Writing national histories

The 1990 Sesquentenary year was also a good year for the writing of histories. In 1990, for example, the Australian government presented $1 million to establish a South Pacific oral history archive as a sesquentennial gift. The first volume of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography was also published, containing the biographies of 427 Pakeha and 161 Maori.

A Dictionary for everyone

Described by Pauline Swain as ‘wrapped in a cover that drips with classical dignity, all greenstone and gilt engraving’, the first volume of the Dictionary was launched in June 1990 by the Governor General, Dame Cath Tizard. ‘Every school in New Zealand will get a free copy,’ she declared.

The Dictionary contained articles about people whose lives had impacted upon New Zealand between the founding years of New Zealand, 1769 and 1869.

General editor Professor Bill Oliver compared New Zealand’s Dictionary to its ‘British parent’, the Dictionary of National Biography which continued to serve Britain primarily as a ‘monument of Great Power achievement.’

New Zealand’s place in the universe was somewhat more modest, said Oliver. New Zealand’s Dictionary included many ordinary people whose only claim to fame might have been that someone remembered enough about them, after they had died, to write something down. Abner Clough and Appo Hocton (born Ahpoo Hock Ting) were but two examples.

In spite of the immense bicultural symbolism invested in New Zealand’s Sesquentenary of 1990, said Oliver, this was clearly not the year that the Pākehā bias in New Zealand’s history would be redressed. This was not the fault of Dictionary staff which included some of New Zealand’s leading historians, like Claudia Orange, Angela Ballara, Charlotte Macdonald, James Belich, Tairongo Amoamo, Miria Simpson and Oliver himself.

However, the Dictionary staff had gone out of their way to check historical accounts rigorously, to approach the task sensitively and to encourage Māori participation.

Historians setting the tone

Several years later, in 1996, Jock Phillips discussed again the question of ‘historians and national identity,’ arguing that historians needed to ensure their craft was taken account of within the ‘national identity’ debates.

History, he said, provided a critical ‘key to national identity’ because nations were, amongst other things, ‘imagined communities’ and ‘constructions of values.’ To the extent that such concepts possessed very long beginnings, the role of the historian was obvious and necessary.

An Illustrated history

1990 also saw the release of another major work of New Zealand history, the Oxford Illustrated History of New Zealand, edited by New Zealand’s foremost historian, Professor Keith Sinclair of Auckland University. This substantial book was well written and presented, containing fourteen important essays covering in rather breathless fashion New Zealand’s 150 years of history.

However, some of the publication’s reviewers pointed to some obvious flaws. WH Oliver commented that the book was missing substantive material on Māori, especially the process of Māori land alienation and its impact upon government policy.

Also missing was an analysis of Māori nationalist politics before the 1890s, when such famous names as James Carroll and Apirana Ngata begin to appear. The book’s narrow focus upon Māori, wrote Oliver, deprived the book of a ‘substantial coverage of wider Maāri economic social and political history from the 1860s to the end of the century.’

A review by Buddy Mikaere however pulled no punches. ‘I have no doubt,’ he wrote, ‘the reason why I was asked to write this review.’ It was because Pākehā these days genuinely wanted to present a Māori point of view. Mikaere suspected that this was market-driven because ‘we keep telling them what is wrong from our point of view and they keep ignoring it.’

Less empathy for Māori

As General Editor, Keith Sinclair undoubtedly possessed a considerable expertise in New Zealand’s past and was ideally placed to edit this volume. The younger Sinclair of the 1950s had also shown a considerable empathy for Māori; his The Origins of the Maori Wars still reads as a robust indictment of New Zealand’s settler government of the 1850s-1860s. However, by the 1990s, Sinclair was showing less empathy with Māori aspirations.

The Maori Council, he wrote in 1990, recently talked of having two legislative houses, one Māori and one Pākehā. A ‘Wellington Māori Professor’ (it was Professor Whatarangi Winiata) had spoken of New Zealand establishing a bi-racial senate.

‘I am sure that most New Zealanders would agree with me in regarding this idea as abhorrent’, said Sinclair. ‘It involves a system of racial representation along South African lines.’ New Zealand’s electoral system had never been racial, he wrote.

‘At first, as in Britain, the right to vote was based upon property.’ Then it was thought to attach it to people. Some Māori men had the vote in the 1850s. ‘Then all Māori men were enfranchised in 1867.’

Some weeks earlier, said Sinclair, Dr Michael Cullen, the Minister of Social Welfare, had discovered that there was a separate Māori social work unit in Lower Hutt, about which he knew nothing. ‘He said, and I agree’, said Sinclair, ‘that if we continued down this separatist path, we would have a liberal version of apartheid.’

This conclusion was surprising from one of New Zealand’s leading historians, perhaps attesting to the new realities of writing about Māori, or failing to do so, in such a rapidly-changing environment which the Sesquentenary of 1990 was unwittingly bringing to the surface.