Friday, December 01, 2006

The New Zealand Belshaws - now a dispersed Pacific Family

Note to reader: I am in the process of breaking this post up as part of a new series. Once that process has been completed I will delete the content in this post, replacing it with a list of posts in the series.

Photo: Horace Belshaw 1898-1962, teacher, economist, university professor, international civil servant

In my post GDP - Australia in its Region I spoke of Australia and New Zealand's role in the Pacific. There I wrote in part:

Australia is a super power in its immediate region, and sometimes behaves with the arrogance of one. Ten years ago few of us would have foreseen the increasing need to project force in the way we have had to in the Pacific ... Our relations with our Pacific neighbours are likely to become more, not less, complicated.

Since then I have watched with sadness the riots in Tonga requiring New Zealand and Australian involvement. This was followed by the coup threats in Fiji requiring Australia to send a naval force to stand by ready to evacuate foreigners.

Yesterday, a Blackhawk helicopter crashed while landing on HMAS Kanimbla, one of the Fiji force, killing the pilot with one soldier missing, presumed dead.

Over the last decade, Australia has in fact lost many more service personnel in helicopter accidents than from any other cause, including the crash in April 2005 on Nias Island, Indonesia, of a navy Sea King helicopter on Tsunami relief, killing nine.

Now as I write the clock is ticking down on the latest Fiji coup deadline.

Younger Australians have no idea, I think, that Australia used to see itself as a Pacific country, part of Oceania. While Australia lost site of this during the 1970s and 1980s when our focus shifted towards Asia, New Zealand retained its Pacific focus. Now our lack of attention to Oceania has come back to bite us.

The New Zealand Belshaws are themselves an example of this now much diminished Pacific past. The biographical post that follows is much longer than I had intended, but does draw the story out - perhaps far too much, some might say.

Grandparents Belshaw

I never met my grandparents, something I replicated in my own life with my daughters by marrying so late.

No one can quite explain how James Belshaw, a Wigan coal miner, and his wife, Mary Pilkington who worked in the textile mills before their marriage, managed to breed a family of international academics. Certainly the Methodist tradition and a thirst for education and self improvement helped.

Active in the Primitive Methodist Church, the radical wing of the Methodist movement, Grandfather Belshaw was one of the first Labour councillors in Britain. Emigrating to New Zealand with his family in 1906, James Belshaw worked variously as a farm labourer and then as a greengrocer before becoming a Primitive Methodist home missioner. This post gave him his own church and was equivalent to minister, a formal role not open to him because of his lack of formal education.

Aunt May and Uncle Horace were born in England before the family emigrated to New Zealand, with Dad born in New Zealand.

May and Vic Fisher and their Family: the New Zealand Link

Aunt May became a teacher, the first Belshaw to gain a qualification, and taught at a number of schools before her marriage to Vic Fisher. She was introduced to Vic by my father who was active with Vic in the Workers Educational Association.

I have tried to find a proper biography of Vic, but so far without success. A gentle man with insatiable curiosity, he was fascinated from an early age by the New Zealand environment and by the Maori. This led him to become the ethnologist at the Auckland Museum.

Brother David and I met May and Vic for the first time on our first visit to New Zealand as children. He taught us chess, explained about the Maori, and took us into the museum one day while it was closed. There we sat in the big war canoe, while he then showed us a range of Maori artefacts, demonstrating how to make fire.

In those days there was a lot more in Australian primary schools than there is now about New Zealand, so we already had some knowledge and could indeed sing the Maori Boat song in Maori. May and Vic had also given us books of Maori legends for Christmas. So we had some background.

May and Vic's family is the only part of the family to stay in New Zealand. Daughter Elaine married Southland farmer Roger Pullar, while son Keith became a lecturer in horticulture at Massey University. Over the years brother David and I stayed many times with May and Vic and their families. The Pullars in particular are great travellers and have played a key role in keeping our small and now dispersed family together.

Horace and Marion Belshaw and their Family: Canada and the US

Like May, second son Horace Belshaw started as a teacher before becoming a WEA tutor on the isolated West Coast of the South Island, a move that distressed his parents because they saw him giving up a secure career job.

In 1924 he received an award to study at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge. There John Maynard Keynes - who described him as the brightest student ever to come to Cambridge from the dominions! - brought him into the vigorous discussions of the Political Economy Club.

Horace completed his doctorate on agricultural fluctuations and published an important article based on it in 1926. He was appointed to a temporary lectureship at Cambridge in 1926--27 and then, at the age of 29, to the foundation chair of economics at Auckland University College.

In New Zealand Horace maintained his involvement with the WEA, acted as economic adviser to the New Zealand Government during the first part of the depression and wrote extensively on Maori issues and on the need for Maori development. In 1939 he organised and chaired a successful conference of young Maori leaders.

In 1944 Horace was appointed research secretary to the Institute of Pacific Relations in New York, then in 1946 he became professor of agricultural economics at the Davis campus of the University of California and also economist at the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics and then in 1948 a senior staff member with the newly formed Food and Agriculture Organisation. His writing in this period reflects his growing interest in rural welfare and agrarian reform in developing countries.

In 1951, Horace returned to New Zealand as the Macarthy chair of economics at Victoria University College, Wellington. He continued to write extensively on economic development issues, advised on economic development in the South Pacific and also participated in two UN missions.

In 1958 Horace retired early in part to give himself more time for international missions. Early in 1962, he set off to take up an assignment at the FAO headquarters and later to chair a conference in Addis Ababa. Shortly after arriving in Rome he suffered a fatal stroke and was buried at the International Cemetery in Rome.

Horace's two sons inherited his interest in development issues and the Pacific.

Born in New Zealand 1921, Cyril Belshaw began his working career as District Officer and Deputy Commissioner for the Western Pacific, Colonial Service, in the British Solomon Islands (1943–46). In 1946 Cyril resigned from the Colonial Service and with wife, Betty, went to the London School of Economics to study for his doctorate (Social Economics of Culture Contact in Eastern Melanesia under Raymond Firth, a world renowned New Zealand born ananthropologist

In 1949 Cyril became a Research Fellow with the newly founded Australian National Uuniversity undertaking field work in Papua. During this period cousin Cyril and Betty stayed with us in Armidale, with Cyril showing us Papuan artefacts including a fearsome war club. Cyril then took up a position in 1953 with the University of British Columbia, becoming a professor of anthropology in 1961. From their bother David and received regular Christmas books mainly on stories and legends of the Canadian Indians.

Cyril's energy was prodigious. In addition to field work, he published regularly and held many external positions including editor of Current Anthropology (1974–85) and President, International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (1978–83). When I came to do my own thesis in 1966 it was an ethnohistorical study of economic life among the Aborigines of Northern NSW at the time of European intrusion, thus combining both sides of the family's academic interests.

The disappearance of Betty in 1979 in Paris and the subsequent discovery of her murdered body in Switzerland - one of Canada's most famous murder cases - cast a long shadow over the whole Belshaw family and especially Cyril and his children. While the family always believed in Cyril's innocence, it was a very difficult period.

Cyril rebuilt his life, publishing an e-book on Betty's murder and maintaining his varied interests ranging from food through his professional involvements, his family including the grandchildren and his pursuit of a better world.

In 2004 he won the Utopian World Championship (photo), while his latest book is called Choosing our Destiny: Creating the Utopian World in the 21st Century.

Cyril's children continue family traditions.

Diana Belshaw (and and her partner Thomas Hauff are both well known Canadian actors.

(Photo: Left to Right:Louise Phillipe (Corinne), Diana Belshaw (Elise) in De Beaux Gestes & Beautiful Deeds by Marie-Lynn Hammond, Persephone Theatre).

Diana's active role in the development of Canadian theatre, in community theatre and her focus on social issues carry on the tradition dating back to her great grandfather. She is presently Director of the Theatre Performance program at the Humber School of Creative and Performing Arts.

Adrian Belshaw has followed a different if related path, moving to Sechelt in British Columbia where he has a strong interest in Indian and evironmental issues.

I did not meet Michael Belshaw, Horace's son and Cyril''s brother, before he died, although I had wanted to because he combined all the family traditions in a new US focused form.

Like so many Belshaws, Michael combined economics and anthropology with a belief in causes. In his case, he moved to the United States as an academic anthropologist but with a focus on central America rather than the Pacific as such. The short summary of his autobiography A Kiwi in Cowboy Country paints a picture of his interests:

Initially the author had the privilege of being on the faculty of Prescott College, until its bankruptcy. This became the launching pad for what might be considered the adventures, misadventures, and learning experiences recounted herein. These included: being hung in effigy for having the temerity to challenge a bunch of land speculators; being exposed to the morass of bureaucracy in a state planning agency and an Indian tribe; developing a new way of building with the earth; solving to his satisfaction the site and perpetrators of the murder of John Wesley Powell's men; living with a pack of wolves for almost twenty years; learning about rattlesnakes with more than desired intimacy; building homesteads in wild and lonesome places in New Mexico; surviving both cancer and bush flying. All this with a sense of wonder at life in the Southwest, yet unable to sunder his roots down under."

Michael is fairly well known in the US for his work in re-introducing wolves to the native environment as well as his other cause. Upon his death, he left his ranch to the The Quivira Coalition. This was founded in June 1997 by a rancher and two environmentalists to offer 'common sense solutions to the grazing debate,' principally by broadcasting the principles of ecologically sensitive ranch management.

James and Edna Belshaw and their Family: Australia

Dad as the youngest of the children of of James and Mary Belshaw followed the now established family tradition. He began as a teacher, the first step on the rung for working class children. He then did his BA. Then, while living in a railway carriage on a siding and teaching at a one teacher school next door, he did the first of his Masters in, I think, history with books delivered and papers returned by daily train.

Despite the pressures, Dad found time to play Rugby at provincial level as half.

Many years later I visited the district north of Auckland with Aunt May and Uncle Vic, finding older people who still remembered him from those days both as a teacher and because of his football.. The district had been settled by Moravians, and some of the older people still spoke with pronounced accents. They explained how they had tried to get dad married off to one of the local girls!

Dad wanted to study in the UK as his brother had done before him. In those days there was one special New Zealand scholarship that provided a free first class steamer ticket to England, entry to a university of your choice plus a generous stipend. While Dad got first class honours and first in New Zealand, this was not enough to get him the scholarship. So he did a second masters, this time in economics, again getting first class honours and first in New Zealand. That got him the scholarship.

Relationships in families are complex things. It is always hard for a younger sibling when the older has been so successful. Given his interests, Cambridge would have been a logical place to study, but Dad would not go there because Horace had been, choosing Manchester instead.

The scholarship opened a new world to him. Those were more formal days in which one dressed for dinner, so before embarking the first thing he had to do was to get a dinner jacket. This was a heavy wool affair, which he meant that he absolutely sweltered in the tropics.

I do not think that Dad was very comfortable in this new environment on ship. My feeling is that as the son of working class parents and with limited life experience himself, he found it a chore.

I also know that later when he came to Armidale he bitterly resented the rigid social stratification that then existed on the New England Tablelands.

I had come back to Armidale to do my benighted PhD and, staying at home with my parents, had taken to going for a walk with Dad every afternoon. This particular afternoon we were talking about his initial responses to Armidale, and he spoke of his reactions to those he met at the first social functions put on to welcome the first staff to the new New England University College.

I was bemused, in part because growing up I had straddled town, gown and country so that while I was conscious of social divisions they did not affect me. I could go where I liked.

Landing in England, Dad followed his usual course, completing his thesis as efficiently as possible. He had chosen economic policy in New Zealand as his topic, a topic that he was interested in but which was also efficient in its own right because he had access through brother Horace to an enormous range of material. He completed the thesis in a year, but could not hand it in immediately, so this gave him time to do other things.

I know that he visited the English family because there are photographs. Unfortunately we have lost touch since, so that I cannot put names to any of the photographs. He also read widely, starting his collection of Left Book Club books, visited the continent and worked with the International Labour Office for a period.

Returning to New Zealand he worked briefly at the Labour Department and then in 1938 he accepted a position as foundation lecturer in economics and history at the new University College in Armidale. There he met Edna Drummond, the daughter of David Drummond, one of the founders of the Country Party, then NSW Minister for Education and a key figure in the establishment of the New Engalnd University College.

Dad had long wanted to get married. There is a rather sad entry in his diary in the period immediately after his arrival in Armidale in which he wondered if he would ever marry and have children.

In some ways Mum and Dad were a strange match. Mum loved people and had a sometimes wicked sense of humour, including a strong sense of irony. Dad was far more serious and controlled. Yet while they sometimes hurt each other - I saw my mother reduced to tears at times, with Dad storming away - they also meshed. Mum became the social glue, balancing Dad's seriousness and giving him the base he needed. For his part, he gave her stability and certainty, undying loyalty.

Dad and his new father in law also got on well. Again this may seem strange, the Country Party politician and the Labor leaning academic from a working class background. In fact, they shared many things in common. Both believed in cooperation, in community development, in the rights of the small man. Both had come from poorer backgrounds and made their way in the world. They disagreed on individual points, the New England New State Movement was one, but both could recognise the solid core of values in the other.

Dad (Photo: pencil sketch Brian Dunlop, final painting UNE) was to stay in Armidale for the rest of his life, filling just about every position the University of New England had to offer from acting Warden (VC) of the University College through Council membership to head of Department and the first coach of the Rugby Union team. In doing so, he followed what had become the core Belshaw family traditions: economic development, community development, social responsibility, contribution.


We grew up in the Belshaw tradition. As I have said before, my world as a child was both intensely local and also international. Within the international stream we looked especially to the UK, but we also understood the Pacific. It was there in popular books and in family. We knew far more about our immediate backyard than people do today. It would be the sixties and seventies before Australia's sense of its Pacific heritage would begin to erode.

In writing this piece I realised something else as well. New Zealanders often knock themselves, a good ANZ tradition. Yet when I look at the statistics I ask myself a question.

In 1908, the year that Dad was born, the New Zealand population reached one million for the first time. Just how did this small nation at the end of the earth manage to generate so many leading intellectuals spanning disciplines?

Australians are, justly, proud of their record. Yet pound for pound, the Kiwis outpull them in most areas.

You will notice my use of pronoun. In writing this, I in fact switched my hats from Australian to my New Zealand side.

No comments: