The Dictionary in retrospect, John Roberts

The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Volume One, 1769-1869, 
Allen and Unwin (Bridget Williams Books) and the Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1990, $120

Christendom is essentially a construct of biography. The Gospels relate the temporal genealogy, life and death of Jesus and derive from his teaching a parallel, eternal origin and destiny. The New Testament, deriving its authority from the lives and succession of the Children of Abraham, proposes transcendent authority to the sacred text. We are or we were, people of the book. It follows that a biographical conspectus of a given society commissioned under the power of the state raises peculiar expectations.

It is true that the first great English example of the genre edited by Leslie Stephen was a private venture but official funding with its implication of official endorsement is probably taken for granted today. It would be hard to identify any other source of funds sufficient to establish the necessary networks of informants, authors and editors. Nonetheless, the question of public enterprise is, as the Americans say, cui bono – for whose benefit is this money spent, this power conferred? Who will benefit from a national biography? Or, to ask a more pointed and perhaps a more realistic question, to what principles of the national interest will those who direct the production of a national biography refer as they attempt to discharge their public responsibilities? Do they offer lessons in the improvement of society? Nietzsche, agitated by his post-Hegelian crisis, thought: ‘We need history certainly, but we need it for reasons different from those for which the idler in the garden of knowledge needs it, even though he may look nobly down on our rough and charmless needs and requirements. We need it, that is to say, for the sake of life and action…’

Stephen and Nietzsche were more or less contemporaries. They also shared similar intellectual and ethical pre-occupations though it is very doubtful that either would have enjoyed the other. Stephen did not enunciate a theory of history in the service of ‘life’. It would have been a very un-English thing to do. Whether he would have undertaken the Dictionary of National Biography if he had not been compelled to resign his tutorship at Cambridge because he could not, in conscience, comply with the religious tests, is uncertain. What is known is that when George Smith of the publishing firm Smith and Elder invited him to edit what Smith himself described as ‘that wild attempt’ at a compendium of universal biography he was in need of employment. He convinced Smith that he should lower his sights to aim at the first comprehensive dictionary of national biography for Great Britain. Thus the great exemplar of such enterprises was set in motion to be guided by the predilections of a neurasthenic, agnostic English savant. Anyone who reads it will note the uneven contributions and omissions. It was respectable in the Victorian sense. Neither the disreputable nor the economically enterprising appeared in any number. Stephen seemed to be deaf to the claims of the working class and blind to the part played in national life by half the population. Yet the Dictionary surpassed its dull competitors in its lively style and imaginative argument.

In the end the rules governing selection will have the greatest influence on the character of a dictionary of biography. If the major part of the entries comes from the elite company of politicians, philosophers, scientists, artists, musicians and writers then the effect, whatever the intention, will be to provide models of success for the ambitious. The Dictionary becomes a tribute to the exemplary and challenging dead. This may be what Nietzsche had in mind when he declared that’ …history can be borne only by strong personalities, weak ones are utterly extinguished by it…’.There ishowever, one thing to note: if the criterion for selection is great influence or high accomplishment the dictionary is bound to be more dense and more absorbing. The famous attract memorialists and become the subject of aphorism and anecdote.

Against a pantheon of the famous one may propose the concept of a composite portrait of the society over time, drawn from the lives of people selected from a sufficient number of categories such as gender, occupation, region, ethnicity and so on. The Introduction to Volume One of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography illustrates the discrimination required to make this approach acceptable and effective: ‘Not far off 30 per cent of the biographies in this volume are of Maori, 20 per cent are of women; a considerable number are of people not usually found in such publications. These proportions take their origin in a decision to modify the conventions by which individuals, traditionally, have been given a place in national biographical dictionaries. As well as for eminence on a national scale, the people in this dictionary have been chosen for their standing within less extensive milieux, for their representativeness and for the balance their presence will give to the volume as a whole’.

To illustrate the point, three prostitutes and one brothel keeper are listed in the category of commercial activities, twelve homemakers, all women, under community services, plumbers and carpenters under construction, four labourers under immigration and settlement. Lives, however, are not equal, especially in the traces they leave behind when they are extinguished. The short and simple annals of the poor may offer us a lesson in literary pathos but to bring them to life is the work of the poet. The historian must set up self-denying ordinances forbidding imaginative reconstruction. For example, Badger, Charlotte (floruit 1806-1808) may have been transported to New South Wales, may have flogged the Captain of the Venus in the course of a convict mutiny, certainly came to New Zealand and may have been sustained by Maori. ‘Her fate’, says her entry, ‘is not known’. Perhaps the best attested fact is that Charlotte Badger was ‘very corpulent’. Now there is material enough here for a whole genre of novels. On the other hand, a specialist in comparative historical dietetics might use Charlotte Badger as a (very substantial) entry in tables of intergenerational calory intake.

I do not for a moment criticize the Editor for including Charlotte Badger. In the Introduction Professor Oliver remarks on the ‘…endearing fondness…’ of the Dictionary for, inter alia, ‘… the better sort of criminal’. I see no reason why New Zealand should not break new biographical ground with the worst sort. That follows upon the deliberately representative intent mentioned above. The Editor himself raises the problem in a general manner which is likely to flutter even more the perpetually agitated dovecotes of the historians: ‘Maori history presents all the difficulties that arise from the lack of research; it also presents problems which take their origin in the cultural gap separating New Zealand’s two major populations. With a small number of exceptions the essays on Maori people are derived from documentary sources; they go back to European recorders or to Maori recorders who have acquired the new skill of literacy. Only a handful of essays relate to the first half of this volume’s century. It was hoped to draw upon the Maori oral tradition to populate this early period, and also to provide a parallel source for the time after the documentary record had been established. For many reasons, including the legacy of war and land confiscation and the current preoccupation of the Maori people with their own causes, this hope was not often fulfilled. Maori evidence for this period of New Zealand history may be a rich storehouse, but it is not one upon which the Dictionary has been able to draw’.

To translate and encode the history of a people who have regarded it, at least in part, as a resource for the honoured and privileged, is to commit an act that may easily be interpreted as an aggressive appropriation. It is significant that Dr Oliver and his cohorts looked to the Canadian Dictionary for useful precedents. The delights of biculturalism exact their price in an enduring fear of cultural obliteration.

There are sufficient shoals and currents athwart his course to trouble the most intrepid national biographer. Perhaps the best one can do is particularise. I compared the evanescent Ms Badger with the overwhelmingly documented Julius Vogel. As a Nietzschean figure in our history, Vogel will do as well as any other. Nietzsche wanted a monumental history. A monument keeps alive the essence of a character across the generations and puts the vital spark at the service of a later age. Is Vogel’s enterprise and corresponding despair along with his tendency to manipulate the dull resistant facts there in Raewyn Dalziel’s account along with the necessary chronicle of events? Another case is that of Elizabeth Colenso who probably lived as close to the Maori as a Pakeha could. A clergyman’s wife, she had to cope with the acknowledged facts of her husband’s adultery with a Maori woman whom he had brought into the household and the subsequent collapse of her marriage. She was a teacher and translator all her adult life retiring only six years before her death at the age of eighty-three. Unlike Charlotte Badger, Elizabeth Colenso’s life is well documented, in part ironically, because her husband is a noted and scandalous figure. The life of a Pakeha woman born at Kerikeri in 1821 is in itself sufficiently original without her manifest gifts and tribulations, yet the account by David Mackay is muffled, one suspects, by consultative and editorial process.

No doubt the problem is insoluble. Stephen could indulge his private enterprise idosyncrasies such as putting up a notice in the Atheneum asking for suggestions. Dr Oliver had to co-ordinate 20 working parties and formulate editorial doctrine and process for his staff and his contributors. The massive addition made by the Dictionary to the vast exercise in historical revisionism already in progress suggests that a substantially different view of the past will he established in the next decade. It may not be Nietzsche’s instrument of national renewal but it will be an uncomfortable challenge to our prejudices.

The Dictionary does not set out to amuse by retelling tales of the powerful, the rich, the eloquent and the notorious. It has prepared a canvas for the representation of all the human elements in a society’s formation that through and unbiased enquiry may provide. It will be immensely influential as the struggle to understand the present and predict the future proceeds. Home truths are unlikely to come in a more useful and comprehensive form.


John Roberts, a former Professor of Public Administration at Victoria University of Wellington, is a well-known broadcaster and commentator.


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