A new biography of Best, Elsdon appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Elsdon Best was born on 30 June 1856 at Grasslees Farm, Tawa Flat, the son of William and Hannah Best. Nine years later, when the family moved into Wellington, Elsdon was able to attend school and, in due course, passed the Junior Civil Service Examination. Twelve months in the office of the Registrar-General were sufficient to make it clear that he had not the temperament to tolerate the drudgery of clerical work. Hence, in 1874, he sought a living on the East Coast mustering and bush felling. In 1881 he joined the Armed Constabulary and was for a time in camp at Parihaka during the Te Whiti troubles.
After the arrest of the Maori leaders he left the force and spent three years wandering in the Pacific and the United States – first in Hawaii, then in California and the Sierra Nevada, cattle mustering and lumbering. The interlude in Oceania doubtless broadened his knowledge of Polynesians, and his learning of Spanish may later have increased the facility with which he polished up his Maori, but otherwise this period of wandering would seem to have little bearing on his future vocation.
Late in 1886 he returned to New Zealand to resume his open-air life in the bush. Now that he was older, more mature, and settled, the historical and traditional background of the Maori aroused his curiosity. More systematic study gave him increasing facility in the language with the confidence to enter into discussion with the surviving tribal elders who were prepared to answer informed questions. Already he had an urge to write, his first newspaper articles dealing with his Californian experiences being published shortly after his return.
In 1892 the Polynesian Society was founded, very largely through the enthusiasm and energy of Percy Smith. Its journal was to become the most important ethnological periodical in the Pacific area. Best, who about this time had left the country for a storeman's job in Wellington, contributed an article to the first number, somewhat curiously a study of the Filipinos. He was at the same time working up a series of articles on the history of Wellington Harbour. Percy Smith, then Surveyor-General, realised that the opening up of the Urewera Country provided a magnificent opportunity to record the facts of the still relatively intact Tuhoe way of life and traditions. Best, probably on Smith's suggestion, took a position of timekeeper on the road works then commencing at the Te Whaiti end of the block. Here he went in 1895 to work off and on for nearly 15 years in the district, later changing his headquarters to Ruatoki. In 1903 he transferred to the Native Department and in 1905 was appointed Health and Sanitary Inspector for the Mataatua Maori Council District. He had qualified in 1900 as a licensed interpreter and used his growing mastery of the language to begin his comprehensive series of field records and note books to which he was to add systematically for the rest of his life.
Notable among his Tuhoe informants were Tutaka-nga-hau and Paitini, with Hamiora Pio of Ngati Awa. By his single-minded devotion in his search for knowledge, he was able to gain the confidence of these men and to achieve a degree of rapport seldom equalled by a later generation of ethnologists. As Buck has said, “He saw things with their eyes and felt with their feelings”. From the growing volume of notes, articles were distilled for the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute and the Journal of the Polynesian Society. His first separate work, Waikaremoana, the Sea of Rippling Waters, With a Tramp Through Tuhoe land, appeared in 1897. Despite its slightly affected archaic style, it showed a mastery of the district lore. Much of his writing during the next 10 years was of a popular nature in newspapers such as the Canterbury Times and the Hot Lakes Chronicle. More serious studies, later to be expanded into full-length monographs on the lore of the whare-kohanga and forest lore, were in train.
Best, however, needed more time, a modicum of comfort, and access to the existing publications to ripen his findings. In 1910 he was appointed to the position of ethnologist at the Dominion Museum. This move, even on the nominal salary which it carried, gave his work exactly the new impetus it needed. His first major contribution, The Stone Implements of the Maori, appeared in 1912 and was followed four years later by a companion bulletin on Maori storehouses. In 1919 appeared The Land of Tara, the Maori history of Wellington Harbour. The definitive systematic survey of Maori primitive culture, The Maori, was published in 1924 in two volumes, its shorter companion volume, The Maori as He Was, also appearing in the same year. Next year the society published Tuhoe, the Children of the Mist, a monumental tribute in 1,200 pages to the people among whom he had spent so much of his life. It may be regretted that Best did not make his opus a rounded formal study of all aspects of Tuhoe culture instead of confining it to traditional history and mythology. What Best learned of Urewera forest lore, social customs, implements, and methods of warfare is scattered widely through his specialised monographs.
In 1914 he was awarded the Hector Medal of the New Zealand Institute, and in November 1919 was one of the 20 original fellows of the institute. In addition to the well-merited formal scientific recognition of his pakeha contemporaries, Best, with a natural modesty and charm, widened his Maori circle of informants to become a recognised leader. Numerous stories exemplify at once his commanding knowledge and the quiet, almost deferential persistence with which he added to it. Throughout his later life at the Museum and, for a time, at the Alexander Turnbull Library, his literary work continued. Field notes along with gleanings of his indexed searchings of the literature were welded into an impressive series of monographs. In some of the later studies he quoted extensively from the books of earlier writers, but was reluctant to a fault to assess or criticise doubtful material. Among his fellow students of the Maori he was less influenced than others by the blind alleys of speculation regarding Maori origins, although he did accept somewhat uncritically middle-period sources such as the Whatahoro manuscripts.
No man can be omniscient and it is an indication of Best's stature that his techniques in the field stand comparison with those of formally trained ethnologists of a later generation. His 25 books and pamphlets and over 50 papers are an unequalled contribution to Maori studies. Best married Adelaide Wylie, who was his indefatigable companion for many of the Urewera years. He died at Barnard Street, Wadestown, Wellington, on 9 September 1931, and his widow survived him. There was no issue.
by Austin Graham Bagnall, M.A., A.L.A., Librarian, National Library Centre, Wellington.
- Best Papers (MSS), Turnbull Library
- Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 41 (1932), Evening Post, 9 Sep 1931 (Obit)
- Dominion, 10 Sep 1931 (Obit)
- Man of the Mist – a Biography of Elsdon Best, Craig, E. W. G. (1964).