Review: Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand

batemanihonzI’ve recently enjoyed reading the latest New Zealand history book to hit the shelves, Matthew Wright’s ‘Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand’.  You should grab it too!  Here is why…

In the twenty-first century information on topics like history is more accessible than ever before but what is often missing is narrative and meaning.  This is where Matthew Wright really steps up to the plate with this revised illustrated history.

At the heart of the work is a strong and relatable narrative, a ‘coming of age’ story that charts the evolution of our national identity.  It follows New Zealand’s story from the birth of the land itself, the arrival of different peoples and their subsequent journey from villages and frontier towns to the information age.

As the title suggests, this story is illustrated with prints, photos and other images – most of which have been sourced from the Alexander Turnbull Library.  As an image researcher by trade and with an obvious penchant for all things historical I have to say that I’m envious of the time that must have been spent at the Turnbull deciding which images to include.  It is a great selection.

The photographic record of Victorian-era New Zealand is a particular interest of mine, especially the work by some of the first photographers daring enough to pack their cumbersome (and presumably expensive) camera equipment onto horseback and take it into the wild interior and frontier towns.  So I was especially thrilled to see the inclusion of one of my all time personal favourites – this rare and exceptional image taken during the West Coast gold rush:

Napoleons Upper Grey. Ref: PA1-o-530-25. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Napoleons Upper Grey. Ref: PA1-o-530-25. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

This photo suggests that at least some of the West Coast gold rush towns were just as wild, muddy, ramshackled and deliciously debaucherous as we like to think they must have been.  I don’t have any framed prints on my wall at home but should I ever decide to then it could well be this one.

Besides the narrative and images I was also particularly impressed with Wright’s willingness to challenge even the most firmly entrenched of myths, such as the often-repeated assertion that trench warfare was ‘invented’ during the New Zealand Wars.  Some books on New Zealand history feel like they are tippy-toeing around some topics but not this one.

Wright has a wealth of experience as a local historian and author, having previously written books on New Zealand’s military history, regional history, transportation (both the convicty type and the sort that involves trains), engineering, earthquakes, etc. you get the picture!  All these topics and much more are covered in this illustrated history and his experience with the subject matter really shows.  I’m sure that some readers might debate over which notable events or people from our past were omitted from this book, or perhaps should have been more thoroughly covered – but I simply see this as proof of just how rich our history really is.

Wright’s final chapter bridges the gap between past and present by bringing the story of New Zealand right into the twenty-first century.  It is a healthy reminder that we are all witnesses to and participants in events that are part of a continuing story.  This message is brought across particularly effectively with the inclusion of the Canterbury earthquakes.

In short – this book is an extraordinarily accessible journey through our arguably short but undeniably rich history.  I recommend it to anyone who has an active interest in the past or has simply been looking for an excuse to learn more about the events that shaped this country.  You can get your copy at your local bookshop or buy it online here.  If you are interested in finding out more about the author then you don’t have to go far – he is a regular blogger who generously shares insights into his writing processes.

© Lemuel Lyes

7 replies »

      • Thank you. I have to say, you’re right about the time that went into the image research. I call it “2003”. In theory the second edition was going to use the same selection. However, the way copyright information had changed meant it couldn’t – some of the original pictures had better copyright data and were restricted. So I had to run a further selection in 2012 – not to anything like the original scale but still demanding care. Enjoyable, though, as these things always are.

      • I can think of worse ways to spend a year! I’m a huge fan of the Turnbull – having visited in person to look for imagery for a number of television documentaries over the years and also when time allows to pursue some of my personal research.

        So I’m genuinely envious of anyone that has had the opportunity to spend as much time there as you must have!

        They have an increasing amount of images digitized and searchable online which is fantastic but there is nothing quite like being there in person searching through unpublished material.

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