Sunday, March 19, 2017

Howling empire

'Vogel and Seddon howling empire from an empty coast' wrote the young Allen Curnow, in the long poem about colonial misadventures he called Not in Narrow Seas. It is one of the great lines in New Zealand poetry, and it skewers the tub-thumping politicians who wanted to turn Wellington into the capital of a Pacific empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

When New Zealand's parliament was in recess Dick Seddon enjoyed cruising the tropical Pacific, and stopping at towns like Nuku'alofa and Avarua to tell the locals how much better off they'd be under his leadership. Seddon eventually won control of Niue and the Cook Islands for New Zealand, and later Samoa and Tokelau were added to the fledgling empire. 

Allen Curnow laughed at the distance between Dick Seddon's dreams of empire and the reality of the isolated, thinly populated country he imagined as an imperial homeland. 

Seddon might have been smiling in his grave last week, as geologists announced that New Zealand is the heartland of the world's eighth continent. As Michael Daly wrote:

It turns out that New Zealand isn't a couple of islands at the bottom of the world. It's actually a continent - most of which happens to be under the sea...Zealandia and Australia come remarkably close to each other across the Cato Trough, off the coast of Queensland. At that point, the continental crusts are just 25km apart. 

Apart from Te Ika a Maui, Te Wai Pounamu, and Rakiura, the other fragments of the continent that remain above sea level are Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, Lord Howe Island, and a couple of uninhabited atolls. It is perhaps ironic that New Zealand should have a geological kinship with these places, when we have had relatively little to do with them historically, in comparison to Polynesian islands like Samoa, the Cooks, and Tonga. 

It is intriguing to imagine how different history might have been if the mass of Zealandia had avoided inundation. Zealandia would certainly have been settled tens of thousands of years ago, because Australian Aboriginals would have been able to cross the strait that separated the continent from Queensland. The fin de siecle ethnographers Percy Smith and Elsdon Best wrongly imagined that the first settlers of New Zealanders were a dark-skinned people who were eventually joined by the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori. If Zealandia had remained above the waves, then Smith and Best's theory might today count as history, rather than pseudo-history. 

I live a short distance from the Tasman, and it always seems to me like a wild, recalcitrant sea, entirely different from the warm and placid Waitemata harbour, where pleasure boats are at home and buoys bob helpfully over rocks and sandbars. The notion that the space the Tasman covers might ever have been dry land seems absurd.

Here's a poem I wrote recently: it's part of a sort of a sonnet sequence in which I badger my mate Sio Siasau. 

Chapter 84

But the Tasman has no islands, Sio!
Yeah, sure, there's the pathetic archipelago
of fisherman's rocks, off beaches like this one:
not only reefless but stained green
by seagull shit. There's Ball's Pyramid, 
the stump of a mouldered volcano, 
with its civilisation of stick insects.
If you want to get technical, then there's Tasmania,
but that island is too close to a continent:
it holds to Australia, like a moon
to its planet. 

Here at Karekare I listen to Reverend Curnow's voice, strong
as the back of a broken wave. The world, he says, is charged
with the glory of god, the world is charged
and found guilty

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


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