Gavin Menzies at Old Government House: should Auckland Uni be hosting an exhibition inspired by a racist crank?
Unfortunately, a new exhibition at Old Government House makes a mockery of the building's history as a venue for serious scholarship and quality art. Entitled A Stirring Myth of Conspiracy, the exhibition consists of a series of paintings and sculptures inspired by the theories of Gavin Menzies, a retired British naval captain who has in recent years won notoreity for claiming that fifteenth century Chinese sailors visited New Zealand and many of the other islands of the Pacific, as well as places as far afield as Iceland, the Azores, and Antarctica.
In their contributions to the catalogue for A Stirring Myth of Conspiracy, painter Pauline Brill and sculptor John Young repeatedly praise Gavin Menzies. Young claims that Menzies' ideas have 'power and strength', and Brill predicts that artefacts from Chinese voyages to New Zealand and other lands will 'emerge in due course'. Young has sculpted impressions of objects associated with Menzies' theories, like the 'Tamil bell' found in the interior of New Zealand in the nineteenth century. Brill has painted a Chinese junk sailing in New Zealand waters. Neither Brill nor Young has studied history or any comparable discipline at postgraduate level.
Not everyone shares Brill and Young's admiration for Gavin Menzies. In his books and in his public appearances, Menzies has made a string of claims about Pacific history which have offended many Polynesians. In 2006, for instance, Menzies visited New Zealand and gave a public lecture in which he claimed that 'Maori people don't exist'. According to Menzies, Maori are not a Polynesian people who reached New Zealand in waka, but rather the offspring of a group of Melanesian slaves who took over the Chinese junk that had been transporting them and raped a group of Chinese concubines who had also been travelling on the junk. When Maori members of his audience challenged his claims, Menzies told them that Maori oral history was 'just fantasy' and that New Zealand historians like Michael King 'don't understand history'. Menzies has also caused offence in Niue by claiming that the people of that nation are the descendants of Chinese, and that the Niuean and Chinese languages are 'practically one and the same'.
Menzies is deeply unpopular amongst academics who study the history of China and the cultures of the Pacific. Though Menzies' books have sold well, he has not received a single positive review in a refereed academic journal. Many reviewers have complained that Menzies deliberately distorts the historical record and the work of serious scholars in order to make his claims appear more credible than they are. The historian George Wade is taking legal action to try to get Menzies' volumes moved from the 'Non-fiction' to the 'Fiction' sections of British bookstores. A large number of scholars have banded together to set up the 1421exposed.com website, which is dedicated to countering Menzies' falsehoods.
It is easy to understand the anger that Menzies has caused amongst many people. The man has no training in history or any other academic discipline, and he does not understand a word of the Chinese language, yet he claims to know better than all the world's historians and Sinologists combined. Menzies' first book has the portentous title 1421: the Year China Discovered the World, yet it was written as a novel, and only recategorised as 'history' on the advice of its publishers. Menzies' work is characterised by amateurish blunders and clumsy attempts to distort the work of genuine scholars of Chinese and Pacific history. In 1421, for instance, Menzies reproduces a map which he claims was produced by Chinese sailors in the fifteenth century, and which includes locations like New Zealand and Antarctica. But the modern Chinese script used in the map was not created until after Mao's Communists came to power, in the middle of the twentieth century. Menzies' distortion of the work of serious researchers is exemplified by his references to the DNA tests undertaken in recent decades to help determine the origins of the Polynesian peoples. Tests by dozens of academics have confirmed the long-held view that the ancestors of the Polynesians entered the Pacific from the coast of southeast Asia four or five thousand years ago. In both his books and his speeches, Menzies tries to argue that DNA tests have proven his theory correct, because they show a distant connection between Polynesians and certain Asian peoples. But Menzies claims that the Polynesians are descended from fifteenth century Chinese, not peoples who lived on the coastal fringe of southeast Asia many thousands of years ago. Menzies is guilty of grossly distorting the findings of real scholars in an effort to give his ideas some sort of credibility.
In his desperation to prop up his strange interpretation of history, Menzies has turned to some very unpleasant ideas. One of the worst aspects of 1421 is Menzies' attempt to argue that the Maori legends of a patu paiarahere, or fairy folk, are actually based on memories of a light-skinned pre-Maori people. This claim was first made in the 1970s by Kerry Bolton, one of New Zealand's best-known neo-Nazis and the originator of the idea that a pale-skinned people occupied New Zealand before being dispossessed by Maori. Bolton has propagated the idea of a 'white tangata whenua' in a stream of books and articles, and it has been picked up by a new generation of far right activists, the best-known of whom is Martin Doutre, the author of Ancient Celtic New Zealand and a leader of the anti-Maori One New Zealand Foundation. For racists like Bolton and Doutre, the existence of a pale skinned pre-Maori people means that whites are the rightful owners of this country, and that documents like the Treaty of Waitangi are null and void.
Gavin Menzies takes the idea that the patu paiarehe were a light-skinned pre-Maori people and adapts it by claiming that the 'fairy folk' were in fact Chinese. In a passage which Pauline Brill and John Young quote in the catalogue for their exhibition, Menzies claims that:
They [the patupaiarehe] wore white garments and also differed from Maoris in having no tattoos and by carrying children in their arms. Some married Maori women. I believe this local legend to be true and the first non-Maori settlers in New Zealand were not European but Chinese. The word Patu paiarehe has another meaning, namely fairies.
In reality, the stories of patu paiarehe have always been regarded by Maori as legends, like stories of taniwha, and not as accounts of a distinct group of real people. In a criticism of the misuse of the patu paiarehe myth written last year, the distinguished Kai Tahu writer Keri Hulme pointed out that fair-skinned individuals were sometimes born into pre-colonisation Maori groups, but that they 'were part of us, Maori, normal people...[though] rare'. Hulme condemned the appropriation of Maori oral tradition by misinformed racists as 'abhorrent'.
The past is an almost infinitely complex phenomenon, and the ways that we understand it are continually changing. Disciplines like history and archaeology are exceptionally disputatious, as scholars test different interpretations against the evidence. Universities should be places where scholars come together to argue with and learn from one another. Certainly, no university should ever enforce a particular 'line' on the interpretation of history. Equally, though, universities should be bastions of rational thought and scholarly standards. Gavin Menzies' complete lack of understanding of scholarly method, his contempt for historical fact, and his destructive and libellous use of the work of serious scholars has earned him the contempt of historians and Sinologists around the world. It is wrong for the University of Auckland to host an exhibition and publish an exhibition catalogue which celebrate Menzies' racist pseudo-scholarship.
It might be argued that bad ideas can inspire good art, and that A Stirring Myth of Conspiracy might still have aesthetic value even if the theories of Gavin Menzies are worthless. But the exhibition fails on an artistic as well as intellectual level. Pauline Brill's paintings are very clumsy attempts at traditional portraits of sailing ships that show no awareness of any art movement of the last hundred years. Young's sculptures resemble the sloppily joined trinkets that are offered to tourists at second-rate market stalls. Neither Brill nor Young has any profile in the Auckland arts community. The fact that they are exhibiting at Old Government House seems to have more to do with the fact that they sit on the House's Gallery Committee than anything else. Even if the ideas that inspired it were wholly inoffensive, A Stirring Myth of Conspiracy would still be an embarrassment to the University of Auckland.