Crockery and bad language, Jock Phillips

Disputed Histories: Imagining New Zealand’s Pasts
Tony Ballantyne and Brian Moloughney (ed)
Otago University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 1877276161

This immensely stimulating volume began life as a tribute to Erik Olssen on the occasion of his retirement from Otago University. The editors tell us that “Erik’s work and influence is a strong and visible thread that ties the volume together.” Yet excluding the introduction and a fascinating last chapter, which is a reflective interview with him, there are only 15 index references to Olssen in the other eight chapters of the book. This comparative under-referencing is a measure of how far the “new history”, which is what the book claims to represent, has moved from Olssen’s historical interests.

Olssen, along with Judith Binney, Miles Fairburn and the young Turk James Belich, constituted the generation of serious historians of New Zealand who reshaped the field after the Sinclair-Oliver dynasty. What was Olssen’s contribution? His first book was a biography of John A Lee. Political biographies had long been the staple of New Zealand historiography, but Olssen’s focus was a bit different. He was interested in socialism, and the international quest by working people to obtain control of money and power. He moved onto a definitive study of the Red Feds, those radical socialists who tried to bring about the workers’ utopia in New Zealand in the early 20th century. This led him in turn to questions of class, occupation and identity. He turned to “history from below” and developed skills in counting.

Following the lead of American urban historians Olssen began a massive project on Caversham. His team put together a database of individuals who lived in this area of south Dunedin from 1890 to 1940.The project also collected oral histories. Out of this collective endeavour came a series of significant books, many jointly authored by Olssen. Along the way he pioneered with Andrée Lévesque the serious study of the colonial family, followed by a widely read article about Truby King. In sum, Olssen’s role was to introduce New Zealand historians to the new social history and to draw on the techniques of that history – counting, oral history, the experience of ordinary people, family history. Motivating this achievement was Olssen’s primary interest in questions of power and the distribution of economic forces in society, questions which had been there ever since the Lee biography.

There is very little of this type of history here. Biography of individuals has no place. Nor does politics – with the possible exception of Judith Binney’s fascinating essay. In a study of the “in-betweens”, Maori-Pakeha half-castes in the second half of the 19th century, she shows how a network of mixed-marriage families in the eastern Bay of Plenty used their connections to exercise power over property. Apart from this, politics is absent. There is no exploration of socialism, of class or of occupation. There are two graphs in David Thomson’s chapter, but little other counting. There is almost no oral history. There is a nice exercise in family demography by David Thomson, a feminist study by Barbara Brookes of Germaine Greer’s 1972 visit to New Zealand, and Judith Binney’s chapter on mixed marriages, but the history of the family is not richly represented.

If the questions explored by Olssen find little place in the new history, perhaps we should explore what the volume is, rather than what it is not. The unifying themes are lucidly spelled out in Tony Ballantyne’s and Brian Moloughney’s introduction. They see two central themes: the limits of national history (to which we will return) and the use of new sources and sites of investigation. On this second point their claims are valid. Language is of particular interest. In his chapter, Michael Reilly carefully examines words in Maori and east Polynesian societies to unpick the meaning of leadership in those societies. At quite the other end of the book, Barbara Brookes also examines words. In her nicely entitled essay “A Germaine Moment”, she shows how Greer’s use of “bad language” during her visit had extraordinarily deep roots in the social and cultural changes that New Zealand women were experiencing at the time. She amplifies this “war of words” with apt cartoons.

In her deft and sophisticated chapter, Bronwyn Dalley subtly explores the layers of meaning to be found in a close reading of historical photographs. She is not interested in photographs as “illustrations”, as superficial colour to accompany a historical point, but rather in the photograph as a primary route into subjects such as the history of dress, food, interior decoration or even emotion. There is also an imaginative use of evidence in the editors’ joint essay “Asia in Murihuku”. Forms of material culture once dismissed by historians, such as crockery, garden plants or foods, become building blocks of their argument. There is much to commend in this opening up of history to new sources and social behaviours previously ignored.

The editors’ first claim about the limits of national history is more challenging. The argument is that for too long New Zealand historians have taken the nation as their unit of analysis in a narrowly introspective way. They have ignored the comparative dimension and retreated into self-congratulatory claims about New Zealand uniqueness. This idea follows Peter Gibbons’ 2003 article, in which he argued the need to locate New Zealand history in an international context. This volume certainly bears out the value of this approach. Athol Anderson expands the sense of New Zealand in all directions to include the Kermadecs, Norfolk Island, the Chathams and the sub-Antarctic islands. Anderson’s “big New Zealand” enriches his conclusions about when people first settled here. Michael Reilly’s essay shows the value of treating Maori concepts of leadership against the framework of wider east Polynesian culture.

David Thomson and Miles Fairburn do not dispute New Zealand as unit of analysis, but tackle claims to its uniqueness. Thomson suggests that the demographic character of colonial Pakeha society might be better read as a variant of a British regional pattern than as a product of the new world frontier. Miles Fairburn focuses primarily on cultural patterns. He argues that New Zealand’s uniqueness consists paradoxically in its lack of cultural uniqueness. Because of the country’s distance and late settlement and its peopling by Europeans at the very time that international communications were developing, there was not the opportunity to evolve distinctive cultural patterns. This is hugely engaging and packed full of interesting insights. But one wishes that Fairburn would get beyond the argumentative trumpetings to explore in detail the pattern of incoming cultures that he identifies so well. “Uniqueness” is far too absolute a term. Few cultures are genuinely “autochthonous”. American popular culture, to take one example, had deep roots in Irish, Scots and African patterns. The development of cultures is a subtle evolution of the new enriching the old. The question worth exploring is not our cultural “uniqueness”, but how different cultural influences were transformed in New Zealand, and by what social groups. Fairburn’s conclusions are less important than the rabbits he lets out of the bag and chases.

The most explicit challenge to the nationalist paradigm of history is Tony Ballantyne’s and Brian Moloughney’s essay “Asia in Murihuku”. They challenge the national unit in two ways – by focusing on one part of the nation, which they call “Murihiku”, the southern part of the South Island; and by emphasising the engagement of that region in the 19th century with a global economy and especially Asia. The evidence they draw on is wide-ranging and disrupts an easy view of Otago and Southland as simply part of a “British” colony. But there is a worrying looseness about their claims – they draw their evidence heavily from Otago, but was not Murihiku Southland?

Much of the essay is erratic in its chronology. Like Fairburn, they adopt a crude cultural reductionism. “Asian” or non-British influences in the area are defined mechanically by place of origin. That potatoes came originally from South America, or tea and hydrangeas from China, does not prove that these geographical influences were strong in Otago or Southland. Such goods had developed a quite different meaning in British imperial culture and came to southern New Zealand as part of Britain’s imperial baggage. Potatoes had become more Irish than South American. Cultural meanings evolve with power and context. They are not defined by origins. How else did the lion (from Africa) and St George (born in Turkey) become symbols of England?

This brings us back to where we started and to the surprising absence in this book of questions of politics and power. It is clearly refreshing to challenge the nationalist paradigm in history and to open up new sites of historical investigation. But the reason the nation was a unit of analysis was that it was the unit of political organisation. State power made a real difference to structures, economies and cultures. Because he was interested in the politics of power, Erik Olssen never ignored the nation. I suggest that if the new history abandons the nation state and adopts a reductionist sense of culture, it may enrich understandings of the past at one level while impoverishing them at another.


Jock Phillips is general editor of  Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.



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