Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Reviewing ‘The Penguin History of New Zealand’ by Michael King.

The Penguin History of New Zealand by Michael King is the best entry point for people wanting to understand the story of Aotearoa-New Zealand and its peoples.

Although it is a general history it is comprehensive (500 pages) and is immensely readable. Not only has it updated the earlier, standard history of New Zealand by Keith Sinclair but it has given a more extensive treatment to the prehistoric period and a more balanced and integrated appreciation of the history of the indigenous peoples of the country.

Earlier histories were typified by the statement of a geographer who said that “a people with no land came to a land with no people.” As a result the Maori were invisible and ignored in many of the earlier historical accounts. Michael King, however, with his extensive knowledge of Maoritanga (Maori culture and language), has done an able job in writing about the robust interaction of the Maori with those with European ancestry who settled later.

King, who sadly was killed in 2004, shows a remarkable ability to synthesize a huge body of research and present it in a coherent form. His chapter on the Treaty of Waitangi demonstrates his skill at taking a complex event and issue and showing how the treaty has been both constructive and confusing to race relationships.

The author has provided a list of books and articles for those wanting to go deeper. The most disappointing feature of this volume is the lack of footnotes to help readers pinpoint the origin of many fascinating quotations.

King interweaves the various strands of his nation’s development from flightless birds to its citizens who have taken flight and from a strong tie to the Motherland to a nation struggling to discover self-expression and the things that a basic to kiwi culture.

Readers from New Zealand and other countries will come to a better understanding of what makes this nation tick. The Penguin History of New Zealand offers insights into this small and vibrant nation that has produced the All Blacks, many middle-distance runners, the first man to climb the highest mountain of the world, yachting heroes, Kiri Te Kanawa, kiwifruit, movie directors, a nuclear free nation, poets and painters and a cluster of women who have served in the top leadership positions of the country.

Michael King, The Penguin History of New Zealand (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2003).

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Penguin History of New Zealand.