The Making of New Zealanders, by Ron Palenski, Auckland University Press (2012), 382 pp, $45; Home in the Howling Wilderness; Settlers and Their Environment in Southern New Zealand, by Peter Holland, Auckland University Press (2013), 254 pp, $49.99.
Ron Palenski has achieved much in his several careers as journalist, sports writer and biographer, and as an authoritative rugby, military and social historian; but I would rate The Making of New Zealanders as both his best and his most significant book yet. That he has also achieved the rare feat of converting an (admittedly) outstandingly good PhD thesis into a beautifully written book for every kind of reader from the general to the academic is an achievement in its own right. It is simply the best of its kind I have ever been called on to review; most of the others — including some by industrious researchers who must remain nameless yet who have gone on to achieve some academic distinction — have been lamentable: stodgy and clumsily written bores that can be found unread in libraries or clogging the shelves of second hand bookshops throughout the land. That should not be the fate of this book; this is award-winning material.
It is an ambitious book and the subject is not one for a faint-hearted writer to attempt, for it inevitably deals with some of the most frequently repeated ideas about ourselves, and controversy is of its essence. Palenski, thankfully, is no faint-heart and that is just as well. We have had too many of those so far in our historiography, and as a result our history is bedevilled by myths often spawned from emotional and ideological yet inadequately researched preconceptions. Palenski challenges a few of those and does it convincingly. His research is thorough and wide ranging and he shies away from none of the difficulties inherent in his subject. Instead he has thrown out his own challenges and widened the scope of the discussion in a manner that, happily, might well have raised the eyebrows of more narrowly focused academic historians.
Far too many commentators for far too long have concentrated too narrowly on Anzac, the glories of the 1905–6 All Blacks and even the Boer War as the crucial events stimulating our sense of ourselves as New Zealanders. Each of those, of course, was a powerful and memorable agent, but Palenski shows conclusively that none of them can claim to be the defining genesis of our sense of nationalism, which was already developing throughout the nineteenth century. Instead, by casting his research nets far wider than most previous historians, and further back into inadequately trawled, overlooked or all but forgotten aspects of our nineteenth century, he has widened the conversation and stimulated the debate. Of equal importance is his straightforward and informed common sense (not always, alas, a quality found in historians). After Palenski, commentators can never return to their few easy generalisations, although some who have staked much intellectual capital pursuing them might feel aggrieved.
One of Miles Fairburn’s many but least convincing theories, for instance, is to be found in his Disputed Histories: Imagining New Zealand’s Past (OUP 2006) during which he denies that New Zealand had any real and distinct sense of nationalism. He states: ‘No one has yet advanced a good case that New Zealand’s history diverged in significant respects from that of other comparable societies’. It was not, in short, ‘exceptional’. To be ‘exceptional’, he insisted, there had to be three requirements: there had to be: ‘an event or state of affairs that is specific to that particular country (or highly unusual); the event … must be capable of being composed into a theory that can explain or unify many successor events …;(iii) these successor events … must be unique or rare.’ Fairburn believed that our remoteness or ‘physical isolation’ had in fact prevented what he termed an ‘autochthonous culture’ but that instead we had been dominated by those of Britain, Australia and the USA. ‘Autochthonous’, it should be explained, is a word strangely beloved of theorists who revel in pedantic affectation and it’s a word I detest. It simply means ‘indigenous, native or locally independent’.
Palenski, on the other hand, is convincing but unnecessarily modest in his powerful counter argument that New Zealand’s ‘very remoteness and physical isolation were the very factors which helped provide an environment in which the country could meet in all essential respects [his] criteria for exceptionalism.’ And he develops his argument with an impressive array of facts and calm logic, emphasizing that New Zealand’s late nineteenth century consistently held self-image combined its often strident Imperialism with a belief in, and presentation of itself as a social laboratory of unique global significance; a point of view bolstered by the acceptance by social theorists and commentators throughout the English speaking world that the Liberal reforms of the 1890s giving women the vote and creating a new complex web of landmark labour and land legislation offered a unique and radical, left-wing beacon to the world.
Yet there were also many other manifestations of this sense of national identity strengthening throughout the 1880s and 1890s, but present far earlier, though I find his claims for the 1868 unification of the country’s hitherto haphazard system of regional time-keeping perhaps the least convincing. Of far greater relevance were the establishment of the electric telegraph with the momentous effect that had on newspapers, and the emergence of a whole series of national symbols of Godzone such as the silver fern and the kiwi. As a philatelist I also applaud Palenski for being the first New Zealand historian I’ve come across to correctly recognise the cultural significance of New Zealand’s first pictorial stamp issues of 1896 and 1898 with their superb images of native fauna and scenic wonders. These were the first issues of their kind anywhere and have been eagerly sought after by collectors worldwide ever since.
Palenski also notes the major political advances of the 1860s and 1870s: notably the legal acknowledgement of Maori who were granted the vote (with a wider franchise in fact that Europeans) and the four parliamentary seats set up by Edward Stafford’s government in 1867. As he rightly asks, where else in the world did indigenous races obtain similar rights? And he stresses the importance of the abolition of what he describes as ‘New Zealand’s own version of federalism’ — the provincial governments.
I’m glad that Palenski quotes Stafford’s famous speech of 1875 describing his emotions on first becoming Premier in 1856, though its true significance is wider than that of simply affirming a far-sighted young man’s allegiance to his new country; it was a direct challenge to the powerful provincial and separatist interests; a ringing declaration that from now on he, with his vision of a united, centralised state, was at war with the disruptive, jealous but financially unstable provincial governments. The ensuing twenty-year war was as bitter as any that our political history has endured, but Stafford’s centralising nationalism did win.
Palenski clearly shows that both the children of the first settler generation and their Maori contemporaries developed an affinity with their physical environment and how young Pakeha quickly became aware that it was different from those of their parents’ ‘home’ or the old world; and sport — rugby in particular with so much crucially important Maori involvement — played a powerful part in fostering that self awareness.
Palenski insists that the pioneer 1888-89 Native team with their monumental tour of New Zealand, Australia and Britain should be regarded as the first All Blacks, because of their black jerseys with the silver fern, their celebrated pre-match hakas and the on-field tactics they developed that were continued by the great and more famous team of 1905-06. He points out that Maori were also instrumental in setting up the NZRFU in 1892, and he establishes (hopefully for good) a powerful and even incontrovertible argument that the name ‘All Blacks’ was coined in this country during the New Zealand team’s 1894 tour of New South Wales and notby British newspapers in 1905 as legend has it.
Amongst academics, sport has until recently often been a surprisingly underrated aspect of our identity, but as Palenski sensibly comments: ‘to deny its wider impact on the people is to deny an enduring reality’. It is an essential building block of national identity — and not only for New Zealand and New Zealanders.
Palenski’s thesis, in brief, is a sound and sustained argument that New Zealand’s sense if its own special identity was well established before the great Australasian federation debates of the 1890s, when Sir John Hall famously observed that there were 1200 impediments in the 1200 miles of stormy ocean between New Zealand and Australia; and contemporary New Zealand attitudes and aspirations were summed up by his fellow delegate to the conferences, Captain William Russell, who declared: ‘we should endeavour to form a distinct race for ourselves … rather than amalgamate with other colonies…’
A significant reflection of that attitude is to be found in the words of Thomas Bracken’s God Defend New Zealand — first published as early as 1876 — with its emphasis on New Zealand’s glorious and even unique physical attributes rather than simple allegiance to a crowned head of state and empire.
Palenski manages to dispel some of the enduring myths of New Zealand history in this book, but he does repeat at least one, although he does so in common with several academic historians: that of Sir James Carroll having been the first Maori cabinet minister. Yes, he was the first Maori elected to a European constituency and the first to become acting prime minister, but he was not the first Maori cabinet minister. That honour must be shared by Wiremu Katene and Wiremu Parata who were ministers without portfolios in Waterhouse’s Ministry of 1872–73 and who held their places (because their parliamentary votes were crucial) in the succeeding Fox, Vogel and Pollen Ministries until 1876; and they were followed by Karaka Tawhiti in Atkinson’s Ministry (1876-77}, Hoani Nahe in Grey’s Ministry (1877-79) and Henare Tomoana in Hall’s 1879-82 Ministry. Carroll, however, did become the first Maori politician to hold a portfolio when he became Seddon’s Commissioner of Stamp Duties in 1896.
Such a small blemish, however, does not detract in any way from the quality of this book. It is wholly admirable.
Peter Holland is the distinguished Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of Otago, and his Home in the Howling Wilderness is, in contrast to The Making of New Zealanders essentially a specialist book that will delight (and surprise, perhaps) environmentalists, geographers, and those interested in all aspects of farming in our colonial period. It is meticulously and exhaustively researched and is written in a clear, no-nonsense style without too much of the tiresome specialist jargon often considered de rigeur by other academic geographers.
Holland has researched intensively into the southern pioneer farmers’ correspondence, diaries and account books, as well as all the numerous local contemporary newspapers and journals; and in so doing he reveals that most of those farmers — and certainly the successful ones — were by no means the crass agents of environmental destruction that they have sometimes been depicted.
This book must be the most thorough study of its kind and ought to be an inspiration to, and a model for all future would-be researchers into not just farming and our environment, but all aspects of our nation’s past.