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Tributes flood in following death of influential historian

Image: Penguin

Writer hailed for ‘bombshell book’ that redefined NZ history

New Zealand academics and writers have paid tribute to Richard ‘Dick’ Scott, one of the country’s most influential historians and authors, who died in Auckland on 1 January.

Kerry Taylor, head of humanities at Massey University, described Scott as a literary giant whose works included “two absolutely iconic ‘must read’ books” on NZ history.

Taylor said these were Ask That Mountain, an account of Māori resistance to government conflicts at Parihaka; and 151 Days, which documented the 1951 waterfront strike in NZ.

“In Ask That Mountain, a revised version of the earlier The Parihaka Story, he exposes the power of the state and the lie of the self-congratulatory notion of New Zealand having the best race relations in the world,” Taylor said in a university statement.

The book was first published in 1954 as The Parihaka Story and used government documents, European settler manuscripts and oral histories to give the first comprehensive history of a Māori campaign of non-violent resistance in response to government confiscation of land. Colonial military forces arrested several of the Māori leaders and held them in prison for months without trial.

Taylor said that Ask That Mountain was “fundamental to a change in Pākehā [European] consciousness to the darker reality of colonialism”.

Jock Phillips, historian and founding director of the Stout research centre for NZ studies at Victoria University of Wellington, said the book was “a bombshell” that redefined history scholarship in NZ.

He said it was published in the same year that “a young Queen Elizabeth toured the country and we all waved Union Jacks”.

“We were fat and smug on the sales of wool, meat and butter fat, and we prided ourselves on having ‘the best race relations in the world’,” Phillips said.

“The country’s university historians taught the history of Europe or Britain and its empire, and if they did local work at all it usually focused on colonial missionaries.”

Scott grew up on a farm at Whakarongo, near Palmerston North in the North Island, and graduated from Massey University with a diploma of agriculture. He was involved in NZ socialist politics in the 1950s and became a journalist working with trade union newspapers.

“Because he was socially engaged, he was committed to uncovering the story of the oppressed,” Phillips said.

“Although he had not met a Māori person until the age of 20 and did not know te reo, he recognised injustice immediately when he came across it and became convinced the [Parihaka] story should be told.”

Scott’s work included several NZ regional histories and studies of colonial government maladministration in the Cook Islands and Niue. His autobiography A Radical Writer’s Life was published in 2004. He received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2007.