J.C. Beaglehole: Public intellectual, critical conscience.
Steele Roberts Publisher.
John Cawte Beaglehole is most famous worldwide for his editing of the journals of Captain Cook (published by the Hakluyt Society between 1955 and 1967), the journals of Joseph Banks (published by the Public Library of New South Wales in 1962) and the biography of Captain Cook (published by the Hakluyt Society and others in 1974).
As Munro puts it, “the research for the Journals and the writing of the biography spanned almost his entire professional career.” This work was, in effect, Beaglehole’s job, for which he was paid. It was partly accomplished by being “awarded a part-time position within the Alexander Turnbull Library” and then by the creation for him of “a research fellowship (with professorial salary) within the Victoria University College (VUC).
It is the work that Beaglehole undertook in his “spare” time that is the topic of this book, the second biography of the man.1 Munro remarks, “Co-existing with the scholar was the man of action... during his lifetime he was probably as well known in New Zealand for his advocacy and activism as for his scholarship.”
Born in 1901 in Wellington, NZ, he studied both there and in London, but found it difficult to get an academic post due to his “forthrightness and independence of mind”. Various part-time lecturing and other jobs did mean he was able to research and write books on the exploration of the Pacific, a history of the University of NZ and a short history of NZ (all published in the 1930s).
“The most intense public dispute of Beaglehole’s life was the controversy and fallout over the appointment of Tyrer Andersen [sic] as the foundation conductor of the National Orchestra of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service (now the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra).” Thus begins the fifth chapter of the nine chapters of this slim book of 106 pages. Munro explains how Beaglehole got involved and why his views made such an impact.
Munro then turns to, amongst other things, the Historical Atlas project (that nearly foundered despite Beaglehole’s efforts), the Arts Advisory Council (to which Beaglehole was appointed and then dropped), the Council for Civil Liberties (of which he was president from its inception until his death) and its fight in the courts about the government’s censorship of literature, and the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (of which Beaglehole was a member) and its major fight to save from demolition the Old St Paul’s Church, Wellington. Beaglehole’s active involvement in so many public fights and causes took place whilst his “primary professional commitment was to James Cook” but they define Beaglehole as much as his scholarly activity. He embraced “social justice, freedom of thought and expression, an appreciation of literature and the arts” throughout his life.
Munro explains that Beaglehole was “modest and retiring… he did not find it easy to express his feelings, except on paper. His weapon was his pen.” Munro heard him speak at a symposium and remembers a voice “characterised by deliberation, perhaps a reflection of a probing mind and of a man who chose his words carefully”. Although honoured as “the academic historian of world acclaim” Beaglehole’s value as a public intellectual with a critical conscious deserves to be acknowledged and understood by Cook enthusiasts, and this book does so with great insight from an author who has clearly researched the man to great effect.
1. The first biography was reviewed in Cook’s Log, page 45, vol. 30, no. 1 (2007).
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 33, volume 36, number 2 (2013).