Receding fast, Kevin L. Jones

New Zealand in the 20th Century: The Nation, The People
Paul Moon
HarperCollins, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869508043

A declaration of interest: as an archaeologist, I am a consumer of 20th-century history. The beginning of the century (1900) is where our Historic Places Act puts a limit on archaeological sites. Before that date, any remains are sites; after that date, they’re not. I need to know when cement was first manufactured, when the trunk railway lines were connected, when dams were built, when Chinese miners started to re-work older 19th-century gold mining tailings, when wharves and sewers were built. Beyond all that I want to know why our parents and grandparents sailed and trudged off to two major wars and many minor ones, how our political parties evolved and who came to power, when and why.

A number of general histories are or have stayed in print: Keith Sinclair’s History of New Zealand (1959), the multi-authored Oxford History of New Zealand (1981) and the Oxford Illustrated History (1990) (an entirely new work of several hands), James Belich’s Making Peoples (1996) and Paradise Reforged (2001), and Michael King’s History of New Zealand (2003) and his Illustrated History (2007). Belich’s and King’s works are the principal competitors with Moon’s. It is also the battle of two big publishers (Penguin versus HarperCollins).

Also in print or online are grand projects from the government’s cultural agencies, notably the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (1990-2000), the New Zealand Historical Atlas (1997) and Te Ara, the New Zealand online encyclopedia. Lurking in the historiographical ocean beneath these behemoths are National Library or National Archives digitisation programmes such as Timeframes (photographs), Papers Past, military records and online registers of places and sites. These last sources are where I can get answers to my archaeological questions.

For Moon to start at 1900 is a difficulty in itself. The roots of the 20th century are to be found in the late 19th. The rise of socialist ideas, the universal franchise and women’s vote, wowserism and prohibition, the politics of land, Maori religious and political ideas, militarism and loyalty to the British Crown: these are all 19th-century phenomena that led on directly, in the course of decades, to the 20th-century miners’ and wharfies’ strikes, to the Labour and National Parties, to prohibition, and to the entry and sustaining of effort in WWI and II.

Moon’s work is organised with a brief introductory chapter, then a chapter is given to each decade. The decades are made up of a series of short narratives on particular events or incidents (“vignettes” in the publisher’s blurb). There is a final paragraph or two of concluding thoughts at the end of the last chapter. Key shifts in subject between groups of narrative are marked by a wider paragraph interval and an ornamental type mark. A copy editor, I suspect, has also broken up the text with short sub-headings captured from the text but which are almost useless as an indicator of subject – bold headings such as “Held in His Arms”, “A Great and Good Example”, “Dying Interest” are examples in chapters covering the first two decades.

When I looked at how King treats the 20th century in his history, I found he devotes 12 chapters to it. They include “Party Politics Begins” (from the 1890s), “Baptism of Blood” (Boer War and WWI), “Farmers in Charge” (Liberal Party and Massey), “Maori Survival” (Ngata, Te Puea), “Depression and Recovery”, “At War Again”, “Land under Pressure” (the genesis of sustainability in the Resource Management Act), and “Return of Mana Maori”. These all have their correlates in Moon’s book, but King was first to colonise this particular territory.

Looking at Moon’s work chapter by chapter, there are some compelling images new to me. In the first decade he describes an 1897 occasion when Prime Minister Seddon picked up an ailing Sir George Grey (former Governor and Premier) in his arms and carried him down some stairs – having carried the past, writes Moon, “Seddon now held New Zealand’s destiny in his hands”. Truby King’s ideas that led to the founding of the Plunket Society are laid out – they are riddled with the imperial beliefs of the time, such as that women are not to be trained and that their role is to breed troops for empire work.

The New Zealand International (Christchurch) Exhibition (1906) is well described. Against the exhibition focus on faux-Maori settlements and industrial achievement such as steam engines, Moon observes that the exhibition all unaware was adjacent to the first laboratory of Ernest Rutherford (winner of the 1908 Nobel Prize for work on radioactivity, and later to split the atom) and that there was no mention of the early work (from about 1902) of Canterbury’s Richard Pearse on powered flight. Moon’s description of the buildings and entertainment of the Rongotai-based New Zealand Centennial Exhibition (1940) is also very good. Its greatest monument, the Kupe statue on the Wellington waterfront, is illustrated in its original Rongotai setting.

Overall, the work looks as though it has no real organising themes. In the introduction, Moon notes that with themes “any effort to try to braid them into a uniform representation applying to the whole century is inevitably doomed”. A need to stand in contrast to King’s scrupulously organised history and the vaulting hypotheses and imagery of Belich has probably dictated Moon’s use of an apparently formless narrative. However, on continued reading persistent themes in Moon’s work can be found.

Underlying the wide choice of particular subjects is a continuous strand of a conventional history’s subject-matter, such as political parties, their success or not at elections (every 20th-century election is covered) and analyses of national identity. However, the work is generally weak on the formation of political parties, especially the Labour Party.

Another strand that runs through the work is a casual reading of architectural styles, painting and poetry, which Moon uses to indicate something of the changes in taste and of living styles. It is clear, though, that this is not Moon’s particular strength.

Maori matters are important. Moon’s treatment of Rua Kenana, Pomare, Ratana, Ngata and Te Puea is reasonably full. Race and what we would now call racist thinking were big in the 1920s. Nothing is made of Ngata’s resignation as a minister of the Crown. However, he is accused of an “unpardonable” role in a 1920s inquiry into Chinese market gardens, stimulated by the employment of Maori women in the gardens and some intermarriage. It is good to have this sort of warts-and-all subject matter covered in a history.

There are some errors or inconsistencies. New Zealanders early in the century are first described as a land of yeoman farmers, then elsewhere as an urban underclass. Even then, there is no mention of the urban and rural elites, shopkeepers, or the remote communities of miners.

The major omission of the work is that there is very little description of the influence of external events and ideas. Apart from the already noted need to look for 19th-century roots in the early part of the 20th century, by the 1950s the impetus for change must have partly come from outside. Examples are the fall of Singapore, the partial Americanisation of taste, the Cold War (briefly mentioned), Thatcherism, and the government as just another contractor, news media style and ownership, and academia itself, which has rightly maintained and introduced international ideas within the educated elite.

In his introductory chapter Moon nods towards the need for “a sense of perspective inevitably brought about by distance from the period”. The most recent decades suffer for a lack of perspective. Two of his later small narratives, on the 1974 WB Sutch incident and David Lange’s Oxford Union debate, I should single out as being based on limited sources poorly read.

As his tenant, I remember Dr Sutch in his Brooklyn garden with its drifts of white Japanese anemones beneath rhodos and, up high, the grey slabs of old macrocarpa cuts. In 1975 when we conversed in that garden he was, he said, tired, “because, you know, of all that”. Moon’s brief narrative of the Sutch incident, presumably based on court reporting, is grudging and disrespectful to the man.

With Lange and his Government’s anti-nuke policy, Moon appears to have given a close reading to the Oxford text and the wonderful witticism delivered to the opposing speaker about how it was possible if he leaned closer to “smell the uranium” on his breath. Again, I feel that he has his view of Lange – limited to “his precocious talent for converting speech-making into an exaggerated, affected public performance” – plain wrong.

Both his telling of these incidents and the emphasis on many Maori issues appear to have led some media reviewers to suggest Moon’s work is biased towards Maori issues and is right-wing. I don’t find the work unbalanced in these respects. However, it is open to these accusations because it is organised by decade and there is no supporting analysis of how particular pieces of evidence have been read.

The book has many merits but its great deficiency is that Moon does not explain how he determined relevance and selected his materials. It tells a good story using incidents great and small, dramatic and illustrative in our 20th-century history, but fails clearly to examine the wider picture of that century, now a decade behind us, and receding quickly.


Kevin L Jones is a Wellington-based archaeologist and author of the Penguin Field Guide to New Zealand Archaeology (2007).


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