Argument without end, Michael King

The Shaping of History: Essays from The New Zealand Journal of History
ed Judith Binney
Bridget Williams Books, $49.95,
ISBN 1877242179

Histories, Power and Loss: Uses of the Past – a New Zealand Commentary
ed Andrew Sharp and Paul McHugh
Bridget Williams Books, $39.95,
ISBN 1877242209

Telling Stories: Indigenous History and Memory in Australia and New Zealand
ed Bain Attwood and Fiona Magowan
Bridget Williams Books, $39.95,
ISBN 1877242233

“Scratch a New Zealand historian,” Keith Sinclair once famously remarked, “and he will reply in Latin.” The implication was clear. That historian was likely to be male and European, with preoccupations and values matching such gender and ethnicity. And he was likely to be more familiar with Greek and Latin foundational literature than with classical Maori.

Like many of the things Sinclair said, the accusation was hyperbolic and designed to generate discussion. But, up to the 1960s at least, such a caricature was also largely valid. At the time I studied at Victoria University in the middle of that decade there was only one undergraduate paper offered in New Zealand history, at first-year level. The most dashing lecturer, Peter Munz, matched Sinclair’s stereotype exactly. And the best and the brightest students went off to the United Kingdom or the United States to do postgraduate work in British or American history. Some, like Jock Phillips and Miles Fairburn, would return and eventually connect with New Zealand history – but only after taking the long way round.

The exception to this pattern was Auckland University which, in the reign of Willis Airey, nudged students towards the study of New Zealand history topics a generation ahead of other university colleges. His crop of historians included Keiths Sinclair and Sorrenson, David Hamer, Russell Stone and Bob Chapman. And, with this foundation laid, it was no surprise that when The Journal of New Zealand History began publication in 1967, it appeared from Auckland University and under the editorship of Sinclair.

Nothing could provide more dramatic evidence of the revolution that has occurred in New Zealand historiography over the past three decades than the near-simultaneous appearance of the three volumes under review, all of them published by Bridget Williams Books. In contrast to Sinclair’s stereotype from the earlier era, the focus is on New Zealand topics and themes, and, of the New Zealand authors, 22 are men, 13 women and three Maori. While the contribution from Maori scholars is still minimal, a cluster of the Pakeha writers – Judith Binney, Ann Parsonson, Claudia Orange, Angela Ballara, Lindsay Head and Alan Ward – tackle Maori subjects with considerable understanding and panache; and all six of these, along with the three Maori, appear to have achieved competence in the reo, a facility which Sinclair rightly came to believe was a skill fundamental to the arsenal of the New Zealand scholar.

As a matter of less compelling interest, one historian, Judith Binney, makes contributions to all three books in addition to editing one of them. Four, J G A Pocock, W H Oliver, Alan Ward and Angela Ballara, appear in two of them. By contrast, some of those most recognised by the news media as “public” historians – Simpson, Salmond, Phillips, Belich, Brooking – are either not represented at all or appear in only one volume. Our best cultural historian, Peter Gibbons, is entirely absent.


Of the books themselves, Judith Binney’s The Shaping of History is both the least and the most important. It is the least important in the sense that all of its contributions have been published previously, in The Journal of New Zealand History. For readers and owners of the journal, therefore, there is nothing new to be found here apart from the illustrations, Binney’s introduction, and afterwords that five of the 22 authors have chosen to add to their original essays.

It is also the most important, however, in the sense that, as Binney notes, many of the articles became “seedbeds” for larger works: Miles Fairburn on the atomised social structure of 19th– century New Zealand; Tom Brooking on the Liberal Government’s Maori land policies; Binney on the shape and meaning of Maori oral narratives; Alan Ward’s reflections on the Ngai Tahu Waitangi Tribunal claim; Russell Stone on the practice of law in 19th-century Auckland; James Holt on compulsory arbitration; Belich on race, myth and identity in New Zealand. Others – Claudia Orange, Erik Olssen, Jock Phillips, Raewyn Dalziel, Barbara Brookes – are there, perhaps, to ensure the representation of important historians, and of major historical issues, such as the role of gender. Only one contribution, that of the late Ruth Ross on the Treaty of Waitangi, originally published in 1972, has been superseded to some degree by subsequent research and analysis.

At one level, this volume enables readers who come to the essays for the first time to discover a selection of the kinds of topics that have most preoccupied New Zealand historians for the past 30 years. As Binney points out, the essays reflect the interest of the professional historical community in New Zealand over that time. I would agree, with one reservation. The Journal of New Zealand History is unable to pay writers, and is therefore largely dependent for its contributions on those who are already in paid employment, and this means overwhelmingly those working in university history departments; or those who submit adapted theses as part of the process of publication and recognition preparatory to a university career. There is now a wider community of historians working outside this arena whose work is almost wholly unrepresented in the NZJH and therefore in this volume.


Histories, Power and Loss has a narrower and sharper focus than The Shaping of History. It concerns itself with “political and legal relations between Maori and the Crown [and] the negotiation of the sometimes uneasy relationship between the two peoples.” Because all but one of the contributions are new, it will have more interest for consumers who are familiar with existing New Zealand historical literature.

Part of that interest arises from the fact that two of the contributions, those of W H Oliver and Lindsay Head, are somewhat at variance with the view of the book’s editors that Maori have been largely unsuccessful in their attempts to share power with the Crown. Or, perhaps more accurately, Head and Oliver show that history has been and remains more nuanced than that stark and oversimplified editorial paradigm would suggest. Given that the editors are, respectively, a political scientist (Andrew Sharp) and a lawyer (Paul McHugh), such an outcome is no surprise. Nor is it unexpected that the editors’ own contributions reflect an a priori methodology rather than the more persuasive de facto approach favoured by their historian colleagues.

Judith Binney, drawing yet again from the apparently inexhaustible well of her research on Tuhoe Ringatu, teases out the skeins of an extraordinarily intricate land dispute in the Rangitaiki Valley in the eastern Bay of Plenty. This chapter is both a masterpiece of historical investigation and a window into the complexity of the Maori encounter with colonialism in the 19th century. Angela Ballara writes a riveting exposition on the “innocence” of history via an analysis of the spurious Waitaha renaissance. She undermines the authority of the piece, however, by letting the proponents of the Waitaha myth off the hook and crediting them with a degree of historical integrity that flies in the face of almost all the evidence (and by identifying Buddy Mikaere as a Ngai Tahu historian, which he is not).

One of the most stimulating chapters is that by Te Maire Tau, who is a Ngai Tahu historian, on the epistemology of Matauranga Maori. This is not an original paper: it was published previously in the inaugural issue of Te Pouhere Korero, the journal of the association of Maori historians. But it provides much needed consideration – from the Maori side of the cultural frontier – of the nature of Maori systems of knowledge. It is a matter for some regret that Tau sees such systems as ultimately being self-contained and not susceptible to harmonisation with Western systems and methodologies. This chapter is nicely balanced by that of Mark Francis, which deals with, among other things, anachronism in the writing of history: the process by which “historical actors are judged by the moral standards and political perspectives of much later commentators”. While the bulk of his analysis relates to the careers of George Grey and Edward Gibbon Wakefield, readers could have benefited from an application of the same principles to more charged areas of study, such as the Treaty of Waitangi.


Several of the themes examined in Histories, Power and Loss are taken up again in Telling Stories. Indigenous History and Memory in Australia and New Zealand. This book grew out of a conference at Monash University in 1997 and includes papers from New Zealand and Australian scholars. Interestingly, most of the New Zealand contributors, four of them, are historians; while the Australians are predominantly anthropologists (three of them). This has a bearing not only on the manner in which the chapters of the book are written, but also on the different ways in which indigenous cultures have been represented in each country.

Among the New Zealand authors, Judith Binney is once again a presence and a star performer. Her account of researching and writing her three books based on Tuhoe experience and sources – those on Rua Kenana, Ringatu women and Te Kooti Arikirangi – is both engaging and illuminating about the textures of Maori oral culture. Ann Parsonson, drawing on Tainui sources, has contributed an equally well-constructed and reverberative chapter on the role of oral narratives in the working of the 19th-century Native Land Court. W H Oliver provides a highly literate account of the vicissitudes of his own encounter with the Maori world as inaugural editor of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. And Alan Ward and Andrew Eruiti examine the relationship between Maori land law and the Treaty of Waitangi claims process.

One has to say, on the evidence of this volume, that the analyses of the nature and role of Maori storytelling are considerably more sophisticated and more compelling than the chapters on the place of narrative in Aboriginal life. This is due in part, no doubt, to the fact that Pakeha scholars have been working collaboratively with Maori in this territory for a longer period than White Australians have with Aboriginals. This judgement might also have something to do with the inescapable fact that, on the whole, historians tend to be more literate listeners and communicators than lawyers and anthropologists.


Many of the issues with which these three volumes engage – the character of knowledge systems, the role of narrative in cultural transmission, the nature of the Treaty of Waitangi claims process, how gender shapes historical experience – were, on the whole, unknown and, indeed, unimagined three decades ago. They raise the intriguing question of what the face of New Zealand history and historiography will look like another three decades on. Will New Zealand be “decentred” as an entity, as Peter Gibbons suggested last year in his seminal Keith Sinclair Memorial Lecture (which, by the way, would have made a powerful contribution to the Sharp/McHugh volume)? Will historians of the future decide that structures are more important than events, and the ongoing geography of trade more important than national boundaries? And what would such a context do to the shape and content of indigenous history?

Who knows? The ability of historians to shed light on an understanding of the past has never been matched by an ability to prophesy. The only thing of which one can be sure is the continuing relevance of Pieter Geyl’s description of history: that of an argument without end. Long may it be so, and long may publishers find a market for books such as these, which prove the validity of the dictum.


Michael King is one of New Zealand’s foremost historians and biographers. His recent memoir, At the Edge of Memory. A Family Story, will be reviewed in a later issue. 


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