The Making of New Zealanders by Ron Palenski review

by Gavin McLean / 11 August, 2012
Ron Palenski argues a sense of New Zealandness started to emerge earlier than many believe.
Book review: The Making of New Zealanders by Ron Palenski The back cover of Ron Palenski’s new book quotes one of our more sensible early premiers. In 1875, Edward Stafford, looking back on forming a ministry at the start of responsible government in 1856, declared that “from that moment, I determined to be a New Zealander”, abandoning old provincial parochialism. Like most early premiers, Stafford went “Home” to Britain after retiring from colonial politics, but that only underscores one of the author’s observations – even if not pushed terribly enthusiastically – that identity is not either/or, but is frequently multi-layered. The Making of New Zealanders is based on a doctoral thesis, although fortunately it does not read like one. Palenski tackles postmodern views on identity in a couple of places but he minimises the jargon, confi ning most of it to his extensive endnotes. The book’s eight chapters cover early settlement, the contribution of the press, symbols of “Godzone”, New Zealand exceptionalism, the rejection of federation with Australia, the Boer War and our passion for sport.

Although most of these topics crop up in other histories or cultural analyses, Palenski argues a sense of New Zealandness started to emerge earlier than many believe, manifesting itself reasonably obviously by the third quarter of the 19th century, rather than the dawn of the 20th, when historians tend to dob in the usual suspects – our enthusiasm for getting involved in the Boer War and the All Blacks’ 1905 tour of “Mother Britain”. The process was gradual. Political aspirations played their part. So did technology, the stitching together of scattered towns by Union Company steamers, electric telegraphs and railways. Settlers recruited flora and fauna as local symbols – moa first, kiwi later. Demographics undoubtedly played their part as colonial-born overtook foreign-born. Just as importantly, the presence of Maori was also crucial, not only through appropriated symbols.

Palenski argues that rejecting federation was at least partly due to fear of White Australia’s racism; the 1888 tour of Britain by the Natives team also laid strong foundations for later efforts. Along the way, Palenski teases out some interesting facts, such as New Zealand being a world leader in standardising time on a national basis by adopting Greenwich Mean Time and an explanation of the disputed history of the origins of our national rugby team. This is neither the first nor last word on the subject. Writers such as Alan Mulgan and Keith Sinclair have devoted entire books to nationalism and identity, and most recent national histories – James Belich, Paul Moon, The New Oxford, etc – touch on it. This is, however, a worthy addition to the debate.

THE MAKING OF NEW ZEALANDERS by Ron Palenski (AUP, $45).

Gavin McLean is a historian and reviewer.
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