Scholars have their say about the nation's history

Bryan James reviews The New Oxford History of New Zealand.

Ed. Giselle Byrnes
OUP, $99.95, pbk

New Zealand is a "nation" but what is its master narrative?

The reverent concept is a kind of vertical ladder, beginning with Polynesian arrival and settlement followed by European - and then many other ethnicities - capped by the civilising influences of pious settler capitalism, organised political activity, and eventually the development of a local distinctive culture in which none, some or all of the various ethnic threads might be engaged.

Utopia may be just around the corner.

It is a false but convenient story and most of us have been brought up to believe it.

Giselle Byrnes has argued before that it "silences as much as it potentially empowers".

Indeed it does, if we choose to accept it, but where are we to find a narrative that more comprehensively, appropriately and far more accurately tells the extremely complex story of the nation that we know as "New Zealand" - that is to say the story not of New Zealand in the world but of the world in New Zealand?

Prof Byrnes claims to have done so in The New Oxford History of New Zealand, which she has edited and evidently organised, and to which she has also contributed.

I should say at the outset that this, while a "general" history, is not a "popular" history such as Michael King's grand effort for Penguin some years ago.

It is clearly intended for a tertiary-level audience; it is not sequential but rather touches on numerous key aspects; it is no less fascinating for that.

The idea of "evolving nationhood" which lies behind conventional history-writing about New Zealand has been discarded here in favour of discourses about culture, community, family, class, region, sexuality and gender, social history, gender history, cultural history, indigenous histories and environmental history, among other elements, including what several of the writers point to be as unexplored territory - unexplored by modern historians, that is.

The belief of the contributors that our history thus far is substantially a settler creation is contrasted with and reinforced by emphasis on the currents of contemporary historical scholarship.

A small example: much of our previously known story has been Eurocentric or "Western" yet there are many other ways of seeing history and, in New Zealand's case, the Maori world-view directly challenges conventional practices.

What value should be placed upon it by modern scholars? Does mythology and oral tradition have any part to play in recorded and therefore substantiated history?

It is still real, after all - at least to Maori - and it is certainly a part of New Zealand's history.

Two areas of our country's story seem to me particularly to require a focus of study hitherto largely absent: the experience and influence on society of marriage and the changing roles of women over, say, 200 years; and the story of New Zealand's own empire in the Pacific Islands.

Both are touched on here, the first by Angela Wanhalla; the second by Damon Salesa.

There is a particularly intriguing essay by Phillippa Mein Smith on the transtasman relationship, an alliance of convenience whose depth and scope might surprise many readers.

The population's continuous and unusual mobility - our enduring restlessness - is explored.

The study of welfarism in its various manifestations up to the present reflects a great deal of contemporary research and is explained in a long section devoted to the "social laboratory", a political obsession for more than a century.

Descriptions of the flood and ebb of economic policy underline that our struggle to gain, let alone secure, a foothold in the global order continues.

This History, unconventional as it may be, is I feel really a montage of scholarly essays about New Zealand history rather than a history of New Zealand.

Prof Byrnes invites us to accept her crusading manifesto (though not all her contributors appear to do so) that this book will set the agenda for future historical research imperatives; that our history is "many narratives, themes and ideas" (and this book is therefore "revisionist") and is deeply affected by what she calls our "unease" over the status of national identity.

We are indeed a hybrid nation and in our short settled history have lived through a ferment of change.

The search for a distinct New Zealand identity has long been a focus of historical writing as it has been of the wider community, and some of the contributors attempt to analyse why certain social characteristics have assumed a dominance and what this might mean with the changes now clearly taking place - the addiction to sporting contest, particularly rugby; the cult of "man alone" and its implications; the repudiation of "sissy" cultural interests; the current earnestness for all things Maori.

There is much to ponder here.

Thoughtful readers prepared to work their way through this 600-page (and regrettably unillustrated) torrent of facts, words and ideas will find themselves debating many of the propositions advanced, reflecting on the illuminating discoveries of modern research, yet asking themselves (and probably not for the first time): who are we? The quest continues.

- Bryan James is the Books Editor.


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