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Island Stories


page 147


The foregoing chapters have both discussed some texts in detail and made more general surveys of them and their contexts. I have attempted to show the interpenetration of texts and contexts. This approach casts some light on the workings of texts, but it also illuminates the contexts that were reformulated through these texts. This task of this final chapter is to piece together the individual chapters' findings to create a broad picture of history-writing in interwar New Zealand. I will proceed by briefly recapping the arguments of the preceding chapters, contrasting the various histories discussed in them with reference to some persistent themes of the thesis, and then assessing the changes in history writing between 1920 and 1940.1

The local histories of the period 'colonised' their district discursively by claiming that the pioneers made the area fruitful, by marginalising Maori, and by arrogating the language of origins. Each text commemorated a particular group. In keeping with their commemorative functions, local histories named en masse, seldom criticised their subjects or revealed personal 'faults and frictions', and attempted to give voice to their subjects through lengthy quotations. This latter characteristic was related to local historians' efforts to collect and preserve the knowledge and artefacts of the disappearing past. Their histories were organised round the central figure of the pioneer: hardworking, resourceful, energetic, and a public servant to whom later generations owed obligations of memory. The image of the pioneer was an important currency of value in Pakeha culture generally. In local histories, this image was appropriated and contested on behalf of Pakeha groups who were marginalised by local élites.

Cowan too wrote about 'pioneers', but his pioneers were, first and foremost, 'frontiersmen'. They were not only breaking in the land, but exploring racial borders. Other border-crossers, such as the Pakeha-Maori, also loom large in his work. For Cowan, both sides of this border mattered: though there was nothing covert about Cowan's racism, he was the only writer discussed here to accord Maori page 148and Europeans a similar level of agency. Cowan's New Zealand was made through racial conflict and the respect that emerged from this test by battle. In his books Maori were not the incidental figures that they were in the pioneer narratives of the local histories. Cowan's books drew on a variety of sources, including American historiography and popular fiction, and perhaps most importantly the testimonies and friendship of veterans. Cowan's commitment both to Maori causes and to pioneer-adulation, and his attempt to build a story of racial compact out of a racial conflict, made his books unstable. Sometimes, as in the draft of Settlers and Pioneers, this tension became explicit. Cowan had a more ambitious project for a national history than anyone else discussed in this thesis, because his metanarrative admitted much more conflict That he failed to synthesise these conflicting voices does not make his work any less important. Indeed, his failure demonstrates some (but only some) of the heterogeneity of New Zealand's past which other contemporary histories smoothed over.

Like many local historians, Cowan drew heavily on interviews for his history. Personal testimonies, oral and written, gave him 'the real meat of history': history was a matter of individuals' activities, as it was in a more institutionally implicated way for the local historians. For Cowan these individuals' deeds amounted to more than they did for the local historians: they made a national history. Of the other Wellington historians and their contacts in other cities, only Buick and (much less coherently) Ramsden made parallel attempts to create a general story of New Zealand's development. Buick, Ramsden and Cowan took particular phenomena (the Treaty of Waitangi, conversion, war), concentrated on particular locations (the Bay of Islands and in Cowan's case most of the rest of the North Island as well), and treated these as defining or governing New Zealand history. None of them grounded their narratives of the making of New Zealand in a broad general history.

Their wider concerns did not prevent Buick, Ramsden and Cowan from having emotional attachments to their subjects, and inclinations to defend their subjects' reputations, that were equal to those of local historians. Like most local historians, they had personal contact with some of their subjects or their descendants. They were keenly interested in the 'character' of historical personages. The same went for Stewart and Scholefield. Scholefield, who considered himself 'a student of social science' and who was interested in economic and political structures, also produced the most substantial work of biography.2 His Dictionary was also the most impressive textual embodiment of the practice of collecting. Like Cowan with his interviews, and local historians with their interviews, reminiscences, and museum collections, Scholefield, Fildes, Buick, Ramsden and Stewart stressed the need to page 149preserve the residues of 'our fast receding history'. They relied more on written sources than Cowan did, though all except Fildes saw value in interviews. They took pains to augment New Zealand's libraries and archives, and to make accessible through their books the voices of primary sources, albeit with varying levels of accuracy.

The concern with collection extended to some university historians. At Auckland University College, Rutherford gathered historical records; at Otago, Elder edited the journals of Marsden and his lieutenants. Unlike Rutherford, Elder partly adopted the non-university historians' collector-like mode of writing. This way of writing relegated the authorial voice almost to editorial status, and quoted in bulk. Hight too wrote like a collector, though about different subject-matter. Neither Hight nor Elder, the two academic historians whose tenures spanned the interwar period, had been schooled in the academic tradition that took shape in Britain from the beginning of the twentieth century, a tradition involving training in research and intense attention to the administrative and constitutional detail of state-formation.

In the mid-1930s, three historians schooled in this tradition (in particular, Beaglehole and Rutherford, though some of the latter's study was in America) took up academic positions in the North Island colleges, and others (Morrell, Marais, Harrop) wrote on New Zealand history from afar. Airey and Condliffe were educated differently, but they too brought to New Zealand history practices different from those of Hight, Elder and those outside the colleges. Among these practices one might count a documentary rigour, though this can be overstated. Fildes seems to have been as accurate as any of the academics, and like most of the academics he distrusted oral sources. The major innovations of the newer academics were, first, the treatment of New Zealand history in a new genre, the scholarly monograph, thoroughly footnoted and written more as a synthesis of sources than an anthology of quotations; secondly, the treatment of New Zealand history within the framework of the historiography of British colonial policy, rather than merely within the confines of imperial patriotism; and thirdly, sweeping general histories. These general histories brought substantial and sustained economic analyses and almost unprecedented cultural critiques. Though they took the nation seriously as a historiographical unit, they emphasised its dependence on the outside world, and some were nationalist through their criticism rather than praise. Where Cowan and Buick had treated New Zealand's overall history as a particular process (war, sovereignty) writ large, the general histories written in the universities cast their net over a wider range of subjects. Their accounts, however, concentrated mostly on Europeans; like the local histories, they pushed Maori to one side.

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In this way these university histories were ideologically closer to the local histories, Scholefield and Stewart than they were to Cowan and Buick. The latter pair foregrounded race relations; the others put Maori people on the sideline of 'New Zealand' history, which was tacitly assumed to be a European phenomenon. Maori consequently appeared mostly in subplots designated specific to themselves: 'Maori scares', 'Maori wars', 'the Maori problem'. Texts as different as Beaglehole's New Zealand: A Short History and Woodhouse's George Rhodes of the Levels assumed that New Zealand history was the history of European endeavour in these islands.

In this respect the Centennial surveys were a 'standardisation' of New Zealand historiography. In marked contrast to some of the non-literary Centennial celebrations, the surveys eschewed 'patriotic exoticism'. Reference to conflict between Maori and Pakeha was also muted; even 'good' race relations were not emphasised. Their style modified, pioneer narratives were retained. In some cases subtly used as structuring principles for discussions of topics as unlikely as literature and international relations. European settlement and society became the stuff of New Zealand history. In some of the surveys, this history was conceived along the lines of McCormick's adaptation thesis. Others treated New Zealand history as Pakeha history in less theorised ways.

I want now to draw together the issues raised in the preceding chapters, and examine more directly some issues and relationships that I have so far treated incidentally. The first matter I want to look at is these historians' different positions on the question of 'objectivity'. The local historians made no claim to absolute truth. Some explicitly stated the commemorative purposes of their works, and acknowledged their elision of 'faults and frictions'. When Cowan defended the accuracy of his works, he said they were 'true': he seldom had recourse to the more clinical term 'objective'. For him, historical truth was bound up with personal investments. 'Human documents' such as interviews brought an investigator closer to the truth than more impersonal texts did. He privileged the accounts of people he had met personally; when he reached an evidential impasse, he would simply provide documentation from which readers could draw their own conclusions.

Whatever the veridical status of Buick's work, on the surface The Treaty of Waitangi conveys an impression of wise judgement. His prose enacted comparisons of different sides of an argument and magisterially settled on a conclusion that involved the least amount of conflict and criticism. Hight impressed upon his students the objectivist pronouncements of Lord Acton; for him, as for Scholefield, who wanted his Dictionary to be non-evaluative and 'purely factual', the stance of objectivism seems to have foreclosed any self-examination. Thus could the austere page 151Hight refer airily to 'that sense of rough justice which is never wholly absent from any community of white men'.3

Most other academics made less pretence at total exclusion of subjectivity than Hight did. They were more alert to the complexities and contrariness of evidence, perhaps because of their grounding in archival research. To make broad generalisations about their philosophies by reading between the lines is dangerous: perhaps the most one can say reliably is that their primary research made truth-claims possible at the same time as it made them provisional. None of them claimed to be above judgement, but they claimed or aspired to judgement based on a comprehensive and critical examination of those sources agreed to be valid and pertinent.

Objectivity, then, did not mean neutrality. Condliffe's New Zealand in the Making was openly polemical but its claims were grounded in piles of evidence. Beaglehole's New Zealand: A Short History supplied statistics and other evidence, but it was firmly within the genre of the essay. It made no pretence at being a reference book and instead provocatively satirised its subject-matter. Morrell's book on colonial policy was a monograph rather than an explicitly reflective essay (as Beaglehole's 'The Colonial Office' was), but in the course of its narrative it assessed conflicting arguments on particular points.

In this thesis I have used the word narrative in a broad sense, rather than in the sense it is often used by historians and history teachers, as the opposite of 'analysis'. Both narrative in this restricted sense and analysis (assessing arguments, critiquing sources) had a place in academic monographs such as Morrell's. The structure was usually chronological (or, if the book was divided into sections on a number of colonies, each colony's section was chronological) and the analysis was spliced together with the narrative. The same went for the general histories, though at a higher level of generalisation.

Buick's writing was not far removed from this practice of interleaved 'narrative' and 'analysis'. He too wrote chronologically and wrestled with what he regarded as knotty issues as they came up in the material. Thus, the distinction between academic histories written along English academic lines and other New Zealand histories was not that between 'narrative' and 'analysis', but between different kinds of narrative and analysis.

However, some historiographical practices in the interwar period could fairly be described as unanalytical. One of the most common was quoting in bulk and relegating the narrative voice to bridging status between excerpts from sources. Many local historians wrote in this manner. Other writers, such as Acland, and page 152Fildes in his compilation of James John Taine's reminiscences, did the same thing on a larger scale, in much the same mode as their predecessor, McNab. Elder, Hight, Woodhouse and Buick also employed the tactic of extensive quotation, but they bolstered it with a strong authorial voice.

Buick, in addition, wrote sustained oratorical passages. His work was widely praised for its 'romantic' and 'picturesque' qualities. 'Romantic' was a word widely applied to historians' works, by readers and by the writers themselves. It was applied to Cowan's accounts of battle and Buick's recreation of the Bay of Islands in the 1830s, and, in Harrop's first book, the history of Westland. As I argued in the section on Letters and Art in New Zealand, the use of this word as a touchstone for New Zealand history (and 'Maori legends') made history a kind of proxy for literature, at least as a weapon against claims that New Zealand had no distinctive identity because it lacked quality high-cultural artefacts. On a more subtle level, the use of the word 'romantic' discloses associations between history and fiction. If it had any link to early nineteenth-century romanticism it was probably not to Wordsworth but to Walter Scott. Erik Olssen has argued that Otago's 'pervasive historical consciousness' owed much to Scott; Scott was also a popular author elsewhere in New Zealand in the nineteenth century and at least as late as the 1920s and 1930s.4 The romantic picturesque associated with him was evident in a wide range of writings and aesthetic judgements in 1920s and 1930s New Zealand.

Cowan was one of the most persistent exemplars of the 'romantic' strand of writing. His work also contained other generic elements, most notably those of popular fiction. His work had strong American influences, but it also fed on the plot-heavy masculinist short fiction with oral story-structures (and often with yarning narrator figures as well) that was common in New Zealand at the time.5 Gilkison too worked in this latter tradition, and a chapter of his Early Days in Central Otago would have fitted well into O. N. Gillespie's anthology New Zealand Short Stories. (Elder used much the same anecdotal material for his populist works, but he narrated it in a less excited style and substituted a broader explanatory framework for the oral frames of Cowan and Gilkison.) The overlap in style between yarning, anecdotal histories and some popular Australasian and American fiction is nicely emblematised by the way the Wellington City Library and the PEN Gazette classified page 153separate Cowan collections of historical stories as 'fiction', much to the author's chagrin.6

'Yarning' histories preserved some of the oral nature of their source material. Characteristics of sources intersected with particularities of style and genre in other kinds of history too. To take one example, the historiography of colonial policy was based on official publications and Colonial Office and New Zealand Company papers; less formal (and more 'romantic') New Zealand sources like settlers' or travellers' reminiscences were of minor importance to this body of work, which retained much of the formal, institutional character of its source material.

The questions peculiar to different traditions of history also shaped the nature of the histories written therein. Working on the terms of academic imperial history, Marais and Harrop discussed 'the colonisation of New Zealand' in relation to the New Zealand Company, the British government, and the agents of both; for local historians, the subject-matter of colonisation was the daily business of settlement. Rutherford's and Buick's accounts of the Treaty of Waitangi formed one of a very small group of cases in which very different historians examined the same sources on the same topic; they produced very different accounts.

As a corollary, historians in the interwar period worked with a variety of metanarratives. Cowan's version of New Zealand was a tragicomedy: through the strife of war Maori and Pakeha came to respect each other, and in partnership save each other from racial degeneration. This achievement through suffering remained in the twentieth century as a memory for all New Zealanders to honour and revel in. Buick and Ramsden also located the heart of New Zealand history in Maori-Pakeha compact, though for them this compact was achieved more peacefully. For Buick, racial unity was secured through the Treaty of Waitangi and its ongoing compact. In Ramsden's work, this state of affairs was threatened by dissolute Europeans in the 1830s and potentially threatened by apathetic Pakeha a century later. In Buick's Treaty of Waitangi and his public speeches, the Treaty was threatened by 'misunderstandings' (by Heke, FitzRoy, and the New Zealand Company) in the nineteenth-century, but never seriously breached; at the time of writing, he said, Pakeha needed to make sure that they did not betray Maori trust.

Buick and Cowan (and Ramsden, with whom I have dealt only in passing) were the only New Zealand historians at this time to work with a metanarrative in which 'race relations' played a significant part. This does not necessarily make them heroic. While I believe that Cowan's texts (and I do mean his texts, because Cowan himself could not subjugate the conflicting currents in his work) came closer than page 154any other Pakeha writings to collapsing the contradictions of Pakeha ideology in on themselves, they certainly did not invent any coherent means of writing outside those frames. Buick skilfully excluded evidence that would have troubled his comforting claims.

Other histories engineered silences without having Maori centre-stage. Books as different as George Rhodes of the Levels and New Zealand in the Making fall into this category. In Woodhouse's book, Maori farm-hands laboured on the sidelines; in Condliffe's, Maori made a minimal contribution to the 'New Zealand' economy. Both books tend to conflate 'Pakeha' and 'New Zealand' (or 'Canterbury'). Several kinds of narrative making this conflation may be discerned. The first is the pioneer legend informing most local histories. This was the story of the transformation of the wilderness into fruitful farms and prosperous towns by honest, hard-working, and public-spirited pioneers. Here the Englishness or Scottishness of the colonists was not bruited much; in some other histories it was. The metanarrative of academic monographs dealing with New Zealand was that of academic imperial history generally—the political and administrative development of the British empire. Consequently, in this framework, New Zealand history's academic validity depended upon New Zealand's relationship with British imperialism. The general histories of Condliffe and Beaglehole went further ahead in time, and in different ways related the imperial framework to the development of New Zealand. Academic histories virtually defined New Zealand history as the history of settlement, a process of definition which reached a peak in the Centennial surveys. The adaptation thesis was the most ambitious initiative in theorising New Zealand history in this way. Not all the Centennial writers accepted it, but all except Cowan endorsed its governing principle: that New Zealand history was a story of European endeavour in which Maori occurred as inconveniences, stage hands, or curtain-raisers to the main drama of European settlement. Both pioneer histories and imperial historiography presupposed a metanarrative of colonisation in which the indigenes were only of incidental significance. The Centennial surveys by McCormick and Wood drew together the very different narratives that shared this assumption.

Alan Mulgan later held the Centennial up as a watershed in the development of a Pakeha interest in New Zealand history.7 As did contemporaries and later historians, he yoked the development of an interest in New Zealand history to the development of 'national identity'. To what extent was the writing of New Zealand history a nationalist project? At the very least, whether or not New Zealand historians saw the nation as an existing reality or a feasible goal, they found page 155something in New Zealand's past that made it valid to write about. For some, this required considerable effort. The validity of the task, for instance, could be located in New Zealand's implication in the general problematics of imperial history, or in the need to explain or reform contemporary New Zealand. Despite Beaglehole's claim that he was not a nationalist until the Centennial, he clearly thought that there was something worth fighting for in and through New Zealand historiography.

It is difficult to find the local histories nationalist in any sense other than the minimal one of finding New Zealand worth writing about. They made little attempt to synthesise the national and the local, and they exhibit localism rather than nationalism. They did, however, feed into the wider current of war-related nationalism. Cowan too linked his explicitly 'patriotic' histories to World War I, seeing joint Maori and Pakeha self-sacrifice in this war as the seal on the compact originating in the New Zealand Wars. From this compact arose pride and obligations. Buick too was a purveyor of a national identity that involved racial compact with attendant obligations.

These versions of New Zealand identity were conspicuously absent from the Centennial surveys. This was not simply because the university-trained members of the Centennial staff wanted it that way: things would have been quite different if Ngata had written his survey and had Heenan not been so opposed to explicit treatments of Maori-Pakeha relations. But, as they turned out, the Centennial surveys were much closer to the cultural nationalism of the younger writers of the 1930s. They did not conform absolutely to the agendas of those writers, and they borrowed from the pioneer traditions in which local histories operated. And as an attempt at covering 'the whole field of our national life', their accounts of what was distinctive about New Zealand inevitably settled on more than literature and foreign and domestic policy, the main places where younger academics, like many of the crew-members of Tomorrow and Phoenix generally, sought national identity. But these matters were discussed in detail, and the subjects championed by Cowan, Ramsden and Buick were not. 'There are greater things than literature and art in the making of a young nation', Cowan had rebuked Beaglehole in 1938.8 In the Centennial surveys, however, 'the spirit of New Zealand' was to be found in prose fiction about Pakeha men.

How much, overall, had things changed by the time of the Centennial? New Zealand history was substantially established as a field of inquiry, though many people, and not just academics, were leery of it for long after 1940. The universities were producing substantial amounts of research work on New Zealand topics, in theses, papers and books. With the universities' expansion came an increasing page 156emphasis on documentary sources, synthetic narrative and analysis, and the problematics of imperial history. In the 1930s and for some time afterwards, the establishment of academic history marginalised Maori and devalued many local sources. This was not a monolithic orthodoxy, as the work of Sinclair, John Miller and others in the two decades after 1940 showed. However, the emphasis of Cowan, Buick, and Ramsden on Maori-Pakeha relations, and the 'romantic' poetics they brought to this subject, were besieged during the 1930s by the academics and graduates, and by the Centennial organisation in which they played a prominent part. The prominence of the latter groups was increased by Buick's death in 1938 and Cowan's incapacitation from 1941. At this time Ramsden had none of the prestige of Cowan and Buick, and the country's most prominent writers of history were now academics.

Consequently, Pakeha strategies of indigenisation that involved Maori people became much less prominent in New Zealand historiography. Pioneer stories of conquering the land remained. In some works by academics, the business of 'settling', of building a 'home in thought' was now much more concerned with the fruits of high culture, with politics and economics, and with New Zealand's changing international persona as the Empire became the Commonwealth.

None of the historians discussed here thought that the past was safely finished. All of them, except perhaps Fildes, saw New Zealand as part of processes that were not yet over or, if fading, recoverable as an ideal. The histories discussed in this thesis were informed by contemporary concerns, and many drew attention to this fact. But none of them was a pure product of its time. They all existed through engagements with texts (first) created long before, from Robert Burrows' diary to Wakefield's tracts on colonisation to Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads. The New Zealand histories written in the interwar period were parts of complex intertextual networks that traversed the boundaries between past and present They complicate the bromide that every 'generation' writes its own history. And if historical texts cannot be satisfactorily explained only in terms of their authors or a 'contemporary' ideology, nor can other texts. If this study has a 'moral' beyond the history of history in interwar New Zealand, it is that an awareness of intertextuality complicates, and thus enriches, the study of texts and contexts, culture and ideology.

1 References will be given only for passages not quoted or discussed in previous chapters.

2 Scholefield, 'Autobiography', p. 209.

3 Hight and Bamford, Constitutional History and Law, p. 35.

4 Olssen, History of Otago, p. 173; Dulcie N. Gillespie-Needham, 'The Colonial and His Books: A Study of Reading in Nineteenth Century New Zealand', PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 1971, pp. 102, 174; Mulgan, Home, pp. 7-8; E. H. McCormick, 'Appendix C: Results of Correspondence', in McCormick, 'An Essay in Cultural Criticism', pp. xxxv-xxxvii. The pages referred to in McCormick's MLitt thesis are the results of a survey (inspired by the work of Q. D. Leavis) on contemporary reading tastes. It draws on questionnaires and information elicited from public librarians.

5 Lydia Wevers, The Short Story', in Sturm, ed., Oxford History of New Zealand Literature, p. 222.

6 Cowan to Lawlor, 30 October 1934; Cowan to Lawlor, 2 May 1938, Lawlor MSS L418 N, folder 1.

7 Mulgan, Making of a New Zealander, p. 85.

8 Cowan, 'New Zealand History: Its Teaching and Its Uses', p. 56.