In memoriam: Nicholas Tarling, 1931–2017

19 May 2017
Nicholas Tarling

One of the University of Auckland's most tireless servants and well-known figures passed away suddenly on Saturday 13 May. Nicholas Tarling, Emeritus Professor of History, retired 20 years ago after more than three decades of enormous contributions as a long-standing Dean of Arts, Deputy and Acting Vice-Chancellor and key member of committees large and small.

In his retirement Nick remained active as a Senior Fellow of the New Zealand Asia Institute, based in the Business School. He gave an extraordinary half-century of vital service to the University.

Appointed to the History Department in 1965, after a brief stint in Queensland following his graduation from the University of Cambridge, Nick established and shaped the teaching of Asia-related subjects in the Faculty of Arts. At a time when New Zealand public and academic life was becoming more aware of our place in the world, Nick played a decisive role in fostering awareness of Asia.

In 1974 he was the driving force behind the creation of the New Zealand Asian Studies Society. As a teacher, Nick was a marvellous performer, capturing his listeners with dramatic gestures, ominous pauses and even the occasional shedding of items of clothing, all the while posing unexpected questions. His courses on Southeast Asian history, the origins of the First World War and lectures in world history were models of concision, insight and stimulation.

Several generations of students encountered Nick at enrolment in his capacity as Dean of Arts, presiding in an office legendary for its piles of papers and books on every available surface, including the floor.

Nick played a central role in the expansion of the University from around 5,500 students to the 35,000 on his retirement. In this he worked closely with the long-serving Vice-Chancellor, Sir Colin Maiden. He also helped shape the development of the whole university system in New Zealand, through service on national committees.

Outside of work, Nick was a major contributor to the arts in Auckland and the nation. He became a radio presenter of classical music, a founder of Mercury Theatre, trustee of numerous arts organisations, and a respected actor. He was a well-known regular at classical music performances in Auckland for decades.

The University’s annual capping revues and outdoor Shakespeare performances were graced for many years by his skills as a thespian, honed regularly in our lecture halls. A fierce defender of university autonomy and role as critic and conscience of society, Nick was among a key group of academics who resisted in the late 1980s government attempts to consolidate control over the universities.

Somewhat reluctantly retiring in 1997, Nick turned fuller attention to his phenomenal scholarly productivity. His colleagues would joke about "a book a year" only to discover in some years that there were two coming off the presses. His careful studies of imperial policy in Southeast Asia at its height, in decline and during the Cold War drew on his amazing mastery of the British archival records (and what seems to have been chronic insomnia).

Already in the 1960s he was writing transnational history long before the term was invented. As editor of the two-volume Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, Nick brought together a network of colleagues and students, many of whom gathered in Auckland for a conference to mark his 75th birthday. In 2015 the University celebrated Nick’s 50 years here with a display of (at least) 50 volumes written by him.

For his former students like myself, Nick remained a source of wise counsel and friendship. He died doing what he loved, swimming at Narrow Neck Beach, just metres from his home on a beautiful late autumn afternoon. The University is hugely in his debt, as we honour his memory.

A public commemoration of Professor Tarling's multifarious contributions to the University and the life of Auckland will be held later in the year.

Paul Clark is Professor of Chinese in the School of Cultures, Languages and Linguistics.