Historian Michael King dies

30 March 2004

Michael King, c. 1990s
Michael King, c. 1990s (Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-6458-2-16)

Historian Michael King (aged 58) and his wife Maria Jungowska died in a car accident in south Waikato. King’s Penguin history of New Zealand became the most popular book of the year, and was the Readers’ Choice at the 2004 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. By 2011 it had sold an astonishing 250,000 copies.

Hailed by one reviewer as ‘by far the best general history of New Zealand’ since Keith Sinclair’s A history of New Zealand (1959), the Penguin history was the last of more than 30 books by King published during his lifetime. After beginning his working life as a journalist for the Waikato Times, he soon found that his forte was explaining the Māori world to Pākehā. He won a Feltex award for the six-part television series Tangata whenua, which he wrote and presented. Screened in 1974, this was the first in-depth exploration of Māori culture on television. Biographies of Māori leaders Te Puea Hērangi (1977) and Whina Cooper (1983) also opened the eyes of many Pākehā to aspects of New Zealand history of which they had been unaware.

King faced criticism from some Māori who felt that he had no right to tell their stories. Less contentious were histories of the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands (1989) and biographies of the writers Frank Sargeson (1995) and Janet Frame (2000). Michael King reflected on his identity as a ‘white native’ in Being Pakeha (1985) and Being Pakeha now (1999).

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