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.

Saturday, May 02, 2020


Along Awhitu's coast, south of the Manukau, the sea has eaten millions of tonnes of clay, of cliff. The red soil ends up on the north side of the harbour, where a new land as flat & perfect as a Dutch polder now extends from the Waitakeres. Nature is a relentless, mad engineer.

At the end of the peninsula a signboard encourages sightseers to hallucinate the Orpheus, the imperial troop ship wrecked by a taniwha-shaped sandbar & Kingitanga waves in 1863. The board's history lesson has been annotated, amended. 

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Why build a fort?

'Ata is a tiny, remote island with virtually no reef and almost impossibly sheer cliffs. Why, then, would its inhabitants build a fort? Archaeologist David Burley is one of the few living humans to have visited 'Ata. In an article for the Matangi Tonga website, he cites my book The Stolen Island, & suggests it might hold an answer to the puzzle of the fort.

'Ata was evacuated after a raid by NZ & Tasmanian slavers in 1863. Its people had lived in a village called Kolomaile, in the island's tiny interior plateau. Burley excavated their pottery & adzes, but he was puzzled by the fort known as Kolomaile Kolota, which was thirty metres by thirty metres in size, and took up precious land that could have been used for gardens or fale.

Burley turns to an 1854 article by anti-imperialist journalist Charles St Julian, which I quoted in The Stolen Island. After describing how Wesleyan war king Tupou I had unified Tonga, St Julian called 'Ata a last redoubt of heathenism. St Julian said the island's religion was an irritant for Tupou I, & predicted the king would try to 'convert' its people.

By the time 'Ata was raided & depopulated in 1863, the island boasted a church. John Thomas, the stern missionary who converted Tupou I in the '20s, even visited the place to hold a service. Did Tupou I take 'Ata by force, & did the inhabitants build a fort to resist him?

In the late medieval era Tonga was the centre of a maritime empire. By the time Tupou I took power, though, decades of civil war had fragmented the realm. Peter Suren, who has studied the remote northern island of Niuafo'ou, believes it was reconquered by Tupou I in the 1850s. In the 1860s & early '70s Tupou's cousin Ma'afu made a determined & almost successful attempt to take Fiji for Tonga.

Tupou I is still seen as a saint by Tonga's Wesleyan ruling class, & Burley has suggested rather than stated outright that he conquered 'Ata. But the idea doesn't seem far fetched. In 2013 the Tongan historian Taniela Vao gave me a memorable tour of his village of Pea, a pagan stronghold that Tupou I besieged & conquered in 1852. Taniela left me in no doubt about the Wesleyan king's determination, & about the ferocity of his army.

Burley's article is one of a series he's been writing for Matangi Tonga about archaeology and the Friendly Islands. Each of his pieces makes fascinating reading. It is a pleasure to see an archaeologist, whose academic work necessarily uses esoteric language & arcane diagrams, writing for a popular audience.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Dream during a plague

I stand hungrily on a locked down Ponsonby Rd. I notice a sign, a flashing miracle: it says CAFE OPEN. I go inside, & a smiling Jacques Derrida hands me a pink laminated card. His cafe has no kitchen, he says, but I can satisfy my hunger with the words of his menu.

Feeding the monster

This photo reminds me of the story of Athens assembling its young & sending them to be devoured by a monstrous minotaur. Instead of a minotaur, we sacrifice our kids to wars. One of the youths here already wears a uniform. I'm training my boys to scorn the Anzac death cult.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Notes during a plague


In 1984 cops blocked traffic in central Auckland so Bruno Lawrence could wander through The Quiet Earth. Deserted by the rest of humanity, trashing churches & shops, Lawrence was a Nietzschean hero, lonely & exultant. Today Auckland is quiet again. Where are you, Bruno?


Locked down Auckland has lost its vulgarity, & become almost bucolic. The city's roads have the melancholy silence, the sense of impotent expectation, of Mahurangi estuary at low tide. Parked cars are like dinghies, waiting on the cracked mud-tar for a flow that never comes.


A silence has invaded Auckland. It is not the cold, clean silence of mountains, not the windy silence of a bleak beach. It is the silence of Ohura, Tokomaru, Benneydale: of towns half-abandoned, of ruined abbatoirs & shops with whitewashed windows. It is the sound of the future.


Each evening the sky builds slopes of snow, sandy atolls, lights them pink or violet, adds flocks of ducks & gulls, lets its screen slowly blacken. Aucklanders' eyes have always been elsewhere - on lines of traffic, on tables of drinks. Now, at last, the sky has the audience it deserves.


About 1750 northern invaders cornered Kiwi Tamaki's Waiohua army at Titirangi beach. So many men died that the shellfish beds were poisoned. The beach was declared tapu, abandoned for years. Yesterday I found it empty again. A squall from the Manukau stank of seaweed.


Nabokov celebrated the empty highways of late night America, comparing them to glossy black dance floors. With cars mostly banished, we can appreciate the loveliness of NZ's streets. The lights of locked shops throw psychedelic patterns on Auckland's deserted dance floors.


Covid-19 has cleansed the skies. Grounded airbuses & boeings sit in hangars or on runways, as grand & pathetic as fossilised dinosaurs in museum pavilions. Only the odd cropduster or chopper still flies. A woman who grew up in the far north long ago told me that she was able to stand under the sky & hear the sighing, whistling sound made by souls on their way to Cape Reinga, to Hawai'iki. Perhaps that sound can be heard again, now that the loud machines of the living have been banished from the air.


Even when there was no traffic in sight, Chris Marker still waited out the red signal at crossing lights. He said he wanted to honour the passing ghosts of broken cars. Now I look at Auckland's empty roads & imagine the totalled Fords & Datsuns of my childhood, speeding invisibly.

Monday, April 06, 2020

What lockdown?

One New Zealand airport has been unaffected by coronavirus. Its liquid runway is busy with thousands of vehicles: they arrive & leave untroubled by passport officers, health officials. I've written about this airport for EyeContact.