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  • Bruce Biggs, 1921-2000:A Tribute
  • Andrew Pawley

Bruce Biggs died in Auckland on October 18, 2000, a month after his seventy-ninth birthday.1 He was a distinguished scholar. He was also that rarer thing, an exceptional builder of academic institutions.

He made major contributions in several different fields. In academic Māori studies, he was the most important figure of the twentieth century. He developed, at Auckland, the first university program in the study of Māori language, culture, and literature, and trained the people who later went on to head similar programs at other New Zealand universities. He initiated the first program in modern linguistics at a New Zealand university. He instigated studies of ethnomusicology and the setting up of the magnificent Archive of Māori and Pacific Island Music at the University of Auckland. And he was a seminal contributer to Oceanic linguistics, the principal force behind the great efflorescence of Polynesian descriptive and historical linguistics in the 1960s and 1970s.

Heroes are generally made by history. Men and women who achieve distinction and influence usually have the times moving with them; they are actors who excel on a stage ready-made by the turn of events. But every now and then, there comes along someone who harnesses energies too diffuse to be called a trend or movement, who builds his own stage and fills it with a company of players that he has trained himself, who has, to a certain extent, made history happen. Bruce Biggs, in his corner of the world, which roughly equaled the Polynesian Triangle, proved to be such a man.

Early Days.

Bruce was born in Auckland on September 4, 1921, the eldest child of Mary (née Grandison) and Thomas Herbert ("Bert") Biggs. His sister, Patricia, was born two years later. Through his father, Bruce had Ngati Maniapoto blood, with connections to Te Keeti marae in Otorohanga. His father ran a hardware shop on Auckland's main street, and the family lived in New Lynn, then on the western fringe of Auckland city. He attended New Lynn Primary School and Mt. Albert Grammar School, where his contemporaries included Rob Muldoon (Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1975 to 1984) and his lifelong friend, Keith Sinclair, who became New Zealand's best known historian.

It seems that Bruce's record as a high school student was uneven. He once told me that, in the national University Entrance exam for Latin, he scored eight percent. But he did not mention (I only learned this later from Keith Sinclair) that he gained the top mark in the nation in the English exam. Bruce gained an interest in Māori [End Page 1] culture as a schoolboy during annual family holidays in Rotorua (he used to dive for tourist pennies with the Te Arawa children at the Whakarewarewa bridge), but he did not become a fluent speaker of Māori until after World War ii. His lifelong interest in jazz and popular music was already evident at high school, where he played trumpet and founded the Boom Bah Boys dance band, popular around New Lynn in the late 1930s. He was a member of the Lifesavers' Club at Piha Beach. From school he went on to Auckland Teachers' College, qualifying as a teacher in 1940.

During 1942-45, Bruce served as a sergeant (and bugler) in the New Zealand Second Expeditionary Force in Fiji. His job in communications gave him freedom to move around Viti Levu and to meet freely with Fijians. He made good use of this freedom to become fluent in Standard Fijian and to gather word lists, grammar notes, and legends in nonstandard dialects of western Viti Levu. Bruce's first two publications were an account of the Ba dialects of the Western Fijian language, and a short piece on Fijian riddles, both of which appeared in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1948. His long association with the Polynesian Society began during the War, when he met the editor, Clyde Taylor. Taylor assisted Bruce in his amateur ethnological studies in Fiji by lending him many books from his personal library. In Fiji, he was influenced by the sharp intellect...


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