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History as it is rewritten

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My favourite quote on the importance of history still comes from that old grump from the British Museum Reading Room, Karl Marx—who famously said, no doubt between requests for a sub from his old mate Engels in Manchester, that “men make history in a history not of their making”.

This quote sums up the challenge of history to the individual—how much can you change the world, and how much are you a slave to your times?

As for the craft of history, Edward Hallett Carr’s famous line from What Is History?—that although thousands of people crossed the Rubicon, historians only took notice of Julius Caesar’s crossing—encapsulates his seminal view that “The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy.”

In short, history, both for the historian and the subject, is a dynamic space of possibility in which we as actors, archivists, and accountants, create through discovery its raw material, and breathe it into life.

All of which feels an apt introduction to a column devoted to six new history books. Three are local—or at least by local writers—which demonstrates that history as both an art and a craft is prospering here in New Zealand. Two others are excellent examples of how the sister craft of biography can give brilliant colour and nuance to the dry trends of an era, while my last entry is a great example of how modern life, especially for those cultures reinventing modernity, is always a strange mixture of the old, the ancient and the sacred.

A common theme unites them all—that the art of the historian is damn hard work.

Aphrodite’s Island Book

Aphrodite’s Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti

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By Anne Salmon (Penguin, 2009) $65

Anne Salmon, professor of history at Auckland University, is a superb example of a historian who has taken a theme and spent a lifetime investigating its contours, discovering buried sources, and in the process inventing both a subject and a provenance to the material she has unearthed.

In her instance, one of her common topics is how the European colonial imagination almost always forgot to interrogate indigenous sources as to what happened when Europeans sailed over the Pacific horizon.

Her industry has been phenomenal: she now has three extraordinary works showing that Maori and other Pacific peoples’ view of “what happened” when first contact was made was often very different to what was scribbled down in the logs and diaries of the likes of Dampier, Bougainville, Cook and Banks.

Three previous works precede Aphrodite’s Island: Two Worlds: First Meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1642–1772; Between Worlds: Early meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1773–1815; and The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas.

In this fourth work—which is entirely self-contained—she takes her topic one step further by linking how the European Enlightenment concept of the Noble Savage, as famously articulated by Rousseau, was such a powerful myth in the minds of European colonisers that it almost obliterated history’s ability to formulate a more open and rational view of the exchange between the people of Europe and the Pacific.

Much of the detail to the work involves misunderstanding, and misreading, on both sides. But despite these moments of tragic farce, the work brims with vitality—and shows us there’s still much more to be learned from the deep history of all parties to Pacific history.

Replenishing the Earth Book

Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo World 1783-1939

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By James Belich (Oxford, $2009) $65

James Belich needs little introduction to New Zealanders. Beginning his career with the groundbreaking The New Zealand Wars—when he startled military historians by his assertion that New Zealand had invented trench warfare 50 years before the First World War—he has gone on to write ‘big history’ by way of his two-volume history of New Zealand, Making Peoples and Paradise Reforged.

By big history, I mean Belich has made sweeping and radical conceptual challenges to the perceived ‘why’, as opposed to the how and what, of New Zealand history. Making Peoples used the dry facts of immigration and settlement to show that early New Zealand rocked with the energy of young people ‘making New Zealand’ where the end game was an independent new state with equality at its core.

In contrast, Paradise Reforged, took a more sombre tone with the introduction of Belich’s concept of re-colonisation, when New Zealanders held back from the early promise of autonomy and used their skills and resources to become essentially the home farm to the UK.

Now, in Replenishing the Earth, Belich, if not exactly forgiving his forebears for their lack of gumption, has conjoined New Zealand into a narrative whose reach is the entire Anglo world of 1783-1939, enabling him to bring in the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

He covers a startling amount of ground. Between 1870 and 1930, by virtue of a population explosion from 12 million to 200 million, the English-speaking world exploded into economic, cultural and economic life with a unique combination of technology and social change. In the former frame are the tools for mass transfer of goods and people, as well as a wealth of new technologies and tools that drove the Industrial Revolution.

On the social and cultural side he cites the development of a settler mentality—and the crucial change in attitude towards mass migration as a theatre of enterprise as opposed to its former role of exclusion, exile, poverty and criminal displacement.

Belich has a huge agenda here—nothing less than a complete rewrite of many of the main tenets of economic and social history across the territories he describes. He lost me often—and equally often ploughed me into the ground with the depth of his detail. But it’s a startling and compelling read—and his mini-histories of the explosive growth of the likes of Melbourne and Chicago are worth the price of your attention by themselves. As for his big history, I suspect he will be arguing with his colleagues for a generation.

Encircled Lands Book

Encircled Lands: Te Urewera 1820–1921

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By Judith Binney (Bridget Williams Books, 2009) $80

Judith Binney is another member of that extraordinary clutch of New Zealand history graduates who, from the 1960s onwards, almost single-handedly brought to life New Zealand’s history as a coherent narrative of colonisation and settlement in which the voices and sources (often oral) of the local indigenous people have radically altered how the story of New Zealand came about.

Indeed, like Salmond above, Binney made the then radical decision early in her career to learn Maori so she could better talk to local iwi whose view of their history was preserved through the complex oral narratives of whakapapa, song and chant.

Her latest book is an extension to the work she began in both Redemption Songs, her biography of Te Kooti, and Mihaia: the Prophet Rua Kenana and His Community at Maungapohatu.

These texts and now Encircled Lands tell the story of the Tuhoe people, whose homeland in the mountains of the Urewera was seen by 19th-century colonials as a place of remote and dangerous mystery.

In Encircled Lands, she returns to the first hundred years of Te Rohe Potae o Te Urewera, the land of th 0e children of the mist—the Tuhoe people.

She accounts for the early contact with Pakeha—the missionaries, government officials and land-hungry settlers. Of how large areas were taken in confiscation and how eventually Tuhoe obtained a measure of autonomy—from 1872, and then formally in 1896 through to 1922 as a legally-recognised tribal enclave.

It is not a pretty tale, and because partisanship is almost inevitable—as a reader—it’s often difficult to maintain the same patience and endurance of the historical voices she unearths in the face of the determination of the New Zealand Crown to crush, disarm and disable.

That said, the predominant emotions are determination and hope—qualities still in play in the Urewera as Tuhoe negotiate with the current Crown for their own version of the present. Compelling reading.

Samuel Johnson: A Life Book

Samuel Johnson: A Life

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By David Nokes (Faber, $2009) $75

This is the last work of celebrated biographer David Nokes, whose earlier works include biographies on Jonathan Swift, John Gay and Jane Austin.

A recognised expert on 18th-century Britain, he brings a lifetime of energy and depth of understanding to Sam Johnson’s era from 1709 to 1784. But still, you have to ask if there’s a need for yet another tale of the man and his times.

In this case—definitely! Nokes takes Johnson’s known quirks to task, especially his arrogance, lack of attention to the many people who loved him and, of course, his wonderful idleness under pressure. But he introduces us to a far more human figure than the loudmouth genius of Boswell or the psychiatric couch potato of many previous biographies. I loved it—and heartily recommend it to anyone with a deadline.

A Gambling Man Book

A Gambling Man

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By Jenny Uglow (Faber, 2009) $75

Jenny Uglow is an equally-assured participant in the history of what is now fashionably described as ‘the long 18th century’—from the UK’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the Napoleonic Wars in early 19th-century Europe.

If you’re involved in technology and innovation, The Lunar Men—Uglow’s account of a highpoint of the philosophic and scientific world of the late 18th-century UK—is a world-class work. In A Gambling Man, she takes a step further back and puts considerable skill to finding new and interesting ways of speaking of the life and times of Charles II, the restoration monarch known for spaniels, court mistresses and dancing shoes. I love his dying line, “Let not poor Nelly starve.”

Uglow limits herself to the ten years from 1660 onwards, when Charles returned from exile and took on the biggest challenges of his reign. There were the Great Fire and the Great Plague of London, which remain two of London’s great natural disasters. A relentless push to modernity saw reform of the credit system and an army of men on the make, an alarming range of religious views and the emerging world of science and technology.

Uglow gives a masterclass of swift brushstrokes backed up with enough detail to keep her argument firmly grounded. I especially loved her account of the Royal Society—the precursor to the 18th-century world of big science and even bigger exploration. Marvellous.

Nine Lives Book

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

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By William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2009) $40

This tale of the lives of nine people who live in contemporary India is a vehicle for William Dalrymple to take his celebrated love and learning on India for a modern-day excursion. It should allow him to combine his best travel writing with his astonishing development as historian of British India, especially around the Mughal Empire and the British Indian mutiny.

I love Dalrymple’s early travel writing and adore his recent history, but found this work just a little too neat. The people and ideas—despite, or even because of, the extraordinary nature of their stories—just didn’t get the chance to come alive properly on the page. That said, Dalrymple is a glorious writer, and his love for India and its people still works for me.