Influencing our view of the past

Richard Hill’s research has focused on policing in New Zealand, Crown-Māori relations and the history of our security intelligence service.

Professor Richard Hill

When Professor Richard Hill was studying history in the United Kingdom long ago, colleagues remarked that he wouldn’t be able to work as a historian back home in New Zealand because it didn’t have any history.

“I knew, however, that New Zealand had a rich and wonderful history,” he says. “There just weren’t many books for the general public about it yet.”

Professor Hill was among a group of influential historians to lead a revival of interest in New Zealand history from the 1970s, confirming it was indeed a fertile area for study.

Now Professor of New Zealand Studies in the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, and Director of its Treaty of Waitangi Research Unit, he has made a significant contribution to our understanding of our past. His work has included four books on policing history and two on Crown-Māori relations, and he is now researching the first academic study of the history of New Zealand’s security intelligence community.

Over the course of his career, he has seen a sea change in public interest in history. “History was once a niche subject, but now it’s talked about everywhere. Whenever we put a book out, it creates a great deal of debate.”

He says the study of New Zealand history was given a tremendous boost in 1984 when the Stout Research Centre was set up. The centre aims to encourage scholarly inquiry into New Zealand society, history and culture in a collegial, interdisciplinary environment.

Professor Hill started his career as an archivist in the National Archives of New Zealand. Archival research remains a great pleasure, although he has less time for it now.

One of his greatest archival discoveries was a police constable’s notebook containing what turned out to be the religious teachings and prophecies of Māori leader and warrior Te Kooti Arikirangi, who had written them down during his exile in the Chatham Islands as a political prisoner.

He had left the notebook behind when escaping from the Crown’s forces at the siege of Ngatapa in 1868, and it disappeared from public sight until Professor Hill found it in a cupboard in the former police museum in Trentham.

While making such significant finds was exciting, Professor Hill found it frustrating not to be able to use the material he came across as an archivist. In 1977, he became a government historian, specialising in the history of policing.

It was, he says, a “totally wonderful and absorbing subject”. In the 19th century, New Zealand had dozens of police forces, creating such a wealth of interesting material that Professor Hill’s one planned volume became four.

In 1989, he was recruited as a historian for the Government’s new Treaty of Waitangi Policy Unit. Soon afterward, the Government began negotiations with Waikato Tainui for the first major settlement of an iwi’s historical claim under the Treaty. It focused on apologies and compensation for nineteenth-century confiscation, or raupatu, and Professor Hill became a settlement negotiator and then Chief Historian on Treaty negotiations.

“I had always been interested in Māori issues, but the way it became a job was quite accidental,” he says.

Immersion in the Māori world was a steep learning curve, but he was fortunate to have as his mentor the late Tamihana Winitana of Tūhoe, Tainui and Kahungunu, the chief protocol adviser to the Minister in charge of Treaty negotiations, Sir Douglas Graham.

Professor Hill believes the reconciliation process has given New Zealand a far greater understanding of its race relations and the relationships between the Crown and Māori. The relative lack of major Pākehā opposition to Treaty settlements has, he says, been partly because historians have successfully communicated the extent of historical injustice against Māori.

He says many historians around the world see New Zealand as an example of best practice for swift reconciliation processes, and are astounded all settlements of historical grievances might be finalised as early as 2021.

“The next step for New Zealand will be to find engagement between the Crown and Māori that takes Treaty relationships to the next level, toward a partnership,” he says.

Professor Hill is now working on a book about how empires such as the British, Dutch, Belgian and French tried to control their indigenous societies. He will, in effect, be taking his research on New Zealand colonial policing as a starting point and applying it to other colonies. This ambitious global comparative project will be a world first, he says.

Professor Hill has had a lifelong interest in social and political issues, including anti-war and anti-racism campaigns. “I don’t believe such issues can be understood and addressed until we know how they came about. In that sense, I subscribe to the Māori way of walking toward the future while looking back at the past.”

He sees his current work on state surveillance as an extension of his exploration of police history, given security police were a branch of the police service until 1956. His book will investigate the surveillance of New Zealanders between 1907 and 2007, examining the trade-offs between state security requirements and civil liberties.

Professor Hill is working on the project with Dr Steven Loveridge of the Stout Research Centre, together with espionage expert Dr David Burke from the University of Cambridge and New Zealand military historian David Filer. The work is supported by a $495,000 Marsden Fund grant from Government funding managed by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

“New Zealand is the only western country to have no academic study on the history of its security intelligence, so this work will fill an important gap in our knowledge,” says Professor Hill. “We’ll be examining, among other things, how far New Zealand is the open and free New Zealand we have believed it to be.”

While many national histories of security services are ‘authorised’ by their agencies, Professor Hill and his co-researchers have chosen to write a non-official work because they want the freedom to bring forward their own findings.

That approach comes with challenges, he says. “Part of the problem is you don’t know what you don’t know. You might have a shrewd idea certain material might exist and certain activities might have been carried out, but you’re not sure, and the agencies are not going to go too far out of their way to assist the unauthorised historian.”

Professor Hill spent six months in the UK during the Brexit debate, which reinforced for him the important role historians have to play in pointing out the historical precursors to the wave of populism sweeping the world.

“During the Brexit debate, truth went out the window every day. Scholarship is needed all the more now,” he says. “The study of history makes a great contribution to society—and is also a wonderful way to make a living!”