Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Going to war with William Temple

Walking down the hall of my parents' Drury farmhouse is a little like travelling backwards through time. On the walls at the top of the hall are photos, in kodak colour, of people and scenes I remember from my childhood - of sideburned men in stubbies and women in paisley dresses leaning over barbeques, or wandering down beaches, or crouching between a television and a teetering Christmas tree. I see myself as a ludicrous six year-old, pulling an English setter's ear in one photograph and reaching for a frisbee in another.

When I take a few steps down the hall, though, colours fade, bodies stiffen, and faces become strange. My parents, uncles and aunts may show off bare legs and smiles, but their parents stand solemnly in trousers and long dark dresses. They pose for cameras in the same living room as their descendants, but the television and Christmas tree have been been replaced by squat wooden armchairs uncomfortable to look at, and a fireplace as dark as a cave.

If I look at the portraits near the bottom of the hall I find that the lounge has been replaced by a nineteenth century photographer's studio, with a background screen like a sheer grey cliff, and sticks of polished prop-furniture. My great-grandfather, the man who built this house, stands in front of the screen in the undersized dinner jacket the photographer's assistant has handed him. He stands formally, even gravely, although a dark beard pours uncontrollably down his torso, and his small dark eyes hint at some obscure anger.

In nineteenth century New Zealand, photographers were accustomed to dealing with clients who wanted portraits to send to grieving relatives in the Old Country they had left behind. The formality of many of the old photographs that hang in our houses is not, then, surprising. I think that we find this formality obscurely comforting, because it creates a distance between ourselves and the world of our ancestors. We citizens of the twenty-first century like to think of ourselves, with our fibre optic cables and ethical shopping habits and cheap international travel, as the most sophisticated and enlightened humans ever to walk the earth, and we regard our forebears, with their dull fusty clothes and over-elaborate manners and ridiculous devices like the gramophone and the fountain pen, with a sort of affectionate amusement. Just as the black and white photo has been superseded by the colour snapshot, so the world of our nineteenth century ancestors has been, we think, countermanded in favour of ours.

But not every photograph of the past is as reassuring as the family portraits on my parents' walls.

If New Zealand can be called a family - a large, diverse, and growing family, full of factions and quarrels and confusion, but a family nevertheless - then the archives of Wellington's Turnbull Library might be considered a sort of family photo album. Along with its millions of manuscript pages, the Turnbull holds tens of thousands of images snapped in this country over the past hundred and sixty years. A score or so of the photos in the Turnbull were taken in the early 1860s by a man named William Temple. An Irish-born soldier-surgeon attached to the Royal Artillery Regiment, Temple arrived in this country with his comrades in 1861, at a time when the politicians in Auckland's parliament and their friends in the local business community were plotting a war.

To understand the war that gave William Temple's life and art their shape and meaning, we need to understand the peculiar division of power in mid-nineteenth century New Zealand. Troubled by the scale of Pakeha settlement in the decade after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the Tainui iwi and some of its traditional allies created the Maori King Movement, or Kingitanga, in the middle of the 1850s. The first Maori King was crowned in 1858, and by 1861 the 'Waikato Kingdom', as it was commonly known, was a unified independent nation, stretching from the Mokau River in the south to the mouth of the Waikato in the north. Tawhiao, the nation's leader, kept his court in Ngaruawahia, an ancient Tainui settlement on the junction of the Waikato and Wapia rivers.

Tawhiao was a Maori nationalist, but he was not an isolationist. Fleets of Maori-owned schooners delivered wheat, flax, and potatoes from the Waikato Kingdom to Auckland and other towns, and brought back books and machinery. Flour mills were established on many of the streams and rivers that flowed through Tawhiao's kingdom, and a printing press in Ngaruawahia produced a newspaper for his subjects.

Auckland's political and economic elite knew that Tawhiao's realm had to be destroyed, if the central regions of Te Ika a Maui were ever to be brought under Pakeha control. In 1861 hundreds of British soldiers, including members of the Royal Artillery Regiment, were put to work building a road that went south from Auckland towards the border of the Waikato Kingdom. Breaking rocks was an exhausting business, and soldiers complained about being made to do 'convicts' work', but road-building was less dangerous than war, and the Regiment's surgeon sometimes found himself with little to do. Perhaps noticing William Temple's langour, a friend he had made after his arrival in Auckland apparently gave him some photographic equipment, and encouraged him to take up the hobby.

Today small efficient cameras and the digitisation of images mean we can take, view and store photos as easily as we scratch our noses. In the 1860s, though, photography was a protracted, exacting business, requiring patience and judgement. The process began in a darkened room or tent, where the photographer covered a plate of glass with a sticky, flammable chemical solution. After setting his camera up on a tripod in a well-lit room or outdoors in the sunlight, the photographer slid the glass plate into the machine, lifted the cap from the lens, and let the light flow inside, where it reacted with the still-wet chemicals. The plate would be 'exposed' in this way for between twenty seconds and five minutes, depending on the quality of the light. The photographer had to ask his subjects to refrain from all movement during this time. If the subjects did so much as shift their feet or cough, then their portraits might be blurred.

After replacing the lens cap, the photographer retrieved the glass plate from his camera, returned to his dark room or tent, poured another chemical solution over the glass, and waited for an image to emerge. If he had applied his chemical solutions properly, had kept his lens unlidded for the appropriate length of time, and had prevented his subjects from wandering or fidgeting during the exposure, then the photographer had a reasonable chance of producing a recognisable image. Photography would certainly have helped to rid William Temple of spare time.

During 1862 and the first months of 1863 Temple recorded the slow progress of the Great South Road, through swamps and over thickly bushed hills, in a series of photos. As the road moved away from Auckland, soldiers were stationed in forts built by its side; civilians followed the soldiers, establishing farmlets, stores and pubs.

When the Great South Road reached Pokeno, near the northern border of the Waikato Kingdom, it could go no further without the help of war. A fort called Queen's Redoubt was built at Pokeno, and troops began to mass there, as the government in Auckland demanded that Tawhiao accept its authority, and defiant replies came north from Ngaruawahia. While they waited for the inevitable invasion of the Waikato, the troops at Pokeno amused themselves with drinking binges, bare-knuckle boxing matches, and card games. Sometimes the troops traded with Maori who paddled towards them up the Waikato and its tributaries on waka laded with food. After the government in Auckland issued an edict demanding that all Maori swear allegiance to the Queen or forfeit their rights as citizens, columns of refugees began to move down the muddy Great South Road and past Pokeno, to the temporary safety of the Waikato Kingdom.

After Pakeha forces finally invaded Tawhiao's kingdom in July 1863, William Temple moved south with the Royal Artillery Regiment. On the afternoon of November the 20th, Temple's regiment helped bombard the massive pa Tawhiao's army had built at Rangiriri, on a piece of dry land wedged between the Waikato in the west and a system of swamps and lakes in the east. After two hours the big guns fell silent, and hundreds of soldiers charged towards the palisaded earth walls of the pa. They were met by round after round of rifle and musket fire.

Three successive assaults were made on Rangiriri, and the pa's outer trenches and pits were gradually captured. William Temple and his fellow doctors were kept busy, as dozens of wounded men were carried and dragged back from the edge of the fortress. With dusk approaching and the heart of the pa still flying Tawhiao's flag, the British commander General Duncan Cameron became frustrated, and ordered the Royal Artillery Regiment to join the assault. The regiment's men must have been surprised and dismayed by Cameron's demand: they were used to attacking their enemies from a distance, not charging them and fighting at close quarters. Where most of the other men who attacked Rangiriri had rifles, Temple and his comrades had to rush the palisades wielding useless swords and clumsy, inaccurate revolvers.

The commander of the Royal Artillery Regiment, Captain Henry Mercer, was shot down as he led his men in their hopeless assault. Several other men quickly fell, and most of the rest of the regiment retreated. William Temple, though, ran into the line of Kingite fire and, with bullets drilling the air around him, knelt over Mercer's bloodied body. Mercer had expired, and Rangiriri would not fall until its defenders ran out of ammunition the next morning, but Temple's boldness won him the Victoria Cross, and saw him celebrated in the media and in politicians' speeches. After serving out the Waikato War he was able to take up a series of prestigious medical posts in Britain and India, before retiring to a country home in Kent. William Temple's career as a photographer seems to have ended shortly after the invasion of the Waikato. The war probably left little time for the difficult business of image-making, and the renown Temple enjoyed after Rangiriri may have turned his attention away from the hobby.

Temple showed no discernable interest in preserving the photographs he took in New Zealand, and the works held in the Turnbull seem to have survived only because they were included in an album compiled by Charles Urquhart, a member of the 65th Regiment of the British army, which helped build the Great South Road and capture Rangiriri.

In Urquhart's album, Temple's images sit beside work by much better-known cameramen, like John Crombie, one of the pioneers of commercial photography in New Zealand. The studio Crombie set up in Shortland Street in 1855 became so successful that he was soon on good terms with Auckland's political and business elite. Crombie was popular because he gave his audience what it wanted. His contributions to the Urquhart album include pompously proper portraits of Thomas Browne, the governor of New Zealand in the late 1850s, and Sir Charles Clifford, the speaker of the warmongering Auckland parliament. When Crombie wasn't working on portraits, he shot stout colonial buildings, verdant paddocks, fine paved roads, and other symbols of the progress the British race was bringing to a barbarous land.

William Temple's photographs were little-known in the nineteenth century, and although they have found their way into some books about New Zealand history, they are usually presented as illustrations, rather than important works of art. Temple's Victoria Cross ensures him entries in various military encyclopedias, but few of the authors of these capsule biographies mention his photography.

It is not hard to see why Temple's photographs have failed to win wide renown. He was an amateur working on an unstable frontier of European society, and his images show both his lack of technical skill and his frequent failure to control his subjects. Temple often left his glass plates exposed for too long, so that his photos were born looking grey with age. Sometimes his exposures were too short, and shadows spilled over his images. The figures in the photos are often blurred, suggesting that Temple had trouble getting his subjects to stay still. The curious, frightened or hostile Maori and boozy British soldiers who populate Temple's oeuvre would have known little about photographic technology, and probably had scant interest in holding poses for minutes at a time.

But it is not only the technical flaws of Temple's photos which make for difficult viewing. Temple appears to be trying, in many of his works, to emulate the stylised treatments of New Zealand subjects which brought photographers like John Crombie success. Again and again, though, his technical shortcomings and his difficulty in controlling his environment prevent him from producing picturesque cliches, and lead instead to chaotic, disturbing works. In a photograph the Turnbull archivists have titled Members of the Imperial Forces, and a young Maori woman, three soldiers - Henry Bates, a translator attached to the 65th Regiment, Charles Urquhart, and William Temple himself - are gathered inside a squat hut around a young Maori woman whose name is given, in a note in the Urquhart album, as Ann. The image bears no date, but was probably made near the border of the Waikato Kingdom in 1863.

The men in the photo have dirty, unsmiling faces. Bates' visage is slightly blurred, because he has turned his weight towards Ann during the exposure. His left hand grips a tomahawk.

The Kingite guerrilla bands which raided Pakeha settlements along the Great South Road during the early months of the Waikato War often used tomahawks to execute the settlers they surprised. Auckland newspapers reported these killings in detail, and the tomahawk became an object synonymous, in many Pakeha minds, with Maori savagery.

As a translator, Bates is likely to have had contact with captured members of the Kingite raiding parties, and with Maori civilians suspected of supplying the raiders with food or shelter or intelligence. Is Bates brandishing a captured weapon of war? Why is he brandishing the tomahawk, and why has he turned towards Ann?

Temple sits on the other side of Ann. He is well aware of the importance of staying still during the exposure of his camera's lens and plate, yet he has abandoned his original pose, turning his head and upper body sideways and staring at the girl. Inevitably, his head is slightly blurred. We have the feeling that he cannot control his interest in Ann.

Charles Urquhart sprawls behind Bates, Ann, and Temple, in the shady interior of the hut, on what might be a crude bench. Unlike his friends, he stares directly at the camera. His eyes are unusually wide.

Together, Bates, Urquhart and Temple almost encircle Ann. Her lips are pressed tight together, her eyes stare straight ahead, and she has folded her arms defensively across her chest. Is she a captured supporter of the Waikato Kingdom, or a member of one of the iwi and hapu which allied themselves to British forces in 1863? Has she been asked or ordered to pose with Temple and his comrades?

During the New Zealand Wars Pakeha newspapers valued photographs of 'loyal' Maori fraternising with colonial and British troops. Temple may have intended his photograph as a contribution to this genre. Certainly, there are features of his image which suggest careful preparation.

By the second half of the nineteenth century many Maori had ceased to wear korowai, preferring European-style garments, but painters and photographers liked the romantic connotations of the old cloaks, and often asked their Maori subjects to don them when they posed. Artists like Goldie and Lindauer kept cloaks in their studios, so that their models could be adorned 'authentically'. Temple may well have asked Ann to pose with a korowai that he or one of his comrades had acquired.

The presence of Henry Bates in the photograph also suggests planning by Temple. Bates' fluency in Maori would likely have made him, for Temple and other monolingual Pakeha at least, a symbol of the links between the old and new peoples of New Zealand.

If it is intended as a piece of propaganda, though, Temple's photo surely fails. Bates' tomahawk, Temple's avaricious gaze, and Ann's apparent unhappiness combine to create a sinister atmosphere.

It is possible to link the eerie feeling of Members of the Imperial Forces, and a young Maori woman to the behaviour of British and colonial troops in the early 1860s.

The troops who built the Great South Road and invaded the Waikato were notorious, even amongst their Pakeha brethren, for their drunkeness and their love of looting and arson. During the conquest of the Waikato Pakeha soldiers looted and burned not only Maori kainga but European settlements like Raglan. They were so destructive that, after the end of the war, the government which had sent them into battle found it necessary to form a commission to award compensation to the Pakeha and 'loyal' Maori whose homes, stores, and farms they had ravaged.

Soldiers were regularly flogged for desertion, theft and drunkeness, and sometimes appeared in civilian courts accused of more serious offences. In January 1864, for instance, a member of the First Waikato Regiment named Michael McGuire was charged with raping a fourteen year-old Pakeha girl in one of the settlements along the Great South Road. Later that month the Otago Daily Times, which had a regionalist suspicion of the war the Auckland-based government was prosecuting in the Waikato, made an attack on the 'want of discipline' inside General Cameron's forces, accusing them of intimidating and robbing the people they were supposed to be protecting. There were stories of 'enemy' women being abducted and assaulted by British and colonial troops during the Waikato campaign, but these were rarely published in the media or investigated by police. For most Pakeha it was brown barbarians, not white soldiers, who ravished the women they captured during their campaigns. Indeed, there was a widespread fascination with the alleged sexual exploits of Maori warriors amongst nineteenth and early twentieth century Pakeha. Artists sometimes turned to the subject, knowing that it would titillate their audiences. In a famous painting called Spoils of War, for instance, Louis Steele showed a frightened, bare-breasted woman tied to the palisades of a pa which had just been stormed by enemies of her tribe.

If Steele's painting excited Pakeha audiences, Members of the Imperial Forces, and a young Maori woman would surely have disturbed them. The barbarism it reflected could not be attributed to another people. In a photo taken at one of the clearings European settlers made in the forest that surrounded the Great South Road, Temple shows us a woman and two men standing near a hut which appears to be made from punga logs. The hut opens on to the dirt of the Great South Road, which is its inhabitants' only connection to the markets, taverns, and churches of Auckland. Behind the hut rimu, taraire, and puriri rise, overwhelming the sky.

Temple's photo superficially resembles a standard depiction of Pakeha settlement on the New Zealand frontier. Numerous nineteenth century photos and paintings show pioneers posing with a home they have built on a piece of land cleared from virgin forest. In these images, the pioneers become, through the example of their hard work and skills, evangelists for British civilisation. Their little settlements are seeds planted in an alien, inferior land, seeds that will eventually grow into the productive farms and well-ordered towns of a thriving colony. Even those artists who were critical of the impact of European civilisation on New Zealand tended to present it as an unstoppable force. In melancholic paintings like Logging in the Coromandel, for instance, Alfred Sharpe shows settlers carefully and tidily establishing themselves amidst the forests they will inevitably destroy.

Although Temple shows us a homestead of sorts won from the bush, there is little evidence of ineluctable progress in his photo. His pioneers have not built a sturdy colonial cottage, but a dwelling that resembles the whare Maori often threw up at seasonal hunting and fishing grounds. This structure suggests transience, not permanence.

The two males in the photograph stand together, some distance from the woman and her washing line. Historians like Miles Fairburn have reminded us that nineteenth century New Zealand was both an intensely masculine and a very lonely society. Many males spent their adult lives roaming from settlement to settlement, working as casual labourers. These transients shared a culture of drinking, fighting, and gambling, and scorned martial and filial ties. Even when they married and settled down, men were often hostile or indifferent to their women. In The Ideal Society and its Enemies Fairburn spends some time quoting the melancholy letters of housewives stranded on nineteenth century New Zealand farms.

In Temple's photo shows the men standing close to the hut, while the woman is a blur beside her washing line. Has she secluded herself at the line, hanging up clothes she has soaped and scrubbed clean with a quiet fury while her husband and his friend drink and play poker in that barbarous hut? Has she refused to stay still for Temple's photograph because she is ashamed of her fate, and does not want her face recorded by his camera?

The poverty of the settlers in Temple's photo should not be surprising. Even after the conquest of the Waikato and the confiscation of millions of acres of Maori land, settlers found it hard to make a living from the soils of Te Ika a Maui. Many of the men who invaded the Waikato were rewarded with small blocks of land, but their attempts at beef farming, cropping, and market gardening were often defeated by distant markets and a lack of infrastructure. Some of the soldier-settlers walked off their plots; others became embittered peasants. Only after the advent of refrigerated shipping and a series of major drainage schemes did the Waikato begin to prosper at the end of the nineteenth century.

A cannier propagandist than Temple would have photographed the three settlers standing together in the little clearing on the Great South Road, perhaps in front of their clothesline rather than their hut, and prevented the woman from going about her work while the camera lens and plate were exposed. If Temple were a better propagandist, though, he would not have given us such an insight into the lives of frontier Pakeha in the 1860s.

William Temple is both the worst and best of New Zealand's early photographers. He lacked the technical skills and control of subjects that made photographers like John Crombie successful, but his was a lucky failure. Because he was unable to stage his shots, mix his chemicals, and time his exposures properly, Temple unwittingly let reality infiltrate his photographs. In the minutes when Temple's camera lens was uncapped fixed poses and expressions dissolved, as subjects and scenes turned from cliches into fragments of history.

Because they lack the sentimentalising formality of many nineteenth century New Zealand photographs, Temple's images can seem disconcertingly contemporary. His portrait of Ann and her sinister admirers might have come from occupied Iraq or Afghanistan. Even Temple's technical shortcomings seem strangely contemporary: his uneven, disorienting distribution of light and blurred figures remind us of photographers like Michael Ackerman and Julian Schnabel, who try to undermine the propagandistic use of images by defamiliarising and even disfiguring their subjects.

Temple's photographs have been ignored for too long. Whether we like them or not, they are part of our history. We should hang copies of them in the halls of our homes, alongside old family photos.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Friday, February 24, 2012

Meeting the nomad

Over the past few months this blog has featured several discussions of Tongan Ark, Paul Janman's exuberant film about 'Atenisi University and its founder, the late Tongan polymath and pro-democracy activist Futa Helu.

Janman's movie has attracted the odd criticism - the curators of a certain New Zealand film festival have fretted about its disregard for conventional narrative, and its impatience with the Free Wesleyan Church has raised some conservative Tongans' eyebrows - but nobody could accuse it of lacking a memorable cast of characters.

Besides the extraordinary Helu, who was equally comfortable teaching Greek philosophy, telling jokes around the kava bowl, and singing in European opera houses, Tongan Ark features Kik, a thickly bearded Dutch mathematician and IT whizz who is famous throughout Tonga for wearing bright dresses and enormous ear and nose rings, King Tupou the fifth, a man with a strange, love-hate attitude toward Helu as well as a fixation with toy soldiers, Futa's daughter Sisi'uno, an extravagantly talented musician who finds herself spending more time than she would like tending to pigs, and an array of eloquently eccentric students.

One of the most memorable of all the characters in Tongan Ark is Michael Horowitz, a lanky, sixty-something sociologist, novelist and veteran of the American New Left who is asked to bring some order to 'Atenisi's finances and curricula. Horowitz is shown praising the relatively relaxed way of life in Tonga, and condemning the commercialism of Western societies like New Zealand and the United States, but we also see him struggling with the disorganisation of the university Futa Helu founded, and lamenting its poverty. Like so many of the people we meet in Tongan Ark, Horowitz is afflicted by paradox. The very qualities which draw him to 'Atenisi make his time there difficult.

Earlier this week Paul asked me if I'd like to have a drink with Horowitz, explaining that the man had just finished a fellowship at Tasmania University, and was spending a few days in New Zealand. I climbed into Paul's car expecting him to make for some pub or restaurant where Horowitz would be waiting behind a beer or coffee and a volume of Marcuse; instead we ended up at a warehouse on an obscure road beside the Three Kings quarry. "Horowitz is in here somewhere" Paul assured me, as he led me down a series of empty corridors lined with red metal doors.

I've been reading Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon's novel about a band of time travelling anarchists, and the hundreds of red doors inside the Three Kings warehouse reminded me of the magical portals which Pynchon's heroes sometimes use as short cuts to different places and ages. As we climbed a pitch-black stairwell and began to wander through the silent aisles of a second floor, with Paul calling out "Michael, where are you?" in an increasingly timid voice, I had a vision of Horowitz pushing open one of those mysterious doors, and emerging to boast of his adventures in some exotic locale like medieval Tonga or 1960s Berkeley.

When Paul and I eventually ran into him, Horowitz explained that the warehouse we had been exploring was a storage facility used by some of the more itinerant inhabitants of the planet. Like the lockers of schoolboys, the spaces behind those metal doors were stuffed full of necessities and trinkets. Horowitz had stored books and clothes and packets of American raisins behind his red door. That little space on the second floor of a warehouse in Three Kings is the closest thing he has to a permanent home.

At a time when most of his contemporaries have exchanged their chairs in sociology for chairs beside the fireplace, Horowitz is still remarkably busy, turning out both academic and literary texts, and taking up fellowships or short-term teaching commitments at a series of universities.

The latest issue of Sites, the long-running New Zealand-based journal of sociology, opens with an essay by Horowitz about young Tongans and Samoans who return to their native lands after a period of expatriation in New Zealand or Australia. These so-called 'deportees' have been blamed by Samoan and Tongan authorities for committing crimes and starting riots, but Horowitz produces data which shows that such charges are unjust.

Horowitz's contribution to Sites has the calm tone and thorough detail that we expect from a good academic essay, but the novel he published a few years ago under the pseudonym VO Blum shows that he can think and write in wilder, stranger ways. Split Creek is set in America during World War Two, and mixes descriptions of a young German prisoner of war's anti-Nazi opinions and tragicomic attempts at a sex life with an outraged account of the campaign of sabotage and terror which homegrown fascists launched after Roosevelt went to war with Hitler. While Horowitz's essay for Sites and his most recent novel read very differently, they share a hatred for bigotry, and a commitment to the victims of prejudice and marginalisation. It is not hard to believe that it was this concern for the underdog which led Horowitz to a little university on the swampy western fringes of Nuku'alofa.

As we retired to Paul and his wife Echo's house and downed a few bottles of Paul's home brew, Horowitz explained that he will be heading north to Tonga next month to work on his next novel, and to continue his association with the fledgling Vava'u Academy.

Founded by the distinguished anthropologist and 'Atenisi graduate 'Okusi Mahina, the Vava'u Academy is an attempt to bring university education to the northernmost of Tonga's three main island groups. After pointing out that many young Vava'uans lack the means to attend the universities on the southern island of Tongatapu, 'Okusi was able to raise enough money to build a library and some seminar rooms on the outskirts of Neifau, the only town in Vava'u. The rooms are currently being used for secondary-level classes, but 'Okusi and Horowitz hope to make them the setting for academic lectures next year. In the meantime scholarly monographs have begun appearing under the imprint of the Vava'u Academy, and a weekly radio show is advertising the institution to Tongans. With 'Atenisi in disarray and disrepair, the Academy in the north may well come to be considered the contemporary embodiment of Futa Helu's ideas.

In the following interview, which was done by e mail rather than over a few beers, and which will appear in the forthcoming Oceania issue of brief, Michael Horowitz talked in some detail about his unusual career, and the view of the world it has given him. It don't, of course, necessarily agree with everything he says about Tongan, let alone American, politics and culture...

SH: As a young man you were involved in the counterculture and the New Left of the 1960s and early ’70s. Are these movements relevant today? Do they reverberate in the protest movements that emerged this past year?

MH: In the U.S., the counterculture introduced young intellectuals to Asian philosophy, most dramatically the philosophy of Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. The ethics of these philosophies are not catalysed by the commands of an omnipotent deity. Taoism, for example, instructs humanity to intuit – then coordinate with – the cosmic “way”, popularised in the Star Wars greeting “May the Force be with you”. Such notions helped create an alternative spirituality in the U.S. that has at times complimented innovative perspectives in physics, medicine, cybernetics, and cinema, among other disciplines.

The nonviolent wing of the New Left mainly targeted racism and militarism. In the narrow sense, the Obama/Clinton duumvirate opposes these pathologies … but the U.S. has yet to transcend the economic racism and tacit imperialism that has been its signature for over a century.

The protest landscape of the past year has included Arab Spring, Burma Spring, Russian breeze, and Occupy Wall Street. Although these movements have borrowed tactically from the nonviolent New Left, their objectives are different. Arab Spring, Burma Spring, and Russian breeze chiefly campaign for representative government. Occupy Wall Street is targeting corporate and financial oligarchy, a mission the nonviolent New Left endorsed but only occasionally took to the streets.

SH: At Brandeis University outside Boston, you were for a time an undergraduate student of Herbert Marcuse. How do you remember the man?

MH: In the classroom he was distant and demanding in the formal tradition of German scholarship. Among his friends, which did not appear to include undergraduates, he was an epicure of cuisine, wine, and the arts.

Eros and Civilisation, which Marcuse published in 1955, is a courageously utopian cry in a sorry world. In that tome Marcuse manages to synthesise the egalitarian demands of Marxian political economy … with the wisdom of Freudian social psychology … with the legend of ancient Greek myth. The reader is treated to a post-industrial collage of aesthetic and erotic liberation within progressive politics. As undergraduates, E&C persuaded us that, in Robert Frost’s words, civilisation had “miles to go” before it slept.

SH: Your best-known book is A Freak’s Anthology, which was widely circulated in the U.S. in the early 1970s. What was its objective?

MH: The publisher modestly touted it as a counterculture bible: there were several hippie hostels at the time and the tongue-in-cheek idea was to replace the Bible-in-the-desk-drawer with A Freak’s Anthology. The collection was meant to be an alternative spiritual resource: it retained a Bahai ambience, briefly introducing excerpts from key Buddhist, Christian, Kabbalist, Hindu, Sufi, and Taoist texts.

SH: You have spent a good part of the last fifteen years in the Kingdom of Tonga. What first attracted you to Polynesia and what has seen you returning to the region so often?

MH: There’s no doubt that generosity to strangers is an art form in Polynesia. In the late 1990s, I lived on a muddy road in Nuku’alofa and there were countless times that Tongans who I’d never met insisted on driving me home in their air-conditioned Camries. Even today, if a bicycle tyre goes flat, I’ve only to put my thumb out before a stranger will drive me to a garage. Polynesian generosity is something one can depend on.

SH: You've compared Tonga’s history with those of Austria and Russia. What’s the connection?

MH: Austria, Russia, and Tonga have all, at one time, enjoyed macro-regional hegemony, but currently do not. The Habsburg empire typically dominated central Europe from the mid-17th to mid-19th centuries. The Soviet empire reached into eastern Germany through the 1980s. The Tongan network extended into, amongst other places, Fiji, Samoa, and New Caledonia in the early second millennium.

The “lost empire” syndrome seems to leave affected nations with a “chip on the shoulder”. Austrian and Russian politics, for example, seem at times to reflect resentment towards EU social democracy and global objectives.

In Tonga, the situation is more complex: the palangi seems to be regarded both as angel of Christianisation (from the 1820s) and devil of humiliation. Although palangi were not responsible for the decline of the medieval Tongan network, occasional official outbursts against them seem to be fuelled by the humiliation of the kingdom’s decline since the Middle Ages.

SH: You’re a disciple of Dr ‘I. Futa Helu and, for a while, you were university dean at ‘Atenisi Institute, which he founded in 1963. Is his philosophy relevant today?

MH: There’s so much of that philosophy it’s impossible to reply to your question properly here. Allow me to cite three aspects of Futa's thought that were prescient:

• He insisted that even an evangelical society must nurture critical inquiry within secular institutions. In the end, Polynesia acceded to that demand, if somewhat begrudgingly.

• He saw no other path to development except via representative government. Tonga is currently slouching towards that objective.

• Through the ancient Greek philosopher Herakleitos, he was impressed by chaos theory, elements of which are crucial in comprehending the cutting edge of quantum physics. And the cutting edge of quantum physics is on its way to defining the weltanschauung of the 21st century.

SH: Two of your novels have been published in the U.S. A third work of fiction, the novella DownMind, has just been submitted to a literary agency in New Zealand. Do New Zealand and Tonga figure in the new work?

MH: Very much so. Consistent with its image as the least corrupt nation in the world, New Zealand is cast as the home of a righteous scientist who, in the face of carping opposition, stalks a malevolent brain wave emanating from Tonga. But the source isn’t Tongan – it’s an otherwise benign palangi, who neither intends, nor is aware of, his pernicious broadcasting. Once this becomes a global issue, CIA gets involved and Tonga is once again pressured to abandon its compassionate disposition.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Monday, February 20, 2012

Reloading the canon

After acquiring an ultra-modern printing press from the Peoples Republic of China last year, Brett Cross, the proprietor of Titus Books, announced his desire to complement the books of contemporary poetry and prose he has published since 2005 with some reissues of neglected classics from New Zealand's distant literary past.

Brett is a long-time advocate of the early twentieth century historian and journalist James Cowan, whose biography of Kimble Bent he regards with awe. Bent was an American who somehow ended up wearing a British uniform during the Taranaki Wars of the 1860s. One day in 1865 Bent slipped off his uniform, slipped across the forested frontline, and joined the forces of Titokowaru, the famous Taranaki commander. After Titokowaru's army disintegrated in 1869 Bent hid out in the upper Whanganui River region for thirty-four years, until Cowan discovered him and wrote down the story of his life. Brett Cross regards the fact that The Adventures of Kimble Bent: a story of wild life in the New Zealand Bush is out of print as something of a national disgrace, so I wouldn't be surprised to see the book rolling off his press at some stage.

Over the past few weeks I've been pestering Brett with ideas about books which might be worth fitting into his programme of reissues. Some of the book projects I've suggested have sprung fully formed from my troubled mind, but others develop ideas coined by Brett, or some other Kiwi lover of literature. Brett's admiration for James Cowan, for instance, got me diving into the great man's writing for the New Zealand Railways Magazine, and discovering that he was a fine travel writer, as well as a fastidious historian. News that Jack Ross was at work on a study of New Zealand science fiction got me fossicking around in Papers Past, and learning that nineteenth century Pakeha liked to fantasise about flying to Venus and Mars. And Bill Direen's revelation of James Joyce's connections with New Zealand seemed to open up the possibility of a book about the way foreign writers have used this country as an inspiration.

Here are a few of the books I've been fantasising about seeing roll off Brett's printing press. Most of them would need funding from Creative New Zealand to become a reality, and all of them would need to be properly edited and introduced by some scholarly authority or other (you can guess who'd do a good job with the sci fi anthology). The summaries of these fantasy-books are rather brief, but I've garnished them with hyperlinks to some of the extraordinary texts they would collect.

A Young Country from Space: science fiction writing in nineteenth century New Zealand

The genre of writing we now call science fiction was surprisingly popular amongst Pakeha in nineteenth century New Zealand. Escapist fantasies of journeys into space, visions of utopias on planets like Venus and Mars, pseudo-scientific speculations about the possibility of travel into the distant past, or to distant parts of the universe: all appeared in local newspapers and magazines. Even when their subjects are otherworldly, the science fiction texts collected in A Young Country from Space throw light on the concerns and conflicts of the young and unstable society which produced them. A Sea of Stories: nineteenth century New Zealand writing about the Pacific

In the later decades of the nineteenth century New Zealanders were preoccupied with the Pacific Island societies to their north. Pakeha politicians believed that their country's destiny lay in the north, and attempted to build an empire there; many European immigrants who had found it hard to make a living in New Zealand set up in 'the islands' as traders and planters and, sometimes, as blackbirders; children listened to stories of brigands and treasure hunters, and dreamed of sailing away to the South Seas; Maori sought allies in their struggle against colonialism amongst peoples like the Hawaiians and the Tongans; young men arrived from Melanesia to labour in Auckland's flax mills; and ships from ports like Apia and Nuku'alofa and Honolulu turned up frequently in Auckland and Wellington and Lyttleton.

New Zealand's complex relationship with the Pacific bred a massive and, today, largely neglected literature, which includes romantic stories and poems about island paradises, accounts of the cruelties of blackbirding produced by outraged missionaries and remorseful ex-slavers, the logbooks, letters, and books of adventurers, and the reports on New Zealand life published by Tongans and other Pacific Islanders who had visited these shores. A Sea of Stories selects and annotates some of this literature, and shows its importance in an era when New Zealand has increasingly close economic and cultural ties to its island neighbours.

War on the Wires: the fight for the Waikato in print

The Waikato War was one of the first conflicts to be fought using modern communications and mass media as well as guns and bombs. As they prepared to launch the war, the British and colonial forces controlled by Governor Grey constructed a telegraph line from Auckland south to the border of the Waikato Kingdom. The new-fangled technology enabled troops fighting on the front to offer speedy reports and make urgent requests to Grey and colonial politicians in Auckland. The telegraph wires also allowed journalists to send news swiftly from the field to Auckland-based newspapers like the Daily Southern Cross and the New Zealand Herald. After Pakeha forces crossed the Mangatawhiri Stream and entered the Waikato Kingdom on the 12th of July 1863, readers in Auckland received daily reports of troop and ship movements, skirmishes, artillery bombardments, and the journeys of refugees.

The Auckland press made no secret of its pro-Crown bias, but the Waikato Kingdom used its own media to convey a different message. In 1862 Waikato visitors to Vienna had been given a printing press by the Austro-Hungarian emperor; on their return to their rohe, they used the machine to produce a nationalist newspaper called Te Hokioi, or The Eagle, which denounced the Pakeha government in Auckland and called for an end to the sale of Maori land. At Te Awamutu, deep in the Waikato Kingdom, diplomatic representatives of the Auckland government produced a Maori-language paper of their own called Te Pihoihoi Mokemoke, or The Lark that Sits Alone on the Roof, until their printing press was smashed up and thrown into the Waipa River by angry locals.

As the Waikato War dragged on into 1864, scores of correspondents reported on its progress for papers in Britain and Australia as well as New Zealand. Even after the war ended in 1865, poems and memoirs perpetuating its memory appeared in newspapers and other periodicals. In the early decades of the twentieth century the journalist and historian James Cowan travelled through the North Island visiting battlefields from the war and interviewing its Maori and Pakeha veterans.

War on the Wires creates a multi-perspectival narrative of the Waikato War by sampling some of the thousands of reports on the conflict produced by Pakeha and Maori writers. Major battles as well as lesser known parts of the war like refugee flows, the sacking of towns, and religious ferment are depicted from the points of views of imperialist Britons, land-hungry settlers, liberal clergy, pro-British Maori, Maori nationalists, and rebellious Irish and Yorkshire soldiers. With the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the invasion of the Waikato approaching, War on the Wires is a timely book.

Distance Looks Our Way: New Zealand through the eyes of Kipling, Joyce and other famous overseas writers

Some of New Zealand's most famous writers, like Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, and Dan Davin, have spent long periods abroad. Few Kiwis realise, though, that their country has attracted its fair share of literary tourists over the past century and a half. Many important writers have visited these shores, and others have travelled here imaginatively, taking inspiration from our culture and settings from our landscapes. Distance Looks Our Way collects writing about New Zealand by Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling, Jules Verne, Henry Lawson, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, HP Lovecraft, and James Joyce. Travels at Home: New Zealand writers get to know their country, 1900-1960

Before the 1960s and '70s, when the rise of commercial airlines made international travel much less expensive, New Zealanders were accustomed to holidaying inside their own country. The construction of a national railways system at the end of the nineteenth century and the popularisation of the car a few decades later both encouraged the domestic tourism industry.

In the first half of the twentieth century a genre of travel writing aimed at the local holiday-maker flourished, as writers inspired by their jaunts around the country published articles and essays in places like The New Zealand Railways Magazine, The Listener, and the weekend editions of major newspapers like the Evening Post. This homegrown travel literature was very diverse: it included James Cowan's beautifully melancholy accounts of his trips to old battlefields, Robin Hyde's high-spirited reports of her adventures in relatively obscure parts of the North Island like Kawhia and Whangaroa, John Pascoe's poetic celebrations of his ascents of 'virgin' peaks in the South Island, and the descriptions of small town and rural deprivation and desperation produced by roaming left-wing polemicists like Elsie Locke and John Mulgan. Today, when domestic tourism is once again on the increase and protests over mining and development are making New Zealanders more aware of some of their remoter regions, the adventures and revelations of writers like Cowan and Hyde have a new relevance.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Friday, February 17, 2012

Sentimental histories

Even by the most conservative estimate, people lived on these islands for more than five centuries before the arrival of European settlers. Another half century or so elapsed before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed and large-scale European colonisation began. Despite its vast length, though, the early history of Aotearoa/New Zealand gets short shrift in our media, our popular culture, and our political discourse.

In an opinion piece published in the New Zealand Herald this week, Hone Harawira spends some time discussing pre-contact and early nineteenth century Maori society. Harawira's article is a reply to the anti-Maori rant Paul Holmes wrote for the Herald in the aftermath of Waitangi Day, and it offers an explanation for the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, and an interpretation of the document's meaning.

Hone's article is a lot easier and more interesting to read than Holmes' obnoxious and semi-literate tirade, but I found myself disagreeing with many of the arguments it makes about history.

According to Hone, chiefs representing a Maori nation decided, after a fair amount of internal debate, to sign the Treaty in the hope that the document would allow them to create a partnership with the British Crown, and to maintain control over their rohe. As Hone goes on to observe, though, the Treaty did not prevent the Crown from waging war on Maori for decades, and alienating tens of millions of acres of Maori land. It is hard to read Hone's article without concluding that the Maori who signed the Treaty were at beast naive, and at worst downright foolish.

The reality, though, is that neither a Maori nation nor British power existed in these islands in 1840. As Matthew Wright shows in his excellent new book Guns and Utu, iwi were not only often at war with each but internally fragmented in the 1830s, and British authority did not exist even in the Bay of Islands, where the religious and political representatives of the world's largest empire relied on the goodwill of Nga Puhi chiefs for their safety and keep.

By 1840, iwi had interacted with small numbers of Pakeha for generations, and no idea that hordes of Britons might soon descend on their rohe, and by buying up swathes of land prompt the emergence of a sense of Maori nationhood, and nationalist organisations like the Kingitanga. The chiefs who signed the Treaty were not looking into the far-off future and making constitutional arrangements – they were pursuing short-term political and economic ends as they struggled with other Maori. Nga Puhi leaders, for instance, wanted the Treaty to cement their status as the most powerful iwi, by making sure that the Bay of Islands remained the locus for trade with Europeans. They were struggling to hold on to the advantages that Hongi Hika had gained with his new-fangled muskets in the 1820s, and trying to prevent the emergence of other areas of New Zealand as ‘hot spots’ for trade with Europeans. On the other hand, some Ngati Kahungungu leaders insisted on signing the Treaty because they thought it would shift the balance of power away from the north. But Maori were not only divided into iwi: within tribes like Nga Puhi and Ngati Kahungungu there were dissident groups. Hongi Hika had been killed in 1828 not by one of the members of the many southern iwi he attacked, but by a dissident hapu of Nga Puhi who lived on Whangaroa Harbour, and who had refused to let him dictate their terms of trade with visiting European ships. With its constant struggles between and within iwi, Aotearoa was no more unified than Europe in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Hone's article for the Herald castigates Europeans not only for betraying the Treaty, but for forcing bibles, booze, and guns on Maori. These impositions, Hone suggests, helped destroy the harmony of pre-contact Maori society. Reading Hone's article, we would never guess that in the decades before 1840 iwi rapidly and eagerly transformed their economies, levelling forests and growing kumara and flax to exchange for muskets, cannons, and ammunition. Nor would we guess at the way Maori took up the Christian faith and reshaped it in the nineteenth century, as prophets like Papahurihia, Aperahama Taonui, and Te Kooti reinterpreted the bible in the light of their own experiences in Aotearoa. Hone Harawira has spent his life seeking greater autonomy for Maori. Again and again he has argued that iwi and hapu should be able to shape their own destinies, rather than remain submerged in Pakeha institutions. But Hone's vision of pre-contact and early nineteenth century Maori society denies that the indigenous people of these islands played any role in shaping their early history. Hone presents Maori society as undifferentiated and hostile to modernity, when it was divided and dynamic, and he sees Maori as the passive victims of innovations like the bible and guns, when in fact they seized upon and exploited these new features of their world in the nineteenth century.

There's a curious similarity between Hone's take on the past of these islands and a polemical booklet by an obscure New Zealand communist named Ray Nunes. I've been discussing The Maori in Prehistory and Today, which Nunes wrote in the 1980s, with some members of the Workers Party of New Zealand, which has published the text on its website.

As a socialist, Nunes was greatly attracted to what he saw as the classlessness of pre-contact Maori society. He was upset at the destruction of the 'primitive communism' of Maori society by nineteenth century colonisers. Nunes gave his booklet the subtitle The Great Unknown Past of the Maori People because he thought that contemporary anthropologists with a pro-capitalist agenda were deliberating obscuring this communist history.

Nunes’ own understanding of anthropology was limited by his admiration for the Stalin-era Soviet Union. Under Stalin, Soviet anthropologists and ethnologists were forced to work within the confines of the categories that Engels used to describe prehistory in his 1884 book The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State.

Engels believed that the American scholar Lewis Morgan had discovered, during his researches into the Iroquois people of North America, a series of stages through which prehistoric human societies typically passed. Morgan associated these stages, to which he gave the names Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilisation, with various forms of social organisation and with various technologies. Savage societies were devoid, for instance, of class distinctions, as well as pottery, while written language was a sign of civilisation.

After he took control of the Soviet Union Stalin integrated the Morgan-Engels notion of a series of stages of prehistory into his mechanical vision of historical societies, which had feudalism being replaced inevitably by capitalism, which was in its turn replaced inevitably by socialism. History became a series of hoops that every society had to jump through.

Stalin liked the stagist model of history because it seemed to make his rule unquestionable and his policies irreversible. When he forcibly collectivised Soviet agriculture, destroying Russia's peasantry, or made a shock alliance with Hitler on the eve of World War Two, Stalin was acting as the instrument of destiny. To oppose him was to stand on the wrong side of history.

Outside the Soviet Union, though, the stagist model of the past had come under pressure early in the twentieth century, as scholars used new techniques like scientific archaeology and in-depth ethnographic research to gather evidence which showed that human societies were much more diverse than Morgan and Engels had imagined, and couldn’t be consigned to a series of tidy categories. It was clear that class distinctions did exist in many early societies, and that there were even hierarchies in some hunter gatherer societies. It was also clear that societies evolved in many different ways, and that different modes of production could co-exist in the same prehistoric society.

Stalin prevented Soviet scholars from innovating in response to this new knowledge, but in several Western countries, most notably France, Marxist anthropologists reacted to it by abandoning the categories that Engels had laid out and instead adapting the complex method Marx had used in Capital to the study of pre-capitalist societies. This new materialist approach to prehistory began to influence scholars in New Zealand in the 1970s, but because he was trapped, even in the 1990s, in a Stalinist view of the world, Nunes knew nothing about the post-Stalin rebirth of materialist anthropology.

In one part of his booklet, Nunes tries to define Maori and wider Polynesian society:

If you take the trouble to read Engels’ summary of Morgan’s three stages of savagery and barbarism in Origin of the Family, you will not have much difficulty in seeing that pre-European Maori society was much too undeveloped to reach the highest stage of barbarism, and at best lies at the border between the middle and upper stages of savagery.

The early Maori society was in many ways more highly developed than in most Pacific Islands still, it lacked certain essentials required to reach the middle or upper stage of barbarism, though their primitive agriculture along with advanced (for primitive society) methods of fishing, gives them some features of the lower stages of barbarism. What held the Maori back from further development towards slave society and civilisation was the difference between the natural endowments of New Zealand and the old world.

Nunes is arguing that the physical environment of these islands meant that Maori existed at a certain level of development, and were doomed to remain there, as long as they remained isolated.

Nunes’ claim that pre-contact Maori had a 'primitive' system of agriculture incapable of generating much of a surplus seems odd, in view of what we know about their horticultural achievements. Nunes lived for at least the last decades of his life in Auckland, a place that was, for at least a couple of hundred years, covered in a network of huge gardens.

These gardens made use of all sorts of horticultural innovations, like artificial plaggen soils, specially designed wall systems which created microclimates, and networks of canals. Although Maori, like other Polynesians and like the indigenous peoples of North and central America, lacked metal tools and domesticated animals to help them work their lands, they made up for this lack by innovative use of wooden tools like the ko, and by the intensive deployment of human labour - including, in many cases, the labour of slaves.

A fragment of Auckland's ancient gardens still exists, in the Otuataua stonefields reserve near the city's airport. Wandering around Otuataua's hundred or so hectares, one can easily see the extent to which Maori could use technology to modify the landscape and boost production.

If Ray Nunes had visited the Otuataua stonefields, he would also have been able to see evidence for the existence of private property in pre-contact Maori society. At Otuataua and at other large garden sites around New Zealand, archaeologists have noted how walls and ditches were used not only for horticultural purposes, but also to demarcate the land which could be cultivated by individual whanau. Contrary to what Nunes claims, iwi tended to have concepts of private as well as collective ownership of land.

The rich gardens of Auckland were one of the reasons the isthmus was so coveted by different iwi. There were so many battles over the place that it was given the name Tamaki a Makarau, or isthmus of one thousand lovers. Chiefs who took control of the gardens could produce and expropriate a surplus which could be ploughed into trade, war, and self-aggrandisement.

Ray Nunes claims to have read Cook's accounts of Maori society, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed Cook’s many remarks about the sophistication of Maori agriculture, and the size of the surpluses this agriculture could produce. When he cruised along the western Bay of Plenty during his first visit to these islands, Cook called the Maori settlements he saw ‘towns’, and Joseph Banks thought that they might be the outposts of some great southern continent’s civilisation.

Ray Nunes was forced to deny the sort of evidence I have been discussing because it conflicted with the stagist model of the past he had taken from Engels. Because Maori society lacked features like pottery and a written language Nunes felt that it must occupy the stage in human prehistory Morgan and Engels called 'Savagery'. By slotting Maori society into this pigeonhole, though, Nunes had to deny some very obvious features of that society, like sophisticated agriculture, the production of a surplus, and the existence of social stratification.

At about the time Ray Nunes was working on his dogmatic booklet, the Hawaiian scholar Patrick Vinton Kirch was publishing The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms, a book which attempted to do justice to the diversity and fluidity of pre-contact Polynesian societies. Proceeding in the synoptic, materialist manner of the Annales school of historians and of French anthropologists like Godelier, Kirch's book compares the histories of all of the major Polynesian societies, including Aotearoa, and shows that Tonga, Hawa’ii and Tahiti had developed into highly stratified, economically advanced places by the seventeenth century, in contrast to islands like the Chathams and Pukapuka, where low-tech, egalitarian societies existed. Kirch advances a series of materialist explanations, including ecology, population pressure, and social conflict, to explain the development of stratification.

Kirch argues that Aotearoa was less stratified than Tonga, Hawaii or Tahiti, but claims that significant divisions still existed between chiefs and commoners. Kirch's data suggests that two modes of production operated alongside each other in most of Aotearoa: a domestic subsistence mode, which was centred on the hapu, and a chiefly tributary mode, which relied on the communal labour of many hapu – on communally planted gardens, for example – and on tribute from hapu. The fluidity of pre-contact Maori society, where iwi would go in and out of existence, and both iwi and hapu would clash militarily, has been noted by many scholars, and this fluidity, which contrasts greatly with the stability of Tongan or Hawaiian society, probably has a lot to do with the fact that two partly contradictory modes of production existed side by side.

Kirch's book is not without its critics, but it has become, for many anthropologists and archaeologists, a sort of framework within which detailed work on individual Pacific societies can be done. Kirch ought to be essential reading for anybody interested in a serious alternative to Ray Nunes' quixotic attempt at a materialist account of pre-contact Polynesian society.

Ray Nunes might seem like a marginal, eccentric figure in New Zealand political and intellectual history, but I'd argue that his little book expresses, in admittedly old-fashioned, Eurocentric language, a vision of Maori history which is very common in the contemporary tino rangatiratanga movement and on the activist left in general. Like Hone Harawira's opinion piece for the Herald, Nunes' booklet presents traditional Maori society as undifferentiated, static, and incompatible with modernity: easy prey, in other words, for the colonisers of the nineteenth century.

Because they see traditional Maori society as unstratified and essentially unchanging, rather than divided and highly dynamic, Hone and Nunes can't appreciate the speed with which Maori embraced aspects of the modern world in the early nineteenth century, the way iwi and factions within iwi used alliances with Europeans to further their own ends, and the canny, practical calculations behind the decisions of chiefs to sign the Treaty.

Hone's article for the Herald and Nunes' booklet attempt to make us sympathise with early nineteenth century Maori by presenting them as a noble, simple people who were duped by Europeans and corrupted by modernity. This vision of history is not only patronising and disempowering - it is quite false. To do justice to the complexity of our past we need the scholarship of the likes of Patrick Vinton Kirch, not sentimental dogma.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Monday, February 13, 2012

Holmes' strange ally

Enraged by the protesters who disrupted John Key's visit to Te Tii marae on Waitangi Day, Paul Holmes used his column in last Saturday's New Zealand Herald to condemn Maori as 'hateful', 'greedy', and 'neurotic' people who live on the dole, beat up their kids, and in their spare time think up new ways to 'bamboozle' hard-working white folk into giving them money. Holmes called for the abolition of the Treaty of Waitangi, and suggested that white New Zealanders should shun Maori until they change their ways.

Holmes' Waitangi Day column is only the latest in a series of attacks he has made on people with the wrong skin colour. In 2003 he won international attention after characterising Kofi Annan as 'a cheeky darkie'. Annan had disagreed with George Bush's invasion of Iraq, but Holmes insisted that, as a mere African, the Secretary General of the United Nations had no right to try to argue with a white man. In 2004 Holmes attacked the tens of thousands of Maori marching against Labour's Seabed and Foreshore Bill as 'losers' and 'bludgers' who had no right to participate in the political process.

I might have decided to treat it as a joke, but Holmes' text has made many Maori very angry. Complaints have flowed in to the Race Relations Conciliator, discussion forums at Maori websites are full of criticism of Holmes, and a protest is being organised against the New Zealand Herald. Political commentator Morgan Godfery spoke for many Pakeha as well as Maori when he called Paul Holmes 'morally repugnant and deeply racist'.

But Paul Holmes has had one unexpected defender - the left-wing political scientist and commentator Bryce Edwards.

Near the beginning of his summary of the Holmes controversy for Monday's New Zealand Herald, Edwards seems to concede that the veteran journalist's column was racist. Edwards notes that Holmes 'paints all Maori with the same brush' when he characterises them as hateful, greedy child abusers.

Instead of endorsing Morgan Godfery's calls for protests, though, Edwards claims that Holmes has raised 'important points', and is expressing a 'legitimate perspective'. Rather than condemn Holmes, Edwards chides the man's critics, suggesting that they want to 'clamp down' on 'debate about ethnicity and politics'.

Edwards argues that other prominent commentators have expressed 'similar views' to Holmes, and in support of this assertion he cites columns about Waitangi Day by the Dominion Post's Sean Plunket and the Herald's John Roughan.

But while Roughan and Plunket are both hostile to the protesters who gathered at Te Tii marae on Waitangi Day, their columns express views of Maori and of the Treaty qualitatively different from those of Holmes. Where Holmes calls for the abrogation of the Treaty of Waitangi, John Roughan expresses his 'love' for the document and for the day that commemorates its signing. He contests the interpretation of the Treaty put forward by Waitangi Day protesters like Hone Harawira, but not the Treaty itself.

In his column, Sean Plunket contrasts the confrontations between police and protesters at Te Tii marae with the goodwill between races which he found at Wellington's Lyall Bay on Waitangi Day. Where Paul Holmes presents Maori hatred and greed as a dire threat to race relations in New Zealand, Plunket asserts that, away from the hot spot of Te Tii, Maori and Pakeha get along very well.

To link Plunket and Roughan's columns with Holmes' rant is to confuse rational conservatism with demented racism.

The real parallels with Holmes' column can be found on the discussion threads of right-wing New Zealand blogs, where commenters have echoed his view of Maori as a depraved and dangerous people, and called for a race war in New Zealand.

At David Farrar's Kiwiblog, for instance, a regular commenter who uses the name Johnboy said that whites should 'burn the bloody treaty' and start 'a holy war' against the 'dark forces' of Maoridom. Another Kiwiblog commenter, who calls himself Griff, called for the mass hanging of Maori. Comments like these can be found amongst Holmes' supporters at many other blogs, and in the lengthy discussion thread under Holmes' column at the New Zealand Herald's website. Bryce Edwards ought to be able to understand that a rational debate about New Zealand history and race relations cannot grow from Holmes' bigoted outbursts, any more than flowers can grow out of stone.

[posted by Maps/Scott]

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Lazy Maoris and idle words

I picked up a copy of the New Zealand Herald this morning to find Paul Holmes in a very grumpy mood. The protesters who joshed with cops and shouted down the Prime Minister on Waitangi Day symbolise, for Paul, all that is rotten in Maoridom.

What is remarkable about Holmes' column is not so much its grumpiness but its spendthrift way with adjectives and abstract nouns. Not only were those protesters at Waitangi 'hateful' - they were, Paul tells us in the same sentence, 'hate-fuelled'. And, wouldn't you know, they filled Waitangi Day with 'hatred'. The day was 'ghastly'. And it wasn't simply ghastly - it was, Paul quickly adds, a thing of 'ghastliness'. What ghastly ghastliness!

Ghastly things tend not to be attractive things, but Paul has to use another adjective and tell us, just in case we haven't gotten his drift, that Waitangi Day is 'repugnant'. It is so repugnant, in fact, that Paul has to use 'repugnant' twice to describe it.

Paul goes on to explain that Waitangi has become a 'bullshit' day. Now, the word 'bullshit' long ago become a synonym for 'untruth', but Paul uses his next sentence to explain to his readers that Waitangi has become 'a day of lies'.

Paul elaborates on the theme of dishonesty by suggesting that every Waitangi Day Maori show they are in 'denial'. Just in case this point is a little too abstruse, Paul uses another sentence to explain that Maori are in denial because they are failing to address things. Thanks, Paul.

Paul's orgiastic outpouring of unnecessary adjectives and limp abstract nouns is rather unfortunate, because he wants to use his column to complain about the 'hopeless failure of Maori to educate their children'. Paul is of course a known authority on child-rearing, having helped bring up that model of scholarship and sobriety Millie Elder-Holmes, but I'm not sure if I'd trust him to teach kids journalism, or for that matter English as a second language. In fact, if I were the editor of the Herald I'd hand Paul a copy of that favourite of right-minded journos since the days of Hemingway and Orwell, Fowler's Modern English Usage, and ask him to copy out the entry on Redundancy twice. Paul complains about the number of Maoris sitting about idly on the dole, but what about the idle words in his column? Isn't it cruel to allow them to lounge about on the fringes of his sentences, living meaningless lives, knowing that, without nouns of their own to qualify, they'll never do any useful work?

I do find it curious how the people determined to defend European civilisation from the depredations of brown barbarians seem so often to be short of the finer trappings of European civilisation. I've looked at footage of protests by groups like the National Front and the English Defence League and seen beer-bellied skinheads with swastika tattoos on their necks chanting about the need to defend the honour of the white race, and wondered whether they might be engaged in some elaborate joke. Perhaps Paul's column, with its succession of awful sentences, is also some sort of practical joke. Perhaps his piece is a satire intended to show how will awl rite in da fucha, if dem brownyz wif there PC kohunga rayo skool nonsenz ar alowd 2 take ova? I enjoy Waitangi Day, and think it a fine expression of our nation's character and values. New Zealand is a country founded by dodgy property speculators from some of England's second-rate public schools on land seized from Maori by Celtic and Yorkshire soldier-settlers who were pushed out of their own whenua by enclosures and poverty, and who soon found themselves in hock to the same landlords and bankers that had bothered them back home. Maori have tended to have a rather half-hearted attitude toward the nation founded on their dispossession, and so have many of their dispossessors, who have often identified more with their class, religion, or region than with their nation.

On Waitangi Day the chief executive of the nation, who made his fortune betting against the New Zealand dollar for an American company, and who flies out to his holiday home in Hawa'ii every chance he gets, travelled to one of the poorest parts of the country and attempted to lecture a group which has lived there for a thousand years about the virtues of patriotism. Curiously enough, his words were met with derision.

The confusion, disunity, and rambling, intemperate arguments which are such a part of Waitangi Day seem a fair enough symbol of a disunited, confused, and argumentative nation. Waitangi is certainly more honest than the false shows of unity and harmony that the Aussies and the Americans turn on for their national days.

I like seeing Prime Ministers being mocked and harangued on Waitangi Day, and the subsequent fulminations of columnists like Holmes are (if you'll excuse me resorting to what Fowler's Modern calls, with its usual magisterial contempt, an 'exhausted metaphor') icing on my cake.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Never mind the frangipani

The fibre optic cables connecting Hanoi to Auckland have been twitching over the last week, as Michael Arnold has sent me a series of decreasingly relaxed e mails about the state of the forthcoming 44th issue of the Kiwi literary journal brief.

As the managing editor of brief, Michael has the job of making sure guest editors like myself deliver their issues on time. I had felt a measure of safety, as my end-of-January deadline came and went, because Michael has lived for a couple of years now in Vietnam, and therefore can't turn up outside the window of my study in the middle of the night, or catch me boozing with Hamish Dewe at the Te Atatu Tavern. I had reckoned, though, without comrade Arnold's epistolary powers: in a series of plaintive e mails he has made me feel that I am letting down not just Creative New Zealand, the organisation which is now funding brief, but the whole of New Zealand literary tradition. What, he has wondered, would Charles Brasch, the punctilious founding editor of Landfall, have thought of my tardiness? How would the great Kendrick Smithyman, who always met deadlines and always expected prompt replies from editors, have thought of the slow pace at which I am replying to contributors to brief 44?

I'm now scrambling to get the manuscript of brief 44 off to Michael, so that I can redeem myself in his eyes, and in the eyes of the mighty dead.

But the slow gestation of brief 44 doesn't just reflect my innate laziness: since I announced that I was giving the issue the theme of Oceania, I've received a lot of fascinating and, I think, important material. Some of the submissions have come from regular donors to brief, but many others have come from writers who have never graced the journal's pages. I've commissioned a few of the contributions, and dipped into archives and nineteenth century newspapers to find some of my material, but most of the texts I've collected have turned up, readymade, in my postbox or my inbox.

In the argument with Hamish Dewe that I posted here last month, I made it clear that I didn't want brief 44 to succumb to what Andy Leileisu'ao has called 'the frangipani tendency' in contemporary New Zealand culture. I didn't want poems or stories or essays which used hackneyed imagery - coconut palms, majestic seas, smiling kids, and, yes, frangipani - to evoke some fantasy of the South Seas.

I wanted the contributors to brief, who have historically been overwhelmingly palangi, to heed the call of the late great Epeli Hau'ofa, and think about the Pacific not as a vast ocean insulating a series of islands from each other, but as a highway continually traversed by history and culture. New Zealand palangi intellectuals are used to thinking of themselves as isolated, and are almost obsessed with comparing themselves to British and American scribblers: what would happen, I wondered, if they began to think ourselves a real part of the continent Hau'ofa called Oceania, and looked for inspiration to Futa Helu and Konai Helu Thaman, as well to De Lillo and Pound and Pynchon? I think the texts I've collected for brief 44 have the potential, when placed side by side, to begin to answer this question. brief is not a programmatic, campaigning publication, and the material in the forthcoming issue doesn't promote a particular interpretation of Oceanian culture and history. Indeed, some of the texts I've collected come at the theme from very unusual angles. The Yorkshire-Kiwi artist and writer Rachel Fenton, for example, delighted me by submitting a poem written in her native Barnsley dialect, along with a note that comparing the repression of the dialects of regional England with the marginalisation of many Pacific languages. Michael Morrissey, always the joker in any pack, fired me a text which described the way the Pacific looks from the moon, and the way the seas of the moon look from the moon. Jack Ross delivered a lapidarian essay analysing the Anglo-Saxon obsession with Antarctica and the cold waters of the very south Pacific, and describing how this obsession had worked its way into his under-appreciated debut novel, Nights with Giordano Bruno. Murray Edmond produced a memoir of his life as a radical young man in early '70s Grafton, explaining how a fascination with the nineteenth century Pacific of Moby Dick and the battles of the New Zealand Wars affected his youthful writing and protesting.

Other contributors have approached the theme of brief 44 less obliquely. Vaughan Rapatahana has used an interview and poems to slam linguistic and economic imperialism in the Pacific, Okusi Mahina has explained the principles of the ta va theory of space and time, which he developed in an attempt to do philosophical justice to Tongan thought, and Paul Janman has celebrated the life and work of Futa Helu, the builder of 'Atenisi University and Tonga's pro-democracy movement.

The clock is ticking and the cables are twitching, but you can still send submissions to brief 44. Fire those texts to shamresearch@yahoo.co.nz before the end of the week...

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Urgent tasks and a serene gaze

I've been reading Geoff Dyer's Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a collection of essays which argues that the visual arts have lately lost some of their old power. Dyer suggests that we were once able to experience a painting or photo as the sudden apparition of something strange and distant: as the irruption of another space and time into our own. We unfolded a newspaper, and Robert Capa brought war to our breakfast table; we looked at a cheap reproduction of a Durer woodcut and saw sixteenth century Nuremberg.

In the era before the internet and digital cameras and kindle art books we lived in finite worlds, and distinguished here from elsewhere, the familiar from the unfamiliar. When we encountered Capa and the Spanish Civil War we were able to be astonished precisely because we had a sense of the ordinary, a here with which to contrast elsewhere.

Now most of us live not in the old bounded worlds of the pre-digital era but in what Dyer calls 'no-places'. We may confine our movements to a small piece of the earth - we may never leave the city where we live and work, for instance - but we nevertheless view, almost every hour of our waking lives, images drawn from other places, and from other times. We see the beaches and bays of distant tropical archipelagos, on a billboard we pass on our way to work; we watch Japanese nuclear disasters or American elections on television; we study the decor of a room on the other side of the world as we talk to a relative on skype. Art can no longer bring farness near, because the contrast between far and near, here and else, the familiar and the strange, no longer holds. Dyer's argument reminded me of Don De Lillo's novel The Names, where the members of a cult make their home in a cave on a Greek island, and later in a set of old grain silos on the edge of the Rajastani desert. De Lillo's cultists believe that the proliferation and elaboration of human languages, with their machineries of jargon and their conceptual distinctions, has somehow deprived the world of its corporeality. Horrified by their inability to apprehend a pre-linguistic, primordial reality, the cultists crouch in their passageways and grottoes and, for reasons that De Lillo doesn't quite make clear, study Sanskrit and ancient Greek and other dead or dormant languages. The cultists reverse Plato's parable of the Cave: for them, truth lies in the shadows, not the light. Is their sensory deprivation the only adequate response to the exhaustion of images, in the era of late modernity? I hope not, because caves make me claustrophobic.

In the one of the pieces in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, Geoff Dyer suggests that the photographs of Michael Ackerman are a response to the crisis of visual art. Tired of the relentless cataloguing of the exterior world by CCTV camera systems, documentary film makers, and reality TV shows, Ackerman has decided to adjust his lenses and filters until they shoot wraiths and auras and radioactive clouds, and show humans with multiple heads and no necks, and fingers as long as their legs. Ackermann's grotesqueries might remind us of the Expressionist painters at work a century ago, but where Munch and Kokoschka were externalising feelings of confusion and angst, Ackermann is turning inwards, in an attempt to discover a reality that has not been photographed and filmed and uploaded to Facebook. If I don't quite agree with Geoff Dyer's apparent pessimism about the visual arts, it is because I still sometimes encounter images which astonish and thrill me, and because I often find these images not in the beige rooms of art galleries or on the glossy pages of photographers' books, but amidst the chaos and mediocrity of the internet. I wanted to mention an image which has fascinated me ever since I found it a couple of years ago at an obscure online political archive. You're looking at the cover of the Summer 1978 issue of Urgent Tasks, the theoretical journal of the Sojourner Truth Organisation, a small Chicago-based Maoist political party. The STO was founded in 1970 by ten white students who had decided that working class African Americans would be the vanguard of America's upcoming socialist revolution. The cadres quickly made a 'turn to industry', dropping their social science courses and taking up jobs in auto factories with large black workforces.

In a 1972 report on its progress, the Sojourner Truth Organisation revealed that it had tripled its membership to thirty, but regretfully added that it was still to recruit its first black comrade. The authors of the report were nonetheless hopeful: the revolution which had conquered China must inevitably spread to America, the world's largest and most decadent capitalist power. Every demonstration against the Vietnam conflict or wildcat strike was a door through which history might force its way. Like many ostensibly Marxist groups of its era, the Sojourner Truth Organisation combined a grandiose vision of history with a maniacal attention to local, small-scale events. Party members' time was dominated by the minutiae of day-to-day, week-to-week political organising, as they attended union and United Front meetings, sold newspapers and pasted posters, marched and picketed. But this unceasing activity, with all the sacrifices it implied, was legitimised by a 'scientific' account of human history. The five thousand texts of Marx, with their contradictions and equivocations and their self-conscious provisionality, were regarded by the STO as a single eschatological statement. The whole hundred thousand years of human history led inevitably to the STO and its revolutionary task. History was an arrow aimed at 1970s Chicago.

Because of its claim to wield a universal science, the STO was obliged to complement its newspaper Insurgent Worker, which was full of talk about demonstrations and strikes, with the bulkier Urgent Tasks. Despite its name, Urgent Tasks considered some abstruse and exotic subjects, like the philosophy of Louis Althusser and the meaning of ancient Egyptian civilisation.

What fascinates me about the cover of the Summer 1978 issue of Urgent Tasks is the contrast between journal's title, with its intimations of world-historical crisis and furious activism, and the serene death-mask of Tutankhamun, the boy-king who reigned for a decade in Egypt three thousand and three hundred years ago.

Since it was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, Tutankhamun's gold and lapis lazuli likeness has symbolised the depth and strangeness of human history. Egypt was one of the world's great ancient civilisations, but its religion, its art, and its literature were forgotten for thousands of years, until they became the enthusiasms of European gentleman-scholars. Unlike ancient Greece, which gave many ideas and institutions to subsequent European civilisations, ancient Egypt was a society with no heirs, and therefore an example of how history can be an erratic and destructive rather than teleological and progressive process.

Like Shelley's Ozymandias, Tutankhamun was a once-mighty monarch who was forgotten by history. But where Ozymandias was a vainglorious tyrant, who could or would not foresee his fate, Tutankhamun's golden face appears devoid of hubris. The boy-king stares calmly into eternity. His eyes are wide, but not so wide that they suggest alarm or anger; his mouth is closed, but not closed so tightly as to suggest either pain or resolve. Most photographs of Tutankhamun show him gazing directly at the camera, but the shot used by Urgent Tasks has him eluding our stares, and looking away into the distance. The boy-pharaoh's aloofness and imperturbability are emphasised. Tutankhamun seems to accept not only his own early death but also his long disappearance from human consciousness.

Tutankhamun's expression is so serene that many of the people who saw him in the 1920s and '30s decided that Howard Carter ought to return him to the obscurity of his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. For daring to disturb the blissfully sleeping young man, Carter and his colleagues were supposed to suffer a curse.

I am, of course, imposing my own preconceptions on Tutankhamun when I talk about him serenely greeting obscurity. With their cyclical view of time, the Egyptians would perhaps not even understand talk about historical obscurity or oblivion. As he lay dying of malaria and a broken leg, Tutankhamun would probably have been preoccupied with the afterlife of his soul, or rather souls, and not with the posthumous memory of his reign.

I find it impossible, though, not to see Tutankhamun as a serene and precociously wise figure. And I find, in his face and in his fate, a mockery of the Sojourner Truth Organisation's claims about history and destiny. The STO disintegrated in the mid-'80s, and now exists only as an online archive, a sort of digital sarcophagus where old articles and sorrowful reminiscences are kept. But Tutankhamun doesn't just mock a defunct Maoist organisation: he mocks all of us, for the supposedly urgent tasks we devote ourselves to, and for our spurious belief that we have some control over our futures. The cover of the Summer 1978 issue of the STO's theoretical journal is an accidental masterpiece which says something important about the follies and tragedies of all modern humans.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]