Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The trench and the pyramid: Ian Barton's Pokeno

[This is some more of the material I'm bringing together in the book Ghost South Road, which will be illustrated by Paul Janman and Ian Powell. I'm fascinated by the different ways in which Ian Barton and Brett Graham remember the redoubts of the Waikato War, and plan to put the two men in the same chapter.]


Pokeno was almost surrounded. On the northern, southern, and eastern edges of the village herds of bulldozers, dump trucks and graders were turning low hills into flat stretches of orange soil, and thousands of houses were rising as implacably as the gorse and woolly nightshade that used to torment local farmers. On the southern side of the Razorback Hills, a couple of kilometres from the Waikato River, Auckland was establishing its southernmost suburb.

With their beige brickwork, double garages, and grey wooden fences, the houses around Pokeno could have belonged to the outer suburbs of Sydney or Los Angeles or any other overgrown First World City. While the houses that swarm on the outskirts of Pokeno were the work of commercial developers, the new building in the middle of the village was raised by a charitable organisation, the Queen's Redoubt Trust. It was made from timber and iron rather than brick and tiles, and its high ceiling and thick walls were homages to the military architecture of the nineteenth century. The Queen's Redoubt Visitors Centre was surrounded by a deep and muddy trench, rather than a fence.

I met Ian Barton, the chairman of the Queen's Redoubt Trust, in the Pokeno Country Cafe, beside the Great South Road. It had been raining for three days. Barton sat down in his raincoat, ordered a coffee, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, and carefully wiped the rectangular lenses of his glasses dry. He had bushy white eyebrows and receding white hair and his smile was slightly lopsided.

Barton was born in 1937, and grew up in a valley of the Hunua Ranges, where veterans of the World Wars ran cattle and sheep amidst black kauri stumps. After a career as a forester he retired to Pukekohe, where he was elected to the town council. He joined the Trust while he was a councillor, and quickly became fascinated by the history of Queen's Redoubt.

'I grew up close to Pokeno' Barton told me, 'but I never knew about Queen's Redoubt. After I joined the Trust, I was taken to the site. I expected to see something impressive - high walls, signs of a battle. There was nothing, nothing at all, just a paddock and a modern house. But I became fascinated with the site. I rebuilt it in my head, as I researched it. And then I wanted to rebuild it for real.'

The Queen's Redoubt Trust was founded at the beginning of 1999. In 2002, when Auckland's property boom was a rumour, the Trust used grants from the Lotteries Commission and Auckland Savings Bank to buy five acres of land that included the site of the redoubt and a three bedroom house. The house was rented out, to give the Trust an income.

Trust members started digging ditches in 2003, and raised two sheds to give them shelter from the sun or the rain when they were taking smoko breaks. By 2006 the Trust had launched a stylish and very detailed website, and in 2007 it began holding educational Open Days amidst the earthworks it had reconstructed. Work on the Visitors Centre began after the Trust won three more grants in 2012 and 2013.

In a report to the 2015 Annual General Meeting of the Queen's Redoubt Trust, Neville Ritchie, an archaeologist and the manager of the Queen's Redoubt site, counted the hours of volunteer labour that members of the Trust had performed at the site. In 2014 Ian Barton had given four hundred and fifty-four hours, or more than seven working weeks, to the organisation. The rest of the members, together, had contributed two hundred hours.

When he wasn't digging and wheelbarrowing at Pokeno, Barton was excavating paper. As well as ransacking the reference libraries of New Zealand, Barton had travelled to Britain and searched the National Archives at Kew for maps and notebooks and classified reports that British officers and administrators had brought home from New Zealand.

'I need to learn everything I can about the Waikato War' Barton said. 'I've made two trips to Britain. In Kew I opened a leather pouch and discovered a cache of hand drawn documents. They were the maps made for General Cameron, as he advanced south into the Waikato.' Barton handed me a folder filled with the Trust's newsletters and brochures, and with his own unpublished research notes. It was as thick as an encyclopedia.

The cafe had filled with cyclists in psychedelic skinsuits and a group of middle-aged Indian men brushing raindrops off their ties. Were these inhabitants, I wondered, of the new Pokeno?

Pokeno's developers like to invoke the village's rural history. Pokeno Village Estate is raising hundreds of homes on twelve parcels of land to the north and east of the Great South Road. The development's website calls Pokeno 'an urban village in a rural setting' with a 'strong local character'. By buying a brick and tile house on a tiny plot of dirt in Pokeno Village Estate, one can 'build upon' Pokeno's pioneering tradition, and 'thrive off this fertile land'.
In an article published in September 2015, though, Waikato Times journalist Florence Kerr described the disorientation that some of Pokeno's long-time residents feel, as they find their village 'in the fast lane' of development. Kerr remarked on the incongruity of Pokeno's new, brick and tile developments, beside the village's older timber houses. She talked with Anne Manukau, a lifelong resident her feared that her village was becoming a 'mini city', and complained of harassment from real estate agents. For Kerr, the difference between the old and new Pokeno was 'severe'.


Yet Pokeno has a history of transformations. At the beginning of the 1860s Auckland was the seat of New Zealand's government and the home of its most ambitious businessmen. But the government's authority evaporated on the southern fringes of Auckland, and its property speculators and bankers lacked land and debtors. The Maori King Tawhiao had named the Mangatawhiri, a creek that flowed into the Waikato a couple of kilometres south of modern-day Pokeno, as the northern border of his realm, and had forbidden his subjects to sell land to Pakeha.

In 1862, at the request of Governor George Grey and the government in Auckland, military engineers pushed the Great South Road to the border of Tawhiao's kingdom. Mileposts and pubs were raised along the road. In early 1862 General Duncan Cameron, the commander of British forces in New Zealand, travelled down the half-finished road and stopped at Pokino, a Maori village close to the site of today's Pokeno. A flour mill had been built at the village, and chiefs from the Waikato had been bringing wheat across the Mangatawhiri to grind at the mill and sell in Auckland. Cameron decided to build his largest fortress close to Pokino.

By the middle of 1863 six thousand men were living in wooden barracks halls and tents behind Queen's Redoubt's square-shaped trench. The fort had its own reading room, hospital, brass band, and hall. On the evening of the 11th of July 1863, a few of the redoubt's soldiers crossed the trench and raided Pokino. The village had already been deserted by Maori; the soldiers burned its whare. No one had authorised their raid.

The morning after the attack on Pokino General Cameron marched hundreds of his troops out of Queen's Redoubt to the Mangatawhiri, where a fleet of whaleboats waited. The boats had been dragged down the Great South Road, over the Bombay Ranges and the Razorback Hills. Cameron's men paddled across the Mangatawhiri, and by dusk were building a new fort on the south side of the creek. After the conquest and confiscation of the Waikato Pokeno was settled by some of the war's surviving soldiers, as well as by land-hungry Aucklanders and assisted immigrants.

Queen's Redoubt was closed in 1867. Its buildings were sold off and removed, and in the 1920s its earthworks were erased by a local farmer experimenting with a new-fangled tractor. 'He filled the ditches in with earth' Ian Barton said. 'The site was made invisible.' He chuckled, shrugged his shoulders.

As the motor car became more popular Pokeno acquired a service station and a garage, and become a place to pause on journeys to and from Auckland. Highway Two, which runs across the Hauraki plains toward the mountains and beaches of Coromandel, intersects with the Great South Road just beyond Pokeno, and holidaymakers would stop to fill their cars with petrol and their stomachs with ice cream. Geoff Murphy shot one of the scenes of Goodbye Pork Pie in Pokeno. The heroes of his film accidentally steal a tank of petrol from the service station, and thus begin their careers as outlaws.

In 1992 Auckland southern motorway was extended beyond the Bombay Ranges; Pokeno was bypassed. The village cast about for a new role; in 2000 it made the peculiar decision to rename itself temporarily, after the website of a local business owner and philanthropist. In 2010 the Waikato District Council eased up rules for development around the village, and announced that Pokeno was 'poised for growth'. Auckland's property boom did the rest.

Pokeno sits in the middle of a district with a reputation for racism. In the 1920s and '30s nearby Pukekohe was the birthplace and stronghold of the White New Zealand League. The League was alarmed by the Chinese and Indian market gardeners who were settling in the Franklin District and employing and intermarrying with Maori. It campaigned for a ban on immigration by non-whites, and denounced miscegenation as an offence against nature.

In the 1940s and '50s pubs in Mercer, Pukekohe, and Papakura were repeatedly criticised for denying service to Maori, and the cinema at Pukekohe was accused of segregating its patrons along racial lines. Today Pukekohe is home to the Franklin E Local, a magazine that insists that Europeans rather Maori were the first settlers of New Zealand, and that warns of nefarious conspiracies by Maori radicals, the United Nations, and Muslims. The E Local has a circulation of twenty thousand.

'It is hard to interest local Pakeha in the war' Ian Barton admitted. 'Pakeha have a guilty conscience. Many of the older Pakeha who live here, the long-time residents - they have ancestors who invaded the Waikato. It's personal. And then there's the material in Franklin E Local. Lost civilisations. Fantasies. But it is because people need to learn the real history that the Trust exists.'

'What about relations with Maori?' I wondered.

'Well, it hasn't been easy there, either. There has been some suspicion of the Trust, of our project.'

When the Trust began building on the redoubt, it decided to call its visitor centre The Barracks. Members of Ngati Tamaoho, a subtribe of Tainui which whakapapas back to the obliterated village of Pokino, were upset by the suggestion.

'They accused us of wanting to glorify the invasion and the war' Barton explained. 'To them, the redoubt is still a symbol of aggression. They throught we were going to gather in our barracks, just as the imperial troops had done, and continue the work of colonialism. We hadn't intended to glorify the redoubt, of course. We dropped the name immediately. We consulted, and chose the neutral Queen's Redoubt Visitors Centre instead. Relations were difficult for a while, but now we have two Ngati Tamaoho leaders, George Wheatley and Hero Potini, on our board. We're very happy to have them.'

One of the damp businessmen was paying for a round of chai lattes with an ASB platinum card. I suddenly wanted to ask Ian about Karl Marx, about The Communist Manifesto, that supposed classic of radicalism which begins with a paean to the destructive powers of capitalism. Writing in the late 1840s, the young Marx enthused about the invasion of Asian societies by European armies and capital, and looked forward to the end of the 'idiocy and backwardness' or rural life, as capitalism turned peasants into workers and poured tarseal over fields. Modernisation is a step towards enlightenment, because it destroys old ways of life and thought.

I'd always disliked the youthful Marx's celebration of anabolic capitalism; I didn't see how the Opium Wars and the British Raj were anything but idiotic and backward. Now, though, I wondered whether Marx's glee about capitalism's destructiveness might be justified by twenty-first century Pokeno. The rural rednecks who scaremongered about Asian immigration and constructed conspiracy theories about pre-Maori civilisations were being inundated by a suburban Auckland population that was unlikely to share their obsessions. And the new Asian inhabitants of Pokeno seemed about to make the xenophobes' nightmare of ethnic diversity come true.

Perhaps the transformation of Pokeno and Franklin should be celebrated? Were the developers tearing up the hillsides outside town unconscious revolutionaries, destroying the idiocy and backwardness of rural life?
But perhaps the revolution was not as unstoppable as I imagined. It is not hard to find a parallel between the craving for property in twenty-first century Auckland and the land hunger that motivated the conquest of the Waikato. In the 1860s Auckland property speculators fomented the war against King Tawhiao, encouraged thousands of soldier-settlers and assisted immigrants to take over land confiscated from Maori, and then bought this land for almost nothing when its owners were unable to make a living from running a few cows or chickens on their plots.

Today property speculation is sending a new army of home buyers south of the Bombay Ranges and the Razorback Hills. The lower Waikato has again become a promised land for Aucklanders. But will the new settlers be able to pay their mortgages, or will they, too, have to walk away from their homes in a few years?


I asked Ian Barton what he thought about Pokeno's transformation.

'I think everyone at the Trust is hopeful' he replied. 'Hopeful that some of the new residents will be volunteers. We need them in our organisation, and they will be very welcome. A few of them must be retired, must be looking for things to do.'

'This has traditionally been a very conservative area' I said. 'You admit yourself that many locals are reluctant to think about the war, and when they do think about it they tend to take a very defensive line. Do you think the new arrivals might be free of the old inhibitions?'

'Well, perhaps' Ian said. 'But someone may not be interested in history at all and still join our Trust. They might like gardening and enjoy the challenge of our earthworking. They might simply enjoy the camaraderie.'

At the table next to ours a couple of middle-aged men in swandris and gumboots had been talking in neutral voices about visits from Fonterra's milk inspectors. Now, though, one of them scowled, and gestured at a huge orange digger and a grader being carried down Pokeno's main street on a semi-trailer truck. The load was so heavy that the cafe's windows vibrated slightly as it went by. I imagined the trucks and diggers and graders as tanks, patrolling a captured town.

'That rain seems to have stopped' Barton said, after the truck had passed. 'Shall we visit the redoubt?'


Rain was falling again by the time we'd walked the couple of hundred metres down the Great South Road to the reconstructed redoubt. Wind was blowing the rain into our faces, but Barton resisted the shelter of the Visitors' Centre, and led me along the edge of the redoubt's trench, showing me the hundreds of sandbags he and his comrades had filled with Pokeno soil. When we reached the southeastern corner of the trench Barton noticed a frail ragwort growing between two sandbags. He kicked at the enemy, and it fell from into the trench's muddy water.

Before I met Ian Barton I had planned to ask him whether his work at Queen's Redoubt was part of some wider programme. Did he believe that, by remembering and understanding the Waikato War, New Zealanders would be better able to deal with the twenty-first century? Did he have strong political sympathies, and did they influence his work for the Trust? Was he a supporter of what Franklin's rednecks like to call the 'Treaty industry' and the 'Maori gravy train'?

But questions like these suddenly seemed redundant, as Barton talked about the depth and width of the redoubt's defensive trench, and the names of the young men who died in the redoubt's hospital, and the time it took for a cartload of soldiers' biscuits to travel from Auckland to Pokeno down the Great South Road in 1863. Blake wrote that 'every minute particular is holy': Barton felt a reverence for the minute particulars of the Waikato War, not for one or another interpretation of them.
The empty Visitors Centre smelt of varnish. 'A few Victorian-era military installations have survived, in this or that part of New Zealand' Barton explained. 'An old blockhouse, a barracks, that sort of thing. Our architect studied these buildings, then created this.' His voice echoed off the high wooden ceiling. 'This large room will be filled with signboards and with exhibits. The backroom, which is smaller, will have a library, and will be a place to meet. In ten years or so we'd like to open a much larger centre. But we have to start somewhere.'


I knew Nigel Prickett when I worked at Auckland's museum. He was slightly stooped, after decades of service in the trenches of the New Zealand Wars. Prickett made the first serious excavation of Queen's Redoubt in 1992, and published a long essay about his discoveries

Near the end of the report on his findings Prickett reproduced a photograph of nineteen fragments of nineteenth century crockery. There was a teacup handle, there were shards from saucers, there were pieces of a chamber pot. Geometric patterns covered much of the crockery; flowers and leaves occasionally grew from the grids and bands of lines.

Prickett's treasures reminded me of the older pottery that archaeologists have coaxed from the sand and mud of tropical Polynesia. Three thousand years ago the Lapita ancestors of Tongans and Samoans made bowls and cups out of orange clay, and covered them with networks of white lines in which half-human faces seem to emerge and recede. The songs and dances of the Lapita people are lost, but we have their pots. If the earth is a book, then pottery is its script.


Ian Barton drove me north, up the Great South Road and across train tracks, toward the Razorback Hills, through the rubble of a housing development. The road was just beginning to steepen when Barton braked. In a field surrounded on three sides by new houses a white pyramid rose beside a cypress tree. A few headstones ran in an erratic line across the grass.

'Do not take the names on this monument too seriously' Barton told me, as we stood beside the pyramid. 'There are people on the list who lie elsewhere, and many others who lie here but are not on the list.'

I asked him about the irregular arrangement of the graves. Why hadn't the soldiers been buried in rows? At other New Zealand Wars cemeteries soldiers were carefully arranged, as though they were about to undergo an inspection. At Pokeno's cemetery, though, military discipline seemed to have broken down.

Barton shook his head. 'The soldiers are lying in rows here, it's just that most of them lack headstones. Only the higher ranking men got stones; the others were given wood. Headboards, with their names and dates scratched on. The boards rotted, and no one replaced them.'

'Nobody looked after this place?'

'By the 1870s this cemetery was already submerged in scrub. Stock were grazing here at other times. There were eventually grumbles from veterans, and in 1899 the government commissioned a memorial.'

A rainy wind was crossing the Razorback Hills, shaking the yellow heads of ragwort and pushing sheep into protective clusters. Ian zipped up his coat, and I felt guilty about keeping him outside in such weather, until I remembered that he had worked the soil of Queen's Redoubt in all weathers for years.

The memorial was made by John Bouskill, an Auckland mason who would later raise obelisks in honour of the dead of the First World War. Using the soft white stone of Oamaru, Bouskill shaped a pyramid, and gave it flat faces where the names of buried soldiers could be incised. At the apex of the pyramid he carved a series of rifles, and leaned them against one another.

Bouskill was a self-taught builder and an orthodox Methodist, but his Pokeno pyramid and his later obelisks suggest he had an interest in relics of Egyptian religion. In the nineteenth century the deciphering of hieroglyphs and the excavation of tombs made an ancient civilisation seem suddenly accessible to the West. European and American dandies built pyramids as follies on their estates; sphinxes grew on railway stations and courthouse facades. Some twenty-first century sources, like Te Ara, New Zealand's national encyclopedia, describe Pokeno's memorial as a cairn, but early observers were in no doubt: it was a pyramid.

After the invasion of Tawhiao's Kingdom wounded men began to returning across the Mangatawhiri, to the hospital at Queen's Redoubt. Some of them died of the wounds that musket balls and tomahawks had made, and were buried on the hill at the northern edge of Pokeno. The redoubt's brass band played, and riflemen fired a salute.

Some deaths were ordinary, and therefore mysterious. One night in October 1863 Augustus Selwyn, the Anglican bishop of New Zealand, was holding a service in the redoubt's reading room. The congregation had just finished a hymn when an artilleryman named Edwin Gabbitas slumped in his seat. Gabbitas was carried outside, in the hope that the cold air might revive him. Instead he sighed twice and died. Gabbitas had been a soldier for five years, and had never shown any sign of sickness. He was given a headboard on the hill.

As we walked slowly around the memorial, I asked Ian Barton why Bouskill chose such an unusual shape. Was the pyramid a triumphal gesture, a boast that the British Empire, which has so recently absorbed the land around Pokeno, would endure as long as Egypt? Or was there something melancholy and antiquarian about Bouskill's choice of the pyramid form, an acknowledgement that Britain, like all the great powers of the past, would eventually dwindle in importance?
Ian wiped rain off his forehead and chuckled. 'We don't know that this is a pyramid. It might be a cairn. I have considered it a cairn. Admittedly, the style is unusual. But this was a fragile place, even after the war. The settlement struggled. Sometimes farms failed, bush started to come back. The soldiers turned small farmers, the assisted immigrants who arrived after the war - they were probably not feeling like they'd won anything. It was probably important to have reminders of history, identity. Memorials, chapels. Then again, the cemetery was not well maintained. Even after the placement of this memorial it was allowed to become overgrown.'

I wasn't prepared to give up. 'What about an Egyptian reference? Would you find that completely unlikely, from Bouskill, at the end of the nineteenth century?'

We had stopped circling the pyramid and were gazing at its list of names. Ian coughed gently. 'I don't know about Egypt. I'd have to study that. Egypt, the influence of Egypt - it's another field entirely. Perhaps I'll look at it.'

I felt guilty again, as I imagined Ian Barton reading through volumes of Egyptology, and making a research trip to Giza, on the way home from his next expedition to Britain's archives. The man surely had enough work to do, without me giving him more.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Reincarnation as a research method

Paul Little has reviewed The Stolen Island for North and South, and been bemused by the role that reincarnation plays in the text. Little writes that:

Hamilton is relentless in his determination to follow every lead concerning the 'Atans. He tracks down descendants of both [Thomas] McGrath and the rumoured betrayer of the islanders. For some, the book will be flawed by the willingness with which he accepts one source's claims of remembering a past life on 'Ata and goes on a hunt for the grave she saw in her trance. 

My allegedly dodgy source is a young Chilean woman who spends whalewatching seasons in Tonga, and believes that she is drawn to the Friendly Islands today because she lived there in a past life. 

I can hardly object to Paul Little's scepticism about claims of past lives, because I was just last week taking to social media to pan this Radio New Zealand programme on Lisa Allen, a performance artist who claims to have been a member of a pre-Maori Waitaha people in her past life, and who uses her 'memories' of that past life as inspiration. 

I don't believe in reincarnation, but I think that the notion of transmigrating souls is considerably less ridiculous than Allan's claims that her Waitaha ancestors migrated from Rapa Nui to these islands a couple of thousand years ago. The Waitaha civilisation Allan identifies with is a New Age scam, and Rapa Nui was not settled much more than a millennium ago. 

I can agree with Paul Little that 'memories' of past lives are not the stuff that good research is made from, but I don't think I was wrong to include Mata in The Stolen Island. I wanted the book to show how a variety of people had become fascinated with the tiny, inhospitable, and long-uninhabited island of 'Ata, and to explain how their obsession had changed their lives. Mata is convinced that her soul once belonged to an 'Atan; the Spanish adventurer Alvaro Cerezo risked his life to land and lodge on the island, and claims to have detected an extraordinary energy there; a young Tongan who approached me in Nuku'alofa insisted that the garden of Eden was located on or near 'Ata. 

I don't endorse claims like these, but I am very interested in why people make them, and what they tell us about our lives in the twenty-first century. There's nothing wrong with discussing an idea, however outlandish, in terms of its meaning, rather than its truthfulness. 

I think that appeals to past lives are one way for palangi who feel an affinity for Pacific societies to express that affinity. 

In the past, when the boundaries between palangi and indigenous peoples were much more rigidly enforced, ideas about reincarnation could seem a threat, rather than an opportunity. In one of the essays in his collection Webs of Empire, Tony Ballantyne describes the opposition that Theosophists faced in early twentieth century New Zealand, and the way anxieties about 'race mixing' could segue into horror at the doctrine of reincarnation. Ballantyne cites a Dunedin Presbyterian leader who lost a young daughter, and was both disgusted and tormented by the notion that she might have been reborn inside the body of a heathen Indian. 

But let me give the floor to Mata. Here, from The Stolen Island, is her vision of 'Ata:

On our first night at the Hideaway, Cerian and I put the kids to bed, then took turns hanging out in the bar. Working behind the bar was Mata, a tall Chilean with a whalebone necklace and a degree in Tourism Studies. For several years now, she’d been coming to ‘Eua during the whale-watching season to help Naite and Taki run the Hideaway.

When I told Mata why I’d returned to ‘Eua she smiled, then began to talk with an intensity that reminded me of Alvaro Cerezo.

‘I take a holiday in New Zealand, I go to Raglan. And I meet a woman skilled in hypnosis, a woman who puts people in trances – who helps them remember the lives they have lived before this one. I go into a trance, and I have a vision – I see a graveyard, a small one beside the sea. I see coconut trees, I see mounds of sand, and I know – I’m seeing Tonga.

‘I recognise the graveyard: it’s on the road from the Hideaway to town, to ‘Ohonua. I know that my vision is significant. When I got back here, I asked a man who knows the island’s history, and he tells me that the graveyard is called Pangai, that the graves belong to some of the ‘Atans who came to ‘Eua after their homeland was raided by slavers. After I hear that, I decide that I might have been an ‘Atan in a previous life. It explains the connection I feel with Tonga.’

Naite had been wiping tables and listening to Mata. ‘Mata has some sort of connection with Tonga,’ she said. ‘She’s at home here. People love her. She knows what to do and say. It’s like she was born here.’

I told Mata and Naite about Alvaro, and his obsessive, almost fatal desire to visit ‘Ata. ‘I want to go as well,’ Mata said. ‘That island calls people.’ 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The road of infection

[This is a draft chapter from my tome Ghost South Road, which will be published by Atuanui Books at the end of October. Ghost South Road will be illustrated by Paul Janman and Ian Powell.]


We do not know his name, or his age. We do know, thanks to a report in the Waikato Argus, that he and a male companion had left Otahuhu, and had been working their way down the Great South Road. It was the winter of 1913, and there was trouble in Auckland. The men who loaded the ships at the city's port were threatening to strike; the government of William Massey had denounced them  as reds and anarchists, and had threatened to send police and soldiers to work the waterfront. On the farms outside Otahuhu men who relied on exported meat for their income discussed cavalry tactics in their cowsheds, and sniped at magpies and pukeko.

For anyone who could not afford a train ticket, the Great South Road was the easiest escape route from Auckland. The swagger and his companion walked south, through the village of Woodside, which is today preserved under Manukau City's concrete, through Papakura, where a new post office had just opened, and through Drury, where skinny horses waited patiently on their leashes outside the tavern. At Bombay, just before the road struggled over the Razorback Hills, the swagger and his mate found work for a few days.

For decades swaggers had been walking New Zealand's roads. They had an unwritten contract with New Zealand's farmers and country constables. Swaggers were allowed to wander, but forbidden to stay too long in one place without jobs. They could ask for food, for accommodation, and for work, but they could not ask too aggressively. If farmers did not offer a few days' work, then they would usually provide a night's accommodation in a barn or a cowshed or a stable, and a few scraps of food. Swaggers were expected to show their gratefulness for these gifts by chopping some firewood, or by milking a few cows.

The pair of swaggers moved on, over the Razorbacks and into the Waikato, where the river and the road ran beside each other, and were both lost in mist for hours each morning. The road was flat again, and still busy, by New Zealand standards. It is easy to imagine a farmer or a hawker pulling up, and offering the swaggers a place on his wagon, amidst the rubble of a potato harvest, or bottles of patent medicine, or leaky sacks of flour.

The going should have been easy, but it wasn't. The mornings were cold, but the swagger could not stop sweating. The road was flat, but his calves and shins ached, as though he were still climbing the Razorbacks. He stopped to catch his breath, and found himself kneeling at the edge of a drainage ditch, vomiting up the pumpkin stew or lamb's fry some farmer's wife had spared for him. Going to bed in another barn he felt colder than usual, but hours later woke with his skin on fire. He stripped off his blanket and his stinking clothes, but soon woke again, shivering.

Eventually the swagger and his companion were on the brink of Hamilton. Motorcars approached them, like emissaries from the Waikato's largest town. I imagine the swagger's companion stopping, and looking at him queerly. Pebble-sized pustules had grown from the swagger's forehead, from his cheeks. By the time the swagger had reached Victoria Street, with its pubs and cattle drovers holding up motorcars, the boils had spread to his forearms, to his torso. I imagine him breaking one of the growths with a jagged thumbnail: the pus would have been grey, and sticky, and streaked with blood.


Hamilton's hospital had been built on the low hill overlooking Rotoroa, the lake soldier-settlers had stocked with swans and ducks and rowboats. The doctors and nurses were used to treating swaggers. Most of their visits went unrecorded, but in 1904 newspapers had discussed the case of an Irish veteran of the New Zealand Wars named Michael Barry, who had arrived at Ohaupo, a small town on the Great South Road just beyond Hamilton, and ordered a beer. Barry could hardly 'walk or breathe', so the hotelier 'served him some schnapps and housed him in the stable'. A constable arrived to take Barry to hospital, and found him in a 'filthy condition'. Barry explained that he hadn't washed for six years; the policeman 'could not approach him without a disinfectant'. Barry was allowed to linger and die in the hospital on the low hill above the ornamental birds and boats.

But Dr Hugh Douglas, the chief surgeon and de facto manager of Waikato Hospital, quickly realised that the new swagger was special. He was not sweating and shaking because of delirium tremens or alcohol withdrawal; the marks on his face had not been made by dirt or a fistfight. The swagger had smallpox.

There were already half a dozen smallpox victims in a quarantined ward of Waikato hospital, but all of them were Maori, from the village at Maungatautari, twenty or so kilometres away. Dr Douglas had travelled to Maungatautari in July, and watched one of the Ministry of Health's inspectors raise a yellow flag above the kainga. The swagger was the first white victim of the pox to appear in the Waikato. The disease had crossed a racial boundary.

Douglas contacted Hamilton Health Inspector Bennett, who had been devoting all of his time to smallpox, and the town's mayor Arthur Manning. Manning composed a statement, which was printed and handed to Hamilton's hoteliers and restaurateurs:

[I]t is advisable that no persons who appear suspicious (from a disease point of view) be allowed in your establishment. Will you, therefore, in the case of any person applying for accommodation or meals, or in the case of any lodger who appears 'off colour' in this respect, at once notify [Inspector Bennett] that steps may be immediately taken to prevent the disease getting a footing in the town...This particularly refers to that class of person termed 'swaggers', as they are very difficult to keep in touch with.

'Off colour', 'footing': the mayor's words betrayed his anxieties about race and vagrancy.


In April 1913 a Mormon missionary named Richard Shumway had arrived in Auckland for a hui organised by New Zealand's Saints. Maori from around the country had to come to korero and hongi with Shumway and other missionaries. Shumway was sweating and sneezing, but he struggled through the hui. He thought he had measles; he was suffering from smallpox. After the hui Maori returned to kainga with Mormon devotional literature, and with a deadly disease.

Soon the Ministry of Health's inspectors were isolating the Maori villages on the southern and eastern fringes of Auckland. The yellow flag of quarantine was raised over Mangere and Orakei.

Smallpox travelled through the air, and through human fluids. A cough, a kiss, a tear: all were vehicles for the virus. It took about a fortnight for the infected to sicken. At first they might have been suffering from the flu. Then boils, hundreds of them, began to grow, and fill with pus and blood. When the boils burst they left scabs. If the victims lived long enough the scabs would flake off, to revealing pitted scars.

By September 1913 a consensus had developed amongst New Zealand's politicians and journalists: smallpox was, in the words of the Dominion, a 'Maori malady', caused by the unhygienic homes and immoral habits of the country's indigent indigenes. If the movements of Maori were not restricted, then they would spread the disease to their white neighbours.

Alexander Young, the MP for Waikato, told parliament that it was fortunate smallpox had not broken out in the summer, when the 'flies' and 'crowding' in kainga would have spread it even faster. George Elliott, a businessman organising an international trade fair in Auckland, demanded that 'filthy' Maori settlements like Orakei and Mangere be torched, and called for the deportation of every last Maori from the city.
Young and Elliott were not only prejudiced but wrong. When in 1914 Joseph Frengley, New Zealand's National Health Officer, analysed the smallpox epidemic and composed a report for parliament, he was unable to find a link between unsanitary housing and smallpox infection. 'Natives living in comfortable homes' suffered 'as much as the others', Frengley told parliament.

If any Maori fell ill, then the Health Department punished his or her kin and kainga with quarantine. Once the yellow flag had been raised over a Maori community, its members were prohibited from travelling, unless they carried a certificate of immunisation. In some places, not even such a certificate would do.

The Waikato Hospital Board had insisted that the Maori of Maungatautari could only travel as far as Victoria bridge, which crossed the Waikato River and separated their community from the white town of Cambridge, and that they must carry a yellow flag if they journeyed even this far. An improvised militia waited on the Cambridge bank of the river, ready to enforce the ban with bullets. The Maori of Mangere were forbidden to cross the bridge that crossed the Manukau harbour, and connected their village with Onehunga and the isthmus of Auckland.

There was no effective treatment for smallpox, but the first vaccine had been invented at the end of the eighteenth century. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries New Zealand's government had made some desultory attempts to immunise its people against the disease. By the end of the winter of 1913 demand for vaccination far exceeded supply. The Ministry of Health and hospital boards tended to vaccinate city dwellers before rural New Zealanders, and whites before Maori.

By September 1913 there were more than a hundred patients, almost all of them Maori, in the Auckland hospital devoted to infectious diseases. But most Maori infected with smallpox had to struggle with the disease at home, or in the tents of 'isolation camps' set up on the edge of kainga by teams of health officers, nurses, medical students on leave, and doctors. The young Dr Jessie Scott, who would later nurse both Allied and German soldiers in World War One, volunteered for service in an isolation camp, and was sent to Hokitika. In a letter published in Kai Tiaki, the magazine of the nurses' union, Scott described one of the victims under her care:

One woman here is just turning the corner after a very severe attack. She was a fine handsome native, and at the worst she was absolutely repulsive, with immense adema of the face, lips, nose and tongue worst...[Her] odour has been almost overpowering and still is offensive. She will be horribly marked.

In some communities there was no medical help, only a quarantine enforced by the state and white militia. Isolated from advice about the strange disease, Maori found their own desperate tactics to prevent its spread. In one Northland village an entire family became sick, and eventually died, one by one, in their home. Too afraid to retrieve the bodies and organise a tangi, neighbours set the whare and its decomposing corpses ablaze.


While Hugh Douglas was tending to his smallpox victims and Arthur Manning was searching Hamilton's pubs and boarding houses, Health Inspector Bennett was driving slowly up the Great South Road in a government car, with a pair of assistants and a load of formaldehyde. Using a statement that the swagger had given from his hospital bed, Bennett revisited the places that the man and his companion had stayed. He sprayed formaldehyde over barns and cowsheds where the swaggers had slept, burnt any mattresses they had touched, burnt the clothes of anyone unfortunate enough to have shaken the men's hands. Bennett had already sprayed gallons formaldehyde onto Maungatautari, and the Maori village at Whatawhata.

In 1913 formaldehyde was commonly used as a decontaminant. The chemical's role in causing cancer was not known until the 1980s. Inspector Bennett was spreading a new disease as he travelled about the Waikato and up the Great South Road.


At the beginning of the twentieth century many New Zealanders saw Auckland as a place where disease flared and festered. Auckland was New Zealand's largest port; crews from around the world rioted in its bars and brothels, and left diseases and rats behind when they sailed away past Rangitoto.  The working class suburbs that had grown up just west of Auckland were regarded, like the East End of London, as citadels of filth and illness, and the Maori villages on the city's fringe were considered even dirtier and more dangerous. Like the railways, the Great South Road was a route for infection to spread from Auckland to the rest of the country.

In 1900 bubonic plague had emerged in Calcutta, and been exported by ships' rats to Noumea and Sydney. Residents of Sydney's waterfront slums began to die, and borough councils employed squads of rat hunters. Reports of rats behaving strangely began to circulate in Auckland.
In April 1900 Reverend Hugh Kelly preached a sermon on bubonic plague at Auckland's Knox Church. Kelly had grown up in the Presbyterian south of the South Island, before being sent to minister to the souls of the northern city. He warned his audience at Knox church that plagues were 'God's commentary on evil habits of life', that men 'run down by sin' were 'most accessible to plague, and that 'filthy physical habits and filthy moral habits' went together.

For Reverend Kelly, it was no coincidence that the latest plague had begun in India, a society 'stricken' by dirt, 'heathenism and vice'. The almighty was using rats and bubonic boils to 'preach' to the Indians. As they watched their kin die, the heathens got 'most impressive proof of the mind of the living god'. Kelly prayed that god would not preach with the plague to the unclean and sinful city of Auckland.

When an Auckland newspaper runner was diagnosed with the bubonic plague in May 1900 the rest of New Zealand feared that the disease would spread. Although only a handful of Aucklanders caught the disease, millions of the city's rats became its carriers. An army of bubonic rats mustered in the cellars and drains of central Auckland then, in the early autumn of 1900, began to move south, into the Waikato.

Rats stopped traffic, hung like rotten fruit from the orchardists' branches, ate their way through sileage heaps, and climbed the legs of terrifying carthorses. The pack disappeared for a few days, then reemerged, in even larger numbers, on the north bank of the Awakino River, close to the coast of the King Country.

The people of Mokau, who lived a few kilometres south of the Awakino, hammered corrugated iron across the windows of their homes and sealed the cracks in their granaries. But by the time the rats reached Mokau they were moving slowly, and without enthusiasm. The animals looked drugged, as they wandered through the town's streets. Soon they began to die in their thousands. The people of Mokau ventured out of their houses, and began to make huge piles of rat corpses. The bubonic plague had killed its carriers.


In the first week of October 1913 Wellington's wharfies were locked out of the city's port. Their employers demanded that they submit to arbitration of industrial disputes and put up a bond to cover the cost of future strikes. The wharfies refused, and their comrades in Auckland, Lyttleton, and Port Chalmers staged sympathy strikes. Soon coal miners and seafarers had also folded their arms.

At the beginning of November Wellington's wharfies stormed and seized the city's waterfront; their comrades in other port cities threatened to do the same. Massey's Liberal government responded by asking its supporters to volunteer for work as 'special' policemen. In canvas camps farmers were issued with batons and revolvers, as well as hard liquor. Hundreds of 'Massey's cossacks' from the farms of South Auckland massed at Otahuhu, then rode unsteadily to the Waitemata waterfront, where they charged into the ranks of picketers who threw stones and bottles. Businessmen, bank tellers, and students were enlisted as 'foot specials', and joined the battle.

Some of the men who volunteered to fight reds in New Zealand's cities had already served together, in the militia that defended the Waikato's white towns from the 'Maori malady'. Cambridge, which had been on the frontline of the war against sick Maori, sent one hundred and thirty-three specials to Auckland.

By the end of the year the wharfies had gone back to wharf; the coal miners followed them in January. 'Massey's cossacks' had won. Many of them would soon be fighting together again, in Europe and Turkey. 

The smallpox epidemic had petered out by the end of 1913, but the restrictions on Maori movement were not dropped until the autumn and winter of 1914. Suspicion of Maori lingered in some communities. When Maori volunteers for the war against the Kaiser camped at the Avondale racecourse late in 1914, locals worried that they might be carrying smallpox.

By the time the soldiers were returning and the Kaiser was defeated a new epidemic was spreading through their whanau. Smallpox killed fifty-five New Zealanders, all of them Maori. Influenza would take eight and a half thousand lives, a quarter of them Maori. In 1918, as in 1913, the Great South Road was a vector for infection. Maori villages were once again sealed off, and white militia reappeared.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Howling empire

'Vogel and Seddon howling empire from an empty coast' wrote the young Allen Curnow, in the long poem about colonial misadventures he called Not in Narrow Seas. It is one of the great lines in New Zealand poetry, and it skewers the tub-thumping politicians who wanted to turn Wellington into the capital of a Pacific empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

When New Zealand's parliament was in recess Dick Seddon enjoyed cruising the tropical Pacific, and stopping at towns like Nuku'alofa and Avarua to tell the locals how much better off they'd be under his leadership. Seddon eventually won control of Niue and the Cook Islands for New Zealand, and later Samoa and Tokelau were added to the fledgling empire. 

Allen Curnow laughed at the distance between Dick Seddon's dreams of empire and the reality of the isolated, thinly populated country he imagined as an imperial homeland. 

Seddon might have been smiling in his grave last week, as geologists announced that New Zealand is the heartland of the world's eighth continent. As Michael Daly wrote:

It turns out that New Zealand isn't a couple of islands at the bottom of the world. It's actually a continent - most of which happens to be under the sea...Zealandia and Australia come remarkably close to each other across the Cato Trough, off the coast of Queensland. At that point, the continental crusts are just 25km apart. 

Apart from Te Ika a Maui, Te Wai Pounamu, and Rakiura, the other fragments of the continent that remain above sea level are Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, Lord Howe Island, and a couple of uninhabited atolls. It is perhaps ironic that New Zealand should have a geological kinship with these places, when we have had relatively little to do with them historically, in comparison to Polynesian islands like Samoa, the Cooks, and Tonga. 

It is intriguing to imagine how different history might have been if the mass of Zealandia had avoided inundation. Zealandia would certainly have been settled tens of thousands of years ago, because Australian Aboriginals would have been able to cross the strait that separated the continent from Queensland. The fin de siecle ethnographers Percy Smith and Elsdon Best wrongly imagined that the first settlers of New Zealanders were a dark-skinned people who were eventually joined by the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori. If Zealandia had remained above the waves, then Smith and Best's theory might today count as history, rather than pseudo-history. 

I live a short distance from the Tasman, and it always seems to me like a wild, recalcitrant sea, entirely different from the warm and placid Waitemata harbour, where pleasure boats are at home and buoys bob helpfully over rocks and sandbars. The notion that the space the Tasman covers might ever have been dry land seems absurd.

Here's a poem I wrote recently: it's part of a sort of a sonnet sequence in which I badger my mate Sio Siasau. 

Chapter 84

But the Tasman has no islands, Sio!
Yeah, sure, there's the pathetic archipelago
of fisherman's rocks, off beaches like this one:
not only reefless but stained green
by seagull shit. There's Ball's Pyramid, 
the stump of a mouldered volcano, 
with its civilisation of stick insects.
If you want to get technical, then there's Tasmania,
but that island is too close to a continent:
it holds to Australia, like a moon
to its planet. 

Here at Karekare I listen to Reverend Curnow's voice, strong
as the back of a broken wave. The world, he says, is charged
with the glory of god, the world is charged
and found guilty

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The lost book of Tonga

[I regularly bother Brett Cross, the publisher of Titus Books and Atuanui Press, with proposals for far-fetched literary projects. This is an e mail I sent Brett last year, when I was deep in Tongan research. I won't have time to take up the project it suggested, but perhaps somebody else can investigate William McKern's lost book...]
Hi Brett,
I'm always casting around for interesting unpublished manuscripts, as you know, and I've discovered an immense collection of pages that is preserved - as a photocopy; the original is in Hawai'i's Bishop Museum - at the Turnbull library. The manuscript is referred to, again and again, in published texts about Tongan supernatural beliefs, healing, and spirit possession, but is almost never discussed at length, or quoted. The author is a man named William McKern, who was part of a 1920 expedition to the Pacific funded by a Wall Street millionaire fascinated by lost civilisations. The Bayard Dominick Expedition saw a large group of scholars steaming to the central Pacific, then breaking into small teams and heading in different directions. 
McKern and Edward Gifford were both young students in anthropology at Yale University when they were dropped on Tonga shores and left to work without supervision. Gifford went through the archipelago collecting stories, and eventually turned his research into three valuable books (the interviews he did with survivors of the slave raid on 'Ata Island have been particularly important to me). 
William McKern became the first archaeologist to break the soil of Tonga. He dug in many locations, and should have made a significant discovery when he found pottery of the Lapita people, the first settlers of Tonga and the ancestors of Polynesians, on the shores of Tongatapu's lagoon. But the young scholar misinterpreted his find, and decided that the pottery had come from Fiji, where a tradition of pottery survived from Lapita times, and was a couple of hundred rather than three and a half thousand years old. 
After he returned to Yale McKern published a small monograph called Archaeology of Tonga, which has become notorious for its apparent blunders and lacunae. In a famous essay on the perils of Tongan oral history, Sione Latukefu noted that McKern gave scatological names to some of the sacred sites he surveyed; these names were supplied by local Tongans who knew the young American didn't speak their language and perhaps enjoyed making fun of him.
In 2013, when I was teaching at the 'Atenisi Institute, I showed my students McKern's book. I remember them being particularly bemused by the descriptions of Anapusi, or the Cave of the Cats, a site where, McKern solemnly reports, a group of ancient pussy cats with telepathic powers once lived. Since cats only arrived in Tonga with palangi, McKern's history is rather suspect. 
And yet some parts, at least, of McKern's book are accurate. On the atoll of Pangaimotu I used McKern's map and descriptions to locate the overgrown foundation mound of an ancient pagan godhouse. Pangaimotu's godhouse is particularly important, because it was described by Wiliam Mariner, the castaway and memoirist who was one of the first palangi to put Tonga on paper. Mariner watched as his captor-host Ulukalakala consulted a delirious shaman-priest in Pangaimotu's sacred fale. 
And there are Tongans who insist that ancient kings and queens did sometimes have scatological and otherwise obscene names. According to the linguist Lose Jenner-Helu and the artist Ebonie Fifita, such names were meant as a mark of their owners' mana. Only someone of great prestige, they say, could possibly have such an unsavoury handles! Ebonie regards the ancient obscene names of Tongan rulers as a partial, and perhaps half-conscious, inspiration for the scatological antics of the Seleka Club. 
Was McKern a dupe, or just an assiduous researcher who took down names and recorded sites that had become embarrassing to conservative and powerful Tongans like Sione Latukefu? Did places like the Cave of Cats come from his imagination, or from the stories of Tongans, or were they traps into which he wandered? 
McKern wrote a much longer book called Tongan Material Culture, which he could never get published, even after he graduated from Yale, got a good job at a museum, and became an important figure in the study of American Indian culture. Tongan Material Culture runs to nine hundred and fifty pages, and a succession of scholars have come to drink from its waters. If the Turnbull's catalogue entry can be believed, the book describes almost every facet of Tongan life.
I've been thinking about the idea of getting a copy of McKern's book and studying it in the light of the politics of the 1920 expedition, the ideologies that McKern and other palangi scholars carried around, and the situation in post-war Tonga. 
I'd love to take the book back to the people, by letting Tongan artist-artisans like Sio Siasau and scholars like 'Okusi Mahina respond to its details, and by revisiting the places it describes, and the descendants of the people who gave McKern information. 
I've gotten particularly interested in faito'o faka Tonga, or traditional Tongan healing, and related beliefs about the supernatural and spirit possession, and McKern reputedly gives a lot of attention to these subjects. (Incidentally, there is a whole genre of Tongan book, pepa faito'o, which consists of remedies and spells designed to deal with illness and possession. Pepa faito'o are normally kept secretly in families, like the tohi hohoko (genealogical and historical books) that also reputedly hidden in many Tongan villages.)
What do you think of all this? There would be worse reasons for escaping an Auckland winter! 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Far out at sea

We studied Ted Hughes' poem about a storm in Seventh Form English at Rosehill College. Its magnificent line 'This house has been far out at sea all night' kept coming to mind during Auckland's wild weather this weekend.

If you're studying 'Wind' for NCEA, then this page might be useful. 

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Great Smash Road


Other people flee natural disasters: Geoff Mackley hurries towards them. He has chased hurricanes across the plains of America, donned a silver, lava-proof suit and abseiled down the crater of a Vanuatu volcano, and waded through the tsunami-flooded ruins of a Sumatran city, avoiding sea snakes and infected corpses.

Mackley's risks have brought rewards. He has never won an Oscar, or even shown his work in a movie theatre, but Mackley is one of New Zealand's most successful film makers. His images have led at least five hundred news programmes; he was the star of Dangerman, a series produced by the Discovery Channel; Fox News and the Independent have run admiring accounts of his adventures.

When he talked with the New Zealand Herald's Viki Bland in 2005, Mackley explained that he was not frightened by volcanoes or tsunamis. What worried him more, he said, was the prospect of 'dying staring at the ceiling'. Mackley remembered how, as a child growing up in Christchurch, he had been fascinated by the 'violence of nature'. He watched the storms that blew across the Canterbury Plains from the Southern Alps, and began to photograph them.

Towards the end of the 1980s imported scanners made it possible for New Zealanders to listen to the shortwave radio calls of their police, firefighters, and ambulance crews. The Radiocommunications Act, which parliament passed in 1989, legalised this eavesdropping. Mackley bought a scanner, and followed the directions emergency workers gave to burning houses and smashed cars.

At first the police were startled by Mackley's alacrity; he was often accused of being responsible, in some obscure way, for the tragedies he was filming. Media bosses were also sceptical. When Mackley offered TV3 news director Mark Jennings footage of a fire in the early '90s, Jennings wondered whether the cameraman was also a pyromaniac. TV3 was used to showing the aftermath of fires: blackened buildings and drifts of ash. How could Mackley have filmed a fire in media res, if he were not an arsonist, or at least the confidant of an arsonist?

Eventually, though, cops and journalists accepted Mackley's work, and he achieved the invisibility that all voyeurs crave. He had begun his career in Christchurch, but by the late '90s he was often filming in Auckland, where there are more people and therefore more tragedies. Mackley began to follow the police and other emergency workers to the sites of stabbings and shootings, as well as fires and crashes. His shots of glass-covered tarseal and speeding ambulances appeared week after week on television news broadcasts. The Great South Road, with its traffic clots and recondite intersections and open-late booze barns, was a favorite hunting ground. Mackley's overseas adventures were funded with the help of his footage from New Zealand's roads.


When he is filming natural disasters, Mackley's camera moves rapidly and excitedly, as it follows a surge of lava or a rising wave or a strengthening tornado. Viewers are constantly aware of Mackley's closeness to death; we wonder whether he will become a part of the disaster he is filming, and are relieved when he withdraws, at what seems like the last moment, to safety.  The clips are filled with noise: lava bombs explode, waves smash buildings, skies thunder.

By contrast, the films Mackley makes on the Great South Road seem silent and almost still. His camera moves slowly, if at all. Many of the clips were made late at night, when the road is quiet.

In his most famous works, Geoff Mackley shows us natural disasters as they are unfolding; in most of his clips from the Great South Road and its tributaries, though, he shows us the aftermath of human-made disasters. His scanner can lead him to car wrecks, but he inevitably arrives after the glass has shattered, after the wheels have stopped spinning. Mackley documents the rituals that follow disaster: ambulance officers feeding their vehicles prone bodies; cops muttering into transmitters and opening notebooks; transport workers with orange vests sweeping glass off the tarseal. He show us roads reopening, and oblivious traffic flowing over the site of another tragedy.

In 2015 Mackley uploaded a clip called 25 years of Geoff Mackley adventures in 2 minutes to his youtube channel. It shows footage from a dozen or so of the cameraman's adventures: there are volcanoes and storms and big waves. But Mackley's summary of his career excludes the hundreds of films he has made on the roads and berms of New Zealand. There are no smashed and smouldering cars, no bored-looking cops, no plastic cones.


In 1898 a Wellington businessman brought the first two cars into New Zealand. In 1906 Janet Meikle was driving to her farmhouse near Timaru when she rolled her eight horsepower car and became the first New Zealand victim of the internal combustion engine.

The O'Rorke family owned one of Auckland's first motor vehicles. George O'Rorke was a businessman, veteran member of parliament for Manukau, and a patron of Auckland's university and libraries. His son Eddie was a leading member of the city's horsing and hunting set, and by 1910 he had acquired a car and a chauffeur. But O'Rorke was not in his car when it sped over the Razorback hills stretch of the Great South Road, missed a bend at Bombay, and smashed into a ditch. The New Zealand Herald reported that O'Rorke's chauffeur had been taking four of his 'personal friends' for a 'spin'. The chauffeur was knocked out; his playmates were 'considerably shaken', but able to return to Auckland using older methods of transport. They caught a coach from Bombay to Drury, then a train north.

In 1921, when the government began to count, 69 New Zealanders were killed in motor accidents. By 1930 the death toll had more than tripled to 246. Newspapers ran photographs of buckled Morris Cowleys and Model T Fords submerged in hedges.

The road toll fell slightly during the Great Depression and greatly during World War Two, when hundreds of thousands of young men and women were overseas and petrol was rationed, before reviving in the 1950s and reaching a high of 843 in 1973. In the late '70s and the '80s the toll remained high, but in the last years of the century it began to fall, and by 2011 it had dropped below 300. Police and Ministry of Transport campaigns against drink driving and speeding, better quality cars, and the widening and smoothing of roads were all credited with slowing the slaughter. Since 2011, though, the road toll has begun to rise again.

The clip that Mackley calls Car versus tree, Papakura persons trapped shows black metal buckled against one of the row of ancient trunks that give Selwyn Oaks Retirement Village its name, and protect the village's residents from the Great South Road. The oaks mark the southern end of Takanini Strait, which runs for a couple of kilometres between factories and hardware stores and fast food joints, connecting Papakura with Manurewa. Because it is almost unmarred by bends or undulations, the Strait is a favourite of boy racers.

The car in Mackley's clip has been encircled by orange-vested men and women. Two fire engines and a police car sit with their engines running; their flashing lights make psychedelic patterns on the road's glossy deserted dancefloor. Ambulance officers stretcher a body - we do not know its gender, or its age, or even its injuries, because of distance and darkness - into their van.


In interviews Geoff Mackley emphasises his difference from ordinary people, his special mission. He defies the 'fleeing masses' and travels towards disasters; 'nothing else in life' could compare to the 'rush' he gets from his adventures. Besides his youtube channel, Mackley runs a website with the domain name The phrase 'Life is either an incredible adventure, or its [sic] nothing at all' is pasted across the site's homepage, above a photograph of Mackley facing a wall of lava. In his silver suit he looks like some astronaut set down an alien planet.

But it is hard to believe that Mackley gets much excitement from his journeys up and down the Great South Road in search of wrecks. The clips he has brought back from the road and its tributaries are filled with ennui rather than awe; they catalogue routine rather than extraordinary deaths. Violent death is a necessary condition of every functioning road network; it must be planned for rather than denied. Ambulances must evacuate the injured and dying efficiently from crash sites; police must complete rapid analyses of those sites; tow truck drivers must remove obstacles to traffic; firefighters must wash away slicked blood; the Ministry of Transport's workers must sweep the road clean of glass.

By showing us the routinisation and bureaucratisation of tragedy on our roads, Mackley tells us something important about our society. The dull and unpleasant footage he brings back from the Great South Road is more valuable than his famous clips from exotic locales.


The administrators of New Zealand's roads have to anticipate and analyse accidents and wrecks, injury and death. Every year the Ministry of Transport publishes a report into Motor Vehicle Crashes in New Zealand, in which the appalling details encountered by emergency workers - the whiplashed necks and glass-filled eyes and headless babies - are transmuted into data.

Land Transport New Zealand is the branch of the Ministry of Transport charged with monitoring traffic accidents. Like intra-Maoist polemics and electricians' manuals, Land Transport's reports and analyses teem with acronyms. Its 'Guide to the Treatment of Crash Locations' is only fifty pages long, but begins with a guide to abbreviations that runs to three double-columned pages. Sometimes one acronym breeds another: the guide to abbreviations explains that CAS stands for Crash Analysis System, then tells us that this system consists of various pieces of software and a collection of 'TCRs'. TCR, we soon learn, stands for Traffic Crash Report. Like the technical language they compress, the acronyms seclude us from the smashed dashboards and amputated limbs on our roads.
For the anonymous authors of Land Transport's documents, abstraction is the supreme aesthetic virtue. From report to report Land Transport's language becomes more anodyne, less evocative, as new terms and acronyms are minted and repeated. For years Land Transport used the vernacular phrase 'black spots' to describe stretches of road where accidents are especially frequent. Besides its literal meaning, the phrase has rich and ominous connotations. It reminds us of the fatal markings of the bubonic plague, of the scabrous 'black sites' where trade unionists refuse to work during strikes and lockouts. In 'Guide to the Treatment of Crash Locations' and other recent documents, though, Land Transport has substituted the bloodless term 'crash clusters' for 'black spots'. Land Transport's authors cannot do without 'crash',but they try to render the word abstract and painless, by defining it as a 'rare, random, multi-factor event'.


In 1840 the Anglican missionary Richard Taylor raised a basalt column beside a dirt road in Northland to commemorate his ten year-old son Arthur. Richard and Arthur had been riding toward Kerikeri when Arthur whipped his horse and the creature bolted. The boy fell from his saddle and got caught in his stirrups. Arthur's horse dragged him down the road for one hundred metres, kicking him repeatedly in the head. Arthur's Stone, as it has become known, is an ancestor of the thousands of memorials - crosses, wreaths, white bicycles, piles of toys and teddy bears - that have risen over the last quarter century beside New Zealand roads.

The first modern roadside memorials were created in 1990, when residents of the Bay of Plenty town of Katikati placed white crosses along a stretch of road where their kin and friends had been killed. Despite opposition from the Ministry of Transport, other communities began to imitate Katikati. Bruce Horrox, a volunteer firefighter, nailed together crosses in the basement of his Huntly home, then raised them at crash sites he attended on the Great South Road, aka Highway One, between Taupiri and Rangiriri. By the middle of '90s white crosses stood like strange plants along grass berms and gravel banks across New Zealand.

Memorials became increasingly baroque. Grieving parents left teddy bears or dolls where their children had been hit by cars; a father mourned his cyclist daughter by painting her last bike white, and attaching it to a fence; motorists crossing the Hauraki Plains were astonished by a cross made from empty beer bottles.

But the roadside crosses and relics act as warnings, as well as memorials. They tell motorists to slow before a bend, or change gear before a ridge runs down into a gully. When Abigail Fox and Welby Ings wrote about the memorials for New Zealand Geographic they remembered the crosses that early feminists sprayed onto city streets to mark sites where women had been raped, and the black crosses on pink triangles that activists of the 1980s painted on public toilets where gay men had been bashed.

The white crosses that stand beside many roads recall the decorations on the graves of New Zealand soldiers. The flowers laid beside roads remind us of the rituals of Anzac Day. There is an affinity, mourners seem to be saying, between the slaughter of war and the slaughter on the road, between the New Zealanders who fell on battlefields and those who die amidst the wreckage of cars.

For years the Ministry of Transport deployed its orange-vested workers against roadside memorials. Crosses were uprooted; flowers were swept into plastic bags. But the memorialists were stubborn. At Katikati they planted new crosses again and again. The Ministry of Transport now generally tolerates crosses, especially when they stand beside rural roads. More elaborate memorials still risk removal.

It is not hard to see why the Ministry of Transport was antagonised by roadside memorials. The administrators of New Zealand's roads seek to de-emphasise crashes and to turn their hideous details into statistics and acronyms; the creators of memorials insist on the significance of individual tragedies.


Mackley shot the clip Fatal Accident, Karaka, South Auckland in daylight, on Blackbridge Road, a rural feeder for Karaka Road, which in turns flows into the Great South Road near the edge of Auckland. A white Toyota Altezza has stopped in the middle of the road. The car's roof is missing, and its front seats have been lifted partway into the air. It is as though the car were an aeroplane, and its pilot had pressed a button marked EJECT.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]