Michael King: How a Historian Became a Great New Zealander

Historians in the News

Kerry Howe, Professor of History at Massey University and author of The Quest for Origins: Who First Discovered New Zealand and the Pacific Islands?, in the New Zealand Herald (April 3, 2004):

Michael King's death this week led to an amazing outpouring of sympathy and accolade. It is indicative of fundamental changes in national sensitivities that a historian rather than a sportsperson can now be widely regarded as a great New Zealander.

King's work has not only been received in this changing context - a kind of national metamorphosis in taste from Lion Red to chardonnay, from rugby to arts festivals - but he has helped to bring about this change by encouraging a national awareness of New Zealand's past.

How has a historian - one of a breed hardly prevalent as iconic figures - managed to achieve an elevated personal status and to reveal us empathetically to ourselves?

It results from a complex mix of his talent as a very good historian, his insistence that history should not be written simply for other historians but should engage the wider community, and his particular time and place.

King cut his baby historical teeth in the later 1960s, a time of nascent "isms", such as internationalism, feminism, environmentalism, and, above all, post-colonialism.

New Zealand history for the first time became a popular subject at university, and particularly an interest in Maori-Pakeha relations. Research on culture contact flourished. That was due to pioneering work by Sinclair, Sorrenson, Binney and others, and also reflected the broader international trend of examining the experience of colonised peoples - crossing to the other side of the frontier, as it was called.

It was also a time when the Maori voice, in protest and co-operative endeavour, was heard loudly for the first time since the 19th century.

In the 1970s, King established himself as a key interpreter for Pakeha (and probably for most Maori) of the Maori historical experience in his writings (such as Moko, Te Ao Hurihuri, Tihe Mauri Ora) and on television with the Tangata Whenua series.

His reputation was consolidated with his biography of the King Movement leader Te Puea (1977). It was as notable for his level of understanding of a Maori world as for the remarkable story that it was, one that for many Pakeha was simply eye-opening.

In the public monocultural world that was then New Zealand, he sensitively revealed matters Maori in a way which no modern Pakeha historian had done to that point.

King also popularised history at a time when that was not fashionable. Moreover, unlike many of those who do popularise the subject, he was technically an excellent historian who did the hard yards of research. Even his critics acknowledged that.

But the public success of this work brought about an early downfall. Certain Maori voices began to oppose his alleged gatekeeping of Maori history - for all his linguistic and cultural skills in a Maori context he was not Maori.

It was a time when the dreaded accusation of white academic imperialism was heard in New Zealand and elsewhere. A public debate took place in the Listener in 1978.

King defended his right to write about the shared New Zealand past but, along with a generation of young Pakeha historians, bowed to pressure and went in search of less stressful historical topics. ...

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