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Creating a National Spirit: Celebrating New Zealand's Centennial


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How to celebrate the centennial of a founding colonising event? The stock answer in the 1930s was to combine pageantry with an international fair. Pageants paid homage to the pioneers by re-enacting the founding moment. A trade fair in the capital city displayed the fruits of progress and prosperity for the world to see. Melbourne had held an acclaimed international trade fair in 1934 to mark its centenary. Adelaide held one in 1936. Johannesburg hosted an Empire Fair in 1937. Spurred on by the success of Dunedin's New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition in 1926-27, some influential Wellingtonians saw 1940 as their year of opportunity. In January 1936, the mayor of Wellington, T.C.A. Hislop, led a deputation of civic and business leaders to the Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, to present the case for Wellington to stage an international exhibition as the main event of the country's centennial celebrations. Auckland and other centres, he said, would have their own celebrations but these would be 'on a much smaller scale and of a local nature'. Savage encouraged Hislop to enlist the cooperation of the mayors of the main cities. It was a big idea, he said, and he liked people with big ideas. His ministerial colleague, D. G. Sullivan, who was at the meeting, could think of nothing more effective than an international exhibition to celebrate the centennial.1

J. W. Heenan, the Undersecretary of Internal Affairs, who attended the meeting with his minister, W. E. Parry, was unimpressed with Hislop's proposal. He had his own ideas for celebrating the centennial, and had discussed them with Parry a number of times since he had become minister. He also knew that the Auckland City Council was not thinking small, and had already begun planning a programme of provincial celebrations.2 Heenan liked what the Aucklanders were setting out to do, but he wanted the centennial celebrations to be experienced as a national event and not merely as a succession of uncoordinated provincial contributions. The overarching aim of the celebrations, he told Parry, should be to 'create a national spirit'.

A centennial exhibition, he was equally convinced, would do little to that end. He had attended the South Seas Exhibition in Dunedin and felt certain that the nation's centennial would be trivialised if an exhibition were to be its main focus.

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The only things that people would remember would be what they did in the amusement park.

Heenan had a kindred spirit in Parry, and Parry, when he needed it, could call on support from the Deputy Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, and the Minister of Finance, Walter Nash.3 The government's plans for the centennial, announced in May 1936, included a centennial exhibition as one but by no means the most important centennial event. 1940 would be celebrated as a year of centennials. Some of these would have the status of national events, others would be of local or provincial significance, but 'the national spirit was to be the dominating factor'.4 In the course of 1940, more than forty 'principal' events were held in many parts of the country, many of them pageants recounting events of national or local importance from the country's founding years.

Most of these principal events were held during the early months of 1940. The government initially expected the Centennial Exhibition to open halfway through the year after most of the principal events had been held. But the Exhibition was planned and managed by its own board of directors, which upstaged the official programme of events. The official opening of the Centennial Exhibition was on 8 November 1939. The Exhibition became, as Jock Phillips observes in his afterword, the centrepiece of the centennial celebrations. Not only was it the first event to take place. It housed its own enticing world, a total experience for the family, and it ran for six months. Most of the other events lasted a day or two, but the Exhibition was something that people could return to, and many returned more than once. Its eyecatching Centennial Tower became familiar throughout the country through photographs, posters, and mementos, and its succession of events caught the ear of the public through daily broadcasts of events. The total number of visitors to the Centennial Exhibition far exceeded New Zealand's total population.

The six chapters of Part I assess the Exhibition's contribution to the centennial. It was a showcase for the country but it was also, as Gavin McLean explains, first and foremost a business venture, one from which, in the end, it had to be rescued by the government. William Toomath analyses Edmund Anscombe's striking architectural solution and shows how he expressed it on the Rongotai site. Playland, the Exhibition's fun park, was what people remembered more than anything else, and Gavin McLean discusses its strategic importance to the Centennial Exhibition Company's plans. John E. Martin examines the image of New Zealand society that the government presented in the Government Court. Patrick Day recounts the role of the new medium of radio broadcasting in making the Exhibition a lively presence in the lives of New Zealanders in many parts of the country. Bernard Kernot's discussion of Ngata's centennial building projects includes the Maori Court in the Centennial Exhibition as an example of Ngata's sponsorship of a distinctive Maori architecture as an expression of Maori identity.

Many Pakeha who played prominent roles in the celebrations could claim grandparents or other family members who had come to the country as pioneers.

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They felt close to those forebears and were proud of the opportunity to honour them. They took pride in what they thought of as a century of progress. But the centennial was a time for looking to the future as well as to the past. In particular, Parry underlined, it was a time for rethinking relationships with the 'motherland'. British influences were everywhere to be seen, he said, and remained important, but New Zealanders should not cling to leading strings: the time had come to stop labouring the point that 'we are a young country'. The once-dependent child was no longer an 'infant country' but a 'virile son': the centennial would mark its 'coming of age'. New Zealand had 'become a grown up nation with something to celebrate.. . . Our little country' had made 'wonderful progress'. There was much for New Zealanders 'to show the world'.5

As one sign of maturity, therefore, the centennial celebrations were to be a time of national 'stocktaking'. Certainly, there had been great progress but it had come at a cost. Parry particularly deplored the destruction of the natural landscape and made sure that there would be a strong emphasis on its conservation in centennial activities. There were also important respects in which the country still fell short of its own expectations. Its achievements in 'learning, science, and art, [had] naturally been but those of National youth'. He acknowledged that it would have been too much to expect 'a separate national culture' to develop in less than a hundred years, or for New Zealanders to 'have added much to the age old English culture'. So the best memorial that New Zealanders of the present generation could give to those who had gone before was 'to hoist a national standard for our second hundred years'.6

This emphasis on the cultural dimensions of nationalism was one of the two respects in which the New Zealand centennial celebrations differed from the centennials of Victoria and South Australia and the sesquicentenary of New South Wales. The Maori dimension was the other. Parry began talking to Sir Apirana Ngata almost as soon as he had discussed his proposals with his cabinet colleagues.7 Ngata represented 'the native race' on the National Centennial Committee and was a member of the National Maori Centennial Committee. He worked closely with his fellow Maori MPs Tau Henare, Eruera Tirikatene, and Haami Ratana, and with Tai Mitchell, Te Puea Herangi, Pei Te Hurinui Jones and other tribal leaders, to ensure that Maori would give good accounts of themselves in the festivities in which they were to play prominent parts. Ngata was, with Parry and Heenan, one of the three men who had the greatest influence in the planning of the official centennial celebrations.

The involvement of Maori leaders in the planning of what would be a predominantly Pakeha enterprise was a new departure for a New Zealand government. The success with which Maori were assimilating to Pakeha ways was a major theme of the centennial for the government and the National Centennial Council. This was the unvarying message of speeches by the Governor General, the Prime Minister, members of his cabinet, other politicians, and civic dignitaries. None page 16 was more lyrical than Hon Frank Langstone, Minister of Native Affairs, a thoroughgoing assimilationist who spoke for the government at the first large public event of the year—the unveiling of the memorial cairn on Maketu beach commemorating the arrival of the Arawa canoe—and at the final ceremony at Whakarewarewa in November. Maori and Pakeha stood together, he said, as 'one indivisible whole'.

Ngata did not see the relationship in those terms at all, and the centennial celebrations gave him opportunities to impress his views which he was quick to take up. It was as Maori and Pakeha living together in the same country but in important respects according to different cultural norms that he wanted Pakeha to see Maori, not as a people in the process of becoming brown Pakeha. The purchase of the Busby property at Waitangi and its dedication as a national reserve in 1934, had already given him the chance to re-establish a Maori cultural presence on that site. Creating his own opportunities, he ensured that, in preparation for the centennial, a whare runanga was built to stand alongside the Treaty House and form with it and the flagstaff the symbolic relationship of the Treaty itself. He also ensured that a number of community development schemes he already had under way were accorded the status of centennial projects and were opened with due ceremony during the centennial year. The opening of one of these, Wahiao, at Whakarewarewa, was given the honour of being the last of the national centennial events and, as Ngata intended, focused national attention on the Maori cultural revival.

Not everything, however, was plain sailing in working relations between the government and Maori. Nga Puhi tested Heenan's diplomatic skills in the run up to the Waitangi ceremonies. More serious, because it could not be resolved and resulted in the Maori King's decision not to attend the Waitangi celebrations, were disputes between the government and the Kingitanga tribes in Waikato and Taranaki. King Koroki's absence tarnished the Pakeha image of racial unity at the one ceremony which, more than any others, was intended to demonstrate that unity. Ngata's speech at Waitangi expressed the ambivalence with which Maori viewed their experience as British subjects. Ngai Tahu also made their political point at the Akaroa celebrations, the only national event in the South Island. These, however, were blemishes on festive occasions which otherwise went extremely well. Descendents of Te Puni who, with Te Wharepouri, had welcomed the Tory in 1839 had an honoured place in the celebrations at Petone to commemorate the beginning of organised British settlement. The functions at Maketu and Whakarewarewa for which Arawa were the hosts were demonstrations of racial amity and loyalty to the Crown. The East Coast tribes played an active part in preparations for celebrations that would have re-enacted Cook's first landing in New Zealand. But the war intervened, many of their young men flocked to join the Maori Battalion, and the celebration was cancelled.

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The principal centennial memorial events are discussed in the thirteen chapters of Part II. An afterword, written by Jock Phillips, reviews those events from the perspective of a present-day historian. The concept of a centennial memorial was given a broad meaning. It included the commemoration of important historical events, the creation of memorial buildings and sites, and the building of new civic amenities, an array of centennial publications, the centennial musical and dramatic festivals, musical and dramatic contests, literary contests, a travelling exhibition of New Zealand art, and a centennial film.

From beginning to end, the centennial celebrations were undertaken in a spirit of evident cooperation and goodwill. The National Party put aside political differences and readily endorsed the government's plans. Newspaper proprietors and editors throughout the country kept the public well informed and made good use of the many historical pieces made available to them through New Zealand Centennial News, a newsletter issued by the Department of Internal Affairs. Centennial committees, with advice from W. S. Wauchop, the National Director of Centennial Pageantry, were painstaking in their efforts to recreate authentic historical pageants. The national memorial events at Waitangi, Maketu, Russell, Petone, Banks Peninsula, and Whakarewarewa were directed by A. W. Mulligan, Heenan's right-hand man, with Wauchop's assistance. They were feats of organisation that went off without a hitch. Mulligan and Wauchop's management of the Waitangi and Akaroa functions, both involving the congregation of large numbers of people in remote parts of the country, was masterly.

The men who conceived and managed these celebrations were men of their time. Women played little part in them. Following the announcement of the membership of the National Centennial Committee and the National Historical Committee, a woman wrote to Parry noting that all the members were men and expressing the hope that women would also be given prominence. Parry saw her off by saying that women would be members of other committees still to be formed. When the full list was published, Te Puea was the only woman member.

Parry, as Minister in Charge of Centennial Celebrations and the government's principal spokesman, was most ably supported behind the scenes by his dynamic undersecretary, Joe Heenan. Heenan had the trust of ministers, worked well with Ashwin, Secretary of Treasury, and with the heads of other government departments, and enjoyed the loyal support of officers in his department. Above all, he was enthusiastic about the responsibilities that went with the opportunity to celebrate the centennial, had clear views of his own about how it should be celebrated, and was quick to recognise other people's good ideas. The Centennial Music Festival, discussed by Allan Thomas, was first proposed by the Royal Wellington Choral Union. The Centennial Drama Festival, discussed by David Carnegie and Sue Dunlop, was proposed by Professor James Shelley soon after his appointment as page 18 Director, National Broadcasting Service. The highly successful Making New Zealand series was the brainchild of Dr C.E. Beeby, Director, New Zealand Council for Educational Research. The proposal for a feature film depicting the nation's century of progress came to the Prime Minister from Frank Hurley, the noted Australian film director, who had just finished making a similar film for the New South Wales tercentenary. Dr A.H. McLintock, one of the temporary historians employed in the centennial branch, had the idea of a centennial art exhibition, which is discussed by Roger Blackley.

These and other proposals enjoyed Heenan's formidable support but the centennial historical publications were his own idea and were closest to his heart. A book man himself, he believed in the power of the word, and the historical publications were to be the enduring centennial memorials. Of these, Dr G.H. Scholefield's Dictionary of New Zealand Biography was itself an historical landmark, and the historical surveys included a handful of titles of enduring value. Shirley Tunnicliff discusses the Dictionary in her essay. Rachel Barrowman reviews the centennial surveys. Heenan's nationalist agenda encompassed every aspect of publication from the choice of topic and the selection of authors to the physical appearance of the publications themselves; and it was his good fortune that, as Sydney Shep explains in her essay, Dr J.C. Beaglehole was ready and well prepared for his typographical moment. The one disappointment of the centennial publications programme was the non-appearance of the centennial atlas. It began, as Malcolm McKinnon notes, with high hopes but was not ready for publication in 1940.

The centennial celebrations, centrally directed and encompassing the whole country, were an example of the Labour government's willingness to use the levers of the state in what it considered to be the public interest. It was not just a matter of organising events to celebrate an important national milestone. Heenan seems to have seen no objection in principle to a department of state commissioning and publishing what were planned to be definitive works of national history. Nor did experienced journalists and writers and up-and-coming historians have qualms about accepting commissions to write them. But even in the benign climate of centennial celebration and with sympathetic ministers there was the possibility, remote as it may have seemed, that there might be political objection to what a writer of an officially sponsored centennial survey might propose for publication. Dr W.B. Sutch's text of his survey of social services, as Rachel Barrowman records, showed that the possibility was not at all remote, with an outcome that tested the limits of editorial judgement and political tolerance.

The centennial celebrations benefited from and in their turn contributed to the state's intervention in other aspects of the nation's life. Film and radio were the lively forms of popular culture of the 1930s. The government's active involvement in the making of officially sponsored films made it possible to take on the ambitious project of producing a feature-length centennial film; and the management of the page 19 production of A Hundred Crowded Years and of other film projects led to the creation of the National Film Studios in 1941. Nationwide state broadcasting, Patrick Day explains in his chapter, gave New Zealanders the experience of sharing in the same events, regardless of where they were held, and centennial events gave the two rival networks many opportunities to build nationwide audiences. Under Colin Scrimgeour's direction, the ZB network quickly created a national popular culture. Patrick Day, Allan Thomas, and David Carnegie and Sue Dunlop make it clear that, under Professor Shelley, the YA stations of the National Broadcasting Service catered to the interests of serious listeners. Shelley also promoted the cause of a national symphony orchestra and a national conservatorium of music and the spoken arts. The proposed conservatorium came to nothing. The Centennial Festival Orchestra proved to be the decisive step towards the formation of the National Orchestra in 1947.

Also national in influence, the New Zealand Listener, first published in June 1939, was a watershed in the nation's cultural life. Oliver Duff, its first editor, who had had a hand in the centennial historical publications and was the author of one of the most popular of them, New Zealand Now, quickly established its reputation as a well-informed, high-minded publication. It had a circulation of 40,000 at the end of its first year.8 Week by week it was the national forum for news, reports, and reviews of what New Zealanders were saying, writing, and doing in literature music, drama, film, and the arts generally. Its reviews of the centennial publications were themselves examples of a new standard of reviewing. It was through the Listener that the works of Frank Sargeson, Roderick Finlayson, Monte Holcroft, and Douglas Lilburn, the winners of the centennial literary and music composition competitions, became more widely known.

The outbreak of war in September 1939 put a serious dampener on centennial preparations. Visitors to the Centennial Exhibition from Britain, Canada, and the United States were much smaller in numbers than had been expected, with heavy financial consequences for the Centennial Exhibition Company. The government reviewed its centennial plans and decided to proceed with the programme of national events. Provincial committees also reviewed their arrangements, and many provincial events were cancelled. The visit of the Welsh Guards Band was cancelled. The Canadian government decided not to build a pavilion at the Exhibition but to lease space for its exhibits instead. Aucklanders, as Russell Stone points out in his essay, were saved the embarrassment of not being ready to unveil the Sir John Logan Campbell Memorial to the Maori race on the summit of One Tree Hill in January 1940,  as intended. The great national gathering of Maori planned for the unveiling on Auckland's anniversary day was not held. The memorial obelisk was commemorated seven years later. The re-enactment of Cook's landing at Kaiti beach, Gisborne, was cancelled. The centennial film missed its moment. Its production was already running months behind initial expectations when war broke out. When, page 20 finally, it received its first public screening in May 1941, memories of the country's first hundred years were far from the thoughts of people who were anxiously following the course of a world war whose outcome was still far from certain, and attendances at public showings of the film were disappointing.

"Whether New Zealanders' response to the war would have been as united and intense without the emphasis on the national spirit that was the focus of the centennial preparations is impossible to say. Certainly, the sentiments animating the centennial were the same as those that sustained the New Zealand war effort. The presence at Waitangi of a contingent of the Maori Battalion—the outcome of one of Ngata's initiatives—gave powerful expression to the conviction of a nation united in its own defence.

National feeling feeds on itself. During the late 1930s, Pakeha up and down the country reflected on what the centennial meant for them and identified the main strands of their sense of nation: their links through the pioneers with sturdy British stock, their vigour as a people who had tamed what had been for them a virgin land, their record of economic and social progress which, they believed, was an example to the mother country and their sister dominions, and their unflinching loyalty to king and commonwealth—which many, perhaps most, still referred to fondly as the British Empire. Savage's famous statement when he announced that New Zealand was at war expressed national sentiment perfectly.

For Pakeha, being a New Zealander was inseparable from being British and as natural as the air they breathed. Maori, as Ngata pointed out at Waitangi and Arawa demonstrated in their celebrations, were also thankful to be British citizens despite unresolved grievances. But there was something more, and the centennial celebrations brought it to the fore. The experience both of being born of British stock and of making a success, as they believed, of living in New Zealand convinced Pakeha New Zealanders that they had something valuable to give in return to Britain, other members of the British family of nations and, indeed, to the world. Parry and Heenan, with their preference for masculine imagery, thought of the country as a virile son who had reached maturity. But in visual representations, it was as female, as Zealandia, Britannia's handmaiden of the South Seas, that the nation was represented. That was the image, published in hundreds of thousands, that graced the certificate that was given to visitors to the Centennial Exhibition.

Might there, perhaps, be an even greater future for Zealandia? M. H. Holcroft, author of the centennial prize-winning essay, The Deepening Stream, thought it not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that, when the war was over, New Zealand and Australia might be called upon to put on the mantle of Britannia herself. What would happen, he speculated, if Britain were to be broken and exhausted by the war. One possibility would be 'to create a new centre for the British Empire in the comparatively isolated and fertile lands of Australia and New Zealand'.9 But Holcroft's conceit had a hollow ring for Frank Sargeson, John Mulgan, Denis Glover, page 21 Allen Curnow, and some other young writers. Lawrence Jones argues in his essay that they were creating a literary anti-myth as their counter to what they saw as the myth of pioneer triumphalism. Apart from them, however, and dissenting Kingitanga Maori, the great bulk of New Zealanders believed that the centennial was something to celebrate, and they celebrated it enthusiastically.

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1 Minutes of meeting of Prime Minister with deputation led by T. C. A. Hislop, Mayor of Wellington, 21 January 1936, pp.7, 12. Internal Affairs IA 1, 62/2, National Archives (NA).

2 Ernest Davis to Parry, 10 November 1935, J.S. Permanent Secretary, Auckland Centennial Committee, to Parry, 14 December 1935, Heenan memorandum, 7 January 1936, IA 1, 62/2.

3 Heenan to Parry, 27 January 1936, IA 1, 62/7; Heenan to Parry, 25 March 1936, loc. cit.; Memorandum, W. Nash, D. G. Sullivan, and W. E. Parry to Prime Minister, 13 May 1936, IA 1,62/12; Heenan to R.M.Campbell, 12 September 1936, Ms-Papers 1132-30, Heenan Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library (ATL); Michael Bassett, The Mother of All Departments: The History of the Department of Internal Affairs (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1997), pp.110-11.

4 Parry's opening address to the National Centennial Committee, 18 June 1936, Ms-Papers 1132-288, Heenan Collection.

5 Address by Hon W.E. Parry, to Fourteenth Congress of the Chambers of Commerce of the British Empire at the Wellington Town Hall, 6 October 1936, Ms-Papers 1132-289, Heenan Collection, ATL.

6 Ibid.

7 Michael Bassett, p.110.

8 Patrick Day, The Radio Years: A History of Broadcasting in New Zealand, vol.1 (Auckland: Auckland University Press in association with the Broadcasting History Trust, 1994), p.256.

9 M. H. Holcroft, The Deepening Stream: Cultural Influences in New Zealand (Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1940), p.34.