The rise, fall, and resurrection of a pioneering rangatira
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“As soon as we die, we enter into fiction,” said the late English writer Dame Hilary Mantel. “Once we can no longer speak for ourselves, we are interpreted.” In the case of transported late-18th-century English convict Charlotte Badger, both the fiction and the interpretation have been prodigious. The known facts are few. Born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, Badger was sentenced to seven years’ transportation for the theft, in 1796, of “four guineas and a Queen Anne’s half-crown” from the house of Benjamin Wright—a man who may have been her employer. After four years in jail, she was shipped out to the penal colony of New South Wales. She then reappears in the records aboard the colonial brig Venus, fetching up in the Bay of Islands in 1806. She made a return trip to New South Wales, via Norfolk Island, the following year, and in 1811, aged 33, she married 48-year-old army veteran Thomas Humphries at St Philip’s Church in Sydney, which one guidebook described as “the ugliest church in Christendom”. In 1843, after years of apparent calm, she had one last entanglement with the law. Charged with stealing a blanket, Badger was acquitted, after which she fades from view. Ever ready with a telling phrase, Mantel defined history as “what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it—a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth”. In Thief, Convict, Pirate, Wife, Jennifer Ashton manages to do the seemingly impossible: from the slightest of marks left by Badger, she crafts a compelling story. In common with others of her social class, Badger mostly came to official notice when she transgressed. No letters of hers have survived—it is unlikely that any were written, given that she signed the church marriage register with a cross. She had no important friends or acquaintances to record her eccentricities or witticisms for posterity, and she did nothing of note. Unless you count mutinying and taking control of the Venus. The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography repeats a fanciful story that while at sea in the brig she dressed as a man, and “armed with a pistol, flogged the captain and conducted a raid on another vessel to obtain supplies and weapons”. Another version: she incited the male convicts aboard to do the rebelling. While admitting that her fate was not known, the Dictionary also offers the possibility of a “very corpulent” Badger reaching Tonga in 1826 with an eight-year-old girl in tow, perhaps en route to the United States. Ashton will have none of it. She turns such stories to good use, though, as examples of how the past is embroidered, distorted, redacted, or amplified to suit present needs and according to shifting notions of what history actually is. And it is certainly exhilarating to see how Badger shape-shifts her way down the years, in historical accounts, but also in novels, plays, songs, and exhibitions. In reconstructing Badger’s life, Ashton was obliged to write a different sort of biography. “We have to abandon our desire to understand her thoughts and feelings and focus instead on the wider meaning of her life,” she writes. “When we do, we enlarge the ways in which we can understand the past as well as the practice of historical writing.” Mantel would have approved.
Friedensreich Hundertwasser spent his early years in Austria, and much of his adult life flitting about the globe, but in hindsight he seemed fated to set down his deepest roots in Aotearoa, a place he called the Promised Land. From his first visit in April 1973 until he was laid to rest 27 years later on his bush-clad property in Northland, Hundertwasser felt at home. He extended his first stay (for a touring exhibition) to four months, embarked on a road trip in a Morris Mini, and spent time living on Rakino Island in the Hauraki Gulf. While there, he began work on a painting that was to form the basis of his iconic poster for Conservation Week 1974. A stream of idiosyncratic work followed, including his gift to national identity, the striking koru flag, which took its cue from the spiral of a fern frond, and the landmark Kawakawa Public Toilets, with their playful pillars, irregular ceramic tiles, and “tree tenant”. What gave Hundertwasser’s varied work cohesion was his tireless exploration of new ways to coexist with the natural world. Andreas Hirsch’s Hundertwasser in New Zealand is an informed and sympathetic account of the artist’s life here, offering insights into his philosophy and his creative evolution. Hirsch is a former curator of the Hundertwasser Museum in Vienna and his book is generously illustrated with photographs and sketches, and with reproductions of Hundertwasser’s paintings and prints that seem to hang from the page like tropical fruit. Hundertwasser had a lifelong love of the sea—his original family name, Stowasser, means “standing water”—and in 1967, he purchased an old Sicilian salt freighter, which he renamed Regentag (“rainy day”). Explaining the name, he said: “On a rainy day the colours begin to glow… It’s a day when I can work.” Less prosaically, he added: “Each raindrop is a kiss from heaven.” All up, he lived on board for the best part of 10 years. [gallery columns="2" ids="464646,464645"] By 1975 Hundertwasser had bought a 200-hectare farm in the Kaurinui Valley, with access to the sea. It was here that he embarked on his most ambitious attempts to enact what he called “a peace treaty with nature”. Living off-grid in an old farmhouse that had been shipped there in the 1930s, he set about planting trees—100,000 of them—and, in an echo of Venice, built a system of canals connecting the land with the sea so that he could row Regentag’s dinghy right up to his house. He also experimented with a humus toilet and a plant-based sewage treatment system, and converted the old cowshed into the Bottlehouse—a grass-roofed building with translucent walls made from old glass bottles. As Hirsch notes, “recycling and self-sufficiency are two of Hundertwasser’s basic requirements on the way to restoring paradise”. Hundertwasser didn’t live to see the realisation of his greatest gift. Whangārei’s Hundertwasser Art Centre with Wairau Māori Art Gallery opened in February 2022, after years of controversy and delay. With its planted roof, golden onion dome, and exuberant tiled exterior, the building is vintage Hundertwasser, and one of only two museums in the world dedicated entirely to his work. More than that, it was conceived as a place to encourage independent creativity and to celebrate both European and Māori culture. “I want to show it is possible to live in a better world,” Hundertwasser told a journalist when Regentag first visited Auckland. Appropriately, it was raining at the time. [caption id="attachment_464649" align="alignnone" width="1600"] In tape-recorded letters he left at Kaurinui, Hundertwasser urged his students never to waste paint. “Without combatting the throwaway and consumer society, positive creativity is not possible.” In these photos, both taken in 1978, he is painting at Kaurinui and revelling in a stay at a commune on Kawakawa River.[/caption]
Plans to mine a well of diatomite in Otago hit a snag when scientists pointed out that the site contains contains a wealth of perfectly preserved examples of prehistoric Aotearoa.
One spring, Annette Lees was given a bat monitor for her birthday—a black and olive plastic gadget with knobs for adjusting volume and frequency and a speaker to announce when a bat was nearby. It is hard to think of a present that you could do less with. Nevertheless, Lees set it to 40 kilohertz and stepped out into the night. Within minutes, the monitor started clacking. “I looked up and saw the quickest flick of something sooty, something fleeting and heart-stopping,” she remembers. In that moment, After Dark was born. The book is Lees’ highly personal and delightfully discursive celebration of a world that is foreign to most of us, and full of “suspense, lawlessness, hazard, sensuousness and awe”. Chapter by chapter, hour by hour, she traces the goings-on in day’s mirror realm as Earth rolls into its own shadow, plunging land and sea into deepening darkness. Lees, a conservationist, ecologist, and life-long night walker, is a reliable and informative guide. There are three grades of twilight, we are told early on: civil, nautical, and astronomical. Each begins in turn as the sun sinks lower beneath the horizon, with true night arriving when the sun has sunk so far that none of its light escapes to obscure the faintest stars and galaxies. In After Dark we encounter a great deal of the natural world, of course, from “the first cak cak cak of an echo-locating night-flying Cook’s petrel travelling east into the raised night”, to the synchronised rhythm of glow-worm lighting, and the urban feeding forays of bats in Auckland’s Waitākere Ranges. And here are practical tips: walk a dim forest trail by following the slight gap between leaves in the canopy above (called “crown shyness”), and—this from the 1880s—avoid mosquitoes by eating while wreathed in woodsmoke. The social history, too, serves up surprises. A woman hunting snails by torchlight is reprimanded for breaking wartime blackout regulations; an appearance of the ghost of Hooker Hut; the eerie seismological silence of Auckland during the national COVID-19 lockdown. With no machinery banging away, no traffic growl, no real activity of any sort, the sprawling metropolis had ceased generating what seismologists call “cultural noise”. Thanks to its confessional frankness, After Dark is also an absorbing and at times poignant memoir. Whether Lees is being discovered while attempting to creep past a couple on their rural veranda, getting dangerously disoriented in the bush, or reflecting on the death of her young son, she has the rare skill of vividly encapsulating the moment. Above all, After Dark reminds us of how detached from natural processes we have become, and at what cost. In the early years of street illumination, lamp lighting was linked to the moon’s behaviour—off when the moon was full, on when it was absent. Now, the ubiquitous LED, with its bluish light, “shouts ‘Daytime!’ even in the dead of night”, with disastrous consequences for insects, birds and other wildlife. And with the night sky brightening by two per cent every year, light pollution is increasingly recognised as a global concern. As a corrective, Lees invites us to experience “the company of night animals and insects, the glassy light of stars, the floating moon”. And if you missed the show last night, she says, “Don’t worry, the chance will come again in just a few hours, as it has 4.6 billion times before.”
In WWI, fighter pilots went down with their aircraft. Could a bag of folded silk save them? In 1917, a New Zealander jumped out of a plane to find out.
In December 1918, the politician Āpirana Ngata took time off from revising the Dictionary of the Māori Language to write to the Minister of Internal Affairs. In his letter, Ngata elaborated on a suggestion he had made earlier that day. It was all very well collecting and defining words in a dictionary, he wrote, but that didn’t very well serve a culture that had embedded its wisdom, traditions, and history in the nuances of spoken language rather than in literature. Better to send specialists out in the field to record the songs and oratory of Māori and to undertake “the ‘filming’ of hakas and pois, and of Maori village life, showing ‘tangis’, meetings, life on the cultivations and so on”. There was some urgency in Ngata’s call to preserve tikanga and te reo Māori. The 1896 census revealed that the Māori population had declined to 39,854 people. The First World War, just ended, had taken a further toll, as had the influenza pandemic that was then ravaging the country. Brought back by returning soldiers, influenza had quickly spread. In just two months, more than 2500 Māori died—a death rate eight times that of Pākehā. Among them were many elders, the custodians of much ancestral knowledge. Ngata got his wish. Between 1919 and 1923, the Dominion Museum sent out four ethnological expeditions, nominally led by museum ethnologist Elsdon Best, and including photographer and film-maker James McDonald and sound recordist and musical scholar Johannes Andersen. However, the real drivers behind the project were Ngata and his old Te Aute College schoolmate anthropologist Te Rangihīroa (Peter Buck), who, along with fellow parliamentarian Māui Pōmare and their old mentor James Carroll, were spearheading a Māori cultural reawakening. Inspired by Cambridge University’s 1898 ethnological expedition to the Torres Strait, the Dominion Museum team made use of the latest technologies, including a cinematic camera and a newly imported dictograph that used wax recording cylinders. Their first expedition, in 1919, took advantage of the unprecedented gathering of Māori at the Hui Aroha in Gisborne, held to welcome returning soldiers and to honour the war dead and those struck down by influenza. The second, in April 1920, covered an even larger Māori gathering in Rotorua to welcome Prince Edward, heir to the British throne. The third and fourth spent time with tribal communities along the Whanganui River (1921) and in Tairāwhiti (1923). These ground-breaking ethnographic expeditions were the first in the world to be inspired and guided by indigenous leaders. Hei Taonga mā ngā Uri Whakatipu: Treasures for the Rising Generation is a landmark account of the expeditions compiled by an impressive team of contributing editors, among them James McDonald’s great-granddaughter Dame Anne Salmond. Generously illustrated with McDonald’s photographs, Treasures overflows with detail. There is Andersen struggling to record the intricate arrays of quarter-tones in the Māori songs with musical notation and confessing that they were a revelation: “music of a kind I have never heard before”. The team witnessed fire made using a hika ahi (fire plough), and a demonstration of the cord drill—technology that had long baffled American ethnographers. They heard a canoe landing song, and a lament for a plundered kūmara pit, and learned that along the Whanganui River, the dwelling places of astronomers were marked by pōhutukawa. They filmed whai (string games) and the catching of eels. They listened to Teira Tapunga (Rongowhakaata and Ngāi Tāmanuhiri), a New Zealand Wars veteran and one of the last survivors of the ancient Māori world, reciting old waiata. At one point, a grayling—upokororo to Ngāti Porou—turned up in a weir on the Waiapu River. The freshwater fish had not been seen for 20 years, and the catch caused great excitement. Fresh traps were quickly set and what proved to be the last recorded specimens of the now-extinct fish were caught. Te Rangihīroa was discomfited when the fish were served up for dinner. “It almost seems sacrilege,” said the trained scientist in him. “They ought all be preserved as specimens.” Even the indefatigable McDonald failed to fix the fish on film, or if he did, the nitrate negatives have long since succumbed to the ravages of time. One of the most powerful themes in Treasures is the abiding presence of the past. Of how, in the words of contributor Natalie Robertson (Ngāti Porou, Clann Dhònnchaidh), photographs and films are far from being dead or lifeless images; they are “constantly in the process of becoming form as things with their own agency and interconnected relations”. They are living taonga, she says, able to connect with the spiritual realm. This is nowhere more apparent than when, in movingly described encounters, descendants come face-to-face with forebears who stood before McDonald’s lens a hundred years earlier. In the book’s prefatory mihi Arapata Hakiwai (Ngāti Ira, Ngāti Porou, Te Aitanga a Hauiti) urges New Zealand institutions not to let the taonga collected by the Dominion Museum expeditions linger as passive artefacts on shelves and in cupboards. Instead, he writes, they should be set free “to be reunited with their descendants to enable language, identity and culture to flourish and grow”. It is a plea increasingly voiced by indigenous peoples the world over.
Pistons, spark plugs, and small rocks are not objects that you would expect to find in the holdings of a prestigious national library. But the Alexander Turnbull Library, one of New Zealand’s greatest—and earliest—treasuries of culture is far from ordinary. Its varied collections reflect the idiosyncrasies of its namesake benefactor, who donated the fruits of a lifetime of hoarding to the grateful nation in 1918. Turnbull once declared: “Anything whatever relating to this Colony… on its history, flora, fauna, geology and inhabitants, will be fish for my net.” And that principle has steered the collection ever since. Hence the pistons (hand-cast by Burt Munro for his famous racing Indian and Velocette motorcycles), the spark plug (from the first plane to cross the Cook Strait), and, whimsically, the rock (which punctured the tyre of the first motor vehicle to drive to Aoraki Mount Cook). But the heart of the Turnbull is its print material—Turnbull amassed some 55,000 books and that number has now swollen to more than 300,000. The library also holds 82,000 maps and 1,600,000 photographs, along with a comprehensive newspaper archive and manuscript collection and much more (though Turnbull’s ethnographic collection found its way to Te Papa). Te Kupenga is an attractively illustrated selection of personal highlights, as chosen and introduced by library staff. The ‘101’ refers to the number of years since the Turnbull first opened, but also hints at the book’s introductory nature. There are the expected cultural gems, of course, including a notebook page filled with New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield’s outrageously indecipherable handwriting—and, yes, the Turnbull also has her 1920s Corona 3 typewriter (given to her by husband John Middleton Murray, perhaps to spare the eyesight of editors and correspondents). The Turnbull also has her cape, a suitcase, a Japanese fan, a coral necklace, and a folding book stand. Of course it does. Some items speak directly to our own times. A photograph, taken in the late 1930s by Thelma Kent, of Finnish champion ice skater Waino Sarelius practicing on a frozen South Island lake documents the then-new vogue for outdoor recreation. But it also reminds us of our ongoing climate emergencies—natural ice-skating rinks have become a thing of history. Te Kupenga also contains windows into what is a parallel cultural universe. Take, for example, the scrap of paper bearing 80 Chinese characters printed in green ink, 20 of which have been marked with a cross. It is a used Chinese lottery ticket dating from the 1920s. Known as pakapoo tickets, their popularity extended beyond the Chinese community and drew thousands of regulars to Haining Street in Wellington’s Chinatown. Māori are well represented. There is for example the intricate pencil drawing, almost life size, of the moko of Rēnata Kawepō Tama-ki-Hikurangi (Ngāti Te Upokoiri, Ngāti Kahungunu) drawn by Kawepō himself. A rangitira and a Christian missionary, Kawepō was an extraordinary man. We learn that in 1869 his right eye was gouged out by the widow of a chief who had been killed in a battle that Kawepō had been involved in. Deciding that her vengeance was just, he protected her, and she later became his wife. Several of the texts are presented in te reo without translation, which will be a barrier to some readers and a spur to language acquisition for others. More frustrating is the glib note, relating to John Saxton’s 1842 sketch of a toroa/albatross, that “in country after country where indigenous people had long lived in coexistence with their bird populations, new arrivals—visitors and colonists alike—plundered the exotic creatures”. Science disagrees with the first part. A 2013 study, drawing on the fossil records of 41 Pacific islands, suggested that as many as 1300 bird species may have become extinct as a result of overhunting and deforestation by pre-European settlers. Quibbles aside, Te Kupenga is a superb introduction to the Alexander Turnbull Library and an open invitation to engage more directly with its rich and evolving collections.
An overconfident meteorologist comes up with the idea of naming storms after people—especially people he doesn’t like.
On a brief visit to Auckland, the celebrated author of Treasure Island almost didn’t make it out of the harbour.
It was the sensation of 1902—a celebrity bodybuilder toured New Zealand encouraging locals to get ripped.
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