The inescapable politics of rocks
As he worked with me on a book and a film about Auckland's Great South Road, Janman had spent hours in the Bombay Hills, on the southern edge of Auckland, where a handful of rocks sit on a strip of land between the road and the newer southern motorway.
For geologists, these rocks are the unexceptional, randomly positioned detritus of an ancient volcanic eruption. For a set of right-wing political activists and conspiracy theorists, though, the rocks are known as the 'Bombay Obelisk'. According to Martin Doutre, the author of a frequently baffling tome called Ancient Celtic New Zealand, the obelisk was an ancient astronomy, and its carvings of snakes and runes offer dramatic and irrefutable evidence that a technologically sophisticated European civilisation had established itself in New Zealand many thousands of years ago.
Doutre's opinion has been publicised loudly and persistently by the Franklin E Local, a giveaway magazine published a few kilometres from the obelisk in Pukekohe. When Maori TV ran an investigation into the Celtic New Zealand theory and the links between its proponents and the neo-Nazi and criminal fraternities, Doutre brought reporter Iulia Leilua to the obelisk, so she could have a firsthand experience of the glories of this country's ancient white culture.
Because we believe that history is made with fantasies and hallucinations, as well as facts and artefacts, Paul and I are devoting some of our book and film to the strange story of the Bombay obelisk. Paul and cinematographer Ian Powell have taken photographs and shot footage of the obelisk and its environs, and last year they showed off some of these images at the Papakura Art Gallery.
Paul and I have in the past linked Martin Doutre and other proponents of the Celtic New Zealand theory with the anxiety many Pakeha Kiwis feel about their place in the world. Thousands of miles from their European motherland, surrounded by alien flora and the earthworks of ancient Maori pa, some Pakeha have sought comfort in imaginary histories that grant them indigenity.
When Paul Janman reached the imperial motherland recently, though, he made a disconcerting discovery. After crossing the world, he'd found himself witness to another angry argument about another group of stones. Here's a message Paul sent me, shortly after arriving in the land of his ancestors:
Bore da Scott, (Good morning in Welsh...)
It is not hard to imagine a political context for the arguments Paul reports. Wales' pro-independence party Plaid Cymru took nearly a fifth of the votes at the last election to the country's assembly, and has been encouraged by the recent massive gains of Scotland's nationalists. Like their Scottish counterparts, the Welsh nationalists argue that England has for centuries dominated its Celtic neighbours in the British Isles. The nationalists' critics consider this sentimental nonsense, and charge that, far from being English colonies, Wales and Scotland have been equal partners in the United Kingdom and were equal partners in the British Empire.
Stonehenge was built four and a half thousand years ago, long before either England or Wales existed as cultural or political units. The monument nevertheless seems to have been drafted into arguments about Welsh and English history and identity. The defenders of Britain seem to want to discredit claims that the Welsh were a victimised people by suggesting that the ancient Celts were ranging aggressively over what is now England, and raising expensive monuments there. For their part, some Weslh nationalists seem offended by the notion that their very distant ancestors might have been primitive imperialists.
It is easy to see parallels between the attempts to use Stonehenge against the Welsh and the way that right-wing Pakeha use the notion of an ancient white civilisation against Maori. According to the likes of Doutre, the European colonists who supposedly thrived in New Zealand for thousands of years were eventually conquered, enslaved, and eaten by the ancestors of Maori. Far from being a people victimised by Euroepan imperialism, then, Maori are, in Doutre's strange universe, the imperialist victimisers of Europeans.
The anti-Welsh and anti-Maori arguments I've been discussing rely on some ironic assumptions. Both suppose, for example, that conquest and colonisation are bad things. But a century ago, during the era of British eminence that many opponents of Maori and Welsh nationalism idealise, wars of conquest and colonisation were seen as virtuous, and perhaps even divinely ordained, events. For Cecil Rhodes or William Massey, the alleged victories of ancient Celts and Maori would have counted in those peoples' favour, not against them. Imperialism and militarism became such compromised ideologies in the second half of the twentieth century that even reactionaries like Martin Doutre now attach their arguments to narratives of victimhood.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]