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Walter Niel (Niel) Gunson (1930–2023)

by Ewan Maidment

Niel Gunson, no date

Niel Gunson, no date

After a long illness, Walter Niel Gunson, MA (Melb. 1955), PhD (ANU 1960), passed away peacefully at his home on Easter Monday, 10 April 2023, aged 92. Niel is mourned by his family, friends, and colleagues. Eulogies at his funeral at Lang Lang, his hometown in South Gippsland, Victoria, and at a celebration of his life in Canberra, attest to Niel’s achievements and the respect in which he is held. Many tributes from his friends, former students and colleagues have been circulated online. An obituary by Phyllis Herda will be published in a forthcoming issue of The Journal of Pacific History (JPH). Another by Vicki Luker will be published by the ANU Emeritus Faculty. Among these accolades, it is worthwhile emphasising Niel’s affinity with archives and manuscripts as the primary source for his own work and how that fed into his involvement with the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau (PMB).

Niel’s academic life was dedicated to Pacific history, especially the pre-European, culture-contact, and missionary history of Polynesia. His key work, Messengers of Grace: Evangelical Missionaries in the South Seas 1797–1860 (1978), is recognised as the foundational history of 19th century Protestant missions to the Pacific Islands. Niel’s interest in missionary history led him to Australian Indigenous history, editing Australian Reminiscences and papers of L.E. Threlkeld, missionary to the Aborigines (2 vols, 1974). Niel’sresearch went hand in hand with his long-term involvement in the establishment and editing of JPH and the Aboriginal History journal. He edited the ‘Notes and Documents’ sections of both journals for many years, also contributing a series of annotated primary source documents to these sections.

Niel also had a lifelong interest in genealogy, tracing and recording of his own extended family histories, including reminiscences of family members. He wrote an official history of the South Gippsland district where his family lived: The Good Country: Cranbourne Shire (1983).

At the heart of Niel’s research interests were his passionate personal involvement in his fields of study and his devotion to using primary sources. These two criteria were, to an extent, standard requirements for scholars in Professor Jim Davidson’s Department of Pacific History at the Australian National University (ANU), and were of absolute importance to Niel.

Niel kept meticulous notebooks on his archive visits, including extensive transcripts of documents sighted. His contribution to the ‘Manuscripts’ section of the first volume of The Journal of Pacific History (1966) reports that 12 missionary collections in private hands have been copied and placed with the National Library of Australia and four missionary collections microfilmed for the Department of Pacific History. Additionally, among others, he cites details of the last journal of Rev. David Cargill found on top of a cupboard in the Fiji Museum, and the papers of Rev. William Day, who taught at the London Missionary Society’s Malua Institute in Samoa, 1838–46, found by a librarian in 1962, in an apple crate in the Launceston Public Library stacks.

In the preface to his PhD thesis, ‘Evangelical missionaries in the South Seas 1797–1860’ (ANU, Research School of Pacific Studies, 1959), Niel wrote:

[as] a result of reading the original letters and journals of the missionaries, I have tended to draw very little on the equally extensive published primary material. Manyof the quotations have a vitality of their own which not only makes the historical enquiry real and satisfactory for us, but we are able to obtain clearer insight into the character of the writer which is so very much the object of this study. Consequently, I have let the missionaries speak for themselves whenever possible. (

In a review article in Aboriginal History in 2002 Niel commented:

historians, more than other social scientists, are in the best position to set. the record straight, for our main concern should be with primary sources. Of all primary sources, letters and diaries are the most important, providing we know the provenance of the records and the circumstances in which they were written … One of the greatest gifts that one scholar can convey to others is the clean text of what might be termed a hitherto unpublished serial primary source: those magnificent runs of journal diaries and letter journals kept meticulously, particularly by missionaries and travellers, in the Victorian era … Most of these great collections are crying out for transcription, light editing, and some form of publication. (Aboriginal History, 26, 2002: 224–5)

Two of Niel’s publications, the Australian papers of L.E. Threlkeld and The Dalton Journal: two whaling voyages to the South Seas, 1823–1829 (1990), are in this vein.

Niel routinely arranged typed transcriptions of manuscripts for research purposes. For example, establishing an informal John Thomas History and Mythology Project, c.2004–8, which produced, among others, a transcript made from the microfilm of John Thomas’s manuscript ‘Tongatapu or the Friendly Islands’ (Ts., pp.1–1318). Niel also arranged for Tahitian documents, such as the letters of Pomare II, to be transcribed and translated into English.

In 1968, Harry Maude selected Bob Langdon as the first PMB executive officer. With common interests, it is unsurprising that Bob and Niel became good friends. Niel supported PMB projects, such as the LMS Samoan District archives, but did not take an active role until Bob Langdon announced in July 1985 that he would take early retirement the following April. With the continuation of PMB put into doubt, Langdon tabled a paper, ‘Pacific Manuscripts Bureau: the pros and cons of its continuance after 15 April 1986’, to which Cathy Santamaria, Director of Australian Studies at the National Library of Australia, responded that she could not ‘help but feel some apprehension about the future of the Bureau’. Tony Reid, Head of the Department of Pacific and South-East Asian History, issued a statement declaring they would no longer pay the PMB executive officer’s salary and would resume the post for an academic appointment in SE Asian history.

On 1 September 1985, Gerry Ward, Director of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, wrote to the PMB sponsoring libraries announcing ANU’s withdrawal from the Bureau once Langdon retired. This decision was on the grounds that there was less need for the Bureau now that the national archives and universities were established in the independent Pacific island countries. He noted that ANU ‘had borne the lion’s share of the cost of maintaining the Bureau for many years, and this heavy burden can no longer be justified’. Conceding that there was still much useful work that could be done, Professor Ward encouraged the Bureau’s sponsoring libraries ‘to consider reconstituting the Bureau under a different financial arrangement, new management and with a different headquarters’.

 In response, the PMB sponsoring libraries agreed to increase their subscriptions to cover the Bureau’s running costs, but stated they were not able to accommodate the Bureau. At this point, Niel, who was consulting with Dorothy Shineberg and Harry Maude, issued a statement: ‘The Documentary Basis for Pacific Studies 1985: a report on outstanding and new desiderata’ (echoing Harry Maude’s ‘The Documentary Basis for Pacific Studies: a report on progress and desiderata’, 1967, which had led to the PMB’s foundation). Niel’s statement surveyed past and current work of the Bureau and mapped a future based in the Research School with greater involvement of its sponsoring libraries. Its effect was to soften the Research School’s position, so that Professor Ward agreed to a reconstituted Bureau based in the School under the control of a management committee, with Niel as Chair.

 The Bureau’s survival at this critical point was at least partially due to Niel’s influence. He remained as PMB Chair, steering it through a difficult period, until 1993 when Brij Lal took over. We are in debt to Niel for his defence of the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau in the 1980s.

Originally published in the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau Newsletter, series 6, no. 10 (December 2023)

Original publication

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Citation details

Ewan Maidment, 'Gunson, Walter Niel (Niel) (1930–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Niel Gunson, no date

Niel Gunson, no date

Life Summary [details]


12 October, 1930
Leongatha, Victoria, Australia


10 April, 2023 (aged 92)
Hackett, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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