusiasm for Maori and Polynesian studies are also extremely interesting, although they look at his attitude from within rather than without and leave all but a well-informed reader somewhat puzzled as to why these issues attracted him to such an extent. The main thrust of Tregear’s intellectual leanings, however, is nicely dealt with and shows him appropriating the Maori past in order to make himself more at home. As Howe points out, this process parallels his role as a public servant (he owed the post to his friendship with Ballance), for in that position he was also motivated in creating order and domiciling the new society securely in its new habitat. The larger intellectual context within which he operated could perhaps have been made clearer but for all that Howe has given us a good account of Tregear the scholar and Tregear the handmaiden of what, until recently, was New Zealand’s Labour policy.

I enjoyed the initial chapters most. They dealt with Tregear’s origins in Cornwall and his early years in New Zealand as a surveyor on the North Island frontier. Here we learn of his domestic arrangements, his close relationships with the Maori, and his courtship of a married woman. Howe also deals capably with Tregear’s Free thought attachment and his political views. As time passes, however, the biography became less interesting. To some extent this may reflect the fact that I am too familiar with some of the theses – such as those by Peter Gibbons and Michael Belgrave – which have shaped Howe’s interpretation of Tregear. Howe does not take the opportunity ‑ and perhaps the surviving evidence did not allow him to ‑ to tackle some of the larger issues. It is not clear what fuelled his preoccupation with the Maori and the Polynesian. Nor is it apparent what relationship Tregear created between these interests and his concern about achieving a more just and orderly society. If he didn’t address the issue, then that itself not only deserves comment but warrants some speculation. The problem becomes still more acute when Howe turns to analyse Tregear’s role as the first Secretary to the Department of Labour and his later role as a Labour politician. At times he seems frustrated by the density of secondary material and the difficulty of finding in Tregear’s life some new angle of vision. Unfortunately for Howe, most of the papers on which he had to rely for this part of Tregear’s biography have been available for many years and thoroughly used by others.

Howe is a very able professional historian and this is a very professional biography. He has thoroughly mastered the relevant secondary literature even if at times the historiography on labour history leaves him confused. I was left unpersuaded however, that Tregear still spoke to the conditions of our time. It seems to me a claim born of nostalgia for an older and simpler era; there is little evidence to sustain it.


Erik Olssen is Professor of History at the University of Otago. Recent works include ‘The Red Fed’, and he has contributed to ‘The People and the Land’, ‘Century and Change’, and ‘The Oxford Illustrated History’.


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