A History of the New Zealanders

Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders From Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century
Paradise Reforged: A History of the New Zealanders From the 1880s to the Year 2000

James Belich

University of Hawaii Press 1996, 2001
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002 https://dannyreviews.com/
It will be a provocation and an inspiration to his fellow historians; it must surely become the standard longer history of New Zealand; and I can recommend it to those who have never even heard of the country. James Belich's two volume History of the New Zealanders is insightful, involving, and inspired. Though over a thousand pages long, it never drags and, though a unified history, it offers variety in material and approach: social and cultural history are mixed with political and economic, and anecdotal and biographical detail with broad generalisation.

Perhaps the most notable feature of A History of the New Zealanders is its broad use of analogies, comparisons and typologies, both to explain and to assist later reference. As Belich writes,

"the purpose of history is not, as too many historians imagine, to faithfully photograph chaos. We need to detect and understand processes that cause change and continuity in apparent chaos, or at least impose meaning on it. To do this we have to speak of rough patterns and categories, ideally at minimal damage to the facts."
That comes from a defence of the use of class categories in chapter four of Paradise Reforged, but it applies to Belich's approach generally. His frameworks are often colourful and original. One example is the use of colours to label different stereotypes of Maori — red for warlike, green for environmentally sensitive, white for almost-European (even literally Aryan, in one of the more bizarre inventions of racial science), grey for "a dying race", black for unsalvageably bestial, brown for loyal subordinates, and so forth. Another is the description of the 20th century New Zealand economy as a "monoped" based on protein and dairy, diversifying to become a "quadruped" with the addition of forestry, fishing and fruit, tourism and services, and manufacturing.

Making Peoples is divided into three overlapping parts. The first covers the Maori before European contact, the second interaction between Maori and Europeans, down to the Maori nadir in the early 20th century, and the third Pakeha (non-Maori New Zealander) history down to the 1880s. In the construction of both peoples, Belich highlights the interplay of economic and ideological forces.

"Both Maori and Pakeha colonisations were driven and structured by myths of settlement, by dynamics and imperatives that were cultural as well as economic. Both replaced mobile and extractive systems with more sedentary and sustainable ones."

Paradise Reforged is divided into three chronological parts, covering the 1880s to 1920s, the 1920s to 1960s, and the 1960s to 2000. Each of these is in turn divided into two, one on the "outer" history of politics and economics and one on "inner" social and cultural history. Belich's biggest thesis is that there was a "recolonialisation" of New Zealand, a tightening of dependence on and ties to Britain, centred on the "protein bridge", the exports of meat and dairy made possible by refrigeration; he argues that its end is best dated to 1973, when Britain joined the European Economic Community and turned its back on New Zealand, rather than to the reforms of the 1984 Labour government.

Many of the broad themes of New Zealand history will be of interest comparatively, especially for students of Australian, Canadian, and United States history: relations between colonisers and indigenous peoples; the colonial relationship with Britain; social and cultural change over the 20th century; the ways in which the fears and aspirations of individuals combine with their circumstances to mould their lives; and so forth. The specifically New Zealand details are fascinating — the Maori development of trench warfare in the New Zealand Wars, the downplayed colonial ancestry of much New Zealand culture, the anti-nuclear movement and the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, ...

Belich tackles his ambitious project confidently and assertively. Though he is willing to come down in favour of specific hypotheses (for example of the timing and process of Maori settlement) and avoids getting mired in historiographical debates, he is respectful of alternative views and refrains from polemic. Sometimes blunt, even rough, and at other times quite polished, Belich's prose in a way matches his subject.

Belich is often very funny, with a fondness for puns and a straightforward and sometimes unsubtle humour. A chapter on social liberalisation, for example, is titled "Escape from Nappy Valley". And after describing the 20th century decline of the New Zealand gentry he writes, of suggestions that "diligent search" may still find remnants: "If found, there is a case for its preservation on offshore islands, such as Britain". Sometimes he tries too hard. Right at the beginning of Making Peoples, for example, Belich produces a pun on "the Venerable Sinclair" which will only be understood by those who know both that Keith Sinclair was a eminent New Zealand historian and that the Venerable Bede was an Anglo-Saxon one — inappropriate because Making Peoples and Paradise Reforged deserve a much broader audience than professional historians of New Zealand.

October 2002

External links:
Making Peoples
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
- details at University of Hawaii Press
Paradise Reforged
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
- details at University of Hawaii Press
Related reviews:
- books about New Zealand + New Zealand history
- more history
- books published by University of Hawaii Press
%T Making Peoples
%S A History of the New Zealanders From Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century
%Y A History of the New Zealanders
%A Belich, James
%I University of Hawaii Press
%D 1996
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0824825179
%P 497pp

%T Paradise Reforged
%S A History of the New Zealanders From the 1880s to the Year 2000
%Y A History of the New Zealanders
%A Belich, James
%I University of Hawaii Press
%D 2001
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN 082482542X
%P 606pp