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Memory and Forgetting in the Nascent New Zealand Histories of James Cowan, Edith Statham and Horatio Gordon Robley

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posted on 2022-01-09, 20:58 authored by Whiting, Lydia

This thesis examines the nascent, early twentieth-century New Zealand histories created by James Cowan (1870-1943), Edith Statham (1853-1951), and Horatio Gordon Robley (1840-1930). It asks how their histories of the colonial past were shaped by their own experiences and by the contexts of the period c.1863-1940. In the early twentieth-century Cowan was a journalist, best known for his publication The New Zealand Wars (1922-23). Statham was an active volunteer in the Victoria League and then a government employee, dedicated to the work of refurbishing old soldier graves. Robley was a veteran of the New Zealand Wars residing in London, known for his ethnographic collecting, publications and artwork. This thesis considers how their work converged in efforts to preserve and narrate New Zealand’s colonial history.

The discussion charts the lives and careers of these three history-makers through their publications, correspondence, manuscripts, reports and newspaper reports. It begins by situating each of the history-makers within the colonial era, considering their proximity to the events they would come to memorialise. The discussion then traces the three history-makers as they stepped into the new century, their work sitting within the tensions of belonging in New Zealand at this time. What they conveyed was both a sense of a belonging to a particular geographical and cultural locale, along with a strong allegiance to empire in wake of the Anglo-South African War and the death of Queen Victoria. The discussion then considers the era when all three focused in on the conflicts of the colonial period, beginning with Statham’s soldier grave work from 1910 and ending with Cowan’s publication of The New Zealand Wars in 1923. Funding this converging work was the New Zealand government. Preserving and narrating the history had gained public and political support, partly due to the sense of urgency that the generation who had fought in the wars was fast disappearing. The degree to which this historical work was considered valuable was underscored by both government funding and public interest at the same time as the country was facing a costly and confronting world war. The discussion then traverses their attempts to continue their historical work after 1923 and in the lead up to the 1940 centenary celebrations, a period when new forms of cultural belonging and modern scholarship moved away from those that had emboldened the work of Cowan, Statham and Robley decades earlier.

The nascent histories of Cowan, Statham and Robley represent a powerful and perplexing moment in the formation of New Zealand. They each narrated histories and public memories of and for ‘New Zealand’ in a particular context, one marked by both an intense attention to the local and a powerful imperial loyalty. Statham, having pursued a sense of progressive female citizenship in Dunedin, took up the commemoration of men who had died for empire as an extension of her public work. In doing so, Statham embodied the dichotomy of belonging in New Zealand. Cowan’s candidacy for writing an official New Zealand War history was due to his proximity to those informants who were still alive at the end of the Great War. Cowan hoped to cultivate a habit of remembering actors and events of New Zealand’s colonial past, but by rendering past conflict as resolved in the present, he only enabled the lapse into forgetting thereafter. Despite his London locale, Robley was intimately tied to New Zealand activities and aspirations over a span of 30 years. Robley was both an actor in the colonial past and a creator of its historical renderings, demonstrating that these nascent New Zealand histories were not just produced in New Zealand.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

CC BY-ND 4.0

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Macdonald, Charlotte; Loader, Arini