Saturday, May 20, 2017

Reading 'Eua

[I know that I seem to be relying on the podium to support me, and that any moment I might dive, or rather slide, into the text I'm trying to read, but it was a pleasure to appear at the Auckland Writers Festival yesterday, in a Pacific Tales session that also featured Courtney Sina Meredith, Gina Cole, and Brit Bennett. I was given ten minutes to read from The Stolen Island, and tried the following passages out on the audience, in an attempt to convince them that they ought to take their next holiday on the wonderful island of 'Eua...]

Although many of my students had travelled overseas, as singers and dancers and musicians in ‘Atenisi’s performing arts society, few of them had set foot on ‘Eua. The island is only twenty kilometres from Tongatapu, and can be reached by a three hour ferry ride or an eight minute flight, but it feels like one of the Kingdom of Tonga’s remoter outliers. Where Tongatapu is flat, copiously cultivated, and adorned by scores of villages, ‘Eua is high, bushy, and underpopulated. A reef lies only a few metres off the island; fish as tiny and bright and skittish as butterflies live in its gashes and basins. The reef is so close to shore that ‘Eua has few of the good beaches or deep lagoons that palangi holidaymakers crave.
‘Eua has been neglected by scholars, as well as by tourists. The island’s rainforest is the largest in Tonga, but it has hardly been explored by botanists. The thousands of caves and sinkholes in its highland have yet to interest speleologists, and the ancient forts on its ridges and hilltops have gone unsurveyed and unexcavated.
‘Eua’s people are as unusual as their environment. ‘Eua has been inhabited for thousands of years, and in pre-Christian times acquired its own deities and storied sacred sites. But most of the indigenous ‘Euans lived along the island’s western coast, in villages that looked across the water at Tongatapu; the plateau in the centre of the island and the highland above its eastern coast remained almost uninhabited.
Eight decades after the resettlement of the ‘Atans on ‘Eua, another group of refugees arrived on the island. They had come from Niuafo’ou, the northernmost piece of the Kingdom of Tonga. Niuafo’ou is a volcano whose crater is filled with water that periodically steams and boils. In 1946 the water turned to lava, and poured out of the lake and over Niuafo’ou’s villages and plantations. The island was evacuated, and its people were resettled on ‘Eua, where they found the dialect baffling and the air cold. Some of the Niuans eventually went home, but many stayed on ‘Eua. They built houses and churches on the island’s plateau and named these settlements after the devastated villages of their homeland.
The three peoples of ‘Eua have maintained their separate identities and settlements. Sometimes only a road separates different villages with different dialects and cultures...
In the morning I walked to Kolomaile. I had put on a ta’ovala, the woven mat Tongans wear around their waist for formal occasions, and filled my backpack with folders of photocopied documents. The morning was cool, by Tongan standards, but I was soon sweating.
The road south along ‘Eua’s plateau was lined with villages. Some of them – Esia, Futu, Petani – had the names of the long-lost settlements of Niuafo’ou; others had been established by the descendants of ‘Eua’s first inhabitants, and harked back to ancient sites on Tongatapu. Sometimes different villages sat on either side of the road, their churches and kava clubs confronting one another. Chinese women with blank faces sat behind the metal grilles of squat buildings, selling sim cards and unlabelled packets of locally grown tobacco. The road was made from crushed coral, and the plateau’s winds had turned the trunks and leaves of roadside mango and ironwood trees white.

As I walked, I counted the denominations: Free Wesleyan, Catholic, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Baptist, Church of Tonga, Independent Church of Tonga. Satellite dishes rose as proudly as spires from some of the larger houses in each village. The berms beside the road had been mown and weeded, but burned out cars and utes lay across them, like victims of drone strikes.

Kolomaile was the last village on the road, the southernmost village in Tonga. Most of the houses were rectangles of weatherboard. Mould was painting them green. In front yards elderly women wearing straw hats and black skirts raked leaves and shards of coconut shells toward the road. A skinny suckling pig turned on a spit, then disappeared in a puff of brown smoke.

The village’s store was staffed by a young Tongan woman who looked at me blankly through her metal grille. The store rubbed shoulders with a corrugated iron shack where a dozen men smoked and stood around a pool table. When I stepped inside the shack the game and the conversations went on. Nobody looked at me, and I couldn’t think of anything to say. I stepped back outside and tried to deny my embarrassment by ordering something through the grille of the store. The shelves behind the unsmiling storekeeper were almost empty; I eventually asked for a couple of lollipops that had melted into their wrapping. When I pushed a two pa’anga note through the grille the woman giggled quickly, and pushed the money back at me along with the sticky sweets.

I saw a middle-aged woman in a black dress and massive ta’ovala walking into the village, and hurried towards her. She saw me coming and turned quickly down a side road, scattering some chickens. I turned south, and walked towards the southern end of the village, where the art deco spire of a Mormon church rose out of bush. An elderly woman was walking north, carrying a plastic bag filled with taro in one hand and a plastic bag filled with firewood in the other. I waited for her to turn down a side road, into the heart of the village, then followed. She heard me following and walked faster. I increased my speed. In a minute or two I was walking alongside her, and she had to stop, put down her bags, and acknowledge me.

‘Malo e le lei. Malie. I’m interested in the history of Tonga. I’d like to talk to someone who knows about the history of Kolomaile, of ‘Ata. I have some documents that – ‘
‘Are you looking for the minister?’
‘No. Well, maybe. I want to talanoa about the history of ‘Ata. I have tohi. I have makasini.’
‘Go and talk to Mozzy.’
‘Masalu Halahala. He is senior. His family started ‘Ata. He knows the stories.’
She pointed at a blue and white house a couple of streets away.
‘I was on ‘Eua in 2013. I talked with a young woman, Pesi – ‘
‘Pesi isn’t here. Pesi went to Tongatapu to be with her sister.’
‘Can I help you with those bags?’
‘’Ikai. 'Alua.’

Pigs and dogs followed me to the front door of the little blue and white house. I knocked, waited, knocked again. I heard laughter, and turned to see a couple of women in an adjacent yard staring at me. I waved at them. They laughed again.

Masalu Halahala took several minutes to answer the door. ‘I was sleeping’ he muttered, squinting at his doorstep. He must have been more than sixty years old, but his hair was as thick and black as the bristles of a paintbrush. He was wearing a tattered blue raincoat, which he tried unsuccessfully to zip up. ‘It’s cold’ he said. ‘Too cold for Tonga. Too cold for ‘Eua.’

While I repeated the introduction I’d tried on the elderly woman, Masalu coughed loudly. ‘Pesi is gone’ he said. ‘She lives on Tongatapu now. If you want to talk with me, come back here on Sunday.’
‘Back to this house?’
‘Back to this village. Come to our church. I am Free Wesleyan. You have a  family, eh?’
‘Yes, I have a wife, and two boys, Aneirin and Lui.’
‘Only two, eh?’
‘Well, it’s hard in Nu’u Sila – expensive, these days, to have kids.’
‘You too poor, eh?’
Masalu was chuckling. I thought about the green houses and sagging telephone wires of Kolomaile.
‘It’s different in Auckland. You have to pay a mortgage, and – ‘
‘Big families are good. But you bring your family to church. Kava at nine, service at ten, eat afterwards.’
‘That sounds great. I’ll be there!’
Masalu yawned and shut the door. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Rebuilding the battle

Using the advice of kaumatua Pita Turei, old military manuals and the free labour of wargamers, Paul Janman has been building a model of an ambush and battle that stopped traffic on the Great South Road one hundred and fifty-four years ago, in the first week of the Waikato War. 

The Battle of Martyn's Farm will be displayed as part of our exhibition Ghost South Road, which opens at Manurewa's Nathan Homestead on Thursday night and runs for six weeks. During the day of activities we're holding on June the 10th the battle will be reenacted using dice, as Waikato War historian Vincent O'Malley looks on. 

Apart from the model battlefield, the Ghost South Road exhibition will include scores of photographs, a short film, and a table filled with maps, artefacts and texts. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Ten propositions about the Ghost South Road

The Ghost South Road exhibition opens at Manurewa's Nathan Homestead gallery on Thursday night. Last week Paul Janman and I got together to choose some of the photographs that will adorn the gallery's walls, and to write a statement to join them there. 
When we attempted to state the historiography and political message of the Ghost South Road project our language quickly became dour and doughy, so we abandoned literalism and tried to produce a text that replicates the mixture of disorientation and exhilaration that we  feel when we travel through time and space up and down the road. 
Ten Propositions
1. That the Great South Road is a route through time as well as space.
2. That under the shining tarseal, tonight, at Rangiriri or Martyn's Farm, are the gravel and mud of an imperial road, the bones of ambushed coaches. 
3. That the dead work harder than the living. 
4. That the perpetual present of the past reemerges in surprising ways. Driving south into the Waikato we risk repeating the invasion of Tawhiao's kingdom. Struggling north through rush hour currents at Ellerslie we drive long-dead cattle before us. 
5. That feeding the dead is necessary.*
6. That the allegedly random and apolitical violence that flows through the modern history of the Great South Road as routinely as traffic - the fights in roadside bars and the botched bloody holdups of roadside dairies and pawn shops and the buckled and glassless cars pushed onto kerbs by dutiful cops - is connected causally to the great, meticulously prepared acts of violence that accompanied the building of the road in the 1860s.
7. That certain rituals follow the road's disasters. Ambulance officers feed their vehicles prone bodies. Kingites are buried in mass graves. Fire engines let their flashing lights make psychedelic patterns on the glossy deserted tarseal dancefloor. Gorse burns where fern once rusted. The roads reopens, oblivious traffic flows over the site of another tragedy. 
8. That a huia sings in the puriri that the hihi has already abandoned. The huia is a car horn, the tree a traffic light and the hihi a warning. 
9. That an empire is built and destroyed by the blinking of an eye.**
10. That the road is alive tonight. SUVs and lorries follow ancient migratory paths, out of Auckland and into te ao nui.  The streetlamps are as dead as sentries. Von Tempsky's sword flashes on each window. 
*This proposition is lifted by the great Scots-Cornish poet WS Graham.
**This proposition is pinched from the Finnish scribe Paavo Haavikko. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

'You frighten. You astonish'

Few fans of modernist European art know that much of it was inspired by the Pacific. Like Picasso, the Surrealists were fascinated by the Melanesian and Polynesian sculptures they found in European museums. The Surrealists dreamed of the Pacific but (mostly) never made it there. Now, though, the French-Vanuatu artist Patrice Cujo has brought the spirit of Surrealism into contact with contemporary Melanesia.

I've reviewed Cujo's Ol Map Blong Vanuatu, an epic series of paintings on permanent display in Port Vila, for EyeContact.

Monday, May 08, 2017

What does Venezuela's crisis mean?

[New Zealand's right-wing political commentators have been taking a certain pleasure in the economic collapse and mass protests in Venezuela. Kiwiblog's David Farrar recently asked why left-wing New Zealanders had nothing to say about the crisis of Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian revolution. Here was a comment I put under Farrar's post.

I did a bit of research on Venezuela a decade ago, but haven't been able to follow events in the country closely more recently. I think my original research was hampered by the fact that I don't know Spanish, and by my failure to visit Venezuela. In recent years I've tried always to visit the places I write about.]

Why don’t New Zealand leftists, like supporters of Labour and the Greens, accept that their ideas have been discredited by the terrible performance of the Venezuelan economy over the past couple of years, and join the National Party or Act en masse?
One way to answer this question is to rephrase it, and ask something like: why didn’t Kiwi advocates of free market capitalism change their minds when the Argentinian economy, which had been the subject of an ambitious experiment in neo-liberalism during the ’90s, collapsed at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
The collapse of Argentina back in 2000-2001 was just as spectacular as the disaster in Venezuela today. But I don’t remember the members of the Act Party or the Business Roundtable folding up their tents at the time.
If they had been asked, I would guess that local advocates of neo-liberalism would have denied that events in Argentina had much relevance to the very different society that is New Zealand, and would have pointed to unique features of the Argentinian situation that made neo-liberalism a failure there. They would, if they were clever enough, have said that it is not a good idea to take a set of events in one country and make them into generalisations valid for all times and places.

And the same can be said now, when we see the crisis in Venezuela. 
Both the left and the right have tended to forget about the very particular history of Venezuela when they have analysed the Chavez and Maduro eras. Instead of understanding Venezuela and the rise of Chavez with reference to unique local factors like the country’s lopsided, oil-dependent economy, unusually structured military, and chronically underdeveloped agricultural sector, both left-wing supporters of Chavez and right-wing detractors of the man have tended to talk in very abstract terms about the pros and cons of socialism. Some articles about Venezuela in the Chavez era have spent more time discussing the Soviet Union and Cuba than South America.
If we are to compare Venezuela with another country, then we shouldn’t turn to the Soviet Union, which had a vastly different economy, nor to a New Zealand run by a Labour government, but to Nigeria. 
Like Venezuela, Nigeria has been dubbed a petrostate, because of the almost complete dependence of its economy on oil exports, and the way that its governments have traditionally held power by distributing revenue from oil sales through intricate networks of patronage. And like Venezuela, Nigeria is in crisis at the moment, as the result of the big drop in oil prices.
In both Venezuela and Nigeria, a succession of governments have attempted to deal with the key problem of a petrostate: the problem of how to insulate the economy, and therefore society, from the inevitable fluctuations in oil prices. Some governments, like the regimes that ruled Venezuela during the Punto Fijo era of the ’60s and ’70s, have attempted to protect themselves by pursuing economic nationalist policies like tariff-driven import substitution and state-driven investment programmes. They wanted to build a strong domestic economy insulated from the global market.

Other governments, like those that ruled Venezuela in the late ’80s and the ’90s, have taken the opposite approach, and have privatised, cut tariffs, and tried to create favourable conditions for foreign investment. It’s easy to forget today, but these neo-liberal policies were very unsuccessful in the Venezuela of the late ’80s and ’90s, and the governments that implemented them had to resort, just like Maduro is resorting now, to the use of violence to put down dissent.

The ‘Caracazo’ of 1989, which was prompted by falling oil prices, a shrinking economy, and the removal of state subsidies for transport, was an uprising against neo-liberalism that was put down with machine guns. Fifteen hundred people died during the Caracazo, mostly in the poor suburbs of Caracas.

The point I’d make, then, is that we have to understand the latest crisis in Venezuela with reference not to some abstract concept of socialism or to the very moderately left-wing programme of Labour and the Greens here in New Zealand, but as the latest in a series of disasters caused by the impact of falling oil prices on a petrostate. Maduro has demonstrably failed to protect Venezuela’s economy from the terrible impact of collapsing oil prices; but so, just as demonstrably, did his neo-liberal and Punto Fijo predecessors.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, May 04, 2017

The polar bear of Ramarama

Paul Janman and Ian Powell and I are selecting images and texts for an exhibition called Ghost South Road at Manurewa's Nathan Homestead. The show will open on May the 18th, and on June the 10th there will be a day of activities including panel discussions, a theatrical performance, and a wargamers' reenactment of the battle of Martyn's Farm, which was fought beside the Great South Road on August the 17th, 1863.

Here is a creature that Paul and Ian and I want to include in the Manurewa show. We spotted it a week and a half ago, when we drove to Ramarama and walked, in the company of the kaumatua and historian Pita Turei, along a quiet, gently rising stretch of tarseal called Flay Road, which follows the route of the original, pre-diversion Great South Road across Ramarama's undulating farms and lifestyle blocks.

Pita spotted a grove of ancient totara complicating the edge of a dairy farm, and a stream full of whitewater, and a cliff low enough to scramble up and down without much effort, but high enough to wreck bullock carts, and break the necks of cavalrymen and their horses. Here, he reckoned, was the spot where a taua drawn from several iwi ambushed a British convoy heading north from Pokeno's Queens Redoubt to another barracks at Drury.

We encountered the polar bear on the front lawn of one of Flay Road's series of noiseless cottages. The animal is one of the random yet curiously meaningful objects that we've found up and down the Great South Road, as we've walked and photographed and filmed. It sits waiting to ambush anyone who passes the old battlesite, and is as incongruous as relict totara amongst the Anglicised Ramarama landscape of hedges and cows and oaks.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Another book I will (probably) never write

Every month or so I am seized with an elaborate and unfeasible idea for a book, and e mail friends an absurd precis sketch. Here's a recent example. I love the idea, but I can see, a month after I made my sketch, that logistics and finances make it unattainable, for now at least. Anyone who has more resources and time than me is welcome to pinch the idea and run with it...
After Catastrophe: journeys to the lost islands of the Pacific
Ever since Plato wrote about Atlantis, humans have been fascinated by stories about islands lost to the sea. Atlantis was an imaginary place, but in the South Pacific Plato's vision of watery apocalypse has been a reality. The tectonic plates that lie under the Pacific regularly generate earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes, as they scrape and grind against one another. The region's cyclones bring another sort of violence. 
Over the last thousand years a series of islands have pulled underwater by earthquakes, blown to pieces by volcanoes, and covered by stormy waters. The Pacific's drowned islands survive in the stories passed down by their survivors, and in the logbooks and letters of sailors and missionaries.
Today, when global warming is melting ice and raising seas, and humanity is haunted by the thought of environmental catastrophe, the lost islands of the Pacific have much to teach us.
To understand the drowned islands we must float over water that was once dry land, visit the refuges where the survivors of catastrophes rebuilt their societies, read old manuscripts in colonial archives, and listening to old stories around kava bowls. 
The book is divided into five sections.
The puzzle of Tuanaki
In 1842 two Christian missionaries stopped for a few hours at a heavily wooded coral atoll at the southern end of the Cooks archipelago. The inhabitants of Tuanaki lived in spacious houses segregated by gender, preferred dancing to fighting, and could afford to gift their visitors a boatload of taro and coconuts. Many Cook Islanders knew about Tuanaki, and by the 1840s a few families from the island had resettled on the much larger and more populous Rarotonga. When a group of missionaries went in search of Tuanaki in 1844 and again a decade later, though, they could find no trace of the island. 
Burotu, island of the gods
A series of rocks extend from a small bay on the western coast of Matuku, an isolated piece of Fiji's Lau province. According to oral tradition, the stones are a pathway that leads down to Burotu, a drowned island where demigods and immortal animals live. Stories say that every tree and flower on Burotu is red, a colour associated, in Fiji and many Pacific cultures, with wealth and power. The island is supposed to rise from the sea occasionally and then disappear again, after a few hours or minutes. In 2003 it was spotted by a schoolteacher and a group of his students. The traditional religions of Tonga and Samoa named Pulotu as the place where chiefs' souls went after their bodies died. Linguists have identified Pulotu with Burotu, and geologists have identified a small island just beneath the waters east of Matuku. 
Fragments of Kuwae
Kuwae was a huge, high island at the centre of the archipelago nowadays known as Vanuatu. Its people spoke dozens of languages, and grew kava that attracted buyers from the distant Polynesian society of Tonga. In 1453, though, Kuwae exploded. Ash and smoke filled the sky, ruining harvests across the northern hemisphere and hastening the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. The disaster of 1453 turned Kuwae into a collection of small, blackened islands separated by a boiling sea. Kuwae's people fled from the eruption in boats, but in only six years the first of them had returned. A young Kuwae chief named Roi Mata soon took control of the devastated fragments of his homeland, and then conquered more land in the south of Vanuatu. Roi Mata was an innovator. He blended Melanesian and Polynesian culture, reorganised the lives of his subjects, and stabilised a society traumatised by the eruption of 1453.
Taporapora and the great dispersal
Today Taporapora is the name of a sandbar that lies a few hundred metres from a tiny bach village at the end of a peninsula in the Kaipara harbour. But many hundreds of years ago, when humans were establishing themselves on Aotearoa, Taporapora was the name of an island that boasted a school of traditional learning and a plantation of aute, the plant Polynesians beat into tapa. Surrounded by the warm Kaipara, the island was like a fragment of the tropical region that the settlers of Aotearoa had left behind. But war soon troubled Taporapora, and a huge storm dispersed its people to many parts of Aotearoa. Today farmers and archaeologists find tapa beaters in the muddy creeks that run into the Kaipara, and old stories about the island are still told on the region's marae. 
Nuku'alofa's sinking archipelago
Tonga's capital and only city is separated from the open ocean by a maze of reefs and atolls. The atolls have a long history. Medieval Tongan poets paid tribute to their beauty, and the masons who raised pyramids on the graves of Tonga's kings cut slabs of beachrock from their shores. James Cook cruised amongst them, and the famously brutal Tongan warlord Finau Ulakalala stopped at a pagan temple on the island of Pangaimotu to talk with his gods via a delirious shaman-priest. The people of 'Eue'iki, the largest of the atolls, made an alliance with sharks, and held a ceremony where they sang to attract the creatures and then hung garlands of flowers around their necks. Today, though, the atolls in Nuku'alofa harbour are sinking and shrinking. Some have already disappeared, sending their old inhabitants to the suburbs of Nuku'alofa.