Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Different writers, different weddings

Hamish Dewe and Michael Arnold became friends at Auckland's Dilworth College, where they shared a hatred of rugby and a love of classical music, chess, and other seriously uncool pursuits. After seventh form, Hamish and Michael both went to the University of Auckland - Hamish got a Masters degree in English, while Michael got a postgraduate qualification in philosophy - and both began to publish poems in New Zealand's literary journals.

In 2000 Hamish took a job teaching English literature and language at a university in a remote part of southeastern China; a year or so later, Michael got a teaching job in Shenyang, the out-of-control city across the polluted Pearl River from Hong Kong. Over the years, Michael and Hamish undertook a number of journeys through China together, and even collaborated on a travel book about the unfashionable city of Taiyuan and its environs. Michael and Hamish both learned Mandarin, and both men continued to publish poems in Kiwi literary journals.

On the last day of 2009, Michael married his partner Xuan in her homeland of Vietnam; last weekend, Hamish married the Chinese-born Sabrina in a ceremony in the village of Mauku, fifty minutes south of Auckland. Michael has settled in Vietnam, for the time being at least; Hamish is settling back into New Zealand.

Despite the parrallels between the shapes their lives have taken, Hamish and Michael have always been very different people, and very different writers. Michael is an effusive person with an optimistic view of the universe and a deep attraction to religion. Hamish, by contrast, is a minimalist, who prefers a pungent one-liner to an elaborate argument, and a pessimist, who looks on religion as a sort of delusion.

At university, Michael became fascinated by the baroque palaces of thought built by German idealist philosophers like Hegel and Kant; Hamish, by contrast, chose to write his Masters thesis on Bruce Andrews, an American poet and left-wing activist who takes his violent images and crudely laconic vocabulary from the streets of America's big cities.

Michael and Hamish's different worldviews are reflected in their different literary styles. Michael's attraction to elaborate structures reached an extreme in Cashlin, the loving parody of a religious epic which he wrote in 1999-2001. Cashlin reads like a cross between The Book of Mormon and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and is probably too long and too obscure ever to be published in full (Michael's introduction to the work and his first chapter were published in brief, back in 2001). For his part, Hamish has seldom written a poem which would not fit easily on the back of a postcard.

It is tempting to believe that the differing worldviews and literary styles of Michael and Hamish were reflected in the differences between their recent weddings. Michael's wedding in Ho Chi Minh City - which I was unable to attend, but have watched with delight on youtube - featured many hundreds of guests and many hours of pageantry. Michael seems to have donned half a dozen different costumes during the photo shoot that preceded the ceremony. By contrast, the formal part of Hamish and Sabrina's wedding was over in fifteen minutes. The ceremony took place in St Bride's, which is one of the network of small wooden gothic 'Selwyn churches' built by the Anglicans around the Auckland region in the 1850s and '60s. St Bride's stained glass window remembers its role as a de facto fort during the guerrilla fighting in the countryside south of Auckland in 1863, when the British army was moving men towards the Waikato, where it was confronting the forces of the King Tawhiao and his nationalist supporters. Fighters loyal to Tawhiao would cross the Waikato River and range through the Franklin District, attacking military posts, burning farmhouses, and sabotaging communications. British troops and worried Pakeha farmers raised a stockade around St Bride's and cut rifle slots into the church's walls. The slots have been covered, but the wood that covers them has been painted red, so that they are easily visible against the white walls of the church.

On the 23rd of October 1863 a small battle took place a few hundred metres south of St Bride's, on a site which is nowadays traversed by the road between Pukekohe and Waiuku, after a group of guerrillas attacked a Pakeha farm and were confronted by a Pakeha militia. Eight Pakeha and more than twenty Maori died in the struggle, which began with sniping and ended in hand to hand combat amidst the giant trunks of recently-felled trees.

The window of St Bride's honours Bishop Selwyn, who marched with invading troops into the Waikato, and places symbols representing Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John beside imperial troops and the fortified church. A leaflet available near the entrance to the church explains that the window is supposed to celebrate 'the spreading of the gospel', but for a long time after the Waikato War the Anglican church struggled to attract Waikato Maori adherants. While Hamish and Sabrina's wedding was an appropriately simple affair - short vows were said, rings were exchanged, and I read a passage from 'The Song of Solomon' which Hamish had selected - its location was something of a surprise to many of Hamish's friends. Although he was baptised an Anglican at Dilworth, Hamish is hardly a regular churchgoer, and Sabrina shares his lack of religious belief.

But Hamish has always preferred the difficult to the obvious, and I wonder if there wasn't an element of mischeviousness in his and Sabrina's decision to get married in a church. I wonder, especially, about the reasons why Hamish asked an unbeliever like me to step up to the pulpit and read from the 'The Song of Solomon', which is a piece of frankly erotic poetry that looks rather out of place in the Old Testament. If Hamish were serious about the Christian aspect of his wedding, wouldn't he have found something more pious, and someone more pious, to read to the audience at St Bride's? I don't ask this question because I was unhappy reading for Hamish and Sabrina; on the contrary, I was delighted to take part in their ceremony. I'm simply intrigued by the meaning behind the allegedly Christian symbolism in the ceremony - and I suspect that Hamish intended me, and others, to be so intrigued!

In my speech at Hamish and Sabrina's reception, where everyone enjoyed the kai served up by the groom's sister, mother and stepfather, I suggested another reason why Hamish, at least, might have been keen on tying the knot in the little church at Mauku. Hamish has always been ferociously proud of his part-Portugese ancestry. His great-grandfather was a sealer from the Azores who jumped ship in the Hokianga and eventually settled in nineteenth century Auckland's Chinatown, where he lived between a brothel and an opium den. In his early twenties Hamish learnt Portugese, and he has translated Portugese poets like Fernando Pessoa into English. Was Hamish aware, I wondered, of the Portugese connection to the battle fought near St Bride's in October 1863? In a footnote to the description of the battle in his monumental study of the 'Maori Wars', James Cowan relates a fascinating story:

The Maoris took a prisoner, a Portuguese named Antonio Arouge, in the employ of the Crispe family. He was captured by the cattle-shooting party and tied to a tree. After the fight he was taken into the Waikato, and remained a prisoner for some months, when he was allowed to return to the Europeans. It was, no doubt, his swarthy skin that saved him.

With his resonant name, his apparent ability to travel unscathed between different cultural worlds, and his obscurity, Antonio Arouge is just the character who would appeal to the imagination of Hamish Dewe. When I asked Hamish whether the connection to Antonio Arouge might have influenced his choice to get married in St Bride's he smiled briefly, and refused to speak about the matter. I hadn't expected any other response.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

From Mungo to North Sentinel: messages from the real world

Call me sentimental, if you like, but as a reader and as a writer I'll always prefer the printed word to the electronic text. For me, the whisper of a turning page page has a poetry alien to the hum of a laptop. My computer guru brother-in-law tells me that books are a waste of forests, and that I should invest in one of the suddenly-popular range of wireless reading devices, but I can't imagine leaving an Amazon Kindle under my pillow, instead of the crumpled paperback that currently resides there. If I did my bedtime reading on a screen, I think I'd feel like I was about to kip down in an office.

But even if it can't offer the tactile delights of the printed word, electronic publishing does afford certain special pleasures, like the possibility of immediate communication between reader and writer. Most of the online journals and blogs I write for and read have comments boxes, and those that don't at least list the e mail addresses of their contributors.

One of the most enjoyable things about blogging is reading the comments one's posts provoke. Positive comments are nice, especially when they come from experts in a field one is interested in, and even abusive comments - and, let's face it, this blog attracts its fair share of abusive comments - have, for me at least, an obscure fascination. (I've thought of keeping a record of the various epithets I've attracted from my more abusive critics - 'fake Pakeha', 'failed poet', and 'long white political pig' are three of my favourites...)

I find it especially exciting to be contacted by someone with an intimate connection to a place or a piece of history I have written about. Last September I posted an essay about Lake Mungo, the Unesco World Heritage Site in the far west of New South Wales where bones, tools, and campfires are preserved in layered walls of sand and mud that have been raised and sculpted by meticulous desert winds over the last one hundred thousand years. Since the stratigrapher and bushman Jim Bowler discovered an ancient skeleton he dubbed 'Mungo Man' in 1974, Mungo has been a place of pilgrimage for archaeologists. Mungo Man is between forty and sixty-five thousand years old, and Mungo is one of the oldest known continually-inhabited places outside Africa.
It is a pleasure to find that someone with a very close connection to Lake Mungo and to Jim Bowler recently read and responded to my 'Annotated Guide to Mungo National Park'. Here's the comment that Jenny Bowler left under my post last week:

Beautiful post...came across your site as I was looking for a poem with reflections on Mungo.

Much like the history and presences of Lake Mungo; a silent shadow on the Australian psyche, the finder of Mungo Man & Mungo Woman also remains mostly unrecognised.
My parents are about to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, for 40 years of that my father worked at Mungo. His PhD was done on the sheep farm in the 60's and it was he who came face to face - alone on the shores of Mungo, with the original inhabitants of 40,000 BC. His life's work has been compiled into a CD Rom call - Lake Mungo...he can be contacted on jbowler@unimelb.edu.au

It is such an evocative landscape, that slowly is beginning to rise and feed the imaginations of those who visit and hopefully school students who might find it soon embedded in the curriculum. Climate change...Australian Ancient history...ecology...Aboriginal perspective...science...pastrolists...artist
...artists...politics - all meet in the lakebed of Mungo. What more do we need for a great story.

Oh yeah and by the way, my father's name is Jim Bowler.

Cheers, Jenny

Thanks Jenny, and sorry for calling your old man John instead of Jim! Jenny's comment follows one made a couple of months ago by someone calling him or herself 'Aussie Knight':

Just as an aside to this fascinating article. I grew up in this area in the sixties and often travelled through and played in the dunes etc. When it was made a national park many people were upset as the 'owners' had been on the land for a long time. Ironically, 15 years later the same family won 16 million dollars in a lottery. Perhaps there is such a thing as Karma!

Because of a blog's function as a sort of informal archive, and because of the frightening indefatigability of search engines, an almost-forgotten post can sometimes attract a comment years after it was made. Back at the beginning of 2006, when this blog was just learning to crawl, I posted about North Sentinel, the island in the Bay of Bengal which is home to one of the world's last 'uncontacted' peoples. The people of North Sentinel are technically citizens of India, but they look like African pygmies, have had little to do with the world outside their island for thousands of years, and speak an unknown language. My post was a response to a marvellous article on North Sentinel by Adam Goodheart, who seems to have developed the obsession with obscure tropical islands that is an occupational hazard for romantic Western intellectuals. Goodheart told the story of a cargo ship called the Primrose, which became stranded on a reef close to North Sentinel Island in 1981. When the captain of the Primrose radioed his bosses to tell them that little frizzy-haired men in dugout canoes were firing arrows at his vessel, he was at first suspected of excessive consumption of rum. Eventually the distress calls were heeded, and the captain and his crew were taken off their reef by helicopter.

Some time last year a man named Robert Fore left a short comment at the bottom of my post about North Sentinel:

I have the distinction of being the pilot who flew the helicopter which rescued the crew of the Primrose from North Sentinel Island. It is good to see that the entire episode did not simply disappear into the shadows of time. It was a memorable event for those of us involved.

I hoped that Fore's note might be the entree for a more detailed account of his extraordinary experience, and a google search turns up a long e mail he wrote to another blogger about the rescue of the crew of the Primrose.

The late David Stevens, the electronic utopian who was the proprietor of a website with the immortal name Trotsky, Sex and Drugs, once claimed that 'everything in the world is on the internet, plus a little more'. Stevens was writing a decade ago, before large parts of the internet had been enclosed by multinational companies, and before it was clear that the most popular political blogs would inevitably be panoptic spaces whose megalomaniacal proprietors wallowed to the reverberations of their own egos and the praise of their fellow-thinkers. It is hard to see much of the real world in the dozen or so posts Cameron Slater makes every day, or in the thousands of repetitious comments that are deposited at the Huffington Post every day. Yet even if the internet and the blogosphere have failed to live up to the expectations of Stevens and other idealists, communications from the likes of Jenny Bowler and Robert Fore make me feel that the game is worth the candle.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Could the Vatican have saved Italy's Jews?

During a recent visit to a Roman synagogue, Joseph Ratzinger was confronted by Jewish leaders opposed to his plans to canonise his precedessor Pius XII, who occupied the Vatican from 1939 to 1958. Ratzinger's critics believe that Pius XII did too little to condemn Nazism, and to save Jews and other minorities from the Holocaust; Ratzinger, on the other hand, seems almost to regard his predecessor as a hero of the anti-fascist resistance.

The debate about the Vatican's wartime policies is not a contest between serious scholarship and bigoted charlatans, like the 'debate' about the reality of the Holocaust, or the 'debate' about whether white people discovered New Zealand thousands of years ago. There are scholars with impressive credentials who are prepared to argue for as well as against Pius XII. The case against the former Pope was strengthened, in the eyes of some observers, by the release in 1997 of thousands of wartime documents by the United States government, and it is perhaps significant that the Vatican's attempts to find a consensus over Pius XII by creating a Jewish-Catholic Commission on the subject broke down when the Jewish scholars on the commission were refused permission to pry into classified Vatican documents.

Historical controversies should not be seen as signs of failure on the part of scholars. Without the controversies that new information and new analyses inevitably create, progress could never be made in explaining the past, and the ways in which the past has created the present. The arguments over Pius XII should be allowed to continue, and should be enriched by the release of the Vatican's reportedly-vast cache of documents dating from World War Two.

Unfortunately, Ratzinger's determination to canonise Pius XII seems to have made him and some members of his church want to close down the discussion of the man historian John Cornwell described as 'Hitler's Pope'. Ratzinger has refused to open the Vatican's World War Two archive to scholars, and some of his supporters are attempting to portray historians critical of Pius XII as cogs in a vast anti-Catholic conspiracy.

New Zealand's most popular blog has made a foray into history by discussing the Pius XII controversy, and its comments box has become a venue for the conspiracy theories of some of Joseph Ratzinger's supporters. For 'Fletch', who belongs to the NZ Conservative blog, and who has shown an unfortunate weakness for pseudo-history in the past, Kiwiblog's criticism of Pius XII seems tantamount to a mortal sin:

Actually the Pope [Pius XII] was the ONLY one who spoke up [against the Holocaust]. It always angers me when I see revisionist rubbish being brought up...Would YOU have spoken out more if to do so would have sent thousands more to their deaths? And people wonder why Catholics get upset by rubbish like The Da Vinci Code. It’s because some people believe the lies and it gets passed on as truth.

Like the current Pope, Fletch believes that Pius XII's policy of remaining neutral in World War Two, retaining diplomatic relations with the Nazis, refraining from condemning fascism and the Holocaust, and trying discreetly to give humanitarian aid to some Jews who requested it was a pragmatic response to a very difficult situation.

What troubles me about Fletch's argument is its implication that open denunciations of Nazism and open defiance of deportation orders for Jews were an impossibility for a religious body like the Catholic church in an effectively occupied country during World War Two. Such a claim distorts the historical record, and also encourages the view that there is nothing that anybody without access to a few million troops can do to oppose fascism and genocide.

The fact is that there were churches which openly defied the Nazis, and which helped sabotage attempts to deport Jews to their deaths. At exactly the same time that Pius was declining to condemn publically the deportation of Jews from Italy, the mostly Protestant churches of Denmark joined with the resistance and defeated Nazi attempts to send their country’s Jews to the death chambers.

Danish church leaders issued proclamations that condemned plans for the deportation of Jews and called on their members to refuse to carry out any work that might facilitate deportation. Christians were warned it was a sin to supply, service or drive a train carrying Jews away, and this made it easier for underground trade unions to organise the informal strike which helped forestall Nazi plans. Civil servants and local police were also warned against collaboration with deportation orders. Taking heart from the calls to resistance they heard from the pulpit, many Danes hid Jews in their homes to protect them from deportation. As a result of these efforts, only a tiny minorty of Danish Jews was ever deported to the concentration camps. An attempt at a mass deportation in October 1943 netted only five hundred of Denmark's eight thousand Jews and, because of continuing efforts by the Danes, only fifty-one of these five hundred deportees lost their lives to the Nazis.

Of course, Denmark was an exception rather than a rule in occupied Europe. In most countries Jews were deported in huge numbers to near-certain deaths. In many countries, the sort of open resistance to deportation that the Danes practiced would have been very difficult. Denmark was ruled with a relatively light hand by the Nazis, Danish Jews constituted a small, well assimilated minority, and were thus harder for the Nazis to pick out and pick on, and the deportation order came when it was clear that the days of Nazism were numbered, and when resistants were therefore emboldened. In a country like Poland, which was conquered right at the beginning of the war and subjected to direct, unremittingly brutal rule, and which had a huge and geographically and socially segregated Jewish community, resistance to deportations would have been much harder.

There are certain compelling similarities, though, between the situation of Italy when the deportation of Jews took place and the situation in Denmark. Like Denmark, Italy had a relatively small, relatively assimilated Jewish population. Like Denmark, Italy had retained some measure of autonomy from Berlin. Mussolini had, for resons of pride rather than principle, resisted becoming a Nazi puppet, and for years he had made a point of refusing Hitler’s demands for the deportation of Jews.

The deportation of Jews began in earnest only after Mussolini was briefly deposed, rescued from prison by Germans, and installed as puppet leader of the ‘Salo Republic’ in the northern part of Italy that had not yet been occupied by Allied forces and partisans. The Salo Republic and Nazi Germany itself were clearly doomed, and the deportations were, for Himmler and his SS, a race against time and advancing Allied armies. Neither the Salo Republic nor the Nazis had any legitimacy amongst the vast majority of Italians. Swathes of the northern countryside were already under the de facto control of armed partisan bands. Even in the cities, there was sometimes open defiance of the fascists.

Given all of these factors, what would have happened if Pius had publically condemned the deportation of Jews and demanded that all his followers do whatever they could to stop them? Is it unreasonable to suggest that, with the intervention of the Catholic church, the Italians could, like the Danes, have protected their Jewish minority? At the very least, the action of the Danish churches shows us that there was an alternative to Pius’ policies towards the Nazis.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The island of exiles

Skyler and I sit in the van’s back seat as Sifa eases the vehicle down ‘Eua’s main road, steering left or right occasionally to avoid a mud-filled pothole or recalcitrant pig. On both sides of the road a succession of little wooden cottages, corrugated iron fences flapping in the breeze, and Methodist churches framed by tidy gardens float by. Jim Reeves croons his 1950s hit ‘Bimbo’ on the van’s cassette player. "On your left, to the east, is the village of Pangai", Sifa says. "And that that is Angaha, on your right. Not many places where you can find two different villages on two sides of the road. Strange, eh?"

There is much about Sifa’s island which is strange. ‘Eua lies only thirty-odd kilometres from Tongatapu, yet it differs geologically, climatically, botanically, and culturally from the Kingdom of Tonga’s main island. Where Tongatapu is flat, extensively cultivated, and heavily populated, ‘Eua is hilly, underfarmed, and underpopulated. In summer and in winter, ‘Eua is markedly cooler than Tongatapu, which is itself cooler than the rest of Tonga.

‘Eua is the oldest island in Tonga – it was created forty million years ago, and thirty million years before Tongatapu, when the Pacific and Tongan tectonic plates ground against one another – but it is in some ways the least explored of the kingdom’s one hundred and seventy islands. In ‘Eua National Park, which was created in the nineties to protect the island’s tract of virgin rainforest, biologists are still discovering new species, like the ‘Eua gecko, which turned up in 2002. Archaeologists have not yet mapped, let alone excavated, the network of ancient forts that runs through ‘Eua’s highland, and speleologists have yet to plumb many of thousands of caves and sinkholes on the limestone island. The relative isolation of ‘Eua has much to do with the peculiar piece of water which separates the island from the eastern side of Tongatapu. The Tongatapu Strait is narrow, especially compared to the stretches of open ocean that separate Tongatapu from Tonga’s northerly Ha’apai and Vava’u archipelagos, and yet its waters are notoriously ill-tempered. Partly because it is located close to one end of the Tongan Trench, the second deepest piece of ocean in the world, the strait is a place where cold currents flowing north from the Southern Ocean collide with warm currents from the tropics. The ferry crossing from Tongatapu to ‘Eua has such a bad reputation that many visitors prefer to fly to the island. Skyler and I avoided eating too much for breakfast before we turned up at Nuku’alofa’s Queen Salote wharf to catch the ferry to 'Eua. We needn’t have worried: the boat’s captain was waiting to tell us that his craft had broken down at the end of the previous day’s journey, and wouldn’t be sailing for at least twenty-four hours. The captain’s vague language and unruffled manner made us fear that the ferry might be out of action for a good deal longer than twenty-four hours, so we headed down to the office of Air Chathams, the little company which has, for some inscrutable reason, decided to complement its flights to New Zealand’s most isolated islands with regular air services to ‘Eua and other remote parts of Tonga. "This is the shortest commercial flight in the world", the twenty-something Kiwi pilot shouted us as he steered his eight-seater off the runway of Tongatapu’s Fua’amotu airport. "Seven minutes long." His words made me worry, because I’d seen a brochure in Air Chathams’ Nuku’alofa office which had boasted that the flight took all of eight minutes. What had happened, I wondered, to that eighth minute? In the context of such a short flight, sixty seconds might make the difference between landing on ‘Eua’s coral-and-dirt runway and alighting on a banana grove, or in the Tongan Trench. "Mind you, the trip here wasn’t short", the pilot went on, as he lifted us over the shaking heads of the coconut trees on Tongatapu’s eastern coast. "We bought the plane off Great Barrier Airlines, took out the seats, filled the space with fuel tanks, flew it up here in ten hours non-stop." The seven or eight minutes passed slowly, as our pilot searched for a passage above sea winds and below storm clouds, and I am pleased now to be in the hands of Sifa, bumping gently along the dirt roads of ‘Eua, with no hazard larger than a lazy chook or pig to worry about.

It’s not only fear of sea and air travel which tempts me stay a long time on ‘Eua: Skyler and I are happily ensconced at the Hideaway Resort, one of only three sources of commercial accommodation on the island. The Hideaway is run by Taki, a Tongan Aussie with the shiny scalp and overdeveloped torso of a modern prop forward and the slow, precise speech of a climbing instructor. Taki, who manages the Hideaway on behalf of his extended family, hopes that the deep waters off ‘Eua might become a help rather than a hindrance to the island, by attracting a reliable flow of tourists to look at the whales that travel north through the Tongan Trench into the tropics every year. From July until September, guests of the Hideaway can sit on the homemade wooden benches outside their cabins and watch the creatures cruise up the Tongatapu Strait close to the western coast of ‘Eua. In the summer, when the whales are in Antarctica, most of Taki’s guests are hikers attracted by the rainforest and caves of ‘Eua’s highland. Taki and his staff supply guests with hand-drawn maps and local guides, and replenish lost calories with large servings of roast pork, fried chicken, and lobster.

Skyler and I set out from the Hideaway this morning without a guide, largely because we feared a guide would move at a pace which would embarrass us, but we did accept a lift from Sifa, who works at the Hideaway and was heading in the direction of ‘Eua’s highland. As we were climbing into Sifa’s van, Taki pressed a thin piece of paper that smelled of fried chicken into my hand. "A map" he explained. "You can’t trust Lonely Planet – trails get overgrown so quickly. It’s a maze up there."

Sifa is driving us south, to the village of Sapa’ata, where a dirt track heads off up to the forested ridge that runs down the eastern side of ‘Eua. "Here comes Sapa’ata", he announces. "Only on the left. Different village on the other side."

The arrangement of ‘Eua’s villages certainly seems odd. This is hardly a place of obvious divisions, like the towns of Northern Ireland or Bosnia: there are no walls dividing the communities on opposite sides of the road, unless the rusty corrugated fences that leak chooks and pigs count as walls. People cross the road to buy a watermelon or cabbages from their neighbours, or to retrieve a chook or pig, or simply to chat. And yet a dramatic and tragic history separates villages like Sapa’ata from their neighbours.

Like at least half a dozen other settlements in central ‘Eua, Sapa’ata is inhabited by descendants of the people of Niuafo’ou, the northernmost island in the modern Kingdom of Tonga. Niuafo’ou is a steep volcano whose crater is filled with a warm lake which contains several islands of its own. Because its lack of a safe anchorage meant that mail and essential supplies had to be thrown from passing ships in biscuit cans, Niua’fo’ou was once known as Tin Can Island to palangi. Closer to Samoa than to Tongatapu, the little volcano was only incorporated into the Tongan Empire in the late Middle Ages. Although they came to identify as Tongans, the island’s people continued to speak their own language, which resembles Samoan more than Tongan. On September the eleventh 1946, Niuafo'ou’s volcano erupted for the tenth time in a century, burying the island’s capital village of Angaha in lava for the second time in seventeen years. Although none of the islanders died, and most of their villages and cultivations survived, the Tongan government decided that Niuafo’ou ought to be permanently evacuated. In an improvised plebiscite, a large majority of the island’s residents approved the move, and in December 1946 a boat took them south to Tongatapu, where they were housed in a military base before being resettled on ‘Eua Island, at the opposite end of Tonga from their old homes and the graves of their ancestors. Although ‘Eua had been populated for thousands of years, and had acquired, in pre-Christian times, its own local deities and its own storied sacred sites, its relatively small population made it an obvious place to resettle the Niuafo’ou evacuees.

A minority of the evacuees resisted resettlement, and demanded a boat to take them home to Niuafo’ou. A frustrated Prince Tungi, the co-ruler of Tonga with his wife Queen Salote, told the homesick evacuees that they had to choose between free land and government assistance on ‘Eua and isolation, eruptions, and a complete lack of government services on Niuafo’ou. In 1958, thirty-nine families were allowed to return to their distant home; by 1976, the population of Niuafo’ou had reached six hundred and fifty, while the number of ‘Euans of Niuafo’ou descent topped two thousand.

In 1986 the Kiwi anthropologist Garth Rogers, who had written his Masters thesis on Niuafo’ou, published a selection of eyewitness accounts of the eruption and evacuation of 1946 called The Fire Has Jumped. Most of Rogers’ sources were opposed to the decision to resettle in ‘Eua, and he dedicated his book to 'the self-determination and courage’ of the ‘Niuafo’ou patriots’ who chose life on their own island to ‘social security and bureaucratic services on ‘Eua’.

In the penultimate chapter of The Fire Has Jumped, Rogers reveals that a small group of Niuafo’ouans refused orders to evacuate their homeland in December 1946, and lived for a year amongst the villages and cultivations abandoned by their kin. One of these twenty-three ‘recalcitrants’ was Palenapa Lavelua, a Niuafo’ou-born man who had only recently returned from a stint working in Nuku’alofa when his island exploded. Dreading a return to the "cold" south where "you have to pay for everything", Lavelua responded to the call to evacuate Niuafo’ou by running into the bush, drinking a mixture of water, sugar, and methylated spirits, and passing out. When he came around, the ship had sailed for Tongatapu.

Lavelua was one of the twenty-three people left behind on Niuafo’ou, and he delighted in the freedom that the sudden absence of government and chiefly authority gave him. Food was plentiful, especially because the plantations of nobles and of the government were available for plunder. Lavelua and his companions organised ‘tournaments’ involving games like darts, and held feasts in which they pretended to sit amongst hundreds of their kin. When the handful of ‘recalcitrant’ women left for Tongatapu in a small boat in August 1947, Lavelua and co. reacted in a surprising way: they "decided to go naked". "It was very enjoyable", Lavelua told Rogers. "We even rode horses naked. We kept some clothes ready in case a ship arrived." Eventually the government forced the remaining recalcitrants to board a ship for Tongatapu, but Lavelua returned to Niuafo’ou in the early fifties, and never again left the island. He claimed to have spent his time as an evacuee sick in bed, shivering under a blanket, and to have recovered completely as soon as he landed again in his homeland.

The evacuees who settled on ‘Eua may not have shared Lavelua’s fervour, but they did not forget their home island. The Tongan government gave them land on the fringes of exisiting ‘Euan villages, hoping that they would blend in with the island’s indigenous inhabitants, but they insisted on founding their own communities, which they named after the villages they had left behind. “In the first years there was lots of trouble”, Sifa says, as we bump past a ‘Hungry Hut’ on the outskirts of Sapa’ata offering watermelons and barbequed pork and chicken for sale. “People would fight, lots of fights. Euans would say ‘this is our island, what are you doing here?’ but gradually people intermarry, become friends. We are all Tongans.”

Last night, in the quiet open-air bar of the Hideaway, I talked with a woman called Fatima, who was born in Vava’u but lives in Auckland, where she works as a translator for the Tongan community. "It’s a stressful job", she told me. "I’ll get a call at two o’clock in the morning from a hospital or police station." Fatima is almost blind, and I wondered if her condition had sharpened her ear for the nuances of spoken language. "I know Japanese, and I can understand all the Polynesian languages, except Rotuman", she told me. "Rotuman is weird. Sixteen vowels!"

I asked Fatima if she had run into the Niuafo’ou language, and whether it is very different today from Tongan. "The Niuafo’ou language they speak on ‘Eua is just a dialect of Tongan", she said. "It’s easy." Sifa also says that the difference between Tongan and ‘Euan Niuofo’ouan is very minor. "There’s just a few words that are different, special", he says, as he swings left off the main road, onto the Ministry of Forestry track that leads into ‘Eua’s highland. Even before the evacuation, linguists had detected a ‘substratum’ of Tongan in the language of Niuafo’ou, the product of centuries of rule from Tongatapu. No scholar has ever researched the question, but it would surely not be surprising if the move to ‘Eua had ‘Tonganised’ the language further. "Do the descendants of the people who were evacuated go home to visit Niuafo’ou?" I ask Sifa. "No. It’s too far away", he replies. "Too expensive." Last night Fatima complained about the five hundred dollars it costs to fly from Tongatapu to her family’s home on the archipelago that includes Tonga’s second largest island and second most populous city. "It’s far cheaper to fly from New Zealand to Tongatapu than it is to fly from Tongatapu to Vava’u", she pointed out. It costs twelve hundred dollars to land with Air Chathams on the grass airstrip on the rim of Niuafo’ou’s volcano, seven hundred kilometres north of Tongatapu.

Sifa steers us in and out of potholes large enough to hide a pig, as he follows the forestry track into the area of exotic trees and regenerating bush known on ‘Eua as the Plantation. I want to ask Sifa what he thinks about Lavelua’s decision to stay on Niaufo’ou after the 1946 eruption, and about the strange exultation the man felt after the evacuation of most of the island’s population. Did Lavelua and his fellow ‘recalcitrants’ see the eruption and evacuation as a sort of revolution, which abolished the intricate and ancient hierarchies of Tongan society, and replaced them with a freedom as unprecedented as it was unexpected? Was the nakedness of the male recalcitrants a casting-off of some of the repressions of traditional society, or of the prudish version of Christianity imported by Wesleyan missionaries in the nineteenth century? I don’t ask these questions, because I fear that they might offend Sifa, who hangs a statuette of Christ over his speedometer, and because we have come to the end of the stretch of the forestry road which is navigable on four wheels. Skyler and I dismount, head over the wall of a small dam that used to supply ‘Eua’s drinking water, and climb deeper into the Plantation. For a few hundred metres, the track climbs between cedars that have been planted in strict rows, so that they resemble soldiers lined up for inspection. The grass under the cedars looks like it has been mown and combed by Hyde Park gardeners, and the occasional semi-circle of limestone rubble, padded with moss and wrapped in ivy tendrils, only adds to the quaintness of the scene. "Where are we, again?" Skyler asks, just as the track turns left to reveal a stand of the sort of scruffy adolescent radiata pines that cling in their millions to the hills beside unfashionable hydro lakes in the central North Island. The track straightens and levels out, and suddenly the radiata are confined to its eastern side. Banyan trees and virulent tropical undergrowth have moved in from the west, where a view of a long green ridge has opened up. Large and complicated spiders toil in webs that stretch high above our heads, connecting the trees on the opposite sides of the narrowing path. Geckos and cicadas hiss in time. "I see one!" Skyler shouts suddenly, as she drops to one knee: she has spotted the koki, or ‘Euan parrot, which is a favourite target of hikers' cameras. Properly speaking, the ‘Euan parrot is a subspecies of the koki, which developed after some of the birds were brought from Fiji and released on the island in prehistoric times. Can we properly call the bird indigenous, or is it a relative newcomer working to adapt to ‘Eua, like the Niuafo’ou evacuees, or the cedars and the pines of the Plantation? As the track climbs higher, and epiphytes and mist scale the trunks of mature banyan, the parrots vanish. I feel frustrated, until I remember some lines from Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’:

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

Even if the parrots have absented themselves from our patch of bush, there are tu, grey-bellied doves which flit about beside the path, as friendly as fantails back home, and pekapeka, with their short arched wings and easy swoop, and veka, the earthbound relatives of our earthbound weka.

After another half hour or so, we reach the high ridge that runs down the eastern side of ‘Eua. Tall radiata and ferns that look suspiciously like punga and mamaku grow beside the ridge track. Taki told us that Tongans often call ‘Eua ‘lihi Niu Sila’ – little New Zealand – on account of its coolness, its bush, and its hills. Tongans who have lived for a long time in New Zealand before returning home sometimes come to ‘Eua to remember the Waitakeres or the Rimutaka Ranges.

More mist is floating in off the Tongan Trench, blocking our views of the ‘Euan lowland and of the island’s uninhabited eastern coast, which is mostly covered in rainforest. Here and there a path opens confidently into the bush, only to be stymied by undergrowth after a few metres. I unfold Taki’s map, and Skyler and I squint at its stains and dotted lines and bent arrows. Somewhere ahead of us a relatively well-kept track climbs from this ridge to the highest point in ‘Eua, which is named ‘Soldier’s Grave’ because it holds the remains of AE Yealands, one of the thousands of Kiwi troops stationed in Tonga during World War Two. Yealands was killed by a Tongan soldier who had been caught stealing batteries from his New Zealand allies. The young Kiwi's photo hangs over the bar in the Hideaway, where his family have twice stayed during journeys to his grave. With the mist still thickening, we decide to head down from the ridge. On the way we make a detour, and walk a few hundred metres to what is reputed to be the oldest banyan tree on ‘Eua. Because the tree sits in a spacious limestone sinkhole, it looks like it is growing from somewhere deep in the earth, perhaps from the centre of the earth. The thousands of roots that flow into its bloated trunk look like dirty stalagmites, or like the tumours of an untreated cancer. The banyan is a popular picnic spot, but I have no desire to linger in the shadows its heavy branches lay down. We head further downhill, devour the cheese toasties Taki made us in an abandoned forestry settlement surrounded by pines, and wander back through mist and drizzle to ‘Eua’s main road.

We have taken a different track from the one Sefi drove us up, and we emerge not in Sapa’ata, which is only three or four kilometres south of the Hideaway, but in Ha’atu’a, the southernmost village on ‘Eua. Ha’atu’a is not a Niuafo’ou village, but many of its residents are descended from another group of Tongans who were forced to settle on ‘Eua after a calamity on their home island.

Some time in the winter of 1863, a strange boat anchored off ‘Ata, a small volcanic island one hundred and thirty kilometres south of ‘Eua, at the extreme southern end of the Kingdom of Tonga. Although it had been working as a whaling ship, the Grecian was painted to look like a man ‘o war. The ship’s captain, Thomas McGrath, explained that he wished to trade with the three hundred and thirty inhabitants of ‘Ata, and invited them aboard his vessel. One hundred and thirty-three islanders took up his offer; they were never seen again by their families. McGrath, who also took islanders from Niuafo’ou and from the northern Cooks atoll of Tongareva, arranged for the ‘Atans to be delivered to Peru, where slaves from the Pacific were in demand in the early 1860s.

When he heard about the blackbirding of nearly half their population, the Tongan king ordered the ‘Atans, who had been living for at least six generations on their remote island, to resettle in ‘Eua, where they would be safer from slavers. The ‘Atans settled at Ha’atu’a, and named their part of the village Kolomai, after the settlement on ‘Ata. Some ‘Atans have lobbied for a return to their old home, but the island’s isolation and lack of a safe anchorage has made the Tongan government reluctant to countenance its resettlement. There is a disturbing connection between New Zealand and the blackbirding at ‘Ata. Although his ship was registered in Tasmania, McGrath had travelled to the Chatham Islands and picked up a new crew there shortly before he began his career as a slaver. According to Henry Maude, the British colonial administrator, ethnologist, and historian who wrote a book about the slave trade in the Pacific, the Chathams crew were a mixture of ‘Maoris and Portugese’. Some crew members were dumped in Samoa when they objected to McGrath’s plan to capture slaves, but the majority were willing accomplices in his crimes.

If it is true that Maori from the Chathams assisted McGrath, then it seems likely that these men were members of the Ngati Mutunga iwi which had invaded the islands in 1835 and enslaved the indigenous Moriori people. In 1863 Moriori had recently been freed from slavery, and Ngati Mutunga were beginning to drift back to their north Taranaki homeland in search of new economic opportunities. Did some Ngati Mutunga, desensitised to slavery by life on the Chathams, jump at the chance to help McGrath decimate ‘Ata’s population?

After the events of 1863 the Tongan government declared ‘Ata tapu, and the island has had no permanent population for the last one hundred and forty-six years. In the 1930s the ‘Euan bandit Tubou Ngata, or ‘the Lone Tiger’, may have fled to the island and died there after robbing a series of shops and boats. In 1965, six Tongan schoolboys ‘borrowed’ a fishing boat, took it for a joyride around Nuku’alofa’s harbour, got caught by an unseasonal storm, drifted in the open ocean for a week, and were wrecked on the sharp rocks at the bottom of one of ‘Ata’s massive cliffs.

In his 1970 book Naked Island, Australian journalist Keith Willey tells how the young men survived for thirteen months on ‘Ata by reviving the gardens and plantations of the nineteenth century, as well as by fishing and gathering birds’ eggs, until a passing ship picked them up. With its tale of ingenuity and courage, Naked Island resembles Robinson Crusoe, except that it features a group of protagonists, rather than Defoe’s solipsistic hero.

Skyler and I head north out of Ha’atu’a, but we struggle to identify the turn-off to ‘Eua’s west coast, where the Hideaway sits beside the village of Tufuvai. Without signposts, the many coral and dirt tracks heading left into coconut plantations look the same to us. In the village of Angaha, which bears the name of the buried capital of Niuafo’ou, I knock on a door and ask for help with my navigation. There is a fat book called Tongan Grammar in the small, randomly-assembled library at the Hideaway, but it was compiled fifty years ago by a missionary-linguist, and seems designed to frustrate any attempt to learn a few simple, useful Tongan expressions. The book lacks a dictionary, preferring to dispense the Tongan language via hundreds of examples of obscure linguistic points. That wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t for the fact that the example sentences seem to be drawn from manuals written for prison wardens, customs officials, and missionaries. Tongan Grammar has taught me how to ask whether a prisoner has escaped, whether a piece of fruit has been fumigated before it entered Tonga, and whether Saul became Paul, but it has given me no clue about how to ask for directions.

After a few minutes of my chaotic attempts to improvise a Tongan-English creole, my plight has become the concern of half of Angaha village. Eventually a couple of small girls are despatched to guide Skyler and me to the safety of the turnoff to Tufuvai. The girls walk us a kilometre or so up the road, giggling shyly when we try to make conversation, and then point solemnly at a dusty coral track that goes downhill between coconut palms towards the sea. With the generosity typical of Tongans, they offer to accompany us all the way to the Hideaway, but we thank them and head off on our own.

As we reach the outskirts of Tufuvai, an old ‘Euan village which backs on to one of the island’s few beaches, a boy of nine or ten runs out of a grove of bananas and offers me a large green mango. "Malo" I say, taking a bite. I feel an urge to spit out the unripe fruit, but my tastebuds quickly adjust to its bitterness. "Malo aupito, sai aupito, faka oko ofa!" I say in my atrocious accent, resisting the temptation to ask the boy whether the fruit was fumigated. "Where are you going?" he asks, in mellifluous English. "To Tufuvai" I reply. "You are already in Tufuvai!" he laughs, between bites on his own mango. "Tufuvai is in ‘Eua! Silly!"

Friday, January 08, 2010

In search of the Tongan Empire

On my first day in Tonga I hire a girl's bike from a sleepy teenager and cruise down Vuna Rd, which seems, with its harbour views, promenading couples, and processions of souped-up cars, to be Nuku'alofa's answer to Auckland's Mission Bay Drive.

Groups of teenage boys run across the road, between the traffic, and leap over a seawall's coral brickwork into the pale blue water between a shoal of local fishing boats and a Samoan-flagged container ship. With their long shorts and dark, long-sleeved shirts, the teens look like they are diving in wetsuits. Tongan law forbids any male over the age of sixteen from going topless, and the display of naked knees is frowned upon, if not proscribed. (One of Nuku'alofa's more risque clubs apparently holds an occasional 'Naughty Knees Night', where a few daring men and women parade their knobbly bits on stage while other punters whistle and applaud.)

When one of the modestly-dressed teens steps in front of me, I discover that the machine I have just hired lacks brakes. I jam my heels into Vuna Rd and come to a stuttering, undignified halt. A Tongan family slides by in an enormous SUV, giggling through the windows at the silly palangi on a purple bike built for someone half his size.

Past Touliki Naval Base, where muscled young men sit around laughing in front of a pair of gunboats that look suspiciously like converted fishing trawlers, Tongan families are picnicking on a strip of grass beside the seawall. The Tongan language has no simple equivalents for our words for uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, and cousin. In Tonga, if one of a set of siblings has a child, then all of the siblings become the child's parents. Cousins are considered siblings, just as uncles and aunts are considered parents. For most Tongans, family life consists of a vast network of obligations and entitlements that those of us raised in Western nuclear families must struggle to imagine.

A few small kids have defected from the intricate clusters formed by their kin on the grass and wandered onto the reef which rises like a set of rotten teeth out of a low tide. In the distance a series of islands with leprous-yellow beaches are set on their own reefs; they are remnants of the volcanoes that coughed tonnes of ash onto Tongatapu millions of years ago, ensuring that the island would be covered in super-fertile soils by the time the Lapita ancestors of the Tongans landed here around three thousand years ago. The occasional reef is adorned with a wreck so rusted that it looks less like a trawler or a pleasure boat than a huge gnarled lump of coral.

The Americans and Kiwis who occupied Tonga during World War Two wanted to site guns on the little reef islands to counter any Japanese attack on Nuku'alofa, but they ended up fortifying the shoreline of Tongatapu instead. Across the road from the picnickers I find a roofless observation post painted in the pre-faded grey that still excites the sensibilities of military bureaucrats today. Woolly nightshade has forced a side door of the post, and taken the communications room. A bulging cow sits tethered to a banyan tree on the other side of the building.

The thirty thousand American troops who passed through Tongatapu between 1942 and 1945 had the nervous hubris of a conquering army. Although they were ostensibly guests of Queen Salote, Tonga's long-serving head of state, the Americans ran their own legal system, appropriated large areas of land for their bases, and treated the Tongans as their subjects. In her study of Tonga's war experience Elizabeth Wood-Ellen reveals that the commanders of the American force hailed from the deep South, and thought nothing of enlivening an evening's drinking by driving into the countryside outside Nuku'alofa, firing rifles into the air, and beating up any locals who crossed the path of their Land Rovers and jeeps. Black troops were carefully segregated from the rest of the Americans at Kolonga, a remote village on the northeast coast of Tongatapu. When they left Tongatapu, the Americans demolished the hundreds of buildings they erected, and drove tractors and trucks off the edge of the wharf they had built beside Vuna Road.

I turn my bike around and ease off Vuna Road, into the signless network of coral-rock and dirt lanes that separates Nuku'alofa's seafront from the northern arm of Fanga'uta, the lagoon that looks on maps like a great bite taken out of Tongatapu. Fales remain the dominant type of housing in Samoa, but in Tonga, which is considerably cooler and a little wealthier, Western-style dwellings are the norm. Between the open coast and the lagoon, rows of old cottages patched up with corrugated iron and flattened kerosene tins give way brusquely to swampy vacant lots, or half-acre plantations of coconuts and bananas. I pass one of the hundreds of Wesleyan churches in Tonga, then a cottage which doubles as the 'Baby Blue Beauty Saloon', then stop to watch an unskinned pig being turned over a front yard fire on a hand-held spit at least eight feet long.

As a flat, intensely cultivated, and in some places overpopulated island, Tongatapu lacks some of the appeal of Samoa, with its forested mountains and tumbling streams, or Niue, with its tiny population and tracts of virgin jungle. For me, though, the island's huge role in Pacific history and the continuing vitality of its culture more than compensate for the rubbish heaps beside the lagoon and the rush-hour traffic jams in Nuku'alofa. If Samoa is Western Polynesia's Scotland, a romantic, mountainously beautiful site of resistance to invaders and colonisers, then Tongatapu is England, the heartland of an old power whose palaces and monuments bear witness to its traditional importance. Helped by the soil of Tongatapu and by tireless northerly winds, the Tongans built a maritime chiefdom - some scholars venture to call it an empire - that included Tongatapu, the Ha'apai, Va'vau, and Niua archipelagos that are also components of modern Tonga, and a series of more distant territories like U'vea, Fiji's Lau group, and Samoa. Tongan raiding parties were feared as far away as the Solomon Islands.

The Tongans created an intricately hierarchical society, in which no two people were of the same rank, and in which power was divided between a divine T'ui Tonga, who interceded with the gods over harvests and the trajectories of storms, and a worldly hau, who despatched governors to remote islands.

Today Tonga remains perhaps the most hierarchical of Polynesian societies. Pedalling through the village-suburbs of Nuku'alofa, I notice the absence of the malae, or collectively owned central spaces, which I saw in every Samoan village I visited. In the large fale on their malae, Samoans have traditionally met in fono - village councils - to decide upon the proper allocation of plantations and other collectively-owned land.

Although Samoan fono have traditionally been dominated by chiefs, these chiefs have always been related to the people they rule by bloodlines. In traditional Tongan society, by contrast, chiefs were related to their subjects only by the fact that these subjects lived on their land. The 'commoners' who made up the vast majority of the Tongan population were tenant farmers who owed tribute to their chiefs, and who could be moved off the soil they occupied at the whim of the same chiefs. When Tongan chiefs died, they became divine; commoners, by contrast, did not even possess souls.

The centralising tendencies of traditional Tongan society may have helped it escape the subjugation suffered by its neighbours in modern times. Like most other Polynesian societies, Tonga was destabilised by the arrival of modern weapons and technology in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In Island Kingdom, his classic survey of Tongan history, Ian Campbell explains that a 'long civil war' analogous to the Musket Wars of Aotearoa and the fatricidal conflicts of early modern Samoa began in Tonga after chiefs based in the northern Ha'api and Va'vau groups acquired guns from passing European ships, and began to raid Tongatapu.

In Samoa and in Aotearoa, settlers and European imperialist powers were able to play warring local factions off against each other, and by doing so make the imposition and consolidation of colonial power possible. In Tonga, though, the wars of the nineteenth century were ended by a local leader, Tauafa'ahau, who is better-known as Tupou the first, the creator of the modern Tongan state.

Tauafa'ahau was a brutally effective soldier and strategist, and the campaign he launched to unify his country had the character of a holy war. One day in 1831 Tauafa'ahau had picked up the trunk of a banana tree, bashed it against the statue of a traditional Tongan goddess, and found that he was not struck down by divine punishment. The young chief decided that the old gods were dead, and that the new God imported by Wesleyan missionaries required his allegiance. As he conquered island after island, Tauafa'ahau burned the carved godhouses of the old religion, and demanded the conversion of the local population. The pagan chiefs who had held out longest against Tauafa'ahau belatedly converted to Catholicism, and tried to get Papist France to intervene to support them, but in 1852 Tauafa'ahau raised an army of six thousand, besieged their strongholds on Tongatapu, and starved them into submission.

Working closely with the randy anti-imperialist missionary Shirley Baker, who was eventually forced out of the clergy because of his commitment to Tongan nationalism, Tupou the first converted Tonga's old royal titles into a new, Western-style Kingship, gave the country a set of written laws, abolished the arbitrary powers of chiefs over commoners, designed a flag and composed a national anthem, and warned foreign governments against intervention in Tongan affairs. In the 1870s Tongan independence was reluctantly accepted by Britain and Germany, the two strongest imperial powers in the Western Polynesian region.

Tonga would eventually be forced to cede some of its sovereignty to Britain, but its people never had to put up with the discriminatory laws and ferociously bigoted governors that were the fate of Samoa and Niue for the first half of the twentieth century. Tonga's history of centralising institutions and its very hierarchical culture probably made the consolidation of power by Tupou the first easier. Unlike King Tawhiao in Aotearoa, or the leaders of the various nationalist governments that struggled to win wide support in late nineteenth century Samoa, Tupou was able to draw on concepts of nationalism and institutions of central power that predated contact with Europe.

When the alternatives to the state he founded are considered, it is not hard to see why many Tongans still reverence Tupou the first today. Turning on to Tulu'ifavou Road, the main drag of Nuku'alofa, I pass a park where large statues of Tupou and his successors stand over their graves. Since Tupou the first died in 1893, every male heir to the Tongan throne has taken his name. A large billboard at the top of Tulu'ifavou Road congratulates the new King on his recent coronation. It is hard to see a connection between Tupou the fifth, with his puffed-up chest full of unearned medals, his dandyish smirk, and his quivering double chin, and the ferocious visionary who created modern Tonga.

A stone's throw from the grave of Tupou the first, a billboard in front of a building site announces that the Chinese government is helping finance the reconstruction of Nuku'alofa's central business district, in the wake of the riot which broke out at the end of a pro-democracy demonstration in November 2006 and left scores of buildings looted and gutted. The billboard's boast seems rather ill-advised, given the fact that one of the main targets of the arsonists and looters were Chinese-owned businesses.

In his new book In Search of the Friendly Islands, long-time Tongan dissident journalist Kalafi Moala says that on 'Black Thursday' the country's pro-democracy movement 'went from the being oppressed to being the oppressor', and claims that the riot was carefully planned by criminal elements, and tacitly endorsed by populist politicians. Not everyone seems to agree with Moala. I notice one piece of graffiti mourning some of the rioters who died on Black Thursday, and another which demands that the Tongan government FREE THE POLITICAL PRISONERS jailed for their part in the disorder.

When Skyler meets me in downtown Nuku'alofa she giggles at my bike, and gasps at the sunburn I have acquired on my ride through the suburbs. Embarrassed, I try to explain that sunburn is a great palangi tradition, a sort of moko accompanied by solemn rituals like lying on the beach or wandering lost through strange cities, a momento of an encounter between the tropics and pasty bodies, but she waves her hand mockingly, and guides me towards an enormous vehicle she has just hired from a man who called himself Big John. I am secretly rather pleased to see the SUV, because I didn't fancy taking my little purple bike onto the roads outside Nuku'alofa. Tongatapu is not a large island, but I am not a very fit person.

To drive into Tongatapu's countryside is to experience the depth of Tongan history. Nuku'alofa has been the country's capital since the 1860s, when Tupou built the famous Royal Palace out of specially-ordered Kiwi kauri, but before that decade the place was a mere village with a fort attached. After a night's rest, Skyler and I head into the ancient district of Hahake - the word means east - beside Fanga’uta Lagoon, keeping carefully to a forty kilometre speed limit that seems designed to protect the pigs, roosters, and dogs that continually cross the potholed road.

After twenty kilometres we reach Mu'a, the capital of the Tongan Empire during its late medieval heyday. Mu'a is divided into two villages - Tatakamotonga, which housed the servants of the Tu'i Tonga, and Lapaha, which was the home of the sacred king. The lagoon beside the capital was often filled with vaka carrying the proceeds of trade, or plunder - archaeologists are not always able to differentiate the two activities - and the mana of the old empire is expressed in the twenty-eight giant langi, or burial monuments, which stand amidst the cottages and plantations of modern-day Lapaha.

The sepulchral monuments rise in tiers made from earth and from dressed and fitted stone blocks, some of which are adorned with enigmatic, angular petroglyphs. Because Tongatapu lacks a good supply of building materials, vaka had to carry beachrock from the islands north of Nukualofa across the sea, down the lagoon, and up a specially-dug canal. Some of the langi stones may have come from far afield - legends speak of journeys to seize material from Tikopia, a Polynesian outlier in the southern Solomon Islands, and one tradition insists that the stones were moved by magic from U'vea, many hundreds of kilometres northwest of Tonga.

Mu'a and Nuku'alofa were rivals in the nineteenth century, and Mu'a was a centre of resistance to Tupou in the early decades of his reign. The last Tu'i Tonga, Laufiltonga, was Tupou's most serious rival for power, and supported the doomed Catholic revolt against the new king. When Laufiltonga died in 1865, he was buried on a langi topped by a cross. The title he bore died with him, but members of Lapaha's Catholic community are still buried on the lower tiers of his langi.

Tonga's fledgling tourist industry has made no effort to help visitors find Lapaha’s langi, which are mostly located down narrow side roads. Some of the monuments are overgrown with grass, and topped with frangipani trees; others are partially obscured by modern graves and markers.

When Skyler and I try to navigate Big John's SUV down a lane we almost run into one of the home-made power lines hung by locals 'borrowing' electricity from Tonga's central grid. I abandon the vehicle, follow the swaying wires a few hundred metres, and discover and climb a langi, but when I descend a couple of dogs chase me into the dry moat that surrounds the tomb.

I decide on a different tactic, and head back into the centre of Lapaha to ask locals for some directions. I approach a group of teenage boys sitting on the cracked concrete veranda of a boarded-up beauty salon, and attempt a couple of Tongan greetings. 'Kia ora bro', one of the boys shoots back. 'New Zealand's the best place, eh'. He and his mates live down the road from me in West Auckland; they are spending their summer holidays 'with the rellies' in Lapaha. Armed with some detailed directions, Skyler and I locate Paepae o Telei, the most famous of the ancient langi, down a dirt lane which runs all the way to still green lagoon water.
Paepae o Telei is made from slabs of coral limestone eight feet wide, fitted together so as to form two giant Ls. The tomb was never filled in ancient times, but in 2006 two royals killed in a car crash in the United States were laid to rest here.

Like the Tongan-built Pulemelei Mound in Samoa, which I visited last August, the langi of Lapaha would have required the labour of thousands of men to erect. The langi are comparable to famous ancient monuments like Stonehenge or the moai of Rapa Nui, and yet they are little-known outside Tonga. It is possible that the Tongan monuments are neglected by Westerners because they are not mysterious remnants or a society which has vanished or been transformed, but rather pieces of a continuous and robust culture. For the Westerner attracted by wistfully patronising images of 'lost civilisations', Tonga lacks the stillness and pathos of the Mayan forests or the bare hills of Rapa Nui.

East of Lapaha, the lake-like waters of Fanga’uta Lagoon are replaced by the open ocean. At Heketa, the site of Tonga's capital before the T'ui Tonga's shift to Mu'a in the thirteenth century, the sound of waves slamming patiently on cliff walls carries through coconut trees and scrub to the Ha'amonga a Maui Reserve, where a couple of families sell souvenirs - tapa cloths adorned with the royal coat of arms, and necklaces made with local pearls - in the shadow of Tonga's best-loved ancient monument.

'The burden of Maui' is represented on banknotes and on the label of the local Maka Mata beer, but as a trilithon - a structure made of one horizontal and two vertical stones - it is unusual in the canon of ancient Tongan stonework. Explanations for the monument, which was erected near the end of Heketa's spell as capital, vary considerably: some traditions suggest it was an entrance to a now-vanished palace, others claim it was a memorial to a Tu'i Tonga, and in 1967 Tupou the fourth suggested, rather implausibly, that the structure was raised to help Tongans trace the changing of the seasons.

If the purpose of Ha'amonga a Maui is obscure, the reason for the abandoment of Heketa seems obvious. With the burgeoning of their empire, the Tongans would have needed safe anchorage for vaka creaking with tribute, loot, and trade goods, and the rough water of Heketa must have seemed inferior to the calm surface of the lagoon to the southwest.

Tonga may have had a capital even older than Heketa. The village of Nukuleka, on the eastern edge of Fanga’uta Lagoon, has been popular with archaeologists since the sixties, when examples of the distinctive pottery of the Lapita ancestors of the Polynesians were uncovered there. In 2008 David Burley, the leading palangi expert on Tongan prehistory, caused controversy amongst archaeologists and headlines in the Pacific media by claiming that Nukuleka was the first place in Polynesia that the Lapita people settled. Burley's excavations had convinced him that it was at Nukuleka that Lapita culture evolved into Polynesian culture, as pottery was slowly abandoned and agriculture and woodworking became increasingly sophisticated. Burley's claims were well-received in Tonga, but caused unhappiness in Samoa, which has for decades liked to advertise itself as the cradle of Polynesia.

When Skyler and I drive into Nukuleka, on a dusty coral and dirt road that follows the edge of Fanga'uta lagoon, we discover that the open ground in the middle of the village has been given over to a netball game between two teams of schoolgirls. Most of the village seems to be watching the girls leap and swoop over the rough turf between two rusted portable hoops, and we roll by unnoticed. Nukuleka lacks the monuments of Mu'a or Heketa, but its herds of pigs, its coconut plantations, and its boys fishing in outrigger canoes might be considered living monuments to the Polynesian way of life which has existed here for so long.

As Skyler and I drive back from the little village at the end of the narrow road, we have to brake for half a dozen pigs that wander out of a plantation, through the coral dust we have stirred up, and into the water. The area around Nukuleka is known throughout Tongatapu for its 'swimming pigs', which supplement the offerings of the village trough with shellfish and crabs they find on the bottom of the lagoon. The boy beaching his outrigger smiles indulgently at me, as I lean out the window of the SUV to take a photo of one of Nukuleka's strange pigs.