No eureka moment, Mark Derby

The Making of New Zealanders
Ron Palenski
Auckland University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781869407261

In these febrile times a passing mention of New Zealand in US media can provoke a front-page response from our own. So it’s instructive to discover that at the outset of the 20th century more than one US politician, both state and federal, campaigned explicitly on “the New Zealand ticket”. These counter-patriots had been inspired, above all, by reports of the legislative achievements of the Seddon administration. They were convinced that some version of Seddon’s big-government egalitarianism could, and urgently should, be applied in their own vastly less equitable society.

The campaign to “New Zealandise” America is one of a good many historical curiosities to be found in Ron Palenski’s painstaking, absorbing and idiosyncratic contribution to the study of national identity. Its central argument is that New Zealanders were “thinking of their country as their prime point of allegiance instead of some distant place of birth” from the late 19th century, a somewhat earlier date than other historians have allowed. As a thesis, this seems less than earthshaking, but it is surely significant for undermining the flag-waving around, in particular, events such as Gallipoli in our collective national mythos.

Palenski has based his book on a PhD thesis produced after a long and notable career in sportswriting. The result is refreshing and provocative, prepared to challenge received truths and eminent authorities, yet informed by international as well as local examples and by a slender underpinning of historical theory.

This country’s national identity formed “through an accumulation of events, a process of osmosis”, says Palenski. There was no eureka moment such as that sparked in 1854 by the eponymously and felicitously named stockade in the Victoria goldfields. Instead, a sense of nationhood evolved through such diverse courses as the adoption in 1868 of a nationwide standard time. Until then, as in other countries, towns set their clocks based on their position in relation to the equator. Those in Napier might differ by up to 30 minutes from those in Bluff, causing predictable difficulties for once far-flung citizens as the telegraph and ship and rail communications brought them in ever closer contact with each other.

Standardisation of the country’s timepieces is a story that deserves to be better known, as does the opposition to the move from those who deplored “the tyrannical caprice that actuates our rulers at Wellington”. It may not, however, mark a stage in an advancing national identity to the extent that Palenski seems to believe. New Zealand’s narrow form and north-south alignment, along with a growing sophistication in communications and transport, make such a development logical.

An account of the prominent place of news-papers in the jigsaw picture of an emerging sense of nationhood gains vividness and immediacy from Palenski’s own long acquaintance with newsrooms. He unearths instances of pioneer resourcefulness such as a very early forerunner of the teleprinter, and an urgent dispatch photographed and tied to the leg of a homing pigeon. Another journalistic skill effectively applied to historical analysis is the profiling of relatively unknown but unjustly overlooked individuals such as the courageous journalist J Grattan Grey, a Hansard reporter who also contributed articles to the foreign press. His scathing New York Times piece on New Zealand’s avid support for Britain in the Boer War resulted in his dismissal from government employ, and, in light of current world events, is worth reading over a century later:

To outside nations it will appear not a little odd that self-governing colonies 7000 miles away from the scene of strife should send off bodies of men to do battle against people they have had no quarrel with, or that they should think it necessary to assist in the subjugation of a people who claim the right of self-government the same as they do; but the jingoistic spirit at the Antipodes is too inflamed just now to care anything about the rights and wrongs of the question ….


Nineteenth-century New Zealand lacked a national press, Palenski points out, and this had the effect not only of further distinguishing the country from Britain but of provoking cut-and-thrust rivalry between the welter of competing mastheads. The editorship of a crusading local newspaper was a recognised route to national politics for ambitious figures such as Julius Vogel.

Throughout his book, Palenski illustrates his points through pungent quotations from a medium rarely employed by historians – the topical verses that were once a popular feature of New Zealand newspapers. However, he also subjects the reader to a plodding and obvious exposition of terms, such as the difference between metropolitan and provincial papers, and an unnecessary emphasis on technical aspects of page layout and type.

The author’s vast knowledge of New Zealand’s sporting history is well applied in an exploration of such endlessly engaging subjects as the origin of the term “All Blacks”, and of the team haka, along with such other nationalist apparatus as the kiwi symbol, the national flag and the term “Godzone country”. The 1884 Maori players’ tour of the UK is here accorded a similar symbolic importance to the 1905 All Black tour, especially since the team members were evidently not disposed to the cultural cringe. When they learned that the Brits felt cheated by their paler-than-expected complexions, they bought some black masks to wear as their railway carriage passed in front of an expectant crowd.

Elsewhere in his book Palenski reveals a degree of naivety, or narrowness, in his judgements of some of those he singles out for praise. James Mills, founder of the Union Steamship Company, undoubtedly built up a large and nation-binding fleet, and the glowing tributes paid to him are quoted without comment. Yet a string of Sir James’s passengers, including Henry Lawson and Mark Twain, recorded their appalled reactions to the condition of his ships and the treatment of their crews. Twain’s 1897 visit to New Zealand is referred to several times by Palenski but this contradiction is not noted.

Similarly, the hyper-energetic T E Donne, first head of the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts, is identified as a champion of New Zealand’s reputation abroad, who “sought to conserve our natural assets”. Palenski does not mention that Donne liberated red deer and other imported wildlife in the high country, and, when his colleagues objected to the damage the animals might cause, asked metaphorically, “How many travellers visit New Zealand to view shrubs and plants as against those who are attracted here by sport?”

Although in general well-made, The Making of New Zealanders is occasionally marred by haphazard editing. Useful and lesser-known texts such as J S Ryan’s Charles Dickens in New Zealand are footnoted yet inexplicably omitted from the bibliography. Quotations from sources as varied as V I Lenin and the Evening Post appear more than once in the same chapter, but with slightly different wording each time. These are minor but avoidable lapses in a substantial study of the evolution of the New Zealand national character that will surprise even veterans of the subject, and give enjoyment and insight to the rest of us.


Mark Derby is a Wellington writer and historian.


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