Borderland: The World of James Cowan
Runs from 17 February – 26 April | 10am – 5pm, Monday – Saturday | Level one
Borderland explores the life, work and legacy of the writer James Cowan (1870–1943).
Cowan grew up on a Waikato farm, on land confiscated from Māori who had fought against the Crown in the wars of the 1860s. The farm included part of the battlefield of Ōrākau, just north of the King Country – a region that remained in Māori control after the war. This environment gave rise to Cowan’s lifelong interest in Māori and colonial history, and to his fluency in te reo Māori.
James Cowan at his desk, writing, 1940. Ref: PAColl-5877-5.
My own interest in Cowan began with the book he wrote based in part on interviews with my great-grandfather, Hone Taare Tikao, called Māori Folk-Tales of the Port Hills (1923). This interest developed further when I arranged and described a large collection of Cowan’s research papers, acquired by the Turnbull Library in 2012.
Cowan wrote prolifically in popular magazines, newspapers and books, on many areas of New Zealand cultural life. In the first half of the twentieth century he was one of our most widely read authors. Some of his language can seem dated today, but he had a bicultural vision that challenged the thinking of many of his Pākehā contemporaries.
He is perhaps best remembered for his writing on the New Zealand Wars. Cowan was of the view that through the shared experience of these wars, Māori and Pākehā were brought closer together.
– Ariana Tikao, Curator
He taught the larger lesson of mutual understanding; he saw the two cultures, Maori and Pakeha, meet and clash; he had profound knowledge of the dignity and beauty of both, and his life work was dedicated to their fusion.
– Prime Minister Peter Fraser, 1944
21 February: Cowan symposium
Join the Alexander Turnbull Library and the University of Otago's Centre for Research on Colonial Culture for a symposium exploring new perspectives on James Cowan, the journalist and writer who did much to shape New Zealand's understanding of itself. More about the symposium
24 March: Ōrākau, from a tangata whenua perspective
As told by Ngāti-Maniapoto Kuia Rovina Maniapoto, gathered from the manuscripts written by her elders and related in their kōrero of the past. More about the talk
25 March: The registration of Ōrākau Paewai and other NZ war sites
Te Kenehi Teira speaks about the registration of the Ōrākau Paewai wāhi tapu area, and what was involved to get the site of this famous battle analysed and researched. He will also talk about the wider context of the work that the New Zealand Historic Places Trust is undertaking, in relation to sites from the New Zealand Wars. More about the talk
26 March: The historiography of Ōrākau
Historian Vincent O’Malley speaks about Ōrākau, and how it has been remembered (or forgotten) historically. He will discuss historical coverage of the 50th and 100th year commemorations in 1914 and 1964. More about the talk
7 April: Our mutual waiata interests
Melissa Cross discusses the lives of James Cowan and composer Alfred Hill, and how their lives intersected on the theme of Māori music. More about the talk
11 April: Lyrical Legacy – Shanties, waiata and poetry
Ariana Tikao, curator of Borderland, will sing some waiata from the Cowan papers; Dr Michael Brown will talk about, and perform some sea shanties (with audience participation) from Cowan's writings; and Keith Thorsen will read poetry related to Cowan and the region where they both grew up. More about the event
16 April: The Plutarch of Maoriland
Roger Blackley discusses James Cowan's friendship with the painter Charles F. Goldie and his writing on the Maori portraits of Gottfried Lindauer. More about the talk