James Cowan: Autobiographical Historian and Traveller in Time


  • Michael Belgrave




James Cowan’s childhood, growing up on the family farm built on the site of the Battle of Ōrākau, has always been seen as an influence in his writing, particularly as a historian. This article explores Cowan’s world on the frontier, as a child in the 1870s, but more importantly as an adolescent in the early 1880s. Not only was Cowan’s experience of these tense and sometimes turbulent decades a major influence on his writing, they also help us explain some of the contradictions presently seen in work. On the one hand, Cowan echoed nineteenth-century notions of colonial virtue and argued that the wars drew Māori and Pākehā closer together. At the same time, he was prepared to call confiscation of Waikato land theft on a massive scale. Cowan’s ability to be a historian of the time, while also reflecting a critical perspective of colonisation, reflected the world of the frontier in the early 1880s. Attempts to make peace between the King and the Queen created an atmosphere of reconciliation, where the protagonists of the 1860s, including Rewi Maniapoto, Wahanui Huatare and Te Kooti Arikirangi te Turuki negotiated for a new peace with old enemies, George Grey, John Bryce and William Gilbert Mair. Cowan’s writing reflected familiarity with these peace makers, but also made him conscious of the failure of the negotiations to resolve grievances over confiscations. Cowan’s was a personal history, forged not in archives, but through personal relationships built on interviews and correspondence.


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