And on the strangest sea, Paul Moon

New Zealand and the Sea: Historical Perspectives 
Frances Steel (ed)
Bridget Williams Books, $60.00,
ISBN 9780947518707

Ocean: Tales of Voyaging and Encounter that Defined New Zealand
Sarah Ell
Penguin Random House, $70.00,
ISBN 9780143772675

Most histories of nations tend to be terrestrial-bound in their focus, and those of New Zealand are no exception. The land, after all, is where people live, where their social, cultural, and political institutions exist and evolve, and into which the roots of their sense of belonging are sunk. Yes, the sea gets a mention at times, usually as having served in an earlier era as some vast aquatic highway bringing migrants to the shore. Yet, even in this context, the sea tends to be portrayed more often as something that separates New Zealand from other countries – a generally bland oceanic backdrop to where all the “real” history takes place. Two books have now appeared which, in different ways, address aspects of the country’s relationship with the sea, and which both serve as antidotes to those many works which depict New Zealand as a place of forests and farms, cities and towns.

Frances Steel’s edited collection, New Zealand and the Sea, assembles contributions from 17 eminent academics, and divides these into three sections. The first of these – “Horizons” – commences with a chapter by Atholl Anderson, which in some senses anchors the rest of the book. It surveys the historicity of the literature on Polynesian migration around the Pacific and offers a succinct review of sailing technology used in East Polynesian migrations. Anderson runs his academic scalpel through earlier understandings of these migrations, excising old myths, and supplanting them with an absorbing range of recent evidence.

Damon Salesa’s contribution follows, looking at the region from an indigenous perspective, and representing the Pacific as “a cultured ocean of stories and history”. Part of this depiction involves extending the notion of the ocean to include the airspace above it. Through this approach, modern migration by aeroplane is grafted to the thousands of years of trans-Pacific travel. Salesa avoids depicting the past two centuries of New Zealand’s relationship with the seas as conforming to a linear path of constant progress and, instead, offers a far more nuanced interpretation, including an enlightening discussion of the role of decolonisation in the evolution of indigenous identities.

A similar exercise in reframing perspectives is undertaken by Tony Ballantyne, who explores the way New Zealand was drawn into a specifically maritime British Empire. The infrastructure that supported this imperial expansion created intricate networks through which people, capital, technology, religion, and political and social structures spread. Shipping was fundamental to this process and, inevitably, many Māori communities were drawn into this network, producing complex “webs of connection” between the coloniser and the colonised, and New Zealand and the Empire. The elaborate nature of these webs muddies the waters for those who like to see such relationship as simple and binary.

This section closes with a pleasingly idiosyncratic chapter by Peter Gilderdale on the role of postcards in the early 20th century. Gilderdale, a world authority on the topic, shows how the ocean was not just the route by which postcards were sent, but also the subject of the images that many of them portrayed. Through this, we are offered an insight into perceptions of the ocean in this era. Gilderdale reveals that, far from these pictures being “nostalgic and banal”, they “celebrated the new”. However, as sail gave way to steam, and the safety of voyages improved, the sublimity of the ocean was reduced in the minds of many, replaced by more picturesque impressions. Some of the nuances of popular sentiment towards the aquatic expanse both separating and joining New Zealand to the rest of the world are hinted at through postcard preferences at this time.

The second section of New Zealand and the Sea – “Lifeways” – is thematically more diffuse. Michael J Stephens emphasises the notion of Māori (or, at least, Kāi Tahu) history as being fundamentally a maritime history and challenges the “terra-centric” representations of Māori, concluding that New Zealand’s indigenous population remains as much tangata moana as tangata whenua.

For a generation of New Zealanders, mention of the “waterfront” still conjures up images of strikes and industrial turmoil. Grace Millar’s treatment of the idea of the waterfront draws links between it and the homes and families of those working in these sometimes fractious sites. The waterfront was not only a source of employment, but determined where people lived, and how those communities organised themselves, socially and politically. Changes to the industrial conditions in the cities and ports, particularly since the second half of the 20th century, have weakened these patterns. The arrival of container ships from the 1970s separated workers from their cargoes, and reduced the number of workers needed at ports, as well as confining wharf work to a much narrower circumference around the ports.

“Edges” – the book’s final section – fossicks among the many cultural and perceptual encounters between people and the ocean. Douglas Booth’s chapter on representations of the Otago coast begins with Māori connections to the sea, which are based on whakapapa, and which emphasise ways of identifying with particular locations where the sea and land meet. The abundance of seafood at the beach was severely depleted during the colonial period, which was accompanied by perceptual changes of the shore’s importance to (particularly Pākehā) communities. The beach became a site of aesthetic appreciation, which in turn led to it being a place of recreation. A predictable chain of events follows, with spoliation of the beach (resulting from overuse, pollution, quarrying and general negligence) to its disappearance in sections due to erosion, then finally the (still incomplete) notion of “living with the beach”. Throughout this process, the beach is a constantly evolving entity, and the implication is that human encounters with it must follow accordingly. Booth navigates this route carefully, without ever becoming overly prescriptive or didactic in his analyses. 

Susann Liebich dips into popular representations of the sea in magazines in the inter-war period, revealing how these publications emphasised the coast as “timeless spaces of beauty and magnificence; as spaces of mobility and connection, tying the country to larger political and cultural worlds”. Beaches became places onto which the imagination could be projected. They were suddenly sites of glamour and modernity, yet they simultaneously (and perhaps incongruously) reinforced gender roles that had remained largely unchanged from the previous century: yachting and surf-lifesaving were typically the preserve of men, while women were confined to sunbathing and “frolicking on the beach”. 

New Zealand and the Sea’s epilogue is provided by Jonathan Scott and is a triumph of succinctness. Scott wades into the themes, ideas and perspectives that populate the preceding chapters and, in addition to drawing these multitudinous tributaries into broader thematic streams, he interpolates his survey of the book’s main motifs with insights which flow towards a set of broad concluding observations. However, he carefully avoids the temptation to submerge the book’s chapters beneath some grand meta-narrative, with all the ideas and arguments neatly aligned to conform to a determined premise. Instead, he allows each contribution to be its own complete expression of its author’s approach. There are loose ends throughout the work, but, in a way, that is the point. Our engagement with the sea will always be a work in progress. What this volume accomplishes is to offer an erudite, sometimes provocative, but always illuminating, guide to understanding the history and – if what’s past is prologue – the future of our oceanic encounters.

If New Zealand and the Sea is characterised by a rich thematic exploration of the waters surrounding New Zealand, Ocean: Tales of Voyaging and Encounter that Defined New Zealand provides the sort of raw material from which such analyses can be made. Sarah Ell’s sumptuously illustrated volume comprises 10 chapters, covering topics from shipwrecks to the navy, ports, the economy and sports. At the conclusion of each chapter in this otherwise conventionally structured work is a brief personal coda from a contributor whose experience relates to the chapter’s theme. This innovation works very effectively, serving as a conduit connecting the history of a place or event with someone directly associated with it.  

The opening two chapters tackle the earliest human arrivals to New Zealand – first Polynesian, then European. Most of this historical terrain has been extensively covered in numerous other publications, but it nonetheless serves a purpose in this book, helping to set the maritime scene for the content that follows. With the scene-setters dispensed with, Ell dips into the nature of commerce around the country’s shores during the early colonial period. This chapter and those that follow display her preference for a structure which resembles a patchwork quilt of often isolated episodes, stitched together for their cumulative effect. Such a method has its risks, but Ell sidesteps these. The result is a series of unfailingly fascinating vignettes, including many unexpected ones, such as the section dealing with Betty Guard, wife of the whaler John Guard. This is a welcome inclusion in the field of maritime activity, where women have been rendered almost invisible by most previous writers. 

The chapter on Tauiwi mixes the familiar (the French at Akaroa) with the less well known, such as the burning of the Cospatrick – a ship taking British settlers to New Zealand – which resulted in the death of 470 passengers and crew. Ell’s skill in this approach is twofold: judiciously selecting and juxtaposing events, and then depicting them in carefully crafted prose which a reader cannot help but be enticed by.

The chapter on “Te Ao Moana” similarly puts the apparently trivial alongside the more substantial. There is, for example, a nostalgic view of stamps picturing aspects of the coast, which is followed by the sorry fate of the Rainbow Warrior.

Ocean: Tales of Voyaging and Encounter that Defined New Zealand closes with a chapter on “Play”. There are intriguing cases of early coastguard rescues, the era of beach carnivals (with Timaru audaciously being described in 1964 as “The Riviera of New Zealand”), and beach-side beauty pageants which attracted thousands of onlookers. The final account is of New Zealand’s first America’s Cup campaign, for which the insignia “KZ7” will still resonate for some readers. It is fitting that this episode is followed by the last of the personal contributions – this one by Sir Russell Coutts, whose success in yachting in the Olympics and the America’s Cup makes him the embodiment of the notion of aquatic play taken to its competitive extreme.

Given the expansive scope of this book, a case could be made for Ell to have drawn on a broader range of sources to inform the text. However, the content of the chapters serves primarily as impressionistic surveys, and there is no pretence at the work being an in-depth, comprehensive history. One of the accomplishments of this volume is the way it knits the familiar with the obscure in a single cohesive narrative that entertains as much as it informs.  

In both of these books, the creative hand of the publisher is evident. These works are richly illustrated and elegantly laid out. And, importantly, the abundance of images is not some afterthought to appeal to page-flicking bookshop customers, but is an integral part of these texts, carefully illustrating and complementing the narratives. For such judicious design, the publishers of both books deserve high praise. 

Paul Moon is professor of history at Auckland University of Technology and is currently writing a biography of James Busby.

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