The Oxford Illustrated History Of New Zealand
edited by Keith Sinclair
The Oxford Illustrated History Of New Zealand
Keith Sinclair (ed.)
Oxford University Press, 1990 - viii + 389 pp. - £25
In 1990 New Zealand, a country somewhat larger in area than Great Britain, was inhabited by 70 million sheep, 4.7 million cattle, and 3.3 million people.
Although well served by its historians over the years, New Zealand has needed a new comprehensive history. This handsome volume, edited by the doyen of New Zealand historians and issued to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi, admirably meets that need. The fourteen authors, all but one being academic historians, have tried to bring fresh perspectives to their subject, have taken account of recent advances in research and have trendily and properly (but perhaps a little excessively) paid much more attention than their predecessors to Maori history and to social history including the role of women's movements.
The book is arranged generally in chronological sequence, but in deference to the country's original inhabitants, currently nearly 9 per cent of the population, the Maori feature in five special chapters as well as wherever they impinge on the narrative of New Zealand's pluralistic history.
Bruce Biggs reconstructs the presumed beginnings of Polynesian settlement (in a land hitherto unpopulated by humans or quadrupeds) somewhere over a thousand years ago. The Maori were a fierce people, customarily settling their differences by violence. Biggs recounts the myths with which they arrived, their development into tribal groups, the importance of hereditary rank and of ritual prohibitions as means of social control, and the startling impact of Christianity which by 1840 virtually brought inter-tribal fighting to an end.
In her chapter, Claudia Orange assesses the impact of European visitors and settlers from 1769 to 1840, stemming especially from Cook's six months there during his first voyage, and then the flow of sealers, whalers and others from the colony of New South Wales wanting to exploit New Zealand's natural resources. The white men imported two items that severely damaged the Maori population: firearms, which made inter-tribal fighting more lethal, and diseases such as influenza, dysentery, whooping cough, measles and venereal disease, which sometimes moved through the country in epidemic proportions. The chapter concludes with a balanced account of the negotiations and actions leading to the Treaty of Waitangi which was the basis of British sovereignty.
There are further chapters on 'The 6overnors and the Maori 1840-1872' (James Belich), 'Maori prophet leaders' (Judith Binney), and 'Modern Maori' (M.P.K. Sorrenson). The latter demonstrates that in virtually every field, by any measurement, Maori are in a worse (and often deteriorating) position compared with non-Maori, or pakeha. In education, housing, skilled trades, the professions, the bureaucracy, business, and in employment generally, Maori are noticeably disadvantaged. The only area in which Maori outpace pakeha is in crime: with 8.8 per cent of the population, they provide over 50 per cent of prison inmates.
Apart from two chapters concerned with New Zealand's external relations, the rest (and bulk) of the book deals with the development of the New Zealand polity, economy, society and culture over the two centuries. It is not clear why New Zealand was the first country in the world to give votes to women (1893), or why it was a pioneer in industrial and social legislation. Perhaps because of the make-or-break pioneer spirit; and despite the conservatism of 'rural barbarians'; despite an economy excessively dependent on primary exports, New Zealand's settler population of overwhelmingly British migrants and their descendants have exhibited, especially but not only in the Liberal governments after 1891 and the Labour governments after 1935, a capacity for enlightened common sense unusual in a democratic society.
In the final chapter, entitled 'Hard Times', Professor Sinclair suggests that such wisdom may not have been greatly in evidence in the economic policies of recent Labour and National governments. He rightly reports as 'undeliverable' the ambivalent Labour policy of shedding the nuclear dimension of the American umbrella while retaining its conventional aspects, but says this was a 'declaration of independence'. New Zealanders can be grateful that a changing world makes it less likely that they will need American protection in the foreseeable future.
Composite volumes always have problems of coherence, but the editor in this case has been well served by his contributors. There are fewer gaps in the narrative than one might have expected, and the work is a valuable addition to the library of scholar or general reader alike.
Tom Millar is the author of Current International Treaties (Croom Helm, 1984).
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