Reincarnation as a research method
Hamilton is relentless in his determination to follow every lead concerning the 'Atans. He tracks down descendants of both [Thomas] McGrath and the rumoured betrayer of the islanders. For some, the book will be flawed by the willingness with which he accepts one source's claims of remembering a past life on 'Ata and goes on a hunt for the grave she saw in her trance.
My allegedly dodgy source is a young Chilean woman who spends whalewatching seasons in Tonga, and believes that she is drawn to the Friendly Islands today because she lived there in a past life.
I can hardly object to Paul Little's scepticism about claims of past lives, because I was just last week taking to social media to pan this Radio New Zealand programme on Lisa Allen, a performance artist who claims to have been a member of a pre-Maori Waitaha people in her past life, and who uses her 'memories' of that past life as inspiration.
I don't believe in reincarnation, but I think that the notion of transmigrating souls is considerably less ridiculous than Allan's claims that her Waitaha ancestors migrated from Rapa Nui to these islands a couple of thousand years ago. The Waitaha civilisation Allan identifies with is a New Age scam, and Rapa Nui was not settled much more than a millennium ago.
I can agree with Paul Little that 'memories' of past lives are not the stuff that good research is made from, but I don't think I was wrong to include Mata in The Stolen Island. I wanted the book to show how a variety of people had become fascinated with the tiny, inhospitable, and long-uninhabited island of 'Ata, and to explain how their obsession had changed their lives. Mata is convinced that her soul once belonged to an 'Atan; the Spanish adventurer Alvaro Cerezo risked his life to land and lodge on the island, and claims to have detected an extraordinary energy there; a young Tongan who approached me in Nuku'alofa insisted that the garden of Eden was located on or near 'Ata.
I don't endorse claims like these, but I am very interested in why people make them, and what they tell us about our lives in the twenty-first century. There's nothing wrong with discussing an idea, however outlandish, in terms of its meaning, rather than its truthfulness.
I think that appeals to past lives are one way for palangi who feel an affinity for Pacific societies to express that affinity.
In the past, when the boundaries between palangi and indigenous peoples were much more rigidly enforced, ideas about reincarnation could seem a threat, rather than an opportunity. In one of the essays in his collection Webs of Empire, Tony Ballantyne describes the opposition that Theosophists faced in early twentieth century New Zealand, and the way anxieties about 'race mixing' could segue into horror at the doctrine of reincarnation. Ballantyne cites a Dunedin Presbyterian leader who lost a young daughter, and was both disgusted and tormented by the notion that she might have been reborn inside the body of a heathen Indian.
But let me give the floor to Mata. Here, from The Stolen Island, is her vision of 'Ata: