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Historian ‘tore a few blankets off cover-up’

Sunday January 12, 2020 Written by Published in Weekend
Dick Scott received the Prime Minister's Literary Award in 2007. Dick Scott received the Prime Minister's Literary Award in 2007. 20011061

Dick Scott’s books on colonialism changed the way children here learned about their history. Moana Makapelu Lee pays her respects to a friend of her family and of Cook Islands, Niuean and Māori peoples.

Historian and journalist Dick Scott, renowned for his investigations uncovering the dark side of colonialism in Aotearoa and the south Pacific, has passed away aged 96 years.

The self-taught historian was laid to rest of Wednesday and, at his funeral, he was remembered for changing the way history was written. 

His books include investigations into New Zealand’s colonial control of Niue and Cook Islands.

Former Cook Islands News journalist Jason Brown says Scott’s historical account of the Cook Islands, Years of the Pooh-Bah, remained a landmark publication and clean window into what helped form a nation.

“Anyone who has ever thrown old family papers onto a fire will understand why few archives survive outside archives held by former colonial powers. So strong framing for the book's history comes from papa’a correspondence on Maori sovereignty. Such as former colonial administrator, Walter Gudgeon, subject of sharp review by the author’s account.” 

* Jason Brown: Even now, it’s hard to pooh-pooh Scott’s work

Another of Scott’s major works was 151 Days, an account of the 1951 waterfront lockout. His most ground-breaking, The Parihaka Story and its expanded version, Ask That Mountain, told of the attacks on the Taranaki pacifist Maori settlement of Parihaka, by colonial forces.

When The Parihaka Story was first published, no newspapers reviewed it except New Plymouth’s Taranaki Daily News, which attacked it robustly. And school libraries in Taranaki banned the book.

Before his death, Scott spoke of his pride as lifting the lid on some of the travesties of colonialism. “I don't have any Māori blood but I did want to correct the record. I was able to tear off a few blankets of the cover-up.”

And he helped change attitudes. When Ask That Mountain was published, “the Taranaki paper did a favourable review, and the editor wrote to me and said the book should be compulsory reading in high schools. That was a real turnaround.”

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Massey University historian Kerry Taylor called Scott “a literary giant” who penned “absolutely iconic, must-read, books”.

The books might very different in focus, he said, but they shared a theme of emphasising people’s power to resist oppression and build movements to sustain and support their own interests.

“In 2020 these themes are as relevant as they ever were. Scott's fearlessness and bravery to speak out is a part of the rich legacy he leaves us.”

Scott grew up on a farm at Whakarongo near Palmerston North and attended Palmerston North Boys High School before enrolling in a Diploma of Agriculture at Massey University to become a journalist.

He studied herd testing, not history, and became a sharemilker.

He started work as a journalist after joining the Communist Party and reading about socialism. He would later move to Auckland and continue to write about the historic events in city.

Histories of wine-making, and New Zealand trade and colonial maladministration in the Cook Islands and Niue, followed, along with his autobiography, A Radical Writer's Life.

He was awarded the Prime Minister's Award for Literacy Achievement (Non-Fiction) in 2007 and awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Massey's College of Humanities and Social Sciences in 2016. 

Scott had five children, four with his first wife Elsie du Fresne, who died in 1991. He lived with second wife Sue in Auckland. One of his children was the novelist Rosie Scott.

In 2011, he auctioned a Don Binney painting Kotare over Ratana Church, which he had owned for almost 50 years, and donated the $270,000 proceeds to the Christchurch earthquake appeal.

with Stuff.co.nz

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