now that we’re
living in the same country again, and might have some time to work on that
documentary about the Great South Road, I wanted to tell you about an image
that deserves a place in the film.
A couple of
years ago Auckland’s central public library filled its exhibitions room with a
few of the thousands of books, images, and artefacts that George Grey hoarded
during his long and peripatetic career as administrator of Britain’s nineteenth
century empire. In between the original editions of Blake’s illuminated
manuscripts and the shaky sketches Grey made of Aboriginal rock art during the
deadly expedition he made into the Kimberleys as a young man, I found a small,
blurred, astonishing photograph.
Taken on a
primitive camera somewhere in the Waikato Kingdom in the first years of the
1860s, when the Mangatawhiri Stream at Mercer still represented the border
between Maori sovereignty and British colonialism, the image showed a ‘native
church’ set amidst fields of what looked like maize or wheat.
With their wooden
materials, gothic structure, and stained glass windows of fort-building and
dragon-slaying Englishmen, the churches that Augustus Selwyn’s Anglican church
raised after the invasion, conquest, and confiscation of the Waikato Kingdom have
become favourites of Auckland daytrippers and wedding parties.
It is easy
to forget – I confess I had forgotten – that, well before the invasion
of 1863, Maori religious leaders like Wiremu Tamihana were raising their own,
very different churches south of the Mangatwhiri. The church in the photograph was long, and low, and
rectangular, like the dozens of wharenui that stand today on the archipelago of
Maori-owned land in the Waikato, but it was made with provisional, fragile materials:
raupo logs, fern, reeds, and what looked like flax. It was a building thrown up
quickly, by a society in motion.
In the 1850s
and early ‘60s, under the leadership of Tamihana and his allies, the hapu and
iwi of the Waikato had begun to grow wheat and corn alongside traditional crops
like kumara, and had planted dense and profitable forests of plums and peaches.
A fleet of Maori-owned schooners took these goods to the hungry settler city of
Auckland, and returned with cash and trade goods. The Waikato boomed, and new
kainga were established beside the ever-growing cultivations.
behind the church seemed to sway, and I imagined a wind blowing down the Waikato,
from the hills at Bombay where Grey’s troops were felling trees and
laying gravel, as they built the Great South Road, or the ‘road to war’, as
some land-hungry Auckland settlers apparently called it. The road would soon
run all the way to the border at Mangatawhiri.
decades after 1863, the landscape of the Waikato began to change. Swamps were
drained like wounds, forests of kahikatea and puriri were felled for fenceposts,
and cows and sheep grazed over razed wheat and corn fields. After the invention
of refrigerated shipping in the 1880s, and the beginning of a large-scale trade
in beef and mutton with Britain, these changes to the landscape hastened.
In the twentieth century the region became synonymous with dairy farming – it
was commonly called, by sarcastic Aucklanders as well as proud Hamiltonians,
‘Cow Country’, and its rugby team, which had inherited some of the
martial spirit of the soldier settlers sent south from Auckland by Grey, was
nicknamed the Mooloos, after a Jersey cow.
remembering must involve imagining. Because of the destruction of the old
landscape of the Waikato, and the rarity of images of that landscape, it has
taken historians and artists an effort of imagination to conjure
the world of the 1850s and early ‘60s.
With its fields of wheat and
maize wedged between forested wetlands and a broad, turbulent river unharassed by
dams and flood gates and pumping stations, the Waikato of Wiremu Tamihana’s era
would inevitably seem exotic, even alien, to New Zealanders born after the 1860s. It might have more in common with
certain Asian landscapes – with the tilled floodplains of the Mekong River in
southern Vietnam, for instance, or the lowlands of Java – than with the place
we recognise as New Zealand.
years, though, the landscape of the Waikato has begun to change again. The new middle
and upper classes of a booming China have decided, for reasons that are perhaps
obscure, to make the consumption of dairy products one of the symbols of their prosperity. The milk,
cream, yoghurt and cheese produced in regions like the Waikato is devoured
in Shanghai and Dalian. The dairy boom has inevitably increased the size
of dairy farms and cow herds. Hilly and scrubby land that was long abandoned to
sheep and beef farming is being deemed fit for dairying, and new supermarket-sized milking ‘sheds’ are being raised.
burgeoning dairy herds of the Waikato have an appetite as hard to satisfy as
the consumers of China. Farmers have long fed their cows maize, to supplement
their diet and increase their milk yields, and the new dairy boom has vastly
increased demand for this crop. In the past, many dairy farmers would set aside
a paddock or two for a maize crop to feed their stock; increasingly, though,
cropping specialists are growing maize on large blocks of land and selling it
to dairy farmers. Much of the maize is being grown on low reedy acreage close to the Waikato and Waipa Rivers.
travelled down the Great South Road into the Waikato recently, I was amazed that, in the year I had been away, so much cropland had appeared
alongside the river. The luxuriant and lost fields I had seen in that ancient
photograph seemed to have returned, though in the twenty-first century they are more likely to be
owned by an Auckland or Australian-based company than a hapu.
I am not
sure how Auckland’s librarians regard the man who founded their institution.
Like so many treasures the colonial past has bequeathed us, Grey's hoard of books and images smells of gunpowder and
blood. When they retrieved those photographs and notebooks and war charts from
their basement, the librarians were exhuming a corpse. But I think that, even if it means
annoying the custodians of Auckland’s past, we need to find the photograph I
saw in the library’s exhibition room, and put it in your film.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]