Michael King was New Zealand’s most prominent writer of non-fiction. He had a great sense of humour, huge curiosity, and a scholar’s intensity, but always with a popular touch.
His histories appealed, beyond any specialist audience, to the wider New Zealand public.
His last book, The Penguin History of New Zealand, became the fastest and biggest selling book on New Zealand history ever. It was widely acclaimed and has sold more than 230,000 copies.
He was also a biographer of some of New Zealand’s most celebrated people, including Te Puea Herangi, Whina Cooper and the writers Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame. He wrote more than 30 books on a wide range of subjects.
He is revered by Moriori for his history of this iwi from the Chatham Islands. Moriori was the first book of its kind and led to a Moriori renaissance. Much of his early television work and writing explored the Māori world, and illuminated the divide between Māori and Pakeha viewpoints. Then, by examining his own life in his book Being Pakeha and its successor Being Pakeha Now, he moved beyond analysis to a simple description of Pakeha belonging in a land whose first population was Polynesian.
King believed in what he called Pakehatanga: that Pakeha New Zealanders whose families go back generations compromise a distinctive white New Zealand culture that is significantly different from the European roots from whence they came. And some Pakeha characteristics, he believed, owe much to generations of interaction with Māori.
He told the New Zealand Herald in 2003 that he was partly driven by the conviction that “You can’t understand your country and your culture unless you know its history.”
The People’s Historian
In an obituary by Tim Watkin in The Listener, King was dubbed “the people’s historian.”
“He …developed a sense of us as a people that no other writer has ever had. Michael King was passionate about this country – celebrating Maoridom and standing up for the ‘basic worthiness and honourableness’ of Pakeha culture. Sincere, funny, deeply knowledgeable, he taught us so much about being a New Zealander.
“He was the man who knew us best. New Zealand’s closest confidant. Our most relentless analyst. And for that simple reason, as we come again to question where we have come from, who we are and how to live with one another, Michael King is someone we could least afford to lose.”
King had successful careers both in journalism and academia, but he decided to write full-time in 1976. Writing in a small market was a constant financial struggle. Because of this, he was a strong supporter of the idea of setting up a centre which would help to support New Zealand writers.
King won many awards. These included the Feltex Television Writers’ Award in 1975, the NZ Literary Fund Award (1987 and 1989), the Wattie Book of the Year Award (1984 and 1990) and the NZ Book Award (non-fiction) (1978). The Penguin History of New Zealand was overwhelmingly the Readers’ Choice at the 2004 Montana NZ Book Awards.
He was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1988, and an honorary doctorate by Victoria University in 1997. He was joint winner of the inaugural 2003 Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement and was selected by the New Zealand Herald as New Zealander of the Year in 2003.
King was born in Wellington on 15 December 1945 to Lewis and Eleanor King. One of four children, he grew up in Paremata. He was educated at Sacred Heart College in Auckland and St Patrick’s College (Silverstream) in Wellington.
He studied history at Victoria University of Wellington (BA, 1967) and at Waikato University (MA, 1968) before working as a journalist at theWaikato Times newspaper in Hamilton from 1968 to 1971. He gained a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from Waikato University in 1978.
He married Ros Henry in 1967 and they had two children – Jonathan Michael (b. 1967) and Rachael Frances (b. 1970). Jonathan is a successful film-maker and Rachael is a successful novelist.
King taught journalism at the Wellington Polytechnic from 1971 to 1974, and went on to hold numerous university posts and fellowships. This included the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship in 1976.
Through the 1980s and 1990s he held fellowships at several universities in New Zealand and overseas. These included the Winston Churchill Fellowship at the University of Auckland (1980) and the writer’s fellowship at Victoria University (1983). He won a Fulbright Visiting Writers’ Fellowship (1988) and was the Burns Fellow at Otago University (1998-99).
He always supported writers and journalists. From the early 1990s, when he was a guest lecturer, he taught at writers’ workshops and was involved in training young Maori journalists. At the time of his death was taking part in the mentoring programme run by the New Zealand Society of Authors.
In 1987 he married Maria Jungowska, a talented editor in a book publishing firm. In 1993 they moved to Opoutere in the Coromandel, where they lived until they died together in a car accident on 30 March 2004.
Michael King loved Opoutere and it became a very important part of his life. In 2008 Waikato University bought his house there when his children, Jonathan King and Rachel King, decided to sell it. The house is used as a retreat for staff and visiting academics.
Michael King wrote more than 30 books on a wide range of subjects. These are listed below.
This year his daughter Rachael King, who is a prominent novelist, has written a book which includes some of his previously unpublished work. The Silence Beyond has recently been published by Penguin.
- Moko: Maori Tattooing in the 20th Century (1972)
- Make It News: how to approach the media (1974)
- Face Value: a study in Maori portraiture (1975)
- Te Ao Hurihuri: aspects of Maoritanga (ed.) (1975)
- Te Puea: a biography (1977)
- Tihe mauri ora: Aspects of Maoritanga (ed.) (1978)
- New Zealand: Its Land and Its People (1979)
- The Collector: a biography of Andreas Reischek (1981}
- Being Maori – John Rangihau (1981)
- New Zealanders at War (1981)
- A Place to Stand: a history of Turangawaewae Marae (1981)
- G.F. von Tempsky, Artist and Adventurer (with Rose Young) (1981)
- New Zealand in Colour (1982)
- Maori: a photographic and social history (1983)
- Whina: a biography of Whina Cooper (l983)
- Te Puea Herangi: from darkness to light (1984)
- Being Pakeha: an Encounter with New Zealand and the Maori renaissance (1985)
- Auckland (with Eric Taylor) (1985)
- Kawe korero: a guide to reporting Maori activities (1985)
- Death of the Rainbow Warrior (1986)
- New Zealand (1987)
- After the War: New Zealand since 1945 (1988)
- One of the boys?: changing views of masculinity in New Zealand (1988)
- Apirana Ngata: e tipu e rea (l988)
- Moriori: a people rediscovered (1989)
- A Land Apart: the Chatham Islands of New Zealand (1990)
- Pakeha: the quest for identity in New Zealand (1991)
- Hidden Places: a memoir in journalism (1992)
- Coromandel (1993)
- Frank Sargeson: a life (1995)
- God’s Farthest Outpost: a history of Catholics in New Zealand (1997)
- Nga iwi o te motu: one thousand years of Maori history (1997)
- Being Pakeha Now: reflections and recollections of a white native (1999)
- Wrestling with the Angel: a life of Janet Frame (2000)
- Tomorrow Comes the Song: a life of Peter Fraser (with Michael Bassett) (2000)
- Tread Softly for you tread on my life: new & collected writings(2001)
- An Inward Sun: the world of Janet Frame (2002)
- At the Edge of Memory: a family story (2002)
- The Penguin History of New Zealand (2003)
Each of the following links to additional information will open in a new window:
Penguin Book’s Michael King page
National Library collection – choose Advanced Search, check for Author Name and Subject – Michael King
NZ Electronic Text Centre Michael King page
NZ Listener – search on Michael King
NZ Book Council – search on Michael King
Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand – search on Michael King
NZHistory.net.nz – search on Michael King
by Michael King