Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

COWAN, James

(1870–1943).

Journalist and Maori scholar.

A new biography of Cowan, James appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

James Cowan, the son of William Andrew Cowan, a King Country farmer from County Down, Ireland, and Elizabeth Jane, née Qualtough, was born at Pakuranga, Auckland, on 14 April 1870, shortly after his father, who had seen considerable action in the Maori Wars in the Waikato, had commenced to break in a landholding which included part of the battlefield of Orakau. For 10 years the Cowan family lived on the border of the King Country under the shelter of an Armed Constabulary stockade, and young Cowan, even in childhood, surrendered to the charm of the storied locality and its Maori inhabitants. As the military and racial tension relaxed, James Cowan found himself drawn closer and closer to the family's Maori neighbours. He quickly learned the Maori tongue and developed an admiration and affection for the people, soon to colour his whole existence. In his late teens he began a journalistic apprenticeship in Auckland, and when he forsook the reporting staff of the Auckland Sun for a publicity post with the newly formed Tourist Department in Wellington, he had already begun writing about Maori place names, customs, and legends. His new work took him all over New Zealand and widened his horizons as far as the Maori race was concerned. From being an interesting sideline, Maori history, legend, and language developed for him into an engrossing study.

Cowan had a genuine love for the elegance and beauty of the Maori language, and one of his special gifts was a discerning eye for sources of legend and folklore. He had a meticulous regard for the correct spelling of the most difficult place names, and never heard a new one without searching out its picturesque meaning. In doing so, he preserved much that would otherwise have been lost with the passing of the old Maori identities. His principal publication, sponsored by the Government, was The History of the New Zealand Wars and the Pioneering Period, but it is probable that he is better known and pleasantly remembered for the assiduity with which he collected and published the myths and fairy tales with which Maori folk lore abounds.

Cowan married twice; first, Eunise Nicholas, by whom he had two sons and, secondly, Eileen Constance Stowell. He died at Otaki on 6 September 1943.

by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.

  • Dominion, 7 Sep 1943 (Obit)
  • Evening Post, 7 Sep 1943 (Obit).


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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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