New Zealand's answer to Simon Schama, Jamie Belich, has been busy exploding historical myths of a dull, unemotional nation. Huw Richards reports on his latest study - how 'Angloworld' developed
Being unimpressed by anything from New Zealand is a reflex action for Australians. So Jamie Belich accomplished the New Zealand academic's equivalent of entering a lion's den in July when he delivered a paper on Australian identity in Canberra.
Belich, 46, professor and head of history at Auckland University, has never lacked confidence. Even so, there is a hint of relief amid mildly self-deprecating humour when he says: "Not only did they not shout me down, they actually appeared to think there might be something in what I had to say."
His wariness is rooted in more than regional rivalries. His career has been built on studies of New Zealand, starting in the mid-1980s with the publication of an Oxford doctoral thesis that subverted a raft of myths about the nationally formative 19th-century Maori wars and culminating late last year in the completion of his two-volume History of the New Zealanders .
New Zealanders are, against stereotype, a bookish nation with a vigorous interest in their own past. The books alone made Belich known outside academia. A television series on the Maori wars turned him into New Zealand's equivalent to Simon Schama (he is rather less flattered when compared with Jamie Oliver), satirised on the Kiwi version of Spitting Image as a hirsute, gesticulating puppet.
Belich has argued against another stereotype that casts New Zealand as a dull country with an uneventful history. He argues that extreme physical isolation has made it a historians' laboratory, with cause and effect easier to discern than in nations with numerous close neighbours.
News of his delivering papers about other countries might lead the unwary to conclude that he is tiring of his own. Not so. New Zealand will also feature in his next project, but alongside Canada, the US, Britain and Australia rather than monopolising the foreground.
His study of how those countries developed between 1780 and 1930 will draw on concepts familiar to readers of the History of the New Zealanders - in particular the idea of New Zealand as a "neo-Britain", in which British migrants sought to build a better version of the mother country, and the concept of "recolonialism", the system under which the independent nation continued to operate economically and ideologically as a province of the UK.
He argues that these concepts apply equally to Australia and Canada and have had a considerable impact on the US. And he points out that these were remarkable, dynamic societies in the period that interests him. "These Anglophone societies grew from a combined population of 11 million in 1780 to 200 million in 1930, one of the greatest demographic explosions in human history. A society like the American Midwest could grow fivefold in a period of 20 years. Chicago, which had a handful of people in 1830, had 1.1 million, as many as Tokyo, by 1890. Melbourne was founded in 1836, and by 1891 had half a million people, making it bigger than Cairo or Rome. How did it come about?"
Belich describes his approach as "transnational" rather than "comparative", saying: "Historians tend to neglect the middle ground between the global and the strictly local or national. One question this raises is how far history can sensibly be packaged nationally. In the 20th century, New Zealand and Australian historians developed distinctive national histories - yet before 1901 there was no distinction between them. There genuinely was a "Tasman world". How far have we invented national identities by doing this?"
He notes, for instance, the much-debated issue of New Zealand masculinity. "What people thought was a distinctive element in New Zealand identity in fact has close parallels in Canada, Australia and the US."
Belich calls his underlying concept "hypercolonisation". He says: "It has two stages. In the first stage, the explosive or progressive stage, you have a frenzied movement of people, goods and ideas, accompanied by a series of booms and busts. This eventually collapses and is followed by recolonisation, when the ruins of the old system are built into new structures that integrate the new society more closely than ever with the old one. For New Zealand, this meant an extraordinary degree of integration with London. But it works just as well for the American Midwest and New York."
He argues that this historical growth pattern cannot be explained purely by events such as gold strikes. "The booms in Victoria and Western Australia both started before gold was found there. You can't explain it either in terms of steam power or early staple exploitation."
It builds on a rapid succession of boom and bust: "I've identified 14 separate cycles in the explosive period alone. The growth comes in layers, rather like a coral reef. You get boom periods with large exports of capital and labour. Then comes the bust, but the boom cycle starts again and builds rapidly."
This, he argues, undercuts the Anglo stereotype of a coolly unemotional people acting on the basis of economic rationality. "They were as prone to frenzy, delusion and myth as any other people," he says. It is a case, he adds, "of how wasps swarm". He agrees that the much-debated impact of the US's western frontier - and the belief that a better life was to be found in its apparently wide open spaces - is paralleled by similar optimism about Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Of course, these spaces, far from being open, were already occupied by native peoples. Having made his initial academic impact by studying the response of one native people - the Maoris - to Anglophone colonisation, Belich is the last historian likely to lose sight of the biggest losers in the process and is working on a parallel study of native reaction and response. "They had to cope with invasion by a society that was generating the fastest socioeconomic growth in human history. The two themes go together, each helping to explain the other," he says.
This points up the dark side of colonisation. "The process was underpinned by shared assumptions. Perhaps the most important of these was racial exclusivity and a myth about ethnic homogeneity. New Zealand was wont to proclaim itself '98 per cent British' - something even Britain could not in reality claim. There was a strong sense of racial hierarchy that had its consequences not only in the treatment of native peoples, but of other potential migrants. It meant that Germans and Scandinavians were welcome, but the peoples of eastern and southern Europe were not."
Belich's ancestors, who came from Croatia, were among the less welcome. Although irritated by suggestions that his interest in what he terms "Angloworld" reflects a nostalgia for it and its values, he denies that being neither Anglo nor Maori helps him in objectively analysing its consequences. His origins, however, are reflected in his arresting characterisation of Great Britain, a confection of four historic nationalities, as "the Yugoslavia that succeeded".
His broadening of historical focus involves travelling outside New Zealand and braving more lion's dens, but not as much as would have been necessary until recently. "An enormous amount of material is now available electronically," he points out.
He is well used to lucrative offers to move overseas permanently. These have their temptations. To hear New Zealand academics discussing their institutions and funding is to realise that some aspects of national life are still imitations of Britain. But none has yet proved sufficiently persuasive.
New Zealand continues to serve its best-known current historian rather well. Far from undermining his conviction of its importance, Belich's shift into transnational history underlines it. After all, isn't one of the definitions of a good laboratory that it should generate results that can be tested and applied elsewhere?
Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders from Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century is published by Penguin Books, £9.99.