A History of New Zealand in 100 Objects by Jock Phillips (Penguin Random House NZ 2022), 464 pp, $55
Can a country’s history really be told as a series of material objects? This question must nag at any historian who reads Jock Phillips’s A History of New Zealand in 100 Objects.
The concept of using objects to produce a historical narrative has been around for over a decade now. Jock Phillips tells us he was inspired by Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, published as a book in 2010 after having been a series of BBC broadcasts. Since then, there has been A History of Ireland in 100 Objects and a similar German production. Something of the same inspiration was produced in New Zealand in 2015 when Annabel Cooper, Lachy Patterson and Angela Wanhalla published their book The Lives of Colonial Objects, even if they stuck with the nineteenth century, unlike Phillips’s very broad swing through time. Phillips’s first ‘object’ is the fossil bone of a crocodile-like creature from forty-plus million years ago, cleverly reminding us of the very ancientness of these islands. His last objects are knitted dollies representing Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield curating public health in the time of Covid-19. Very up to date.
Jock Phillips is a diligent researcher, digging into many varied fields and showing much erudition. A History of New Zealand in 100 Objects reads well as a series of enlightened anecdotes, perhaps best consumed one story at a time. Phillips sets out his criteria for including objects. No items have been sourced from outside New Zealand. All may be found in New Zealand museums and collections. All objects are portable, which rules out statues and monuments. Phillips closes his introduction with jocularity: ‘My hope is that anyone who reads it will learn about our history; but, even more, they will have a good time along the way.’
So why should historians question a history told in objects? Simply because this approach allows for cherry-picking: that is, selecting objects for scrutiny without providing an overview and a coherent sequential narrative. History becomes selected snapshots. As Phillips rightfully states: ‘Another historian with a different view of the past might have chosen 100 quite different objects.’
So much for carping. A History of New Zealand in 100 Objects does give us ‘a good time’, even if it is disjointed. Phillips’s technique is to use each object as an introduction to a trend. Boys discovering the bones of a kurī leads into the story of all the dogs released in New Zealand and the consequences of this. ‘Kahungunu Hei Tiki, Te Arawhiti’ becomes about the whole saga and significance of greenstone (pounamu) in Māori culture. ‘Betty Guard’s Comb’ is indicative of the rowdy and sometimes homicidal interactions of whalers and Māori in the 1820s and 1830s. ‘H.B. Lusk’s Cricket Bat’ explains why cricket did not become our national game like rugby did. The story of the Napier earthquake in 1931 begins with one stricken schoolboy’s school uniform. ‘Mt Eden Gallows’ introduces us to the old death penalty and how capital punishment was finally abolished. ‘The World’s First iPhone 3G’ expands into discussing how our lines of communication have changed radically in the last 30 years.
On the whole, Phillips’s sympathies are anti-colonial and on the Left. Both ‘Joseph Bank’s Kōwhai Specimen’ and ‘James Cook’s Cannon’ are written to highlight the aggressive approach of European explorers. ‘Leslie Adkin’s Baton’, wielded by one of ‘Massey’s Cossacks’ in 1913, tells of fierce conflict between farmers and Red Feds, giving very much the unionists’ side of things. Similar sympathies are found in ‘Chip and Rona Bailey’s Typewriter’, which stands in for the 1951 lockout. Objects related to protest are highlighted: the petition to Save Manapouri, shown as a turning point in environmentalist thinking; the pou whenua symbolising the Māori Land March of 1975; the Biko Shield from the 1981 anti-Springbok Tour movement, opening up on the whole rugby ethos; the failed attempt to Save Our Post Offices in an era of neoliberalism.
There are the inevitable household icons in Phillips’s choice of objects, such as the famous photo of Michael Joseph Savage taken by the photographer Spencer Digby, which was for decades displayed in many working-class homes. But there are also some odd absences. As Phillips admits in his Introduction, only two historical documents are discussed: the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840 and the Women’s Suffrage petition from the 1890s.
There is no object related to Ed Hillary, though Phillips finds the space to discourse on Peter Blake’s red socks. Some items have been chosen not because they inaugurated a trend but because they are the only ones of their type still surviving. Bishop Pompallier’s printing press was not the first printing press in New Zealand, but it is the oldest press from colonial times that is still intact. The locomotive Josephine was definitely not the first steam engine in New Zealand, but it is the earliest one to be preserved. Occasionally there are unexpected interpretations and ambiguities in Phillips’s text. ‘William Wakefield’s Epaulettes’ gives a surprisingly benign view of the whole Wakefield enterprise. Though the Irish and Chinese were prominent in the Otago gold rush of the 1860s, it is odd to have them represented by ‘Paddy Galvin’s Pipes’ and ‘Chinese Li-ding Scales’ (the latter strongly related to measuring out opium).
In dealing truthfully with matters from the past, Phillips can’t avoid quoting cringe-worthy statements that were once made, most of them related to race relations. During the Christchurch Exhibition of 1906, supposed to promote New Zealand and its progress, the journalist-historian of the time, James Cowan, said the exhibition celebrated the ‘material progress of New Zealand since it was first redeemed from barbarism by the white man’. Similarly, the ‘Centennial Exhibition Souvenir Ashtray’ from the 1940 exhibition in Wellington leads us into the very condescending attitude towards Māori depicted in that exhibition, when the whole country was deemed privileged to be part of the British Empire.
‘Tainui Mere, a Princely Gift’ is one of the more egregious episodes in this book, showing how flippant royal (British) visitors could be when given heartfelt gifts by Māori donors. ‘Rudall Hayward’s Camera’ rightly honours a pioneer of New Zealand filmmaking but also notes how his films, intended to show harmonious reconciliation of Māori and Pākehā, often led to Pākehā embracing the myth of New Zealand having the ‘best race relations in the world’. Apart from such self-satisfied sloganeering, Phillips also has to report the downright silly in ‘Helen Clark’s Trousers’. Was there really a sensation or scandal when, in 2002, the then Prime Minister wore trousers while meeting the Queen? No, there wasn’t; just a few idiotic comments made by a handful of bumptious British journalists. Thankfully, Phillips uses this occasion to talk about the growing presence of women in politics and official positions.
When is Phillips at his very best? When he is enlightening people who might have been fed false stories about our past. There’s the oddly heroic story of the ‘Wairau Bar Necklace’, its antiquity proving that the ‘moa hunters’ were ancestral Māori and not a different race as has sometimes been falsely claimed. ‘Maori War Trumpet’ gives the clearest and most concise account I’ve read of the bloody interaction with Tasman in Golden Bay. ‘Solander Island Skin Purse’ reminds us that sealers were the first European settlers in New Zealand and not missionaries or whalers, as has often been assumed. Phillips gives us a masterly summary of the effect of the Treaty of Waitangi and Māori expectations: ‘Māori chiefs saw the treaty as a confirmation of the Governor’s role in controlling Pākehā, and a protection of their own authority and lands … They wanted to keep the Pākehā around, because Pākehā brought trade, guns and material benefits. They did not expect an invasion of white people to their country.’
‘Wiremu Kingi’s Tauihu’—tauihu being the prow of a war canoe—tells the story of Kingi’s outrage at the confiscation of ancestral lands but includes his pacifist reaction. This important story has been eclipsed by the better-known story of the pacifism of Parihaka (on which there is a later entry).
Salute, too, the even-handedness with which Phillips addresses some tricky subjects. As seen in the entries ‘John Buchanan’s Table’ and ‘Emma Barker’s Sewing Box’, he does not belittle or caricature either Free Church Presbyterian settlers in Dunedin or Anglican settlers in Christchurch. Caricature has tended to be the default setting for some pundits when they deal with missionaries and church people. Phillips is aware of and gives examples of barbarism practised by British soldiers in the Waikato Wars, but he finds room to provide a positive view of one British squaddie and his travails. As the man who wrote A Man’s Country, which is in large part a condemnation of Kiwi blokes’ misogyny, Phillips is very balanced in discussing Dr Truby King under the heading ‘Dannevirke Plunket Scales’. Yes, he is aware that Truby King was anti-feminist and a eugenicist, wanting to produce ‘perfect’ children to enhance the British race. But he is equally aware that the Plunket movement King set up greatly benefitted mothers raising children for decades. Real history doesn’t come in neat packages of good and evil. Nuance is what is needed, and that is what is displayed here.
NICHOLAS REID is an Auckland poet and historian. He writes the book blog Reid’s Reader.