People and Places: Rethinking New Zealand Histories

April 24, 2016

Professor Tony Ballantyne, described as New Zealand’s ‘most innovative historian’, presented a new take on the cultural history of Otago and Soutland at this Catalyst Trust talk.

He challenged the prevailing narrative of New Zealand history that elevates ‘the nation’ as the best way of understanding our past. This focus on our national story, he said, obscures as much as it reveals: “We do not just live in a nation but in specific places, and our personal stories adhere to those places.”

Arguing that national identity – what it means to be a New Zealander – is not as important to us on a day-to-day level, Professor Ballantyne explained how place is essential to shaping us as people. Making a case for the relevance of local history, he prefers to examine in detail the histories of towns and suburbs that, though small, have big characters that shape communities, evoke a sense of belonging and imprint themselves onto the people that live, work and play there.

Dr Ballantyne explored aspects of the colourful history, and the sometimes poignant ‘history of decline’, of Gore, Bluff, Central Otago towns and the Dunedin suburb of Caversham, focusing on the movements of people, including their international connections, that built networks that in turn created place.

He described how the Dunedin suburb of Caversham in the late 19th century was charaterised by egalitarian values, with workers, the middle class and business owners living side by side, creating “a crucible for a set of values” that gave birth to the Labour Party and strong support for the women’s suffrage movement. In large part due to a bypass built around Caversham and the decline of manufacturing – most noticeably the Hillside railway workshop – the suburb has suffered from a process of decay. “Affluence in some parts of the country is connected with decline in other parts – it’s important to recognise this”, he said.

Professor Ballantyne is a world-leading historian of British colonialism. He is Professor of History, Director of the Centre for Research on Colonial Culture, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor Humanities at the University of Otago.

He is the author and editor of numerous books, most recently the award-winning ‘Entanglements of Empire: Missionaries, Māori and the Question of the Body’​ ​(Duke University Press and Auckland University Press). His ongoing research focuses on the cultural history of nineteenth-century Otago and Southland.

Professor Tony Ballantyne