A life lived to the full, Tom Brooking

A Life of J C Beaglehole: New Zealand Scholar
Tim Beaglehole
Victoria University Press, $69.95,
ISBN 0864735227

John Cawte Beaglehole remains New Zealand’s best-known and most highly regarded historian internationally. None of the numerous Cook biographies published since his magisterial volume of 1974 has come anywhere near threatening the scholarship and insight of his research and interpretation.

Amongst mainstream histories, only Anne Salmond’s Between Worlds: Early Exchanges Between Maori and Europeans 1773-1815 (1997) and Trial of the Cannibal Dog (2003) have advanced Beaglehole’s discoveries and interpretations. The anthropologists Marshall Sahlins and Gannath Obeyesekere have also deepened our understanding of the Cook saga because, like Salmond, they have added the perspective of the indigenous peoples involved in the encounter with Cook and his world.

Unfortunately, like most historians of my generation, I never knew this extraordinary scholar and exemplary citizen personally. The only knowledge we had of Beaglehole the man was an excellent illustrated lecture delivered at the New Zealand Historical Association conference by Bill Renwick. Thanks to son Tim’s finely crafted biography, I feel that I now know this respected historian much better.

I came to this book with some trepidation. Insider biographies, or what anthropologists would call “emic” studies, are inclined to be full of “filial piety” and lean towards hagiography rather than biography. Too often they are little more than what Mark Twain called “bunk”. In contrast, accounts written by distanced outsiders are usually more objective and critical. Generally, however, Tim Beaglehole manages to maintain a healthy distance, and sets his subject in a carefully delineated historical context. The book is also gracefully written and is a good read. On balance, it provides fascinating coverage of an extraordinary life of scholarship and civic engagement.

Tim Beaglehole does not spend long on family precedents but does suggest that dissenting influences, especially Methodism and Unitarianism, helped shape John Cawte’s devout atheism. Father Ernest took a close interest in self-improvement and in the 1890s he joined the so-called Forward Movement to promote popular education. JC’s mother Jenny Butler shared an interest in the movement and in Methodism. All four of their sons (including brother Ernest, who went on to become a successful anthropologist and professor at Victoria University) would extend that interest in education by moving from Mt Cook primary school to Wellington College thanks to the free-place scheme introduced by Seddon’s Liberal government in 1903. Tim Beaglehole, though, argues that music, books and Unitarianism influenced young John above all else.

From adolescence onwards he developed into an expert pianist with a deep love of classical music. The family became heavily involved in the Unitarian church (which argued against the complex notion of the Trinity and advocated radical social reform) from 1904, JC having been born in 1901. The Unitarians encouraged the reading of all kinds of improving books, such as Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall and Thomas Macaulay’s and G M Trevelyan’s histories of England. The young JC also read Oscar Wilde and H G Wells, amongst many other authors, and started writing poetry and printing small books.

John began his BA at Victoria in 1919 undecided as to his future career but with a vague interest in book selling or librarianship. He did not distinguish himself at first, until H G Wells’s Outline of History fired his imagination. On finding his real love, he changed from English to history and shone in the subject. JC completed his MA in 1924 by writing a thesis on Governor Hobson and the New Zealand Company. This research acquainted him with the riches of the Alexander Turnbull Library but he  paid very little attention to the Treaty of Waitangi because of the Anglo-centric framework shaping most university research at this time. He broadened his range by editing the Victoria students’ magazine Spike. Through his participation in the Tramping Club, JC also met his future wife and greatest supporter Elsie May Holmes, the daughter of a Wellington banker.

JC won a post-graduate travelling scholarship to the University of London and set off in 1926. He started work with the famous Tudor historian A F Pollard. Like most British scholars of this era, Pollard had no time for colonial history, and set JC to work on 16th century intellectual history. This topic had already been written up in a recent book and luckily for both imperial and New Zealand history, A P Newton, Rhodes Professor of Imperial History at London, came to the rescue and supervised JC’s thesis on colonial governors between 1783 and 1840. When not studying, JC explored the rich cultural resources of London with enthusiasm, developing a deep interest in and knowledge of painting and theatre, as well as music. Elsie joined him in 1928, and they travelled widely around Britain and Europe before he submitted his thesis in February 1929. He passed in late March, became engaged to Elsie in July, and sailed home soon after, despite the protests of many advisors. The need to return within three years of departure to secure a free passage played no small part in this decision, which would set him apart from many expats who stayed on in the hope of finding suitable employment.

Academic jobs were scarce in New Zealand, especially as the full force of the Great Depression hit. JC knew he could not afford to marry until he had a job. The death of his mother shortly before he sailed made the homecoming even more poignant. He resolved to make the best of a difficult situation and seized the offer of a lectureship with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in Dunedin. He and Elsie married in March 1930, and JC travelled widely around Otago, developing his lecturing skills before moving to the equivalent position in Hamilton in 1931. The worsening economic situation ensured that his contract was not renewed. The WEA did, though, offer part-time work in Auckland, and JC used this respite to seek a job at the University of Auckland. He had begun writing letters to the papers about breaches of civil liberties, and won the suspicion of highly-placed bureaucrats. The conservative registrar Rocke O’Shea persuaded Chancellor Sir George Fowlds to impose limits on what staff could teach and say. JC protested publicly and came under police investigation. His courage and “advanced views” almost certainly cost him a lectureship in history at Auckland in 1932.

Auckland’s loss became Wellington’s gain, but not immediately. After returning to Wellington, JC scrimped a living between 1933 and 1935 marking public exams, doing small jobs for WEA and covering lectures for the ill E P Wilson at Victoria. Baby Tim arrived in April 1933, placing further financial pressure on the family. Such concerns, of course, did not stop JC’s wide reading and engagement with civil liberties issues at Victoria, and he managed to write a short, eloquent and rather nationalistic history of New Zealand, ironically enough initially published in serial form by the quasi-fascist New Zealand Legion in 1933 (it appeared in 1936 as New Zealand: A Short History, from Allen and Unwin). Another synthesis entitled The Exploration of the Pacific followed in 1934 from A and C Black, and he began work on a history of the University of New Zealand which eventually appeared in 1937. Despite this burst of productivity, the Victoria Council promoted the Australian historian Freddy Wood to the chair of history ahead of JC. This forced him to seek jobs all round the globe, but excellent reviews for The Exploration of the Pacific helped his case. Wood worked hard to get a new lectureship in history established, and JC took up the position from 1936.

JC spent most of his early years at Victoria planning publications to mark the centennial of the British annexation of New Zealand. He worked closely with Labour’s master cultural bureaucrat Joe Heenan, heading the Historical Branch from 1941 to 1951, in addition to carrying out his tasks at Victoria. A short popular book on The Discovery of New Zealand appeared in 1939, followed in 1942 by Abel Janzoon Tasman and the Discovery of New Zealand. This handsome edited volume set the pattern for his later Cook and Banks journals. He added some lectures on constitutional change in 1944, an Introduction to New Zealand commissioned by the Department of Internal Affairs in 1945, and a short history of Victoria University College in 1949. He also designed many of the centennial publications that appeared during the war years. Somehow he found time to promote what Bill Renwick terms “a life of the mind” by assisting with the running of the Wellington Co-operative Book Society, helping with the establishment of the National Orchestra and State Literary Fund, and working with Clarence Beeby to promote the activities of UNESCO.

JC returned to London on leave in 1949 and turned his attention to editing the Cook journals. Numerous leaves, interspersed with several field trips around the Pacific, enabled him to publish the journals of the three expeditions in 1955, 1961 and 1967 respectively, along with the Banks journal in 1962. This task of editing and annotating still constitutes the single greatest contribution to historical scholarship by a New Zealander. The precision, checking, matching and rechecking constituted a gargantuan task. JC was, nevertheless, helped by the fact that he worked as a virtual research fellow for most of this time and did relatively little teaching or administration compared with the great majority of New Zealand academics. (Victoria finally appointed him professor in 1963 after he had turned down the offer of the Beit Chair in Commonwealth history at Oxford.) Perhaps there is a lesson here if we hope to empower our scholars to compete at the top international level.

Over this period JC also wrote many fine essays perhaps the most important of which was The Making of the New Zealand Scholar published in 1954. Writing a major biography of Cook represented the last major task confronting a now rather weary JC. Sadly he died in 1971 before he had finished the book which finally appeared, completed by Tim, in 1974. In some ways it fell short of expectations, partly because so much had already been revealed, but it still towers over any of its rivals in the depth of its scholarship and the range of its insight.

During this time JC remained active in a staggering range of organisations, most noticeably the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. His support also proved crucial in the establishment of an Arts Funding Council and the New Zealand Opera and Ballet Companies. He could not resist being drawn into a fierce critique of Sid Holland’s refusal to allow the wharfies to put their case during the protracted 1951 waterfront lockout. He played the piano every morning, tramped regularly until well into his 60s, and enjoyed his rich and varied life at Messines Road, Karori. He lived life to the full until his sudden demise in 1971. JC Beaglehole left a legacy of the highest scholarly standards and civic engagement for his successors to follow.

This summary of JC’s achievements underscores the point that his was a truly remarkable life of accomplishment, both in the academy and the public sphere. We now know much more about the scale and range of that accomplishment thanks to this affectionate, sensitive and witty biography. Yet it is not without a few blemishes.

Tim Beaglehole is occasionally guilty of filial piety. He claims, for example, that the Order of Merit (JC being the only New Zealand recipient who made his career here) is worth more than a Nobel Prize. This is surely an overtly Anglo-centric view more becoming of the father than the son. Although Tim praises his mother’s support, her efforts in doing all the cooking and domestic tasks until ill-health afflicted her late in life, deserves still greater praise.

Furthermore, even though the editing of the journals represented an enormous scholarly achievement, JC was very much a man of his times who generally failed to say much about the key historical dynamics of gender and race. The view he presented was very much that of an inquisitive European looking out but reveals little of what the various indigenous cultures encountered by Cook made of the strange explorer and his crews. Nor do we gain much sense of how the encounter changed both Cook and the imperial project itself. JC may have been much influenced by Ivan Sutherland’s work on contemporary Maori, but Maori, like other Polynesians, are essentially bit-players in his account of Cook’s voyages. We also learn much more about the explorer than the private man in the final biography, with  JC leaving it to Anne Salmond to come up with a convincing explanation of Cook’s loss of equilibrium on his final voyage. Then there is the matter of the voyages’ lower ranks who did not leave behind journals. As another reviewer has suggested, we needed a further chapter on the scholar at work.

Nevertheless, this is a fine biography of a great scholar, a superb writer and a life-long activist who made a very tangible contribution to the development of so-called “high culture” in New Zealand. It serves as a useful antidote to James McNeish’s work on famous ex-pats whose combined efforts did not constitute anything like J C Beaglehole’s contribution to the intellectual and cultural life of this country. Because that contribution was both so broad and so deep, this book also makes an important contribution to New Zealand intellectual history.

On a more concerning note, anyone reading this large and handsome book will be left pondering how equivalent studies of leading scholars might be written in the future, given that the handwritten letter has been replaced by cryptic musings which dissipate in irretrievable cyberspace. It seems that satisfying literary biographies such as this, or Michael King’s work on Sargeson and Frame, are fated to become treasures lost in the pre-computer world.


Tom Brooking is Professor of History at the University of Otago, Dunedin.


Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category