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Illuminations

ROAD BUILDERS MADE me slow down. The Surf Highway switched from bitumen to shingle. The hire car, a shiny, gutless tangerine bubble, struggled along as smooth turned to rough. Slow. Stop. Slow. Men in fluoro orange safety vests were laying down a new surface. To the left was Taranaki showing off in the November sunshine, his summit dipped in snow, his lower reaches the same black-grey as you see in the famous bluestone laneways of Melbourne, my current home town.

To the right was the sea, sparkling blue water pounding into black sand and black rocks, the brilliant colours of my childhood. Between the mountain and the sea was the punk-rock green of south Taranaki paddocks. Along the road, next to the fences, were ancient cabbage trees crowned with creamy pompom blooms and hundreds of dark green spears.

I had been looking at the names of the places and the roads. All were Maori. They flashed by like a poem: Omata, Oakura, Koru, Tataramika, Okato, Puniho, Warea, Ruakere, Te Kahui. Then one sign was in English. It pointed the way to the Cape Egmont Lighthouse. I had read about this lighthouse, I had thought about it, I had written about it; but I had never seen it, not even a picture. Why not take a look? I swung the wheel and the bubble revved up over the mountain of pebbles and sand that divided the two lanes.

Soon everything was quiet. The road was just a single lane. I wound down the windows and smelt cow shit and sunshine. The greenness was overwhelming. There were a few farmhouses, their gates marked by metal rural delivery flags. I saw a kid behind the wheel of a harvester, his happy, competent face puzzled high up in the glass cab. Aside from him, there was no one.

I felt excited and a bit scared, the same pleasant, fearful feeling you get before meeting someone notorious for the first time. The road went on and on; the paddocks blazed in the afternoon sunlight; then suddenly there it was. I parked the car, stepped across the cattle stop and the rope, and walked up to take a look.

There was a small wooden building on the right, bordered by overgrown red and pink geraniums. It was empty, unlived-in. Purple Scotch thistle flowers, just like the ones on the Fleming's rolled oats bag, dotted the grass. Squawking little guinea fowl pecked at my feet. The noise and smell and presence of the sea was everywhere, just as it was when I was little and woke each morning to the sea out the front door and the mountain out the back.

Anyone who has swum in the West Coast surf will appreciate the awesome tug of the tide here, the way the sea powers in to the land, breaker upon breaker, and the way it greedily sucks itself back out, tugging you, dumping you, sweeping you up and under into a swirl of seaweed and sand, until your head bumps onto the seafloor and your hair makes a curtain between you and the ocean and finally you right yourself, half dead, half alive, coughing up snot and sea and little specks of gritty black, unsure of what has happened but happy that it is not happening anymore, and then another wave comes and sweeps you up again.

And now the sea had washed me up here, in a side road off the Surf Highway, next to this lighthouse looming up in front of me, at the top of a small flight of uneven concrete steps.

 

THE LIGHTHOUSE WAS big and small all at once. It was in good nick. The twenty-metre-high cast-iron tower gleamed new white, and the padlocked door and skirting were a bold blood-red. Between the tower and a water tank, cloud was starting to cover the mountain. I saw raised black letters near the red door: Simpson & Co. Pimlico London 1864.

Three small windows marked the tower's side, peep holes for anyone climbing the spiral staircase inside. There was a walkway at the top, below the glass tower for the fifty thousand watt lamp that flashes every eight seconds and can be seen nineteen nautical miles out to sea. A man used to tend this light, but these days it's all done by a computer in Wellington.

Maritime New Zealand had put up a sign. It said, in part: ‘This light shone for the first time in August 1881. The lighthouse was originally placed on Mana Island north of Wellington in 1865. However, the Mana Island station was closed in 1877 following several shipping accidents and it was believed that this light was being confused with the Pencarrow light at Wellington Heads. In 1881, the tower was dismantled and carried in sections by the steamer Hinemoa to Cape Egmont and reassembled on this site.'

I read the sign many times and I touched the tower and I looked out to the sparkling sea at the edge of the paddocks. I took 365-degree photos on my new digital camera as proof. I knew this lighthouse existed, but until I saw it I didn't really believe that such a thing was possible: a tower cast in inner London, shipped out to the ends of the earth, put up on a small island near what settlers called Wellington, then taken down again, put on yet another boat, a steamer, sailed up a treacherous coastline in the middle of winter, lifted off the steamer and carried up onto land and reassembled here, on this cape, its upright white back to the silent mountain, its glowing face shining out to sea.

The sign made me angry. I wanted to tell someone why, but I was alone with my camera and my notebook and my silly little hire car, trespassing, perhaps, on some stranger's farm. I could feel my breath getting faster, that jittery feeling you get just before it's your turn to speak in a school debate. Was it my turn now?

The thing is, I couldn't dispute the facts presented on the sign, the longitude and latitude, the heights and the weights, the seconds and the dates; but even so, what the sign says is not really true. The lie of the sign, if I can put it that way, is in what it doesn't say, in the facts it leaves out.

 

THIS LIGHT DID not just happen to shine for the first time in August 1881. There is absolutely no coincidence in the date of this illumination. This light shone then because it was illuminated as part of the military campaign on Parihaka, seven kilometres up the road from the cape. Soldiers erected this lighthouse; soldiers guarded it once it started to shine. They built the road I had driven on, and they installed the telegraph lines that allowed the men leading the campaign on Parihaka to communicate their thoughts, wishes and fantasies to politicians in Wellington. The road, the telegraph and the lighthouse – speed, safety, secrecy, enlightenment – all these things the soldiers installed, forcibly, in this formerly independent Maori place.

Under the leadership of Te Whiti and Tohu at Parihaka, Maori had resisted the ongoing theft of their land through inventive, non-violent protests. By 1880, when soldiers on the Hinemoa helped unload the heavy bits and pieces of what would become the Cape Egmont Lighthouse, hundreds of ploughmen and fencers had been arrested and imprisoned, without trial, in the South Island.

In November 1881, three months after the light first shone on the wild sea, the soldiers marched up the track from the lighthouse and joined the force of fifteen hundred volunteers, militia men and colonial troops who invaded Parihaka. The lighthouse is a blockhouse, a relic of war. Why doesn't the sign say so?

For me, after seven years of research and writing on Parihaka at Melbourne's Monash and La Trobe universities, a doctorate's worth and then some, this sign and the neat, easy, safe, sensible and totally false story it told illuminated many of the contradictions in New Zealand history.[i]

This is not a simple matter of silence. No one can argue now that the Parihaka story has not been told or shared. Like other mythic stories in New Zealand and Australia – the landing at Gallipoli, say, or the anti-establishment activities of Ned Kelly – Parihaka has generated an excess of storytelling.

The Parihaka archive is a sensory feast. Pop a CD into the player and listen to its sounds. Fire up the computer and look at its people in digital images stored in the Alexander Turnbull Library's Timeframes database or the photo gallery for the annual peace festival held there each year. Visit the national archives and pour over secret telegrams written during the 1881 invasion. Read the books, visit the exhibition, take in the Treaty settlements, click through the websites, buy the poster, go to the festival.

Yes, Parihaka generates plenty of noise. Yet it is still possible to stand at the foot of this beautiful-ugly lighthouse and hear only silence. One of this country's most important historic events is still totally hidden here.

A visitor to the capital, Wellington, can walk from the harbour to parliament and encounter, outside the railway station, a bronze statue of Gandhi. The statue was a gift from the nation's Indian community. It was erected in 2007, the centenary of the deaths of Te Whiti and Tohu. Yet there are no statues in the capital or anywhere else to commemorate their philosophies, struggles and leadership.

The problem, it seems, is not lack of information about Parihaka but lack of integration. History-making is segregated, subject to a kind of intellectual apartheid. Maori stories belong on one side of this artificial divide, Pakeha ones on the other. The work of the Waitangi Tribunal, so vital and fascinating in many respects, has created and reinforced this divide. Us and them. Maori and Pakeha. Victim and perpetrator. Colonised and coloniser. Then and now. When these binaries provide the dominant framework for thinking about the past and present in New Zealand, it is difficult to see a lighthouse as a military relic.

 

THE RECENT EXTRAORDINARY rise of New Zealand as a film location for all kinds of other people's histories – mythic or otherwise – makes it even harder for Maori and Pakeha, for all New Zealanders, to see and hear their own histories, both the short, entangled ones that have unfolded post-contact and the longer but equally entangled iwi histories that preceded white settlement.

I witnessed the start of this, Hollywood's colonisation of our landscapes to tell its stories, when I was a cadet reporter at the Southland Times' Queenstown bureau in the mid-1980s. Queenstown was one of the locations for Ron Howard's Willow (1988), an epic story in which ‘a reluctant dwarf must play a critical role in protecting a special baby from an evil queen'. One cold night in Arrowtown, I saw Val Kilmer (who played Madmartigan, a full-sized master swordsman) and other movie stars huddled inside a marquee in the main street. Another day, I rode in a helicopter over Cardrona to see one of the sets, a medieval village for dwarves built on the side of an Otago mountain more commonly known for its easy, wide-open ski runs.

Since then New Zealand has been the location for many similar historical or fantastical past worlds: Middle Earth and Mordor (the Lord of the Rings trilogy); medieval Japan (The Last Samurai); Narnia (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian); Europe of World War II (Bridge to Terabithia); a Scottish loch (The Waterhorse); and a remote tribal African-ish village that is home to a giant gorilla (King Kong). During the Rings filming, Wellington became Welliwood. While Samurai was being filmed, in 2003, Taranaki became Nakiwood. Matamata is now Hobbiton, a transition that is not, perhaps, entirely unwelcome. In July 2008 I got a letter from my mother with stamps informing me that it came from ‘Narnia, New Zealand'.[ii]

When so many other narratives are located in our backyards, where is the room for our own stories? What happens if we want to locate our histories in these places? If New Zealand has become a location for the deep pasts of a whole clutch of fantasy beings – all those dwarves and elves and ogres and beasts – what room is there for the real people who were here, for all the different iwi and their stories? If history-making continues to be influenced by the segregated Waitangi Tribunal model, how is it possible to make the necessary connections between Maori and Pakeha, between then and now, between here (Cape Egmont, New Plymouth, Taranaki, New Zealand itself) and everywhere else in the world?

Segregated history is weak history. It does not make necessary connections and fails to grasp the many daring possibilities that are offered by seeing how the past and the present connect in people and places.

 

WHY NOT BE daring? We all need adventures, the tickle and thrill of the unexpected, the uncanny, the ghostly, the hilarious, the sad. Aotearoa New Zealand's short and long pasts provides all of this and more. I grew up in New Plymouth and my childhood was filled with adventure: some good, some bad and some just really crazy. One of the great adventures of my primary-school years was visits to the observatory and planetarium on Marsland Hill.

We would arrive after dark. Dad would park the Holden next to the strange small white building with the white dome on top, like a giant egg. We'd bundle in and sit on the bench seats against the walls of the dome. A man would start to talk. The normal lights would go off. We'd point our chins at the ceiling and look at the hundreds of pinpricks of simulated starlight, our very own Waitomo minus the scary boat trip. Behind the talking, soft music played – John Denver's ‘Calypso' or a John Williams guitar solo. The lights looked beautiful, but it was difficult to see the pictures and patterns the man was talking about: the crab and the scorpion, Sagittarius and the famous Southern Cross. Then lines would appear, joining up the dots, making the individual spots of light into something bigger, into star signs and constellations. Mysterious smudges and clouds of light made a Milky Way.

Thus primed, the great moment would arrive. The dome would part and the night would rush in, fierce and cold and black. An enormous telescope would be trained up and out at the darkness. The sky was never as perfect as the pictures on the ceiling of the planetarium – clouds and seasons and possibly even hemispheres interfered with all that – but it was still amazing, a book we could read, if only for a moment. Then we would all get a chance to press our small faces into the telescope's viewfinder, squinting in towards the lens. The distant, pure brilliance of a star would be exploded into an intimate swirl of gritty, milky vapours, pulsing and heaving, a soup of light and fathomless purpose. Brain spinning, I would pull my cold face back. John Denver and electric planets were less puzzling, more fun.

History is a telescope that can make distant objects and events appear both nearer and larger. It can be turned on the black holes of our private, local and national pasts to find out what has fallen into these silent, dark spaces. What are the untold stories, the overlooked stories, the stories that are just too difficult or weird or obvious to think about?

You don't even need the metaphor of a telescope to explain the way the past can suddenly intrude on the present, a giant blurry pulsing brilliant thing that distorts (or corrects) your vision. A little knowledge is all it takes, and a willingness to let yourself see a little more in the place you come from.

I had visited the lighthouse on my way back from New Plymouth to Wellington. That visit was strictly business, connected with my work as a historian and my plans for a book. The strong feelings the lighthouse evoked in me were not connected with any memory I had of that place. It is part of my history, but it is not part of my past, that clouded universe of memories generated by our own lives. Earlier that same day, though, I had decided to spend a couple of hours visiting sites from my childhood. As I once heard Australian historian Rebe Taylor say: every history starts with the historian.

 

I COME FROM a big family. I am the oldest of eight kids and the younger sibling of a foster sister and her three sisters. My youngest brother was born a few days before I turned fourteen. Less than a year later, my family left New Plymouth and moved to Masterton. I've been back to my old home town maybe half a dozen times since then. First these trips were to see school friends; then they were about young adult nostalgia; then they were connected with my research, work that was squeezed in around the demands of babies and young children. The visits are always rushed. There's never enough time to do everything, see everything and everyone. This most recent visit felt luxurious, free of children and looming deadlines. I decided to spend the morning going to some of the places I had enjoyed as a kid.

The first stop was Marsland Hill, site of the observatory, a carillon and two marble war memorials – one to the wars at home, the other to the wars overseas. As well as coming here at night, we used to visit during the day and have picnics on the hill, spending the afternoon playing monsters among the pohutukawa trees or the tombstones in the cemetery in the churchyard down below.

Like many hills in New Zealand, this one used to be a pa. A sign explained that it was once Pukaka Pa, built by Taranaki iwi in the eighteenth century on the frontier of territory claimed by Taranaki and Te Ati Awa people. ‘In 1760 Te Ati Awa regained possession of the area and Pukaka was abandoned,' the sign said. In 1855, colonial troops lopped the top off the hill and built their barracks on the newly level ground. This hill – with its views of the sea and the mountain and all the land in between – changed from a Maori stronghold to a Pakeha one. Colonial troops lived here during the Taranaki Wars. In 1874, when the worst of the fighting was over and New Plymouth was secure enough to attract new settlers again, the barracks became an ‘immigration depot' for these people.

I knew this hill had been a pa. I remember Dad telling us that. And I knew it had been connected with fighting between Maori and Pakeha. I remembered both the memorials, the fountain with the fish at its base and the other, much taller one with the soldier on top. Of course, I had never really looked at them. The inscriptions were all at adult height, anyway. That morning I did.

The fish fountain commemorated New Zealand soldiers who died in the Boer War; the other one talked about deaths closer to home: ‘To the honoured memory of the offices and men of Her Majesty's Naval and Military and Colonial Forces and loyal Maoris who fell in action and died in the Maori wars. 1845-47. 1860-71. Erected by their comrades and fellow countrymen from all parts of the British Empire April 1909.'

The memorial was inscribed on all four sides. The side facing the sea listed the Colonial Forces that served in the New Zealand Militia. Volunteer loyal Maoris came last, two down from volunteer military settlers (many of whom came from Melbourne).

This was one of the first memorials erected to the New Zealand Wars, put up as part of a jingoistic rush inspired by both the Boer War and by the fiftieth anniversary of various battles. An enormous crowd of settlers attended the unveiling; their flat caps and boaters and bowlers and brollies bobbed about under a bunting of large and small flags: England, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.[iii] Veterans paraded by, one of many now forgotten twentieth-century memorial marches and gatherings to commemorate the New Zealand Wars.

The Boer War started the national switch from seeing war as something integral to the settlement of New Zealand to seeing it as something that existed only outside the country – something distant, foreign, tragic and inexplicable that occurred in Turkey or South Africa or France or Egypt or New Caledonia. When I was a kid these rare memorials to the New Zealand Wars, commemorating only the men who fought for the government, not all the men who died opposing it, were hard to see. As Paul Ashton has observed of Australia, and Annie Coombes of South Africa, monuments and memorials stand out and disappear depending on the time and the context. ‘There is nothing in the world as invisible as a monument,' Ashton writes.[iv]

The wars at home weren't distant or tragic or inexplicable. They simply didn't happen. There was nothing in the world as invisible as these wars; yet the remains of these battles, some ruined, some functioning, were hidden everywhere in the everyday life of New Zealanders, including my family. Marsland Hill is just one of a mountain range of places in New Zealand towns and cities that were occupied first by Maori, then by Pakeha. Military barracks replaced pa, then hospitals or schools or asylums replaced the barracks. Every culture appreciates a good location, a nice view, a high point from which to conduct important business.

 

FROM MARSLAND HILL I drove to Pukekura Park. I grew up next door to the park and the racecourse. These public spaces were our playground. Mostly we roamed around here unsupervised by adults, but sometimes, on the weekends, our parents would join us. On those occasions the family would walk through the park and on up to the Bowl of Brooklands, site of an outdoor performance shell and a small zoo, entry free.

On the morning of my visit, the weather was perfect: sunny, windless and warm. Sprinklers tick-ticked over the cricket pitch. Everything looked film-set bright and clean. To eyes accustomed to the Australian drought-brown, the grass terraces that surrounded the pitch were an enviable green. The cricket pavilion and club rooms had been extended and renovated. I saw Martin Crowe get his first Test century here and I lined up at the pavilion to get his autograph. At an inter-province match, I saw Lance Cairns hit a six so mighty that it landed in the lake behind the pavilion.

It is a commonplace for people to say that they return to the places of their childhood – the school, the home, the playground, the park – and they find everything so much smaller and plainer than they remember. For me it is the opposite. New Plymouth is bigger, deeper and more beautiful now than it ever was. My childhood home is a mansion. The sea is so much closer and wider, the sand blacker, the grass greener, the trees more luxuriant and twisting, the mountain so perfect that its existence seems to be some kind of miracle. The symmetry of Pukekura Park is still deeply satisfying. The smaller lake (where the ball from Lance Cairns's six is probably still buried) with the coin-operated fountain in the middle leads to the far bigger lake, with its red bridges, wooden rowboats for hire and duckies waiting for bread. All around are trees. A gap in the trees, created by the lake, provides a perfect opening for the mountain to show herself.

I decided to walk up to the Bowl. I passed the dim shed where all the boats were tethered together, and came to the soundshell. It had been painted green and was fenced off, so I was unable to relive this particular part of my earlier years by leaping on to the stage and singing ABBA's ‘Waterloo' at full volume. I clambered up the steep hillside where we used to collect conkers and chuck them at each other's heads. Men were fixing steps, painting and hammering and mowing. Elton John was due to sing here before Christmas. Like the cricket ground and the park, the bowl was amazingly polished and well-tended; all the rough edges I remembered from the 1970s – the open stage, the manky pond, the flaking paint – were gone.

Panting after the climb, I could see that the zoo was still there. Adults pushed children on swings and goats nibbled the grass. As a child I loved the zoo, especially the vivacious monkeys, but the best part of a walk to the Bowl was playing in the park next door. We would burst through the zoo gates, run onto a lawn dotted with enormous English trees and head for the stone chimney. I would grab on to the metal bar suspended between the two moss-covered stone walls, run my feet up the stones, hook them over the bar and hang upside down like a monkey. After that, I'd climb onto the top of the chimney and see if there was any new graffiti up there.

The chimney was still there, as I remembered it. I went over for a look. As a kid I had never considered what this chimney might have been part of, or how the original structure had been destroyed. It was just really old, and old buildings were like old people. Bits broke off or broke down and then they died or disappeared.

The home that the fireplace was once part of didn't just happen to disappear, just as the Cape Egmont Lighthouse didn't just happen to be illuminated. There was a sign here, too: ‘During the Maori war of 1860, the original Brooklands home of Captain King was burnt to the ground. This fireplace is all that remains of the original Brooklands homestead.' I don't know when that sign went up. I certainly never noticed it as a youngster. Who burnt the house down? What happened to the occupants? What happened to the people who did the burning? The Maori war? Weren't other people involved, too?

I looked around me at the herbaceous borders and the English trees and the soft, inviting lawn. A group of women pushed prams into the zoo. Children screamed. A memorial stone by the gate said: ‘BROOKLANDS. The gift to New Plymouth of Newton King esq.' Just like the lighthouse sign, this one is true and not true. No connections are made between this plaque and the one only fifty metres away, next to the ruined fireplace.

 

ONE THING THE sign doesn't say is: to the victors the spoils. History decides who will win the right to be generous, who will be able to offer apologies and settlements and reparations and partnerships. But if you have taken something, is it yours to give? As a backpacker, I had visited the sites of famous battles waged in my century and many centuries before – Gallipoli in Turkey, Culloden in the Scottish Highlands – yet until that morning I had never seen the battleground in my own backyard.

Now, months later, when I read over this last paragraph, I am shocked at what I felt that day and at what I have written here. I get angry and then bored when settlers (in either New Zealand or Australia) profess ignorance, horror and surprise when they ‘suddenly' learn (yet again) the ‘truth' about historical dispossession and violence. I understand what the Australian historian Chris Healy meant when he wrote in Forgetting Aborigines (UNSW Press, 2008) that remembering ‘might be a way of non-indigenous Australians avoiding the arrogance of consciousness, the bad faith of asking "Why weren't we told?", the fleeting outrage of discovering injustice and the quick-drying tears of indignation. Remembering a different kind of history-in-the present can, I believe, help us fashion a more ethical future.'[v]

I know all these arguments, yet here I am doing the same old thing, writing about the things I didn't see in my own place. Shouldn't I know better?

Maybe I am being too hard on myself. It takes time and effort to know and see and hear and feel something, to undo the many decades of effort that have been put into not knowing, not seeing, not hearing, not feeling.

As Elizabeth Jelin observed of Argentina's military junta in the 1970s, societies have to work hard to forget; they have to decide not to pass on stories from one generation to the next, not to acknowledge a person or event as meaningful. But forgetting is not a void or a vacuum. It is the ‘presence of an absence', ‘the representation of what was once there and no longer is, the representation of something that has been erased, silence or denied'.[vi]

Touch these tender, hidden spots and surprising stories emerge. Where do you come from? What are your blind spots? What are the stories behind your childhood places?[vii]

 

• This essay is an extract from Rachel's  2010 book, The Parihaka Album: lest we forget . It was extracted with the permission of Huia Publishers.



[i] See Rachel Buchanan, ‘Village of Peace, Village of War: Parihaka stories 1881-2004', Phd thesis, Monash University, 2005.

[ii] For an exploration of these ideas see Rachel Buchanan, ‘The Powder Room', Meanjin, 63: 1, 2004, 54-59. For an analysis of ‘the impact of the construction, commodification and virtualisation of the New Zealand landscape' see Thierry Jutel, ‘Lord of the Rings: Landscape, Transformation, and the Geography of the Virtual', in Claudia Bell and Steve Matthewman (eds), Cultural Studies in Aotearoa New Zealand: Identity, Space and Place, Melbourne: Oxford, 2004.

[iii] See Chris MacLean and Jock Phillips, The Sorrow & the Pride: New Zealand War Memorials, Wellington: Historical Branch Department of Internal Affairs, 27-31.

[iv] Paul Ashton, ‘The past in the present: public history and the city of Sydney', in Tim Murray (ed.),Exploring the modern city: recent approaches to urban archaeology, Historic Places New South Wales and La Trobe University, 2003, 8.

[v] Chris Healy, Forgetting Aborigines, Sydney: UNSW Press, 2008, 63-64.

[vi] Elizabeth Jelin and Susan Kaufmann, ‘Layers of memories: Twenty years after in Argentina', in T.G. Ashplant, Graham Dawson and Michael Roper eds The Politics of War and Commemoration, London and New York: Routledge 2000, 106.

[vii] Two other books have influenced my approach to this book. They are: Kate Fielding and Eve Vincent edscover your tracks: creative histories by young Victorians, Fitzroy: Express Media 2001 and Kate Grenville,Searching for the Secret River: a writing memoir, Melbourne: Text, 2006.

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