Obituary: Sir Keith Sinclair

Keith Sinclair, historian and poet: born 5 December 1922; Lecturer in History, Auckland University College 1947-52, Senior Lecturer 1952-60, Associate Professor 1960-63; Professor of History, University of Auckland 1963-87 (Emeritus); CBE 1983; Kt 1985; married 1947 Mary Edith Land (four sons), 1976 Raewyn Dalziel; died 20 June 1993.

WITH Keith Sinclair's death an era of great New Zealand figures is drawing to its close. A very small group of scholars, writers, and artists in the 1950s put forward the idea, for the first time, that sustained intellectual life was possible in New Zealand, that there could be a thoughtful politics of the left, and that there could be both academic and cultural productivity of the highest standards that reflected none the less a distinctive New Zealand identity. Of his generation, Sinclair became undoubtedly the finest historian, briefly a parliamentary figure, and a fine poet.

Trained at Auckland University College, Sinclair took every degree his faculty offered and, later, the LittD of the successor University of Auckland, where he spent his entire career. His two greatest historical works were produced in a condensed period. Origins of the Maori Wars (1957) and A History of New Zealand (1959) changed the way New Zealanders perceived their history. More importantly, they laid the ground for the Maori renaissance that began in the mid-1970s. Sinclair's work provided Maori activists with clear textual evidence to lay alongside their own reassertions and reinterpretations of cultural traditions. Although much historical work has since built on Sinclair's, his was the indispensable progenitor of an awareness of history, and the fact that history was not a European province.

In a prolific flow of works, his third great book, minutely researched, was his biography of the New Zealand Labour prime minister Walter Nash. A hoarder of minutiae, right down to his bus and tram tickets, Nash left personal archives of a staggering dimension. Sinclair diligently ploughed through them all, emerging himself with greyer hair, but deservedly taking the 1977 National Book Award for his pains.

About that time, the New Zealand photographer Marti Friedlander took a protracted series of photographs of Sinclair. Although Sinclair amused himself with the image of a middle- aged enfant terrible, he could at times be crustily conservative. By that time, however, his reputation was made: he held visiting appointments in London, Cambridge and Canberra; his historical and literary work was beyond serious challenge; and the Friedlander portraits depicted him as he was, a successful scholar with distinguished enough good looks to foray into the infant world - in New Zealand at any rate - of public relations. Sinclair became known by the public at large and, particularly in his later years, saw himself as a populariser of history for exactly this public.

In 1973, at the age of 50, Sinclair published his fourth book of poetry, The Firewheel Tree. It is a compendium of a model, middle-aged New Zealander, still energetic enough to bodysurf, to ogle the female researchers in the library, but full of social concern. It also contains some achingly beautiful love poems and, whether they were to or about her or not, it was around this time that Sinclair met his second wife, a colleague, Raewyn Dalziel, and the two became an intellectual couple of the sort rarely seen in New Zealand.

What Sinclair pioneered therefore was not just a humanised history, and not just the idea that history on New Zealand themes could reach international scholarly standards, but the idea that intellectual life could meet, indeed be successfully married to, the mainstream of New Zealand public consciousness. He worked hard, if not always consciously, at this, but remained always, warts, foibles and all, a model in academic life itself. In a country that knights ballad singers and cricket captains, Sinclair's was a rare knighthood for a scholar. He will be remembered by a very wide range of people, and this is surely what he would have wanted.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

COO / Chief Operating Officer

£80 - 100k + Bonus: Guru Careers: A COO / Chief Operating Officer is needed to...

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits