The limits of historiography, Jock Phillips

Pakeha Maori
Trevor Bentley
Penguin Books, $34.95,
ISBN 0 14 0285540 7

Being Pakeha Now
Michael King
Penguin Books, $34.95,
ISBN 0 14 028438 9

These two books share much – same price, same publisher, about the same length, and they both examine from the Pakeha perspective that central fissure of New Zealand life, the interaction of Maori and Pakeha. They also share a significant historiographical approach which for a long time has been characteristic of New Zealand’s treatment of the past and which in part explains their limitations. I mean our propensity to tell our history through biography.

Why New Zealanders should adopt this mode is open to a number of explanations. For Maori, it is understandable – history was understood through the actions of tipuna. Life stories gave meaning to whakapapa. For Pakeha historians, the biographical impulse may have followed simply from the young state of the art: the fact that where the whole society and history is unexplored territory, it is easiest to begin with one person, just as our fiction writing began with the short story.

Or it may be that, in a society with a very small audience for academic monographs, the biographical approach brings history into a popular untheoretical discourse where publication in a small market is viable. Or perhaps it is that a biography is easier for young historians since it establishes a simple chronological organising structure. Or it may simply be the influence of that magisterial set of volumes, the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography – although it is salutary to reflect that this was the second such official enterprise.

For whatever reason, our historical writing is characterised by fine biographies. Michael King himself has produced several (of Te Puea and Frank Sargeson). Our greatest historian, Keith Sinclair, gave us lives of Pember Reeves and Walter Nash. And recent Book of the Year winners have included Judith Binney’s biography of Te Kooti and Jessie Munro’s life of Mother Aubert.

Biographies bring the past to life in an accessible way. The rise and fall of individuals, their childhood struggles and their adult successes, provide an engaging structure. But their weakness is that by their very nature they foreground the role and influence of individuals; and they underplay the impact on our development of larger forces such as economics, military power, social structures, family systems, international communications. Both these books suffer from this biographical mode.


Trevor Bentley’s Pakeha Maori is not a biography. But the focus on individual stories is implicit in the subtitle, “the extraordinary story of the Europeans who lived as Maori in early New Zealand.” True, the organisation is not a series of individual lives, but rather by types of Pakeha Maori. The chapters move from mokai Pakeha (pet Pakeha) of the first decade of the 19th century, to taurekareka Pakeha (slave Pakeha) who fell to a low position within Maori status systems by about 1820, to those Pakeha who took part in the musket wars (Pakeha toa), to Tohunga Pakeha, to a group whom Bentley labels the “renegades”, to the most significant group of all who were the trader Pakeha Maori, and finally to Rangatira Pakeha. There are also two short chapters on women and whalers.

This listing of types follows very loosely a chronological sequence. The problem is that each chapter largely consists of accounts of those individuals who fit into each category. Of course some of the stories and the individuals offer remarkable tales. There was Jacky Marmon of Irish convict background who first appears on the scene in 1817. In order to grab a Pakeha trader, the Kerikeri chief Kawhitiwai built him a fine house and provided him with five wives before a plundering raid drove him away. He then escaped from convict service a second time in 1824 and took up a role on the Hokianga (once more living in polygamous isolation from the Pakeha) where he shot one of his wives for adultery and feasted on human flesh. There was John Rutherford, probably a runaway sailor convict, who was wounded fighting with the warriors of the Nga Puhi chief Pomare and who acquired a moko before returning to London where he “practised the trade of a pickpocket under the character of a New Zealand chief.”

There are some rich characters here, but unfortunately few of the Pakeha Maori fit into one category – bits of Marmon’s story are to be found in no less than seven chapters, representing seven types. So, even as biography, the presentation is confusing. On the other hand, Bentley rarely gets beyond the snippets of individual lives to ask the really large questions about why the phenomenon of Pakeha Maori arose in the first place or what the formative reasons were for the changing typology which he proposes.

What were the crucial factors in this situation? There was the fact that although New Zealand had been restored to Western consciousness in 1769, for the next 70 years, three generations no less, New Zealand remained overwhelmingly a Maori world with a ratio of no more than several hundred Pakeha to 80,000 Maori. In this situation, to live in New Zealand, or at least to survive, required the migrant to become “Maori”. Those who did not were either missionaries, protected by a very powerful ideology of civilisation and Christianity (and even some of those, such as Thomas Kendall, assimilated much of the host people’s culture), or they were itinerant sealers and whalers bringing their goods and their culture with them and returning regularly to Sydney for supplies.

A second important factor was that New Zealand was on the very fringes of the European world so that the Europeans who got here were in many cases already outcasts from their own society – perhaps convicts carried brutally to New South Wales or sailors press-ganged into a tough, physically constricted life at sea. As such, they had every incentive to escape. Thirdly, the European community of the South Pacific was overwhelmingly a male community. One obvious attraction of becoming a Pakeha Maori was a wife and children. Finally, there was the fact that Maori society was built upon the military conflict of tribes. Europeans could provide guns, which promised a huge competitive advantage to the tribe that possessed them. A trader who could mediate between European importers and Maori chiefs was needed.

Out of these conditions was born the Pakeha Maori. From about 1840, all these conditions changed. The coming of mass Pakeha settlement which followed the New Zealand Company and the Treaty of Waitangi dramatically changed the Maori/Pakeha ratio and therefore both the power and cultural balance. The gender ratio evened up. Increasingly, Maori themselves learned to read, write and speak English and could provide their own intermediary services. Later Pakeha Maori were a more unusual and very different breed. These are some of the issues which needed to be confronted head-on in a book on this subject; but they are never faced directly because for Bentley history is a series of biographical snippets not a reflection of larger systems.


Michael King’s Being Pakeha Now is quite open about the fact that its core is biographical – or rather autobiographical. It is really Michael King’s intellectual autobiography as he discusses in fluent prose the forces and experiences which have shaped his identity as a Pakeha New Zealander. A first version of the story was published in 1985 as Being Pakeha, and the new version, we are told, “carries the cultural debate forward”.

The new pitch is expressed in the subtitle of the new work, “Reflections and Recollections of a White Native”, followed by “Pakeha New Zealanders who are committed to this land and its people are no less ‘indigenous’ than Maori.”

If this might lead us to expect a full investigation of the meaning and evolution of Pakeha culture, then we are disappointed. The new work is surprisingly little different from the original. The heart of the book, the section which gives it an emotional core, pages 70-153 (out of 241 pages), describes in virtually unchanged words the exciting process whereby Michael King discovered Maori history: first, in that small gem of a book on moko; then in the making of Tangata Whenua, which is still the outstanding New Zealand television documentary series; and thirdly in the writing of his wonderful biography of Te Puea. Reading these pages is still as engrossing as it was over a decade ago, and they convince me now as then of the importance of Pakeha as well as Maori knowing about and understanding the significant histories of iwi.

So what does the new book add to the debate about Pakeha culture and its place in New Zealand? There is now much more about the appeal of the New Zealand landscape: the deep spirituality which King finds in the waters of the Paremata inlet or in the bush and the birds of the Coromandel. He has added a description of searching out his ancestral roots in Ireland to the descriptions of his English and Scottish travels in the earlier volume. Finally, there is much more about King’s friendships with the New Zealand intellectual community, including interesting new pieces about Reuel Lochore and Dorothy Davies, Dan Davin, Eric McCormick and Frank Sargeson.

In my view these additions do not add hugely to the book. So if you already know the earlier version, I’d be tempted to leave it at that. If not, do read this revised version; it is beautifully written, and the central tale is wonderful. And, despite my reservations, the additions do tell us something about how King defines his Pakeha identity. He sees himself as belonging in New Zealand because he treasures a relationship with the land, and he positions himself within two local communities, the Irish Catholic tradition of New Zealand and the literary community.

To some extent these definitions are implicitly raised in answer to Maori critics of both King and Pakeha culture. He emphasises the spirituality of the New Zealand landscape because some Maori have alleged that Pakeha look at it in a purely utilitarian way. When they see a tree, they see a cash asset – whereas Maori respect its mauri. King is anxious to show that he too is a kaitiaki of the land. His exploration of his own Scottish, English and Irish inheritance is a deliberate attempt to claim a whakapapa and to show that his forebears too were displaced and suffered from the English ruling class. As for his literary whakapapa, this is important to refute the suggestion that Pakeha like King started writing about Maori history because they had no tradition or culture in this land and had to co-opt Maori identity and culture.

In my view such an allegation against Michael King is unfair. His interest in Maori history did not come about because he wished to co-opt Maori culture. He never became a modern Pakeha Maori, living within the Maori community or adopting its tikanga in the way that, say, James K Baxter did. King’s interest in Maori culture grew out of an interest in history, and the realisation that whoever lived here, Pakeha as well as Maori, needed to know something about the events and traditions which gave meaning to the land. Problems emerged when he also came to take on the role of interpreter of Maori history to Maori people; and in part the original version of this book was written to disentangle himself from the difficulties and paternalisms which such a role produced.

But does the book get beyond explaining King’s own identity as a Pakeha? Does it lift beyond the biographical into new insights about Pakeha identity and its place in New Zealand? I am more doubtful about this. Irish origins, a spiritual relationship with the land, a literary whakapapa give King a legitimate place here; but they certainly do not encompass Pakeha identity in general. Although I note a short addition on King’s unspectacular rugby career, he never confronts New Zealand popular culture and does not subject to close examination the traditions and assumptions to be found in our political history, both past and present. And while the challenges posed by the Maori renaissance are clearly central in any discussion of Pakeha culture, there are other challenges potentially destructive of a small post-colonial culture which must also be faced. There is the impact of a multinational trading system and a global communications network. Any book that sets out to examine and advance the claims of Pakeha identity and culture today must wrestle with these big issues.

In sum, King’s book remains, as it was almost 15 years ago, a wonderful read, but it is essentially autobiography, not cultural or social analysis. In that sense it remains entirely within the New Zealand historiographical tradition. Perhaps it is time we moved on.

Jock Phillips manages the Heritage Group of the Department of Internal Affairs.

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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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