Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Short History of New Zealand by Gordon McLaughlan

How much did I know about the history of New Zealand when I landed there a few weeks ago? Not much. I knew that when James Cook "discovered" the island, there were already Maori people living on the two big and several smaller islands of New Zealand, that British settlers brought lots of sheep and European farming methods, that Kiwi soldiers died with Australian soldiers at Gallipoli in World War I, and that many Antarctic explorations departed from Christchurch. I also knew a little about species extinction in New Zealand from watching years of natural history programs on PBS. Other than that, I had much to learn, so when seeing the attractively illustrated A Short History of New Zealand by Gordon McLaughlan in a Queensland bookstore, Bonnie bought it for me. *

McLauchlan is a well-known Kiwi newspaper columnist and historian, who has also written The Farming of New Zealand and The Life and Times of Auckland. In his history of the country, he takes a somewhat casual tone, including a few autobiographical and ancestral notes, keeping the account light and entertaining. This is not to say that he avoids serious controversies in the country's history. He clearly states when he thinks New Zealanders were unjust to indigenous people, farmers, laborers, or immigrants, and he tells several good stories about greed and political corruption. Because New Zealand history is comparatively tame and sensible, it is mostly a positive story which McLauchlan is proud to tell.

As most readers might expect, the short history has a mostly chronological arrangement, starting with some natural history and the origins of the Maori, who seem to have come from Polynesia long after the settling of Hawaii and other distant islands. Some archeologists reckon the arrival of Pacific islanders to be only 800 years ago, making New Zealand the last large islands in the world to be settled, even after Greenland. McLauchlan describes the theories of how and why Polynesians set out on dangerous and desperate voyages. Being colder and richer in resources than most Polynesian islands, New Zealand required the new settlers to evolve a new culture, which thrived in isolation. According to the author, the Maori also withstood the arrival of Europeans better than many other Pacific peoples.

New Zealand was also late being colonized by the British and benefited greatly by the timing. Britain had already forsworn slavery when the first large wave of settlers arrived, and the government tried to shield the Maori with treaties which protected titles to their land. These treaties, however, had loop-holes and the Maori had no concept of private property. Ambitious settlers took many opportunities to take land and natural resources. Wholesale slaughter and enslavement of the Maori was avoided, but they still became an impoverished people with no political power. In the late twentieth century, they finally made political and economic progress.

McLauchlan advances the history up to 2008, pointing out many highs and lows. New Zealand was the first nation to extend the vote to women, doing so in 1893. In 1917, the sale of liquor was forbidden after 6 p.m., with the result that many men became drunk in the late afternoon but made it home to be with their families. The law lasted until 1967 with pubs reluctant for reform of the law that had allowed them to reap large profits without having to maintain evening hours. In 1905, New Zealanders cheered the All Blacks, the national rugby team, which visited Great Britain and beat all challengers except Wales. Kiwi rugby became more controversial on several occasions when South Africa demanded Maoris be removed from the team before the All Blacks played in tournaments; in each case the New Zealand prime minister made a different decision, bring either pride or shame to the country.

MacLauchlan's history of New Zealand was an eye-opener for me. It would be a good addition to any public library history collection.

McLauchlan, Gordon. A Short History of New Zealand. Auckland: Penguin, revised 2009. ISBN 9780143011231

*We used Bonnie's credit card with its lower foreign exchange fee. Her card from a credit union charges one percent, while mine from a major credit card company charges three percent. Check your fees before you go overseas.

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