Beaglehole was born and grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, the second of the four sons of David Ernest Beaglehole, a clerk, and his wife, Jane Butler. He was educated at Mount Cook School and Wellington College before being enrolled at Victoria University College, Wellington, which later became an independent university, and where he subsequently spent most of his academic career. After his graduation, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the London School of Economics, and left for England in 1926.
After three years of post-graduate study Beaglehole obtained his PhD with a thesis on British colonial history. At this time he was much influenced by left-wing teachers, especially R.H.Tawney and Harold Laski, and on returning to New Zealand he found it difficult to obtain an academic post owing to his radical views. For a time he had various jobs including a spell as a Workers Educational Association lecturer, and had time to develop other enthusiasms including civil rights issues, writing poetry, and music, an interest inherited from his mother. His academic career finally took off in 1934 after the publication of his first major book, ‘‘The Exploration of the Pacific’’, after which he developed his specialist interest in James Cook. He became lecturer, later professor, at the Victoria University College New Zealand.
Beaglehole became known internationally for his work on Cook’s journals which brought out his great gifts as historian and editor. It was not all desk work among the archives – he also travelled widely in Cook’s wake, from Whitby to Tahiti, to Tonga and to the New Hebrides. The four volumes of the journals that emerged between 1955 and 1967 were subsidized by the New Zealand government which also set up a special research post for their author. The sheer size of these tomes, each of them approaching 1,000 pages, may seem disconcerting at first sight, but they are enlivened by Beaglehole’s stylish and often witty introductions, intended to set the journals in their contexts. As well as Cook’s own journals Beaglehole also printed, either entire or in lengthy extracts, the journals of several of Cook’s colleagues on the voyages. The introductions themselves, together with copious footnotes, reveal the breadth of his erudition. They cover many topics, ranging from the structure of Polynesian society to oceanography, navigation, cartography, and much else.
Cook’s journals themselves had never before been comprehensively and accurately presented to the public, and to do so required enormous research since copies and fragments of the journals and related material were scattered in various archives in London, Australia and New Zealand. For his edition, Beaglehole sought out the various surviving holographs in Cook’s own hand in preference to copies by his clerks on board ship, and others. For the first voyage, the voyage of the Endeavour, he used mainly the manuscript journal held in the National Library of Australia at Canberra. This only came to light in 1923, when the heirs of a Teesside ironmaster, Henry Bolckow, put it up for sale. Bolckow had purchased this manuscript at an earlier auction, in 1868, but had not made his ownership widely known, and consequently it was assumed for many years that no such holograph existed. For the second voyage Beaglehole used two other partial journals in Cook’s hand, both of which had the same early history as the Endeavour journal. All three had probably once been owned by Cook’s widow, and sold by a relation of hers at the 1868 auction. The difference was that the two partial journals from the second voyage were then purchased by the British Museum and not by Bolckow, and hence had long been available for public consultation. And for the third voyage Beaglehole’s main source was a journal written, and much revised, by Cook up to early January, 1779, a month before he died. What happened to the final month’s entries, which must certainly have been made, is uncertain. This, too, is today in the British Library, the successor to the British Museum as a manuscript repository.
All students of Cook owe an enormous debt to Beaglehole for his all-encompassing editorship. So much so, in fact, that today it is difficult to view the subject of Cook except through Beaglehole’s perspective. Some recent biographies of Cook have tended to be little else than abbreviated versions of Beaglehole. Nevertheless, it is also clear that Beaglehole’s work is, by and large, a continuation of the long tradition of Cook idealization, a tradition from which post-Beaglehole scholarship has started to diverge. For Beaglehole, Cook was a heroic figure who could do practically no wrong, and he is scathing about those contemporaries of Cook who ever ventured to criticise his hero, such as Alexander Dalrymple, the geographer, and Johann Reinhold Forster, who accompanied Cook on the second voyage. Recent research has to some extent rehabilitated both Dalrymple and Forster..
During his last decade Beaglehole was showered with honorary degrees from universities at home and abroad and other distinctions. Perhaps the most prestigious was the award, in 1970, of the British Order of Merit. He was only the second New Zealander ever to receive this award, the first being the nuclear physicist, Ernest Rutherford. Today, Beaglehole’s alma mater, the Victoria University of Wellington, has a special research facility dedicated to him, in which is displayed his portrait, by W.A.Sutton. Just before he died Beaglehole was in process of revising his detailed and authoritative biography of Cook, which was subsequently prepared for publication by his son, Tim.