The View from the Margins: John Pocock and the Antipodean Origins of Four Nations History

I wrote the post below for the Four Nations History Network network in September 2015. The original is available here.


The South Island of New Zealand, half a world away from Britain, might seem an unlikely site for a major revolution in the writing of British history. It was however here, at the University of Canterbury, that J. G. A. Pocock in 1973 delivered the lecture that would become his now classic essay ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’, in which he set out his vision for a new history of the ‘Atlantic archipelago’ and its various New Worlds, a history multicultural, multiethnic, multipolar and polyglot.[1] It is from within this ‘new British history’, as it has since become known, that a Four Nations perspective emerges. In this piece I aim to situate Pocock’s intervention within its antipodean context, bringing out some implications for questions of identity and historical perspective.


When Pocock’s essay was reprinted as the theoretical centrepiece of his 2005 collection The Discovery of Islands, it came prefaced by an autobiographical chapter that reflects upon and contextualises the conditions shaping his initial plea.[2] Recalling his schooling in 1930s New Zealand, Pocock comments that he was of the last generation to learn Latin ‘because that was the way to become educated and had been for a thousand years’. To this remark is appended a wry footnote declaring that he was ‘neither astonished nor oppressed by this experience, and found ways of profiting by it’. This gentle dig at the contemporary reader, for whom such education perhaps sounds rather stuffy and antiquated, is followed on the very next page by a whole litany of Maori words and concepts: waka—the boats in which Maori migrated to New Zealand from the central Pacific; te moana—the great ocean they crossed to get there; whakapapa—genealogy; tangata whenua—the Maori name for themselves as a people; and pakeha—the name given to the European, mostly British, settlers who came after them. [3] All of these are commonplace to New Zealand or Pacific historians, or indeed to anyone who knows contemporary New Zealand today. But the mass of non-English, non-European words on an early page in the collection is very likely—and, one senses, is deliberately intended to be—more than a little disorientating to readers who might pick up a volume subtitled ‘Essays in British History’ with complacent expectations of its contents.


Pocock thus declares his meaning in the form of his autobiographical essay as much as in its content. In the juxtaposition of the two languages—of European high culture on the one hand, and of the Polynesian voyagers who populated the last of the Earth’s unpeopled lands on the other—he announces the mestizo nature of New Zealand history and society, allowing that condition to stand as a token for his vision of a British history of hybridity and transcultural crossings. Yet he also describes the prevalence, in the now disappeared New Zealand in which he grew up, of more homogenous ideas about culture and history. This New Zealand was one ‘able to construct a historical narrative in which Maori played no independent part after about 1870’, the three decades of frontier conflict now known as the New Zealand Wars having come to an end in 1872. [4]


Pocock’s New Zealand is that of the South Island, a land of wide green plains, of icy, unforgiving mountains, of a grey, sodden West Coast and of massive, spectacular cliff-lined fjords. The genteel, self-consciously English garden city of Christchurch—Christchurch in the region of Canterbury, mark the names—evokes Cambridge. It was here that Pocock was raised, and here that he returned to deliver his 1973 lecture. Further south, where Pocock completed his first book, [5] the Scottish settlers of Otago called their city Dunedin after the Gaelic name for Edinburgh, and sought to replicate the Scottish capital’s distinctive mixture of neogothic architecture, wide Georgian boulevards, and rambling Old Town backstreets. Nearby Invercargill, capital of the Southland region, likewise takes its name from Gaelic, after the model of Inverness.


The would-be cultural and historical homogeneity that this New Zealand sought to construct for itself in the days of Pocock’s youth was always, despite its best efforts, partial and precarious. The South Island itself reproduced some of Great Britain’s own internal variety—geographically inverted, appropriately enough—with a new England in its north and centre, and a new Scotland in the south. These areas were then and remain today characterised by strong regional identities of a type common in Britain, but unusual in Australasia. Beneath this was the ever-present awareness of cultural dislocation, common to all of Anglophone Australasia, of the inheritance of a British culture familiar yet distant, at once one’s own and foreign. And though Maori could be written out of historical narratives, they and the memory of their displacement were never fully erasable, even in the South Island where their numbers were relatively few.


It is this cluster of tensions that pervades Pocock’s writings on the New Zealand experience. The immediate context of Pocock’s plea for a new British history was the addition of the further tension of Britain’s turn in the early 1970s from the Commonwealth to the EEC. By arguing for recognition of a kind of reciprocal ‘equality’ amongst the ‘Atlantic archipelago’s’ composite parts, and between the United Kingdom and the ‘neo-Britains’[6]—a network of relationships in which each part was envisaged as another self of all the others—Pocock aimed to problematise a metropolitan and Anglocentric parochialism that had made possible Britain’s abdication—as Pocock saw it—of the history it had shared with its Empire and Commonwealth.


Discussion of the context of Britain’s turn to Europe has been a stock feature of commentaries on Pocock’s proposal. [7] It has largely been left to Pocock himself, in his own subsequent writings on the theme, to balance discussion of this event with a comparatively greater emphasis upon how an ‘antipodean sense of distance and ambivalence’ not only gave the European turn its operative importance, but bore a perspectival significance in its own right.[8] The original proposal arose, Pocock wrote in 1999, from ‘the need to affirm my own historical being’.[9] In that proposal he had remarked that the historian, in order to adopt a ‘pluralist and multicultural perception of British history, … would virtually need a tangential sense of identity’, rather than one committed to a ‘single and unitary point of view’.[10]


An antipodean identity is one type of tangential identity. But the history of Britain, both great and ‘greater’, is replete with tangential identities. A Four Nations perspective, as a variety of the ‘new’ British history, offers ways of making sense of such tangentiality, and of its unequal distribution, within the ‘Atlantic archipelago’ itself.


[1] First published in The New Zealand Journal of History 8 (1974): 3-21; reprinted in The Journal of Modern History 47, no. 4 (1975): 601–21.

[2] J. G. A. Pocock, The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), chap. 1 and 2.

[3] Ibid., 3–5.

[4] Ibid., 4, 7.

[5] J. G. A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987 [1957]), xiv–xv.

[6] A term Pocock borrows from the New Zealand historian, and now Beit Professor of Commonwealth and Imperial History at Oxford, James Belich. Pocock, Discovery of Islands, 194.

[7] E.g. David Armitage, ‘Greater Britain: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis?’, American Historical Review 104, no. 2 (1999): 444–45; Richard Bourke, ‘Pocock and the Presuppositions of the New British History’, The Historical Journal 53, no. 3 (2010): 751–55.

[8] Pocock, Discovery of Islands, 21.

[9] J. G. A. Pocock, ‘The New British History in Atlantic Perspective: An Antipodean Commentary’, American Historical Review 104, no. 2 (1999): 493.

[10] Pocock, Discovery of Islands, 39.



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