Scrums, sea and socialism turned 19th century British settlers into a distinct group of people by 1900 – New Zealanders – argues Ron Palenski in his history PhD turned book.

The book is significant for historians because it places the establishment of a New Zealand identity in a much earlier period than most historians have located. No doubt the book will ruffle a few feathers.

But Palenski makes a strong case that this ragged band of migrants from Europe, by 1900, saw themselves as their own people with rugby as a common sport, “1200 miles of stormy ocean” separating them from Australians, and a progressive, socialist stamp to Government policies like the Education Act of 1877. The Act provided for the government taking responsibility for the secular and free education of every primary school child in the country.

Palenski’s view of what forged national identity is obviously a fraught concept and should throw up a bit of discussion, particularly today when 747s cross stormy oceans in a few hours, when rugby games have more to do with corporate sponsors than binding provincial centres, and when Key’s right-wing government wants to reverse the progressive gains of yesteryear by considering giving fundy Christian homophobes, Destiny Church, the right to run a charter school.

An academic-type historical investigation into New Zealanders won’t be for everyone but, as Palenski says, a deepened understanding of the past is all good. Palenski’s book is a time machine and takes readers back to find out how British migrants saw the land they lived on, “May our mountains ever be, Freedom’s ramparts on the sea.” And also how others saw them, “The country at the end of the world…A country of obdurate, provincial, dull, selfish philistines, who exported from England ‘culture’ and lie upon it as a dog on hay.”

The best part of Palenski’s argument, in my opinion, is that it wrestles the origin of New Zealand’s identity, away from the Gallipoli debacle of the ANZACs and the Boer War, which imperialist politicians have been using for a century to justify war and to justify sending New Zealand troops around the planet. It puts the start of a New Zealand identity on much firmer ground, in the politics, sports and geography of Aotearoa.

The Making of New Zealanders, published by AUP, $45, Paperback on sale now.