The Penguin History of New Zealand by Michael King [A Review]

So, have the results of the Brexit Referendum and the US Presidential Election made you consider moving to New Zealand?

The joke that became increasingly common during the campaigns for Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidential bid is that it was perhaps time to consider moving to New Zealand (Canada and Ireland also getting frequent mentions). Once Trump won Ohio and Philadelphia ‘move to NZ’ began trending online. Richard Dawkins penned a letter in Scientific American suggesting New Zealand could become a ‘new Athens’ if it accepted scientists and academics fleeing the rising anti-intellectualism of America and Britain.

However, if you want a fact, in the days after the Leave vote triumphed in the Brexit referendum, interest from Britons on New Zealand immigration sites increased ten-fold. Following Donald Trump’s win, interest from Americans increased 24-fold with 7,000 applying for visas. How many of them actually take the matter further is yet to be seen. This week’s 7.8 quake will probably put many off. But, again, if you want to hear a fact about people who are moving; net migration between NZ and Australia has swung towards NZ for the first time since 1991.

Immigration from Australia to New Zealand, and from New Zealand to Australia, per year for 2001-15. Source:

While most of those moving to NZ are NZ citizens, possibly due to new restrictions which make pathways to Australian citizenship almost impossible, the numbers include an increased number of Australians moving to NZ. This in an election year for Australia where the far-Right won increased seats. There are suggestions that the upcoming French and German elections will also be vitriolic with an increasingly confident far-Right. Something is definitely going on and New Zealand seems to be enjoying a reputation for being immune to it.

Most migrants to NZ are from Asia who come to NZ for the same reason they also go elsewhere in the West; for increased opportunities in education and employment. But why would Westerners come to NZ? Especially since they may be taking a cut in salary and may not enjoy the same access to the latest trends and consumer products. In general terms, one reason is that many may simply not have considered it an option before.

NZ has really opened up in the last three decades or so and the country and the culture has been advertised the world over aided by the number of movies and TV shows being filmed there. The scenery of landscape and small towns, government funding for the film industry, successful individuals such as Peter Jackson, Taika Waititi or Bret and Jermaine of Flight of the Conchords and outfits such as Weta Workshops and others supported by heavyweights like Spielberg and James Cameron have all advertised New Zealand globally. But those who have investigated the movement of Westerners, mainly Britons and Australians, to NZ have found a few common factors. [for an example of a recent report see: Across the Tasman, by Frank Robson, The Age, 15/10/2016]

The first is the Iraq war; New Zealand did not join the coalition. It was barely even debated in NZ; the Prime Minister said NZ would not go and the NZ public were largely in agreement. I don’t think most NZ’ers appreciate what a big deal that was; a generation earlier the idea that Britain and Australia would be going to war and NZ would not follow would have been very controversial at least. It is a sign of how much NZ foreign policy has swung since participating in the Vietnam War. NZ’s non-participation in Iraq has given some the impression that NZ is a place where sane people live, a place that jihadists are relatively less interested in and, coupled with NZ’s antinuclear policy, as a country whose government is not overeager to please the US, in contrast to Australia and the UK (though this has not always been the case). To quote the above report:

New Zealand’s inclination not to be “part of the world” – typified by its long ban on visits by nuclear vessels – continued when it refused under Labour’s then-PM Helen Clark to join the Coalition of the Willing in invading Iraq in 2003.

As it turned out, the decision to dodge the stooged-up Iraq war, along with a massive boost from “Tolkien tourism”, enhanced New Zealand’s image as a sane, safe destination in an otherwise scary world, especially, and most ironically, within the US.

(I would disagree with the ‘inclination not to be part of the world’ part of the above, though. NZ pulls its weight in terms of UN sanctioned military support, refugee settlement and as a voice for smaller countries at the UN)

Would be migrants from Australia, the US and Britain should be warned that, unlike your home countries, by entering NZ, you are entering a Western country whose security is not guaranteed by the US and who the US does not share intelligence information with, largely because of the refusal to grant visits from nuclear powered or nuclear armed US Navy vessels. There is no ‘special relationship’, no free trade agreement either.

Another factor migrants cite in such reporting is race relations, particularly with regard to recognising the rights of indigenous peoples. Though inward-looking NZ’ers may feel this reputation is undeserved, that improvement took too long to arrive, that a lot more needs to be done or, conversely, that too much is being done; from the point of view of outsiders, especially Australians, NZ’s efforts and results in this area are admirable. Australians like to think of their country as a young country, a forward-looking country, a country of the future, and of NZ as their poor, backward, conservative, country-cousins. Yet the strides NZ has made in race relations in the last two decades, the fact that NZ has had marriage equality since 2013, has made not a few Aussies question which country is really the backward one and which the progressive.

Other factors include the somewhat laidback and easy-going lifestyle, the access to nature, etc. One significant factor such reporting ignores is that English is the main spoken language in New Zealand, which may be why the Scandinavian countries are not mentioned alongside New Zealand, Canada and Ireland more frequently.

But is NZ’s perceived immunity to the issues at force in recent voting deserved? Perhaps. Key factors cited in Brexit and the rise of Trump include the loss of working class jobs particularly in industries such as mining and manufacturing, middle-class prosperity going backwards since the GFC and the threat, real and imaginary, of large amounts of immigrants. All of which has led to an undercurrent of anger and disillusionment with the status quo, a desire for change and a redrawing of political divisions between nationalists and globalists.

But these factors are less in play in NZ politics. NZ also lost manufacturing and mining jobs but they were a much smaller portion of the economy than elsewhere in the West. It was therefore easier to retrain and redeploy workers to growing industries. The GFC did not have as large an impact in NZ it did elsewhere either and the reason it did not was in part because of free trade. At the time of the GFC, NZ was the only Western country with a free trade deal with China, the only country in the world with a free trade deal with Russia. Access to growing markets kept NZ out of a prolonged recession. Even the destruction of NZ’s second-largest city in 2011 did not slide the economy into the negative.

As for immigration, NZ’s relative geographic isolation makes it much less of a factor. Though there is frequent reporting in NZ about fears of immigration and foreign investors, there is also reporting of a desire that NZ increase its quota of refugees above the amount it already takes as part of the United Nations resettlement program. In contrast to the pressure the British and American governments face to do less, the NZ Government faces pressure to do more. The NZ Government also has a standing offer, repeatedly rejected by the Australian Government, to take some of those refugees Australia keep in offshore detention centres.

None of this is to say that NZ does not have its own socioeconomic issues or that the situation is not likely to change or that these issues are as simple as I may have suggested. Nor does it mean that the benefits and costs of free trade have been shared equally in NZ. Nor does it mean that NZ’s next election won’t have a loud voice for change either, especially since the incumbent party will be seeking a fourth term. But it is those NZ-specific issues that will play out in NZ’s 2017 election. I would not expect the issues at play in Brexit and the Trump campaign, and potentially elsewhere in the West, to be a large factor (for various views from New Zealander’s on the likelihood of our own populist election shock, see here)

But for those seriously planning to move, it would probably pay to know more about the country you are considering. Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand was an immediate success when first published in 2003 and when an illustrated hardcover edition became available, I did not hesitate to grab a copy. As a general overview of New Zealand history, and a popular one, a better introduction would be hard to find.

King begins by describing prehistoric New Zealand; as an isolated collection of very geologically-active islands in a huge ocean. He describes its geological and biological history, its unique and impressive indigenous lifeforms and the mythology of the earliest human occupants. From there, King moves forward covering New Zealand history in roughly chronological order, though with events grouped together to suggest a common theme at work in each period. Beyond this, though, I perceived some greater themes that persist in King’s telling of New Zealand history and it is these themes I would rather share in review than a chapter-by-chapter description of this book.

The first is the sense of finality that accompanies arrival in New Zealand. The pattern of our species’ tendency to move, exploit and then move on, did not come to an end with the discovery of New Zealand but, as the last landmass of its size or greater to be discovered, it is the point at which the pattern literally came full circle. Whether for the Polynesian moving eastward or the later Europeans moving westward, there is a sense of realisation that the Earth is not boundless, its resources are not infinite and there is no large undiscovered land left.

It is a lesson that had to be learned repeatedly and in different forms in New Zealand history. Both the Polynesian settlers who hunted giant Moa to extinction and the first Europeans who decimated seal and whale populations learned too late the cost of unsustainable exploitation. Later, the logging of native timber, the aggressive agriculture, the impact of introduced species taught similar lessons. New Zealand’s small size and lateness of discovery made the effects of these activities inescapable and informed New Zealand’s environmental consciousness.

Perhaps the greatest theme of this book is the sense King creates of there being two New Zealands; one Maori, one Pakeha (indigenous and European New Zealanders respectively). That these two New Zealands existed, initially, quite separately and mostly peacefully, were drawn into conflict and exploitation before taking steps towards coexistence, acknowledgement and reconciliation.

[Colonisation] proceeded with all the accoutrements implied by the term colonisation: transfer of people from one side of the globe to the other, exploitation of the country’s material resources for the benefit of both settlers and distant investors. In the words of the later Maori High Court Judge, Eddie Durie, tangata whenua, the people of the land, would now be joined by ‘tangata tiriti’, the people whose presence was authorised by the Treaty of Waitangi. And the face of New Zealand life would from that time on be a Janus one, representing at least two cultures and two heritages, very often looking in two different directions.

King portrays Maori as a stoic, pragmatic and entrepreneurial people who adapted to and utilised what Europeans had to offer to suit their own purposes. This is probably best exemplified by the nature of Maori interaction with Christianity where, according to King, Maori did not so much convert as use what Christianity and missionaries offered to their benefit, adopted their own interpretations of the religion, while retaining their previous beliefs as much as possible. Though the arrival of God, guns and germs had enormous impact, to the extent that the culture and people faced possible extinction, King warns against ‘fatal impact’ interpretations and hints at a history that is more complex, varied and, in many ways, mutually beneficial.

Much of King’s work in his early career was devoted to Maori culture, history and biography. This book benefits from his devotion to those subjects and is one of its strongest points. King’s description of Maori lifeways after the colonial era, like the rest of the book, is divided into sections of commonality. He describes a phase of Maori existence in the early 20th century that is rural and independent but separated and unsustainable. After the World Wars, he describes a period of transition that saw greater urbanisation in search of new opportunities but also faced prejudice, conflict and the loss of identity and supporting social structures. From there came a political awakening and an overcoming of tribal difference in favour of stronger national unity that continues to evolve, improve the lives of Maori and make New Zealand more unified, coinciding with a new Pakeha identity that was distinctly New Zealand, no longer British and placed greater value on Maori culture.

Maori is the foundation human culture of the land, the first repository of its namings and its histories and its songs; and it is the culture of the people who have, for as long as they want it, a special relationship with the Government of New Zealand via the Treaty of Waitangi. […] The fact is that the Treaty of Waitangi is still unmistakably there after more than 160 years, and its significance and relevance are ensured by both the Maori insistence that the document mediates a living relationship between Maori and the Crown, and by the majority Pakeha view that this constitutes an appropriate stance for the country to take.

A question I’ve always had about New Zealand’s history is why the colonial experience was so different from that of other lands. Why, for example, did something like the Treaty of Waitangi occur in New Zealand when it did not in North or South America, Australia, Southern Africa or India? My opinion, uninformed, was that it was because of New Zealand’s late discovery and development as well as the qualities of the colonists attracted to move there; that New Zealand is a post-Enlightenment country with relatively less of the cultural baggage of the past. Though it is not a question King is seeking to answer in this mostly inward-looking book, there are some hints.

One comes from the convictions of Captain James Cook who King describes as a man determined to be an enlightened leader, who believed in no right to occupation without consent and was taught to regard indigenous people as equals. Another comes from the early Protestant mission in New Zealand which contained prominent abolitionists, motivated to persuade Maori to drop the practice of slavery at a time when this was still an unresolved issue if not against orthodoxy elsewhere in Christendom. Another comes from the period where immigration from Britain rose significantly. King describes the new arrivals as keen to leave behind the prejudices and preconceptions of social class, religious sectarianism, race and gender of their birth country.

Up until the war years, most visitors who commented on religious affairs in New Zealand had been struck by the lack of the sectarianism – especially Protestant versus Catholic antagonism – that was so pronounced in Britain, the United States and Australia.

King also describes the New Zealand of the late-19th-early-20th century as one with a reputation as a ‘social laboratory’. Universal Suffrage was achieved first in New Zealand in 1893 along with many other firsts for women. There were also innovations in the welfare state, pensions, state housing, national parks, seats in Parliament for Maori, a Native Land Court, etc. Many of the 1% of landowners, who owned 64% of the freehold land, voluntarily broke up their estates. New Zealanders enjoyed one of the highest living standards in the world and were beginning to make a mark outside of the country. William Pember Reeves, a Labour Minister of the time said:

[The reforms] were the outcome of a belief that a young democratic country, still almost free from extremes of wealth and poverty, from class hatreds and fears and the barriers these create, supplies an unequalled field for safe and rational experiment in the hope of preventing and shutting out some of the worst social evils and miseries which afflict great nations alike in the old world and the new.

I should say at this point that King is not one of those Niall Ferguson type historians, eager to credit the past for predicting and delivering the virtues of the present, ignoring that this conclusion is only reached with the benefit of hindsight. King is more inclined towards the Jared Diamond type who sees present conditions as the result of past conditions; somewhat accidental, somewhat inevitable, but rarely intentional. For example, King describes the Treaty of Waitangi as neither the firm foundation for the construction of a state nor the blueprint for relations between the colonial government and an indigenous people. But it served a purpose at the time and paved the way for governance of the country as a whole. And though Women’s Suffrage was first achieved in New Zealand, it did so with little active support and the aims that motivated those who supported it did not come to pass. King also wonders whether New Zealand would have survived its long depression of the second-half of the 19th century if it was not for the fortunate coincidence of refrigeration and a British market for New Zealand goods.

There are other cultural themes that persist through this book to enjoy but I can’t devote any more time to them here. One is the ‘bushman’ ethos of Crusoe-like individual survival in the wilderness against the elements by grit and innovation that began in frontier times but persists in evolved forms. Another is a strong sense of ‘double patriotism’ that saw eager New Zealand participation in Britain’s wars and the impact that had on New Zealand society, which makes the Iraq refusal even more marked. There is also an acknowledgement, even from frontier times, that, due to NZ’s smallness and geographic isolation, the country’s prosperity would be determined by access to larger markets. Though free trade agreements remain a hard sell to the NZ public, when well negotiated and managed they bring with them a security that could not be achieved otherwise. This book, of course, contains much more; national and international events and important personages; but I will have to leave my thoughts on its contents and recurring themes here.

I am glad I bought the illustrated version of this book as the pictures add considerably to the story. Also, one minor point I enjoyed was the colour scheme used in the book – stony grey, army green and brown, dark teal, dark gold. Though used sparingly, it is very New Zealand.

I was a little disappointed that King states in his introduction that he has written this book for Pakeha and Maori New Zealanders. Given that a lot of New Zealander are neither (nearly 20% identify as either Asian or Pacific Peoples) it is a little disappointing but, if it was not for that comment, I don’t think the book noticeably suffers from any exclusive focus. The book could certainly use a glossary. Although most Maori terms are explained when introduced, their frequent use means a glossary would be helpful for the unfamiliar.

Perhaps the biggest criticism that could be levelled at this book is that it is oversimplified, perhaps even to the extent of being revisionist. New Zealand may be a young country, but there is certainly more sophistication to its history, more nuance to events and issues, than this book may suggest. Some events and individuals, if not omitted, are dealt with too swiftly. Another issue is that, given the thematic structure of the book and overlapping timespans, King repeats himself frequently and probably unnecessarily. This discrete thematic structure also contributes to the impression of simplification. A more strictly chronological history would provide a more realistic view, though, perhaps at the expense of readability or providing overview.

I think it is best to recall what this book is and what it set out to achieve. It is a general history and an overview. King stresses in his preface that this is not an attempt to be encyclopedic, nor is this a book aimed at academics but to the general reader. As such, I believe the pertinent questions are whether it achieves its overview and inspires the reader to dig further. I believe it does. I for one will be seeking biographies of Captain Cook and some early New Zealand Prime Ministers, novels I had not heard of before as well as histories of some periods of New Zealand history I would like to know more about. This is in addition to the more easily found books on New Zealand’s participation in the two World Wars and novels by better-known New Zealand writers that I have been neglecting for far too long.

The past is a foreign country and I wonder if reading of New Zealands of the past gives New Zealanders any moments of pause. For me, it feels pretty clear that New Zealand is no longer a leader in social experimentation. That crown may now belong to Scandinavian countries with their extensive healthcare systems, free education, environmental policies and unimaginable prisons with their low recidivism rates. What we might learn from such countries are the themes of Andrew Scott’s book Northern Lights and Michael Moore’s film Where to Invade Next; made for Australian and American audiences respectively. I am not aware of something made for a NZ audience but I think one could be (excuse the pun) enlightening.

Phew! This was only supposed to be a review of a book but is has been overtaken by events as they say. Returning to the question of whether NZ will have something similar to a Brexit or a Trump in next year’s election, King’s final paragraph in his History of New Zealand has a thought:

Most New Zealanders, whatever their cultural backgrounds, are good-hearted, practical, commonsensical and tolerant. Those qualities are part of the national cultural capital that has in the past saved the country from the worst excesses of chauvinism and racism seen in other parts of the world. They are as sound a basis as any for optimism about the country’s future.

As for the topic of those who may be considering moving to New Zealand, fleeing the climate around the Leave vote and the Trump presidency, there has been some backlash against this sentiment in New Zealand with suggestions from some that such an influx is neither wanted nor needed. I am inclined to agree but for different reasons. Britain and America still possess enormous economic and military influence to the extent that either could activate a global economic depression, even nuclear holocaust. For the sake of all of us, it would be best if those who dislike the turn their countries have taken to remain and provide strong opposition to the disturbing trends.

Gustave Dore is probably my favourite illustrator. I am pleased to have in my possession a large hardcover edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy heavily illustrated with Dore’s amazing woodcuts. Dore’s The New Zealander (1872) depicts a man sketching the ruins of London the way artists in Dore’s time sketched the ruins of Rome. For Britons who have seriously thought of leaving, it is a future that is not too late to avoid.

Dore, The New Zealander. Source:

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