Sunday, March 30, 2014

Red in the kava bowl

This photograph shows me scribbling pedantically while the Tongan-New Zealand artist Benjamin Work speaks about the exhibition of paintings at Otara’s Fresh gallery that he has entitled I See Red, I See Red, I See Red.

Benjamin is a veteran member of The Most Dedicated, one of Aotearoa’s most prominent graffiti crews, and in recent years he has begun to cover walls with images that refer both to distant Tongan history and the recent past of Europe and America. In these extraordinary works Benjamin has shown Tongan kings against red and white backdrops borrowed from Nazi Germany’s flag, and given Polynesian doves the colours of Los Angeles gangs.

I’m writing a review of I See Red, I See Red, I See Red for EyeContact, as part of my series of essays about contemporary Tongan-New Zealand art, but I couldn’t resist also leaving a comment on Benjamin’s facebook page after hearing him yesterday.

Your talk was funny and very informative, Benjamin. I hope you'll write an autobiography one day!

When you were discussing the many societies and ideologies that have appropriated the colour red, my mind turned to the workers' movement, which has valued the colour as a symbol of internationalism and sacrifice. My wife comes from a long line of coal miners, and for one of her grandfathers and many of her uncles and great uncles red was the sacred colour of trade unionism and the international socialist movement (Cerian's surviving grandfather, whose politics shifted a long way to the right as he rose from working underground to managing a mine, likes to throw up his hands and say "We've had too many red raggers in this family!" I don't think he was very pleased when Cerian became the president of a large branch of her trade union.)

There's been a long debate, in Aotearoa and elsewhere in the Pacific, about whether the red of socialism, with its emphasis on a global consciousness and its insistence that indigenous peoples as well as Europeans should think in terms of class, can be reconciled with the indigenous cultures of the Pacific, with their emphasis on genealogy and local places as key parts of identity. I find this debate fascinating, and I don’t know if it has been settled.  

I certainly think that, in the 1970s and '80s, when numerous Pacific peoples were fighting for their freedom from colonialism and socialism seemed like a credible alternative to capitalism, Pacific scholars and artists were forced to struggle with the question of whether the red flag of socialism and the red of cultures like Tonga could be reconciled. One of the my favourite writers, Epeli Hau'ofa, made this question part of a magnificent poem called 'Blood in the Kava Bowl'. When I looked at the poem today, I thought it resonated with your exhibition, so I'll quote it. 

Blood in the Kava Bowl 

In the twilight we sit
drinking kava from the bowl between us.
Who we are we know and need not say
for the soul we share came from Vaihi.
Across the bowl we nod our understanding of the line
that is also our cord brought by Tangaloa from above,
and the professor does not know.
He sees the line but not the cord
for he drinks the kava not tasting its blood.
And the kava has risen, my friend,
drink, and smile the grace of our fathers
at him who says we are oppressed
by you, by me, but it's twilight in Vaihi
and his vision is clouded.

The kava has risen again, dear friend,
take this cup...
Ah, yes, that matter of oppression -
from Vaihi it begot in us unspoken knowledge
for our soul and our bondage.
You and I hold the love of that inner mountain
shrouded in mist and spouting ashes spread
by the winds from Ono-i-Lau,
Lakemba and Lomaloma
over the soils of our land, shaping
those slender kahokaho kaumeile
we offer in first-fruits to our Hau.
And the kava trees of Tonga grow well,
our foreheads on the royal toes!
The Hau is healthy,
our land's in fine, fat shape for another season.

The professor still talks
of oppression that we both know,
yet he tastes not the blood in the kava
mixed with dry waters that rose to Tangaloa
who gave us the cup from which we drink
the soul and the tears of our land.
Nor has he heard of our brothers who slayed Takalaua
and fled to Niue, Manono and Futuna
to be caught in Uvea by the tyrant's son
and brought home under the aegis of the priest of Maui
to decorate the royal congregation and to chew for the king
the kava mixed with blood from their mouths,
the mouths of all oppressed Tongans,
in expiation to Hikule'o the inner mountain
with an echo others cannot hear.

And the mountain spouts ancestral ashes
spread by the winds from Ono-iLau, Lakemba and Lomaloma
over the soils of our land, raising fine yams,
symbols of our manhood, of the strength of our nation,
in first-fruits we offer to our Hau.
The mountain also crushes our people,
their blood flowing into the royal ring
for the health of the Victor and of Tonga;
the red waters from the warm springs of Pulotu
only you and I can taste, and live
in ancient understanding begat by Maui in Vaihi.

The kava has risen, my brother,
drink this cup of the soul and sweat of our people,
and pass me three more mushrooms which grew on Mururoa
on the shit of the cows Captain Cook brought
from the Kings of England and France!

I've talked about 'Blood in the Kava Bowl' with three men who knew Epeli Hau'ofa: 'Okusi Mahina, 'Opeti Taliai, and Tom Ryan, who is an anthropologist at Waikato University. Ryan reckoned that the 'professor' in the poem is Michael Howard, an American who worked with Hau'ofa at the University of the South Pacific in the 1980s and wrote a Marxist history of Fiji. Howard apparently had a somewhat arrogant manner, and lost credibility at the USP after he reacted to Rabuka's military coup in 1987 by fleeing Fiji. 

When I asked him about the poem, 'Okusi felt that it expressed Hau'ofa's yearning, in his later years, for the traditional Tongan society he had criticised and left behind as a younger and more radical man. 'Opeti told me that Hau'ofa spent so long away from Tonga that when he returned in the 1990s for a ceremony at 'Atenisi he could barely speak the language. He too felt that Hau'ofa had a yearning to reconnect with his culture.  

Like a lot of great poems, 'Blood in the Kava Bowl' seems reasonably simple on the surface, but keeps revealing new layers of meaning and new paradoxes when it is reread. For me, one of its really strange features is the way that it makes a bloody and somewhat infamous episode in Tongan history, the invasion of 'Uvea and the execution of a series of enemies by the Tu'i Tonga Kau'ulufonua Fekai, into an emblem of peace, egalitarianism, and national pride.

After his mother was assassinated Kau'ulufonua Fekai chased the men he suspected of the deed to 'Uvea, where they had taken refuge, captured them, pulled out their teeth, made them chew kava and spit the blood from their gums into a bowl, and then drank the blood. Lose Miller-Helu, who enjoyed your talk yesterday and has studied 'Uvean accounts of Kau'ulufonua Fekai's deeds as part of her PhD, told me that she thinks the king deserved his nickname of 'savage'!  

In the warm narcotic evening of Hau'ofa's poem, the bloody kava bowl seems to lose its sinister meaning, and become a symbol of brotherhood. This  is, of course, only one interesting aspect of the poem: I think it is a text that is very rich in meanings, and as an outsider to Tongan culture I am only able to glimpse some of them.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]



Thursday, March 27, 2014

Climbing Mount Brunton

Sometime near the end of the nineties my mate Hamish Dewe attended a conference where New Zealand's best-known poets and literary academics strutted their stuff. When Hamish reported on the conference to me - I hadn't been entitled to attend because, unlike my friend, who was ascending a Masters degree, I was still trying to finish my BA -  he emphasised the impact that Alan Brunton had made on proceedings.

After being invited to sit on some sort of panel, and listening to slouching academics on his left and right discourse in mild voices about absence and authenticity and other very abstract nouns, the founder and leader of the peripatetic Red Mole theatre troupe and author of long, incantatory poems with names like 'Lost in the Heroin of the Idea' apparently rose suddenly to his feet and launched into a loud impromptu lecture on the decline of the poet in contemporary Western society.

Brandishing the name Percy Bysshe Shelley, Brunton noted that the great Romantic poet had been a skilled horseman, swordsman, athlete and lover, as well as a man of words. How many of today's poets, Brunton implicitly asked his audience, possessed the energy, versatility, and volatility of the author of The Revolt of Islam?

It would not be surprising if Brunton identified with Shelley. Both men were political and aesthetic rebels, who chose exile over complicity in a conformist society. Both wrote sprawling, excited poems that are alternately esoteric, confessional, and pungently polemical. And both sometimes suffered incomprehension from their peers.
By the time he collapsed and died during a Red Mole tour of Europe twelve years ago, Brunton had written hundreds of poems, but many of them were exiled in old periodicals, out of print books, or unpublished manuscripts. When Peter Simpson called Brunton's oeuvre 'a mountain as yet unclimbed' during a 2010 interview on this blog, he was referring to the difficulty of accessing the man's texts, as well as the difficulty of the texts themselves.

Tonight, with the help of Creative New Zealand and an array of poets, scholars, actors, and rock musos, Titus Books will launch Beyond the Ohlala Mountains, a collection of poems Brunton wrote between 1968 and 2002. The book has been edited and introduced by Michele Leggott and Martin Edmond, and is adorned with a series of colour photographs of the masks - strange, handcrafted faces that are alternately quizzical, affable, and appalled - once worn by Red Mole's performers.

With the help of this new book, we can at last climb Mount Brunton - if, that is, we have the energy and adventurousness that the poet demanded of us during that impromptu speech back in the late '90s.

Footnote: I have only scrambled about on the foothills of Mount Brunton, but an argument about the man's politics that I contributed to the literary journal brief back in 2004 can be read here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, March 24, 2014

Chris Finlayson and the end of history

Minister of Culture and Heritage Chris Finlayson has announced that thirteen of the seventeen scholars who have been labouring on Te Ara, New Zealand’s internet-based encyclopaedia, will shortly lose their jobs. After thanking Te Ara’s employees for researching and writing thousands of entries over the past few years, Finlayson explained that the website had now been successfully built, and that only a skeleton staff of four will be required to maintain it.
In a press release issued after Finlayson’s announcement, Public Services Association National Secretary Brenda Pilott lamented the job losses at Te Ara,  pointing out that ‘history does not finish, but rather is constantly being made’. Te Ara’s employees should be kept on, Pilott suggested, so that they can write about new events in Kiwi history.
Pilott’s point is reasonable, but it doesn’t address the most serious misunderstanding of history implicit in Finlayson’s treatment of Te Ara.  Finlayson sees the past as a large pile of facts, and believes the task of historians is to gather and describe the most important of these facts. Now that Te Ara’s staff have created entries on a large number of significant events and personalities in New Zealand history, from the Treaty of Waitangi to the Christchurch earthquake and Te Kooti to John Key, they have, as far as Finlayson is concerned, completed their task. The facts they have collected are like bricks in a building which can stand indefinitely, with the help of a little low-cost maintenance.
What Finlayson’s plan for Te Ara ignores is the importance of interpretation to the study of the past. Every historical fact, no matter how insignificant or portentous, comes to us wrapped in interpretation. Just as actors and theatre directors reinterpret old plays, excising or emphasising certain scenes and lines and promoting and relegating different characters, so historians decide which events and characters from the past must be emphasised, and which can be downplayed or passed over.
Historians select the facts that fill their essays and books on the basis of their interpretation of the past. The Rubicon River has been crossed millions of times, but it is Julius Ceasar’s crossing in 49 BC that attracts the attentions of historians. The labels that historians give to the facts are also unavoidably interpretive. When a scholar describes the eastward movement of some German tanks across a few hundred metres of waste ground into Poland on the morning of September the 1st, 1939 as the beginning of World War Two, he or she is offering an interpretation of history, as well as a fact.
Because they are partly subjective – because they are made partly from our preoccupations, as well as from the material of the past – historical interpretations are always open to challenge and revision. Some historians, for instance, argue that the fascist uprising against Spain’s democratic government in 1936 should be considered the real starting point of World War Two, while others question the value of searching for a starting date, and suggest that World Wars One and Two would be better treated as a single conflict, separated by a fragile peace.
Sometimes events which were regarded as insignificant by one generation of historians are emphasised by the next. The establishment of a Maori community at Parihaka, and the destruction of this community by colonial forces in 1881, were for a long time treated by historians as curious but insignificant parts of the aftermath of the New Zealand Wars.
James Cowan, the author of a massive, meticulous, and melancholy history of the conflict between Maori and Pakeha, regarded Parihaka as a late, doomed act of defiance by nationalist Maori – one of the last embers of the fire that had been lit by men like Wiremu Tamihana and Te Kooti in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Cowan was working at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Maori had been greatly reduced in numbers and influence. In the second half of the century, when Maori nationalism reemerged as a political force, the peaceful occupation of disputed land at Parihaka began to seem less like an ending and more like a precursor of epic land rights battles at places like Bastion Point/Takaparawhau and Raglan/Whaingaroa. It is not surprising that Parihaka is given careful attention by contemporary historians.

Because the past comes to us wrapped in interpretations, and interpretations are open to change, any thorough account of an historical event should include a record of the various explanations that event has received over decades or centuries. Many of the longer entries at Te Ara possess this sort of historical sophistication. The entry on Maori canoe traditions, for example, acknowledges that nineteenth century scholars bowdlerised many old stories about canoe journeys to and around Aotearoa to create a myth of a ‘Great Fleet’ of seven waka, then explains the gradual debunking of that myth in the twentieth century, and the development of new speculations about the early pattern of Maori arrival in Aotearoa.
The four surviving employees of Te Ara will struggle to do much more than keep the vast website online and free of viruses. They may be able to add a few entries on important new events, but they are very unlikely to have the time to give old entries the benefit of new scholarship about the past. With just a handful of curators, Te Ara will not be able to reflect twenty-first century thinking about events like New Zealand Wars or the Treaty of Waitangi or the Great Depression. The encyclopaedia will quickly become dated.  
Chris Finlayson is Treaty Negotiations Minister as well as Minister for Culture and Heritage, and he has talked of his desire to make Te Ara representative of New Zealand’s Polynesian as well as Pakeha cultures. But Finlayson’s view of the past as a set of self-evident facts is acutely Eurocentric, and finds no echo in Polynesian culture.
Because they saw history as a one-way road towards apocalypse and judgement, early and medieval Christian scholars wrote histories filled with lists of noble and ignoble people and events. History was the working out of God’s plan for humanity, and that plan needed to be known in as much dry detail as possible. Older religious and intellectual traditions, which had imagined history as cyclical and the details of the past as mutable, were marginalised.
The Western attachment to fact-hunting and linear, predictive narrative acquired a new ferocity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when generations of scholars inspired by the Industrial Revolution and advances in the natural sciences tried to make history as precisely rigorous as physics. They hoarded facts and figures, and attempted to formulate general laws that would explain the past and predict the future.
By the middle of the twentieth century scientific history was in decline, and in the early ‘60s EH Carr’s book What is History? reminded the English-speaking world of the necessity of interpretation and subjectivity to any study of the past. Today the notion that historical research consists of the accumulation of self-evidently significant facts is not taken seriously inside the academy, but retains a strong popular appeal amongst Pakeha New Zealanders.
Our society suffers from the widespread view of the past as a collection of dead facts. History is too often seen as something remote and irrelevant, except as a source of picturesque backdrops and exotic costumes for films and TV dramas.
When I lived in Tonga last year I was impressed by the ways that history suffused everyday life, informing the simplest everyday decisions of individuals and communities. Tongans share songs and stories about both distant and recent ancestors at kava circles, feasts, and church services. Often the characters of the songs and stories are archetypal, and their feats are apocryphal. The details of a song or story may be altered according to the context and purpose of the singer or storyteller.
The traditional mode of Tongan history-telling is not ideal for all purposes – it is not necessarily a reliable guide to historical chronology, for example – but it does succeed brilliantly in bringing the past into the present, and emphasising the connections between the living and the dead. And, because it encourages the living to appropriate and creatively interpret the details of the past, Tongan historical discourse is a good deal more sophisticated, and a good deal more in line with contemporary academic practice, than the piling up of dead facts that Chris Finlayson equates with the study of the past.

 [Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Labour's secret election weapon?

David Howard is a poet who makes a living organising elaborate public fireworks displays. David recently sent me this combustible poem: I thought I would post it as a riposte to National's lift in the polls and to the relentlessly smug expression on John Key's face.


rain does not discriminate, but
the homeless know its touch most often, ask them
how to wash the blood from your fork

John, don't speak while you're eating
soon they will clear the banquet table
except for those knives

In a lecture delivered in 2010 and later published in Ka Mate Ka Ora, Ian Wedde talked about the vital role that poetry continues to play in the politics of some societies. In Bangladesh and Palestine, Wedde noted, poets have at times become 'voices of the people', and had their work broadcast to vast audiences at political rallies.

New Labour president Matt McCarten is reportedly busy reorganising and reloading the party's public relations machinery. Perhaps McCarten should hire David Howard, so that poems like 'To the Office of the Prime Minister' can resound through halls and auditoriums during the upcoming election campaign? I'm sure David could also organise some mean fireworks displays for those big campaign rallies.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Taniela Vao and the art of time travel

It was a pleasure when Taniela Vao, political scientist, scholar of Tongan history, lay minister in the Free Wesleyan Church, pig breeder, and activist in his country's thriving Democratic Party, dropped into my son's second birthday recently. Taniela was near the end of a short visit to the chilly, traffic-snarled city of Auckland, and looking forward to getting back to the plantation and burgeoning piggery he maintains in the countryside outside the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa.

Last year Taniela and I spent a lot of time drinking kava and talking about the history of his beloved home village of Pea, which sits about ten minutes' drive south of Nuku'alofa on the southwest shores of Fanga'uta lagoon and has a well-deserved reputation for rebellion. 

I persuaded Taniela to give me and some of the students in my sociology paper a guided tour of Pea that turned quickly into an exercise in time travel. As he walked us around the edges of a once-impregnable but now invisible fortress wall, stood proudly beside the piles of coral dust that were the only marker of the grave of a great warrior, and gestured at a fence where heads had once been impaled and displayed, Taniela recounted stories he had collected for decades in the kava houses of his village.

After talking with Taniela recently in Auckland I dug out these notes on Pea, which I had handed to my students before we visited the village.

Some notes on Pea, and some questions to consider
Today we will be shown around the ancient village of Pea by Taniela Vao, a graduate of ‘Atenisi and Victoria University, a former leader of the Tongan community in Wellington, and a lay minister. Taniela grew up in Pea, and is passionate about the history of his village.
In recent classes we have discussed the concept of the Other. We have seen how, in many societies, a minority group, which may be identified by its skin colour, sexuality, or lifestyle, is treated as both strange and dangerous by the majority of the population. This ‘Other’ group is often kept out of important social institutions, and is often stigmatised – that is, blamed for problems it did not create.
For centuries European societies treated Jews as an ‘Other’ group. One of the movies we watched argued that drug addicts were being treated as an ‘Other’ in contemporary America. In class we heard suggestions that, in present-day Tonga, fakalete have become an ‘Other’ group.
Today Taniela will argue that the people of the village of Pea have, for more than a century and a half, been marginalised and stigmatised by Tonga’s ruling elite and by the supporters of that elite. For Taniela, the marginalisation of Pea goes back to 1852, the year when Tupou I, Tonga’s first modern ruler, conquered the village and destroyed its fort and church.
Let’s try to put the events of 1852 into context, by considering the earlier history of Pea.
The history of Pea
Perhaps because of its location beside a sheltered stretch of Fanga’uta lagoon, Pea was one of the first places that the ancestors of Tongans, the ‘Lapita people’, settled when they arrived on Tongatapu roughly three thousand years ago. Archaeologists have found thousands of pieces of Lapita pottery under the soil of the village.
By the time Cook visited Tongatapu in the 1770s Pea had become an important regional centre. Shortly after Cook’s visit a series of civil wars began to disturb Tongan society, as members of the country’s three dynasties struggled for power. The introduction of modern firearms like muskets and canons intensified the violence, and by the early nineteenth century forts were being built all over Tongatapu, as villagers tried to protect themselves from raids. The people of Pea built a fort with high earth walls close to Fanga’uta lagoon.
After taking control of Vava’u and Ha’apai in the 1830s, Tupou I began to try to bring his authority and his Wesleyan religion to Tongatapu. Nuku’alofa’s waterfront fort was renamed Mount Zion, and became Tupou’s stronghold on Tongatapu. But many of the chiefs of Tongatapu resented and resisted Tuopu. They looked for authority not to Nuku’alofa, a place with little traditional importance, but to Mu’a, the ancient but decaying capital of the Tongan Empire, where descendants of the Tu’i Tonga line still amongst the monumental tombs of their ancestors. For most of the 1830s the rebellious Tongatapu chiefs maintained their pagan practices, visiting godhouses for advice from shaman-priests and staging elaborate semi-nude dances and boxing fights that upset Tupou I and his Wesleyan missionary advisors.
In the 1840s, after visits from French priests, many of the rebellious chiefs embraced Catholicism, a religion the Wesleyans considered little better than paganism. The Catholic priests, who were nicknamed ‘blackskirts’ because of their strange dress, were much more tolerant towards traditional dances and ceremonies than the Wesleyans. Perhaps more importantly, they told Tongatapu’s dissident chiefs that France would intervene on behalf of Tongan Catholics who clashed with Tupou I. When French warships visited Nuku’alofa’s harbour the prestige of Catholicism greatly increased.

Pea versus Tupou I
Pea, which sat between the emerging centre of power at Nuku’alofa and the old capital at Mu’a, became a centre of the conflict between Tupou I and the chiefs who resisted his rule and his religion. Pea had a history of rivalry with Nuku’alofa, and in the 1830s and ‘40s its leaders consistently opposed Tupou I and supported the Tu’i Tonga dynasty at Mu’a.
In 1837 and 1840 Tupou I made war on his enemies in Tongatapu. Complaining that his Wesleyan followers on the island were being beaten and driven from their homes by pagans, he descended from Ha’apai and Vava’u with thousands of warriors. In 1837, Tupou I stormed a series of fortified pagan villages and, encouraged by Wesleyan missionary advisors like the Reverend John Thomas, slaughtered the men, women, and children inside.
In 1840 Tupou’s army gathered at Nuku’alofa and marched to Pea. The pagan village was protected by its high earthen walls, a deep ditch filled with spears, and several cannons operated by a palangi named Jimmy the Devil. Unable to overcome these defences, Tupou I decided to surround Pea and starve its inhabitants into surrender.
The strange case of Captain Walter Croker
After hearing about the confrontation at Pea, the British government sent a small ship called the Favorite to Tonga. The favourite contained a few dozens armed men, who were commanded by Captain Walter Croker, a fervent Christian. Croker had been instructed to act as mediator between Tupou I and his enemies at Pea, but after visiting the church Tupou I had built on Mount Zion and hearing of the paganism of the Peans he decided that he would take Tupou I’s side in what he considered was a holy war. The historian Jane Sansom believes that Croker ‘had a hunger for martyrdom’. Sansom points out that Croker asked to be buried on Mount Zion if he fell in battle against the pagan enemy.
Instead of trying to calm the conflict between Tupou I and the pagans, Croker landed near the walls of Pea and marched his men towards the village’s walls. Waving a sword, Croker turned to his troops, shouted “Come, blue jackets, follow me!”, and began to charge at Jimmy the Devil and the other Pean defenders. He was gunned down almost immediately, along with one of his soldiers. Walter Croker was hailed for his gallantry in British newspapers, and was buried on Mount Zion. According to ‘Ilaisa Helu, a song still popular at Wesleyan kava circles praises Croker’s bravery.
Ironically, Walter Croker’s suicidal charge brought an end to the 1840 war between Tupou I and the pagans. Worried that the British would attack their village in revenge for the death of Croker, and tired by the siege that Tupou I had maintained, the Peans negotiated a ceasefire, and agreed to dismantle their fort. But Pea and many other villages on Tongatapu remained opposed to Tupou I.
The 1852 rebellion and the final defeat of Pea
In 1852 the villages of Pea and Houma once again declared their independence from Tupou I. Walls were raised around the villages, and Tupou gathered an army of 4,000 warriors, many of them imported from Ha’apai and Vava’u, at Nuku’alofa. By 1852 most of the pagans of Pea had become Catholics. A church had been built in the village, and some of the Catholics hoped that a French army would arrive to support them in their battle against Tupou I. The Peans remained loyal to the Tu’i Tonga, and continued to consider Mu’a rather than Nuku’alofa as the capital of Tonga, but the Tu’i Tonga remained neutral in the new conflict. Tupou I had threatened to kill him and destroy Mu’a if he supported the rebels.
In 1852 Tupou I was determined not to repeat the massacres of prisoners and civilians that had marked his 1837 campaign against the pagans of Tongatapu. He decided to surround Pea and Houma and wait for their defenders to surrender. He promised not to execute any rebels he took prisoner. Tupou I’s new policy may have been prompted less by humanitarianism than by fear of French intervention in Tonga. If the French heard that Tonga’s Catholic population was being slaughtered, then they might well decide to invade the country and make it part of the French Empire.
Tupou I built five forts within shooting distance of Pea and settled down to wait for the village to surrender. After several months Lavaka and Ma’afu, the two principal chiefs of Pea, went to Nuku’alofa to negotiate an end to their rebellion. While they were away Tupou I’s army made a sneak attack on Pea. The gate of the village’s fort had been left unguarded, and the royalist troops were able to pour inside and take the Peans by surprise.

Although they encountered virtually no resistance, and had promised not to damage the property of the defenders, Tupou’s soldiers burned the houses and the church of the village. Some of the village’s Catholics were deported to Ha’apai and Vava’u, where they were pressured to adopt the Wesleyan ways of the locals. Low-ranking inhabitants of the village were made into serfs for chiefs friendly to Tupou I. Catholicism was banned in the village for years. To punish the Peans for their rebellion, Tupou I confiscated a swathe of farmland from the village, and placed it under royal control.
The legacy of 1852
Today, according to Taniela Vao and Paul Van Der Grijp, a Dutch anthropologist who has written extensively about Tonga, the people of Pea have strong memories of the events of 1852. They resent Tupou I’s attack on their village, and they feel that Tupou I’s successors have continue to marginalise and stigmatise them.
Despite repeated requests, the villagers have never been able to regain the land Tupou I had taken. When some villagers made a request for the return of the land a few years ago, a senior member of the Tongan royal family reputedly suggested that the whole village make a ceremonial apology for the events of 1852. This suggestion was met with anger, because the Peans do not believe they have any reason to apologise to the Tongan monarchy and state.
Some Peans resent the way that the Free Wesleyans have built a very large church on their village’s main street. Because it sits on top of part of the site of the village’s fort, and because it overshadows the local Catholic church, the Wesleyan church is seen as a rude message to Pea from the Tongan establishment. The people of Pea feel that Tonga’s government neglects them when it spends money. They contrast the rutted dirt roads in their village with the smooth tar of Hihifo, a district closely associated with Tupou I and his descendants.

The Catholics of Pea and Tongatapu’s other villages have often complained of unfair treatment at the hands of Tonga’s Wesleyan majority. ‘Opeti Taliai grew up as a Catholic in the village of Folaha, and recalls the way members of the faith were criticised as impoverished, dirty, and rebellious.
Because they have felt excluded from power, Tonga’s Catholics have been some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the country’s pro-democracy movement. The Catholic church co-hosted the historic 1992 conference which brought together Tonga’s pro-democracy forces. Catholics vote overwhelmingly for Akilisi Pohiva’s Friendly Islands Democratic Party. During the riots of 2006, a royal residence was burnt down close to the ancient city of Mu’a, and Catholics from villages like Pea took some of the blame for the arsons that destroyed a third of downtown Nuku’alofa.
For Taniela Vao and many other Peans, the events of 1852 are not mere history: they have a painful importance today.
Some questions to consider

Can the people of Pea be considered an ‘Other’, according to the way we have defined the concept in class? Have they been marginalised and stigmatised by Tonga’s Wesleyan majority?
Can the Catholics of Tonga also be considered a marginalised and stigmatised group?
After watching a documentary about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army, we talked about how people can fantasise about changing themselves and the world through violent individual action. Do you think that Walter Croker might have been a victim of the same fantastic thinking as the SLA?
In the quotations supplied below, Sione Latukefu and Paul Van Der Grijp describe the capture of Pea in 1852 in very different ways. Both Van Der Grijp and Latukefu are respected for their writings on Tonga. How can we explain the great difference between their accounts of the same event?
Appendix: Two views of the treatment of Pea during the 1852 war
The Tongan historian Sione Latukefu believes that Pea was treated well by Tupou I and his army. This passage is taken from Latukefu’s essay ‘King George Tupou I of Tonga’, which was published in 1970 and offers a very favourable view of the monarch. (You may remember reading Sione Latukefu’s essay on the problems of doing oral history in Tonga during our Modern Pacific History paper earlier this year.)
…the Ha’a Havea chiefs decided to rebuild the fortresses of Pea and Houma, announced their complete independence from King George, and offered protection to those who opposed his rule. King George declared war on Pea and Houma on 1 March 1852. He besieged the fortresses and starved them into submission, taking care that the priests and their properties inside the fortress of Houma should not come to any harm. Houma surrendered in July, but Pea held out a little longer. In August it, too, surrendered, and on the following day the fortifications were levelled. Thus ended the civil war in Tonga, and the position of King George as the ruler of the whole of Tonga was firmly secured.
The Dutch sociologist Paul Van Der Grijp offers an account of the conflict of 1852 which highlights the damage that Tupou I’s forces did to the village of Pea. Van Der Grijp’s description of the destruction of the Catholic church in Pea contradicts Latukefu’s claim that Tupou I protected Catholic property.
With an army of 4,000 warriors Tupou I besieged Pea and Houma in 1852. In Pea, surrounded within shooting range by five Methodist forts, were 1500 men, women, and children. Among them were 600 fighters…Through the inattention of the defenders, maybe in anticipation of the results of the negotiations, the army of Tupou managed to attack the unguarded gate of the fortress of Pea, conquered the fortress, and burned it to the ground.
At that moment, the Pea chiefs Lavaka and Ma'afu were in Nuku'alofa for negotiations with Tupou…At their return, the next morning Pea was already taken. The houses and the Catholic church were completely destroyed, but the lives and personal belongings of the missionaries had been saved. There was one wounded in the mission, Pieplu, who received a bullet in his belly. Part of the inhabitants of Pea were taken to the northern Tongan islands of Ha'apai and Vava'u to let them change there their - religious - minds.
The Catholic missionaries too were (temporarily) banned...When the missionary Calinon some time later returned to the destroyed Pea, most of the chiefs had become Methodist and the commoners (the tu' a) were distributed as slaves, the wearing of rosaries was forbidden, and Catholicism was only practiced in Mu'a under the protection of the Tu'i Tonga…he inhabitants of Pea were forbidden to rebuild their fortress.
(taken from Paul Van Der Grijp, ‘Christian Confrontations in Paradise: Catholic Proselytizing of a Protestant Mission in Oceania’, published in 1993 in the journal Anthropos)

 [Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Hunting Tongan lions

John Key has been busy arguing that the silver fern should adorn a redesigned New Zealand flag, because the fern is 'native' to New Zealand. Some commentators have nominated the kiwi for the same reason.  But the boundaries between a native and an exotic piece of flora or fauna are not always easily defined.

Ferns may have unfurled in the forests of New Zealand since our islands were securely locked up in the ancient super-continent of Gondwanaland, but other plants often understood as native, like the kumara, probably arrived no more than a thousand years ago with our first human settlers. Testing indicates that the apparent ancient groves of wild taro that hikers and pot growers notice in the backblocks of Te Ika a Maui may have arrived as recently as the nineteenth century.

The Polynesian rat is in some parts of New Zealand considered a native creature, and recognised as endangered by the predations of its larger and more aggressive Norwegian relatives. In other places, though, like small islands nominated as bird sanctuaries, the creature is exterminated.  

The distinction between exotic and autochthonous becomes even harder to maintain when we turn from nature to culture. Just like forests and swamps, human cultures are ecological systems in which new arrivals strive to niche themselves. Cattle are latecomers to New Zealand, and are still considered aliens by conservationists, but they have nevertheless become a symbol of regional identity in the Waikato. Denis Glover's poem 'The Magpies' made those pests into New Zealand icons.

The lion is an animal whose symbolic reach far exceeds its real world habitat. The beast has never roamed further north than the extreme south of Europe, yet for many centuries it has a found semiotic home in England and Britain, where it has become a national symbol. Lions may be scarce on the Yorkshire moors, but they can be found rampaging across flags designed for the queen and the uniform of the English football team.

Lions are also surprisingly plentiful in the Kingdom of Tonga, where they acquire shapes and significances that seem strange to many outsiders. Over at EyeContact I’ve published an essay about the young Tongan-New Zealand artist Tui Emma Gillies, who has been stalking the lions of her homeland. You can read 'Tui Emma Gillies and the Lions of Tonga' here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

In Curnow country

In a late night conversation at Galbraiths Ale House years ago, John Geraets - avant-garde provocateur, editor of obscure literary journals, and stern English master at St Peters College – admitted that the poems of Allen Curnow disturbed him. “I can’t read Curnow too often, because he screws with me” Jon explained, as the huge head of Richard Taylor wobbled sagely on the other side of the table.

Most literary critics would call Allen Curnow the best poet New Zealand has produced, yet few of the man’s texts have won a wide public readership, and even fans like Geraets and Taylor and yours truly sometimes find him more a challenge than a pleasure. “I feel trapped under him” John explained at Galbraiths. “Curnow is overwhelming."

If I find Curnow a disconcerting writer, it is probably because he is capable of leaping, in the middle of a stanza, a line, or even a word, from the world about him – from trees, birds, surf, overheated barbeques, crashed cars, and a thousand other objects rendered with an almost hallucinatory clarity – to a chilly universe of abstract nouns like God, fate, and sin. Curnow entered this second world when he studied theology as a young man, and he never quite left it, despite swapping a career in the Anglican church for a career as a writer.

Curnow is famous for his attempts to get the visual qualities of New Zealand into his poems – to ‘introduce the landscape to the language’ as he put it, in one early text – but he could never quite believe in the reality and value of what he described. Like the fake doors and artfully arranged mirrors that tormented visitors to Versailles, making them mistake a wall for a corridor or a staircase for a balcony, Curnow’s poems invite us to walk into landscapes that abruptly dissolve or implode. ‘The world can end any time it likes’, he says in ‘A Reliable Service’, a poem where the apocalypse interrupts a ferry ride from Paihia to Russell. In another text the poet takes a walk through suburban Auckland, and is only faintly surprised when a hole filled with burning corpses opens amidst the picket fences and beds of daffodils.

In the final decades of his life Curnow spent a lot of time at his bach in Karekare, on the far side of the Waitakere Ranges that block Aucklanders’ view of the Tasman Sea. In poem after poem, Curnow described the broken-backed waves and temperate rain forest and exhausted hikers of Karekare, only to dispose of them in the same defiantly nihilistic way that a child knocks down the same lego landscape he has spent hours building.

In Curnow’s Karekare young men in fast cars end up at the bottom of roadside gorges, where ‘rainforest quickly repairs’ the ruins of their vehicles, fishermen are consumed by huge and sentient waves, and landmarks can dissolve without warning. Even the apparently impregnable Paratohi Rock, which rises above the surf at one end of Karekare Beach, abruptly becomes an Italian bell tower, as Curnow takes a god’s eye view of history: 

All the seas are one sea,
The blood one blood
and the hands one hand.

Ever is always today.
Time and again, the Tasman’s
wrestler’s shoulders

Throw me on Karekare
beach, the obliterations
are one obliteration

 of last year’s Adriatic,
yesterday’s Pacific,
The eyes are all one eye.
Paratohi rock, the bell-tower
of San Giorgio recompose
the mixture’s moment;

the tales are all one tale
dead men tell, the minor
characters the living.

Lonely Planet may link Karekare beach to films like The Piano or television programmes like Xena, Warrior Princes, but Allen Curnow’s poems are the only contemporary cultural artefacts that have become part of the place. They are stamped on the landscape, like the forts left by the Kawerau-a-Maki and other iwi. They are one of the reasons I think twice before visiting Karekare.

Here’s some doggerel I wrote recently after visiting Curnow country.

A Sermon for Reverend Curnow

Hopkins was right: the world is charged
with the grandeur of God. The wind and the water
talk of His glory, and will not stop talking
until judgement day,
no matter how bored we become.

At Karekare the world
resists His word. Karatohi rock stares west,
preferring the horizon's silent line
to the foaming preachers on the beach.

On listing ridges, small trees and shrubs -
manuka, horoeka, jailbreaking honeysuckle -
flinch from His didactic wind.

The dead will not go easily
on judgement day. When the bugle sounds
they will wince awake, up and down the coast,
in their andesite caves. They will rise
angrily, and make themselves armour,
wrapping themselves in scraps of iron, and seaweed,
and whatever else the tide has provided,
and retrieve adzes and patu and machetes
from clifftop pa, and old Home Guard depots,
and fight for their graves, against salvation.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]