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May 2014: J. C. Beaglehole: Public Intellectual, Critical Conscience

9781877577802Reviewed by: James Watson, Massey University

Doug Munro. Wellington: Steel Roberts, 2012 106pp. £14.99 (paperback).

A significant feature of the countries of major British settlement has been the extent to which so many of their best university students have travelled, and continue to travel, to the United Kingdom itself to further their educations and their careers.  During the twentieth century a growing number of such students returned to their native countries as the latter developed academic and research facilities of their own.  John Cawte Beaglehole (1901-71) must rank as the most successful such New Zealand returnee of his generation, despite the fact that he came back without a job to go to.  His work, particularly that on the journals of the Cook voyages, led to his being appointed to the Order of Merit, only the second New Zealander (after Ernest Rutherford) to receive that honour.

Beaglehole has not been neglected in the historiography.  One of his sons, also an historian, has published a biography,  based in large part on his father’s personal correspondence.  The latter is clearly a treasure trove of material on much of New Zealand’s intelligentsia during the mid-twentieth century, but it sadly appears to be not yet publicly accessible.  A greatly condensed version of the biography is in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.    John Beaglehole was one of two Victoria University of Wellington history professors examined by Bill Oliver in that institution’s centenary publication and the author of this work, Doug Munro, devoted a chapter to him in a work on Pacific historians.

Munro describes this small book as ‘a revision and expansion’ of that chapter, designed to be considerably more affordable for a New Zealand audience than his British publication.  He might have added that readers could also find it less daunting to tackle than the almost five hundred pages of text in the biography, despite how absorbing they would find it if they did make the effort.

As indicated by the subtitle to his book, Munro has chosen to concentrate on Beaglehole’s role in public life in New Zealand rather than his academic career and publications.  Nevertheless, this provides massive scope, as Beaglehole, although not a good public speaker and by nature a private person, felt driven to fight for causes that attracted great controversy locally.   Denouncing political censorship and espousing left-wing ideas even when he lacked permanent employment showed unusual courage and cost him at least two sorely needed academic appointments at the outset of his career.

It is clear from this book and from the biography that Beaglehole’s public interests revolved around two related concerns – furthering the development of European high culture in New Zealand and defending freedom of expression.  Initially devastated by the prospect of returning to what he saw as a cultural wasteland, the fact that the Labour Government (1935-49) was prepared to invest in high culture and to some extent involve Beaglehole himself in that process reconciled him to life here.  Munro quotes (p.36) from a very revealing 1946 letter in which Beaglehole wrote of his ‘becoming a New Zealander’.  By this Beaglehole meant not that he was himself undergoing a fundamental transformation – such as embracing a life of rugby, racing and beer – but rather acknowledging that New Zealand was beginning to acquire enough of the attributes of European high culture to make him feel comfortable and to make it worthy of being regarded as a nation.  Beaglehole worked incessantly to encourage not only state sponsorship of music, art and literature, but also private initiatives, such as the Wellington Chamber Music Society.  He pressed for the establishment of proper archive facilities and the preservation of historic buildings.

Beaglehole’s championing of freedom of expression was not unrelated to this vision of New Zealand establishing itself as a worthy modern European nation in which radicals in art and politics were unconstrained by dull ‘provincial’ conformists.  He took a prominent role in opposing the extension of state power to limit freedom of expression during wartime, during the 1951 waterfront dispute and in the form of a Police Offences Bill following that dispute.  He contributed much to the subsequent formation of the New Zealand Council of Civil Liberties, which was instrumental in persuading the Government to introduce a less arbitrary form of censorship of publications in the 1960s.

This is a very accessible account of Beaglehole’s contribution to public life in New Zealand and is to be recommended.  I was particularly impressed by the way Munro brought his personal knowledge of orchestral music to bear in assessing the fairness of Beaglehole’s controversial review of the first concert of the National Orchestra by listening to a recording of the performance.  However, the author seems rather too generous to his subject when he maintains that Beaglehole was publicly less confrontational than another New Zealand intellectual, Bruce Mason, who also despised local ‘provincialism’.  Beaglehole’s brilliant writing all too often betrayed his contempt for those he needed to win over.  It is likely that this reduced the effectiveness of his arguments for state support for projects during a time when the National Party dominated government.



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