Thursday, 24 November 2005

Penguin History of New Zealand

Listening to:

ABBA, When all is said and done.

Just read:

Michael King, The Penguin History of New Zealand.

This single volume history of New Zealand is very well-written and a great introduction to the subject. I did a little of the subject at secondary school, but the “modules” I did then focussed on quite specific areas (economic development and social welfare I think, done in comparison to Japan and the USA). More recently, I read James Belich’s Making peoples, and thought it very good. It stops in the late nineteenth century though, and for more recent history you need the second part, Paradise reforged, which I don’t have. So, I was very interested to see how King might treat the same, earlier, material (in less space), and then go on to describe the 20th century.

King is certainly very good on New Zealand’s prehistory, with what sems a convincing command of the various strands of archaeological and anthropological research. I find it all quite fascinating: to think, the Maori discovered this empty country just 800–1000 years ago, even as scads of well-recorded European history was underway. (King also blows the totally unsupported and typically anti-Maori myths about the Mori-ori out of the water.)

New Zealand’s early history of contact between the Maori and the Pakeha is well done too. It’s very easy to root for the Maori throughout this story: they were initially in a very strong position (so much so that there was never any idea of sending convicts to NZ; it would have been too dangerous). But, at a step further back, there could never have been fair competition between the world's biggest economic power, and tribes bound to subsistence farming for their support. The Maori get shafted.

New Zealand's history becomes more and more Europeanised. Soldiers (Maori and Pakeha) from New Zealand fight in the 20th century's European wars. With the development of refrigerated shipping, New Zealand ties itself into the imperial economy. King's coverage of this century can hardly do anything other than become quite political: New Zealanders have to try to figure out the right way to deal with varying economic circumstances, and how to resolve Maori-Pakeha tensions. All this is the domain of the politician.

King also explains the changing social picture: after WW2, for example, large numbers of Maori leave the countryside and move to the cities, upsetting what had been a de facto separation of two cultures. About the only thing I missed was much discussion of New Zealand’s relations with its neighbours, particularly Australia (now that I live here, I find this more interesting), and the Pacific island countries. But still a very interesting read.