Dargaville's media should honour the town's intellectuals, not its resident crackpot
An Open Letter to Rose Stirling of the Dargaville and District News
Kia ora Rose,
I was interested to see the article called 'Maori weren't first says book' which you published in the Dargaville and District News on the 10th of November. Your article seems to be based upon an interview with Noel Hilliam, a man you incorrectly describe as an 'historian and marine archaeologist'.
You report Hilliam's claim that he has a new book on the way which will prove that Greeks and three other peoples arrived in New Zealand thousands of years before the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori. Hilliam claims that his book is about to be published, but does not disclose the publisher, claims that he has co-authored it with three people, but will not give the identity of his co-authors, and claims that his tome will contain 'real earth-shattering evidence' about New Zealand prehistory, but provides no details of this evidence.
You report Hilliam as saying that he has written his book because he has 'decided to speak out' after for a long time keeping quiet about New Zealand's past.
The reality is that Noel Hilliam has been 'speaking out' for decades now. Unworried by the fact that he has no qualifications in any relevant subject, this self-declared expert on history, archaeology, genetics, marine biology, and half a dozen other subjects has claimed again and again, year after year, in phone calls and e mails to politicians, in letters to the media, and in postings on obscure websites, to have made dramatic discoveries about the past.
Over the years Hilliam has claimed to have discovered the ruins of Viking villages in Waipoua forest, the remains of Spanish ships in the sands of Pouto, the skeletons of an ancient tribe of white people in the caves of the Kaipara, and a submarine in the waters off Northland. Again and again, Hilliam has insisted that he has evidence that the story of New Zealand's past must be rewritten. Again and again, he has failed to provide a skerrick of evidence for his alleged discoveries.
In recent years Hilliam has made a series of particularly silly claims which have fallen flat and earned him widespread ridicule. In 2007 Hilliam claimed that a group of high-ranking Nazis had brought a submarine to Northland in the last days of World War Two. Hilliam told the media that the sub had been wrecked off the western coast of Northland, and that it contained gold. He also claimed to be in contact with descendants of Germans who had made it off the craft and settled in the north. Hilliam promised to reveal the location of the mysterious U boat, but then went back on his promise. He also failed to reveal the identities of the descendants of the Northland Nazis. Not surprisingly, he was roundly mocked for these failures.
Near the end of last year a controversy occurred over a Maori carving Hilliam had acquired and then displayed in a misleading manner inside Dargaville Maritime Museum. The carving was easily identifiable as a pou, or gate post, carved in an archaic Maori style common in the far north of New Zealand. Hilliam, though, displayed the pou alongside a text which claimed that it was an artefact of a mysterious ancient people known as the 'Waitaha nation'.
Hilliam had conducted a ceremony to 'honour' the pou with a man named Patrick Ruka, who claims to be a leader of the so-called 'Universal Peace Nation of Waitaha'. According to Ruka, the 'Nation of Waitaha' came to New Zealand in ancient times, and its members possess supernatural powers. Ruka claims that his ancestors lived in ancient Egypt before coming to these islands, and that they came to ancient Egypt from Outer Space. For reasons which you will surely grasp, Ruka's claims are not taken seriously by scholars of history.
The Te Uri o Hau iwi of the northern Kaipara had complained about Hilliam's misappropriation of their pou, and when Hilliam's misrepresentation of the object reached the national media Dargaville's museum received a stream of complaints from archaeologists, scholars of Maoritanga, writers and other angry Kiwis. Anger was intensified when the senior New Zealand lawyer David Williams revealed that Hilliam had a history of breaking into and stealing from Maori burial caves in the Kaipara region. Dargaville's museum quickly recognised the absurdity of Hilliam's ideas, junked the caption he had provided for the pou, and issued a statement distancing itself from him.
Hilliam made a fool of himself again last March, when he falsely claimed to have received the prestigious Senior New Zealander of the Year Award. A publication called Dargaville Online unwisely printed Hilliam's claim as fact, and was soon informed of its error by the organisers of the Senior of the Year competition, who had given their prize for 2010 to the South Island philanthropist Sir Eion Edgar. Dargaville Online was forced to print an embarrassing retraction, and Hilliam's reputation as a fantasist was yet again boosted.
Hilliam is fond of saying that his 'discoveries' about the past are not taken seriously because there is a vast and sinister conspiracy working against him. He believes that historians, archaeologists, Department of Conservation staff, and politicians all conspire to hide the 'truth' of his 'findings' from the New Zealand public.
It is Hilliam, though, who seems to be driven by a strong ideological agenda, and to be part of a political conspiracy. Hilliam has associated for some years with a small right-wing organisation called the One New Zealand Foundation. The One New Zealand Foundation apparently believes that white people in this country are under threat from Maori, and calls for the state to tear up the Treaty of Waitangi, stop funding the Maori language and other aspects of Maori culture, and undo the Treaty settlements of recent decades. Hilliam and many other supporters of the One New Zealand Foundation and similar groups mistakenly believe that if only they could 'prove' that some other people beat Maori to New Zealand, then the Treaty of Waitangi would be invalidated.
Contrary to what Hilliam says, there is no 'politically correct' conspiracy to repress the truth about New Zealand's history. Historians, archaeologists, and others who study the past of our country are constantly finding new evidence, and often disagree about the meaning of that evidence. Our scholarly journals and the seminars at our universities and museums are places of continual debate.
If scholars do not agree with Hilliam's claims that the Greeks or the Vikings or the Celts or the Spaniards got to New Zealand thousands of years ago, it is because Hilliam has no evidence for his claims. None of the pottery shards or ancient coins or ancient skeletons which Greeks or Vikings might be expected to leave behind have been found. The analysis of pollen seeds shows that large-scale forest clearance, which is a key indicator of human settlement, did not occur in these islands until less than a thousand years ago. DNA tests have shown that Maori never interbred with any European people in prehistoric times.
In your article, Hilliam talks about some bones he found, or rather stole, and how an unnamed researcher from an unnamed university was supposedly forced to quit after discovering these bones were three thousand years old. Hilliam has made this claim many times over the years, and never backed it up with facts and names. It deserves to be taken as seriously as his talk about a Nazi sub off the coast of Northland, or his boasts about receiving the Senior of the Year Award.
It is a pity that Noel Hilliam has never learnt how to do historical research and never chosen to participate in the continual scholarly debates about the past which are such a feature of intellectual life in this country. Hilliam has preferred to spend his life making one ridiculous claim after another, and as a result he has developed a reputation as a crank.
The story of Noel Hilliam is a sad one, but what is sadder is the damage his fantasies and obsessions have done to Dargaville's reputation. Dargaville is a wonderful town with a fascinating multicultural history, and it has produced a series of talented sons and daughters who have made their mark on New Zealand life. But the antics of Hilliam, and the tendency of some journalists to take those antics seriously, have begun to earn Dargaville a reputation for wackiness and insularity. Your paper contributes to this problem when it reports Hilliam's claims uncritically. At the very least, your article ought to have noted Hilliam's lack of any qualifications, his lack of any support from serious scholars, the series of false claims he has made over the years, the unease his grave-robbing and misappropriation of taonga have caused amongst Maori, and his ties to the One New Zealand Foundation.
It would better still, I think, for you to ignore Hilliam altogether, and to focus instead on some of the genuine intellectuals that Dargaville has produced over the years.
Next Wednesday night a book of previously-unpublished work by Kendrick Smithyman, a proud son of Dargaville and one of the greatest thinkers of twentieth-century New Zealand, will be launched at the University of Auckland's Old Government House. A poet, scholar of literature, educationalist, social critic, historian, and keen amateur archaeologist and ornithologist, Smithyman grew up in Te Kopuru, on the edge of Dargaville, and always regarded the northern Kaipara as his home. The many poems he set in the area helped make him one of this country's most respected writers.
I had the privilege of editing, annotating, and introducing the book of Smithyman's lost writings I have called Private Bestiary: selected unpublished poems 1944-1993, and the experience helped give me an appreciation of the best qualities of Dargaville and of the region around the town.
I challenge the Dargaville and District News to stop giving oxygen to a sad crackpot like Noel Hilliam, and instead come to next Wednesday's launch and support a real Dargavillean intellectual.