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A Life of J. C. Beaglehole: New Zealand Scholar


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J.C. Beaglehole became known internationally as the editor and biographer of James Cook. The four massive volumes of The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery, published by the Hakluyt Society between 1955 and 1967, together with The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks published by the Public Library of New South Wales in 1962, displayed his superb gifts as an historian and editor and provided the foundation for a new generation of Cook studies. In 1970 he was awarded the Order of Merit, the first New Zealander since Ernest Rutherford to be so honoured and still the only recipient to have made his career in New Zealand. At the time of his death in 1971 he had nearly completed the final touches to The Life of Captain James Cook. It was published just over two years later and was widely recognised as a remarkable biography, crowning his work on Cook.

Forty years earlier it had seemed far from certain whether he would have the opportunity for a career as a scholar and lecturer at all. On his return to New Zealand with a PhD from the University of London in the midst of the Great Depression, any sort of permanent position appeared unattainable. His willingness to speak out for academic freedom and civil liberties, at a time when public anxiety and economic uncertainty bred widespread intolerance of dissent, gave him a reputation as a radical and dangerous young man. This almost certainly cost him appointment to the chair in history at Victoria University College when it was filled at the end of 1934. A year later, with three books already published, he was appointed to a lectureship at Victoria. In 1948 a senior research fellowship was established to enable him to edit the Cook and Banks journals full time. Later this became a chair in Commonwealth History, in which he remained until his retirement.

John Beaglehole had left London with great reluctance. Thirty-three years later, in 1962, he was offered the Beit Chair in the History of the British Commonwealth at Oxford. He turned it down. New Zealand had changed; his relationship with New page 16Zealand had changed. Never the reclusive scholar, he had become involved in a wide range of activities. Working with J.W. Heenan, a remarkable public servant and Under-Secretary of Internal Affairs, on the activities and especially the publications celebrating the New Zealand centennial gave him, for the first time he later claimed (not without some exaggeration), a sense of what it was to be a New Zealander. His skills as a typographer, to which he brought a meticulous eye, had an influence well beyond the works for which he was personally responsible. The interests on which he published were legion: exploration, art, letters, architecture, music, universities, libraries, archives, politics, public taste, typography and design, as well as New Zealand history. Underlying much of what he wrote was a preoccupation with New Zealand as a society, with understanding its nature, with fostering those developments which might make it a more rewarding and civilised place in which to live.

As a public figure he was increasingly called to serve on boards and committees. He was a founder member of the Wellington Chamber Music Society in 1945. He was president of the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties for twenty years (1952–71); for nearly as long a board member of the National (later New Zealand) Historic Places Trust (1955–71); on two occasions president of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs (1954–55, 1957–60), in which he had been actively involved since the 1930s. He was also a member of the New Zealand Literary Fund Advisory Committee (1959–61), of the Board of Trustees of the National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum (1959–64), and of the Arts Advisory Council (1960–63). He was a long-serving member of the New Zealand National Commission for Unesco, and a member of the New Zealand delegation to the conferences at Paris in 1949, Florence in 1950 and Paris again in 1962.

Several times towards the end of his life, my father gave some fascinating glimpses of his childhood and early life.1 Had he lived longer I suspect the biography of James Cook might well have been followed by a volume of autobiography. While he could gently mock what he styled his 'trivial self-centred' reminiscences, he was well aware that he had lived through a period of exceptional interest in New Zealand's social and intellectual history and that he had been in a position to observe and even contribute to the changes that were taking place. A biography must take the place of that unwritten autobiography, but he left a wealth of material for the writer of such a work: books, essays, reviews, which 'flowed from page 17that seemingly inexhaustible source'2 for over forty years, and a host of unpublished letters. Most fully, perhaps, the letters reveal the range of his interests, his wit and the sparkling and affectionate play of his mind. Not surprisingly, they were often carefully kept by their recipients. These resources have made the writing of this work very much a father-and-son partnership.

Working on the biography led me to consider a number of issues. The first was whether, as John's son, I should be writing his biography at all. The second, not entirely unrelated, was whether there were areas into which the biographer should not venture. The third, again entangled with the others, arose from the extensive use I was making of unpublished private letters, often written with considerable forthrightness and no thought of publication.

Whether writing the biography of a parent is dangerous territory for a son or daughter remains for me an open question. It may, at its worst, lead to a work of cloying filial piety or, alternatively, an attempt to explain, or reshape, a parent and a relationship that were less than satisfactory in life. My relationship with my father was, I believe, remarkably straightforward (and in writing the biography I have discovered nothing to suggest otherwise). We shared many interests, though, perhaps surprisingly for Cook's biographer, he did not share my taste for sailing, and we had something of the same temperament. We both taught history at Victoria University, and for the six years before he retired were colleagues. I decided to write about his life because I found it fascinating and, while I have not sought to disguise my feelings of affection and admiration, what I have tried to achieve is a kind of objective intimacy that will complement the public record in illuminating my father's life and the connections between his life, his work and the times through which he lived.

Inevitably, looking at the man behind the scholar – and I am looking at a life as a whole rather than writing an intellectual biography – raises the question of whether there are any boundaries. 'From James Boswell to Lytton Strachey', Michael Holroyd has written, 'British biographers have traded in gossip and bad taste – which is simply to say we are fascinated by human nature'.3 I share the fascination; my father greatly admired both Boswell and Strachey. I am concerned more with the accuracy and liveliness of the portrait than with good or bad taste. Frances Spalding, the biographer of Duncan Grant, tells us that Grant, when he was eighty-eight, was asked whether he resented the public exposure of private lives brought about by recent biographical work on his Bloomsbury page 18friends. 'I've come to the conclusion that it's better', Grant replied. 'Everyone's past has been revealed now, and I'm rather in favour of it. It makes the lives much easier to understand; and otherwise things would be questioned without people knowing the answer, and I think that's a bad thing.'4 I find Grant's view persuasive and yet, as a son, I hesitate. In practice, the challenge has been to achieve a balanced perspective.

The use I have made of my father's letters – in many ways a remarkable source – raises other but sometimes related questions for a biographer. He could be cutting in his comments, not always charitable in his judgements. He was engaged, forthright; therein lies a lot of the interest in what he wrote. He made comments which could still, I suspect, cause discomfort or pain. I hope I have not quoted any such passages gratuitously; at the same time I hope I have caught his character as a correspondent. At times his language and strong feelings can mislead. What was colloquial usage at the time, would if used now suggest sexist, racist and anti-Semitic views that would be unacceptable. However, if all such language is edited out the reader loses some of the flavour of the letters. But how exactly should such phrases be interpreted? It would be rash to draw conclusions from the language of the time about the views of an individual; other evidence would be needed to corroborate what that language might suggest to a modern reader. In reading the letters, the tone – playful, gently ironical, passionate, biting – is as important as the literal meaning of the words used in conveying the writer's attitude.

I am conscious also that the reader may feel that my use of the letters leads to an uncritical acceptance of those attitudes, of my father's view of the world. There is a difficulty here, not least because of the relative paucity of historical or biographical work in many of the areas in which he was involved, which might have provided a context and a balance to what he wrote (and what I write). But I would not exaggerate the difficulty: biography is not history. I have tried to give a lively and honest portrait of the man; there may still be room for a more critical assessment of his views and what he achieved.

A further difficulty for a biographer arises from the very breadth of John's activities. The account of his early years, covered by the first seven chapters, is very much a chronological narrative. From the time of his appointment to a lectureship in history at Victoria University College at the end of 1935, and his involvement with planning for the centennial, however, a chronological account, while having the page 19veracity of reflecting the untidiness of life itself, would be fragmented in a way that would tax almost any reader. So in chapter eight I focus on John's life as it related to Victoria University College, his home and family, and the circle of friends which he and Elsie made in these years. I then look, in chapter nine, at his work (in the same period) as a part-time civil servant and historical adviser to the Department of Internal Affairs during the centennial celebrations, the war and the early postwar years and, more particularly, at the effect on him of his work in the Historical Branch. In chapter ten I write about his growing involvement in the world of books, music and the arts in the wider community. John's work on James Cook, the crowning achievement of his scholarly career, is covered in chapters eleven and twelve. The final two chapters cover the same period as the work on Cook, to some extent dividing it chronologically, though in looking at his involvement with bodies such as the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties and the National Historic Places Trust, both of which were started in the 1950s, I have ignored chronology and put it all in chapter thirteen. In the final chapter, which is largely on the 1960s and the first two years of the 1970s, I have concentrated more on an account of the private man, and also of the growing recognition he was receiving as a scholar and public figure. John's remarkable achievement was that the life which the biographer, for practical reasons, has to unravel into separate strands, as he lived it came together as one of extraordinary richness and achievement.

When He Became well known my father received a number of letters from correspondents who were Beagleholes or related to Beagleholes. He became interested enough to write back telling them what he knew of the family's history. It was not a lot. He exchanged a number of letters with an Ernest Beaglehole in Adelaide, Australia, suspecting, but not really knowing, that they were related. He knew his grandfather had left Cornwall as a youth, having already begun work as a copper miner, and after a time in South Australia had travelled on to New Zealand. The Cornish background and the remarkable change in family fortunes that followed emigration interested him, but he had little time to pursue this interest. We now know more about that background as well as that of the other families John was descended from, and can begin the story in Cornwall in the early nineteenth century.

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