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The Spike [: or, Victoria University College Review 1957]

Research in New Zealand History

page 20

Research in New Zealand History

"Happy Is The Country that has no history" is a sentiment that has been formulated a number of times by a number of different people"—going, one imagines, on the general theory that history is a catalogue of the crimes and follies and miseries of mankind. Even on that theory we can hardly absolve New Zealand from a little bit of history. From another point of view, I have heard one eminent professor"—a professor of history at that, and a professor of "imperial" history"—blandly assume that neither Australia nor New Zealand had any history. I never quite followed the process of mind that underlay this assumption"—perhaps it was because the professor himself was interested in South Africa and the West Indies: but what a wildly fantastic assumption it was! For, of course, you can't get away from history. Put a number of people together in any geographical situation, at any time, and they will at once begin the process of action and reaction which, as a sort of chronological deposit, we call history. It may not all be crime and folly and misery. Some of it may, indeed, be quite inspiriting, or amusing, to contemplate. Some of it may be quite difficult, for a later age, to make sense of. Some of it, on the other hand, may be quite easy to understand. Some of it may be like, some of it may be unlike, what has gone on in other societies in other countries. But there it is, the deposit. There it is, for us, the New Zealand deposit. Once you begin to investigate this deposit carefully, you can't avoid research. There's an awful lot of messing about"—to put it vulgarly"—and some quite pretentious messing about, that takes to itself the title of research; there's a sort of cant of research that gets around in the twentieth century; there's plenty of amateurish, imitation "research"; but there is in New Zealand history scope for serious and solid research, and there has been serious and solid research. What we need to do is to generalise this, as it were, into professional standards, and to nail these professional standards as high as possible.

At this point I should interpolate that when I use the word "amateurish" I don't mean "amateur." There has been plenty of good history written in all sorts of fields by amateurs. There is no reason on earth why the amateur should not work to high standards, should not have a good technique of research, should not write well. We don't want to be bemused by any mystique of research. There is no need for the professional historian to give himself airs: he's doing a job, like anyone else. The point is that as far as he is a good professional, he has standards; as long as the amateur is good, really a lover of his subject, he has standards; while for too much writing about New Zealand history"—and what a wilderness of it there is"—has been amateurish, has had no standards. The writing of history, for a start, has always been so easy. It has always been so deceptively easy. It has always been so magnificent a stamping ground for the amateurish. Once you begin to have standards, once you begin to know your business, as professional or amateur, you don't stamp so enthusiastically. You begin to know the nature, and the difficulties, and the value, of research.

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William Pember Reeves was an amateur historian. He was also a good one. No one would ever think of calling him amateurish. He knew the sources of New Zealand history that were available to him, he knew the meaning of evidence, he has a sense of architecture in the composition of a narrative, and he could write. His general history of New Zealand, The Long White Cloud, is a good book. It will remain a good book. It is not a final book, of course; it does not make all other books on New Zealand history superfluous. Why not? Because of the very nature of historical research; and because, as time goes on, there is, generally speaking, more material to subject to the process of research. This is not invariably true: as time goes on, a certain part of the material of history is destroyed"—piecemeal, as by rats; wholesale, as by fire. But, on the whole, every generation seems to have more material to work on, more documents to absorb, more papers to struggle with. The more material you have, the more difficult it is to generalise, the more discriminating you become about the generalisations of your predecessors, the more sceptical you become about their conclusions. To be specific: you may have a proper respect for Reeves, but you may finish by pulling Reeves to pieces. You can be pretty confident that if your own work is good enough"—good enough, that is, to rate continued attention"—you in your turn will be pulled to pieces.

There is more research in New Zealand history going on today than ever before. There are obvious reasons for this. The population becomes bigger; and the number of historians, or of those who fancy themselves as historians, becomes bigger. The proportion of historians per million of population may even have become bigger, too, with the growth of interest in New Zealand history, consequent on"—perhaps"—the centenary of 1940; and with the growth of university population and hence of history thesis writers. (This is a hunch, not a statistically-proven certitude"—I shield myself like a historian in a footnote.) Some of the research that is going on is good, some of it is indifferent. That is of the nature of humanity. I should say that there is more good research going on than ever before. This I should say is due to the existence of a greater measure of good academic training, and to a better sense of the value of historical material. We are beginning not only to sharpen the young historian's teeth, but to give him something to bite on. This brings use to archives, the historian's staple aliment.

Archives are not a mysterious or fancy business. Archives are historical records"—papers, documents"—systematically collected together, sorted and stored, so that they are safe, humanly speaking, from destruction. Archives therefore form"—or should form"—the largest part of the material of a country's history. A civilised country will see to its archives, because a civilised country will respect its history. An imperfectly civilised country, like New Zealand, will be tardy about archives, because proper storage"—which includes availability to students"—means the expenditure of money on buildings, and salaries, and string, and labels; and all that seems a bit silly to practical men who prefer to get into a mess and then spend more money on expensive hole and corner and extremely inefficient makeshifts. But we're better than we used to be; we have an archivist who knows his job; we have people"—librarians, for example"—all over the country doing their best to preserve; we have a general conscience stirring, rather uneasily and inadequately, but still stirring. Possibly, within a year, we may have an Archives Act. That, however, may be a bad calculation, although the Archives Act has been promised: it is an page 22 election year, and how many votes does an Archives Act rate? The general conscience is not really awake. Still, there are more records, public and private, available to the historian than there ever were before.

Records are one thing: proper academic training to use them is another. It seems to me an important thing. I can speak only of what we have tried to do, over a period of about twenty years now, at V.U.C. I don't think we have by any means reached the ideal yet, partly for lack of time, which makes adequate coverage impossible"—partly no doubt because of our own inadequacies. But we do try to give our honours people, particularly our thesis writers or potential thesis writers, an idea of the essentials of "historical method," which are after all much the same whether the subject is the decline and fall of the Roman Empire or the rise of the New Zealand Labour Party. We are not so badly off for historical material of one sort or another, printed or manuscript, in Wellington, as some centres are, and librarians and archive people have been very co-operative. We don't hope to turn out a large body of high-powered technicians; but we do hope that our historians will have some technical knowledge, some grasp of the nature of historical evidence and the way to use it, some instructed common sense"—some professional standards, in fact. That, it seems to us, is something that we can legitimately expect an academic training in history to do. To the measure that it can't do that, I should say that it is not much good. To the measure that it has done it, and continues to do it, we may expect good research in history; and, as we live in New Zealand, and most of our historical records are records of New Zealand history, good research in New Zealand history.

What work of that sort has been done, what sort of work should we expect in the future? I don't propose to give an annotated list of published works and theses"—and there are some theses that could stand publication, if only the costs were not so completely prohibitive. Cost of publication has to be reckoned against possible consumption; and possible consumption of learned work"—say even a very good study of the constitutional position of New Zealand governors under responsible government"—must obviously be small indeed in a population of two millions. The thesis writer in general, anyhow, cannot complain, because his bit of research is mainly training for himself. If it adds a bit to the structure of history, that is all to the good; and if it does add this, somehow or other it will get round to those interested, and at last be incorporated into the general body of knowledge. None of us has any right to expect more of fate than that; and if fate gives us that, we ought to be pleased enough. But to get back to the question, what work has been done, what work can we expect? Well, what sort of history, in broad terms, has New Zealand had? It was discovered, and found to have an indigenous population; it was colonised and explored; it had co-operation and warfare and mutual neglect and more co-operation between two races; it was farmed in various ways and utilised for industry; it tried political systems and worked out political peculiarities of its own; it had relations with Great Britain and with other countries; it had changing social relations and all that those imply in politics and processes of daily living; it had some experiments in art and writing and building; it had some religious life; it worked out an educational system; it organised and reorganised itself for administrative purposes; some parts had a local life, some a regional life; it underwent a number of slumps and two major international wars. There's a good deal in all that to be studied. And a great deal besides.

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Now no one can say that New Zealand has not been the subject of writing. Sometimes one is led to think that it must be about the most overwritten portion of the world's surface. But that is not the point. With all the writing that has gone one, there is still scope, it seems to me, for the intelligent and trained and thoughtful researcher. I think we can stop writing short one-volume histories of the country from Tasman till today-at least for a while. I don't deny the value of that sort of thing, particularly if a man is working on some new interpretation of his own"—and if he has the gift of style, all the better. I know of two examples to be published in the near future, which I should be very sorry to miss. But that does not seem to me to be the really important thing at the present time. The really important thing seems to be to find out what happened, and to get those results published. To find out what happened: if we knew exactly what happened, we shouldn't need to do any research at all. But, in sober fact, there has been comparatively little mature and detailed research into New Zealand history"—on the basis of which an adequate general history can be written. The main outlines may not need to be altered"—I say may, because I don't know. I'm sure there's a vast amount of detail to be filled in, a vast amount of modification and a vast amount of clarification to be made. Of course I can't say precisely what it all is, because that is the job of the researcher, and my own work has, chronologically, merely touched the fringe of his job.

There are two main things involved. Some historians will be interested in one, some in the other. The ultimate beneficiary of the historian-the consumer, the reader-may be interested in both; and one sort of historian will be interested in the results of the other sort, and use them for his own puruposes. One thing is the investigation of the records, and the production of an analysis, or a narrative, of some particular section of history: it may be an episode; it may be a piece of local history; it may be the life of a province; it may be a piece of party politics or the growth of a union or of an industry. If the historian is any good, this will be seen in its relations with something bigger"—the life of the country or of society as a whole; the interconnections, or at least the existence of interconnections, will be made plain. A great deal of earlier, well-intentioned, and amateurish work, on for example the colonisation of New Zealand, has broken down not merely because of inadequate research technique, not merely because of inadequate acquaintance with the sources, but also because of sheer ignorance of these interconnections. The activities of that peculiar person, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, to push the example a bit further, cannot be understood merely if one considers his relations to New Zealand. The history of the New Zealand Company is not merely the history of the New Zealand Company and New Zealand. You have to consider also the history of British finance, British company promotion, British shipping"—to take only a few complications.

How far the historian will brng out these complications will, however, depend on the particular job he is doing. They may be extremely important, they may be half his work. They may be less important because he is doing the other thing. He may be producing not an analysis, nor a narrative, but an "edition"; he may be printing documents. "Documents" is a wide term; it may include in its range anything from an autobiography or letters to commercial accounts or constitutional memoranda. We have not had enough of this work done in New Zealand. Nevertheless, some has been done, or is being done, and it is valuable work. There are page 24 people who sniff at this whole class of activity; the historian's job is, they say, to produce a narrative; serving up documents is serving up half-cooked food. Which, of course, is nonsense. There is no one, and one only, task for the historian. In any case, some food is better half-cooked. The art of the historian, like that of the cook, is not just an art of mixing; both must know when to turn off the gas.

At this stage I should probably cease to talk in generalities and principles, and give examples. As I have already said, I don't propose to give an annotated critical list of publications in New Zealand history since the centennial flood of print began to submerge the market. There is no need to. An astonishing number of books were published in 1940 and after. Some of them were very good, and attacked the subject from fresh angles, like E. H. McCormick's Letters and Art in New Zealand (1940). Some of them"—too many of the little local histories"—were quite amateurish; necessarily so, one might add. There were simply not enough historians to go round. Nor do I need to pick out the Fifty, or Twenty, or Ten Best Books, and grade them as alpha double-plus or alpha-plus. I merely give examples as illustrations of some of the points I have made. They all illustrate, I think, competent research into the indispensable records; they all have professional standards, whether the authors be professional historians or not; they are all the result of work mainly done in New Zealand. They all fill gaps in our knowledge"—they really tell us something about our country. Just to be up to date, I mention among them one or two examples of "work in progress" of which I know, and which I think will turn out models of their kind. Take first the publication of papers. We have a very good instance here in John Pascoe's recent Mr. Explorer Douglas. Douglas was a West Coast explorer whose reports and letters make a quite considerable bulk. Mr. Pascoe has arranged and annotated them and added a biographical introduction. He is not a professional historian, he is not in the academic sense a historian at all. He is an amateur who has done well something which needed to be done. Work in progress gives me my next instance, and here again we have exploration"—the anthology of travel in New Zealand which Nancy Taylor has almost completed for the Clarendon Press. It is what the historian calls "primary material""—diaries and journals, with some difficult editing involved, and it will, I think, show an excellent combination of professional standards and amateur devotion"—perhaps one had better say "amateur" here as Mrs. Taylor does not now earn her living as a historical researcher, though she once did. The combination is an admirable one.

Now take an "episode." I instance here the little book New Zealand's First Capital (1946) by Ruth M. Ross. Admirable again"—in fact a model of what can be produced by what I shall call a concentrated glare on a quite complex little group of transactions in a quite short time. The secret here is scrupulous attention to detail. It would all be lost in a broad sweep. It has all been lost in the broad sweeps of the earlier historians. It is a really professional, really neat, example of something that "needs to be done," I suspect, a few hundred times before we can get our understanding of our history reasonably accurate. Some persons find this sort of accuracy pedantic. I find it desirable. Anyhow, Mrs. Ross can write, and I find well-written pedantry delightful.

Let us move on to the "region": not the province, not the town, something harder to define than either. Because the region is hard to define, a regional history can be unconscionably sloppy and bad; it lends itself ideally to the production of page 25 undigested raw material, which loses all the fascination of the raw without issuing forth in history. It is a difficult thing to write, because the historian has to know so much of so many diverse things, and somehow weld them into some kind of unity, convey some kind of spirit. Not much work of this sort has been done of any real merit. Mr. W. J. Gardner's The Amuri (1956) provides us with a very good specimen of what can be done. The province may give the researcher more of a unity to work on, though that will depend on the abundance and complexity of his records, and his own skill in digging them up. Here I instance not any work on the "big" provinces, already published, but the very interesting study Mrs. Allan is making of Nelson. One wouldn't go to Nelson for a uniformly blatant success story or the politics of a capital; nevertheless I fancy that for a good many things in New Zealand history"— discovery, exploration, colonisation, education, religion, industry (primary and secondary), shipping"—it provides the microcosm the historian needs. I fancy also the work is taking a great deal longer than any Nelsonian dreamt was possible. Why? Because of the records, public and private, that have been turned up; because also of the sheer hard work that is entailed by professional standards.

My last example will be of something on what we in New Zealand are pleased to call the "national" scale"—-Dr. Keith Sinclair's Origins of the Maori Wars, to be published later this year. It is a good example; for here we have a large historical problem, on which there was a good deal of controversial writing in the past; we have a matter of first-rate importance in our development as a community; we have a play of interesting and able individual personalities as well as of general needs and mass emotions; we have an accumulation of records that could not be previously consulted together. We have, in fact, for the historian a situation that demands the best he is capable of"—technique in research, analytical power, ability to reconstruct, to interpret, and to record an intelligible narrative. The basis of it all is research; the basis of all research is records. In this particular case I think we shall have a very good test case. I don't mean that we shall be testing merely the merits of Dr. Sinclair. We shall be testing also the value of our records and the value of the research we can do. We shall be testing, in a way, the possibility of a mature approach to our own history. For historical research, as I have been at some pains to make clear, like research into other departments of knowledge, is more than a fancy name for a fancy activity. It is more even than the path to a Ph.D.

J. C. Beaglehole