Imported and adapted, Gavin McLean

The Chapman Legal Family
Peter Spiller,
Victoria University Press, $39.95

Waikato law professor Peter Spiller’s book examines the legal careers of Henry Samuel Chapman and his two sons, Frederick, the first New Zealand-born Supreme Court judge, and Martin, founder of what grew into Chapman Tripp Sheffield and Young. The book is not a biography in the conventional sense, in that the emphasis is on their legal careers rather than their private lives, beliefs and the houses they inhabited. Nevertheless, it is an excellent record of the careers of three very significant public figures in our colonial and early 20th-century history, and a useful study of how English law was imported to a new environment and then gradually adapted to suit differing circumstances. The Chapman Legal Family is well written, economically argued and wants only a legal glossary for non-legal readers.


Studying New Zealand History
G A Wood,
University of Otago Press, $24.95

At last! This, the third edition of Tony Wood’s invaluable little guidebook, is the first that doesn’t look as though it was thrown together in the author’s basement. The changes are not all cosmetic. Twenty extra pages summarise developments in computerized finding aids and printed sources since 1988. Other chapters take us through bibliographies, reference works, periodicals, primary and secondary sources, overseas sources and non-printed sources. The major surprise is the extent of the additions on music, theatre and arts, when transport, business and technology remain largely overlooked. Still, this is a minor gripe: Studying New Zealand History remains essential reading for both acolyte and bleary-eyed expert.


Over the Top with the Best of Luck: the Making of a New Zealander – Roy Gipson Millen, 1890-1962
Julia Millen,
Serpent Press, 103 Donald Street, Karori, Wellington, $19

Freelance historian Julia Millen’s father was always something of a mystery to her, so, like tens of thousands of other New Zealanders, she started digging into the family history. What she found surprised her – bankruptcies, a youthful wanderlust and war diaries. These last items form the bulk of the book, documenting young ‘Gip’s response to the imperial call as well as the squalor and terror of the trenches during the lead-up to the battle of Messines. Other people’s family histories seldom make riveting reading, but this is one of the better ones.


Manifest Duty: the Polynesian Society over 100 Years
M P K Sorrenson,
The Polynesian Society, Auckland, $32.50

The story of one of our oldest academic societies. Best known for the Journal of the Polynesian Society, it was started by enthusiastic amateurs such as S Percy Smith and Elsdon Best. Then committed to recording the traditions of what were thought to be endangered or doomed races, the Polynesian Society survived early changes of office and later growing pains as academics displaced the enthusiastic amateurs. As author Keith Sorrenson admits, the society has never prospered. Local membership is small, shrinking, and decidedly academic. Yet the Journal remains highly regarded as a forum for most of the century’s academic feuds, such as Andrew Sharp’s accidental voyaging thesis, and has a wide international readership. Sorrenson, himself a renowned Polynesian scholar, does his job efficiently and economically. Lists of office-holders and publications are tucked away in appendices and the index is excellent.


From Sea to Space
Ben Finney,
Massey University, $19.95

Sharp’s accidental voyaging thesis receives another broadside from Hawaiian anthropologist Ben Finney’s From Sea to Space, three short essays based on his 1989 Macmillan Brown lectures. The longest recounts the multi-hull canoe Hokule’a’s late-1980s voyages around the Pacific, which rescued almost forgotten traditional Polynesian seafaring skills and boosted indigenous cultural pride by demonstrating that it was possible to navigate long distances using traditional vessels and knowledge. The second essay, ‘Nuclear Hostages’, looks at French Polynesia’s doubtful trade of independence for consumerism. The last, and in many ways the most stimulating, piece speculates on how space exploration may alter the human race. Drawing on Polynesian history to argue that we have always been migrants and explorers at heart, Finney speculates that the challenges of an endless frontier may radically transform our species as we move out into the solar system and beyond. This optimistic account assumes that we will survive the political, racial and tribal strife currently crippling much of the globe!


Gavin McLean is a historian with the Historic Places Trust.


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Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction, Review
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