Exploring New Zealand’s ‘rich and wonderful’ history

Richard Hill has influenced our understanding of our past.

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.

Professor Hill’s research contributes to Victoria’s ‘Enriching national culture’ and ‘Advancing better government’ areas of academic distinctiveness.

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.

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In a nutshell

My research matters because … Knowledge of the past in my areas of study helps us understand how present relationships between states and their citizens came into being and, relatedly, how we can improve these relationships in the future.  

One of the inspirations for my research has been … The rich body of historical literature on the nature of the state and how and why it does what it does—seminal books such as Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison helped me construct interpretive frameworks as I worked through large numbers of archival records.  

The best thing about my job is … It enables me to engage with subjects I am passionate about and which have applied ramifications.

One of my career highlights has been … My work in Treaty of Waitangi settlement processes, from involvement in the first Treaty negotiations in 1989 to membership of the Waitangi Tribunal panel that found in 2014 that the rangatira who signed te Tiriti o Waitangi in February 1840 were not ceding their sovereignty when they did so.

My advice to aspiring researchers is … Follow your research dreams, and don’t compromise when publishing your findings, even if they might sit uncomfortably with those who wield power—nobody ever made a difference through being timid.