From dairymaids to soldiers

Charlotte Macdonald’s research has focused on the history of New Zealand women and on the troops who fought in our bloody 1860s Land Wars.

Charlotte Macdonald with 'Victoria and the Birds' by Greer Twiss

What makes history so enticing to us? Is it because we are all linked to it in some way?

Charlotte Macdonald, Professor of History in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations, describes her own love of history as an infection—“like catching a bug”, she says. “Sharing the excitement of discovery and the joy of research is a compulsion.”

Aside from a period of globetrotting in her early twenties and a brief stint as a waitress at Parliament, Professor Macdonald has been persistently spreading the infection, which she first acquired as a student at secondary school.

An impatient learner, she had completed her Bachelor of Arts degree at Victoria by the time she was 19, but realised she knew very little about New Zealand history. At that time, the only New Zealand history-focused BA (Hons) course in the country was under the tutelage of Massey University Professor WH Oliver. It was through his teaching that she became a true historian, catching her second lifelong infection—the research bug.

Living and studying in Palmerston North, Professor Macdonald immersed herself in provincial New Zealand and in the excitement of the ‘new social history’—the idea sweeping the historical world that the ordinary lives of ordinary people could be fascinating, significant and form the core of history, rather than an idea of history as exceptional events in the lives of a small elite, she says.

"There were questions you could ask about Dannevirke in the 1880s that connected to questions being asked about nineteenth-century Ontario and Manchester and 1880s Adelaide. The methods of social history were being developed and discussed across all these places, and we were part of those discussions.

“It was the late 1970s, so politically things were very interesting. Feminism, Māori protests at Raglan and Bastion Point and hot controversy over sporting contacts with South Africa were also the oxygen of debate and curiosity. We were deeply engaged in arguing all these issues, including how the past intruded into the present.”

Professor Macdonald’s PhD at the University of Auckland focused on single women as migrant settlers, which meant 18 months at the London School of Economics during the Thatcher era of the early 1980s.

As well as being part of a lively period in the network of historians internationally, she spent months deep in the archives searching for records of young working class women aged 12–35, domestic servants and dairymaids, recruited as assisted emigrants by New Zealand’s provincial governments in the 1850s–60s.

Her resulting book—A Woman of Good Character—was published in 1990. It broke new methodological ground by using systematic data analysis in combination with more conventional archival interpretation to delineate the characteristics of a large migrant group; and opened up the history of a significant group of people while also presenting a path-breaking discussion of the centrality of gender in settler migration.

Several books on gender and women’s history followed: two volumes of essays on women’s history with Barbara Brookes and Margaret Tennant—Women in History (1986) and Women in History 2 (1992)—along with the large Book of New Zealand Women/Ko Kui Ma te Kaupapa with Merimeri Penfold and Bridget Williams (1991). These books brought new research to light and were used not only as university course publications but also more widely as a thirst to explore and know about women of the past emerged.

The Vote, the Pill and Demon Drink (1993) focused on writings by women in nineteenth- and twentieth-century New Zealand seeking equality and political and social reform. And ‘My Hand will Write what my Heart Dictates’ (1996) with Victoria alumna Frances Porter drew on the nineteenth-century writings of New Zealand women.

Professor Macdonald took up her academic position at Victoria University in 1990 and has subsequently spent many hours supervising graduate students in all areas of history. “I derive great pleasure in seeing students ‘infected’ by the history bug and producing large and often significant pieces of new research they had not imagined themselves capable of undertaking,” she says.

Made a fellow of the Royal Society Te Aparangi in 2017, Professor Macdonald contributes to Victoria’s ‘Enriching national culture’ area of academic distinctiveness.

In 2014, she was awarded a Marsden Fund grant for her project 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Settler: Garrison and Empire in the Nineteenth Century', enabling her to identify the names and details of 12,000 imperial soldiers who fought in the New Zealand Land Wars of the 1860s.

The research draws on records created by the British War Office and held in the National Archives in London. The online database the project has produced provides searchable public access to the names, regiments and dates of service of soldiers who fought. It is the first instalment of what will grow into a larger publically accessible resource and has been developed with Dr Rebecca Lenihan, one of Professor Macdonald’s former students.

The first official day of remembrance for the Land Wars was observed as Rā Maumahara on 28 October 2017. Ceremonies across the country recalled those who died in the wars and the tragic legacies of the conflicts. Professor Macdonald says it has taken so long for the wars to be officially recognised because of ignorance of history and because they reveal a violent colonial story.

“For iwi at the forefront of these events—in the north, in Waikato, in Taranaki and in Tauranga— the significance of the wars and the purpose of remembering is clear,” she says. “It is their people who fought and subsequent generations who have mourned the losses that followed.

“But these events and their participants speak to all New Zealanders. The majority of those who fought against iwi were the 12,000 or so British troops sent to serve in New Zealand in the 1860s. These were men of regular army regiments, along with Royal Navy marines and colonial militia. Knowing who fought in the wars tells us who the redcoat soldiers doing the Empire’s business actually were.”

Professor Macdonald says about one in five of these soldiers of the empire remained in New Zealand as ‘soldier settlers’ and as a result a number of Pākehā also have family histories linking directly to the wars.

“The 1860s wars were bloody and harsh events,” she says. “This side of our history is not easy. But it is surely time for New Zealanders to know what happened here, in the places where we live. The identification of these soldiers provides an opportunity for our past to be fully understood and remembered—not just because history tells a story but because it is the story that makes us who we are.”