Obituary — Judith Binney

Judith Binney 


Judith Binney dedicated her books to those from whom she herself had learnt: in 1995, Sir Monita Delamere and Sir Keith Sinclair; in 2009, Tuhoe’s great 19th-century leaders, “who chose to walk the long paths to peace”, and Te Akakura Rua “who taught me to look for these leaders”. Her parents, Marjorie and Sydney Musgrove, were acknowledged in her first book, and her partner, Sebastian Black, in later works. In 2010, Stories Without End was dedicated to Wharehuia Milroy and Pou Temara, two distinguished Tuhoe scholars of the present generation who had together supported Encircled Lands at its launch at Waikirikiri Marae. It was on this occasion that the name Te Tomairangi o Te Aroha was bestowed.

Te Tomairangi o Te Aroha, Emeritus Professor Dame Judith Binney: these were honours earned through a lifetime’s dedication to researching and writing this country’s history, in particular Maori history. Binney was honoured further – with the Book of the Year Award twice, the Prime Minister’s Award (2006) and the Elsdon Best Medal (2009). A Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, she was an astute advocate on the boards of the country’s cultural institutions; nonetheless, she identified first and foremost as a writer.

Graduating from the University of Auckland, Binney published her 1965 MA thesis as Legacy of Guilt: A Life of Thomas Kendall (1968). Jock Phillips recalls discovering the biography with delight: “Few other New Zealand historians have had such an intuitive and sympathetic sense of what the French called ‘mentalities’ …. She gave us Pakeha a view from the Maori side.” This was to become her life’s work – a tapestry of histories that brought a complex past vividly into the New Zealand present.

Binney’s professional life was framed by teaching New Zealand (and Mexican) history at the University of Auckland, where she edited The New Zealand Journal of History (1987-2001). Scholarly and challenging, she made an impact on generations of students, as Damon Salesa recalls:

What I remember most, apart from the intense – I want also to say dashing, if she will forgive me – figure she cut behind the lectern, are the stories she told … It seems simple now, and perhaps obvious, but Judith understands the power of stories.


It was the power of stories that drove her second book, Mihaia: The Prophet Rua Kenana and his Community at Maungapohatu (1979), produced with Gillian Chaplin and Craig Wallace. Out tramping with friends, Binney had arrived one tired day at the Maungapohatu settlement, then barely occupied. Gillian Chaplin has described the Urewera journeys that followed, with a box of photographs bringing forth memories and stories from strangers. Then:

We were invited to climb the mountain that hangs over Maungapohatu. As we climbed, we were not fully aware that Putiputi Onekawa and Te Akakura Rua waited anxiously below. It was cold, and near dark, when we returned to the welcoming arms of these two extraordinary women, who announced that they had been very worried about “the daughters”.


These early travels were undertaken with camera and tape recorder, as the historian encountered stories ‘other’ than those commonly met in New Zealand history. Binney was laying the groundwork for books that would, with increasing power, draw together an exceptional range of knowledge. After Mihaia came Nga Morehu: The Survivors (1986), oral histories of eight women connected to the Ringatu faith.  Women’s history, Binney noted, is sometimes only accessible through memory: memory triggered by conversation, by photographs; memory recorded in interviews. Nga Morehu has become a landmark in New Zealand oral history.

Over the next decade, Binney turned toward an enigmatic leader whose life was inextricably linked to the history of Te Urewera. Writing Redemption Songs: A Life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki (1995), she worked as ever independently, but with support from Ringatu leaders. Bringing together disparate (sometimes contradictory) evidence, Binney altered the way we read history – and transformed many New Zealanders’ understanding of this immensely influential leader.

At the heart of these far-reaching histories was always the evidence. In the report for the Waitangi Tribunal that became Encircled Lands: Te Urewera 1820–1921 (2009), her “forensic” research (as it has been called) was done for a specific purpose – a careful documentation of Tuhoe history in relation to the Crown’s Treaty obligations to Maori. That this is a painful history has been evident in responses of so many who have read this award-winning book – the culmination of decades of work and a deep commitment to the peoples of Te Urewera.

Binney wrote in 1995:

If we who live in the present in Aotearoa can discuss our shared history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, then we may gain from that past. If we cannot do this, then we will have learnt nothing from the past and we will have exchanged nothing with each other.


The gap she leaves is great, yet the legacy of her histories is immeasurable.

Bridget Williams

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Obituaries
Search the archive
Search by category