Sunday, April 26, 2020

Why build a fort?

'Ata is a tiny, remote island with virtually no reef and almost impossibly sheer cliffs. Why, then, would its inhabitants build a fort? Archaeologist David Burley is one of the few living humans to have visited 'Ata. In an article for the Matangi Tonga website, he cites my book The Stolen Island, & suggests it might hold an answer to the puzzle of the fort.

'Ata was evacuated after a raid by NZ & Tasmanian slavers in 1863. Its people had lived in a village called Kolomaile, in the island's tiny interior plateau. Burley excavated their pottery & adzes, but he was puzzled by the fort known as Kolomaile Kolota, which was thirty metres by thirty metres in size, and took up precious land that could have been used for gardens or fale.

Burley turns to an 1854 article by anti-imperialist journalist Charles St Julian, which I quoted in The Stolen Island. After describing how Wesleyan war king Tupou I had unified Tonga, St Julian called 'Ata a last redoubt of heathenism. St Julian said the island's religion was an irritant for Tupou I, & predicted the king would try to 'convert' its people.

By the time 'Ata was raided & depopulated in 1863, the island boasted a church. John Thomas, the stern missionary who converted Tupou I in the '20s, even visited the place to hold a service. Did Tupou I take 'Ata by force, & did the inhabitants build a fort to resist him?

In the late medieval era Tonga was the centre of a maritime empire. By the time Tupou I took power, though, decades of civil war had fragmented the realm. Peter Suren, who has studied the remote northern island of Niuafo'ou, believes it was reconquered by Tupou I in the 1850s. In the 1860s & early '70s Tupou's cousin Ma'afu made a determined & almost successful attempt to take Fiji for Tonga.

Tupou I is still seen as a saint by Tonga's Wesleyan ruling class, & Burley has suggested rather than stated outright that he conquered 'Ata. But the idea doesn't seem far fetched. In 2013 the Tongan historian Taniela Vao gave me a memorable tour of his village of Pea, a pagan stronghold that Tupou I besieged & conquered in 1852. Taniela left me in no doubt about the Wesleyan king's determination, & about the ferocity of his army.

Burley's article is one of a series he's been writing for Matangi Tonga about archaeology and the Friendly Islands. Each of his pieces makes fascinating reading. It is a pleasure to see an archaeologist, whose academic work necessarily uses esoteric language & arcane diagrams, writing for a popular audience.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Dream during a plague

I stand hungrily on a locked down Ponsonby Rd. I notice a sign, a flashing miracle: it says CAFE OPEN. I go inside, & a smiling Jacques Derrida hands me a pink laminated card. His cafe has no kitchen, he says, but I can satisfy my hunger with the words of his menu.

Feeding the monster

This photo reminds me of the story of Athens assembling its young & sending them to be devoured by a monstrous minotaur. Instead of a minotaur, we sacrifice our kids to wars. One of the youths here already wears a uniform. I'm training my boys to scorn the Anzac death cult.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Notes during a plague


In 1984 cops blocked traffic in central Auckland so Bruno Lawrence could wander through The Quiet Earth. Deserted by the rest of humanity, trashing churches & shops, Lawrence was a Nietzschean hero, lonely & exultant. Today Auckland is quiet again. Where are you, Bruno?


Locked down Auckland has lost its vulgarity, & become almost bucolic. The city's roads have the melancholy silence, the sense of impotent expectation, of Mahurangi estuary at low tide. Parked cars are like dinghies, waiting on the cracked mud-tar for a flow that never comes.


A silence has invaded Auckland. It is not the cold, clean silence of mountains, not the windy silence of a bleak beach. It is the silence of Ohura, Tokomaru, Benneydale: of towns half-abandoned, of ruined abbatoirs & shops with whitewashed windows. It is the sound of the future.


Each evening the sky builds slopes of snow, sandy atolls, lights them pink or violet, adds flocks of ducks & gulls, lets its screen slowly blacken. Aucklanders' eyes have always been elsewhere - on lines of traffic, on tables of drinks. Now, at last, the sky has the audience it deserves.


About 1750 northern invaders cornered Kiwi Tamaki's Waiohua army at Titirangi beach. So many men died that the shellfish beds were poisoned. The beach was declared tapu, abandoned for years. Yesterday I found it empty again. A squall from the Manukau stank of seaweed.


Nabokov celebrated the empty highways of late night America, comparing them to glossy black dance floors. With cars mostly banished, we can appreciate the loveliness of NZ's streets. The lights of locked shops throw psychedelic patterns on Auckland's deserted dance floors.


Covid-19 has cleansed the skies. Grounded airbuses & boeings sit in hangars or on runways, as grand & pathetic as fossilised dinosaurs in museum pavilions. Only the odd cropduster or chopper still flies. A woman who grew up in the far north long ago told me that she was able to stand under the sky & hear the sighing, whistling sound made by souls on their way to Cape Reinga, to Hawai'iki. Perhaps that sound can be heard again, now that the loud machines of the living have been banished from the air.


Even when there was no traffic in sight, Chris Marker still waited out the red signal at crossing lights. He said he wanted to honour the passing ghosts of broken cars. Now I look at Auckland's empty roads & imagine the totalled Fords & Datsuns of my childhood, speeding invisibly.

Monday, April 06, 2020

What lockdown?

One New Zealand airport has been unaffected by coronavirus. Its liquid runway is busy with thousands of vehicles: they arrive & leave untroubled by passport officers, health officials. I've written about this airport for EyeContact.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Another plague

I've written for The Spinoff about the way Maori were quarantined & starved during the smallpox lockdown of 1913.