BOOKCASE : Age of Enterprise: Rediscovering the New Zealand Entrepreneur 1880-1910


• Ian Hunter • Auckland University Press • $50.00

Few of the country’s leading historians have known much about business. Keith Sinclair and Bill Oliver were poets and Michael King an authority on Moritanga. King and James Belich’s fathers had distinguished careers in the advertising industry, but no discernible influence on their sons’ world view.
In Age of Enterprise, Ian Hunter writes: “Compared to countries such as England, France, Denmark, Japan or Germany, the study of business history and its analysis and applications to present-day commerce [in New Zealand], is in its infancy.”
As he points out, “Michael King’s popular Penguin History of New Zealand devotes just nine pages of the first 300 to discussion of New Zealand’s economic development… Similarly, in the first half of his 600-page volume Paradise Reforged, James Belich grants 23 pages to the development of the frozen meat industry – which Belich terms the ‘protein trade’ – while other industries and business events are largely absent.”
Hunter makes the valid, often overlooked, point that history is as much about business as it is about wars, politics, social trends and national identity. And has more than little to do with all of them.
Conventional historical wisdom has categorised the 1880-1910 period as the ‘Long Depression’. Hunter maintains it was, in fact, New Zealand’s ‘Age of Enterprise’: “At no point in the years conveniently bundled as the Long Depression did New Zealand’s population fall – instead it increased 65 percent. Nor did industrial employment diminish, or new factories and industries cease to open in surprisingly large numbers.”
The book draws on international and local research to look at the origins of New Zealand entrepreneurs, at governmental and public attitudes to enterprise and industry during the period, how entrepreneurship was funded, the compelling need for innovation, and how entrepreneurial careers developed.
While much of the material is generalised there are fascinating glimpses of the beginnings of enterprises run by diverse range of entrepreneurs including Francis Carter, Bendix Hallenstein, Robert Hannah, John Kirkcaldie, Henry Shacklock, James Speight and James Henry Whittaker.
An article, quoted by Hunter from Auckland’s Observer weekly in 1880, describes the entrepreneur of the day: “He was not scion of nobility; he was not born with silver spoon in his mouth. Blue blood is not needed to make successful colonist. Bone and muscle, pluck and thrift, enterprise and industry, carry man to the pinnacle of fortune, where blue blood often goes to the gutter.”
Ian Hunter is to be congratulated for his diligent work in an important but neglected area of New Zealand’s European-era history. As is the University of Auckland whose commitment to the history of business also resulted in last year’s City of Enterprise: Perspectives on Auckland Business History, co-edited by Hunter. – Ian F Grant

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