Tuesday, 11 November 2014

3 Questions for Grant Morris

Tomorrow night we launch Grant Morris's biography of James Prendergast at the Supreme Court. Prendergast: Legal Villain is the first biography of this major figure in New Zealand's legal history and will be of interest to readers of NZ history as well as legal professionals.

Tell us a bit about Prendergast and why you decided to research and write a biography of him?

Prendergast was arguably New Zealand's dominant legal professional during the period 1865 to 1899. He first served 10 years as Attorney-General and then 24 years as Chief Justice. This was a formative period in New Zealand's history during which the settler state was consolidated and strengthened.  Prendergast played a key role in this process. I specialise in the history of the New Zealand legal profession. I wanted to write a legal biography and was very aware that the few existing legal biographies were all of lawyers and judges considered 'ahead of their time', especially on issues relating to Maori. Due to his 'Treaty is a simply nullity' decision in 1877, Prendergast is considered the 'villain' of our legal history. This fact, combined with his long and eventful career, made him a fascinating and challenging choice to study. I also wanted to explore the historiographical debate around looking at history in its own context versus judging history by the standards of the present.  The latter approach has been prevalent in Waitangi Tribunal history. My argument is that the former approach is more useful in understanding history.

How do you regard the way in which the historical record has remembered him? Are you seeking to amend this by writing the biography?

Prendergast is without doubt the biggest legal villain in NZ historiography and, along with figures such as John Bryce and Frederick Whitaker, Prendergast's name is only mentioned today in order to condemn him. He is judged by half a quote from a decision he made in partnership with another judge. I was not interested in writing an apology for Prendergast but rather in placing him in the context of his time and exploring the other aspects of his career beyond the Wi Parata decision. By today's standards, Prendergast showed a clear disregard for traditional Maori society. His actions negatively affected Maori. That does not change the fact that Prendergast was an influential leader of the legal profession and one of New Zealand's founding fathers. He was not one of New Zealand's most brilliant judges, but he was capable and highly respected by his colonial peers. History, and especially biography, should not be about simply labelling a figure 'good' or 'bad' but rather attempting to understand the complexities of human nature.  

Can you tell us one your favourite events from Prendergast's life?

One of the most exciting events in Prendergast's life was his time on the Victorian goldfields in the mid-1850s. Prendergast was an unfortunate gold-miner, he lasted only a few months on the fields, nearly died of dysentery, and had to be rescued by his older brother. He decided to stay in Victoria and become an administrator, but feuded with his Protestant Irish superiors and after a few years gave up and headed back to London. The trip seemed a complete failure but the lessons he learned formed the basis of his later success in New Zealand. 

Prendergast: Legal Villain? by Grant Morris
p/b, $40
Available for purchase now through our online bookstore
and at all good bookshops.

Grant Morris, author of Prendergast: Legal Villain?

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