Tuesday, March 29, 2016

See you in Nuku'alofa next month

[Maikolo Horowitz of the 'Atenisi Institute is pasting this abstract up around Nuku'alofa...]

Kolofeke: how Tongan artists are remaking Auckland  

A public seminar by Dr Scott Hamilton

Seven o'clock, Monday the 18th of April, 'Atenisi Institute, Longolongo

Twenty-first century Auckland teems with Tongan painters, sculptors, photographers, video makers, and performance artists. Some of these artists grew up in Auckland; others settled in the city as children or adults. Some return regularly to Tonga; others rely on talanoa at kava circles and images on facebook to keep in touch with their homeland. Auckland is a rambling and diverse city - the poet Karlo Mila likened it to an octopus - and Tongan artists have responded to its pleasures and frustrations in myriad ways.

Dr Scott Hamilton has been a fan of contemporary Tongan art for years, and has written a series of essays about the Tongan artists of Auckland for EyeContact, New Zealand's most widely read arts journal. In his seminar at the 'Atenisi Institute Hamilton will explain how Auckland's Tongan artists have helped him to think about his hometown in new ways.

Hamilton will discuss Kalisolaite 'Uhila, the performance artist who locked himself into a shipping container to memorialise the journeys of Tongan stowaways to Nu'usila, and shared a room with a puaka to examine the suffering of Tongan prodigal sons living far from their homeland; John Vea, who makes talo-shaped sculptures out of plaster and leaves them on Auckland's streets to draw attention to the role that Pacific labourers play in creating the city's wealth; Visesio Siasau, whose award-winning ngatu and sculptures juxtapose ancient Tongan gods like Hikuele'o with Sisu Kalaisi and his saints; Benjamin Work, who has taken the hieroglyphs of ancient 'akau tau and painted them in red and black onto the walls of Auckland's streets and galleries; Tui Emma Gillies, who covers ngatu with the unique sub-species of laione bred in Tonga; and Salome Tanuvasa, who has taken her video camera into factories and hotels where Tongan emigrants to Auckland work.

Bio Note
Scott Hamilton has a PhD in Sociology and a Masters Degree in Art History from the University of Auckland. He has published several books and scores of essays on culture, history, and politics. In 2015 he won the inaugural Auckland Mayoral Literary Grant and was the D'Arcy Writer in Residence on Waiheke Island. He is a featured author at this year's Auckland Readers and Writers Festival. Hamilton taught at the 'Atenisi Institute in 2013 and had a very good time. He began studying the Tongan language this year, and loves the word 'fakapikopiko'. 
[This is Benjamin Work, posing with the hieroglyphs he discovered on ancient Tongan war clubs.]

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The bandits of Westfield bridge

[This is another draft chapter from my manuscript about the Great South Road. I'm still checking one or two of the details.]
1.
Sam Henderson had been driving for hours. His passengers were sleeping drunkenly. He slowed as he approached Westfield bridge, where the Great South Road twisted over the rail line that connected two blocks of a freezing works.

A length of wood balanced on two kerosene tins blocked the road just before it crossed the bridge. A hurricane lamp sat on the wood.

Two men stood beside the barricade. They had covered their faces with black stockings; their eyes were ripped slits. Even before Henderson had stopped his car, they had jumped onto the running boards beside his front doors. One of the masks spoke with an American accent; the other sounded Australian.

An arm reached through an open window, and pushed a colt revolver against Sam Henderson's ribs. A second pistol nuzzled the forehead of Sam's friend George Holland, who was sitting beside him in the front passenger seat. Sam's wife Grace had been sleeping in the backseat, alongside Eric and Len Manson. Now she began to tell the masked men about the three children waiting for her at home, and about the money they were welcome to take from her handbag.

George Holland and Eric Manson were not so eager to part with their cash. As soon as they had seen the barricade they had pushed rolls of pound notes under the back seat of the car.

As the barrel of a revolver pressed harder against his chest, Sam Henderson heard the voices promise him that no one would be hurt, that any money taken would be returned, that he would be compensated for the theft of his car. The robbers explained that they weren't really criminals, and were only waiting for a change in their fortunes. The masks were talking at the same time, and their voices were getting shriller.

One of the bandits kicked away the barricade, then leapt back onto one of the running boards of the car and ordered Sam Henderson to drive over Westfield bridge and a few hundred yards down the road. Then the doors were open, and Henderson was being invited, shrilly but politely, to step out of his car, to remove his coat. The gun was gone from his ribs, but his heart struck painfully against the bruise it had left. His wife and George Holland and Eric Manson were beside him; they were all climbing out of their suits in the same clumsy way they had climbed out of the car.

For most of the twenties Sam Henderson had been one of New Zealand's most successful jockeys. At a steeplechase in Paeroa in 1926 his horse had collapsed and died; he had broken so many bones that the New Zealand Racing Conference had assumed he would never race again, and had paid him one thousand pounds compensation. Henderson was riding again in twelve months. George Holland and the Manson brothers were also jockeys. They were all returning from the annual Te Kuiti Race Meet, which had begun on Saturday and attracted thousands of punters.

Henderson and his friends did not necessarily need to ride to make money at events like the Te Kuiti Race Day. Jockeys were forbidden from betting on races, but many made wagers through surrogates. With their knowledge of the sport and their access to gossip they could pick winners much more easily than most punters.

Sam Henderson had a better view of the bandits now. One was tall; the other had the body of a jockey. They were groping the pockets and tugging the sleeves of their victims' coats. Then a revolver was pointing down the Great South Road toward the Westfield bridge and Otahuhu, and an American accent was telling the Hendersons and their friends to walk away; the car was leaving. The robbers slid into the vehicle's front seats, slammed the doors, and started the engine. Then a doors opened again, as the robbers shouted together. They had discovered Len Manson still asleep in the back seat. Manson was not happy to be woken to be woken. 'You big Yankee mug!' he yelled, as the tall man dragged him out of the car.

Manson stood with his friends and watched the tail lights of Sam Henderson's car disappear. The little group waited in the dark for several minutes, until a single light appeared in the south. Douglas Wallace was bringing his motorbike from Ngaruawahia to Auckland with his friends Percy and Henry Fletcher. Percy was riding Wallace's motorbike for the first time; Henry was clinging to his brother's back, while the owner sat in a side chair.

For a minute or two, the motorcyclists thought they were being treated to some complicated joke. They smelt the alcohol on Sam Henderson's breath; they waited for his wide eyes to narrow mirthfully, and for his dry lips to curl into a smile. But Sam Henderson wasn't joking, and soon Percy Fletcher was revving the motorbike and setting out with his friends across the Westfield bridge and up the Great South Road. Douglas Wallace wished that he was driving. From his perch in the sidecar he noticed dozens of shards of glass spread out over the road. Had the thieves driven their new car into a wall or a tree? 

Percy Fletcher reached sixty miles an hour on the straight stretch of the Great South Road that ran through Penrose towards the Harp of Erin inn. Two cars idled in the distance, beyond a stone crushing yard. Fletcher got closer, and a pair of men slid out of the back car. They pointed down the road, shouted at each other, ran toward the other car. One of them scuttled into the driver's seat; he had already started to pull away when his companion jumped on the sideboard. Percy Fletcher recognised the car he was chasing as a Morris-Cowley saloon, fashionable and expensive. Douglas Wallace saw a flash of white light and a flame, and heard a cracking sound. The bandit on the running board was shooting at him.

The bike soon slowed, as the tyre of its sidecar wobbled. As the Morris-Cowley disappeared Percy Fletcher braked, and his passengers dismounted. Wallace stooped by the side chair and found one tear after another in its tyre. He thumbed the tube free from its casing, and found more tears. He walked down the road in the lamplight, looking for bullet shells. Instead he found the dozens of long tacks he had mistaken for fragments of glass. The bandits had anticipated pursuers.

The next morning trenchcoated detectives clustered around Sam Henderson, as he walked from Westfield bridge towards his abandoned vehicle. Reporters and photographers and kids on bikes followed at a polite distance, and families in slow-moving cars brought up the rear of the strange procession. The people of Penrose and Ellerslie wandered out of their houses and looked for bullet casings in their gutters.

The Auckland Star was running a report on the ambush and chase under the headline 'Bandits at Westfield', as well as a long interview with Grace Henderson entitled 'Don't Shoot Us!' The New Zealand Herald offered a photograph of the Westfield bridge, and explained that the bridge's underpass offered perfect cover for highwaymen. It was the 27th of November 1928, and Auckland was in shock.

In the 1860s the Great South Road was built by and for soldiers. Maori nationalists sniped at and ambushed the road's first users, and pillaged many of the houses built beside it. For a few years the road was defended by redoubts and patrols. Cemeteries and monuments were built to store and commemorate its victims. By 1928, though, the roadside violence of the sixties had been forgotten by Pakeha New Zealanders. Theirs was a stout and peaceable society, and highway robbery was inexplicable and appalling and perhaps a little thrilling.

2.

Three weeks before the ambush at Westfield bridge a pair of young men stepped off a steamship called the Marama and into New Zealand. Roy Kitching was twenty years old, and had blonde hair that he parted in the middle. David Stewart, who also used the aliases Stonor Stewart and Stonor McAfee, was eight years older and about a foot taller than his companion, with dark receding hair and rimless glasses. Both men wore new suits and felt hats. Kitching had ten pounds in his wallet; Stewart carried one hundred pounds and two handguns.

Kitching and Stewart had met in Melbourne about a year earlier, shortly after Stewart arrived in the city from America, claiming to be an emissary of Shaw Aviation, one of numerous small companies trying to turn air travel from an adventure sport into an industry. Kitching came from one of Melbourne's wealthier families, and was recovering from a car crash.
Using homophobic code, the New Zealand Truth would later describe Kitching as a 'delicate youth' with a 'weak mouth', who was inevitably 'dominated' by his older companion.
In the spring of 1928 Stewart had needed to leave Melbourne urgently. He and Kitching had driven north to Sydney, then sold their car and caught the Marama. They stayed for a few days at Auckland's Central Hotel, at the bottom of Queen Street, and drank and ate at Auckland's best bars and restaurants, where they quickly made friends. Stewart introduced himself as the director of the 'New Zealand Aerial Service', a company that would soon begin flights between Auckland and many cities and towns in the North and South Islands. Kitching was his secretary.

Stewart chartered a car, then rented a bungalow on Epsom's Liverpool Street, close to Cornwall Park. He hired a housemaid, but asked her not to begin work too early in the morning. Some of the solicitors and doctors who lived on Liverpool Street complained to one another about the nightly parties at the bungalow; others preferred to drink with the glamorous foreigners, and hear about the airline they were establishing. The Truth would later report that 'more than one damsel of alleged social standing' also joined the festivities at 11 Liverpool Street.

On November the 24th, after two and a half weeks in Auckland, Stewart and Kitching ran out of money. Both men cabled their families to ask for funds. Kitching's family did not reply immediately; Stewart's mother cabled him her love, but did not send any cash. The American began to write valueless cheques.

Stewart and Kitching soon decided to turn to Aucklanders for help. They would only take what they needed, and would be careful to return what they had taken as soon as their families replenished their bank accounts. On Sunday, during the rest day in the Te Kuiti races, they drove slowly up and down the Great South Road, and discovered the recently built Westfield bridge, with its swan neck curve and dark underpass. They noticed a hurricane lamp amidst some roadworks, and timber lying about at a small lumber yard close to the bridge. They returned on Monday afternoon, left their car a couple of miles up the road, and hid under the bridge.

3.

The Te Kuiti races ended at about four o'clock. The sale of liquor was banned in Te Kuiti and in the rest of the King Country, so punters could not hole up in a nearby pub. Many had already gotten drunk on beer and spirits they had bought at the pubs of the Waikato and smuggled across the Puniu River, or acquired from local bootleggers at the edge of the racecourse. The pubs of the Waikato closed at six o'clock, so if the racegoers from the north hurried home they could hope to get back across the border in time to drink a bottle or two.

By ten o'clock cars were stuttering through Auckland's southern suburbs, near the end of their journeys from Te Kuiti. One jockey was a couple of miles north of Otahuhu when he noticed two men standing on the road, on either side of a hurricane lamp. The men were waving their arms, as though they needed help. The driver sped up, and swerved to avoid the lamp. Kitching and Stewart fled.

A little later another driver noticed a length of timber. He stopped and stepped out of his car and pushed the barricade aside, shouting 'I'd like to get hold of the man who put this here!' The bandits again retreated to their underpass.

In the statements they eventually gave to police, Stewart and Kitching remembered that by one o'clock in the morning they had been ready to abandon their plan. They had been nervous enough when they arrived at Westfield bridge, and the resistance of the Great South Road's motorists had made them almost hysterical. They were about to walk back to their car and drive home when Samuel Henderson's vehicle appeared. Henderson was driving slowly, and his passengers appeared comatose. The bandits decided that they could cope. 

But the ambush was unprofitable. Kitching and Stewart were too nervous to search the captured car carefully: they missed the wads of cash that George Holland and Eric Manson had hidden. Stewart had intended to steal and sell Henderson's car, but Percy Fletcher panicked him into abandoning the vehicle.

Kitching and Stewart reached their bungalow at one thirty, only half an hour after they had stopped Sam Henderson. They sat up all night, waiting for lights in their drive and fists on their door. The police did not come, so in the morning they drove the Morris-Cowley to the Central Hotel: perhaps they were hoping for a drink, or a cable from abroad. The Central's doorman smiled at the two men, and congratulated them on their robbery. In a town as tight as 1920s Auckland, the bandits' exotic accents had been enough to give them away.

Stewart and Kitching fled north, stopping at Kaikohe's hotel. They quickly spent the little cash they had taken in their robbery. The police had by now raided Liverpool Street, and learned of the bandits' destination. They contacted their counterparts in Northland. 

The bandits soon left Kaikohe. They went further north to Kaitaia, then exchanged the gravel of Highway One for the ironsand of Ninety Mile Beach. They reached Te Paku Stream, near the end of the beach and the end of New Zealand, and asked locals if its waters were very deep. The locals lied, and the hired saloon car was soon submerged in six feet of water and stuck in sand.

Now Stewart and Kitching were stranded and broke. They retreated from the car to the scrub hills at the edge of the beach. They shot rabbits with their revolvers and cooked them on a fire kindled with broken toi toi and lupins. They slept in the open for two nights, then somehow rescued their car, drove back to Kaikohe, and took another room. When Constable Duddy of Rawene and Constable Wolfendale of Kaikohe pushed their way into the room they found a colt revolver and fifteen rounds of ammunition on the pedestal of the bed the men were sharing.

4.

A crowd surrounded Auckland's Supreme Court on the 28th of November, blocking the van that rolled up Anzac Avenue. Aucklanders had come to see the bandits, and they were more curious than bellicose. Stewart and Kitching emerged from the van holding felt hats over their faces. Suddenly ashamed of his height, Stewart stooped into his hat. Unable to see their way forward and disoriented by the noise of the crowd, the highwaymen staggered toward the door of the courthouse. A bemused policeman walked slowly behind them.

In the statement he had already given to police, Kitching had said that he was 'relieved' to be arrested, because he was 'weary' of the company of the man he called Stonor. The American had charmed and corrupted and manipulated him. Kitching wanted to return to Australia, and to never see the other bandit again. In the dock of the Supreme Court, though, Kitching chatted happily to Stewart. The two men smiled at each other when some of the details of the Westfield ambush were recited by a prosecutor.
When they appeared in court again in the first week of February, Stewart and Kitching pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery, and not guilty to a slew of more minor charges, which were promptly dropped. A representative of the Kitching family had arrived in Auckland with an affidavit about Roy's character signed by sixteen worthy Melbournians. A manager of a local bank appeared, and confirmed that he was holding a large sum of money on behalf of the Kitching family, so that the victims of the Westfield ambush might be recompensed.

The bandits' lawyers explained that their clients had been determined to steal as politely as possible, and to return the cash they took as soon as funds arrived from Australia and America. Stewart had not intended to push his gun into Samuel Henderson's ribs; Kitching had fired accidentally at the motorcycle pursuing him. The men did not really block the Great South Road: the structure they made with kerosene cans and timber was too flimsy to be considered a barricade. Stewart and Kitching deserved probation, not imprisonment. They had already spent months waiting for trial in the unsalubrious Mount Eden prison. If Kitching were allowed to leave New Zealand, he would sequester himself on a farm his brother owned in Western Australia. Stewart would return to America.

Judge Archie Blair had the job of sentencing David Stewart and Roy Kitching. Blair had been admitted to the bar in the nineteenth century, but had only recently become a Supreme Court judge. He was fascinated by engineering as well as the law, and had designed one of New Zealand's first speedometers. Blair agreed that the men were 'amateurs in crime', but declined to give them probation. He sentenced them to a year's reformative probation. They would go to jail, but would not have to swing hammers and push barrows in Mount Eden's quarry. Stewart would get an extra six months' detention for passing bad cheques.

By contrast, three Maori robbers who had put a gun to a farmer's ribs outside Rotorua had each been sentenced to two years' hard labour plus two years' reformative detention in 1926. A sexagenarian who robbed an Auckland bank in 1925 got five years' detention.

The New Zealand Truth denounced the sentence. The paper reminded Justice Blair that Stewart and Kitching were 'highwaymen', albeit highwaymen with 'social aspirations' and 'timorous dispositions'. They had been spoiled by their families; now they were being 'spoon-fed' by the justice system. Blair's sentence suggested that the 'ancient game of highwayman' was now 'less serious, insofar as the consequences are concerned' than the mundane offense of breaking and entering. Had the judge been influenced by the 'romance' of Stewart and Kitching's crime?

The Truth claimed that the light sentence given to Stewart and Kitching was the 'sole topic of conversation' at Mount Eden, and suggested that the two men would not enjoy the rest of their time at the prison.

5.

If Stewart and Kitching were villains, then Percy Fletcher was, for a while at least, a hero. 

The Auckland Star called his pursuit of the bandits 'wildly thrilling', and the Truth ran a photograph of him sitting on Douglas Wallace's motorbike, like a knight ready to ride into battle.

In 1934, six years after the chase up the Great South Road, Percy and his brother Henry appeared again in Auckland's newspapers. They were tried for the theft and conversion of two cars in the same court where Stewart and Kitching had stood for sentencing.  When the Fletchers were found guilty of receiving stolen goods, their lawyer argued for mercy, explaining that Percy was suffering from epilepsy, and that he and his brother were poor. The court was reminded of the bravery Fletcher had shown on the night of November the 26th, 1928, when he pursued two bandits up the Great South Road in a spectacle that excited all of Auckland.

Percy and Henry Fletcher were sent to Mount Eden for a year. Unlike David Stewart and Roy Kitching, the brothers got hard labour.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Pluralism and paganism

[This blog post began as a comment at EyeContact, where I have been writing intermittently about Tongan-New Zealand art.]
It was wonderful to sit in a plush room at the Pah Homestead last year, sip champagne, and watch Auckland's art world honour Visesio Siasau. As I watched Siasau take the stage and acknowledge his Wallace Award, I remembered my visits to the studio he had improvised on the porch of his parents' home in Haveluloto, a village of dusty coral roads on the outskirts of  Nuku'alofa, the capital and only city of the Kingdom of Tonga. I remembered the reproaches the images he painted and sculpted in that studio received from some of his relatives. I thought about how far Sio had journeyed, and how much he deserved Nu'u Sila's most prestigious art prize. 
Now Siasau's work is going out into the world, and receiving new interpretations. EyeContact's Peter Dornauf has reviewed the massive series of ngatu paintings that won Siasau the Wallace, after these paintings were exhibited in the Waikato. I wanted to differ somewhat with Peter Dornauf's reading of Siasau's Wallace-winning work, but I am delighted that he and many other New Zealanders have been enjoying 'Onetu 'ofiuli - 'Onetuofekula'. I should emphasise, as well, that my interpretation of Visesio Siasau's art is not necessarily shared by the man himself. 
Dornauf observes that 'Onetu'ofiuli - 'Onetuofekula' might be translated loosely as 'Strands of colour inextricably connected to red and black'. Dornauf suggests that this title refers only to the formal aspects of Siasau's work, and gives little sense of the meaning of the images he has painted on ngatu. 
I am far from an expert on either the Tongan language or the semiotics of Tongan culture, but I know that red and black have very powerful connotations for Tongans, and that the connotations of kula are often contrasted to those of 'uli. Red is associated with masculinity and worldly power, while black connotes femininity and sacredness. 
In 2014 the Tongan-New Zealand painter Benjamin Work held an exhibition called I See Red, I See Red, I See Red at Otara's Fresh Gallery in which he reconnected kula with power, and linked the use of red paint and feathers by Tongan monarchs to the red crucifixes of palangi missionaries and the red flags of China's communist emperors. In a talk held to celebrate Benjamin's exhibition, 'Okusitino Mahina suggested that the colour red had become associated with males because in traditional Tongan society men worked outdoors, fishing and gardening and fighting, and got sunburnt. Women, by contrast, stayed out of the sun. 
I want to suggest that the title of Visesio Siasau's epic series of ngatu is not a simple statement about his colours, but rather a declaration of his desire to reconcile qualities that are often today treated, in Tongan and in many other cultures, as opposites. Because palangi cultures have tended to use the colours black and white to represent opposites, we could perhaps almost translate Siasau's title into English as something like 'All colours blend into black as well as white'. 
If we interpret Siasau's title in the way I have suggested, then we can reconsider Peter Dornauf's claim that the images on many of his ngatu are 'satirical', and reflect an anger at the influence of Christianity on Tonga. 
It is true that Siasau has rejected the Catholic faith of his parents. It is also true that his sculptures of crucified Polynesian gods and his paintings of a Jesus adorned by a dollar sign have angered some pious Tongans. 
But I think it would nevertheless be simplistic to consider Siasau a satirist of Christianity. He is not like the Samoan rapper Bill Urale, who ridicules not only the symbolism but the theology of Christianity, and argues that his people need to stop believing in 'an imaginary friend'. King Kapisi criticises Christianity because he is an atheist, and does not believe in a spiritual reality. Visesio Siasau, by contrast, criticises contemporary Tongan Christianity because he considers that it is not equal to the grandeur and the multiplicity of the spiritual universe. (When I counterpose Urale and Siasau, I don't mean to denigrate Urale's atheism, which is both brave and eloquent. I only mean to clarify what I see as Siasau's ideas.)
Siasau was for some time a Baha'i, and he is still on friendly terms with many members of that faith. Baha'i theology insists that all the world's religions are instruments of the same god, and that the different prophets and icons and rituals found on different continents and islands should be celebrated and reconciled. Thousands of Tongans have in recent decades abandoned the kingdom's Christian churches for Baha'i temples
Tongan Baha'is have often been criticised as atheists or even Satanists. A veteran Baha'i that I talked with at a kava circle remembered how stones had been thrown through his windows by neighbours outraged at his conversion. Baha'i defend themselves by insisting that they do not want to deny but rather complicate and enrich god. Jesus is not dethroned by their theology, but rather joined in his lofty place by Mohammed and Buddha and countless other holy men and women.
I think that, along with Baha'i theology, the scholarship of the late great Roger Neich has had an important influence on the development of Visesio Siasau's work. About a decade ago Siasau was standing in a queue in the bookshop of the Auckland museum, waiting to buy a volume by the ethnographer Roger Neich. When Neich walked into the bookshop the two men got talking. Soon they were standing in one of the museum's massive and magnificent storehouses, examining goddesses that Tongans carved out of ironwood centuries ago. Neich had spent years cataloguing and analysing the few pieces of pagan art that survived the fires lit by Tupou I, the Wesleyan warlord who used muskets and the Bible to unify Tonga in the middle of the nineteenth century. 
I think that the pluralism of the Baha'i faith and the revisionist scholarship of Roger Neich together helped Visesio Siasau to clarify his thinking and his practice. Siasau ransacked old ethnographic journals looking for drawings of temples and lyrics of chants. He wandered the Tongan bush looking for the sacred pagan groves where Tupou I sent his pigs to graze. His sculptures and his ngatu paintings began to offer images and forms from Tonga's pagan past, and to juxtapose them with images of contemporary Tonga. 
Over the last year Siasau has pushed past his old influences, and began to think, sculpt and paint in fiercely idiosyncratic ways. Last year he completed a Masters degree at the Wananga o Aotearoa by writing a thesis. Siasau's text offers a series of stories about his ancestors and his childhood amongst the carpenters and carvers of Haveluloto, then moves into a dense, poetic discussion of Tonga's deep past. In his struggle to communicate something of the otherness and grandeur of Tongan history and autochthonous Tongan religion, Siasau uses many ancient and unfamiliar words, and breaks up and recombines other words to create neologisms. His search for the past through language reminds me of Martin Heidegger's adventures in etymology, and his discussions of the psychic properties of certain words makes me think of Rimbaud's alchemie du verb.
In one of the most beautiful and bewildering passages of his thesis, Siasau tries to explain the title of the massive ngatu work that would win the Wallace Award:
'Onetu'ofiuli - 'Onetuofekula' is the articulation of the word 'Otua. 'Onetu'ofiuli signifies the vowel 'O', which is the noa or zero point, where the colour 'uli-black represents the negative pole of the word 'Otua. 'Onetuofekula' denotes the colour kula-red as a representation of light encoded in the vowel A. A is the positive pole of 'Otua. The syllable Tu is the catalyst for the positive knowledge of this polarity. 'Onetu'ofiuli - 'Onetuofekula' is the dwelling place of the highest level of consciousness found imbued in 'Otua. 
I think that, when he puts Tangaloa on the cross or fuses an icon of Jesus with an image of ancient Tonga's shaman-king, Siasau is not so much counterposing the past with the present, and rejecting one in favour of the other, but polemicising against one-sided ways of viewing the world. He believes that polarities like past and future, pagan and Christian, Tongan and palangi, need to be exploded, because they obscure a profound interconnectedness. And that desire to transcend polarities is manifested in the title of Siasau's Wallace-winning work, which is about much more than the colour of paint.
Visesio Siasau's preoccupations might seem fusty, and perhaps even esoteric, but they are a response to the emergencies of twenty-first century Tonga, a place where beggars camp outside salubrious churches, convenience stores and banks have bars on their windows, and teenagers dream of winning a Green Card Lottery
Despite their country's problems, Tongans remain a proud people. Tonga was the only Pacific society to avoid colonisation in the nineteenth century, and its people thank the Wesleyan dynasty established by Tupou I more than a century and a half ago for this fact. But Tupou I preserved his nation's independence by abolishing its old religion and much of its traditional culture, and imposing Christianity and a slew of palangi institutions and practices on his people. Tongan nationalism therefore has a curious, contradictory quality. When they wave the national flag that Tupou I adorned with a crucifix and sing the hymn to Jehovah that is their national anthem, Tongans stamp on the graves of the pagan gods and practices of their ancient ancestors. To be a Tongan patriot, it seems, is to reject much of pre-Christian Tonga. 
Some radical elements in Tongan society, like the late philosopher and pro-democracy activist Futa Helu and the expatriate American educator Michael Horowitz, have suggested that secularisation and even atheism as answers to some of the kingdom's troubles. But very few Tongans have become atheists. To abandon Christianity would mean repudiating much of their recent history, and much of their actually existing culture. Couldn't the wholesale rejection of Christianity be just as simplistic and destructive as Tupou I's rejection of pagan religion and culture? 
I think that, by advocating giving the pagan and Christian eras, with their different gods and value systems, equal measures of reverence, Visesio Siasau is trying to offer Tongans an alternative to both wholesale secularisation and the continued domination of Christianity. Siasau believes that, if they can only be recuperated and adapted to the twenty-first century, many pre-Christian ideas and practices can help to liberate Tonga. 
Siasau comes from a family of carpenters, and laments the decline of traditional carpentry. The old Tongan tufunga built tall, airy fale out of local timber, using ropes made from coconut hair rather than hammers and nails. They revered the engineer-god Tufunga Tangaloa, and their work was ritualised and very tapu. Today, as Siasau likes to point out, carpenters have been usurped by concrete mixers, and the high ceilings and open plan fale that kept Tongans cool even in summer have been replaced by boxy rooms in low-rooved, unnecessarily expensive houses. Tongans who cannot afford these ugly yet fashionable homes often resort to shacks made of corrugated iron and other imported materials. The kingdom's housing crisis has ideological as well as economic causes. Siasau believes that, if prejudice against the pagan past can only be overcome, arts like carpentry might revive and thrive. 
For all his esoteric language and recondite imagery, then, Visesio Siasau is a man with practical ends in mind. The publicity and acclaim that he has won over the last year can only help carry his message deep into Tongan society. [Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, March 11, 2016

Rethinking Anzac Day

The Dadaist protests at Te Tii marae on February the 6th prompted many conservative Kiwis to once again demand that Waitangi Day be junked, and April the 25th be made into New Zealand's national day. 'If Maori want Waitangi Day for themselves, let them have it', former Act MP Muriel Newman proclaimed, as she condemned Maori radicals and other dildo-throwers and called for John Key to make his boycott of Te Tii permanent. 
A post at The Standard also counterposed Waitangi Day to Anzac Day, but argued that February the 6th was a more auspicious date than April the 25th. Many of the The Standard's readers used the comments thread under the post to attack Anzac Day as a glorification of war and misogyny, and to suggest that it should be ignored rather than celebrated. Here's a comment I made at The Standard:
I think some of the commenters here underestimate how much variety and contradiction there has been within Anzac Day commemorative activities, and overestimate how much external opposition there has been to Anzac services.
One commenter claims that ‘Anzac Day used to be full of protests’. In the 1930s left-wing opponents of fascism sometimes leafleted Anzac services at the Domain. Decades later a few members of Nga Tamatoa also intervened in services, laying wreaths for the Maori victims of the New Zealand Wars. Early in the twenty-first century tiny groups of opponents of New Zealand deployments in Afghanistan, Timor Leste and the Solomons disrupted some Anzac Day services in Wellington. It would be hard to claim that there has been a continuous or strong tradition of protest on Anzac Day. 
Within the Returned Services Association and other groups connected to Anzac Day, though, there has been much more conflict over how to view war than is sometimes suspected. In the aftermath of World War One, when decisions about how best to remember the war’s dead were being made, the RSA and other groups were riven with arguments between those who wanted a Christian theme for remembrance and those in favour of secularism at ceremonies. Significant disputes also took place between veterans inclined towards pacifism and those who were ardent imperialists and militarists. These conflicts are reflected in the widely varying styles of our early war memorials (some use crosses, many use pagan symbols like the obelisk) and the many different texts on these memorials (some are very jingoistic, others focus on the tragedy of war). Maureen Sharpe described some of these disputes in an essay for New Zealand Journal of History.
There was a very strong movement immediately after World War Two amongst veterans of that conflict to support the Labour government and its wartime nationalisations of key industries. In 1945 left-wingers inside the Returned Services Association helped organise a monster rally against fascism and for the nationalisation of the means of production outside parliament. 
Although the Returned Services Association had a well-deserved reputation for reactionary attitudes in the decades after World War Two, it nevertheless contained many members and even some leaders with anti-war and anti-imperialist views. The Papatoetoe branch of the RSA, for example, was led for some time by Steve Hieatt, a communist trade unionist who had led the Mangakino power workers off the job during the 1951 Waterfront Lockout and who helped found Auckland’s movement against the Vietnam War a decade and a half later. Hieatt volunteered for and fought in World War Two, because he saw the necessity of defeating Hitler, but he nevertheless took part in a rank and file mutiny during his basic training, in protest at the conditions he and his comrades were kept in. (I knew Hieatt at the end of his life, when we were both members of the Anti Imperialist Coalition formed to protest the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.)
It is simplistic to say that Anzac Day has become nothing more than a celebration of violence. Anzac Day ceremonies vary greatly from place to place, and sometimes have militarist overtones. More often, though, they show the influence of a strange sort of pacifism. In the post-Vietnam, post-Anzus era New Zealand governments have only been able to justify sending troops abroad by making arguments that cynically invoke pacifism and peacemaking. When our troops intervened help overturn Timor Leste's elected president and to support one set of Iraqi theocrats against another our leaders talked about honouring New Zealand's history of playing the peacemaker, and about our duty to make the world safer. The sort of bellicose, Anglomaniacal rhetoric that William Massey deployed when he sent troops off to die in Turkey is no longer saleable. Most of the young people who attend Anzac commemorations would never think of themselves as militarists.
Perhaps we should try to reform Anzac Day, so that it becomes a day for remembering and discussing history, rather than an exercise in myth-making? A good place to start would be insisting that on the 25th of April we remember that the first Anzacs died in the Waikato, helping conquer the territory of an independent Maori state. When the right tries to glorify Willie Apiata, we should talk about left-wing war heroes like John Mulgan and Steve Hieatt.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Sailing the Great South Road

[Here's another excerpt from the slowly accumulating manuscript of Fragments of the Great South Road.]

In 1932 Lawrence Beavis sailed a very small ship into Auckland's main port. The Ysabel was twenty feet long and three feet wide, but it boasted several intricate sails. Above the ship's prow an angel carved from a block of pine clutched a Bible. A crowd watched Beavis manoeuvre between the ferries and cargo ships of Waitemata harbour. According to the New Zealand Herald, the 'Lilliputian' craft prompted both 'admiration' and 'facetiousness'.

After tying up the Ysabel, Beavis introduced himself as a veteran but unemployed sailor from Silverdale. He had steered his ship down the Weiti River from Silverdale into the upper Hauraki Gulf, then headed south around the Whangaparoa peninsula to Auckland. With wind in its sails the vessel could travel at three knots an hour.

The little ship was named after the barquentine that Anglican missionaries had sailed for decades between the islands of the tropical Pacific. Beavis had worked on the missionaries' Ysabel, but the vessel had burnt to the waterline in 1927. Now, like tens of thousands of other New Zealand men, Beavis was unemployed, and doing relief work for a few shillings a week. With the miniature Ysabel he could travel cheaply.

In the 1930s Silverdale was still a small settlement stretched along the banks of the Weiti River. In the nineteenth century fishermen, boat builders, smugglers, and pirates had been attracted to the complicated and sheltered coastline near the village. By the 1930s, though, metal vessels built in large urban shipyards had taken over the work once done by Rodney's wooden schooners, and the Great Depression had closed many wharves.

Lawrence Beavis was not content to build small ships. At the end of the winter of 1933 the Auckland Star published a photograph of him standing on a ladder that leaned against a forty foot long vessel with two tall masts. Loose timber lay at the bottom of the ladder; kanuka and pine rose behind the ship. The Star explained that the photograph had been taken beside the Weiti River, where Beavis had been working on a 'gospel ship' called the Ysabel.

An article published in several other newspapers called the Ysabel as 'the strangest craft an amateur boat builder has ever planned'. Beavis had used wood 'obtained in the bush', and 'measured everything by the span of his fingers'. His chisel was an old file. He had cut verses from the Bible onto every piece of timber in his craft.

On the night of February the 14th, 1935, the Ysabel was tied to the wharf on Weiti River when it caught fire. Beavis could salvage only a few pieces of his ship.

In the months after this disaster, the old sailor bought a series of advertisements in the personal columns of the New Zealand Herald, where widowers often placed requests for new brides and children were offered for adoption. On the 26th of March Beavis published the message 'To the Glory of God, will rebuild the Gospel Ship'. In April he requested 'Timber and Bolts...to build New Gospel Ship'.
By the winter of 1935, Beavis was ready to try more drastic methods of fundraising. With wood saved from the Ysabel he built himself a new vehicle, a wheelbarrow that he filled with food, waterproof sheets, a carved angel, and a Hawaiian steel guitar. In a series of letters to Auckland's newspapers, Beavis explained that his new 'ship' was called the White Barrow, and that he would be 'sailing' it to Wellington.

On the morning of the 16th of July Beavis pushed his barrow from Auckland's central post office up Anzac Avenue and Symonds Street, down Khyber Pass Road, and onto the Great South Road at Newmarket. He was wearing white sandshoes, a soft hat, and a dark suit, and had pinned a sign saying Auckland to Wellington on his craft.

Wheelbarrowing was popular in 1935. In New Zealand and many other parts of the British empire, 'wheelbarrow derbies' were being held in many towns and villages to raise money for charities and entertain locals drained of disposable income by the Great Depression. A popular Auckland race went from Mount Mangere to the Waitemata waterfront. Lawrence Beavis was unusual in pushing a barrow without a passenger, and in planning to push his barrow so far.

Beavis told the New Zealand Herald reporter that he hoped to play his guitar for audiences in the towns and villages along the Great South Road and Highway One, and to ask these audiences for money to rebuild his 'gospel ship'. When the ship had been reconstructed he would first sail it in the Tasman Race, an annual event that began in Auckland and ended in Melbourne, and then take it to the Holy Land, where he hoped to observe the fulfilment of a series of prophecies made in the Bible. Beavis planned to cover twelve miles a day on the White Barrow, and to reach Wellington in seven weeks. He would not push his barrow on Sundays.

Lawrence Beavis was not alone in expecting portentous events in the Middle East during the 1930s. In the middle years of the decade the faith healer, British Israelite, and amateur Egyptologist AH Dallimore was regularly filling Auckland's Town Hall with his followers, and promising them that the end of history was at hand. For Dallimore and many other believers in British Israelism, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War One and Britain's occupation of Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine were fulfilments of prophecies made by John of Patmos and by the builders of the pyramids. The British were a lost tribe of Israel, the Windsors were the direct descendants of Abraham and other Old Testament patriarchs, and Christ was about return to reign under a Union Jack in Jerusalem.

Dallimore and his followers built their own church, close to the Great South Road in Otahuhu, but most British Israelites worked inside mainstream denominations. William Massey, New Zealand's Prime Minister between 1912 and 1925, was a British Israelite and a Presbyterian. It would not have been difficult for Lawrence Beavis to serve on a mission ship like the Ysabel while espousing British Israelite doctrines.

Beavis' proposed wheelbarrow journey to Wellington must have seemed almost as far-fetched as his plan visit to the Holy Land. In the 1930s New Zealand's roads were improving, and the Automobile Association felt confident enough to publish a series of maps and guidebooks and hold rallies for its members in remote and newly roaded districts like the Ureweras. Some of the least popular stretches of the Great South Road, like the muddy, rutted, and vertiginous route over the Razorback Hills at the southern end of Auckland, had been bypassed. But the road still had many miles of gravel, and was often blocked. Even in the southern suburbs of Auckland drovers still took cattle and sheep up and down the road; sometimes their herds proved as erratic and obstructive as the numerous creeks and rivers that the road crossed and followed.
Beavis soon began to mail reports on his progress south to newspapers. He wrote in truncated, almost telegraphic sentences, and used nautical jargon and imagery obsessively. In a letter quoted by the Auckland Star on July the 24th, Beavis reported a 'fast run' from Huntly to Ngaruawahia. As 'the wind hauled to the port quarter' he made the journey between the two islands in only six hours. At Ngaruawahia his 'anchor was dropped' for the night.

On the sixth of August Beavis was telling readers of the Star that he had entered the King Country, after a journey through the 'rough seas' of the Waikato district. South of Hamilton he had encountered 'rough weather', and had needed to 'dock for the night' at a farmhouse. The White Barrow had sailed into Te Awamutu at one thirty the next afternoon, then weighed anchor a couple of hours later. At two the next morning, though, Beavis had been forced to 'hove to' and spend the night under a seaside tree. 'Weather looking bad' he reported, 'but nothing to do but sail'.

Beavis played his Hawaiian guitar in some of the towns and settlements along the Great South Road and Highway One, but the cold rain that fell for much of August 1935 kept his audiences tiny. In a letter to Wellington's Evening Post, he complained that many of the people he met on the road considered him warily. Instead of recognising that he was raising funds for a holy mission, they considered him an eccentric, or a con man, or both. In the winter of 1935 thousands of men were walking New Zealand's roads. Disillusioned with the relief work offered in the cities and in prison-like camps by the government, they scavenged and begged for food, and sometimes found temporary employment planting potatoes or cutting gorse for shorthanded farmers. Beavis' plans to sail across the world must have seemed quixotic, at best, to these men, and to the people he asked for money.

Beavis appears to have followed the Great South Road as far as Te Awamutu, then taken Highway Three through the King Country, 'dropping anchor' at Otorohanga and Te Kuiti, before rejoining Highway One on the North Island's cold central plateau. At Waiorou, the highest town on the island, two feet of snow lay in his barrow. Gales blew his suit 'to ribbons'.

While Beavis was suffering, a couple of younger, more affluent, and more glamorous men were beginning their own wheelbarrow journey to Wellington. On the fifth of August Gordon Lukey and his friend JC Schofield set out for Wellington. Lukey was a well-known cyclist, and the wheelbarrow he pushed had been sponsored and designed by several Wellington businesses. The 'snailoplane', as Lukey and Schofield called their vehicle, had pneumatic tyres specially designed for their journey by a rubber manufacturer, a comfortable seat, a footrest, a clock, and a horn.

Supporters followed Lukey as he pushed Schofield down the Great South Road, stopping at Greenlane for twenty minutes, at Otahuhu for half an hour, and at Manurewa for forty-five minutes, before putting in for the day at Papakura, where a crowd of locals surrounded the two young men, and the snailoplane was pronounced the most luxurious wheelbarrow ever to enter the suburb. Lukey praised Schofield as a 'jolly good passenger', and told a reporter for the Auckland Star that he hoped to reach Wellington in a month.

After following the Great South Road through the Waikato, Lukey and Schofield turned away from the central plateau and travelled along the Taranaki coast, where the weather was milder. Crowds and journalists waited for them.

While the two young men were cruising south, Lawrence Beavis was sending a series of melancholy but defiant notes from the small towns of the Manuwatu and the Wairarapa. In a letter mailed from Bulls he complained of continued bad weather, and warned that he might break down shortly owing to trouble all round'. But Beavis maintained that, even if he was 'wrecked', he would 'have the honour of having played straight'. He may have resented Lukey and Schofield's willingness to race their barrow on Sunday.

At the beginning of September hundreds of Wellingtonians applauded Gordon Lukey, as he pushed his friend down Lambton Quay to the city's central post office. Newspapers celebrated Lukey's feat, and he and Schofield were treated to a concert at Wellington's opera house.

More than a week later, a short article in the Evening Post summarised a series of epistles the paper had received from Lawrence Beavis. Beavis' letters had, the Post said, 'a plaintive note'. He had grumbled about receiving no acknowledgement, let alone welcome, when he pushed his barrow into Palmerston North. In a letter posted a few days later from Levin 'Beavis gave expression to his opinion that playing a Hawaiian steel guitar as a means to raising money is futile'.

At a quarter past twelve on the afternoon of the eleventh of September, Beavis dropped anchor in front of Wellington's central post office. His journey had taken eight weeks and twelve hours. He had raised only two pounds on his way to the capital, and had no alternative but to return on foot to Auckland.

But Beavis had not given up hope of building a new 'gospel ship'. He told a report for the Evening Post that he wanted a forty-nine foot vessel, with auxillary engines. Instead of talking about sailing to the Holy Land to witness miracles, though, he now fantasised about taking a missionary ship and sailing it to 'all the ports of New Zealand'.

By the end of September Beavis was writing to the Auckland Star from Otaki. 'Instead of pushing the barrow, I'm towing its astern' he explained. 'Pushing is too common, so I'm doing something different. I hope I get a better hearing on the return.' By November he had reached Huntly, 'after a stormy trip from Hamilton': being 'in ballast', he had felt 'very uncomfortable'. Beavis planned to 'anchor' in Papakura, and spend the last Sunday of his journey in that suburb. He had received a little more money on his return journey, but had spent most of it on food and other necessities, and now 'despaired of ever being able to raise funds honestly' for his ship.

On the afternoon of the sixth of November, after a return journey of forty-one days, Beavis reached Auckland's central post office. A crowd gathered outside the building, but according to the Auckland Star its members were in a 'jocular' rather than celebratory mood. As Beavis stopped his barrow, observers 'passed witticisms concerning his adventure'.

Beavis' adventures were not over. He returned to Silverdale and, despite a lack of funds and encouragement, built a new ship. Like the Ysabel that Beavis had once helped served on, it was a barquentine, with a square-rigged foresail, two smaller back sails, and a long and elegant prow. Beavis' new ship as fourteen feet long, with wheels at the bottom of its hull.
At the beginning of 1937 the Auckland Star carried a photograph of Beavis' new creation, and explained that he was 'hauling or peddling it around the North Island'. Beavis' land ship could travel at six miles an hour, when the wind filled its sails, and had a steering wheel at its rear and a bed beneath its deck.

On the 19th of January the Evening Post ran a photograph of Beavis 'at the helm of the barquentine Israel'. The photograph, which had been taken just south of Petone, showed an elderly man with a soft hat and a suit seated behind the aft of his ship. He was leaning forward and hunching his shoulders slightly, as though he were driving a sulky behind a racehorse. Beavis had almost finished yet another journey.

Media interest in Lawrence Beavis had almost evaporated by 1937, and only scattered and brief mentions of his latest journey can be found in the archives. We do not know whether he returned by sailboat from Wellington, nor whether he ever raised enough money to rebuild his beloved gospel ship.

Because the paper trail runs out, we can conjecture about Lawrence Beavis. I like to imagine that his thinking shifted, during his long journeys up and down the Great South Road and Highway One. Once he had wanted to escape New Zealand, and had seen his time on North Island's roads as a means to that end. The White Barrow had been made for fundraising, not adventure. Palestine, not New Zealand, was the Holy Land.

But the vivid and occasionally exultant language of Beavis' reports from the 'seas' of the North Island suggests a consciousness gradually anchoring itself in the New Zealand of the 1930s, and perhaps forgetting fantasies about an apocalyptic Middle East. When he abandoned talk of sailing abroad, and told the Evening Post that he wanted to take a ship to every port in New Zealand, Beavis perhaps signalled a new interest in the fallen local world. Perhaps his journeys became ends in themselves; perhaps he continued to sail back and forward between Auckland and Wellington for years, and became a sort of Flying Dutchman of the Great South Road.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]