Top prize to historian for King Country saga

Professor Michael Belgrave with (left) Dr Liz Rushen (Chair, History Council of Victoria) and Kate McGregor (Chair, History - School of Historical and Philosophical Studies) at the University of Melbourne for the prize ceremony.

Dancing with the King - book cover

A book on race relations in 19th century King Country has won historian Professor Michael Belgrave the prestigious 2018 Ernest Scott Prize for the best Australasian history publication.

Titled Dancing with the King: The rise and fall of the King Country, 1864-1885 (Auckland University Press, 2017), his book brings to light the little-known story of informal peace-making encounters over a 20-year period between the Crown and the second Māori King who governed the region as an independent state.

Professor Belgrave, who was awarded the prize last Thursday at the University of Melbourne, discovered stories and records featured in the book while he was working with South Waikato-based iwi Raukawa on their Treaty settlement a decade ago.

“I came across some extraordinary events, where thousands of people met over many days trying to make peace following the calamity of the Waikato War of 1863 and 1864,” he says. “At these large meetings, native ministers and even the premier, Sir George Grey, were engaged in high-level diplomacy with King Tawhiao and other Māori leaders in attempts to reach a settlement. 

“While this was happening, peace-making was also taking place at a much more personal level, with soldiers from both sides coming together and recounting their different experiences of the fighting. This was too good a story not to be told.”

The AUD$13,000 prize for the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand, or to the history of colonisation, published in the previous year was founded by Emily Scott. It was first awarded in 1943 in memory of her husband Emeritus Professor Ernest Scott, a history professor at the University of Melbourne from 1913 to 1936. 

Professor Belgrave, who lectures in in the School of Humanities at Massey’s Auckland campus, says he is “stunned” by being chosen for the prize, awarded by the history programme in the University of Melbourne’s School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. 

His book, also a finalist in New Zealand’s 2018 Ockham Book Awards for General Non-Fiction, centres on the aftermath of the battle of Orakau in 1864 and the end of the war in the Waikato, when Tāwhiao and his supporters were forced into an armed isolation in the Rohe Pōtae, the King Country. For the following two decades, the King Country operated as an independent state – a land governed by the Māori King where settlers and the Crown entered at risk of their lives. 

Ernest Scott Prize a rare accolade

Only a handful of New Zealanders have been awarded the Ernest Scott Prize, including Professor James Belich (2002), Professor Anne Salmond (1998) and Dr Keith Sinclair (1958 and 1959).  

“When I look at the list of earlier recipients of the Ernest Scott Prize, I see the names of many of those historians whose work inspired and fascinated me as a student in the 1970s,” Professor Belgrave says. “They were storytellers whose histories marked key moments in Australia’s and New Zealand’s understanding of their separate and shared pasts.”

Other finalists in this year’s Ernest Scott Prize are: Shaunnagh Dorsett, Juridical Encounters: Māori and the Colonial Courts, 1840-1852 (Auckland University Press); Tim Rowse, Indigenous and Other Australians since 1901 (NewSouth); and Paul Irish, Hidden in Plain View: The Aboriginal People of Coastal Sydney (NewSouth).

“I’d like to think that this year’s finalists, with their focus on indigenous histories and their relationship with colonisation, marks a recognition of the importance of these histories to both societies today,” Professor Belgrave says.

Professor Belgrave’s previous books includeHistorical Frictions: Māori Claims and Reinvented Histories (Auckland University Press, 2005) and From Empire's Servant to Global Citizen: A History of Massey University (Massey University Press, 2016), co-author of Social policy in Aotearoa New Zealand (Oxford University Press, 2008) and co-editor of The Treaty on the Ground: where we are headed, and why it matters (Massey University Press, 2017).

Read more about the Ernest Scott Prize.

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