Waves and ripples, Melanie Nolan

The Oxford Illustrated History of New Zealand
Keith Sinclair (ed),
Oxford University Press, 1990, $59.95

The People and The Land. Te Tangata Me Te Whenua
Judith Bassett, Judith Binney, Erik Olssen
Allen and Unwin/ Port Nicholson Press, Wellington, 1990, $59.95

History publishers realise, of course, that commemorations are good for business. In the sesquicentenary year of Pakeha settlement, two illustrated histories of New Zealand have hit the market. Judith Bassett, Judith Binney and Erik Olssen chart New Zealand history from 1820 to 1918. Keith Sinclair edits a history of New Zealand from Maori settlement to 1989 with contributions from 14 historians including himself.

These two publications are part of a wave of New Zealand histories written recently. In the beginning of contemporary New Zealand historiography, thirty years ago, there were but two ‘new’ histories: Keith Sinclair’s A History of New Zealand, 1959 and W H Oliver’s The Story of New Zealand, 1960. They became New Zealand history’s touchstones; a genre has emerged in reaction to them in the past decade. The New Zealand history bathhouse has issued forth with a flood of collaborations, although Sinclair and Oliver have yet to unite. For instance, W H Oliver with B R Williams edited the Oxford History of New Zealand published in 1981 which captured the university textbook market. Judith Bassett, Keith Sinclair and Marcia Stenson, wrote The Story of New Zealand in 1985. Erik Olssen and Marcia Stenson produced a school text marketed also for the ‘curious lay person’, A Century of Change: New Zealand 1800-1900 in 1989. To confuse matters, both Olssen and Binney contribute to both of the latest New Zealand histories.

The most recent New Zealand histories are not only published simultaneously, but are also directed to the elusive general reader. We can compare and contrast these books to differentiate the orthodox from the debatable. We can consider the persona New Zealand historiography presents to the world. Both books’ blurbs suggest that they offer fresh new approaches to New Zealand history. Bassett, Binney and Olssen argue that the principle of equality has blinded us to a society divided by race. The historical experiences of the colonized Maori and colonizing Pakeha were different. They upbraid both society and history for being slow to realise that race determines New Zealanders’ consciousness. Their book is divided into parallel Maori and Pakeha ‘streams’, although this design breaks down in the last period when Olssen’s five ‘Pakeha’ chapters overwhelm Binney’s one ‘Maori’ chapter. On the other hand, Sinclair claims that his volume continues the New Zealand historical tradition of focusing on race relations. He suggests his book has more social and women’s history than ‘almost any other’ earlier history.

It is always a good idea to discover ‘a gap in the literature’, or promise a new approach. The ‘myth of the gap’ often disguises the agreement between historians. The thrust of these books is very similar. Both consider race most important. Both also attempt to give a high profile to women. Both endeavour to look at the social fabric as well as the political contours. Both are illustrated. They share, then, themes of race, women and ordinary life, all presented with pictures.

Contrary to their legends, historians do not always disagree. One striking feature of these books is the speed with which recent race relations research has become the orthodoxy. Ann Parsonson’s ‘pursuit of mana’ and James Belich’s ‘sophisticated Maori military tactics’, for example, appear to find general agreement in the historical community. Parsonson argued in the Oxford History of New Zealand that the nineteenth century saw the expansion of Maori competitive society including Maori competing with one another to sell their land to the Pakeha and competing to accrue greater mana. James Belich contended in his book The New Zealand Wars that British migrants settled on sufferance on the fringes of the Maori nation. Maori military strength surprised the settlers in the 1860s wars of sovereignty. The settlers manufactured military myths to cope with the affront to their racial pride. These historians’ work is now so orthodox that their concepts are often not acknowledged.

The two volumes agree closely on a range of issues. For instance, Bassett and Belich agree that the early governors were autocratic in theory and impotent in practice. They equally agree on the high effectiveness and the low morality of Governor Grey. Similarly, there is little to distinguish Judith Bassett’s chapters on ‘A Paradise for Working Men 1870-1880’ and ‘Dark Satanic Mills 1880-1890’ and Raewyn Dalziel’s chapter ‘Railways and Relief Centres (1870-1890)’.

The consensus is partly the result of the unadventurousness of many of the contributors. Many seem to adopt a ‘let’s take a look and see’ approach, a non-directive narrative. They do not address patterns or myths. ‘Let’s look and see’ at Bruce Biggs, Claudia Orange, David Hamer, Barry Gustafson, Mary Boyd, Malcolm McKinnon and Keith Sinclair. They examine periods not questions. Biggs discusses Maori origins in the light of canoe traditions. Orange examines the relationship between Maori and Pakeha up to 1840 and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Hamer looks at the cement of the growing state and the growing national sentiment. Gustafson gives us a litany of elections and issues. Boyd begins with the age of island-hunting, decolonization, and moves onto racial tensions and New Zealand’s aid programme. McKinnon explores the continuities and changes in foreign relations. Sinclair takes a dim view of Muldoon’s managed economy and Douglas’s market economy. Some contributors miss the opportunity to make a splash. Jeanine Graham concludes that the photographic record in the late nineteenth century is not a useful source for social history. Who has insisted on its adequacy? She might have concluded that historians are eclectic and that no source, oral, visual or written, is safe from their critical analysis. Similarly, Olssen might have made much more of the myth of an economic depression when all had suffered equally. He alleges this myth to be a fulcrum of the welfare state, but the claim remains an undeveloped comment. This is particularly surprising, since the principle of equality is said to be the major New Zealand myth blinding us to racial inequality.

Bassett, Binney and Olssen’s is a longer arid better reference book than Sinclair’s. They are expensively, splendidly and lavishly illustrated while Sinclair’s pictures are dull by comparison. More importantly, the books do not always agree. Binney differs with Belich and Sorrenson on nineteenth-century race relations; and Olssen and Gustafson disagree on national identity. These contrasts may lead to new debate.

Binney challenges Belich on Maori autonomy during the nineteenth century. Belich defines autonomy in political and military terms. Binney focuses on ‘internal autonomy’. For instance, although the Tuhoe chiefs were forced to surrender their arms, their resistance continued; they remained at heart committed Ringatu believers. Though the government invaded and destroyed the Parihaka village in 1881, it was ultimately unsuccessful for it could not destroy Te Whiti’s ideas. The Maori prophet tradition was resistance as significant as armed rebellion.

In her contributions to both books Binney challenges the idea that the late nineteenth century saw the Maori go into sullen, defeated, alienated decline. Sorrenson suggests Maori protest waxed and waned with the proletarianization of landless Maori Binney argues, however, that the late nineteenth century involved urgent and remarkable political activity in Maori communities from Kotahitanga, the Maori Unity Movement which was the most sustained Maori political movement of the century (alongside the earlier Kingitanga or Maori King Movement), to widespread protest over the dog tax. These movements were not successful but that could be said of the land marches of the 1980s; they were both evidence of resilience. Binney’s work, then, is about a changing but seamless protest.

Barry Gustafson and Olssen debate national identity. Gustafson sees an emerging sense of national identity only in the 1950s and 60s with sporting victories and the like. Perhaps he, too, conflates success with endeavour. Olssen, however, argues that a recognisable ‘national’ society had emerged much earlier, however slowly. New Zealand, for instance, avoided the Australian federation of 1901 to protect its unique race relations and social legislation. At the same time, New Zealand people were developing their own accent. Finally, for many, World War One marked the birth of New Zealand as a nation.

At a more general level, what is clear is that a ‘politically correct’ model informs the design of both these books. We must be racially sensitive non-sexists. The Maori and women’s movements demand it. As Buddy Mikaere has astutely suggested, in an earlier, provocative review, this leads in practice to bizarre dichotomies. Pakeha are portrayed as greedy and aggressive while Maori are peaceful and spiritual. And when they are warriors, Maori are much better than the Pakeha. One could add men are atomised, anti-social and oppressive while women are communal, passive and oppressed. The model promotes Europhobia, national self-hatred, and misanthropy or ‘male-hating’ (there appears to be no female equivalent of misanthropy).

New omissions are created in this wave of politically sensitive history. These sins of omission arise with an excessive division of labour that comes partly from specialisation. Biggs and Binney write Maori history, Orange and Belich write race relations history, Graham, Bassett and Olssen write social history. This leads to fragmentation. Social history, for instance, has passed by Maori women of the nineteenth century completely.

It is obvious, too, from most of the contributions that class is not a fashionable part of New Zealand history. Olssen tells us ‘that the main inequalities in the late nineteenth century society were based on race and gender’ and yet he admits that the ownership of houses only slowly developed and the issue of the day at the turn of the century was economic privilege. The Liberals made clear their desire to protect the weak and the vulnerable.

But the problem of adopting this ‘model of inclusion’ goes deeper. It is not, for example, enough simply to tack women on. We have to show their importance in the best contributions, the social and the political are integrated. Fairburn questions the view that Massey’s era was rural idiocy in power; an unprogressive and conservative era. He argues that the Government under Massey contained two major class and sectarian challenges astutely. Massey resisted the urge to indulge Protestant extremists and undermined the causes of working class discontent. He and Reform eroded support for puritanism and socialism by creating a property-owning democracy based on the family farm and the suburban house and a new social alignment based on a just society. Women are central to his explanation of social change from 1890 to 1920. For someone who has been thumped for ‘leaving women out’ of his path-breaking book on the social structure of nineteenth century New Zealand, The Ideal Society and its Enemies, it is ironic that Fairburn is the only historian who puts women into explanatory focus. Women are not simply an appendix but are integral to Fairburn’s explanation.

Olssen covers the same period 1890 to 1920s and repeats much of Fairburn’s material. He too examines the rise of home ownership, the gradual democratization of education, the expansion of women’s white-collar employment. They both challenge the stereotype of the ‘faceless, disorganised and politically impotent’ white-collar workers recognising instead their innovative social role and their decisive impact upon the social climate. Fairburn goes further and argues that Massey, like white-collar workers, was not faceless, disorganised or politically impotent. Two agents reappear in the twentieth century: Massey and women. Fairburn’s explanation might be a bit awry. It must be said that the same processes of suburbanisation, white-collar expansion and a new urban consensus were occurring in other countries without a Massey. But surely, to steal a quote from a friend, is it much worse to be boring rather than wrong?

Fairburn’s contribution also compares well with Sinclair who merely gestures in the genera] direction of the problem. Sinclair points out that women’s movement into the paid workforce was the single most important social change in the twentieth century but then devotes only half a page to the process! The inclusion of women has the air of an afterthought in too many other contributions.

These books are short on debate; indeed, New Zealand historiography is underdeveloped. We have such scarce resources that two historians will hardly ever research the same area. Claudia Orange is the historian of the Treaty of Waitangi and David Hamer is the historian of the Liberal era and so on. We are very territorial guarding our little pond. With few historians to spread over many problems it is probably wise to distribute them as widely as possible. But we are territorial from inclination as much as necessity. We are neither contentious nor self-conscious historians. We rarely debate the forms of historical writing or the shape of the history we are making. The argumentative historian seems to be the kotuku of New Zealand, the small Okarito colony of white herons, conspicuous among the narrative historians who have no explicit model, approach or argument to display. One of the few areas in which there are many historians working on the same topic, except for the Treaty of Waitangi, is the story of New Zealand itself. It is for these reasons that the publication of two histories of New Zealand which cover the same territory, in parts, is potentially exciting. These books, however, are not very adventurous. On the topics they write on, Fairburn and Binney will make waves; Belich has already.

These two books are not epics. General narrative histories can be best-selling epics; Robert Hughes recent The Fatal Shore: A History of Transportation of Convicts to Australia 1789-1868 deserves its success. Narrative history can be written with flair and New Zealand’s settlement is as good a story as Australia’s! A few contributions in these volumes are decisive and arresting history that will stir our small historical pond. But above all, these books represent a wave of politically correct history. Of course, New Zealand’s history is a narrative of patriarchy, race and class. But it is neither only this nor is it exclusively any one of these.


Melanie Nolan is a historian at the Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs. A graduate of Canterbury University she received her doctorate on the feminization of shop and office work from the Australian National University in 1989. Her current project is a history of New Zealand women and the State.


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