The historian who opened our eyes, Jock Phillips

Michael King

I got to know Michael King as a student at Victoria University in the mid-1960s. It was an exciting time. There was marching in the streets, heated late-night discussions over instant coffee. We were getting out from under. Michael was in the thick of it – on “exec”, a campus figure everyone knew. He was also an enthusiastic history student, a bit unusual in those days when it wasn’t hip to be too overt about your academic interests. He thrived in the cut and thrust of tutorials. There were interesting people in the department at that stage: John Beaglehole, a great historian; Peter Munz, eccentric, brilliant, a magnificent lecturer and story-teller. It is no accident that Michael dedicated his last book to Peter.

Peter Munz was an historian of medieval Europe, bewitching us all with tales from Charlemagne’s court. The audience for his books was to be found in the halls of academe across the seas. The measure of success for a history student in those days was to find ways and means of taking flight to those hallowed precincts. New Zealand history was not an option for the high-flyer. The subject was regarded as boring and thin, and to study it would condemn you to provincial isolation. Even John Beaglehole said that all we had were some “tuppenny-ha’penny scraps” of history. When New Zealand history was taught, it was as an extension of British colonial history. True, at Victoria University there was a course in New Zealand history, but it was regarded as the soft option – for those not up to the serious stuff.

Potential writers of New Zealand history did not even have the option of turning to a popular audience. There were very few New Zealanders, or at least Pakeha New Zealanders, who knew about this country’s history or had any interest in it. We were a new country, trying to start afresh and escape the past. History was something that happened overseas. There were only two areas of New Zealand life where much history was written and remembered – rugby and war. Pakeha New Zealanders were grossly unaware of their past. Understanding this context allows us to recognise the courage and the vision it took when Michael King set out to become a professional historian of New Zealand, and it provides a measure of his contribution.

The situation now is very different. Today there are few New Zealanders who do not recognise that history is central to understanding ourselves. We are buying his latest history of New Zealand in numbers exceeding the sales of even Christian Cullen’s memoir. The news of King’s death has led to a remarkable outpouring of heartfelt tributes.

There are many reasons for this new historical awareness – the growth of a tertiary-educated population, the decolonising of the colonial mind that followed the cutting of our economic and political links with Britain, the impact of the Maori renaissance. Yet Michael King has been at the very heart of the change and is one of those who must be given major credit for it.

He never believed New Zealand history was irrelevant or boring. Growing up in Paremata, he read in James Cowan’s epic history of the New Zealand wars of the events that had taken place around that area. As he describes vividly in Being Pakeha, he lay in the earthworks behind the Puatahanui Anglican church, built deliberately on Rangihaeata’s pa: “I felt the presence of people who had gone before. I saw them in a kind of Arthurian world that was not Camelot but, literally, on my own doorstep.” He set out to imbue others with this passion – to convince New Zealanders that our history was filled with the most extraordinary stories, that it was a unique and hugely exciting history and that it was desperately relevant.

In particular Michael King taught Pakeha that we could never understand our country unless we understood Maori history. In his very first book, Moko, he described his discovery of another very different society in the Waikato. These kuia with their moko had a distinct worldview that other New Zealanders should know about. He went on to uncover, for us and for Tainui, the remarkable story of Te Puea.

It is hard to realise now quite what a revelation this was, even for distinguished historians. Te Puea was not mentioned in the two standard general histories of the period by Keith Sinclair and Bill Oliver. Today no general history could possibly be written without describing her vision in strengthening the mana and confidence of the Kingitanga. In between had come another major contribution in which King was facilitator as much as author. This was Tangata Whenua, still arguably the best television documentary ever made in New Zealand, in which Barry Barclay as director and Michael as interviewer took us to such places as Raglan, Ngaruawahia, and Parihaka and gently allowed Maori to introduce their worlds.

For myself, a Pakeha Christchurch boy, it was an epic discovery that changed the way I saw the country. From that moment New Zealand history could never be boring. Later in the 1980s came another fine biography of a Maori woman leader, Whina Cooper, a prize-winning book, Maori: A Photographic and Social History, in which a smooth-flowing text was enriched by a remarkable collection of images, and a gripping read on Moriori when Michael uncovered in wonderful prose the horrific and moving story of that people.

By then Michael King’s role in documenting Maori history was coming under question. Increasingly Maori expressed unease that their history was being presented to the world by a Pakeha. It was a painful time for Michael and it produced an intellectual and vocational crisis. To understand that crisis, and Michael’s response, we need to explore the different literary personae he adopted in his career. He insisted that his major social role was as a free-lance historian, not a salaried academic. He was not hostile to the academy. He respected academic history, was generous about its contribution, and always upheld the highest scholarly standards himself. He had a great respect for the hard realities of evidence. There are few factual errors in his books. His judgement is impeccable. He was the consummate professional historian.

What he did not share with academics was an interest in theory. His history was never driven by the desire to present a new thesis about an old subject. There is no “King thesis” in the way that there is a “Fairburn thesis” or innumerable “Belich theses”.  Rather, Michael was interested not in relitigating the old, but in presenting new stories, and he did so superbly.  And he believed that in order to write history successfully he needed to be a full-time writer. So a retreat into the university where he might have earned a living and kept his head down until the flak stopped was never an option. He remained committed to the life of the self-employed historian.

This was an extraordinarily brave act and an inspiring example, which at times forced him to live hand to mouth. Interestingly he did not even ensure his survival by taking on commissioned histories. When he did attempt such projects as a planned history of the Health Department, he found it difficult to complete. He needed to be imaginatively engaged, to be driven by his own enthusiasms. So when his own sense of discomfort led him to withdraw from writing Maori history, it left a major difficulty as to where he would turn to write successful, paying, self-directed history.

One option was to return to another of his personae, that of the journalist. Michael had began his professional career as a journalist. He always retained the journalist’s instincts. By this I mean two things. First, like any journalist, he did not begin in the archives. His work usually began, and came to depend upon, human contact – in conversations with Te Puea’s husband, Tumokai Katipa, or from discussions with Maui Solomon in the case of Moriori, or from his friendships with Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson. The list of acknowledgements in his books was always fascinating, and revealed much about the origins of his work. The relationship would begin, the intelligent sympathetic probing would follow, then came the book.

Secondly, as a journalist he always related his history to people’s lives. He gave it a wider social and political relevance which in time has intensified. So one option for him in the 1980s was to become more of the journalist/historian to pay the bills. The afore-mentioned James Cowan had followed this route, so that after the magisterial history of the New Zealand wars he wrote too much that was superficial. In Michael’s case there certainly were some “quickies”, to quote his publisher Geoff Walker. These included books on the Rainbow Warrior affair, a pictorial scrapbook of New Zealand, and travel books beautifully illustrated by Robin Morrison on the Coromandel and the Chathams.

But Michael was too intellectually ambitious to be content with this. In response to the “Pakeha keep out” view he began to explore “Pakeha identity”. There was
an excellent illustrated book on New Zealanders at war, a little-known but fascinating biography of the Austrian explorer and artefact robber Andreas Reischek and his autobiographical essay Being Pakeha. But exactly what “Pakeha identity” meant in terms of history was unclear.

So he turned to another of his personae, that of the historian as creative writer. We are immensely in his debt for this role too. There was a time when historians were defined in negative terms. We wrote non-fiction, as distinct from real writers who wrote fiction. They were “creative writers”, whereas we fact-grinders were presumably “uncreative”. Michael had early in life been aware of the community of “literati”, as he described them. Denis Glover had been a presence in his family home, and he had befriended James K Baxter. He was determined to show that writing history was a creative act, and to see himself within the tradition of creative literature.

In the hundreds of book reviews and extraordinarily generous, warm letters he wrote to fellow writers, in his work for PEN, the Authors’ Fund, the National Library, one sensed his passion to encourage a lively community of writers. And when he wrote he was ever the creative writer using all the literary skills of a novelist and drawing on his imaginative powers.

One thinks of the opening scene of Moriori when we are immediately located on the bleak wind-swept beach at Manukau Point – “the edge of the earth” – at Tommy Solomon’s burial. In my view, it was when his role as Maori historian was closed off that Michael’s sense of membership in this literary community became stronger. After finding no easy way to become a historian of Pakeha identity, he found a solution by becoming a biographer of two great New Zealand writers, Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame. This allowed him to talk about Pakeha society indirectly and to locate himself within a community to which he aspired and in which he felt comfortable.

But though Michael was without doubt a creative writer as well as historian, he was not a literary critic. The result is that these books are superb evocations of the social worlds in which Frame and Sargeson moved, but they do not add much to the understanding of their literary work. Nor could either of them really be described as typical exemplars of Pakeha identity.

So we come to his last work, his Penguin history. There can be no doubt this is a major achievement, which drew on all Michael’s skills as creative writer, journalist and historian. The story races along with verve and delightful anecdotes. The judgements remain fair and acute. Few professional historians will quarrel with many of the interpretations. Yet on the other hand few will find much that is new in the book; there is none of the creativity or originality to be found in Belich’s two volumes. Yet many thousands who have been gripped by King can’t finish Belich. Michael’s skills were in a masterful synthesis.

But there is an interesting irony.  For all his discussion since the mid-1980s about Pakeha identity, the weakest parts of the book are actually the coverage of Pakeha society and values. There is very little about the economy or class or Pakeha attitudes. It is difficult, for example, to understand the character of Pakeha New Zealand without confronting the fact that for almost 30 years around the turn of the 20th century there was a major prohibition movement. It tells us much about the quest for genteel respectability and repression. Yet this is totally absent from King’s history; Pakeha history essentially means politics and the creative arts.

To my mind the strength of the book is its marvellous coverage of Maori social history where Michael was able to draw upon both his early passions and his long researches. If the thousands of New Zealanders who have read the book learn something about how Maori have responded to the coming of the Pakeha, it will have made a significant difference to our present debates. In the long term I suspect that for all the range of his writings and the generosity of his friendships, the way he opened the eyes of Pakeha New Zealanders to the richness and importance of Maori history will be Michael King’s enduring legacy.


Jock Phillips is Chief Historian. This is an extended version of a presentation given at the memorial service for Michael King at Te Papa on 17 April 2004.


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