Going on a (historical) bear hunt

Teddy Bear, circa 1907, maker unknown. Gift of Mrs R Sadler, 1988. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (GH003585/1)

New Zealand is in the third week of COVID-19 lockdown. We may be (temporarily) short of flour and other grocery items, but one thing we are not short of is bears. In houses all around the country, there are teddy bears in windows, allowing children to take part in a bear hunt while out walking around their neighbourhoods with their families.

Teddy bears are now such a well-established part of many people’s childhoods, and such a source of comfort and nostalgia, that it’s hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. Yet they only date to the early twentieth century, and it’s fascinating to look back to the period when they were still a novelty to New Zealanders.

Teddy bears get their name from an incident involving United States President Theodore Roosevelt, a keen hunter. In 1902 Roosevelt was on a hunting expedition in Mississippi and, unlike the rest of his party, he had failed to kill any game. His assistants managed to chase down and corner a black bear, tying it to a tree and suggesting that Roosevelt shoot it, but Roosevelt considered this unsporting and refused to do so. Or so the story goes. The story was publicised in the media, and became the subject of a famous cartoon by Washington Post cartoonist Clifford Berryman.

Washington Post, 16 November 1902, LC-USZ62-34274, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

This cartoon (and especially a more developed version which can be viewed here) was somewhat misleading in depicting a relatively small and cute bear being held at the end of a rope by an apparently white man. In fact, the bear was full sized and had been captured by Holt Collier, who was African-American, a former enslaved man and soldier and a famous bear hunter.

The cartoon inspired Brooklyn candy store owner Morris Michtom to create a stuffed bear toy. He received Roosevelt’s permission to call it ‘Teddy’s bear’, and in 1903 he established the Ideal Toy Company to manufacture the bears. In the same year, and apparently independently, the Steiff company in Germany also began selling its famous stuffed bears.

It took a few years for teddy bears to become known in New Zealand. In 1907, Wellington’s Dominion newspaper could still ask: ‘How many people in New Zealand know what the strange creature called a Teddy bear is? Probably not more than half a dozen’. At that stage the bear was still being reported as an American novelty, and it didn’t meet with immediate and universal approval.

An editorial in the Lyttelton Times saw ‘the vogue of the “Teddy bear” in America’ as another sign that the early twentieth century was an age of frivolity: ‘The toy beast appeals to children because it has a warm, soft coat, and to adults because it has a touch of the grotesque in its composition, but its importance is perhaps not fully appreciated outside America.’ It quoted another newspaper which asked ‘why fashionable women [in America] drive round nursing Teddy bears while their own children are being nursed by negro women.’

The ‘Woman’s World’ column in the Dominion in January 1908 noted that the American fashion for Teddy bears had been criticised for failing to develop the maternal instinct in girls, in contrast to dolls. However, ‘it has yet to be proved that the little girl who dislikes dolls necessarily dislikes babies’. There was more, ‘Woman’s World’ thought, to the argument ‘that ugly fantastic toys should not be given to children’ and that ‘a plain straightforward animal’ would give more pleasure.

While some early coverage of teddy bears associated them particularly with girls and women, the teddy bear quickly became a toy equally beloved by girls and boys. Boy with teddy bear on steps, 26 November 1933, Wellington, by Leslie Adkin. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (A.006294)

By December 1907, teddy bears were already said to be the dominant Christmas toy in London, and they were appearing in New Zealand too. The DSC department store’s Christmas advertisement advised Aucklanders to:

Annotation 2020-04-08 171413
Auckland Star, 13 December 1907, p. 7

In 1907 the American composer John Walter Bratton composed the song ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ (you can see the original sheet music here), although the now-famous lyrics were not written until 1932. By December 1908 this ‘latest musical craze’ had made its way to New Zealand.

Annotation 2020-04-08 211707
Press (Christchurch), 21 December 1908, p. 1

Reports in 1909 that the Teddy bear craze was passing in America proved premature, but the New Zealand Truth complained that surplus stocks were being offloaded in New Zealand, where ‘an effort is being made to boom the farcical fad.’ Truth was quite vitriolic about the ‘inane “Teddy bear” toy’ which ‘comes from the land of putrid canned meat’.

Truth‘s anti-Americanism was not necessarily typical of New Zealand attitudes, however. The popularity of the teddy bear can be seen as symptomatic of a period when America was rising as a world power and the influence of its popular culture was increasing. Nothing better illustrated the growing political and cultural authority of the United States in New Zealand than the warm reception for the ‘Great White Fleet’ in 1908. Which brings us back to Teddy Roosevelt…

(To be continued)

Must rogues fall? On the mathematics of monuments. Part 4: multiplication

In the conclusion to this series of posts adapted from a paper for the 2019 New Zealand Art Crime Symposium, I discuss diversification of the symbolic landscape, or multiplication.

x x x x Multiplication x x x x

Debates over monuments tend to focus on individual statues or memorials, but this focus misses a larger picture. Taken together, memorials and other symbols in public space (such as names of streets and buildings) convey messages about collective identity, even if they aren’t noticed consciously. They often reflect power imbalances, with some groups having a more prominent place than others in how a community is imagined. In New Zealand and other former British settler colonies, statues in public places are overwhelmingly of straight, white, wealthy men.[1] Memorials disproportionately represent history as seen through the eyes of such men. This is changing, but not fast enough.

Instead of focusing on the possible removal of existing monuments, we could think about diversifying the symbolic landscape. The strategy of ‘multiplication’ involves creating new works of public art that tell different stories and represent different historical experiences from those represented by older memorials. Of course, public art has a cost, one which ratepayers, taxpayers or private sponsors may be reluctant to bear. However, if done well, new commemorative artworks can not only make public spaces more representative of the community but also make those spaces more attractive and interesting for residents and visitors.

Below are some Canadian examples of diversification of memorials (Algonquin chief Tessouat, Gatineau, Quebec; ‘Famous Five’ women’s rights activists, Winnipeg, Manitoba; Daurene Lewis, first black female mayor in Canada, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia).

One objection to this approach is that traditional memorials, and particularly statues, have had their day.[2] But even if we accept this view, new commemorative works need not be bronze or stone monuments. They can take new forms that may be playful, provocative, performative, interactive, educational or ephemeral.[3]

Overseas, some of the most interesting challenges to the current symbolic landscape have come from artists whose work is often temporary and responds directly to existing memorials, straddling my categories of ‘addition’ and ‘multiplication’. The Monument Lab project in Philadelphia, USA, is an example of such counter-monuments or anti-monuments. Monument Lab artworks erected in 2017 included Karyn Olivier’s ‘The Battle is Joined’, which encased a Revolutionary War memorial in a mirrored acrylic structure, and ‘All Power to All People’ by Hank Willis Thomas, a giant Afro comb with a clenched fist on the handle, which was placed near a statue of a controversial former Philadelphia mayor.

There is still room, too, for more lasting artworks commemorating historical experiences that have previously been absent from public space. These may depart from memorial traditions largely inherited from nineteenth-century Europe. In Aotearoa New Zealand, we are now seeing more commemorative projects initiated by Māori and employing Māori iconography, particularly carved wooden pou.

2017-12-30 04.26.32
Te Tarata memorial, near Ōpōtiki
Waerenga a Hika memorial, Gisborne

One possible concern about the multiplication strategy is that it could challenge some forms of under-representation while perpetuating others. For example, creating new memorials to address the dominance of Pākehā history in public space might still reinforce the tradition of focusing on ‘great men’.

Another potential problem is that creating new memorials might fail to effectively challenge dominant views of history. Instead, it could leave different groups living in parallel historical universes, with incompatible or even competing forms of public memory represented by multiple memorials.[4] We might call this the ‘tomayto/tomahto’ scenario, in which we call off the whole messy business of trying to understand each other’s perspectives on history, or of looking for common ground on which to build a shared future.

= = = = Equal to | Not equal to ≠ ≠ ≠ ≠

There’s also an argument that symbolic recognition through the creation of new monuments is mere tokenism, a distraction from calls for genuine redistribution of wealth and power. A similar argument can be made in relation to calls for the removal of existing monuments: that focusing on the symbolic diverts attention from real, material problems.[5] It’s easier to tear down a monument than to dismantle structural racism; simpler to build new memorials than to construct a fairer society.

As someone who studies symbols and memorials, I admit to being troubled by this argument. I believe that symbols have power, that they play a role in shaping our understanding of the world, and therefore that changing symbols can play some part in building a more equal world. I also think that debates about memorials can provide opportunities to rethink and challenge dominant views of history, and make room for other perspectives. But I can’t help wondering whether, by focusing on what to do with tired old statues of dead white men, we invest them with too much power. Perhaps, sometimes, the best thing we can do is to ignore them, to leave them cloaked in invisibility, their heads a target for pigeons, the foundations on which they stand a convenient platform on which to sit and eat our lunches.

It should be clear by now that I don’t think there’s any one-size-fits-all approach to solving the problem of contentious memorials. All approaches have their advantages and drawbacks – or, perhaps I should say, their pluses and minuses. The status quo can entrench division, leaving some parts of the community feeling aggrieved and excluded by existing monuments. Subtraction, or removal, may be appropriate for monuments that are particularly objectionable, but risks sanitising the past rather than engaging with it. Addition, providing new information or interpretation, can contextualise or challenge memorials. But the reinterpretation can itself be subject to ongoing debate and revision, and may be inadequate to challenge a monument’s original message. Finally, multiplication can help to diversify the symbolic landscape, but can have a significant financial cost. In some cases it could also entrench, rather than bridge, division over how we view the past.

Each debate about historical monuments has to be considered in its own context and based on its own characteristics. Each one is, to remain with the language of mathematics, a unique equation with a particular set of variables. But my talk of mathematics may be misleading, because we can’t reduce the messiness and contradictions of history and human relationships to a mathematical formula. These debates are about history and heritage, but also about power, prejudice and perspective.

I don’t have the answers, but I’ve tried to provide a framework for thinking about whether rogues must fall, and to offer some alternatives to iconoclasm that may get us closer to balancing the equation.

[1] See, for example, the discussion of New Zealand statues in Megan Whelan, ‘Mrs Sheppard and Mr Seddon’, in Bronwyn Labrum (ed.), Women Now: The Legacy of Female Suffrage, Wellington, Te Papa Press, 2018, pp. 139-152. Strictly speaking, I should qualify ‘straight’ by saying the statues are of men who were apparently straight in terms of their public personas, regardless of the realities of their private lives. The point remains, however, that there are few memorials to people who openly departed from prevailing social norms of gender and sexuality.

[2] See, for example, Jonathan Jones, ‘Feminism Doesn’t Need More Female Statues – it Needs Political Action’, Guardian, 27 March 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2017/mar/27/female-statues-erka-sofia-feminism.

[3] See, for example, Sue-Anne Ware, ‘Anti-Memorials and the Art of Forgetting: Critical Reflections on a Memorial Design Practice’, Public History Review, vol. 15, 2008, pp. 61-76; Catherine De Lorenzo and Vivien Chow, ‘Contained Memories or Catalysts? Some Aboriginal Memorials in Australia’, Memory Connection, vol. 1, no. 1, 2011, pp. 452-74; Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2010, pp. 356-76.

[4] This danger has been identified in the contemporary South of the United States: David Goldfield, Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History, Baton Rouge, LSU Press, 2002, p. 305; Dell Upton, What Can and Can’t be Said: Race, Uplift and Monument Building in the Contemporary South, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2015.

[5] Anne C. Bailey, ‘Tearing Down Confederate Statues Leaves Structural Racism Intact’, The Conversation, 24 August 2018, https://theconversation.com/tearing-down-confederate-statues-leaves-structural-racism-intact-101951.

Must rogues fall? On the mathematics of monuments. Part 3: addition

Having considered the capacity of monuments to create division, and the strategy of subtraction (or removal), in this post I turn to addition.

+ + + + Addition + + + +

Moving a memorial to a museum can be one way of reinterpreting and recontextualising it, but something similar can also be done while the memorial remains in place. This is the strategy I’ll call ‘addition’: adding to the existing text and imagery to incorporate changed perspectives or new historical scholarship.

Graffiti and other types of vandalism (such as painting a statue, placing objects on its head, or lopping off body parts) can be unofficial forms of addition. Although it’s a kind of iconoclasm aimed at subverting a monument rhetorically, and therefore somewhat akin to efforts to remove the monument physically, graffiti is also a commentary on the messages the monument conveys.

March 2010 222
Portion of the Abel Tasman memorial, Golden Bay, with amendment, 2010

In a speech in 2018, following the painting of anti-racist slogans on a statue of Captain Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park, public historian Lisa Murray asked the provocative question: should the graffiti have been removed, or should they be considered to form part of the changing meaning of the statue?[1] Leaving graffiti in place, however, could simply encourage tit-for-tat vandalism. It’s worth remembering that white supremacists also deface monuments, and that there have been attacks on Māori carvings in New Zealand and on indigenous memorials in Australia.

A more official form of addition is the placing of a new plaque or inscription on an existing memorial. In 1994, for example, a new plaque was added to the so-called ‘Explorers’ Monument’ in Fremantle, Western Australia, acknowledging that the original plaque portrayed frontier violence from a white settler viewpoint.[2]

‘Explorers’ monument’, Fremantle, Western Australia


An alternative to a new plaque on the memorial itself is to place information boards nearby, providing additional information and perspectives on the history of the memorial and of the person or event it commemorates. Digital technologies also allow us to add new layers of interpretation without destroying the old ones: websites and apps make it easy to ensure information about memorials and the events they commemorate is accessible and up to date.[3]

An issue with the additive approach to contentious monuments is that any new interpretation will itself be only one point of view. Like the original memorial, it will be a product of its time, and can be subject to debate and revision. New Zealand journalist Tim Watkin, though supportive of historical re-evalution, asks, ‘where does it stop? Does each generation add a plaque as our views of history twist and turn?’[4] Even if a new plaque itself becomes outdated in time, however, it may be enough to signal that there’s more than one perspective on history. And information boards or digital interpretation can be replaced and updated more easily than plaques on the memorial itself.

A more significant challenge can be reaching consensus about the wording of any new plaque or sign. Debates about proposed new wording can sometimes drag on for years, and may simply provide a new focus for disagreements about history and public memory.[5]

Another concern is that new information and interpretation may be insufficient to overcome the impact of the original memorial. This is particularly true if the monument is a dominating presence in the landscape and if its design and symbolism convey a powerful message (perhaps in conjunction with other, similar memorials). In such cases, a new plaque or sign that requires viewers to come close to the memorial and take the time to read the additional information may be inadequate.

[1] Andrew Taylor, ‘Historian Questions Whether Graffiti Should Have Been Left on Captain Cook Statue’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 April 2018, https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/historian-captain-cook-statue-graffiti-indigenous-20180418-p4zade.html. A video of Lisa Murray’s Jim Kerr Address, ‘Monuments and Memories: Reassessing Colonial Imperialism’, 18 April 2018, can be seen at https://australia.icomos.org/events/jim-kerr-address/.

[2] Bruce Scates, ‘Monumental Errors: How Australia Can Fix its Racist Colonial Statues’, The Conversation, 28 August 2017, https://theconversation.com/monumental-errors-how-australia-can-fix-its-racist-colonial-statues-82980; Vanessa Mills and Ben Collins, ‘The Controversial Statue that was Added to, not Town Down or Vandalised’, ABC News, 29 August 2017, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-29/explorers-monument-added-to-not-torn-down-or-vandalised/8853224; Stephen Gilchrist, ‘Surfacing Histories: Memorials and Public Art in Perth’, Artlink, issue 38:2, June 2018, pp. 42-47.

[3] See, for example, Hannah Natanson, ‘There’s a New Way to Deal with Confederate Monuments: Signs that Explain their Racist History’, Washington Post, 22 September 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/09/22/theres-new-way-deal-with-confederate-monuments-signs-that-explain-their-racist-history/.

[4] Tim Watkin, ‘Slater Slams History. At Least the Discussion of it’, Pundit blog, 3 April 2016, https://www.pundit.co.nz/slater-slams-history-at-least-the-discussion-of-it.

[5] For example, attempts to create new plaques for the memorial to slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England, and to controversial eighteenth-century politician Henry Dundas in Edinburgh, Scotland, have become bogged down in disputes about wording and interpretations of history: Tristan Cork, ‘Plaque Rewrite as Row Goes On Over Wording for Colston Statue’, Bristol Post, 26 March 2019, https://www.pressreader.com/uk/bristol-post/20190326/281629601617510; Bill Caven, ‘Historians Clash in War of Words Over Memorial to Dundas and Slavery Past’, Scottish Daily Mail, 28 October 2019, https://www.pressreader.com/uk/scottish-daily-mail/20191028/281668256766086.

Must rogues fall? On the mathematics of monuments. Part 2: subtraction

Continuing with my discussion of controversial memorials, adapted from a paper given at the New Zealand Art Crime Symposium 2019, in this post I look at the strategy of ‘subtraction’.

Space previously occupied by statue of Edward Cornwallis, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada (statue removed 2018)

– – – – Subtraction – – – –

One response to contentious monuments, which I’ll label ‘subtraction’, seeks their removal from public places. The case for removing memorials rests on the belief that they either celebrate or are silent about past oppression, and thus perpetuate injustice in the present.

Demands for the removal of monuments are often met with talk of cultural vandalism and comparisons with the iconoclasm of the Taliban or Islamic State. In 2017, then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described proposals to remove or change colonial memorials as ‘Stalinist’.[1] There’s some irony in Turnbull’s statement: many people around the world cheered when statues of Stalin and other Soviet figures were toppled in Eastern Europe after 1989, recognising that those statues represented a political system that had trampled on basic human rights.

Few people, I suspect, would argue for the retention of all monuments, no matter how abhorrent the individuals or causes they commemorate. Who would feel comfortable with seeing Nazi monuments in modern Germany, for example? The real issue is where we draw the line.

How should we decide whether a particular monument meets the threshold for removal? There are a number of questions that can be helpful in making this decision:

  • If the memorial is to an individual, was that person responsible for crimes against humanity or gross violations of human rights, such as genocide, slavery or torture?
  • What was the original purpose and context for the creation of the memorial? Most Confederate memorials in public places in the Southern United States, for example, were not erected in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War as symbols of mourning for the war dead. They were constructed in the twentieth century, during the era of segregation, as symbols of white supremacy.[2]
  • Are the inscriptions on the memorial offensive, or does the monument depict members of particular groups in a derogatory or demeaning manner?
  • Is the location of the memorial problematic? For example, is it on land of particular significance to indigenous people, or will its proximity to an important public building such as a courthouse have a chilling effect on access for people who feel alienated by its presence?
  • Does the monument dominate the landscape around it?
  • Has the memorial become a rallying point for groups with hateful ideologies?

This can never be a simple tick-box exercise – it’s not a case of ‘three strikes and you’re out’. Sometimes one factor alone might be enough to warrant a monument’s removal, while in other cases the argument for removal might rest on a combination of factors. In many cases, the best option may be to leave the memorial in place and employ a different strategy for responding to it.

The answers to the questions I’ve posed may not be straightforward. There will usually be differences of historical and artistic interpretation, and divergent perspectives on the memorial’s meaning and impact – the very differences that give rise to division over monuments in the first place. The answers to these questions may also change over time, as interpretations change or new information comes to light. But working through questions like those I’ve proposed may at least help to focus discussion about a memorial’s future.

In most cases, I don’t favour the destruction or removal of historical monuments, even though they represent objectionable individuals or attitudes. These monuments aren’t neutral records of history, but they do provide important evidence about the views of those who created them. As a historian, I’m reluctant to destroy evidence, and cautious about removing it from its original context. There’s also a danger of sanitising the past by removing structures that document attitudes, once widely held, that created unjust policies and practices.

Complete destruction or removal from public view aren’t the only options for contentious monuments. Sometimes a memorial that’s controversial in one location is less so in another. For example, a statue of Queen Victoria that was the focus of much criticism when it stood outside the Irish Parliament building in Dublin was relocated in 1987 to Sydney, Australia, where it sits outside a shopping centre and barely gets a second glance.[3]

Removal of Queen Victoria statue from outside Leinster House, Dublin (from https://comeheretome.com/2012/05/24/statues-of-dublin-the-unveiling-and-removal-of-queen-victoria)
Queen Vic 2
Queen Victoria statue outside the Queen Victoria Building, Sydney, Australia. Photo by Jamie Williams for City of Sydney, https://www.cityartsydney.com.au/artwork/queen-victoria-qvb.

Another strategy, employed particularly in parts of Eastern Europe, is to move memorials that represent past attitudes and regimes to a single, open-air location – sometimes referred to as a statue graveyard – where they may be ignored or, perversely, become tourist attractions.[4]

Head of statue of Lenin, Citadel Museum, Berlin, 2017

A popular suggestion for controversial memorials is that they should be moved to museums. This can be a good solution in some cases. Displayed in a museum, a memorial can be contextualised with interpretive information and by juxtaposition with other objects that tell contrasting stories. The memorial will also still be available to researchers who are interested in it from a historical or artistic perspective. But is it really fair to ask museums to become the dumping grounds for what are often large, heavy objects? Does placing offensive monuments in a museum necessarily neutralise their negative impacts? At a time when museums are trying to become more welcoming to groups that have felt excluded from these institutions, what will be the effect of giving space to imposing statues of white men?[5]

[1] Katharine Murphy, ‘Changing Colonial Statues is Stalinist, says Malcolm Turnbull’, Guardian, 25 August 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/aug/25/changing-colonial-statues-is-stalinist-says-malcolm-turnbull.

[2] Southern Poverty Law Centre, Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy, updated 1 February 2019, https://www.splcenter.org/20190201/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy.

[3] Yvonne Whelan, Reinventing Modern Dublin: Streetscape, Iconography and the Politics of Identity, Dublin, University of Dublin Press, 2003, pp. 195-201.

[4] Jordan Brasher and Derek H. Alderman, ‘A Confederate Statue Graveyard Could Help Bury the Old South’, 26 July 2019, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/a-confederate-statue-graveyard-could-help-bury-the-old-south-118034.

[5] Janeen Bryant, Benjamin Filene, Louis Nelson, Jennifer Scott, and Suzanne Seriff, ‘Are Museums the Rightful Homes for Confederate Monuments?’, Centre for the Future of Museums Blog, 3 April 2018, https://www.aam-us.org/2018/04/03/are-museums-the-rightful-home-for-confederate-monuments.

Must rogues fall? On the mathematics of monuments. Part 1: division

I’ve previously published a couple of short blog posts – on Pundit and Bay Heritage Blog – about strategies for dealing with controversial memorials, using the terminology of arithmetic. In October 2019, I fleshed these previous pieces out into a paper for the New Zealand Art Crime Symposium in Wellington, which had the theme ‘Iconoclasts, Vandals, and Artists’. This post and the ones to follow are adapted from that paper. I begin by looking at division.

Monuments, it seems, are having a moment. In the 1920s, the Austrian writer Robert Musil famously observed that ‘There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument’. Statues and memorials, Musil wrote, form an unnoticed backdrop as people go about their daily lives.[1] Yet, for the past few years, certain monuments have been anything but invisible in a number of countries that are grappling with the legacies of colonialism and historical injustice. Instead, they have become the focus of debate about what should be done with memorials to contentious individuals or events.

We seem to be in a time of iconoclasm: purposeful attacks on images – in this case, memorials – because of the beliefs, attitudes and power structures they are seen to represent.[2] Although recent debates have often involved campaigns for the orderly removal of monuments by the relevant authorities, rather than spontaneous and unofficial attempts at destruction, the iconoclastic impulse is still present.

There’s nothing new about controversies over memorials. Around the world, monuments have often been targeted during times of political turmoil, particularly after changes of regime. But the recent period of international focus on memorials seen as representing colonialism, racism and white supremacy began in 2015. In Cape Town, South Africa, the Rhodes Must Fall movement demanded the removal of a statue of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes,[3] while in the United States killings of African-Americans by police and white supremacists sparked growing calls for the removal of Confederate memorials.[4] In Britain, too, monuments to imperialists and slave-traders have come under fire,[5] as have those to individuals involved in the dispossession of indigenous peoples in Australia and Canada.[6]


Statue of slave-trader Edward Colston with face painted white, Bristol, England, 2017

Aotearoa New Zealand has had its own contested memorials.[7] Over the past few years, statues of James Cook in Gisborne have been vandalised. There’s also been a petition to remove the memorial in Ōtāhuhu to Colonel Marmaduke Nixon because of his role in one of the most notorious incidents in the Waikato War, the attack on Rangiaowhia in 1864.

Treaty Times, February 1995

A number of colonial monuments were vandalised in the 1990s, when Māori were protesting against the inadequacy of Government redress for historical Treaty of Waitangi claims. One casualty during that earlier period was the statue of Premier John Ballance in Pākaitore/Moutoa Gardens, Whanganui, which was initially beheaded (and the head replaced by a pumpkin), then destroyed completely.[8]

Ballance statue 1995 image from ATL
Kia Kingi practising flax plaiting beneath the damaged statue of John Ballance in Pākaitore/Moutoa Gardens, Whanganui, photographed on 18 March 1995 by Evening Post staff photographer Phil Reid. EP/1995/0789/15a-F, Dominion Post collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

Debates about historical monuments raise complex issues about how we should relate to the past and to its legacies in the present. But for all their complexity, these disputes and the possible responses to them can be considered using the language of basic arithmetic: subtraction, addition, multiplication and division.

÷ ÷ ÷ ÷ Division ÷ ÷ ÷ ÷

Unlike the other three terms I’ll discuss – subtraction, addition and multiplication – ‘division’ is not a strategy for responding to controversies over monuments. Instead, it describes the situation in which a particular monument has become contentious, dividing opinion within the community. To understand why memorials can be divisive, we need to consider their social function.

Like other symbols, memorials are erected to represent and construct the identity of a community – whether that community is a school, a town or a nation. Historical monuments signal the events and personalities that are, at least officially, considered important in the history of that community. Statues of the ‘great men’ of ‘our’ past are intended to draw our attention to our common membership, with them and with each other, of a particular community. But ideas about history, identity and belonging are always contested and evolving.

When historical monuments come under attack, their critics are sometimes accused of stirring up division. The assumption underlying such accusations is often that existing monuments simply record what happened in the past, and ‘You can’t change history’. But the status quo is not neutral. Historical monuments represent particular views of a community’s past and present: who is important and who gets ignored; who were the aggressors and who the victims. More often than not, they represent the perspectives of those who are (or were) politically and socially powerful, and ignore other perspectives. Divisiveness is built into the landscape, and it’s this inbuilt bias the critics are reacting to.

[1] ‘Monuments’, in Robert Musil, Flypaper, transl. Peter Wortsman, London, Penguin, 2011, pp. 19-24 (quote at p. 19).

[2] On iconoclasm see, for example, Tabitha Barber and Stacy Boldrick (eds), Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, London, Tate Publishing, 2013.

[3] For one perspective on Rhodes Must Fall, see Saul Dubow, ‘Rhodes Must Fall, Brexit, and Circuits of Knowledge’, in Stuart Ward and Astrid Rasch (eds), Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, pp. 111-120. On memorials in South Africa more generally, see Sabine Marschall, Landscape of Memory: Commemorative Monuments, Memorials and Public Statuary in Post-apartheid South Africa, Leiden, Brill, 2009; Martin J. Murray, Commemorating and Forgetting: Challenges for the New South Africa, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2013; Runette Kruger, ‘Ruptures and Continuities in the Post-apartheid Political and Cultural Landscape: A Reading of South African Monument Culture’, in Laura A. Macaluso (ed.), Monument Culture: International Perspectives on the Future of Monuments in a Changing World, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019, pp. 85-97.

[4] See, for example, David B. Allison (ed.), Controversial Monuments and Memorials: A Guide for Community Leaders, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2018.

[5] For example, the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, discussed in Olivette Otele, ‘The Guerilla Arts in Brexit Bristol’, in Stuart Ward and Astrid Rasch (eds), Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, pp. 133-141.

[6] For Australia, see Paul Daley, ‘Heroes, Monuments and History’, Meanjin, vol. 77, no. 1, Autumn 2018, pp. 86-97. For some recent Canadian debates, see Trina Roache, ‘History Decolonized: A Closer Look at Edward Cornwallis and Why His Statue Toppled’, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network News, 16 February 2018, https://aptnnews.ca/2018/02/16/history-decolonized-a-closer-look-at-edward-cornwallis-and-why-his-statue-toppled/; Nancy Janovicek, ‘What’s in a Monument? Part II: The Edward Cornwallis Monument and Reconciliation’, Active History blog, 14 August 2018, http://activehistory.ca/2018/08/whats-in-a-monument-part-ii-the-edward-cornwallis-monument-in-halifax/; Murad Hemmadi, ‘What Fights About “Erasing” History Are Really About’, Maclean’s, 18 August 2018, https://www.macleans.ca/opinion/what-fights-about-erasing-history-are-really-about/.

[7] For recent examples, see Paul Little, ‘Monumental Blunders: Should New Zealand Get Rid of its Controversial Statues?’, North and South, November 2017, pp. 58-65. For some older examples, see Jock Phillips, To the Memory: New Zealand’s War Memorials, Nelson, Potton & Burton, 2016, pp. 50-52; Mark Stocker, ‘“Director of the Canoe”: The Auckland Statue of Sir George Grey’, Melbourne Art Journal,  vol. 11-12, 2009, pp. 57-58; Paulette Wallace, ‘A Fraction Too Much Friction: Heritage Dissonance and the Whitely Memorial’, Te Ara – The Journal of Museums Aotearoa, vol. 33, 2009, pp. 18-22.

[8] On the Ballance statue, see Ewan Morris, ‘Men Alone in Bronze and Stone: A Tale of Two Statues’, Journal of New Zealand Studies, n.s. vol. 13, 2012, pp. 62-76.

Don’t be an Egmont!

2019-10-26 04.54.52

At 5 AM saw for a few Minutes the Top of the peaked Mountain above the Clowds, bearing NE; It is of a prodigious height and its top is cover’d with everlasting snow. … I have named it Mount Egmont in honour of the Earl of Egmont — This mountain seems to have a pretty large base and to rise with a gradual assent to the peak and what makes it more conspicuous is, its being situated near the Sea, and a flat Country in its neighbourhood which afforded a very good asspect — — being cloathed with Wood and Verdure.

James Cook’s journal, 13 January 1770

It’s 250 years since Lieutenant James Cook, captain of HMS Endeavour, saw and renamed the mountain that Māori knew as Taranaki. Cook named it Mount Egmont after John Perceval, the second Earl of Egmont and First Lord of the Admiralty. Cook never set foot in the Taranaki region, but he was impressed by the mountain, which he likened to Tenerife (one of the Canary Islands) and which the Endeavour‘s botanist Joseph Banks described in his journal as ‘certainly the noblest hill I have ever seen’.

Taranaki was just one of many places given a new name by Cook as he sailed around Aotearoa New Zealand — and plenty of other places were named after Cook during the subsequent colonisation of the country.

Statue of Captain Cook in Marton, New Zealand, which is named after Cook’s birthplace in England.

250 years later, the name Mount Egmont will finally be disappearing from maps as the result of an agreement between the iwi of Taranaki and the Crown. The agreement will see the mountain given legal personality (in the same way as has recently been done for the Whanganui River and Te Urewera) and managed by a joint iwi-Crown governance entity. It will also result in recognition of Taranaki Maunga (mountain) as the landmark’s sole name. This agreement is the culmination of a long campaign by Taranaki Māori for recognition of the mountain’s original name.

Taranaki Maunga (or Mounga, as it’s often spelled in the Taranaki dialect of Māori) is enormously significant to all the eight iwi of Taranaki. (For any non-New Zealand readers, I should explain that Taranaki is the name of the mountain, but also of the region that surrounds it, and of one of the local iwi or tribes of the region.) Māori from Taranaki view Taranaki Maunga as an ancestor, and their identity is inseparable from the maunga.

Restoration of the mountain’s Māori name had some Pākehā supporters in the first part of the twentieth century. In 1938, the mayor of Hāwera, J.E. Campbell, told a meeting of the Aotea Māori Association that the mountain’s name was ‘a disaster’ and that ‘the old name of Taranaki’ should be substituted for Egmont ahead of New Zealand’s centennial in 1940. This view was supported by the Rev. P. Moki of New Plymouth, who said ‘Taranaki always had been and will be the name for the mountain recognised by the Maori race throughout the Dominion.’

Māori began calling publicly for the name Taranaki to be restored to the mountain in the 1970s, but it was in the 1980s that the issue really came to a head. In 1985, the Taranaki Māori Trust Board submitted a proposal for the maunga to be officially named Taranaki to the New Zealand Geographic Board, the body responsible for assigning official place names. The Geographic Board decided that the mountain’s official name should be ‘Mount Taranaki’, with ‘Egmont’ continued as a secondary name in brackets. There was then a three-month period during which objections to the Board’s decision could be lodged.

The release of the Geographic Board’s decision provoked a furious debate, the intensity of which is hard to believe some 35 years later. There were numerous letters to the editor, particularly in Taranaki newspapers, petitions were organised, and many official and voluntary organisations in Taranaki took a position on the matter. Essentially, the debate pitted a large number of Pākehā who objected vehemently to the Geographic Board’s decision against Māori and more liberal Pākehā who supported it. (Justin Gregory has produced a very good piece for Radio New Zealand looking back at the debate — you can read or listen to it here.)

Ultimately, the Minister of Lands Koro Wetere accepted a revised recommendation from the Geographic Board in 1986, that the mountain’s official name should become ‘Mount Taranaki or Mount Egmont’, thereby recognising both names and allowing people to choose for themselves which they wanted to use. That remains the situation to this day, although in practice it’s clear that use of ‘Mount Egmont’ has declined dramatically, and it seems likely that few will miss the name Egmont when it finally disappears.

The rapid decline in usage of Egmont in the space of a few decades is all the more remarkable given that in the 1980s many Pākehā seemed to feel that the proposal to restore the name Taranaki posed an existential threat to their very identity. It’s not surprising that Pākehā residents of Taranaki should identify strongly with the mountain — anyone who’s been to Taranaki knows how dominant the mountain is in the landscape (at least, on the days when it’s not covered in clouds). Pākehā identification, not simply with the mountain but with the name Egmont had also been reinforced by the extensive use of the mountain’s image and its English name in commercial and organisational branding. As Ian Wedde writes, this was:

a culture for which ‘Mount Egmont’ would soon become an ideal, a symbol of individuality, even of nationhood, appearing on the wrappers of butter, cheese, knitwear, and other products of the region, as well as in a great deal of art.

At the time of writing, this iconography is being explored by the artist Fiona Clark in an exhibition at Wellington’s Adam Art Gallery entitled ‘Egmontiana’ (images are currently available on the Gallery’s website, though presumably only for the duration of the show).

The willingness of Pākehā to use the mountain’s name and image in a commercial context shows how different Pākehā identification with the mountain was from the spiritual connection of Māori. Nonetheless, the meaning of the mountain and its name to Pākehā is worth further exploration. For some time I’ve been struggling with an article I’ve been trying to write about the Taranaki/Egmont name debate of the 1980s. What I’ve written so far is too long and too unfocused, but I’m starting to think that Pākehā identity and identification with place could provide a useful focus for the article.

But what, you may ask, of the Earls of Egmont, whose name the mountain currently still bears? In 1985, when the naming debate was raging, a couple of newspapers sought comment from the eleventh earl, who turned out to be a 71-year-old called Frederick Perceval living on a ranch in Alberta, Canada. The Earl was too deaf to speak on the phone, but his wife told reporters that she and her husband objected strongly to the proposal to replace the name Egmont: ‘You don’t go changing generations of tradition’. The Earl had never visited New Zealand, she said, but people from around the world had sent him postcards of the mountain. ‘Asked if the earl had an ambition to see Mt Egmont, she said he had always wanted to go to Africa.’

The earldom became extinct in 2011, on the death of the twelfth earl, who left no successors.


Auckland Star, 9 December 1938, p. 4.

Sunday News, 11 August 1985.

Taranaki Herald, 14 August 1985.

Ian Wedde, ‘Translation and Representation: A History of Ferries’, in Ian Wedde and Gregory Burke (eds), Now See Hear! Art, Language and Translation, Wellington, Victoria University Press for the Wellington City Art Gallery, 1990, pp. 95-102.



I’m dreaming of a Pākehā Christmas

Pakeha butter sign, formerly displayed on a grocery shop wall in Feilding, now in the collection of the Feilding Coach House Museum

I spent a very pleasant Christmas day with my in-laws. In the evening, with stomachs groaning from the Christmas feast, we looked through some of my mother-in-law’s cookbooks from different eras, and I was particularly struck by this advertisement for ‘Pakeha, the cream of butters’ from the Feilding Plunket Society Recipe Book of 1930.

Today, some people insist on believing that the use of the word ‘Pākehā’ to describe New Zealanders of European descent is derogatory or demeaning. This view isn’t entirely new. In 1946, for example, Mr Algie, the National MP for Remuera, declared in Parliament that he had ‘a rooted objection to the word “pakeha”‘, which had ‘a meaning that was far from complimentary’.

I won’t go into the different interpretations of the word here, except to say that it has no clearly established derivation. What’s particularly interesting, however, is that the use of ‘Pākehā’ by many white New Zealanders, both today and in the past, is a rare example of settlers and their descendants adopting an indigenous term to describe themselves.

Still, it’s hard to know what lay behind the choice of the word as a brand name for butter. Was it a reference to the butter’s pale colour? Or to an association of racial whiteness with wholesomeness? Was it a sign of nascent nationalism, of the search for an indigenous identity for white New Zealanders? Or was it the exoticism of the word to British ears that appealed, bearing in mind that this butter was intended primarily for export to Britain?

Unfortunately, the report in the Feilding Star of the first meeting in September 1893 of shareholders of the Cheltenham Co-operative Dairy Company Limited is no help, as the decision to use the word ‘Pakeha’ as the company’s brand was announced with no explanation. You can read more about the history of the company, and its use of the Pakeha brand in association with a fern logo, on the Feilding Coach House Museum blog, which conveniently posted about Pakeha butter just a few days ago.

The production of Pakeha butter was a significant source of local pride and employment for Feilding, as this advertisement in the Manawatu Standard indicates:

Pakeha butter ad
Manawatu Standard, 15 December 1937, p. 27

The historian Bill Oliver grew up in Feilding on Makino Road, the same road to which the dairy factory had been relocated in 1920 to take advantage of proximity to the rail line. In his autobiography, Oliver recalled the way in which the dairy factory linked Feilding to the wider world:

In the dairy factory we saw great 56 lb blocks of butter packed into white pine boxes with the fernleaf trademark and the brand name ‘Pakeha’ impressed with a roller on the butter before sealing and nailing. It was going elsewhere — by rail to Wellington and by ship to Great Britain, a distant place but not a strange one, for week by week letters, newspapers and parcels arrived from aunts and cousins who lived there. In our own tiny domestic economy, the cardboard boxes of Angora wool went to England; the wages my father earned (for a time) at the freezing works were for processing animal products for export… . The little scatter of houses along Makino Road, the dairy factory and the railway siding were a focal point in a world of linkages and flows.

The factory building is still on Makino Road today, though butter is no longer made there.

20191227_152058What, I wonder, did the tangata whenua of the Feilding district make of the name ‘Pakeha’ on the dairy factory wall? I don’t know whether any Māori worked in, or supplied milk to, the dairy factory. They did, however, work in the local freezing works. Another of Feilding’s famous sons, the former Chair of the Waitangi Tribunal Edward Taihakurei (Eddie) Durie, remembers a world that overlapped with, but was also quite distinct from, that experienced by Bill Oliver.

[W]hat really struck me, was that some of our most senior elders in Ngāti Kauwhata — people who held real status on the marae — were nothing in the freezing works. They were just workers on the chain. And while the industry was pretty good in the way it employed Māori, and made pork bones available for tangi, I could see that people who we admired and respected enormously as children, were not recognised outside of our marae.

The other side of that was that few Pākehā leaders had ever set foot on a marae. One memory that stands out is that, in about 1950, the Mayor of Feilding came on to our marae, because he knew the person who’d died. Everyone was impressed by that. But the mayor was in a hurry, and he walked straight on to the marae. Not waiting for the call. Not waiting at the gate. It wasn’t his fault. No one had told him. He didn’t know what the procedure was.

…[T]hat was how things were back then, when officials who had a significant say over the lives of our people hadn’t even been on to the marae.

While Pakeha butter was also marketed to New Zealanders, it was above all a product for the British market. In 1897, only four years after the dairy company was established, The Cyclopedia of New Zealand was already reporting that the company ‘has a large contract in the Old Country, which absorbs the greater part of the butter produced’. Butter was an important export product for New Zealand, its success made possible by refrigeration. Government regulation of dairying began in the 1890s and farmer-owned dairy cooperatives began to flourish. Butter grew from 2% of New Zealand export earnings in 1895 to almost 19% in 1925 and 30% by 1935. The Cheltenham Dairy Company illustrated this growth, expanding production from 34 tons in the 1893-94 season to 2861 tons in 1935-36. Little wonder that the company boasted of its contribution to ‘Feilding Progress’ during New Zealand’s centennial year, 1940.

CH - Cheltenham Co-op Dairy Company - NZ Centenary float - 1940 (1)
Cheltenham Co-operative Dairy Company, Limited, NZ Centenary float, 1940, NZI-CH-9.11, Massey University Library

New Zealanders themselves were great butter-eaters, and butter was essential to their great love of cakes and biscuits. But New Zealand butter was also very important in Britain. Historian Lizzie Collingham argues that New Zealand butter, cheese and meat, along with imported products from other parts of the Empire, played a significant role in improving the diet of working-class Britons. The downside for New Zealand was a strong reliance on the British market to purchase a narrow range of agricultural products. By 1970, Britain was purchasing 90% of New Zealand’s butter exports, and this presented significant challenges for New Zealand when the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973.

Another recipe that caught my eye while looking through the old cookbooks was this one for Empire Christmas pudding.

20191226_123113(Unfortunately the cover of this book was missing, so I’m unable to identify the book or the publication date.)

As with Pakeha butter, the Empire Christmas pudding shows how New Zealand was connected by both economics and sentiment to the wider British world. The celebration of Christmas itself linked New Zealand to Britain and Ireland, where most New Zealand Christmas traditions originated. As Alison Clarke writes in her history of holiday seasons in nineteenth-century New Zealand, the Christmas plum pudding ‘assumed iconic significance for English colonists, featuring as the most recurrent image of Christmas in diaries, letters, reminiscences, newspaper reports, poems and stories.’ But the 1920s saw a more conscious use of the Christmas pudding to promote ties, and particularly trade connections, between Britain and its Empire.

Concerned about competition from American and other ‘non-British’ producers, the British Women’s Patriotic League and other organisations began promoting recipes for Christmas puddings using ingredients from throughout the Empire. In 1926, this idea was taken up by the Earl of Meath, the creator of Empire Day and a prominent booster of imperial sentiment. He organised an event at the headquarters of the Overseas League in London, at which a pudding made of ingredients from a number of British colonies and dominions was mixed with due ceremony. Once cooked, it was to be presented to the King and Queen for their Christmas meal, as (in the words of Lord Meath) ‘a symbol of Imperial unity and an epitome of inter-Empire trade’.

Empire Christmas pudding
‘THE KING’S CHRISTMAS PUDDING OF EMPIRE INGREDIENTS. After the ceremony of mixing the pudding at Vernon House, London. The Earl of Meath leading the toasting of the King’s health.’ New Zealand Herald, 2 February 1927, p. 15

However, New Zealand was one of a number of parts of the Empire that complained that it had been overlooked in the 1926 recipe. This oversight was corrected the following year, when the newly-established Empire Marketing Board took over the Christmas pudding project. The Board  saw an opportunity to use Christmas pudding and royal patronage to achieve its objective of promoting trade within the Empire. It obtained a  Christmas pudding recipe from the royal chef, André Cédard, and set about matching ingredients to products from the British colonies and dominions. New Zealand was represented, somewhat uninspiringly, by 5 lb of beef suet.

The recipe was then publicised widely, including in New Zealand newspapers, and appears to have been a great success for the Empire Marketing Board. In 1931, a ten-ton Empire Christmas pudding was made in London, with New Zealand providing two tons of beef suet. The High Commissioner of New Zealand, Sir Thomas Wilford, spoke at the pudding mixing ceremony, held at the Christmas fair of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. New Zealand, he said, ‘loves to be associated with any movement which spells Empire. … The slogan of New Zealand in regard to Empire is: “Keep the money in the family.”‘ New Zealand was also represented at the fair by a stall featuring New Zealand butter, cheese and honey, displayed under the slogan: ‘You get your money back if you buy New Zealand produce. New Zealanders spend it in British manufactures.’

Poster, ‘From Christmas to Christmas May Empire Trade Increase’, 1927, United Kingdom, by Austin Cooper, Waterlow & Sons Ltd, H.M. Stationery Office, Empire Marketing Board. Found in collection, 2012. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (GH021696)

For New Zealand, this history of being so tightly enmeshed in the imperial trading system has a number of legacies. Pakeha butter was part of a dairy industry built on land that Pākehā had often obtained from Māori through questionable purchases or, in the case of regions such as Waikato and Taranaki, confiscated from Māori following the New Zealand Wars. Though Māori did play a part in the agricultural economy as producers and workers, the great bulk of the profits went to Pākehā. And New Zealand’s continued economic dependence on dairying and other forms of primary production surely results, in part, from the extended period when it was known as ‘Britain’s farm’. This dependence has had significantly detrimental environmental effects, while also leaving New Zealand economically vulnerable. Perhaps Pākehā should have listened to the ‘well-known Auckland Maori’ who, in 1927, contrasted the Māori preference for growing a range of crops with the Pākehā who ‘risked all and everything on dairying, depending solely on butter.’ His comments were reported in the Auckland Star under the heading ‘Hint for the Pakeha: Too Much Butter’.

For Britain, the legacy of being at the centre of imperial trade networks has been one of delusions of former grandeur, a legacy which is playing out now in the Brexit debacle. When I was living in Britain in 2016-17, a number of people spoke to me in apologetic tones about Britain’s decision to join the European Economic Community, and its economic effects on New Zealand. I’m pretty sure butter was specifically mentioned. The assumption seemed to be that New Zealanders might still hold a grudge about this history, but in fact New Zealand has moved on.

The only people still agonizing about the UK’s membership of the European Union are the British (more particularly, the English) themselves. They have been fed on a steady diet of myths about the EU, a surprising number of which concerned food. As the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole observes:

Part of the genius of the anti-European narrative that fed Brexit is that it took all the large anxieties … and concentrated them on objects of consumption. It used food and drink to make these anxieties not tangible but edible and potable.

Perhaps inevitably, one of these fabricated food myths concerned Christmas pudding: it was reported in 1992 that new EU hygiene regulations would put an end to a British naval tradition of stirring the Christmas pudding recipe with wooden oars. But dreams that Britain can again achieve a trading supremacy once possible within the closed system of empire are surely as illusory as tales of dastardly Eurocrats meddling with the great British Christmas pudding.


Ashburton Guardian, 19 July 1946, p. 2.

Feilding Star, 19 September 1893, p. 2.

New Zealand Herald, 24 December 1931, p. 6, 28 December 1931, p. 4.

Auckland Star, 2 December 1927, p. 3.

Francis Steel, ‘New Zealand is Butterland: Interpreting the Historical Significance of a Daily Spread’, New Zealand Journal of History, vol. 39, no. 2, 2005, pp. 179-194.

Kaori O’Connor, ‘The King’s Christmas Pudding: Globalization, Recipes, and the Commodities of Empire’, Journal of Global History, vol. 4, no. 1, 2009, pp. 127-155.

Cheltenham Co-operative Dairy Company Limited, Golden Jubilee booklet, 1943, https://tamiro.massey.ac.nz/nodes/view/1621#idx10932.

W.H. Oliver, Looking for the Phoenix: A Memoir, Wellington, Bridget Williams Books, 2002.

Alison Clarke, Holiday Seasons: Christmas, New Year and Easter in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand, Auckland, Auckland University Press, 2007.

Lizzie Collingham, The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World, London, Bodley Head, 2017.

Fintan O’Toole, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, London, Head of Zeus, 2018.



20190626_114227.jpgNgā mihi o Matariki, arā o te tau hou Māori, ki a koutou!

The appearance in the sky of the star cluster Matariki (the Pleiades) is widely considered to mark the start of the Māori new year (although, as discussed further below, there are differing beliefs around the country). In 2019, Matariki is said to have appeared on 25 June, and at the time of posting Matariki celebrations are nearing an end for this year.

I’m not qualified to write about traditional celebration of Matariki, or about how Matariki fits into Māori astronomical lore. What I want to discuss instead is the relatively recent revival of Matariki as a modern festival.

The celebration of Matariki is a precolonial Māori tradition that continued into the early twentieth century before dwindling away. In a 1967 article in the magazine Te Ao Hou, the Māori writer Harry Dansey commented that widespread lack of awareness of Matariki’s importance in the Māori calendar was proof ‘that when old customs die, they die indeed.’ Yet, while the meaning and context of Matariki celebrations may have changed significantly, they have experienced a remarkable rebirth.

Possibly the first modern celebration of Matariki was reported in Wellington’s Evening Post newspaper in June 1995. Based around Wellington’s Pipitea marae, activities included kite-flying, demonstrations of Māori arts and talks on Māori issues. Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan, MP was patron of the festival, which was organised by artist Diane Prince and others. A revival of Matariki in Hawke’s Bay seems to have occurred in parallel with that in Wellington, with a public Matariki event being held for the first time in Hastings in 2000.

It was in the early 2000s that the public celebration of Matariki really started to take off. A key factor was the championing of Matariki by Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission), which saw Matariki as an opportunity to promote the Māori language, and by Te Papa Tongarewa (the national museum), which started celebrating Matariki as part of its commitment to biculturalism. While Te Papa staff had been marking Matariki privately since the 1990s, Te Papa’s first public Matariki celebrations took place in 2001. The publication of Libby Hakaraia’s book Matariki: The Māori New Year in 2004 was also influential.

Over the past two decades, celebration of Matariki has become increasingly widespread and has grown in popularity. It has been taken up by local authorities around the country as a significant winter festival, and is observed in many schools.

There have also been calls for Matariki to become a public holiday. In 2009, Māori Party MP Rāhui Kātene’s private Member’s Bill, Te Rā o Matariki/Matariki Day Bill, had a first reading in Parliament. The Bill provided for Matariki to become a public holiday to celebrate the Māori new year, with the date of the observance to be notified by the Minister of Māori Affairs, based on expert advice. Although the Bill did not make it through to the select committee stage, the idea of a new holiday remains very much alive (see here, for example). Just today, the New Zealand Republic organisation launched a new petition asking Parliament to make Matariki a public holiday.

Even without a public holiday, Matariki seems to be evolving into a national festival, albeit with distinct local flavours. In 2016, Te Papa declared its aspiration to make Matariki ‘an indigenous event of national identity’, although there is clearly still some way to go to achieve this aim. Research conducted for Te Papa in 2017 found that 69 per cent of people were aware of Matariki but that most people (even most Māori) felt they had a low understanding of what Matariki was about.

Two main arguments are commonly put forward for Matariki to be embraced as a national festival. First, it’s argued that Matariki is indigenous to Aotearoa and is based on the seasons of this land. Celebrating Matariki is a way of recognising and respecting Māori culture, as Rāhui Kātene argued when she introduced her Bill: ‘Matariki is a festival in which we can truly commemorate the indigenous origins of Aotearoa by giving respect to the unique customs and culture of tangata whenua.’ As Kātene went on to note, it’s also a festival that connects Aotearoa to other Pacific countries with similar new year traditions. Indeed, other Polynesian peoples have also revived new year festivals based on the appearance of the Pleiades, such as Makahiki in Hawai’i and Matari’i in Tahiti.

The second key reason given for reviving Matariki in contemporary Aotearoa is that it can unite New Zealanders, bringing them together in a uniquely local celebration. In this respect, it’s often contrasted with the perceived contentiousness of Waitangi Day, and with British-derived celebrations (particularly the Queen’s Birthday, Guy Fawkes Day and New Year’s Eve) seen as having little relevance in New Zealand today. For example, Marilyn Head wrote in the Listener in 2003 that Matariki was ‘a potential alternative to the over-politicised Waitangi Day. Instead of tension and aggression, the spirit of Matariki is gentle, reflective and absolving.’ In the debate on Te Rā o Matariki Bill, Māori Party MP Hone Harawira said the Bill’s purpose was ‘Hei whakakotahi i ngā iwi o te motu i runga anō i ngā tikanga taketake o tēnei whenua’ (translated as ‘to unite the people of this nation on the basis of shared indigenous values’).

The growing recognition of Matariki as a national festival is not without challenges, however. For a start, the ‘nationalisation’ of Matariki could lead to the marginalisation or erasure of regional differences in beliefs about Matariki and the Māori new year. An example of this is the tradition among some iwi (particularly those in the west of the country, where Matariki is less visible) that the new year is heralded by the rising of Puanga (Rigel), rather than Matariki.

There could also be a risk of Matariki becoming an anodyne, depoliticised festival that moves away from its cultural origins. For the most part, it seems that the celebration of Matariki (or Puanga) is a tradition that Māori are happy to share with other New Zealanders. However, Matariki’s modern revival began as part of the project of Māori cultural revitalisation that gathered pace from the 1970s onwards. It involves a conscious celebration of mātauranga Māori (Māori indigenous knowledge) and an attempt to counter the effects of what Radio New Zealand’s Shannon Haunui-Thompson, in a recent discussion of Matariki, called ‘the C-word that we shouldn’t be using on radio – colonisation’. (It’s worth noting that Diane Prince, one of those responsible for Matariki’s modern revival, is an overtly political artist who, in the same year as the first Pipitea Matariki celebration, created a controversial installation at Auckland Art Gallery which invited visitors to tread on the New Zealand flag.)

As Matariki becomes more widely observed, therefore, a tension could develop between Matariki’s origins as a Māori-centred and Māori-controlled celebration and its increasing adoption as a broader community festival.

I don’t share the certainty of one commentator who is so sure Matariki will become a public holiday that he set up an automatic tweet inviting readers to mock him if his prediction does not come true within five years. So I won’t attempt to predict Matariki’s future, but I am confident it will grow and evolve further in the coming years. Its continued evolution will be fascinating to watch.

Further reading

Ann Hardy, ‘Re-designing the National Imaginary: The Development of Matariki as a Contemporary Festival’, Australian Journal of Communication, vol. 39, no. 1, 2012, pp. 101-117.

Takao Miyazato, ‘A Cultural Anthropological Study of the Matariki Tradition and the Maori New Year’, Bulletin of the Graduate School of International Cultural Studies, Aichi Prefectural University, vol. 8, 2007, pp. 193-211.

Guillaume Alévêque, ‘The Rise of the Pleiades: The Quest for Identity and the Politics of Tradition in French Polynesia’, in Edvard Hviding and Knut M. Rio (eds), Made in Oceania: Social Movements, Cultural Heritage and the State in the Pacific (Wantage: Sean Kingston Publishing, 2011), pp. 161-178.

Libby Hakaraia, Matariki: The Māori New Year (Auckland: Reed Publishing, 2004).

Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, Matariki: Aotearoa Pacific New Year (Wellington, 2005).

John King, ‘Kites Mark Maori New Year’, Evening Post (Wellington), 26 June 1995, p. 2.

Marilyn Head, ‘Little Eyes’, Listener, 7 June 2003, pp. 30-31.

Te Rangi Huata, ‘Bay Skies Ablaze for Matariki’, Hawkes Bay Today, 17 June 2013, p. 11.

Of poppies, pacifists … and pirates (continued)

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.

20190505_12144620190505_12140720190505_121418Nelson’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.

Of poppies, pacifists … and pirates

1. Waterloo: couldn’t escape if I wanted to

It’s all, ultimately, the fault of the New Zealand Company.

If the New Zealand Company hadn’t named the township it founded at Port Nicholson ‘Wellington’ after the British military hero and arch-Tory, the nearby city of Lower Hutt might not have named the suburb in which I live ‘Waterloo’ after the Duke of Wellington’s most famous victory. And if the suburb wasn’t named Waterloo, it wouldn’t have so many streets named after military figures and battles. And if there weren’t so many military names in the suburb, there wouldn’t have been so many poppies popping up on our street signs.

The New Zealand Poppy Places Trust promotes the placing of poppy emblems on street signs for streets whose names relate to New Zealanders’ involvement in overseas wars. Local councils, however, are responsible for researching and verifying the military connections of street names, proposing them for recognition and installing the poppy-emblazoned street signs. In 2018, nineteen streets in Lower Hutt were marked with poppies, and a disproportionate number of those are in Waterloo (see the map here).

Only street names that relate to New Zealand service in overseas wars, from the South African (Boer) War onwards, are eligible for the poppy symbol. A question and answer on the Poppy Places website states:

Are the Maori Wars or the NZ Land Wars part of the poppy places project?

No, these events are commemorated in other ways.

The website doesn’t say what these ‘other ways’ might be. As it happens, the military theme of Waterloo’s street names doesn’t encompass names associated with the New Zealand Wars. The one Waterloo street name that is related to the New Zealand Wars is Volkner Grove, commemorating the German missionary Carl Völkner, whose murder at Ōpōtiki in 1865 sparked Crown military action and confiscation against eastern Bay of Plenty Māori who had no involvement in his death. It is not the connection to the New Zealand Wars that explains the naming of Volkner Grove, however; rather, it is one of a number of streets running off Mission Street that are named for famous missionaries.

As you may already have gathered, I’m not a fan of the poppy places project. It seems to further entrench the exaggerated significance attached to the history of New Zealand’s involvement in overseas wars, compared to other aspects of New Zealand history.

At the same time, perhaps the project is doing us a favour by encouraging us to think about the stories behind our street names? Which people and events have been considered worthy of being remembered in the naming of streets, and why?

2. Look to the sky, the spirit of Te Whiti

20190417_150649It’s striking that, right next door to Waterloo and its military street names, a very different history is recognised in the names of some streets and places.

The suburb of Waiwhetū shares its name with the stream that runs through it, and with a pā that formerly existed further downstream. Since 1960, it has been home to a marae, whose meeting house is called Arohanui ki te Tangata (Goodwill to All People). The marae’s founder, Īhāia Pōrutu Puketapu, was a follower of Te Whiti o Rongomai, the Taranaki prophet famous for leading the people of Parihaka in campaigns of non-violent resistance against the confiscation of Taranaki Māori land. In addition to the marae itself, a legacy of Puketapu’s influence is the naming of Te Whiti Park, a public park directly across from the marae, and Te Whiti Grove, a nearby street. I take some comfort from the presence nearby of these names that commemorate the peaceful struggle for justice.

One day, as I was walking around the neighbourhood, I noticed something surprising: a poppy had appeared on the street sign for Te Whiti Grove.

20190304_181639This seemed very peculiar, so I checked Alison Carey’s book about Lower Hutt Street names, Valleys & Bays. Her book confirmed that Te Whiti Grove is indeed named after Te Whiti o Rongomai. However, there is another Te Whiti Grove across the valley in Korokoro, named for Eruera Te Whiti o Rongomai Love. Love, a descendant of the whānau of the Parihaka prophet, grew up in Korokoro, and was the first Māori to command the 28th (Māori) Battalion during the Second World War. Looking at the map on the Poppy Places website, I could see that Te Whiti Grove, Korokoro, was marked and Te Whiti Grove, Waiwhetū, was not. Clearly, a mistake had been made.

I contacted both the Poppy Places Trust and the Hutt City Council, pointing out the mistake and that it was particularly inappropriate for a street commemorating the leader of non-violent resistance to the armed forces of the Crown to be marked with an emblem commemorating service in Crown forces overseas. To their great credit, both organisations recognised the problem immediately, and the incorrect sign in Waiwhetū was quickly replaced.

The incident raises the question once again, however, of which stories from our history we draw attention to in our street names and signs. Te Whiti Grove, Waiwhetū, is unusual in commemorating a person of importance in Māori history, and particularly someone who represents a tradition of peaceful resistance. Most of our street names still commemorate middle-class Pākehā men. One way of addressing this, of course, is to name new streets, or rename existing streets, after a wider range of people. But another could be to use symbols to highlight those existing names that represent a more diverse range of stories. If local iwi agreed, street names relating to Te Ātiawa and Taranaki history could be marked with the Raukura, for example.

But wait, I hear you ask: where are the pirates? You promised us pirates!

Aye, I said there be pirates, and pirates there be…

(To be continued)