A little history of James Cowan

After months of anticipation I have started work on the Cowan family papers that were acquired by the Library early this year. This acquisition is the happy result of meeting members of James Cowan’s family during the Borderland exhibition that I curated last year. James Cowan was a prolific and widely-read journalist and historian who was active from the late 1880s up until the 1940s. His writing had a great influence on the shaping of our national identity.

Follow along as I make regular posts about the process of the arrangement and description of this collection. You’ll learn about the collection as I do, and as the record becomes more detailed. Right now, the collection just has a top level record (MS-Group-2378); you can see it’s quite light given how much material is there, and items from the collection aren't going to be available to view until the whole collection has been processed.

Material from the collection of Cowan family papers before acquisition, in a case.A photograph of material now part of the Cowan family papers, currently being processed at the Turnbull Library. This photograph was taken during the appraisal at James Cowan’s grandson’s house.

Right now, all you can see is that there are 17 boxes of material, a mix of manuscripts, photos, maps, and artworks. I have created some series for the collection, which is also visible on the top level record at MS-Group-2378. You will note that we have called the collection the Cowan family papers: this is because there are other family members who have contributed to this collection, including Cowan’s father in-law, who has been given his own series.

(‘Series’ is a way to intellectually gather up sets of items within collections. It is likely that we will add more series as we go, as other groupings become evident.)

As a good a place to start as any, I am beginning with James Cowan’s personal library, which has many loose items interleaved amongst the pages of most items.

Handling and housing

After meeting with conservation staff and the Manuscripts curator, we have decided how we’ll house items from Cowan’s library. Many of the books in this part of the collection have inserts tipped into them, including clippings, drafts, correspondence, photographs, other publications, ephemera and even paintings.

Cowan used his books as a kind of filing system, so the clippings, correspondence and suchlike that he put in each item usually relates to the topic of the book.

The intention is to keep the books together with their inserts whenever possible, but for the sake of keeping them safe we’re taking the inserts out, unfolding them if necessary, and putting them into paper enclosures and rehousing them with the books.

Hopefully this will retain as much of the original context as possible – an important archival principle, and doubly so given the way Cowan worked – but also make it easier for researchers to order and to use the materials that were folded up inside the books.

Library staff Sean McMahon, Frank Fabry, Nina Zimowit, and Ariana Tikao in discussion.Planning for housing options for the Cowan family papers, Sean McMahon, Frank Fabry, Nina Zimowit and Ariana Tikao. Photo by Michael Brown.

Fascinating finds

Cartoon showing a 'Native auction', at which men in front of a whare are selling missionaries' arm and leg bones.Cartoon from amongst the loose papers in Adventures in Geyserland, with original pencil marks. Ref: MSX-9414.

I noticed this cartoon, which was tipped into a book called Adventures in Geyserland. It’s unclear as to where it was initially published but it looks like it was cut out of a publication and it was stuck onto a piece of card with a photograph stuck onto the other side of it. It is a fairly outrageous cartoon, which is why it stood out.

I sent a scan of it to my colleague Paul Diamond who is currently writing a monograph about Māori and cartoons, including representation of Māori.

Title page of A Little History of New Zealand, subtitled 'Progressive from discovery to 1880; for children. Page includes a few lines of Cowan's shorthand.Cowan’s annotated copy of A Little History of New Zealand by E M Bourke. Ref: MS-Papers-11946-001.

This item was the highlight of my first day of work on this collection: Cowan’s copy of A Little History of New Zealand, which on the title page is named and dated 1887. He would have been around 17 years old at the time, and that year he had two articles published in the Auckland Herald.

The squiggles below the author’s name are shorthand, a skill he was very practiced in and used throughout his life. In the back of the little book, Cowan has also named and dated it two other times, firstly in March 1884 where he also writes ‘Te Awamutu’ when he was just 14 years old (probably still at school), and also ‘Kihikihi, 1886’.

Inside the book are many annotations. Significantly he has many question marks in the margins, such as on page 83, which relates to the pursuit of Te Kooti during the New Zealand Wars in 1868-69:

Colonel Whitmore determined to return to the East Coast once more, with the object of punishing some Maoris called the Ureweras, who had always behaved very badly and had helped Te Kooti in the Poverty Bay massacre... They live far inland from the East Cape, and have always been ready to aid the enemies of the Europeans.

(Cowan’s emphasis, with question marks in the margin next to the underlined words.)

To me, this demonstrates that even as a teenager, Cowan was questioning the status quo of widely held beliefs in mainstream Pākehā society, concerning New Zealand’s history. It is an early indication of the direction he would take in his career to try to give voice to Māori versions of historical events, as he did when he wrote his New Zealand Wars volumes in 1922-1923.

Still to come...

For more background you can see a blog I wrote about the processing of the last lot of James Cowan papers that the library purchased in 2012. This time around I thought it would be fun to write about the arrangement and description of the collection as I go. I will write more blogs every so often, so you can come along for the ride of what is involved with processing this wonderful archival collection. Mā te wā. Until next time...

By Ariana Tikao

Ariana (Kāi Tahu) is the Research Librarian, Māori, at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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Jared Davidson June 30th at 2:25PM

Awesome Ariana, thank you for sharing your process!

Huia Mitchell nee Bettany June 30th at 7:20PM

I am delighted to find this item on the library site. My parents seemed to have great respect for James Cowan. They wrote to him when they were stuck for a bird name for their 4th daughter. We are of English ancestry, but they wanted to give us an interest in Maori culture and heritage as New Zealanders, hence the first 3 girls were called Tui, Riro and Huia. James Cowan replied to their letter and suggested Tiora (the stitchbird) for the 4th girl. His letter is in a family album and I have photocopied it.

I also have several of his books which had been my parents'.

Tiena Jordan July 1st at 9:50AM

Fantastic! Keep them coming! Thank you for sharing. I know his books well from my previous position.

Chris Szekely July 5th at 7:16PM

Very pleased to see this Ariana. I look forward to reading about other discoveries as you work through the collection.