Sunday, June 21, 2020

Suddenly his mind went blank

Cities smoke, statues collapse, & the oranges in our yard swell & brighten. The indifference of nature is both frightening & consoling. The kids try to knock the oranges out of the tree with sticks. I want to watch them rot & fall of their own accord.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Listen to the bishop

As a few articles in the media show, I've been busy arguing that Akaroa's Bully Hayes restaurant and Bar should change its name, and was pleased to find today that the establishment's owner, Wayne Jones, now agrees with me. Jones has rethought the name, and has issued a gracious and generous statement. 

I talked about the issue today on Radio New Zealand. 

I've had a few angry messages from conservative New Zealanders who seem to believe that the Pacific slave trade is a mirage created in recent years by 'woke academics'. I don't think the phrase 'woke academic' fits John Coleridge Patteson, the first Anglican bishop of Melanesia & the William Wilberforce of the Pacific. Patteson died fighting the slave trade.
Patteson ran the Melanesian mission in Auckland & later Norfolk, where young men were trained in Christianity & various trades. In the 1860s he began hearing terrible stories from them, of 'catch catch boats' & stolen villages. Patteson began to write & speak against the slavers.

Thanks to the Anglican church's Project Canterbury, we can now access some of Patteson's denunciations of slavery. They make sad reading, with their accounts of canoes run down & their passengers seized, & islanders made to sign contracts they could not read.

Patteson travelled through the Pacific collecting stories of slave raids. Imperial administrators and some his superiors in the Anglican church began to resent his detailed and withering reports.
Patteson was a brilliant linguist, who eventually learned about a dozen Melanesian languages. He became steadily more sympathetic towards the region's indigenous cultures, & argued against missionaries' attempts to impose Western dress & manners on them.
In 1870 Patteson was recovering in Auckland from exhaustion when he realised that a schooner called the Lulu, a boat funded by Auckland's business elite, had arrived with 27 ni-Vanuatu slaves. Patteson began to campaign against the introduction of slavery to NZ.
Slavers hated Patteson, but knew he was popular on many islands. They began to dress up as him, so that they could lure victims aboard their boats. These masquerades & their continuing violent raids may well have led to Patteson's death.
In 1871 Patteson landed alone on Nukapu Island, in the far southeast of the Solomons. He was slain. Nukapu had recently been raided by slavers. Huge memorial meetings were held for Patteson throughout NZ; resolutions against Pacific slavery were passed.
Britain responded to Patteson's death by sending the HMS Rosario to Nukapu, via Auckland, where its crew played locals in the first international rugby game in NZ's history. The HMS Rosario shelled Nukapu, & armed men stormed the tiny atoll. Dozens of islanders died.
Patteson is revered as a martyr today by many Melanesian Anglicans. For anyone interested in learning about the Pacific slave trade, biographies of Patteson & his own writings are invaluable. It is sad that, nearly 150 years after his death, some still don't hear his message.

Monday, June 08, 2020

Akaroa's slaver

In the US & UK monuments celebrating slavery are coming down. The people of Bristol have thrown the statue of their slaver Coulston into the sea. Here in NZ we have a popular restaurant & bar whose name is a tribute to the most notorious of all the Pacific's slave traders.
Akaroa's Bully Hayes Restaurant & Bar takes its name from the American slaver, sadist & pedophile who preyed on the islands of the Pacific for years, from bases in Apia & the Marshall Islands. Hayes stole islanders & sold them to the plantations of Tahiti, Fiji, & Queensland.
Hayes raped many of the girls & young women he abducted. In his meticulous book The White Pacific, African American scholar Gerald Horne shows that the slaver was protected by high-placed relatives in Washington DC.
The website of the Bully Hayes Restaurant & Bar includes a short account of Hayes' 'colourful' career. Hayes' exploits during the Otago gold rush are noted, but not the slave raids that are still remembered with sorrow on islands across the Pacific.
I ran into Hayes & the restaurant that honours him when I was researching my book The Stolen Island. I was amazed that anyone imagined Hayes a romantic, even admirable figure. Now would be a good time for the restaurant to rethink its moniker.
Here's the website for the restaurant & bar. Here's their facebook page. I imagine that many New Zealanders would feel reluctant to eat and drink at the place, if they knew that its name celebrated pedophilia and slavery.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

The ruin

We spent the long weekend with my brother-in-law, who has resettled in the Kaipara. We watched his old American neighbourhood burn on TV, then walked into the hills to look for kaka. A black fungus covered the trunks and branches of manuka and kanuka, so that they resembled victims of forest fires.
On the way home we stopped at Warkworth's cement factory. New Zealand's factories are its ruined abbeys. They commemorate our Sutchian era of economic nationalism, an era of indigenous car plants and tariffed electronic, an era ended by neo-liberal politicians as ruthless as Henry VIII. Like the mutilated monasteries of England and Wales, Warkworth's factory is beautiful because it represents defeat.

The apocalypse does not belong to science fiction. It is an ancient genre, present in the foundations of English literature. A medieval Briton wrote 'The Ruin', in which he described the wrecked Roman city of Bath as the work of giants who had suffered pyrde (fate). 'The Ruin' survives in a fire-damaged manuscript. I enter the poem at Warkworth's cement works.             

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Cult of the wild

Auckland museum's hosting the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. Its images are big, glossy, dramatic, & alienating. They depict nature as sublime & wild: as something that can either be admired passively or else contaminated by humans. I longed to see a brambled culvert, a tree hut, a hedgerow with a letter box: some sign that humans & the natural world existed in the same universe.
The notion of nature as wilderness was mercilessly deconstructed by the late great NZ naturalist Geoff Park. Park noted that the idea of preserving pristine wilderness away from humans only developed in Europe during the Industrial Revolution, when the filth of factories and cities destroyed swathes of countryside. In other times and places, humans had assumed they could live together with the natural world, and find ways to use it without destroying it. Park showed many of NZ's nature reserves were established through the expulsion of Maori from land they had sustainably used for centuries. By depicting nature as something far away and completely inhuman, the photographers on show at Auckland museum perpetuate the 19th century ideology Park criticised.
And it isn't just the show's ideology that is outdated. The photographers have more in common with 19th century painters of sublime landscapes, like Caspar David Friedrich, than they do with the artists of the 21st century. They seem completely innocent of all the innovations in modern visual art over the past century. It is as though Arbus and Strand and Eggleston never existed.
I turned away from these deep and meaningless images, & revisited the museum's Pacific galleries, whose artefacts show how humans can integrate rather than alienate themselves from nature.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The uses of culture

Moment 'Lord of the Flies' castaway returned to island 50 years ...

The world is buzzing over the story of the Tongan teens wrecked on 'Ata Island in the mid-'60s. I've written for Newsroom about the fascination that the castaway has cast for many Westerners, and the reasons Tongans are able to survive spells on desert islands.

My original piece was a rambling blues jam; the adroit Steve Braunias has edited it into a pop song. But nuances have been lost. In the Newsroom text I talk about how Tongan castaways of the '60s were sustained by their willingness to obey leaders, their religiosity, their extreme collectivism, & their habit of sharing. But the relentlessly social & hierarchical nature of Tongan culture can exact a price.

In a passage cut by Newsroom, I talked about the mental illness known to Tongans as 'avanga, which makes sufferers flee to isolated places, like the bush or the seashore, & neglect family duties. The educationalist & dissident Futa Helu was one of the first to study 'avanga.

Helu noted that many of those struck down by 'avanga were young women, & argued that the disease was their subconscious response to the repression of sexuality & individuality. Overburdened by society, oppressed by the Tongan superego, 'avanga sufferers broke free.

To read a Tongan account of the teens on 'Ata & their legacy, check out this piece at The Spinoff.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

An 'Atan utopia?

Rutger Bregman has written about the adventures of some young castaways on the Tongan island of 'Ata for the Guardian. In the mid-sixties the group of teenagers stole a boat from Nuku'alofa harbour, got caught in a storm, and were wrecked at the bottom of 'Ata's cliffs. They survived for many months before a fisherman rescued them.
The Guardian has unhelpfully illustrated Bregman's article with a photo of the wrong island. There are two 'Atas in Tonga: one is a cosy atoll near Nuku'alofa, the other is the remote & precipitous place where the castaways ended up.
Bregman is not the first person to write about the castaways. Their story was first told by Keith Willey in his book Naked Island, which was published half a century ago. In 2015 the Spanish adventurer Alvaro Docastaway visited 'Ata along with one of the castaways, who was by then in his sixties. I wrote about their uncomfortable time on the island in a chapter of my book The Stolen Island.
As Bregman notes, the castaways of the 1960s were able to survive on 'Ata because of the gardens and chickens that the island's ancient Tongan population had established. In the early 1860s, about 300 people lived on 'Ata. In 1863 a slave ship from New Zealand took away half the island's population; the rest were soon evacuated to more secure parts of Tonga by King Tupou I.
The castaways worked together to develop the old gardens. They also built themselves fale, held church services, and even improvised a sort of outdoors gymnasium. They were healthy and relatively happy when rescue came.
Bregman's article isn't just an exercise in history. He wants to argue that the castaways on 'Ata show us a different model of human behaviour than dystopian adventure stories like Lord of the Flies. Humans, he thinks, are naturally inclined to cooperate rather than clash.
There's another Tongan castaway story that could be used to bolster Bregman's case. Just a few years before the castaways crashed on 'Ata, a crew of Tongan adults were wrecked on Minerva Reef, another obscure fragment of land between Tonga & NZ. They not only survived for months on the reef's moonscape, but built a new vaka & sailed to Fiji. Olaf Ruhen told their story in a thrilling book.
Bregman's argument about the human potential for cooperation is eloquent & important. But I think there may be a danger of too quickly abstracting the stories of the castaways on 'Ata & Minerva from their cultural context.
On both 'Ata & Minerva, a very Tongan religiosity & respect for hierarchy helped cohere groups of castaways. Prayer sessions & deference to a leader were crucial. Bregman is mistaken if he feels that the castaways established a democracy.
And there is another Tongan 'castaway' story with much less pleasant details. The story reads, in fact, like Lord of the Flies. In 1946 the volcanic island of Niuafo'ou, in the extreme north of Tonga, exploded. Tonga's government sent a ship, & ordered islanders to evacuate their home. Almost all the Niuafo'ouans left; a couple of dozen, though, hid in the bush.
In the classic work of oral history they called The Fire Has Jumped, Wendy Pond & Garth Rogers brought together stories from the evacuation of Niuafo'ou. They also let some of the renegades who stayed on the island talk.
Pond & Rogers showed that the stay-behind Nouafo'ouans threw off many of the customs of Tonga. They discarded their clothes, for example, & they went freely onto the lands of the island's absent noble. Palenapa Lavelua was a 'castaway' Niuafo'ouan & a key source for Pond & Rogers. He presented the years after 1946 as a time of happy hedonism. But a later researcher, Tom Riddle, learned some unhappy facts from Lavelua.
Lavelua had been forcibly removed from Niuafo'ou some time in the late '40s or early '50s. Resettled in the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa, he spent his days shivering under a blanket, complaining about the Arctic weather of the kingdom's south. Lavelua was allowed to return in '58.
Tom Riddle interviewed Lavelua at length during a stint in Tonga's north. The elderly Lavelua offered Riddle a very different story about Niuafo'ou's stay-behinds. The island had become lawless; morality had collapsed; the sole female stay-behind had been raped repeatedly.
The story Lavelua offered is not rare in human history. There have been at least as many cases of isolated groups of humans behaving barbarously, as they did on Niuafo'ou, as there have been cases of comradeship & courage of the sort that sustained the 'Atan teens.
It seems to me that the most valuable aspect of Pacific history is not the groups of castaways who have lived without conflict for a few months or years, but the ways in which diverse societies have tried to manage conflict in fragile environments. Instead of looking for the emergence of some chthonic goodness in tiny utopian communities of castaways, we should examine the social institutions that Pacific peoples have built up over centuries to deal with the problems - scarcity, aggression, conflict, competition, boredom - that seem to afflict every human society.
James Flexner is an anarchist archaeologist who has written about the mechanisms for handling conflict in Melanesia. His accounts of 'food fighting' in southern Vanuatu, where competitive feasting replaces warfare, are fascinating. Ralph Regenvanu is a Pacific anthropologist & a politician who has studied & tried to extend traditional peace-making & resource-sharing practices. I think the work of Flexner and Regenvanu and similar scholars offer more insights into the Pacific and more political lessons than Bregman's article. Nevertheless, it is exciting to see 'Ata in the spotlight of a major international newspaper.