Richard Seddon, King of God’s Own: The life and times of New Zealand’s longest-serving prime minister by Tom Brooking (Penguin Books, 2014), 584 pp., $65
At a mayoral reception during my first visit to St Helens in Lancashire in 1966, I was, when identified as a New Zealander, proudly ushered by the mayor into his parlour to admire the vast portrait over its fireplace of the town’s most famous son: Richard John Seddon, Premier of New Zealand from 1893 until his death in 1906, renowned throughout the British Empire and subsequently regarded by many as our greatest prime minister; a gigantic figure in our historiography but one around whom myths and legends clustered to all but obscure the real man.
In modern times he has earned equal obloquy for both his racism and his jingoistic imperialism from revisionists who insist on evaluating historical personalities – especially nineteenth-century ones – in the light of their own currently fashionable assumptions. In this superbly researched biography, however, Tom Brooking places Seddon firmly inside his own time and has stripped away many of the myths to reveal the man to be an even greater figure, in so many ways, than legend has hitherto claimed; and he has done that through sound, common-sense and objective analysis of facts. He has undoubtedly thrown down the gauntlet to fellow academics. Fierce, and characteristically vituperative, academic debate about this ‘King Dick’ is likely to enliven our university history departments for some time. [Read more…]