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The Long White Cloud


page 5


THE publication of a new edition of The Long White Cloud is glad news for the increasing number of people interested in the history of the Dominion of New Zealand. There are many historical works on New Zealand, but for the most part they are devoted to some special aspect or period or, if general, brief text books or essays in interpretation. The Long White Cloud is still regarded as the best history of the country from its first settlements and owes its reputation to its comprehensive scope, for Reeves viewed history as the record of the whole life of a people, not merely political and military but including its economic, social and cultural ideas and activities and its historical, ethnological, and physical background. Within this wide range he exercised fine judgment in the selection of his material and presented the results of his researches in a style that holds the reader's attention by its clarity, wit, liveliness, and power of delineating character. Moreover, the book has the strong appeal of a story told by one of the leading actors, who brought to the study of the whole period that insight into the motives and actions of men which active participation in politics helps to develop in men of imagination and intellectual power. Reeves was such a man. Gifted with a brilliant style, he won recognition as both writer and historian.

William Pember Reeves was born on 10th February, 1857, at Lyttelton, the port of Christchurch, Canterbury, a few days after the arrival of his parents. His father, William Reeves (1825–91), who was a staunch Liberal of the mid-nineteenth century type, became manager and journalist on the staff of The Lyttelton Times, the newspaper of the then seven-year-old settlement. He took an active part in New Zealand politics and became a member in turn of both the House of Representatives and the Legislative Council as well as helping in various progressive movements in local affairs, especially in those relating to education and the arts. William Pember was educated at Christ's College Grammar School—the School, or page 6 lower department, of the College which had so conspicuous a place in the plan for the Canterbury Settlement drawn up by the Canterbury Association which founded the settlement. He matriculated and attended the Canterbury Collegiate Union classes, the immediate precursor of Canterbury University College, affiliated to the newly constituted University of New Zealand.

He qualified as a barrister, but turned from law to journalism with such good effect that he became editor of the Canterbury Times, a weekly, and in 1889 of The Lyttelton Times. Family tradition and the social distress associated with the long and intensive economic depression that brought unemployment and a lowering of the standard of living for about twenty years onwards from the seventies led him to a sympathetic study of the causes and nature of the evils of the situation and of the literature of social reform. He was attracted by the socialistic ideas that were being promulgated at the time in England, especially those of the Fabians. He was fired with the desire to help, not in revolutionizing, but in reforming the social system and humanizing relationships within it and to effect this by the sovereign power of Parliament. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1887 for St. Albans and in 1890 for Christchurch City. He became a member of the Ballance Ministry in 1889 for Education and Justice, and for Labour in 1892. He held these ministerial posts also in the Seddon Ministry from 1893 till 1896, when he was appointed Agent-General for New Zealand in London, a post he held till 1909. In England he devoted much time to writing and carried on his studies of progressive social ideas and movements. He became intimate with such thinkers as Graham Wallas and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and in 1908 he was appointed Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science, a post he held till 1919. He became subject to ill-health, remained in England, except for one visit to New Zealand, and died in London in 1932.

His place in New Zealand history owes something to his talents as a writer chiefly in the historical field, though he published verses of which some are still quoted, but mainly to his achievements as a legislator and administrator in the sphere of social relationships, particularly industrial and page 7 commercial and affecting both civil and political rights and duties. He provided the vision, the guidance, and much of the driving force of the greater part of the legislation of the Ballance and Seddon Governments which constituted that “social revolution” of the nineties which drew to New Zealand economists and sociologists to study on the spot these changes, the conditions associated with their genesis, and the manner and results of the processes involved in their operation. Reeves himself gives an account of them in Chapters XXI-XXIII of The Long White Cloud and in more detail in his State Experiments in Australia and New Zealand, in two volumes. It is peculiarly difficult for an historian to be impartial in reviewing his own part in the shaping of events. On the whole Reeves deserves praise for the fairness with which he selects the facts and passes judgment on the men and measures concerned, especially when one remembers the bitterness not seldom attendant upon struggles of the Reformers with the Oligarchs and not assuaged by Reeves's talent for sarcasm sheathed in epigram.

I quote here a sketch of Reeves from Mr. C. J. Wray's preface to the third edition of this work. It is by Sir Anton Bertram who was in New Zealand in 1894–5, and was an interested observer of the politics of those eventful years. The quartette referred to comprised Seddon, McKenzie, Ward, and Reeves.

“The most interesting member of this interesting quartette is, however, Mr. W. P. Reeves, the present Agent-General and late Minister of Education and Labour. He is a member of the class which, despite the democratic tendencies of Colonial life, claims for itself with a certain peculiar self-consciousness the exclusive right to the name of ‘gentleman.’ He commenced his career as a barrister and continued it as a journalist. He was always a close student of economics, with a bias towards Socialism, and a volume of verse published in his early days is still widely read in the Colony. By nature a Radical, and a hater of all political, social and economic privilege, he never conciliated the sympathies nor acquired the prejudices of his class. Unlike most of his critics, he has a clean grasp both of the general principles of his subject and the practical limits of their application, and has the rare combination of intellect page 8 without indifference, enthusiasm without extravagance, and sympathy without sentimentality. His intellectual ability and the integrity of his character were freely recognized even by his opponents, who frequently paid him compliments which, as he once said, he would have valued more highly if they had not been at the expense of his colleagues. He is an excellent platform speaker, and was by far the most effective debater in the House of Representatives, where his speeches had a conciseness and literary finish which is there far from conspicuous, more especially on his own side of the House. He may be described as the real brain of the Ministry, and probably understood better than any of his colleagues the real tendencies of their policy. His great work is to have kept the Progressive Party united at a time where everywhere else in the Colonies it was broken up by the sudden incoherent upheaval of the Labour movement, and to have carried through, largely by his own resolute determination, a peculiarly compact and advanced code of Labour legislation.”

Having decided to include the period subsequent to that originally covered by Reeves, as was done in the third edition of the book, the publishers secured the services of Dr. A. J. Harrop to write the concluding chapters. Dr. Harrop, like Pember Reeves, is a distinguished journalist who has practised his profession in both New Zealand and England. After a distinguished career at Canterbury University College, Christ-church, New Zealand, he entered Caius College, Cambridge, and there continued the researches he had begun in New Zealand. Since his arrival in England he has published several books in which he has made valuable contributions to the history of the Dominion. He has revisited the Dominion at times within this period in order to supplement his researches into records in England by reference to the Dominion archives as well as to extend his personal knowledge of the New Zealand political and social scene.