3. Old pirates, yes they rob I
Once you start digging into the stories behind street names, you may be surprised by what you discover. Recently, there have been suggestions in Hamilton, Tauranga and Wellington that streets or buildings named after controversial historical figures should be renamed. There have been similar debates in other countries too, including Australia and Britain.
Having borrowed Alison Carey’s book on Lower Hutt place names to check the reasons for the naming of Te Whiti Grove, I decided to learn more about other street names in the area. On the side of Waiwhetu Road closest to the hills, names relating to First and Second World War history predominate. Between Waiwhetu Road and the railway line, however, most of the street names come from British naval history. A few of these names also relate to the First World War (and are duly marked with poppies), but most are connected with events that took place well before the British colonisation of New Zealand.
Around the Waterloo shops, there are a number of street names relating to the Napoleonic Wars and the British naval hero Lord Nelson. Waterloo School has even picked up on this theme – in 2015, students decorated a covered gate at the school with pictures of Nelson and other figures from the Napoleonic Wars, together with (somewhat incongruously) the Parihaka prophets Te Whiti and Tohu and, for good measure, Queen Elizabeth II and the school’s then principal.
Nelson’s own record has recently come under question for his connection with slave-owning interests in the West Indies and his personal opposition to the movement to abolish slavery. However, I want to focus here on three streets named for historical figures who, in contemporary New Zealand, are somewhat more obscure.
Hawkins, Grenville and Rodney Streets run roughly parallel to each other, and commemorate Sir John Hawkins (1532-1595), Sir Richard Grenville (1542-1591) and Sir George Brydges Rodney (1718-1792). These men were seen as representing two key chapters in British naval history, as Arthur Temple explained in The Making of the Empire: The Story of Our Colonies (1897):
[I]t is to those two periods [the Elizabethan age and the late eighteenth century] that we chiefly owe our colonies and various possessions, and the supremacy of the seas. What Hawkins, Drake, and Howard began with their tiny ships, Rodney, Nelson, and Jervis completed.
The history of all three men is closely connected with Britain’s imperial expansion and with its rivalry with other imperial powers (Spain, France and Holland), especially in the Caribbean.
Rodney, though viewed as a great naval commander in his time, was also considered vain and self-interested. He was ordered to capture the Dutch-controlled island of St Eustatius, to prevent it from providing supplies to the United States during the American Revolution. Heavily indebted, Rodney took the opportunity to plunder the island for his own personal gain. He was called back to England to defend himself, and while he was there the French attacked Britain’s Caribbean possessions, with the ultimate aim of taking Jamaica. Rodney returned to the Caribbean, and arrived in time to defeat the French at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782. As Carrie Gibson writes in her history of the Caribbean:
Rodney left England a scoundrel, and returned a hero. There were celebrations of the victory, and he was given a peerage.
There is a statue of him in Spanish Town, Jamaica, and Captain Cook named Cape Rodney, north of Auckland, in his honour.
Grenville and Hawkins belonged to an earlier phase of British empire-building. Notoriously hot-headed and impetuous, Grenville was involved in the colonisation of Ireland and in the establishment of the English settlement at Roanoke Island in present-day North Carolina. He also had an unrealised plan to sail around South America to the Pacific Ocean (an ambition achieved instead by Sir Francis Drake).
Both Grenville and Hawkins were involved in Britain’s great rivalry with Spain during the Elizabethan period. This included the successful defence against the invading Spanish Armada in 1588, but also offensive action — which is where the piracy comes in. Both men engaged in privateering, attacking Spanish ships returning from South America laden with treasure (itself plundered from indigenous peoples). Privateering is essentially piracy that has been licensed by a state as an act of war. English privateers would carry a commission from the monarch authorising them to attack Spanish vessels and retain a portion of the booty for themselves, with the rest to be returned to the Crown.
4. Do you remember the days of slavery?
In the case of Hawkins, however, there is an additional reason for his notoriety: he is generally considered to be the first English trader in African slaves. In the 1560s, he made three voyages to the west coast of Africa to buy slaves, who were to be sold in the Spanish territories around the Caribbean. The second of these voyages had direct support from Queen Elizabeth I, who provided Hawkins with a ship, the Jesus. On his third voyage, his ships were attacked by the Spanish while sheltering in a Mexican harbour, sparking a new phase of conflict between England and Spain.
Hawkins’s role as the first English slave-trader has made him something of an iconic villain to black nationalist movements in the Caribbean and North America. The Jamaican-American political leader Marcus Garvey wrote in a 1913 essay that Hawkins, ‘of infamous memory’, was one of many ‘piratical or buccaneering heroes or rogues, whichever you wish to call them’, who were figures of terror in the West Indies. Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam (an African-American religious movement unrelated to orthodox Islam), included Hawkins in the Nation’s elaborate origin story, claiming Hawkins brought Africans to North America. Within Jamaica’s Rastafari movement, too, Hawkins is often referred to as one of the ‘four great pirates’ (together with the likes of Cecil Rhodes). Peter Tosh, the reggae singer and former bandmate of Bob Marley in the Wailers, mentions Hawkins in his song ‘You Can’t Blame the Youth’:
You teach the youth about the Pirate Hawkins
And you said he was a very great man…
But all these great men were doing
Robbin’, rapin’, kidnappin’ and a-killin’.
Tosh was singing about Jamaica, but it’s certainly true that young people in New Zealand were once taught that Hawkins and others like him were great men. Here, for example, is a page from a 1920 article on ‘England’s Struggle for Empire’ from a 1920 edition of the New Zealand School Journal, in which Hawkins and Grenville appear among a pantheon of heroes of England’s rivalry with Spain.
Our Race and Empire, a New Zealand secondary school text from around 1925, also features Hawkins.
Although the book mentions in passing Hawkins’s involvement in slave-trading, the overall message is one of pride:
In Elizabeth’s reign, then, we find the seed of Empire beginning to germinate. English sailors became splendid seamen and bold fighters; English merchants sent ships to the far East Indies; and men of the stamp of Drake, Hawkins and Grenville broke the sea-power of Spain.
Little wonder, then, that such men were seen as deserving of commemoration in the street names of Waterloo, where residential development began after the railway reached the area in 1927.
This imperial view of history may live on in street names, but what does it mean for us today? It certainly remains influential in Brexit-obsessed Britain. In his recent book Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole is suitably scathing about the historical fantasies perpetuated by the Brexiteers, from harking back to the Hundred Years War (the only episode in British history ‘more thoroughly unhinged than Brexit’, according to O’Toole) to imagined scenarios in which Britain actually lost the Second World War.
Another fantasy popular with Brexiteers of a libertarian persuasion is that Britain was once a successful, free-wheeling, buccaneering trading nation, and can become so again once free of the shackles of Brussels. Not only does this view of history whitewash the impact on colonised peoples of the ways in which Britain obtained its wealth, it also fails to point to a practical way forward for a post-Brexit Britain by ignoring the extent to which Britain’s former trading prowess was underpinned by military, and particularly naval, power. It’s interesting to read in Arthur Temple’s Making of the Empire this quote from the historian J.A. Froude:
take away her merchant fleets; take away the navy that guards them; her Empire will come to an end; her colonies will drop off like leaves from a withered tree; and Britain will become once more an insignificant island in the North Sea, for the future students in Australian and New Zealand universities to discuss the fate of in their debating societies.
Some 125 years later, Froude’s vision has come to pass, and New Zealand’s former place in the British Empire is a fading memory. Still, we should not be too quick to assume we have moved past all that ‘Empire stuff’. There has been much discussion recently about the history of racism and white supremacy in New Zealand. Much of it, quite rightly, has focused on New Zealand’s own history of colonisation of Māori land, immigration policies that discriminated against non-British or non-white peoples, and imperialism in the Pacific. But it’s important to remember also that New Zealand was an integral part of a wider empire built on white domination and the extraction of profit from the lands and labour of people of other ‘races’. It was an article of faith for most Pākehā New Zealanders, reinforced by everything from school text books to popular novels, that this state of affairs was both natural and desirable. After being entrenched for so long, it would be surprising if this way of thinking had been entirely shaken off, even in 2019.
So, what to do about the street names? On the whole, I prefer to understand, contextualise and diversify the stories that make up our symbolic landscapes, rather than eliminate existing historical markers. Hawkins Street is a short and (with no disrespect to its residents) fairly undistinguished street, light industrial on one side and residential on the other. I doubt that many people pay much attention either to the street itself or to its name. Is it worth the effort of changing it, when hardly anyone in New Zealand has heard these days of the man whom it commemorates?
But if there were to be a desire for change, perhaps instead of renaming we could repurpose the existing names. There must be other people called Hawkins, Grenville and Rodney more worthy of commemoration. For example, Rodney Street could be rededicated to Walter Rodney, the Guyanese political activist and historian, who was assassinated almost 40 years ago. There would be a delicious irony in the author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972) taking a place of honour from the pirates.