Tuesday, January 17, 2017

'We are not customers': Denys Trussell's Fairburnian rebuke to Auckland council

Denys Trussell is a living link to what we might call the heroic age of New Zealand poetry. In the decades after World War Two New Zealand was, as Allen Curnow said, a 'hard homeland' for poets. Instead of the grants and residencies that are today up for grabs, the state offered poets and artists of all kinds discouragement, and sometimes persecution.

Poets like James K Baxter and ARD Fairburn responded to the strictures of their society with satire and polemic. They became public figures, as they lambasted the philistinism of their age.

As a young man Denys Trussell befriended many of the important poets of the postwar era, and wrote a biography of ARD Fairburn. In his poems and his essays he channels the anger and energy of Fairburn and Baxter, and as the head of the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors he does battle with the philistines of our era, who tend to use neo-liberal economics rather than religious dogma to justify their assaults on the arts.

Today's New Zealand Herald quotes a polemic that Trussell has directed at Auckland Council, which is considering sacking fifty of the city's librarians. Trussell objects not just to the prospect of redundancies but to the way that Auckland's councillors think about libraries, books, and readers:

Libraries are not supermarkets, but complex social institutions...We are not customers. We are readers and citizens in question of knowledge, information and the pleasure of books

You can find more of Trussell's polemic here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Same name, different islands

Last night I put Tonga TV's news item about The Stolen Island on this blog; an hour or so later I got an e mail from Pacific genealogist and historian Christine Liava'a, who was bewildered by what she had seen.

Christine wanted to know where Tonga TV had gotten the still pictures that accompanied its piece. Most of the pictures were, she pointed out, 'utterly irrelevant' to the story The Stolen Island tells. My book describes the raids on the Tongan islands of 'Ata and Niuafo'ou by Tasmanian and New Zealand slavers in 1863. Both 'Ata and Niuafo'ou are high, rugged islands, but Tonga TV featured a series of shots of a coral atoll.

It seems to me that a confusion of names can be blamed for the presence of the coral island in Tonga TV's report. While the 'Ata of my book lies about one hundred and fifty kilometres south of the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa, another 'Ata sits just a couple of kilometres offshore in Nuku'alofa harbour, inside a coral reef. Whereas the second vowel in the southern 'Ata has a short 'a' sound, the coral 'Ata ends with a long 'a' sound.

Although it is tiny and uninhabited, 'Ata the atoll has an important place in Tongan mythology. According to many oral traditions, the island was one of the first pieces of Tonga to emerge from the sea. Soon after 'Ata had emerged from the water, the skybound god Tangaloa 'Atulongolongo turned himself into a bird and dropped a seed onto it. After a small plant grew from the seed, Tangaloa 'Atulongolongo pecked at the plant's root. When a worm oozed out of the broken root, the god pecked at the worm. The worm broke into three pieces, from which three men emerged. Tangaloa 'Atulongolongo brought these men wives from the spirit island of Pulotu; the men and the spirit women together created the Tongan people.

I suspect that the staff at Tonga TV ran a google search for images to go with their report on The Stolen Island, and then confused the 'Ata of my book with the geographically proximate and mythologically potent 'Ata of Nuku'alofa harbour.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

On telly in Tonga

The news team at Tonga's national television station has put together this piece about The Stolen Island.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Drinking the darkness

Angus Gillies has just done a facebook post about The Stolen Island. Here's his post along with my reply to it. 

Have just finished reading Scott Hamilton's new book The Stolen Island, Searching for 'Ata. And it's a bloody great read! It's a true story about slave-trading in the Pacific Islands in the 1860s and particularly what happened to 144 men, women and children kidnapped from the island of 'Ata in Tonga. I love the way Scott takes us along as he skillfully uncovers the old story and finds and talks to the descendants, all while modestly painting himself as an Inspector Clouseau-like character. Kiwis might be surprised to discover that some of Auckland's wealthy families had Pacific Island slaves in the 1800s. My favourite line from the book is from Scott's Acknowledgements: Friends, we drank the darkness, and became visible.

My reply: 

Malo for your kind words Angus. The phrase 'Friends, we drank the darkness, and became visible' comes from the great Swedish poet and Nobel laureate Tomas Transtromer. 

I use the phrase while paying tribute to my friends Sio Siasau and Serene Tay, who helped me explore some of the ancient, pagan, and perhaps haunted sites - ruined forts, sacred groves, godhouse platforms - of Tongatapu back in 2013, when we were all living on the island. Since then Sio has become internationally famous for sculpting and painting Tonga's old gods and powers. He drnk from the forbidden culture of his pre-Christian ancestors, and by doing so created himself as an artist. 

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

'Nothing at all!'

It's that time of year again. Kindergarten is out for a few weeks, beer and wine are flowing on the balcony, and friends are knocking on the door. Conditions are not good for blogging, and the only thing I can hope to write is the occasional poem.

I've been scribbling a series of sonnets addressed to my friend Sio Siasau, who spent much of this year in New York City. It turns out that Sio had been writing a series of poems of his own in America: I'm very curious to see how they read alongside my epistles.

Here's one of my 'Sonnets for Sio'. It was written with the assistance of my oldest son.

Chapter 63
So now you are writing poems, Sio! 
Like a watch ticking in a coffin
the blank page is patient. You bend your neck
and squint, and notice the pits and crevices
in the paper, and blink at its glare. 
                               Coleridge crossed 
the same white desert, looking for the oasis
of Kubla Khan. Xanadu was a date palm
shading a mudpool, a civilisation
of flies. 
           Aneirin is awake and at the table
beside me, tinkering with his lego while I type.
He looks at the almost blank screen and asks
'What are you doing Daddy?'. 
I tell him I'm crossing a white desert 
with only a cup of lukewarm tea to sustain me.
I ask him if he'd like to travel with me, to join
the poem, and he replies 'No! I want to say nothing, Dad,
nothing at all!' 

Friday, December 30, 2016

Talking to the ABC

I've done an interview with Aussie public radio about the slave raid on 'Ata and its consequences.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The ship from Dunedin and the tragedies on Nukapu

My interview with Christchurch radio station RDU has gone online. Host James Dann asked me not only about the raid on 'Ata Island but about the wider Pacific slave trade and its links with New Zealand. I mentioned the Dunedin-based steamship Wainui, which was connected to the most infamous and misunderstood episode of the entire slave trade.

The Wainui's captain and crew stole men and women from Melanesia and sold them in Queensland or Fiji to the owners of sugar plantations. In August 1870 the Wainui approached Savo, a small island in the Solomon archipelago, and encountered a group of men and women in canoes. The captain of the Wainui steered his ship into the little vessels; their passengers went screaming into the water. The crew of the Wainui lowered a whaleboat into the sea, rowed towards the flailing bodies, and pulled them to safety, and into slavery.

But the Wainui's captain did not realise that his latest captives included both the wife and daughter of the chief of Savo Island. The people of the island were enraged, and its sole white inhabitant, a beachcomber and small trader, had to barricade himself in his hut.

A few weeks after the raid on Savo John Coleridge Patteson, the Anglican Bishop of Melanesia, approached Nukapu, an island in the far south of the Solomons, on the missionary ship the Southern Cross. For sixteen years Patteson had been landing on Pacific beaches. By 1871, he could preach in twenty-three of Melanesia's thousand languages. On island after island, the bishop left Bibles and medicines and sailed away with young men, who learned to read and pray at Anglican schools on Norfolk Island and in Auckland.

Patteson was popular in many places, and slavers took to imitating him. They would anchor off islands, don black garments, hold Bibles aloft on the decks of their ships, and wait for locals to paddle or swim towards them. After hearing about his imitators, the Bishop of Melanesia became a meticulous opponent of the slave trade. He collected stories of raids and whippings, and wrote long memoranda to the governments of Australasia and Britain.

In the months before the Southern Cross' visit, Nukapu had been repeatedly raided by blackbirders. The people of the island were not happy to see another exotic ship stop outside their reef.

Patteson landed on Nukapu in a Melanesian canoe given to him by some of his students. Hours later he drifted back towards the Southern Cross on the same vessel. There were arrows and axe marks in his torso, and the right side of his head had collapsed. The bishop had become Nukapu's message to the white world.
Patteson's death created an uproar throughout the British Empire. In New Zealand public meetings denounced the slave trade, and parliament passed a resolution calling on Britain to ban and punish the practice. Captain Jacobs of the Southern Cross published an account of Bishop Patteson's death that blamed the event on slave traders. The Southern Cross had visited Savo at the beginning of September, and Bishop Patteson had spent some of his time on the island hearing a report about the attack by the Wainui. It was the actions of ships like the Wainui, Jacobs suggested, that led to the slaying of John Patteson.

Despite Jacobs' testimony, the British government sent a warship, the HMS Rosario, to punish Nukapu for Patteson's death. The Rosario was driven by propellers and had eleven guns. On the way to Nukapu the ship stopped in New Zealand, where some of its crew played the first ever rugby union international against a team of Aucklanders.

When the Rosario anchored off Nukapu in October the local men danced on their beach, then fired a volley of arrows that fell into the sea far short of the warship. The Rosario responded by bombarding the island. The ship fired its largest guns, and the ship's crew opened up with their rifles. Later a party of marines went ashore, and burned a Nukapuan village.

The invasion of Nukapu was condemned by anti-slavery campaigners as an insult to the memory of Bishop Patteson, and was criticised by newspapers in New Zealand and in Britain. Patteson himself became the first Pacific martyr of the Anglican church, and is still remembered by members of the church today. Patteson's certificate of ordination is displayed at Auckland's Anglican cathedral; on a window in church in a Surrey village called Kingswood there is a portrait of Patteson serenely contemplating his Bible while two copper-coloured savages carrying clubs approach him.

What is not remembered is the share of responsibility that a steamer from Dunedin bore for both the slaying of Bishop Patteson and the British navy's attack on Nukapu.

Note: the original version of this post mistakenly claimed that there was a causal link between the raid of the Wainui on Savo and the slaying of Bishop Patteson, by claiming that Savo and Nukapu were neighbours, and that the people of the latter island were enraged by the abduction of the chief of Savo's wife and daughter. I am very grateful to Christine Liava'a for e mailing and pointing out that Savo and Nukapu are hundreds of kilometres apart. ('I know', Christine said, 'I've been to both'.) I've changed my post to make the weaker claim that Captain Jacobs of the Southern Cross saw the raid on Savo by the Wainui as an example of the blackbirding that led to Bishop Patteson's death.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]