Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Maasina and Marx

This photograph was apparently taken somewhere on Mailaita sometime in the 1950s. A couple of whitefellas - are they colonial administrators, or missionaries, or schoolteachers? - have snared a flag of the Maasina Ruru movement. They might be stretching an exotic bird's wings for the camera. 

Maasina is the Pijin word for Marching, and the thousands of supporters of Maasina Ruru marched across Malaita in the decade after World War Two, preaching their message of political and economic independence in soltwata villages and in the hamlets of the island's forested interior. The British colonial administration in Honiara resorted to prison camps and deportation to extinguish the movement. The late Hugh Laracy collected some of Maasina Ruru's visionary polemics. 

I've discussed Solomon Islanders' resistance to colonial rule in a couple of recent pieces for EyeContact, and last week the distinguished Kiwi historian Mark Deby sent me a fascinating e mail about the Maasina Rule movement and its enemies. Mark wrote that:

I noticed a little thing that you, as a connoisseur of South Pacific political burlesque, might enjoy, if you don’t already know about it, which is more than likely. In 1962 Leon Gotz, National’s heroically obtuse Internal Affairs Minister, was evidently most concerned at growing dissatisfaction among peoples of the Pacific Islands towards their political overlords, and in the spirit of the times, he found signs of foreign subversion to account for it. Among the Solomon Islanders, "he had been faced with the the story of the ‘marching rule’, a corruption of the “Marxian rule’", although "they could not find the people who spread the word of Moscow.”

(I’m sure you know about the 'Maasina Ruru' or ‘marching rule’ movement of the Solomons - if not, there’s plenty of material readily available about it, and probably was even in Gotz’s time.) In fact, of course, the real motivation for the unrest Gotz detected in the formerly quiescent South Pacific was opposition to nuclear testing. This inadvertently hilarious bit of regional red-scaring can be found in  NZ Herald 23 April 1962, p. 12 ie. after the cutoff point for Papers Past and therefore more remote and obscure in archival terms than the Solomons themselves.

Malaita may not have been a hotbed of Marxism in the 1960s, but in that decade a young anthropologist named Roger Keesing began to study the island's Kwaio people. Keesing's Marxist-influenced essays and books about the Kwaio defiance of colonial authority would get him banned from the Solomons, and make that people famous far from the Pacific. Perhaps, then, Leon Gotz had something to fear after all...

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Sweet and sickening

In a dark room in Titirangi a young woman has raised a shrine of sweet-smelling skulls. Jasmine Togo-Brisby is the first South Sea Islander to make art in New Zealand, and she is reinterpreting our history in shocking ways. I've written about Togo-Brisby over at EyeContact.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, October 14, 2016

Dylan in the Pacific

Bob Dylan may be a child of continental America, but his Nobel Prize for Literature deserves to resonate through New Zealand and the rest of the Pacific.
For hundreds and sometimes thousands of years the peoples of this part of the world have spoken, chanted, sung, and danced literature, rather than written it down. Today, in societies like Tonga and Vanuatu, literature is still usually something that is heard, rather than read. Tongan punake compose music and dances to accompany the lines of their poems, and their compositions are performed at important public occasions like festivals and weddings.
Yet the oral literature of the Pacific is underappreciated by too many universities and publishers. There are exceptions, like the magnificent collection of Tuvaluan songs issued as a bilingual book and a double CD set by the Institute of Pacific Studies, and Atuanui Press' edition of Futa Helu's essays on Tongan poetics, but too many important poems remain unknown outside the islands were they are sung and danced. 
Some writers have criticised the Nobel committee's decision to honour Dylan, and accused committee members of wanting to prove how trendy they are, at the expense of serious literature. But this sort of criticism ignores the fact that, in the West as much as the Pacific, great literature was traditionally sung or recited, rather than read. Sappho's poems were performed to the accompaniment of harps; Homer's Odyssey was a campfire tale.
On twitter today Dylan enthusiasts are arguing about his best songs and albums. The art critic Hamish Keith has claimed that the Nobel is a reward for the protest songs the young Dylan composed. I find a lot of those songs smug and didactic, and prefer to listen to some of the more mysterious, poetic songs Dylan recorded later in the 1960s.
My favourite Dylan lyric comes from 'Love Minus Zero/No Limits', a song included on the 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home. I love the song's use of paradox, and the way Dylan juxtaposes apparently unrelated images to create sudden jumps in scene and time:
My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire
People carry roses
Make promises by the hours
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her
In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all
The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge
Statues made of matchsticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge
The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring
The wind howls like a hammer
The night blows cold and rainy
My love she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Arguing about Leigh Davis

When Leigh Davis died of a brain tumour in 2009, an obituary in the National Business Review called him 'avant-garde in business, art and adventure'. After getting a Masters degree in English at the University of Auckland at the end of the '70s, Davis worked for Treasury, at a time when it was beginning to advocate the radical restructuring of the New Zealand economy, and then for Fay Richwhite, at a time when that company was helping to privatise the railways and Telecom. Davis eventually joined the board of Tranzrail, as the privatised railways became known, and set up his own venture capital company.

Davis' tenure at Tranzrail coincided with the stripping of many of the company's assets, cuts in spending on staff training, and a succession of fatal accidents that the union movement blamed on the board's mismanagement and miserliness.

When he wasn't helping to transform the New Zealand economy, Leigh Davis self-published a series of books, beginning with Willy's Gazette, a series of loose sonnets that appeared in the middle of the '80s. In one of the essays in his new book Re-inventing New Zealand, Roger Horrocks hails Leigh Davis as a brilliant poet who has not had his due from readers and critics. Horrocks' essay is critical of Emma Fergusson, a graduate student who used her thesis to examine the links between Davis' poetry and his life in the corporate world.

In my review of Re-inventing New Zealand for Landfall, I defended Emma Fergusson's work on Davis, and questioned why Roger Horrocks seems determined to isolate Davis' poetry from his deeds and his worldview. Horrocks has responded to some of my points, and we've been having a discussion here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, October 06, 2016

William Massey and the apocalypse

This photograph was taken at Otahuhu library last month, when Paul Janman and I inaugurated the Toia Talks programme by showing cryptic film clips and photographs and talking about some of the odder people who have stalked the Great South Road. Our talk and the question and answer session that followed it have been filmed, and will be deposited in the public library system to puzzle future generations of schoolkids and scholars.
We spent a few minutes discussing British Israelism, the peculiar doctrine that won the support of thousands of Pakeha New Zealanders in the first half of the twentieth century. The British Israelites believed that Anglo-Saxons were the descendants of a lost tribe of Jews. Like their ancestors in the Old Testament, they were God's chosen people, and the British empire's anabolic growth in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a sign of their special mission. The enemies of the Anglo-Saxons were Satanic, and were doomed, like the fallen angel himself, to suffer defeat when Christ returned to the earth and reigned over a global British empire. 
The faith healer and preacher AH Dallimore, who performed before writhing and screaming audiences at the Auckland Town Hall in the 1930s, raised a British Israelite church in Otahuhu at the end of the decade. The building was given the same dimensions as some of the inner chambers of the Giza pyramids, because Dallimore, like a lot of British Israelites, believed that those structures had been designed by the ancient Jews, and contained hidden prophecies about the destiny of the British Empire.
In 1935 a British Israelite named Laurence Beavis passed through Otahuhu on the Great South Road, pushing a wheelbarrow. Beavis was on his way to Wellington, and had stowed a banjo as well as a tent in his barrow. He planned to sing to and solicit donations from the communities along the Great South Road, until he had enough money to build a ship to take him to the Middle East, where he was expecting to see the sort of apocalyptic events that Dallimore predicted in his sermons. 
A few days after our presentation at Otahuhu, the most prominent New Zealand advocate of British Israelism suddenly became a talking point in newspapers and on social media. Steve Elers, a scholar at Massey University, suggested that the institution change its name, because of racist statements made by William Massey, who was Prime Minister of New Zealand between 1912 and 1925. Elers pointed out Massey's claim that 'Nature intended New Zealand as a white man's country, and it should be kept as such'. 
Elers' argument was ridiculed by Alan Duff and by David Farrar, who both defended William Massey as 'a man of his time' who should not be judged by standards set in the twenty-first century. To remove Massey's name from public places would mean, Duff and Farrar warned, losing some of New Zealand's history. 
But Duff and Farrar seem, in their own way, to want to forget the past. When they suggest that virtually all Pakeha Kiwis thought like Massey a century ago they stereotype the inhabitants of the past, and ignore the diversity and tumult of early twentieth century New Zealand. The tens of thousands of workers who staged a general strike in 1913 and fought street battles with the mounted special constables they nicknamed 'Massey's cossacks' did not share a worldview with the Prime Minister. Nor did the thousands of New Zealanders that Massey sent to prison for refusing to fight in the First World War. Massey's super-imperialism, as well as his hostility to trade unionism, were regularly attacked by the Maoriland Worker, the paper of New Zealand's radical left. 
Despite his political success, William Massey was in some ways an unusual inhabitant of fin de siecle New Zealand. He emigrated to this country from northern Ireland, where he had learned a sectarian contempt for Catholics and an almost parodic love of the British empire. He graduated to British Israelism from the Protestant supremacist Orange Order. 
Massey always remained a member of the Presbyterian church, but it is possible to argue his belief in the divine destiny of the British people, and the inferiority of non-Britons, influenced the decisions he made during his long tenure at the top of New Zealand politics. Massey interpreted the war against the Kaiser as a struggle against Satan, and was therefore unforgiving of men who would not fight. I have argued that his decision to allow untrained Legion of Frontiersmen to join the New Zealand army that occupied Samoa was influenced by the similarities between the beliefs of the Frontiersmen and British Israelite ideas. 

Paul Janman and I have been trying, without much success, to find some folk memories of AH Dallimore and the British Israelites. Our audience at Otahuhu was amazed that such a strange ideology as British Israelism ever existed, and incredulous that its adherents had raised a church locally. A few of us chuckled at the thought of what Dallimore, the prophet of a racially pure British empire, would make of contemporary Otahuhu's ethnic diversity. 
It is very easy to laugh at a creed like British Israelism. It is also easy to ignore the parallels between British Israelite beliefs and ideas that are popular in our own time. 
The notion that Britain is a divinely inspired nation may now seem quaint, but at the beginning of our century the idea that America had a special, religiously mandated destiny motivated the invasion of Iraq and was defended by powerful neoconservative thinkers. The American alt-right, with its belief in the inherent superiority of whites and its opposition to miscegnation, has unpleasant beliefs in common with the British Israelites. Some of Donald Trump's more excitable supporters have asserted that he is the instrument of a God anxious to restore America's greatness and domination over the globe. 
Instead of dismissing William Massey as an exemplar of the thinking of a bygone and irrelevant era, as Alan Duff and David Farrar want to do, we should treat him as one of the carriers of a virus that still infects some of us today. 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

The secrets of Teouma

During our visit to Vanuatu last month we stayed a couple of kilometres from the estuary of the Teouma, the longest and widest river on Efate Island. In 2003 developers unleashed some bulldozers near the river's mouth, and unearthed several huge pots adorned with the complicatedly beautiful abstract patterns beloved of the remote Lapita ancestors of the Polynesians. Inside the pots were skulls. Archaeologists intervened, and a large, intricately organised Lapita cemetery emerged from the earth. Supervisors from Vanuatu's fabled Cultural Centre made sure that the dead were treated respectfully, and reinterred carefully. 

Carbon dating has shown that Teouma is older than any other archaeological site in Vanuatu. The archipelago's first settlers seem not to have been the Melanesian ancestors of today's ni-Vanuatu, but the distant relatives of Tongans and Samoans and Maori. 

Now scientists have been able to extract DNA from the bones at Teouma and from one ancient burial site in Tonga, and discover that the pioneers of Polynesia had not mixed their genes with Papuans or any other Melanesian people, but had rather come straight into the Pacific from Southeast Asia (there was mixing later, as various societies traded and intermarried). 

The DNA results, which have been reported in the Guardian as well as various southern hemisphere newspapers, have many implications for the study of Pacific history. They suggest that Te Rangi Hiroa might have been right, when he argued that there was relatively little Melanesian influence on archaic Polynesian culture; they seem to validate Patrick Vinton Kirch's theory that many features of Polynesia's dozens of societies can be traced back to a single, fairly homogenous 'ancestral culture'.

The DNA results may also eventually help doctors treat diabetes and other diseases that are particularly prevalent amongst Polynesians.
I'm hoping that the data from Teouma helps to further discredit the idea, promoted by Thor Heyerdahl, the Mormon church, and various white nationalists in New Zealand, that Polynesians migrated into the Pacific from the Americas.

[Poste by Scott Hamilton]

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Arguing about intellectuals

Has New Zealand been an intellectual wasteland for much of its history, or has it teemed with sometimes sinister thinkers and complicated ideologies? Did the notorious philistinism and conformism of the 1950s reflect the nation's innate anti-intellectualism, or were they the result of the smashing of the radical parts of the labour movement and the left during the Waterfront Dispute of 1951? Can an avant-grade poet sit on the boards of some nasty corporations, without expecting critics to connect his business and literary careers?

I admire Roger Horrocks, but he and I offer quite different answers to these questions. I've reviewed Roger's latest and largest book for Landfall.