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New Zealand Biography

An important part of the history of a country is related in the lives of its citizens. This is particularly true in the early stages of colonisation, when achievement is more often shaped by individual enterprise than by communal effort. Much of the early history of New Zealand can be studied in illuminating form in the lives of a few men; but the difficulty for most readers is that this material has mainly existed in sources known only by the research student and accessible only to him. That been a matter for regret, for whatturns most average readers to the study of history is the urge to discover the human reality of the past. They want to know how the men 'and women lived who, in fact, not only lived through but mafie the economic, social, and political changes that characterise history. In “A Dictionary of New Zealand

“Biography” [Department of Internal Affairs. Two vols.] Dr. G. H. Scholefield provides for the first time an authoritative work of reference for those who look back,’ with this wish, over New Zealand’s century Dr. Scholefield’s work in this .field is already known through numerous newspaper articles, through his biography of Captain Hobson, and through his “ Who’s Who in New Zealand.” His new work ■ is a proper and important part of the series of official centennial publications. As Dr.. Scholefield indicates in an introductory essay, the practice of biography in New Zealand has been limited to studies of the lives of a few men, and to a single copious “Cyclopedia of New “ Zealand ” published 40 years ago, an unselective work and largely unreliable. So the “ Dictionary ” is essentially a new undertaking. Its most important quality is that it is authoritative, for Dr. Scholefield has taken nothing on hearsay or from popular tradition until he has checked it from other sources. One of the things quickly discovered in any historical re-

search is that popular and family tradition commonly, attributes adventures or achievements to the wrong men, and is widely astray in dates and other details. For those who wish to carry their studies further the “ Dictionary ” is made still- more useful by the statement, at the end of each article, of the sources from which information is derived. Such bibliographical information has been too often omitted from New Zealand histories. Apart from the labour of obtaining information, Dr. Scholefield has had a difficult task in deciding what achievements qualified a' name for inclusion. In England ** the distance of the.

“ historic past.., settled of itself the claims of “many," he says, quoting Sir Humphrey Milr ford. The authors of the “ Dictionary of “American Biography," with a shorter history, had more trouble; lor there had been less time

to elaborate “an orthodox hierarchy of “merit.” In New Zealand, the perspective is still shorter. Many of the subjects have died within the author’s own lifetime, and contemporary opinion of their merit is quite likely to be altered by the passage of time. So Dr. Scholefield concludes; Neither birth nor wealth in itself is a valid qualification. Significance in our national history, from whatever standpoint, is the sole qualification. . . . There has been no attempt to evaluate the personality and services of the subjects. 'Because our history is so close at hand and because so many still living were the friends or admirers of the actors in it, a purely factual approach has been adopted. Such a standard, interpreted liberally, seems the only one possible at this stage, and error is more likely to be on the side of inclusion—and so not damaging—than of omission. The exploratory and first pioneering perio’d, with its navigators, explorers, missionaries, traders, whalers, and enterprising settlers in

all the provinces, provides the most interesting materia] for the general reader. But, dealing with about 2000 names, the “ Dictionary ” is not over-weighted by biographies of this period. Members of the provincial and general governments and of local bodies, men of mark in the realms of farming, trade, and the professions, and notable officials; all are included. On a first survey it seems that legislators, officials, and ministers of religion may be more fully represented than men whose work, though significant, was less likely to gain public record. There are often men whose fame is mainly local during their lifetime but whose work is just as important in the full sweep of the history of the country as that of many public officials and legislators. At random, a few such omissions are Captain Anglem, of Stewart Island, Octavius Harwood, whaling factor for the Wellers at Otago, Captain Bruce, of Akaroa and early coastal shipping fame, and George Holmes, of thfe contracting firm which built the Lyttelton tunnel. To say this is not to condemn a work which has been well done. What is remarkable is that such omissions are so few; and they are few only because the “Dictionary of New Zealand Biography” has not been prepared hurriedly to catch the centennial market. It represents the result of

painstaking research, continued over a period of more than 30 years. Dr. Scholefield has barned the gratitude of every New Zealand historian, and of every New Zealander who is interested in the history of his country.

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Permanent link to this item

https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/CHP19401214.2.47

Bibliographic details

New Zealand Biography, Press, Volume LXXVI, Issue 23203, 14 December 1940

Word Count
871

New Zealand Biography Press, Volume LXXVI, Issue 23203, 14 December 1940

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