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The New Zealand Centennial Publications

History and Romance: The Centennial Surveys

The brainchild of Joseph Heenan, Chief Executive Officer of the centennial celebrations and Secretary of the Department of Internal Affairs, the centennial historical surveys comprise of eleven volumes (originally thirteen were intended) published between 1939 and 1942.

Heenan's vision was the publication of a series of accessible histories which would be well-received by the general public. Part of a wider programme which included a thirty-part pictorial series (Making New Zealand), G. H. Scholefield's Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (published 1940) and an historical atlas (never published), the centennial surveys represented a shift in the development of history in New Zealand. As Rachel Barrowman states in her essay, "History and Romance: The Making of the Centennial Historical Surveys"

... a new generation of academic historians was just beginning its work: Airey and Rutherford, Beaglehole and Wood. Before them, the professional practice of New Zealand history had been largely the domain of the journalist-historians, collectors and ethnographers: Cowan and Buick, Scholefield, Andersen and Best. These men understood history as chronicle and the historian's role as rescuing the traces of an heroic past. ... The new historians were trained in the research practices and academic standards of the British universities of the interwar years. For them, history entailed the presentation of thesis and evidence; it had footnotes and arguments. They were more interested in the European than the Maori story, and were especially interested in the political and administrative aspects of British colonial policy and New Zealand government in the period before 1860.

Although nominally constructed under the direction National Centennial Historical Committee, the surveys were really the product of a de-facto editorial committee comprised of academics including J. C. Beaglehole, Eric McCormick, F. L. W. Wood, the writers J. D. Pascoe and D. O. W. Hall, and one official, A. D. Mcintosh. Although Oliver Duff was initially appointed as the editor of the surveys, he was replaced by McCormick after leaving to found the New Zealand Listener early in 1939.

As to the content, style and presentation of the surveys, influences included H. Guthrie Smith's Tutira and Beaglehole's history of the University of New Zealand. It was hoped that the series "should appear to be the result of a critical analysis of great research & a thorough knowledge of the subject effortlessly tossed off." (A. D. Mcintosh to McCormick). Although selection of the subjects for the surveys was initially problematic, the ability to demote certain suggestions for coverage in the pictorial series Making New Zealand proved useful, and sport, transport and architecture were delegated in this way. Certain subjects, including religion and the New Zealand Wars were considered too sensitive, and others that were included for completeness (notably Helen Simpson's The Women of New Zealand) proved to be remarkably popular.

Of the thirteen volumes decided upon, two were never published as part of the series: a volume on Maori to be written by Apirana Ngata was never completed due to pressure of work, and W. B. Sutch's contribution on social services was considered by some to be politically problematic while others considered it simply bad prose; Sutch's work was eventually published privately as Poverty and Progress in New Zealand in 1941 by the Wellington Co-operative Book Society.

The published volumes were a mix of popular, scholarly, and in one case lack-lustre (New Zealanders and Science, authored by S. H. Jenkinson, a friend and neighbour of Heenan). As Barrowman concludes:

The surveys told a more complex story than the conventional, 'romantic' one of official centennial rhetoric, and in most of the literature occasioned by the event (including the companion pictorial surveys): an heroic story which celebrated a hundred years of material progress and honoured the pioneers. They were constrained in their critique of that story, nevertheless, by the metanarrative of European colonisation, by the inherently celebratory tone of the centennial, and by the ambitious aim of combining scholarship with popular success. To the extent that they achieved that aim, Heenan could rightly be pleased.

More information about the New Zealand Centennial is available at the following locations: