Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Fear of history

Over the last few weeks I've been asked, by several visitors to this blog, whether I'm worried by the prospect of taking up a job at a school in a 'place like Tonga'. According to my interlocutors, Tonga is a 'backwater' where 'superstition' rules, and where lessons offered by sociologists and historians must fall on deaf ears.

It is true that serious obstacles confront tertiary educators working in Tonga.  Instruction and assessment is in English, which is the second language of students. Libraries are tiny, and laboratories are ill-equipped. Students often lack the funds to buy coursebooks.

I find it amusing, though, that Pakeha New Zealanders would consider Tongan society intellectually backward, and implicitly contrast it with their own enlightened realm.

Tonga's churches may have a grip on the country's imagination, and on many of its primary and secondary schools, but organised Christianity need not be inimical to the cause of scholarship. Religion has helped to foster a reverence for books amongst Tongans, and given its people a set of stories and symbols which they can use to understand the world. Religious instruction does not necessarily inculcate conservative values. In a famous essay for the History Workshop Journal, Raphael Samuel showed that many of Britain's radical political thinkers and socialist historians grew up in nonconformist churches, and drew on the Bible's narratives and imagery.

Most Pakeha Kiwis lack the religiosity which is common in Tonga, but they also lack an affection for books and learning, and the habit of thinking about the world in an orderly way. In their efforts to explain the world, a lot of them have adopted conspiracy theories gleaned from dodgy internet sites.
And many Pakeha Kiwis suffer from a disorder that is peculiar to settler societies. Troubled obscurely by a  history of colonisation in which their great grandparents were protagonists, they are reflexively hostile to historians and archaeologists who have the temerity to talk about nineteenth century battles and indigenous civilisations. Like the unfortunate characters in Kurt Vonnegut's story 'Harrison Bergeon', who are prevented from thinking about sensitive subjects by a device which transmits high-pitched noises directly into their brains, a lot of Pakeha Kiwis are simply incapable of thinking and talking about their colonial past. (I'm generalising here, of course. The history departments in our universities do a good job of curing young men and women of their postcolonial disorder, and turning them into thoughtful adults. And the increasing numbers of Pakeha Kiwis who have no direct link with the nineteenth century often lack the old hangups about history. One of my cousins was raised in the Catholic community in Northern Ireland, and emigrated to this country when she married into our old colonial family. She has an instinctive understanding of colonialism.)

Last August I was involved in a discussion about New Zealand history in a comments thread at Kiwiblog, one of New Zealand's most popular websites. I thought I would post that chat here, because the Kiwibloggers I was talking to seem to me to exemplify the fear of history which is so common in Pakeha New Zealand, and which is so refreshingly absent from Tongan society.

longknives wrote:

A hell of a lot of New Zealanders have an aversion to their kids being force-fed Maori language and culture in school. Not to mention the completely new and rewritten versons of New Zealand history (Maori lived at peace and ‘at one with nature’ until the evil White man came..) that seem to have become part of the Cirriculum.

Scott wrote:

I see this complaint about New Zealand history being rewritten a lot on right-wing blogs, but the complainers never explain which texts they object to. Which scholar of pre-contact Maori society has been guilty of misrepresentation, longknives? I’m not aware of any of the major figures in the field denying features of pre-contact society like social stratification, fragmentation into iwi and hapu, and inter-iwi violence. In fact, I think some of the key works in the field in recent decades – Ballara’s Iwi: the dynamics of Maori inter-tribal organisation, for example – emphasise these things, in a way that older works did not.

It was older, Victorian ethnographers who sometimes tended to come up with patronising pictures of Maori as noble savages living in static, unstratified societies.

longknives wrote:

I suggest you speak to any primary or secondary school student and ask them what they have “learned in school” about Maori. The concept of the ‘Noble Savage’ is alive and well in our education system…

As for History on a more academic (Tertiary) level- It has been a while since I was at University but I do distinctly recall a History lecturer (Pakeha- wearing a Greenstone Pendant) bursting into tears as he told the tale of those “racist” New Zealand Police and their shoot-out with the “Peace-loving” and “completely innocent” Rua Kenana…

Even as a young (and left-leaning in those days!) University student I could smell the bullshit a mile away.

Scott wrote:

If you make a bold claim about the rewriting of history you ought to be be able to back it up with a reference or two, rather than ask those who doubt you to go out and do your research for you.

I was hoping for something a bit more specific than an unnamed lecturer you remember from university. And the anecdote you mention is irrelevant, because you were making claims about pre-contact Maori society, not post-contact conflict between Maori and Pakeha.

Have you read a single scholarly text about pre-contact Maori society? Ballara, Sutton, Groube, Barber, Kirch? All I’m asking for is a single text from recent decades which claims that pre-contact society was unstratified, united, and peaceful.

Nasska wrote:

If it weren’t for the exponents of a new world order trying to rewrite history in a way that makes Europeans into aggressors against peaceful natives Mr Crimp’s ravings would never get oxygen. Those who won’t drink the Koolaid prepared for us by the social engineers instinctively know that the truth probably lies closer to Crimp than Harawira.

Just another example of unintended consequences caused by the dishonesty of those who know what is good for us.


Who are the scholars rewriting the prehistory of New Zealand to make traditional Maori society a peaceful egalitarian paradise, and what are the trusty old texts we should be reading?

The truth is that you’ve got it completely backwards. The fashion for the Maori as noble savage was a Victorian phenomenon, and the scholarship of professionals over the past ninety years has emphasised the stratification, fragmentation, and conflict in pre-contact society.

Nasska wrote:

I’m not an historian. The brain washing of NZ is being done in the classroom by underhand socialist teachers probably twisting the curriculum to breaking point in order to instil ‘newspeak’ into their vulnerable charges. Listening my grandchildren spouting the crap their marxist pedagogues have drummed into them is all the proof I need.

Scott wrote:

Well, presumably these sinister brainwashers have some texts to work from? How about a reference? And since you know the difference between the faux-history of today and the robust scholarship of the past, can you explain what books we should be reading to get the real deal on New Zealand history? So far none of the conspiracy theorists here have been able to name a single text they object to and a single work of scholarship from the past that they think we ought to be reading.

Griff wrote:

Mr Hamilton The tone of the nz history on air website definitely downplays the impact of the musket wars The consensus among historians such as king etc is for a death toll of 25000 as a starting point and as many as 60000 at nz history its up to 20000 when nz history talks of the treaty it down plays the holocaust of the previous generation as a reason for sighing the treaty

Scott wrote:

Have you actually read any of the literature on the Musket Wars? I don’t see how the book-length texts on the subjects, Crosbie’s Musket Wars and Matthew Wright’s Guns and Utu, can possibly be said to downplay the significance of the conflict. Both present it as apocalyptic. Wright’s book, which was published last year, likens the Musket Wars to the Thirty Years War which devastated Germany.

The quote you offer from the New Zealand History website hardly adds up to a reprise of the noble savage thesis. It’s quite true that the Brits were concerned about French turning up in New Zealand – mad De Thierry’s attempt to start a colony in the Hokianga prompted the Declaration of Independence which preceded the Treaty – and that the behaviour of many of the early settlers was anarchic. But of course there was no government, white or brown, over NZ in 1840. Maori nationalism did not then exist (it only developed in the 1850s, as a response to land sales and large-sale settlement); British sovereignty meant nothing, when colonists existed as guests of local chiefs. Matthew Wright makes this point very clearly in Guns and Utu, and I can’t think of any New Zealand historian who would disagree with it. Read Judith Binney’s first book, her biography of Thomas Kendall, and you’ll see it comes through very clearly. Read Angela Ballara’s study of Maori sociology in the late pre-contact and early contact period and you get the same emphasis on fragmentation. Read Patrick Kirch’s classic works on Polynesia as a whole and you’ll see him contrast the relatively decentralised society of Maori to the highly centralised proto-states of the Hawaiians and Tongans.

What I don’t find, in any modern scholarship, is a characterisation of Maori society, either in the pre-contact or post-contact periods, as unitary, peaceful and unstratified: as an egalitarian paradise, in other words. And yet folks on Kiwiblog and elsewhere continually complain that Kiwi historians are presenting Maori society in this way.

Griff wrote:

That was the preamble about the treaty as taught to kids in school. It fails to mention the contemporary holocast of the musket wars were one in four where killed and most of the population exiled from their traditional Territory’s by fellow maori. Instead it talks only of the wrongs of colonialism and the depravity of the settlers. In short its pure bullshit when it comes to the motivation of those presenting the treaty and of those sighing. If you read the accounts of the time the most pressing problems facing NZ was the continual warfare and violence The maori wanted to insure more settlers to buffer against more raiding and warfare and also some tribes where interested in protecting themselves from utu as a result of previous raids.The large areas of land being brought was empty and uninhabitable by moari due to the wars. Yet all nz history says is a big scary French boat with a hundred or so frogs on it was going to take over the country and unruly settlers where a problem. Its not history being taught its colonial guilt
Scott wrote:

I don’t think the scholarship backs you up, Griff – and nor does your own earlier point. Take a look at the very detailed timeline of the Musket Wars that Crosbie provides in his book – the wars had petered out by the late 1830s. They reached their zenith in the 1820s, but once parity in arms was achieved there was little to be gained by new armed expeditions (the unarmed Chathams were an exception). Hongi Hika died a rather pathetic figure within Nga Puhi, because he couldn’t let go of his warring ways.

And as you seemed to point out earlier, the Brits had no power in NZ in 1840. The notion that they could have protected weaker iwi from stronger iwi is absurd – they couldn’t even defend themselves. As Matthew Wright points out in Guns and Utu, the Maori chiefs who signed the Treaty would have had little idea what British sovereignty really meant. Most of them were after increased trade and expertise, and thought that the Treaty would facilitate these things. The idea that they were so weak they had to turn to the tiny Brit population and say ‘we give up our sovereignty – you take over’ isn’t tenable, and doesn’t come through even in the work of ‘pre-revisionist’ historians like Keith Sinclair and James Cowan. It’s a fantasy created for political reasons by right-wing outfits like the One New Zealand Foundation.

I do agree with you though that the Musket Wars were very important events and that they should be taught in schools and commemorated by monuments.

Griff wrote:

I just posted a link to the resource recommended by the education department re the treaty for year nine study and critiqued its content When it comes to brain washing i guess yours is pretty clean...

Scott wrote:

When do you think the fact that the Treaty of Waitangi was caused by the Musket Wars was pushed into the background by some sort of conspiracy?

Your view conflicts with a lot of facts. If Maori were militarily exhausted and happy to be rid of their sovereignty in 1840, why did they initiate armed conflicts with the Brits in Wairau, Wellington, and the north over the next few years? If they were so weak, how were they able to draw a major war with the Brits in the late 1840s?

I’ve repeatedly asked the conspiracy theorists in this thread when they think a conspiracy to distort New Zealand history began, and which historians from the days before the conspiracy they would have us read. Nobody seems to be able to answer.

I assume, though, that Keith Sinclair, who was the doyen of NZ historians back in the good old ’50s, isn’t counted as one of the conspirators. Here’s his take on the Treaty of Waitangi, taken from his 1957 book The Origins of the Maori Wars:

In order to prevent the exploitation of the Maoris by land-sharks, the chiefs yielded to Her Majesty the exclusive right to purchase their lands. It was a genuine attempt the elementary conditions necessary for a humane colonization. That, however, was all the Treaty was, a noble start, never unimportant for the future, but never dominating it. It was the fundamental act for the foundation of a binational people, and, like such other acts, it had always to be ‘interpreted’. (pg 28)

Obviously there are important differences between what Sinclair has to say about the Treaty and what later historians like, say, Claudia Orange have had to say. But the notion that older historians like Sinclair attributed the Treaty to the Musket Wars and believed that without British intervention Maori would have died out is without foundation. The idea that the Treaty Of Waitangi was about the Musket Wars and represented the complete surrender of autonomy by Maori has come in recent years from conspiracy theorists linked to organisations like the National Front and the One New Zealand Foundation. Those folks are the ones who are departing very radically from the consensus of generations of Kiwi historians.
Nasska wrote:

do you want to continue to infer that I’m a liar because I formed an opinion about the bias showed by our shitless socialist teachers? Bear in mind that this occurred because of what my nine year old (intelligent) grand daughter told me she had learned at school about the terrible things that happened to Maori because of European settlement.

Scott wrote:

So your unnamed nine year old grand daughter told you she’d learned about some unnamed allegedly negative aspect of nineteenth century colonialism at some unnamed school, Nasska, and therefore there’s a massive, intricate plot being overseen by something you called the ‘New World Order’ to brainwash all Kiwi kids about our country’s history? Am I missing something, or is that your argument?

I think that the self-appointed defenders of Western civilisation in this thread should defend the West by trying to find out something about reason, critical thinking, and empirical inquiry.

Nasska wrote:

Rule 1 in the socialists’ book of mind control is always ask for references & texts. This way they can deflect the argument for long enough to assemble enough red herrings to drag the debate into safer ground.

For the benefit of the brainwashers, I’m not an historian nor is my grand daughter & neither of us have written books on the subject at hand.

Scott wrote:

‘Rule 1 in the socialists’ book of mind control is always ask for references & texts’

I think you’ll find that’s rule one for most historians, today and a thousand years ago. Without references there’s no way of checking whether something is true.

You obviously think New Zealand history has been rewritten in recent decades. How can you know this if you don’t know what historians said earlier? I’d guess that you’ve heard someone say on some website that Marxists/Muslims/the New World Order/Reptilian Creatures are brainwashing us all. If you read some New Zealand historians you might be able to decide for yourself whether history-writing in this country has actually changed in the way you claim.

A lot of folks here believe that New Zealand's colonial history was some sort of triumphal progress, and that nineteenth century Pakeha behaved impeccably towards Maori. They also think historians broadcast this view of the past up until the last few decades, when a sinister conspiracy took hold and history was rewritten. They’ve never read the classic works of the past like Sinclair’s Origins of the Maori Wars, which came out in the ’50s, and James Cowan’s The New Zealand Wars, which arrived in the ’20s, or Gorst’s The Maori King, which appeared way back in the 1860s, so they don’t realise that historians have never had the balmy view of nineteenth century history they hold. It’s hard to know what to do except urge them to use their library cards.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, January 25, 2013

By schooner to the past

I recently watched Laurence Olivier's version of Richard III for the first time. The film won much acclaim when it was released in 1955, and broke viewing records when it aired on British television. Critics praised the naturalism of Richard III, which was shot in new-fangled technicolour and featured an elaborately orchestrated open-air battle scene.

The other night, though, I was impressed by the bizarre artificiality of Olivier's film. The technology which caused such excitement in the early '60s gave certain colours a new intensity. Yves Klein should have been fascinated by the blues in Richard III, which are pure and bright, and seemingly impervious to shadow.

The first four acts of Olivier's Richard III were filmed in the warehouse studios of JG Ballard's beloved outer London suburb of Shepperton. As we watch actors in extravagantly bad wigs stomp through polystyrene banquet halls, shouting their lines, we can almost sense the DC 10s flying low over the rooves of Shepperton, as they prepare to land at nearby Heathrow airport, and the traffic on the motorway which forms the western border of the suburb.
When it reaches Act Five, where Shakespeare recounts Richard III's defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth Field, the film suddenly exchanges the cramped spaces of Shepperton for a dun-green plain sparsely planted with what look like like cacti. Olivier made the climax of his movie in Spain. Although the open spaces of Act Five are a liberation, the landscape and flora of Iberia are strange stand-ins for the hedges and copses of the English Midlands.

Richard III might trouble the Film Foundation, an organisation which is campaigning, with the help of stars like Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese, for the preservation of the original reels of old movies. Even if a film exists in pristine condition, without a flicker or a scratch or a flash, its atmosphere may change completely in a few decades, as fashions and audience expectations change. What was thrillingly realistic fifty years ago now seems fascinatingly baroque.

At about the time that I was watching Richard III, Paul Janman was chatting with an American movie buff named Gregory Davis, who had found and purchased a few reels of old film during a visit to a small village somewhere in Mexico. After getting home, running the reels, and learning that he had acquired a documentary film called Schooner to Tonga made in 1961 by the obscure Spanish director Elnoro Von Verdo, Davis contacted Paul, whose own documentary about Tonga premiered at last year's Auckland International Film Festival. Neither Paul nor his new friend was able to find the merest mention of Schooner to Tonga in encyclopedias of film history.
Perhaps keen to offer proof that he wasn't some sort of fantasist, Davis played Schooner to Tonga through his television set, shot it with a digital camera, and uploaded the first few minutes of his film-of-a-film to Youtube. The result is a series of flickering, blurred images of Auckland's harbour, wharves, and parks, accompanied by a murmurously incomprehensible voiceover and a series of squeaks and hisses that might once have represented the songs of birds and the passing of cars.

We see, between flashes and tremors, the crew and passengers of a handsome sailing ship moving to and fro on Auckland's waterfront, preparing for a journey. Some of the crewmen have beards and smiles on their faces, and might be Bohemian drinking partners of Denis Glover or Maurice Duggan; others are clean-shaven, and have the stern yet diffident look of the orthodox postwar New Zealand male. The women, who wear formal dresses and sometimes gloves, are eased on board the boat by hand, like pieces of expensive cargo.

The film's shots of Cornwall Park and the Auckland Domain have a conventional air, and yet the peculiar state of the clip uploaded to Youtube give them a strangeness that is occasionally disturbing. Squatting on the summit of the Domain, the Auckland War Memorial Museum throbs like a enormous toad; Cornwall Park's green meadows seem to seethe.
It can be argued that the distorted version of Schooner to Tonga posted to Youtube actually reflects the distance between its subject matter and ourselves. The Auckland of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, with its fleets of schooners and steamers threading and entangling the thousands of islands of the Pacific, is hard to remember today, when almost all of us cross the ocean by air, and when the handful of surviving Auckland-based shipping companies struggle to survive, even with the aid of squat and unlovely modern container ships.

Even fifty years ago, when Schooner to Tonga was made, the proscriptions of colonial powers, who wanted to limit the mobility of island peoples for political reasons, and the obsession of New Zealand's political and business elites with the northern hemisphere had limited Auckland's maritime connections with the tropical Pacific. Only a relatively few families, who were linked by blood or money or political sympathies with the tropics, maintained the old exchanges.

If it were given to us in a pedantically pristine state, the opening of Schooner to Tonga might be an unremarkable little piece of travelogue, whose conventionality and undiminished naturalism obscured the distance between the Auckland it depicted and the Auckland of today. In the damaged, almost derelict form in which it appears on Youtube, though, the beginning of the film communicates something of the strangeness and distance of a lost past. Gregory Davis should give us the rest of his version of the film.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Shooting from Te Maketu

Hi Paul,

thanks for taking me on the shoot for the Great South Road doco last Thursday and Friday. Why didn't you tell me, though, that my face was getting ruddier and ruddier in your viewfinder, as we moved from location to location? I spent the weekend under a wet towel, cursing my bald head and missing hat.

One of the recurring motifs of the doco seems to be surveillance - you and Ian have spent a long time, after all, shooting the CCTV cameras at Conifer Grove and elsewhere - so I thought that I ought to record you and your fellow lensman at work. Here, then, are some shots from our visit to Te Maketu pa on Thursday, along with some jottings...


Production Notes 

4.38 pm

A couple of puriri holed by moths, or by Von Tempsky's tipsy sharpshooters. Half a dozen rimu flaking brown paint. Mast-thin totara trunks, which supplejacks climb like rigging monkeys.

Why are these natives unfallen? Their comrades-in-arms died more than a century ago, either slowly, after offering passive resistance to an axe, or swiftly, along with scores of others, in fires set by exhausted scrubcutters. Why do these survivors stand, in a windy circle, beside the razorback ridge of Te Maketu pa?

From the curve of Pratts Road, where we left our car, the trees resembled swagmen recently risen from sleep, shaking their arms warm around the tall pale flames of grass.

4.44 pm

The wind rips Paul's answer away. We step onto the ridge, into the grass, which is no longer fire but a sea, swelling against our hips and the smalls of our backs, slipping dissolving fingers into our pockets.

Ragwort bob in the swell like jellyfish. It would be untrue, I tell Paul, or Ian, or the wind, to say that the descendants of Von Tempsky's invaders have lacked martial spirit. For decades my father devoted himself to a holy war against ragwort, patrolling the back paddocks of his farm with a curved machete, ambushing the enemy in gullies or tomo or holed troughs, severing stalk from soil in one sweep of his arm, coughing and spitting at the poisonous golden petals that the wind blew into his face.

I was raised to hate and hunt ragwort. Was I Von Tempsky, pursuing Rew Maniapoto's tomahawk raiders through these hills, or one of Rewi's men, slashing at the aliens who so quickly rooted themselves in this soil?

The war became unwinnable, as more and more dairy farms were subdivided into lifestyle blocks for insurance salesmen and vets from the city, who liked to sit on the balconies of their faux-Tudor mansions on warm evenings, admiring their plantations of picturesque weeds over glasses of wine cooler. Ragwort farmers, my father called them. Calls them.

4.56 pm

I stumble down a small slope, scramble up a small slope, realise that these waves of grass have submerged the kumara pits Waiohua dug on this ridge. Near the end of the ridge the swell suddenly recedes, revealing a seam of splintered pipi shells in the face of a low terrace.

4.58 pm

The ridge ends brusquely with a cliff. As Ian kneels in a shock of grass, unfolding and steadying the stiff legs of his movie camera and opening its eye, I imagine him as a father encouraging a nervous infant to stand and admire the view of the flat lands that pour across the Great South Road and the Southern Motorway towards the Manukau harbour. Is this where Rewi's guerrillas had their observation post in 1863?

The turned-over fields of Bombay and Patumahoe are as dark as Freiburg bread. In the middle distance a glasshouse leaks light, like a badly-cut diamond. The shadow of a low cloud hollows a paddock.

Steady on its legs now, aimed at the invader's country, Ian's camera resembles a bren machine gun. Paul aims his own, hand-held camera. I am almost ready to cover my ears, but Ian's camera makes only a soft whirring sound, and Paul's weapon clicks quietly, like a distant cricket.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Guns, guitars, and globalisation

As the 'Atenisi Institute gears up for 2013, this ad, which features me wearing a silly hat, has appeared in Tongan newspapers. When I donned that hat for the University of Auckland's PhD graduation ceremony a few years ago my mate Adrian Price said, in a suitably stern voice, "You do realise you'll have to wear that headgear permanently, from now on, as a condition of your degree, don't you? It makes it easier for society to keep an eye on you." Whenever Adrian encounters me now he looks at my bare head and frowns.

It is curious that 'Opeti Taliai, the new Dean of 'Atenisi, wears the flat hat given to Bachelor of Arts graduates in the advertisement. 'Opeti has a PhD from the Anthropology Department of Massey University, where he taught for a time, but perhaps nobody had a camera to hand when he picked up that degree. 

'Opeti's PhD thesis, which is called 'The Legitimation of Economic and Political Power in Tonga: a critique of the Kau'halauta and Kauhalalalo moeities' and can be read on Massey's website, is an intricate and sometimes dizzying study of  the symbolic dimensions of Tongan and Western Polynesian history. Examining antique legends and poems as well as  a thousand years of events in Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji, 'Opeti shows that images and anecdotes which appear bizarre and nonsensical to palangi, and sometimes even to present-day Tongans, brim with an often sinister significance. At the core of 'Opeti's thesis is the conviction that the Tongan Empire which thrived in the late medieval period, and the modern Tonga state which was established in the shadow of that empire in the nineteenth century, were corruptions of a much more egalitarian society which existed across Western Polynesia in ancient times. 'Opeti's thesis is the foundation of a paper he will teaching this year at 'Atenisi called 'Tonga of Samoa'atoa in the Pacific'.

This is the outline of paper I'm organising which to take Pacific history into modern times. My paper will inevitably proceed very differently from 'Opeti's classes. Where he can delve effortlessly into the poems and traditions of his native land, and use them to elucidate the meaning of this or that event, I'm forced to proceed from one written source to another, and to retreat to abstract nouns like Imperialism or Globalisation for explanations of the patterns of the past. 

Guns, guitars, and globalisation: a history of the modern Pacific

This paper considers the history of the Pacific since the visits of Cook to the region. 

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Cook and later European mariners, traders, and missionaries brought the technologies, forms of organisation, and economic arrangements we consider modern to the Pacific. 

The peoples of the Pacific quickly took up modern innovations and adapted them to their own needs. Traditional wooden tools and weapons were complemented or replaced by iron ploughs and muskets; new instruments like the guitar were seized on by many Pacific musicians; the Bible was interpreted in the light of local experience. 

As the nineteenth century went on, the contradictions increased between the Europeans, with their northern hemisphere conception of what a modern society should look like, and the hybrid 'counter-modernities' that Pacific Islanders were creating, as they fused old ways of life with the innovations the outsiders had brought. 

In the second half of the nineteenth century colonial powers like Britain, France, Germany, and the United States came into political, economic, and sometimes military conflict with emerging Pacific states like the Waikato Kingdom, the unified Tonga of Tupou I, the Fijian realm of King Cakobau, and the powerful Kingdom of Hawaii. Every Pacific nation except Tupou's Tonga was eventually defeated and colonised.  

As we consider the years when the Pacific succumbed to its colonisers, we will look at events like the British invasion of the Waikato Kingdom, the terrorising of Fiji by a branch of the Ku Klux Klan established by Confederate American settlers, and the division of Samoa between the United States and Germany after a series of wars. 
Because of his unique achievement in preserving his country's independence, we will examine in detail Tupou I's long career as a warrior, man of God, politician, and diplomat, and look at how he has shaped modern Tonga.  

In the twentieth century the conflict between northern hemisphere and local visions of modernity did not end: in places like Samoa, Aotearoa, and Fiji resistance to colonial rule was widespread. As we look at the details of some of these struggles, we will see colonial police gunning down Samoans on the streets of Apia, Maori being imprisoned in their hundreds for refusing to serve in New Zealand's army, and indigenous Hawaiians demanding first statehood and then independence from America. 

We will also look at some of the new peoples who came to the Pacific during the era of colonisation. The Pakeha of New Zealand, Caldoche of New Caledonia, and German Samoans were settler peoples, who took a dominant role in their new homelands; the Indians of Fiji and the Chinese of Samoa, by contrast, were brought to the Pacific as indentured labourers, and typically faced discrimination from colonial authorities. Both the settler peoples and the descendants of indentured labourers have been divided internally by class and by religion. 
We will examine the diverse ways in which the new peoples of the Pacific have related to the region's indigenous inhabitants. In Samoa, some of the great opponents of colonial rule were the offspring of settlers; other members of the settler community, though, opposed decolonisation, and formed a Samoan Nazi Party which appealed to Hitler to reconquer Germany's old colony. In New Zealand, Pakeha fought for as well as against nationalist Maori during conflicts like the Waikato War. 

Over the past fifty years many of the Pacific's colonised peoples have won their independence, and former anti-colonial activists have become the leaders of new states. But the era of political decolonisation has coincided with a time of economic globalisation, and the new nations of the Pacific have come under pressure to open their doors to imports, investment, and business practices from the First World. In the later parts of this paper we will examine some of the changes globalisation has brought to the Pacific, like increased pollution, sharper class divisions, easier international travel, cheap consumer goods, rises in crime, and mass tourism. We will ask whether the old contradiction between Pacific and northern hemisphere visions of the future still exists in the twenty-first century.

The history and present of the Pacific are full of controversies, and this paper will make no attempt to deny them. Students will be introduced to the arguments which scholars have had with one another about subjects like colonialism and globalisation, and encouraged to develop their own opinions.  

Throughout the paper, we will use excerpts from movies and from television and radio programmes to help highlight issues and provoke discussion. We will also make field trips to sites around Nuku'alofa - Tupou I's old stronghold of Mount Zion, for instance - which are important to the history or present of the Pacific. 

The paper will be internally assessed. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

'Pigmentocracy still rules': Vaughan Rapatahana visits Mauritius

Summer is a time of year when many of us retire to a familiar place - to a caravan park or bach beside the sea, or the relatives' house in a sunny city. When it comes to holidaying, we like repetition. 

Vaughan Rapatahana has a very different attitude to his holidays. The more obscure and unfamiliar a potential destination seems, the more it attracts him. In my whole life, I've visited only seven overseas nations; Vaughan has visited seven in the last three months. Vaughan is a poet and a scholar of language and culture, and he treats his holidays as field trips, rather than as simple exercises in relaxation or excess. He might hit the beach or the bar during his trips, but he'll do so with a notebook in hand.

During an interview on this blog back in 2011, Vaughan described a journey to Guam, an island few Kiwis ever think about, let alone visit; in an article reproduced here in the same year he narrated a trip to Nauru, a nation so inaccessible and ravaged that not even Lonely Planet bothers to investigate it firsthand. 

Here are some notes Vaughan sent me about a journey he recently made to Mauritius. Apart from introducing us to another unjustly neglected nation, Vaughan's text resonates with the response I recently published to a couple of his books of poetry. Although I was generally very positive about Vaughan's poems, I did ask whether they made a somewhat simplistic contrast between oppressed brown people and oppressive white people, and ignored some of the complexities of colonial history in New Zealand and the wider Pacific. Vaughan may well disagree with me, but I interpret his remarks about the prosperous dark-skinned tourists who are nowadays visiting Mauritius in large numbers as the sort of acknowledgement of the complexity that ethnic relations can have, even when one ethnic group generally dominates another. 

Mauritius Visit, December, 2012 – January, 2013

Mauritius is a lagoon of contradictions resting inside a coral reef of pluralities.

My wife Leticia and I just spent over a week traveling throughout the island (population about 1.3 million).

We really liked the ambience because it is unlike anything else we had previously encountered – and we are inveterate travellers, having been to over seven different countries in the past three months alone. The weather was hot and pleasant – except for Christmas Day when it rained all day; the beaches are white-sand lovely; the food is yummy (lots of East Indian touches and there’s plenty of fresh fruit) and above all else it’s a safe place to holiday in. Serious crime does exist, but it is not rampant, and any major violence had been more to do with intra-ethnic strife than anything else.

The largest proportion of the population - about 68% - are of Indian ethnicity, 27% are of African stock, and 3% belong to a Sino-Mauritian minority. None are Indigenous in the sense of being First Nation Peoples, but all have existed on the island for generations. Mauritius was uninhabited until about 400 years ago.

All had predecessors who were introduced as either slaves or indentured labourers (same thing to me, if truth be told) for the usual array of Imperialist Bunnies – Holland, France, England – in that order of hopping. They were nabbed and sent to Mauritius to harvest the massive sugar cane crops which are still a major component of the Mauritian economy, along with – increasingly – the textile industry and finance. The two largest ethnic groupings are generally stuck in the lower echelons of society. Many are (increasingly) unemployed as tourism – the regnant cash crop of the island nowadays – falters; most have never ever even been able to leave the island and visit their ancestral homelands. They count themselves as pure Mauritians, even if to look at they seem very similar to folk beyond their shores, and even if they share the predominant world religions of Hindu, Islam and Roman Catholicism.
So all are Mauritian first and foremost, given that there is some debate as to what exactly a Mauritian is and indeed as to what Mauritius itself essentially can be categorized as – the community is so diverse, complex and somewhat paradoxical. For example, the country is a member of both La Francophonie and the British Commonwealth. Some would say it is an ‘just’ an offbeat outpost of India; others would stress that it is its own independent democratic republic – Mauritius obtained independence in 1968; others would scoff and claim that it is ‘merely’ a holiday playground for rich Frenchmen and women...

All inhabitants speak French or this very French-based Kreole, with a significant minority also speaking the diminishing Mauritian Bhojpuri tongue. All can speak English if need be, but it is by no means their language of choice (it is spoken as a first language “by less than 1%” according to the 2011 census): more, it is imposed on them at school level by a still colonialist-flavoured government, to the extent that arcane Cambridge examinations prevail and that up until 2012, at least, no Kreole was even offered in schools (Kreole was made into an optional subject in primary schools this year)...
Admittedly many Mauritians do see – or have been duped to believe, however you want to explain this process - English language as an access route to a supposed ‘westernization’ qua power/money acquisition, but many, many more do not ‘succeed’ at school and drop out of a system that seems earmarked for an entirely alternative universe that is nowhere near theirs. “It is a bizarre situation in which English is effectively the official language but is no one’s mother tongue,” exclaimed Tim Cleary in 2011.

Mauritius is a lovely place to swim and suntan and shop for novelty knickknacks – especially if you are a visiting Frenchman (the French comprise 2% of the population but are still the dominant small, land-owning minority) or Brit – and huge flight flotillas of these two nationalities arrive at the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International airport down in the south-east every summer season – boosting the manifold beachfront hotels and the two Club Meds near Grande Baie and also fostering their own delectable seaside private mansions, which are in complete contrast to the non-whites' unpainted low-level cinder-block homes, green and white Muslim mosques and ubiquitous plain domed Hindu temples. 

The contrast is all-too-obvious between Mahebourg – a scenic but run-down city where the original Dutch colonizers and Dodo-decimators first arrived - as compared to the nearby Blue Bay which is an impressive array of these sprawling several-storied on-the-sand mansions owned by the Europeans and serviced by the descendants of slaves brought to L’Isle de France, as the French called Mauritius, by the antecedents of these European Godfathers only a few hundred years earlier.

So pigmentocracy still rules in Mauritius – the whiter you are, somehow the ‘better’ you are seen to be, to the extent there is a sort of caste system on the island and it is somewhat alarming that the (financially-speaking only) lowest of the low are the darker-skinned, especially the completely eviscerated Chagos Islanders who were expelled from their Chagos Archipelago relatively recently by the scheming British and Americanos so as the latter could construct their massive Diego Garcia airbase to rendition and redact at will. 

These poor indigenous folks (for they too were sealed, signed and delivered to Chagos, from Africa in the main, to work in the coconut industry among others) exact whereabouts are unknown generally to their ‘fellow’ Mauritians other than the fact that they are lingering lost ‘somewhere’ in several villages and also in the outskirt slums of Port Louis – the sprawling and largely mundane capital city, highlighted by an impressive deep-water harbour, a scuttle of slightly high-rise shopping arcades at the water’s edge, the bustling Central Market festering in spices, and the old British Fort Adelaide built especially to protect their women and children during the historical Anglo-French land-squabbles and sea battles in and around Mauritius – one of which the French actually won in 1810 and recorded as their sole naval victory over the English on the L’Arc de Triomphe!
An irony here relating to the Chagossians – who lost out even further on the 20 December, 2012 when the European Court of ‘Human Rights’ turned down their bids for recompense and a return to their distant homelands – some Christmas present, eh - is that their Mauritian ‘cousins’ own pre-Independence administration literally sold them down the river too, as is all so well-articulated in the impressive book by Jean Claude de L’Estrac entitled Next Year in Diego Garcia from 2011, which really sets in stone the duplicitous and nefarious scheming by the recondite Anglo-American imperialists. “This story is one of deceit, lies and cowardice. Perhaps worse” L'Estrac observes. The plight of the Chagossians is – most definitely for me - one of the major blots on the Anglo-American copybook of the last forty years. An excellent fictionalized account of the Chagossians' story is included in Lindsey Collen’s novel Mutiny, which was included in the Guardian's list of ‘greatest underrated fictions of the noughties.’
To go back to my earlier kaupapa, and to quote Cleary once more about the local intra-discriminatory culture: “Identity is related to community and to the competition between the various groups for the country’s resources and labour market…there is a surprising amount of religious intolerance on the island.”  Cleary majority Indo-Mauritian Hindu now dominate in business and politics and form a burgeoning middle-class, given they still subsist below the French elite, who maintain, even in 2013, whites-only clubs in Port Louis. Indeed, one of Mauritius’ greatest writers, Malcolm de Chazal, once categorized his homeland as ”cultivating only sugarcane and prejudice.”

All of which is hugely ironic as so many tourists to Mauritius are black-skinned English bankers who were born and bred in London and are rabid fans of Manchester United(!), or members of the rapidly rising black South African middle-class with the funds to spring over to Belle Mare beaches from Johannesburg. We met some of these types when we went on a guided tour to the impressive Botanical Gardens in Pamplemousses and the Sugar Factory Museum on the outskirts of Port Louis. We all ended up at the lovely lunchtime restaurant at this selfsame ex-Sugar Cane Factory and shared tales about Aotearoa-New Zealand rugby over the luscious sugar cane rum of many varieties, as well as the equally impressive local Phoenix beer. It’s when a 14 year old non-white J’burg boy tells a Maori that his favourite rugby player is Richie McCaw you know that – for some ethnicities in some places, at least - it’s all far too simplistic to cast everything in clear cut black and white tones nowadays: which is all a very good thing...

In many ways Mauritius is a time-warp where the past rubs up against the immediate present and an indubitable and inevitable widening future: where black men and women cater to other black men and women with more money than them. One group speaks French, the other English. It’s just that Mauritius has yet to inherit the prosperity that fuels the visitors from its former colonies, (some its near neighbours), who have successfully begun to throw off the shackles of their selfsame colonisers! Ironies abound - rather like the piles of lank green kelp, which are consistently being cleared off the seashore by teams of – you guessed it – Creoles and Indo-Mauritians stewing under the noon day sun.
An interesting place with the potential for explosion methinks. We sensed beneath the placid and polite and peaceful exteriors of the mass of the people we met a sort of frustration, a form of resignation, an element of indignation at having to learn English, to accept lower paid employment as taxi drivers and housemaids and tourist guides. And to have to survive by being kelp pickers while the white men and women – and to be fair - the much darker skinned Indian tourists and black Englishmen and black South Africans lolled on their deckchairs in the broiling sun and gestured for cool drinks to be delivered.

Globalisation at play, maybe, but any leveling process has yet to eke through to the ‘average’ Mauritian in their own rather wondrous and spectacularly verdant homeland, operating on a distinct Mauritian time, whereby one waits just a bit longer than one would in Hong Kong or parts of Auckland: Leticia and I were going to be picked up by taxi at 5.00 one evening to be taken on an hour-long drive to the very touristy Grand Baie before the sun went down. Our affable driver finally arrived at 6.10 pm. C’est la vie, n’est-ce-pas mes amis?

And we cannot forget sega – the endemic and idiosyncratic and Mauritius unique meta-dance-music that quintessentially sums up this island overall: a kaleidoscopic cross-pollination of variegated nuances, fragrances, tones, credos, aftertastes and tongues – and for us now already – delightful memories.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Brett's radical travels

Back in 2008 Jack Ross invited me up to the Albany campus of Massey University to talk to his Creative Writing students about the art of describing unglamorous and unloved places.

Fearing that Jack's charges might doubt the value of the literary expeditions I'd been making to places like the Hauraki Plains and Huntly, I assured them that I had merely been jumping on a literary bandwagon that had gained impressive momentum overseas. The name of this bandwagon was, I announced, anti-travel writing. The term might be new to Kiwi ears, but it was, I insisted, tripping off the tongues of northern hemisphere scribblers. Iain Sinclair's walks through the slowly gentrifying wastes of greater London, JG Ballard's paeans to abandoned airports in the Nevada Desert, and Robert Macfarlane's fossickings in the sodden, ghost-thronged margins of East Anglia were all examples of anti-travel literature.
Unfortunately for me, Jack had that morning googled the term 'anti-travel', and discovered that it hardly existed outside of this blog and the webpage he had established to advertise my lecture. "It seems we've invented our own literary movement" my host said wryly.

Partly out of obduracy, and partly for want of an alternative, I've continued to use the term anti-travel to justify the reports I've posted, on this blog and elsewhere, from unloved suburban parks, the fringes of motorways, and little-visited pa. A few other bloggers have started to throw the term 'anti-travel' about, and Paul Janman has used it to describe his proposed film about the Great South Road.

One or two of the readers who have encountered the term 'anti-travel' have decided that it stands for the cessation of all human movement. One blogger, for instance, thought that I wanted to force people to remain permanently in their native villages and suburbs. Worryingly, he seemed to approve of such an idea.

Of course, 'anti-travel' isn't about staying put, but about travelling to unusual places, and thinking in unusual ways whilst exploring these places.

Some readers have claimed that I and those like me favour visiting unfashionable places because we love ugliness and boredom. They charge us with perversity and nihilism, and suggest that, if only we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that we'd prefer an hour lying on the beach at Pauanui to a week exploring Northland gumfields or the industrial ruins of Huntly.
If they were honest with themselves, these critics would admit that, in certain approved places and at certain approved times, they'd enjoy the sort of activities that anti-travellers engage in down here in New Zealand. How many of the Kiwis who sneer at Huntly's sealed coal shafts, fleet of derailed locomotives, and flooded, dangerously listing carbonisation factory would happily pay to join one of the Industrial Revolution Heritage tours of England's Midlands? For most Aucklanders the Hauraki Plains, with its vast painterly skies and intricate and ingenious canal system, represents merely a half-hour they must spend on their drive to the beaches of the Coromandel. But how many of the snobs who speed through the countryside around Ngatea and  Kerepehi would fail to celebrate the coastal plains of the Netherlands, which have very similar attributes?

Gianni Vattimo uses the term 'constellation' to describe the set of economic, political and cultural conditions which create the acceptable reality of a particular society at a particular time. Fifty years ago, at the apex of the postwar economic boom, the reigning 'constellation' defined New Zealand as a hypermodern, hyperproductive nation, where farmers armed with heavy tractors, tonnes of fertiliser and heroic physiques turned out huge quantities of milk, mutton, and grain. Important visitors were taken to hydroelectric dams and dairy factories, so that they could admire man's mastery of nature in the country that billed itself as a 'new' and 'better' Britain.

In the late eighties and the nineties, though, New Zealand was deindustrialised and globalised, the needs of the finance and tourism sectors of the economy were prioritised, and a new national image was created. The hypermodern paradise became an arcadia inhabited by laidback hobbits. Industrial heritage has become an oxymoron, and tour buses steer resolutely for profitable wildernesses like Fiordland and the Ureweras. The reigning constellation has changed.
In twenty-first century New Zealand, visiting and celebrating a town like Huntly or a region like the Hauraki Plains means rejecting a limiting, patronising vision of New Zealand, and affirming that there are other ways of understanding our landscape and its history.

To say all this is not to deny the shortcomings of the term I coined back in 2008. The excellent everywhere all the time blog, which recently reproduced my post about the history of the countryside around Hobbiton, uses the term 'radical travel' to describe its enthusiasms. I think that phrase easily beats out 'anti-travel', because it lacks all connotations of stasis and negativity. Why didn't I think of anything half as good?

Brett Cross is an inveterate exponent of anti- or radical travel. The boss of Titus Books tired of international journeying years ago, and now devotes himself to explorations of the New Zealand countryside which are both languorous and intense. He likes to move from one rural location to another, getting to know the terrain and culture of each place he lives in super-intimate detail. Brett spent 2011 and 2012 in an isolated area of the Kaipara, canoeing down turbid streams that were once highways for missionaries and Nga Puhi taua and fossicking at the bottom of disused wells. Recently he moved with his family to an area south of Auckland, and began a series of forays into the rough edges of the Waikato region and across the Hauraki Plains.

Brett sent me this account of an expedition to the central section of the Plains:

we went to the huge 'lake' south of ngatea a couple of days back, drove up a remote gravel farm road, saw a farmer on a 4-wheel and asked him if this was the way to the 'lake' - he looked at us quizzically, then said, 'you mean the swamp?' we said, 'nah, on the map, there's supposed to be a huge lake around here' - he goes, 'mmmmm, yeah ... there's a huge swamp, duck hunters use the next road down, gravel road winds through it, you can go there' - and looked at us like we were very strange folk indeed whilst the rest of the xmas holiday-makers roared past in the distance on state highway 2 looking for pauanui and the mt ... anyways, we went to the gravel road but lost our bottle as a very narrow gravel track headed into dense swamp, would like to go back sometime though if we could ever get hold of a 4-wheel drive. The swamps in the Hauraki District are very cool and fascinating - and the plains pretty much the highlight of the area...
Brett, who had avoided looking too closely at his map before striking out, reached the margins of the vast marshes which separate the towns of Ngatea and Paeroa. In satellite photographs these marshes resemble a black hole in the middle of the green and pleasant Plains.

When James Cook steered up the Waihou at the end of 1769 he found kahikatea rising seventy feet out of the swampland on either side of the river, and noticed the local people steering slender waka tiwai between the great white columns. The Hauraki people lived on islands they had created amidst the marshes, and harvested the eels and birds which thrived in its depths and heights. Their carvings, which are still occasionally discovered by the Pakeha dairy farmers who have drained blocks of swampland, are unique in the canon of Maori art, because the Gods and ancestors they depict often have webbed fingers and toes.

During World War Two the marshes of Hauraki became a graveyard for the craft of the fledgling New Zealand Air Force, as trainee pilot after trainee pilot beached his corsair or tiger moth in their rushes and ooze. No reason for the persistent crashes could be discovered. Historians of aviation still hunt wrecks in the swamps, and occasionally drag out wing-fragments and propeller blades, relics which resemble the bones of giant extinct creatures.

Those Christmas holiday-makers roaring past on their way to Pauanui didn't know what they were missing.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, January 05, 2013

The alternative to welcoming 2013

is, of course, indulging in time travel. Back in 2005 a group of sci fi fans organised a convention for time travellers in a Massachusetts hall. As they pointed out, only one time travellers' convention ever needs to be held: 'travellers from all eras' can meet at a specific place and time, and 'make as many repeat visits as they want'. No self-declared time traveller announced him or herself at the convention, but the organisers reckoned that some might have attended incognito, 'in order to avoid endless questions about the future'. Why did the geeks assume that temporal nomads would arrive from the future, rather than out of the vast, perhaps immeasurable, regions of the past?

At about the time of the time travellers' convention I was constructing my first book, which includes this passage, along with many others I now struggle to understand except as the psychic byproducts of too many late nights and too much classic-era Doctor Who:

Please, put down the bow and look at my diagram. This dot is you. You lived your life, thousands of years ago, and died. Your skeleton proves my proposition: there it sits, almost invisibly, under your flesh, like a wicker chair holding a corpulent man. The bones are cruel and ambitious, and long to emerge, but they did not reckon with my time machine. Borrow the machine again, if you need to go home, to test my argument, but remember to drop it back before you leave. The only way back from the past is further into the past: from the Neolithic flint mine you must strike backwards, right through the Big Bang, to a previous, identical time-cycle. Save that arrow for the double who'll be waiting there for you. 

Welcome, anyway, to 2013, or to wherever else you find yourself! And, if you're a time traveller, don't be afraid to leave a note: I won't ask you about the future, though if you've been back a hundred or so years I might have one or two questions about the historiography of the Pacific in general, and Tonga in particular. You could even drop by in a couple of months and give a guest lecture or two for me year at 'Atenisi!

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]