New Zealanders were surprised as well as upset by the recent deaths of eleven balloonists in the Wairarapa. We have gotten used to thinking about ballooning as a safe, even restful pursuit. In recent decades ballooning companies have insinuated their way into our tourism industry, and in regions like the Wairarapa and the Waikato balloon-themed festivals draw tens of thousands of visitors annually. With their silent flight and prettily patterned colours, balloons seem to augment rather than damage the scenic qualities of our countryside.
But ballooning has not always been seen, either in New Zealand or overseas, as a bucolic pastime. Like the train and the iron smelt, the balloon was once a symbol of the industrial revolution and of modernity. The balloon was invented in pre-revolutionary France, but it became famous in the nineteenth century. Meteorologists and physicists sent unmanned balloons higher and higher, as scientific revolution spread from industrial Britain through Western Europe and North America. Cartographers found the view from a balloon basket helpful, as they worked to replace the serpent-filled seas and impregnable mountain walls of whimsical pre-Enlightenment mapmakers with geometric grids. Explorers landed balloons on Arctic bergs and African dunes.
During the American Civil War the Confederate and Union armies used balloons to spy on each other, and in 1871 the Communards of Paris defied the bourgeois armies besieging their city by sending out a balloon-load of propagandists for their cause.
By the first decade of the twentieth century Germany's fleet of cigar-shaped Zeppelin airships could move luxury goods and luxury-craving passengers between European cities; a few years later, as the continent's capitalist class embarked on a civil war, the Zeppelins were adapted to deliver bombs.
Although New Zealand saw its first flight in 1889, ballooning only really arrived here in 1894, when a young American aeronaut named Leila Adair travelled the length of the country, making a series of spectacular ascents in cities and small towns alike.
Billed as the 'Aerial Queen' and 'the only living lady aeronaut' by her brother and manager Arthur, Adair tended to launch her performances from a park or square which had been commandeered for the occasion. After paying a fee, eager locals were invited to help in the drawn-out business of inflating her vehicle. They would help dig a low trench and light a fire there, then watch as the resulting channel of hot air flowed into the converted water tank attached to Adair's balloon, mixing with gas and slowly inflating the thick folds of canvas that lay on the ground.
Once her craft was ready for its journey, the slim, blonde Adair would appear in a blue costume that resembled a bathing suit, balance on the trapeze bars that hung instead of a basket beneath her balloon, and make her ascent, waving and blowing kisses to the crowd below. When she had risen a thousand feet or more into the air, Adair was able to leap from her perch and open a primitive parachute attached to her wrist. Her balloon was supposed to follow her down once it ran out of hot air.
But Adair's flights seldom went to plan. In Auckland she was carried by a northerly wind over the harbour, and was eventually forced to leap into the Rangitoto Channel, where a convenient steamer rescued her. After taking off a few days later in the little spa town of Te Aroha, she floated over the Kaimai Ranges and landed in distant Waihi. In Hamilton her balloon began to tear and spew smoke, so that she had to crash land. Adair's luck was no better in the South Island. In Christchurch she was taken to hospital with head wounds, after colliding with a wire clothesline, and on the West Coast she visited another hospital, after knocking herself unconscious during a landing.
From January to November 1894, Leila Adair's adventures were constantly reported in the country's newspapers. Thousands paid to watch her launch her strange craft, and many more followed her erratic flights on horseback and in buggies. Through the propaganda of the deed, Adair almost single-handedly introduced aviation to New Zealanders.
Yet 'the Aerial Queen' is little remembered by New Zealanders. She appears in Sandra Coney's book Stroppy Sheilas and Gutsy Girls
, and a trapeze artist parachuted to the earth in her honour at the Balloons Over Wairarapa festival in 2008. But Adair's feats go unmentioned in most histories of New Zealand aviation, and no statue or plaque memorialises her.
We can perhaps see the beginning of this indifference even in 1894, amidst the enthusiasm caused by Adair's tour of the country. Although some of the newspaper accounts of Adair's flights are admiring, a number are surprisingly hostile. Adair was repeatedly characterised as arrogant rather than courageous, and avaricious rather than enterprising. Her misfortunes were criticised, and her achievements ignored. The crowds that gathered for Adair's performances sometimes seemed, like Romans at the Colosseum or Victorian Britons at an open-air hanging, to be excited by the prospect of witnessing death. Hostility to 'the only living lady aeronaut' grew so pronounced that Arthur Adair was moved, in the middle of 1894, to write a letter to the Nelson-based paper The Colonist
to defend his sister's 'honor and sense of justice'.
To understand the hostility towards Adair in 1894 we have to understand the peculiar consciousness of fin de siecle white New Zealanders. The settlers who descended on these islands in such numbers in the nineteenth century were often economic and spiritual refugees from an Old World in the throes of industrialisation and modernisation. As James Belich has shown in his book Making Peoples
, these refugees were drawn to New Zealand by the promise of a 'better Britain', a sort of yeoman's paradise where land was plentiful and cheap and the dark satanic mills of the old country were absent.
Yet the society Pakeha established on the ground they had conquered from Maori was in many ways ruthlessly modern
. An efficient modern state was built; agriculture was rationalised, as the customary land taken from Maori was splintered into individually titled plots; railways were laid; and towns and cities burgeoned. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, the modernity of New Zealand society contrasted strangely with the consciousness of most Pakeha. The same men and women who had, in the space of a few calamitous decades, brought capitalism and a modern state to these islands imagined themselves as the inhabitants of a ruritarian paradise, a place uncorrupted by the innovations and problems of industrial Europe. The fin de siecle craze for pretty paintings of local landscapes, the proliferation of romantic novels set in an idealised and infantilised Maori past, and the coining of sentimental self-descriptions like 'God's Own Country' and 'Maoriland' were all expressions of the false consciousness of Pakeha.
Fin de siecle Pakeha had a fear of Germany and the United States, newly industrialised powers which were contesting the hegemony of the British Empire in the Pacific. Newspaper columnists and cartoonists frequently portrayed the United States as a brashly expansionist nation which lacked both the civilised culture of Britain and the egalitarian ethos of 'God's Own Country'. The frequent visits of American naval vessels to this country's ports had made Pakeha aware of the wealth and technological sophistication of 'the Yanks', and Washington's colonisation of the eastern parts of Samoa infuriated Kiwi politicians.
For many Pakeha New Zealanders, the confident ascents Leila Adair made in 1894 using her new-fangled technology seem to have symbolised the vulgarity and ambition of modern America. Ballooning itself quickly came to represent, for large numbers of Pakeha, some of the more frighening features of modernity. Ballons and airships were mysterious foreign inventions which seemed impervious to earthbound authority.
For a couple of months in 1909, misgivings about balloooning created a peculiar popular delusion. In July and August of that year, thousands of New Zealanders saw large, apparently sophisticated airships moving speedily through their skies. Early in July the Tuapeka Times
reported that a huge airship 'with propellors' had passed within 'a hundred yards' of a house in Otago Blue Mountains district. The six people who saw the craft were unsure whether it was 'of New Zealand or German origin'. At about the same time, 'mysterious lights' were seen in the sky above Alexandria, and attributed to an airship. Parties of armed men marched into the backblocks of the South Island, after hearing rumours of wrecked ships and German bodies. One man claimed to have discovered an airship refuelling depot, after he came across a couple of cans of petrol on an isolated hill.
At first North Island newspapers joked that sightings of airships were products of the whiskey stills operating in the backcountry of the South Island, but by the second week of August the Evening Post
had to admit that 'hot-air ships, cigar-shaped and otherwise' were being seen 'in various parts of the Wellington and Taranaki districts'. Soon the mysterious ships were also being spotted in the skies of Eastland, Auckland, and the Kaipara District.
Some commentators suggested that the airships were the work of a secretive local inventor, but most blamed them on a foreign power. A German yacht named the Seestern
had vanished off the coast of Queensland shortly before the airship sightings began, and had been declared lost after a search by an Australian warship. Many Kiwis decided that the Seestern
had secretly crossed the Tasman and begun to launch airships, with the aim of gathering intelligence that might be used to plan an invasion of New Zealand.
A few New Zealanders blamed the airships on the Martians, a race known, since the publication of HG Wells' The War of the Worlds
a few years earlier, to be quite as martial and expansionist as the Hun.
Even newspapers which declined to take the airship sightings seriously could use them as an occasion for warnings about the evils of modernity and the threat posed by foreign powers. In an editorial published in mid-August 1909, for instance, the Catholic Tablet
ridiculed the 'panic' about Zeppelins, but attributed the phenomenon to the way that, in the modern, industrial world, powerful nations 'swarmed over their racial and national boundaries'.
After World War One the airship was quickly superseded by the aeroplane. Rather like the train, the balloon gradually ceased to be a symbol of modernity, and began to interest nostalgics, preservationists, and tourism boards. Leila Adair went unhonoured here in the 1890s and early twentieth century because she represented a sinister, foreign innovation; she goes unhonoured today because the bewildering novelty of her ascents is hard to imagine.
One of the very few New Zealand writers to have noticed Leila Adair is Kendrick Smithyman, who used a poem in his 1979 collection Dwarf with a Billiard Cue
to describe her near-disastrous visit to Hamilton. In 'Lament, for a North Island Land Association'
Smithyman views Adair's Hamilton performance against the backdrop of the city's early history.
Hamilton was founded in 1864, after British and colonial forces had defeated King Tawhiao's army in a series of battles, and driven most Waikato Maori into exile in the central North Island. Many of the city's earliest inhabitants were soldiers who had been rewarded for their service with plots of flood-prone land. Hamilton was located far from markets, divided by the Waikato River, and threatened by Tawhiao's forces, which maintained pa a few miles south of the town, on the far side of the Puniu River.
In the early parts of his poem Smithyman considers the Land Associations, conclaves of property speculators which often bought up territory abandoned by disillusioned ex-soldiers and sold it on, with the help of overcharged propaganda, to new and hopeful settlers. In their prospectuses and newspaper advertisments the Land Associations commonly used sexual imagery to describe the Waikato and similar regions. Would-be farmers were urged to take possession of 'virgin' and 'fertile' lands, so that they might plant their seeds there.
Smithyman mocks the 'fecund' vocabulary of the Land Association propagandists. Noting the miseries of the early Pakeha settlers of the Waikato, he claims that, far from conquering the region, these settlers 'became hers'. Floods, droughts, erosion, and Maori raiding parties were all, according to Smithyman, 'gestures' intended to show that 'she was not wholly knuckled/ under'.
Later in his poem Smithyman describes the efforts of those agents of boantical and zoological imperialism, acclimatisation societies, to introduce pigeons into the Waikato. The birds were supposed to provide shooting practice for Pakeha soldier-settlers and militiamen, who had had, since the end of the war, no 'nigs/ suitable for targetting'. To the frustration of acclimatisers and marksmen alike, though, the pigeons 'would not rise' into the skies of the Waikato. Smithyman sees the failure of the birds to acclimatise as another sign of the land's resistance.
Only in the last section of his poem does Smithyman turn to Leila Adair. He imagines her 'speeding and swaying' on her trapeze, as an 'updraft' lifts her high above Hamilton. Adair seems to be defying the land which has frustrated so many newcomers, but just as she has 'kissed her hand to the earth-bound' her balloon begins to 'hiss...serpentine volleying smoke'. Adair parachutes, and lands safety in a gorse bush. The land, Smithyman concludes, is 'not to be defied'.
'Lament, for a North Island Land Association' is only one of scores of poems Smithyman wrote about flight and its consequences. After being conscripted into the army in 1941 the poet requested a transfer to the Air Force, in the hope of becoming a fighter pilot. Smithyman eventually found himself serving as a storeman at Air Force bases, where he witnessed several fatal plane crashes and developed a dread of flying.
In postwar poems like 'Aircrash in Antarctica'
and the famous 'Flying to Palmerston'
, Smithyman suggests that human flight can be a hubristic, and therefore dangerous enterprise, and makes it into a symbol of the excesses of industrial society. Like fin de siecle Pakeha before him, Smithyman thinks that Adair's confidence in the new science of aeronautics was misguided. But where many fin de siecle Pakeha, in their self-delusion, imagined that Adair and other aeronauts were the harbingers of of an alien modernity, Smithyman recognises that aviation complemented rather than conflicted with the society Pakeha had established in the second half of the ninteeenth century. Adair's attempt to 'defy' the land is no more hubristic than the Pakeha attempts to transform and exploit the territory they have conquered in the Waikato and elsewhere. Her balloon is not more outrageous, and a good deal more elegant, than their surveyors' maps and drainage pumps and phosphate fertiliser.
Last week I found myself in Hamilton, and decided to visit the scene of Leila Adair's forgotten ascent. Although Hamilton's central business district and government are located on the western bank of the Waikato, many of the city's earliest inhabitants raised homes in the east, where a grid of streets was laid out around a square of slightly raised land where Maori travellers had traditionally camped. With their resolutely straight lines and their names, which celebrated explorers like Cook, governors like George Grey, colonial fighters like Von Tempsky, and 'friendly' Maori leaders like Robert Naylor, the streets of the east were part of an attempt to impose a new symbolic order
on the Waikato. But the streets were soon filled with mud, and most of the families who lived in them were Irish Catholics at odds with the Anglican establishment on the other side of the river.
Sydney Square, which is nowadays known as Steele Park, was the social centre of the fledgling suburb of Hamilton East. On weekdays an open-air market operated on the Square's grass, and on Saturdays the space hosted games of rugby or cricket and running races. Processions began and ended in the Square, and couples walked there in the summer evenings.
In 1874 the Society of Oddfellows, a British-based working class 'mutual assistance organisation' with its roots in the trade guilds of the Middle Ages, opened a lodge hall on the corner of Cook and Grey streets, near the northwestern edge of Sydney Square. Funded by Thomas Pearson, an unsuccessful gold miner who had drifted to Hamilton and discovered that soap could be made out of the sand that lay there on the banks of the Waikato, the hall hosted fundraising dances, lectures on the ecology of the horse and the mechanics of railways, and, in 1885, a diorama which depicted, with the help of simulated gunfire and armies of toy soldiers, the British campaign against the Mahdi rebellion in Sudan.
After being abandoned by the Oddfellows the hall became a corset factory; today it hosts the Cook Cafe and Bar. When I wandered in at half-past seven, after a long walk down River Road and Grey Street, out of Hamilton's new northern suburbs and into its old, green southeast, the bar's only other patrons were a young couple who were sharing a bottle of wine and encouraging their small boy to skid on his socks along the polished kauri floorboards that Pearson's soap had funded. Apart from a high mezzanine, which must once have been an ideal place to install dignitaries and choirs, there was no clue to the bar's former life.
I bought a beer and walked it to a small porch at the front of the old hall. Across the road in Steele Park a few kids were playing an intermittent game of touch rugby. The oak trees which encircle the park were planted in 1889, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of Hamilton, by some of the 'surviving pioneers', some of whom must have only been middle-aged. I am always impressed by how quickly the impulse toward the commemoration and preservation of colonial history appeared in New Zealand. It is as though the very shallowness of European history on these islands prompted, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the formation of local history societies and the planting of trees and plaques.
As I finished my beer the two speakers that sat like blackbirds on the facade of the Cook began to play what sounded like a mashup of Lady Gaga and an Atari game theme tune from the 1980s. It was time to escape, so I walked to the squat wooden pavilion at the northern end of Steele Park. According to a report
published in the New Zealand Herald
and republished in the Taranaki Herald
, it was in front of this building that Leila Adair launched her balloon on Saturday, March the 24th, 1894. As a crowd 'far larger than ever gathers for local sports' watched from Sydney Square and nearby streets, Adair rose 'gently' to an altitude of about three hundred feet, so that she 'seemed no bigger than a child' to earthbound observers.
I headed towards the southeast corner of the park, following Adair's trajectory. A couple of the kids stopped chasing the ball and looked at me, when I strayed over the touchline of the invisible rugby pitch they had made under one of the 1889 oaks. "Sorry" I said, pointing at the fragments of sky that showed through the leaves above our heads. "I'm looking for a balloon." They turned away and rejoined the chase.
Leila Adair had planned to drift a few kilometres east, into the raw farming country beyond the edge of Hamilton, then parachute to safety and wait for her balloon to follow her down. A group of Hamiltonians had set out from Sydney Square in carriages and on horseback to watch her descent. Before it had travelled the two hundred or so metres from one end of the Square to the other, though, Adair's balloon began to tear and smoke. As she drifted east out of the square and began to float east up Cook Street, losing height as she went, the tear spread steadily wider, until it stretched from the top to the bottom of her balloon's canvas skin. The Herald's
anonymous reporter wondered whether the balloon 'would collapse in mid-air, or whether it would last until it reached to the ground'. He saw Adair clinging to her trapeze, and decided that, because she had not used her parachute, she 'evidently trusted' in the ability of her craft to get her safely to the ground. In truth, Adair would have had no choice except to hang tight: she was too close to the ground to use her parachute.
The balloon continued to drop, until it was hanging just a few feet above an open drain that flowed alongside Cook Street. Adair was able to leap out of her vehicle just before it crashed into a large mudhole at the end of the drain. The Herald's
reporter judged her lucky:
It certainly was a narrow escape, for had the balloon lasted buoyant a few yards further and fallen into the water and collapsed while its occupant was still clinging to it, instead of on the top of the bank above the water-hole, she could not have got free and would have been smothered beneath the weight of the canvas in the pool of muddy water.
A 'rush of carriages and horsemen' arrived beside the mudhole, and Adair, who was, according to the Herald
, 'considerably excited by her adventure', returned to Sydney Square's pavilion, where she addressed the crowd apologetically, 'expressing regret at the failure and hoping they would not think her a fraud'.
Smithyman's vision of Adair parachuting on a gorse bush, which he acknowledged finding in a book by HMN Norris about Hamilton's early history, is contradicted by the report that appeared in the New Zealand Herald
and the Taranaki Herald
. Did Morris, and perhaps also Smithyman, decide to dignify Adair's descent, by implying that it was controlled and safe, if finally rather uncomfortable?
I wandered up Cook Street, imagining Adair's wrinkled, ruined balloon wallowing like some grotesque elephant in the muddy water she avoided. I looked for traces of an open drain, but the road was tarred, and the pavement was smooth concrete.
It was unlikely, I realised, that many of the houses on present-day Cook Street were standing when Leila Adair came floating past. The year before Adair's flight Richard Seddon had begun what would be a long reign as Liberal Premier of New Zealand. In the second half of the 1890s Seddon's government started to offer low interest loans to help its middle class supporters buy homes, and this incentive along with the emergence of steam-powered saws and other advanced building technology encouraged a housing boom in Hamilton, where some residents had already benefited from a take-off in the Waikato economy caused by refrigerated shipping and large-scale drainage schemes.
Hamilton's population increased sevenfold between 1900 and 1916, and scores of fashionable villas were raised over the ruins of small cottages on Cook and adjacent streets. As the new century went on the villas, with their wraparound verandahs and bay windows, were superseded by simpler but cheaper bungalows, and in the 1940s Hamilton East became one of the testing grounds for the first Labour government's state housing programme, as a whole new suburb - Hayes Paddock, a collection of pleasantly winding streets beside the Waikato River - was given over to state houses.
Today villas and bungalows of Cook Street are fronted by banks of flowers and by mature trees. A datura plant leaned over a picket fence and shook its tiny inverted parachutes, as I stopped on the pavement to scribble a note. In the next yard a taratara, one of the few natives in this suburb of oaks and poplars, seemed to be absorbing the sulfur light from the dusk sun.
Cook Street has been transformed since 1894, and it can be argued that, with its batallions of exotic trees and streets with determinedly British street names laid in grids over old kainga and pa and kumara beds, Hamilton as a whole is one of the most thoroughly transformed, thoroughly Anglicised, places in New Zealand. In the 1930s local politicians even went to the trouble of commandeering unemployed relief workers and demolishing the hill which sat on the edge of the city's business district. Known to Maori as Te Kopu Mania O Kirikiriroa, Garden Place Hill had been the site of an altar, and observatory, and an ancient grove of taro before 1864. Despite or because of its traditional significance, the hill was broken up and hauled away in wheelbarrows and trucks.
I headed back down Cook Street past the bar, where Lady Gaga was still singing, crossed Grey Street, and found a view of the Waikato River from the carpark of a liquor shop. In the late sunlight the dirty water looked like varnished wood. I wondered whether Kendrick Smithyman was not romantic to believe that this environment has managed to defy those who have bought and settled on it since 1864. Doesn't the transformation of Hamilton mock the poet's view of settlement as a crisis-ridden and ultimately doomed enterprise? How can the 'land', to which Smithyman rather sentimentally gave a female identity, really resist the changes wrought by tar and concrete and a thousand alien names? Leila Adair may have been dragged back down to earth, and balloons may still sometimes fall out of the sky, but what about the scores of planes that land every day at Hamilton's international airport?
But then I remembered the bankrupt 'developments' in Hamilton's northern suburbs, where tarred roads peter out amidst ragwort and toitoi, or beside the rotting ribs of half-finished houses. In the north the sort of real estate boom that would have delighted the old Land Associations was brought to a brusque end by the global economic crisis of 2008. Developers declared themselves insolvent and, in the tradition of the soldier-settlers of the 1860s, walked off the land they had occupied with such confidence. The many FOR SALE
signs on Cook Street suggest that the housing crisis may be spreading south. Kendrick Smithyman may yet be proven correct.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]