Friday, September 30, 2016

On the reef island of Ranui

It was marvellous to wander into Ranui library yesterday and discover women crocheting the psychedelic costumes Tuvaluans call gatu kolose, and kids donning those costumes and performing dances and songs. Ranui is the capital of New Zealand's Tuvaluan community, and this is Tuvaluan language week. 

I got talking with broadcaster Marama Papau, who had helped organise Ranui library's celebrations, and was delighted when she told me she had read and enjoyed my review of the exhibition of kolose that she and Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai organised back in 2014. Like many of the Tuvaluans living in New Zealand, Marama comes from Niutao, a reef island in the north of the archipelago. 

Marama told me about how determined Tuvaluans are to make West Auckland into a stronghold of their culture. The community runs art groups, reading groups, and several churches. We talked about Gerd Koch, the German ethnographer who came to Niutao in the early 1960s and befriended a pagan carpenter named Saipele, who offered him lessons in magic as well as woodworking. 

Koch made a series of black and white films that unobtrusively documented islanders' martial skills and dances. He coaxed some of the elderly men and women of Niutao to perform their ancient songs, and recorded them. 

I found a copy of Songs of Tuvalu, a magnificent bilingual anthology based on Koch's work at Niutao, in the Otara Public Library last year. One of the CDs that accompanied the book had, alas, been removed from the sachet in the book's back cover. Perhaps not coincidentally, the missing CD contained the magical, pre-Christian songs Koch had recorded. 

After we'd talked about Gerd Koch, Marama Papau introduced me to an elderly woman who had appeared, along with her twin sister, in one of the ethnographer's famous films. Fifty years ago she had been a dancer in a gatu kolose; now she was watching a new generation dancing. Inside Ranui's library yesterday I felt transported from a drizzly, funereal Auckland to a bright and noisy tropical island. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Feeding the eyes - and the stomach

The Seleka Club's three emissaries to Niu Sila are preparing to catch a plane home tomorrow morning, after spending the last month in Wellington, where they enjoyed a residency at the local campus of Massey University, Auckland, where they cruised the central city's art galleries and drank their fill of wine at a series of exhibition openings, and Whitianga, where they managed, in the course of a couple of days, to insinuate their way into the local art scene.

Last week I posted some photographs of the Selekarians painting a couple of dinosaurs and an exploding volcano on the wall of my kids' bedroom, and reported that my wife and I had kept the toiling painters' spirits high by plying them with fried chicken and coke. An anonymous commenter responded by rebuking me for exploiting the Selekarians, and for exposing them to food that was both unhealthy and a product of colonialism.

I regret to report that, when I met them for lunch today in Papatoetoe, the Seleka boys insisted upon eating McDonalds. The golden arches are absent from Tonga, and Tevita and Taniela were determined to eat their fill of Big Macs while they could. I was reminded of a weekend I spent with Visesio Siasau, another important Tongan artist, back in 2014. Visesio was about to return to Tonga for a stay of six or so months, and he took me on an extended tour of Auckland's art galleries and its fast food joints. We took in K Rd's avant-garde Artspace, then ate KFC in Ponsonby, then headed out to Pah Homestead, the Victorian mansion stuffed with classic New Zealand art in Hillsborough, then repaired to a nearby branch of McDonalds. By the end of the weekend my eyes as well as my stomach were stuffed, and Visesio felt prepared for his time away from galleries and golden arches.

Last Sunday Radio New Zealand's Lynn Freeman broadcast an interview with Seleka founder Tevita Latu and with the club's advisor, the Franco-Tongan intellectual Virginie Dourlet. Freeman asked the Tevita and Virginie about the beginnings of their movement, about the opposition they have faced from culturally and politically conservative Tongans, and about the work they do with Nuku'alofa's young people. Listen here. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Kermadecs' undiscovered history

New Zealand's newspapers and social media are full of talk about the Kermadec Islands. The Maori Party and many iwi are angry that the sanctuary the National government plans to set up around the archipelago interferes with fishing rights won under the Treaty of Waitangi.

When I looked at some of the online debates about the Kermadecs sanctuary, I was reminded of the words of the Cantabrian polymath Andrew Dean, who said that Pakeha New Zealanders love to think of the uninhabited islands on the fringes of their nation as places without history and its complications. Pakeha want to flee to these islands imaginatively, Dean suggested, because they seem to offer refuges from the painful traps set by the colonial past.

Many of the Pakeha arguing the government's case on the Kermadecs certainly seem determined to avoid discussing the archipelago's Polynesian history. Again and again, they have insisted that the islands were never touched, let alone altered, by Maori (this thread at Whale Oil provides a few examples).

Yet archaeologists have found obsidian from Mayor Island in the Bay of Plenty on Raoul, the largest of the Kermadec Islands, alongside recognisably Maori artefacts. Obsidian from Aotearoa has also been found on Macauley Island, a smaller fragment of the archipelago.

The finds on Raoull and Macauley and similar discoveries on Norfolk Island are amongst the best evidence we have for the theory that Maori made return voyages to their tropical East Polynesian homeland, or homelands.

Archaeologists working in the Cooks and Australs and Marquesas and other parts of tropical East Polynesia haven't so far uncovered any artefacts or minerals that definitely come from Aotearoa, but their excavations in those archipelagos have been exploratory rather than definitive. Many important islands, like Rapa Iti and Pukapuka, have hardly been disturbed by spades.

There are Polynesian peoples with a much more tragic connection to the Kermadecs.

In 1863 the government of Peru effectively legalised slavery, and for the next couple of years a score of ships cruised the Pacific, filling their holds with islanders they could sell at the fortress-port of Callao. More than three thousand Polynesians and Micronesians became slaves in Peru; only a handful returned home, and those that did often brought with them lethal diseases.

Some of the kidnapped islanders did not even reach Peru. In 1863  a Spanish slave ship called the Rosa y Carmen stopped at the Kermadecs carrying two hundred and sixty-six unwilling passengers. The Rosa y Carmen's cargo had been seized from Rapa Nui, from the Cook atolls of Pukapuka and Rakahanga, from Tokelau, and from Niue. A few of the Tokelauan captives had been suffering from dysentery when they were kidnapped, and in the dank, barely ventilated hold of the Carmen y Rosa the disease had spread quickly.
The captain of the Rosa y Carmen had stopped at Raoul to dump his dying passengers, and to allow the others to recover. In Slavers in Paradise, his indignant and meticulous account of the Peruvian slave trade, Henry Maude describes how the Spanish slavers anchored in Denham Bay, on the west coast of Raoul, brought their captives close to shore on a whaleboat, and then threw the Polynesians into the surf. Some of the islanders were too sick to walk, and drowned in the shallow water; others staggered to the beach and died there. Healthier captives were forced into the island's steep forests, and ordered to forage for food.

A small number of Maori and Pakeha had been living together on Raoul for more than a decade, growing crops and fishing and sometimes selling their produce to passing whaling ships. The members of this hybrid community went to the aid of the Polynesians on the beach at Denmore Bay. They quickly contracted dysentery and began to die.

Henry Maude believes that the Rosa y Carmen left between sixty and one hundred and sixty corpses behind when it pulled out of Denmore Bay. Raoul Island's permanent inhabitants had to be evacuated shortly afterwards.

In 1887 New Zealand asked for and received British permission to annex the Kermadecs. The government in Wellington had become interested in building a tropical empire in the Pacific, and the little archipelago was seen as a stepping stone to larger and much more valuable territories like Samoa and Fiji.

The Kermadecs are not virginal islands. They have a long and sometimes tragic history, and this history should be remembered when their future is debated.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, September 23, 2016


The emissaries of Nuku'alofa's Selaka Kava Club have finished their residency at Massey University, where they made many friends and organised a pop-up exhibition, and moved north to Tamaki Makaurau. In between cruising Auckland's art galleries and dining out with curators and critics, the Selekarians have gone to work on a wall of my kids' bedroom.

My oldest boy is preoccupied with very large lizards and with volcanoes, and he was excited when the Selekarians agreed to paint them for him. Tevita Latu, Taniela Potelo, and Tevita FM started at nine o'clock, after getting back from the boozy opening of a Julian Hooper exhibition on K Rd, then worked until half-past three, crashed for four hours on the carpet, and woke to finish their mural. My wife and I kept the artists' morale up with fried chicken and coke. Malo aupito guys.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Talking blackbirding

I've talked with Kerri Worthington of Australia's ABC Radio Network about my research into New Zealand's role in the nineteenth century Pacific slave trade, and about my recent visit to Efate. If I sound rather breathless in the interview, it's because I am rushing about the edge of a playground, looking for a spot where the yelling of my kids is relatively distant and where cellphone reception is viable...

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, September 16, 2016

See you at the library

The new Manukau Courier includes a plug for the presentation Paul Janman and I will be giving next Thursday at Otahuhu's fine public library. Ours will be the first of a series of public lectures that the Otahuhu librarians have named Toia Talks.*

The photograph republished in the Courier was taken shortly before Paul and I started our humbling trek up the Great South Road, and shows me with my chest puffed out and my belly extended beyond my jeans. By the time we'd climbed the two hundred exhausting kilometres from Kihikihi to Newmarket the gut had shrunk, despite numerous medicinal stops at taverns along the way, and chest-puffing seemed absurd.

Next Wednesday Paul and I will be showing some images we picked up on our odyssey, and talking about the people and places they show.

*I'd like to think that the name of the lecture series refers, in some subterranean, perhaps subconscious way, to one of the most fascinating characters in nineteenth century New Zealand history, the Hokianga spiritualist and secessionist Hone Toia. Toia held seances where he delivered, in a 'whistling, sighing' voice, the instructions of an anti-colonial god, and in 1898 he led a small group of men in an abortive armed rebellion against the attempts of Wellington to impose a tax on the dogs of the Hokianga. Toia and his movement, which was sometimes called Te Whiowhio, after the whistling sound the god's voice made, are important players in Kendrick Smithyman's epic poem Atua Wera.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, September 15, 2016


I came back from Vanuatu yesterday with a piece of coral in my foot, and went straight from the airport to an A and E department, where a very kind nurse went to work on me with cream and tweezers.

Foot problems aside, I had a wonderful time in the world's most linguistically diverse nation. On the last day of my stay on the island of Efate, when the foot was just beginning to twitch, I had the privilege of meeting Ralph Regenvanu, the painter, anthropologist, leader of the Land and Justice Party, and minister for Land and Energy. I talked with Regenvanu about my research into the blackbirding of ni-Vanuatu to New Zealand in the nineteenth century, and about the necessity of defending and improving the Recognised Seasonal Employment scheme that is bringing Pacific Islanders to New Zealand and Australia to pick fruit and harvest vegetables.

I asked Regenvanu about where he sits on the political spectrum, and whether wikipedia's categorisation of the Land and Justice Party as 'traditionalist' and 'conservative' is justified. He smiled and said he'd been described as a 'neo-Marxist', too, and then explained that he felt an affinity to the Australasian Green parties, and was a good friend of one of the New Zealand Greens' most left-wing MPs, Catherine Delahunty. Regenvanu explains his political programme at length in this very good interview with the anthropologist Heidy Geismar.

Here's a clip of Regenvanu campaigning in Vanuatu's recent elections using the poetic pidgin called Bislama.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, September 05, 2016

Is historical materialism like a condom?

Terry Coggan has written a belated but lengthy and thoughtful contribution to the debate about historical materialism and Pacific history that I started with a blog post back in June. Coggan is a member of the Trotskyist Communist League and the author of a long essay about New Zealand history called 'The Legacy of Primitive Communism'.

The theory of historical materialism was developed by Marx and Engels. They believed that the forms of a society's ideological, cultural and legal 'superstructure' - its ideas, its art, its laws, and so on - are determined by that society's economic 'base' - by the ways that goods are produced and distributed. A feudal society, then, will have a different superstructure to a capitalist society, because its economy is different. Historical materialism explains changes in ideas and culture in terms of economic changes.

In my blog post I suggested that both the ancient and contemporary histories of Pacific societies like Tonga and Papua are hard to explain using the base-superstructure model supplied by historical materialism.

The ancient Papuans discovered agriculture, but did not use it to create the sort of hierarchical, materially wealthy societies found in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. The ancient Polynesians sailed from places like Tonga to the remote east of the Pacific long before they had overcrowded or depleted their homelands. And today in societies like Tonga and Papua New Guineas the development of capitalism is frustrated by cultural practices that hark back to pre-capitalist times. Businesses fail because owners distribute profits through extended families and clans, instead of reinvesting them; productivity lags because workers take time off for festivals and harvests.

Terry Coggan uses a memorable image when he insists on the universality of the theory of historical materialism. Like a condom, he says, the theory has to work anywhere and at any time, if it is to be credible. Coggan doesn't deny the anecdotes I offer from Pacific history, but argues that they do not really refute the theory of historical materialism, because that theory is looser, and more tolerant of anomalies, than I had supposed. Read Terry's comments and the rest of the discussion thread and decide for yourself.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, September 02, 2016

Tongan artists on the move

'My people are great navigators, so we're not afraid of travel', Visesio Siasau said last year, after receiving the Wallace Award at a ceremony at Auckland's Pah Homestead. Winners of the Wallace are invited to live and make art in New York City for six months, and a member of the audience at Pah Homestead had wondered whether Visesio was awed by the prospect of exchanging the potholed streets and coconut trees of Tonga for the city that never sleeps.

Visesio has not been the only Tongan artist on the move. This week three members of Nuku'alofa's avant-garde Seleka Club are bringing their kava bowl and their paintbrushes to Wellington, where they'll be guests of Massey University, and the visionary muralist Benjamin Work is travelling to Siasau's new hometown, where he'll be delivering a lecture about the ideograms on ancient Tongan war clubs and other fascinating matters at the Museum of Modern Art.

I had my tongue firmly in my cheek when I suggested a few years ago that Nuku'alofa might usurp New York as a centre of culture, but the successes of Siasau, the Selekarians, Work and a number of other Tongan artists confirm to me that the Friendly Islands have something unique to teach the world.

I'm trying to persuade the Selekarians to stop in Auckland on their way home from Wellington and paint a mural in my kids' bedroom. I'll post some photographs if I'm successful.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]