A Concise History of New Zealand by Philippa Mein Smith

Eras Journal – Buchanan, R: Review of “A Concise History of New Zealand”, Philippa Mein Smith

Philippa Mein Smith, A Concise History of New Zealand,

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge & Melbourne, 2005.

Isbn 0 521 54228 6

This new and suggestive general history of New Zealand is a story of firsts and lasts, conservatism and innovation, isolation and togetherness. Radicalism is the unexpected, and often buried, thread that binds the necessarily swift survey of events and epochs that comprise this chronological retelling of New Zealand’s history from the deep past of Gondwana 100 million years ago to the formation of the Maori Party and the divisive “race” speech of new National Party leader Don Brasch in 2004.

New Zealand’s credentials as a radical nation are multiple and some are more debatable than others. These credentials include the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi with the Maori, early women’s suffrage, its anti-nuclear policies and its dual history as both a pioneering welfare state and later as a pioneer of radical economic rationalism (enacted, somewhat ironically, by Labour’s Roger Douglas and his coterie of supporters in the mid-1980s).

Philippa Mein Smith, an Associate Professor of History at Canterbury University in Christchurch, has written two monographs on the policing and care of mothers and babies and co-edited a comparative history of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. Her expertise in women’s history and her awareness of the connections between New Zealand and its neighbours are two of the many strengths of this new history.

Mein Smith argues persuasively and consistently for an acknowledgment of the role of radical women in the nation’s past and present. She also makes a strong case for a renewed emphasis on gender as well as race, as a lens through which to view New Zealand history. In arguing this, Mein Smith acknowledges that some of the victories of women (such as the right to vote, granted to Maori and Pakeha women in 1893) were part of the process of colonisation. “Generally, too, women’s suffrage was won early in colonial settler communities that had dispossessed indigenous people, where claiming the land was central to politics”, she writes (p. 104).

The 1899 legislative foundation of the “white New Zealand policy” is discussed, as it should be. This shameful policy is nowhere near as prominent in the study of history in New Zealand as it is in Australia, and it acts as a corrective to the myth of New Zealand as a nation with an especially laudable race-relations record. So too, does Mein Smith’s work on the racialised nature of the history of Plunket, an iconic maternal and child-health service. Plunket was founded by Truby King, a psychiatrist and eugenicist, whose concern was overwhelmingly for the health of the white baby.

Women are also re-inserted into the history of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy. Although Labour Prime Minister David Lange is the figure most commonly linked with ‘no nukes’, Mein Smith reminds us of the role that two women Labour MPs, current Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Attorney-General Margaret Wilson, played in pushing through this brave and visionary policy.

Mein Smith acknowledges the many inspiring women leaders New Zealand has produced, from suffrage campaign leader Kate Sheppard to Helen Connon (who in 1881 became the first woman in the British Empire to graduate with an honours degree) to more contemporary figures such as Clark, former PM Jenny Shipley and Governors-general Dame Catherine Tizard and Justice Dame Silvia Cartwright. Maoridom is also awash in matriarchs, including twentieth-century figureheads such as land rights campaigner Whina Cooper and Waikato leader Princess Te Puea.

Mein Smith’s expertise in women’s history sets her book apart from Michael King’s best-selling 2003 work Penguin History of New Zealand. King did much of his early work as a self-taught historian with Maori subjects and his cross-cultural expertise resulted in a history that is more successful than Mein Smith’s in finding the points of connection and cooperation – as well as the crucial differences – between Maori and Pakeha pasts.

The histories of both King and Mein Smith, however, share a common and rather unnecessary marketing ploy. Both proclaim, on their respective back covers, that “New Zealand was the last landmass, other than Antarctica, to be settled by humans”. This claim has conflicting purposes. It suggests that New Zealand is somehow wilder and less civilised than other places but it is also used as a badge of cultural pride, to reinforce just how much human New Zealand has achieved in a comparatively short time.

While King’s opening chapters are a fascinating and provocative discussion of the various competing stories and evidence – tribal, mythical, new age, archaeological – about what life was like in ‘New Zealand’ before white people arrived, Mein Smith’s treatment of this long period is so cursory that it is almost pointless. The 20 pages of ‘Waka across a watery world’ cover geology, the arrival of Polynesian explorers some time between 800 and 1000CE and pre-European Maori life. Given that ‘New Zealand’ as we know it did not exist until the nineteenth century, why not start there?

It is possible to be too concise, I think, and that signals a broader problem with a history of this kind, part of a series put out by Cambridge (Stuart McIntyre wrote the Australian version). Histories pitched at general readers are wonderful but perhaps a timeline can provide a chronology of significant events – the one at the back of Mein Smith’s book is excellent – so the author would be free to do something more interesting in the text.

In Mein Smith’s return to the theme of radicalism in economic and social policy, in her playful descriptions of butter as a civilizing force and New Zealand as a significant part of the imperial food chain – as a farm to feed Britain – the reader glimpses the book that might have been. This book would be structured by themes rather than timelines. Instead of trying to map and survey an entire nation, it could select some areas of interest and enlarge our view of these.

Mein Smith is a descendent of Captain William Mein Smith, the New Zealand Company surveyor who planned the capital city, Wellington. The historical survey she has conducted for Cambridge is successful in explaining and summarising key events in New Zealand history – everything from the foundation of the Maori king movement to the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior – but I would like to see the results if Mein Smith were given something of a freer hand.

Rachel Buchanan

School of Historical Studies, Monash University