Tuesday, May 21


Surfing, it seems to me, is a sport you can only win. 

Even if you don’t catch a wave (as I tend not to) you get to sit on your board and watch the world go by. You can watch the huge boats stuck on the horizon, all waiting their turn to be rifled by the huge cranes waiting languorously in the port. 

You can watch the waves go by, the waves which spend minutes and metres gathering enough strength to rise up out of the sea, only to collapse again into quivering flecks of foam. And you can watch that girl on her long-board, shuffling forward and back like she’s dancing a tango, on her own, on a silver sliver of dance-floor that’s escaped to go play on the sea. She goes through the scene in front of me like a wave, on a wave: up, down, then out of sight.

I’ve taken a break in Gisborne, out on the east coast of the north island of New Zealand, past Napier and Hastings, past even Wairoa and the turn up to the splendidly isolated Lake Waikeremoana tramp (a hike, not a person); the last decent-sized town before the East Cape. Out here, thirty thousand odd souls gives you a certain status, as well as certain responsibilities. 

Much of the centre of town, where the river broadens out in its final dash to the sea, is dominated by the city’s busy port. Huge cargo ships take turns to sidle up to the cranes, slowly manic with their flashing lights and monitory bleeping, and be ritually disembowelled by them. Tiny-looking containers are torn from the ships’ steel bellies; then out lumbers lumber, lumber, lumber. It lays in stacks by the port like a sleeping forest. 

All day and, it would seem, much of the night, the port flashes and bleeps, lifts and lowers, strives and smokoes. As I’m sipping my cider at one of the town’s brighter establishments the port’s tugboat noses up; its twin operators step out of the industrial world onto the deck of a restaurant. They’re immediately greeted by several of the clientele. This isn’t a town with strangers in it.

The spectacular natural harbour constituted by Poverty Bay has meant that Gisborne has always been attractive to seafarers. It was here that, in 1769, Captain Cook first made landfall in New Zealand in his great exploration station, the Endeavour

Some of the local Maori came out to greet him, mounting a ceremonial challenge. Cook’s men opened fire, killing six of them. It was an inauspicious start to the relationship between Māori and Europeans. Cook sailed off again, complaining in his diaries that the place ‘afforded us no one thing we wanted’ – hence ‘Poverty Bay.’

If you follow the path to where the river opens out into the sea, you’ll come to a lawn spread out in the sun like the fur of a lazy green cat. The pines and pohutukawa purr in the wind as it runs its big hand through their hair. There, gazing out to sea, is Captain Cook; nearby is Young Nick, the youngest member of the Endeavour’s crew, pointing out over the water towards Young Nick’s Head. The inscription below Cook’s statue declares him ‘an outstanding captain and an honest man.’

But there are other inscriptions beside the path along the river now, and other stories. A series of boards placed to lure the strolling visitor declare ‘Tupapa: Our Stand. Our Story.’ (Is ‘Our Stand’ a deliberate double-meaning?) They tell a Māori side of the story, a side of the story that goes back long before Cook’s arrival onto the scene. And local tradition holds that Cook’s landing place was also the site of an earlier landing, a landing of two outrigger canoes, the original waka to which all iwi (tribes) ultimately trace their ancestry. 

In this instance, and in this place, the two waka were called Te Ikaroa-a-Rauru and Horouta. In the latter, the signs tell you, was a lady called Hinehakirirangi, who chose to settle nearby, and who brought kumara (sweet potatoes) with her from the old world.

Outside of the busy local police station there’s a monument in the form of a tauihu, an elaborately carved canoe-prow. This one would have given ancient European poets like Vergil, with his knack for vivid descriptions of the figures in lurking in sculptures, fuel for their art; it features Tangaroa the sea-god, Maui the semi-divine explorer-hero, as well as the ancestor Toi Kau Rakau. Below them, an information boards states: ‘Our Māori seafaring Ancestors were sailing confidently around the Pacific Ocean centuries before European Sailors dared to go further than the eye could see, fearing they would fall off the edge of the world.’

That’s true – ish: European sailors were never really afraid of falling off the edge of the earth, whose roundness had been recognized since antiquity; but Polynesians were making their heroic ocean voyages centuries before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Which raises the question: why, more than half a millennium later, was it European ships that were turning up in New Zealand – so large and marvellous that their crew were taken to be gods – and not great Polynesian vessels that were forcing their way up the Thames?

This, of course, is merely a Pacific version of a question which has been asked a few times now, and which is asked by Niall Ferguson in his 2011 blockbuster Civilisation: The West and the Rest, which I’ve brought with me to Gizzy as my spot of holiday reading. 

Ferguson really asks the question about China, which, we will have to admit, is probably the more important question to ask in the larger scheme of world history. What more spectacular (and surprising) a feat in naval exploration can you ask for than the voyages of the seven-foot tall Muslim eunuch Zheng He, who, among his other achievements, managed to bring back a giraffe for the emperor? And yet, five hundred years or so later, British steamers were blowing Chinese war junks out of the water to clear the channels for the lucrative trade in opium. 

‘What are you reading?’ 

It’s the waitress, who is, after all, the only other person in the café I’ve decided to start my reading in on the fine East Coast morning. I hesitate to tell her – I’m accustomed to a university environment – but eventually I meekly raise the cover of my book. Patience quickly sets me at ease. She finds the whole question of why Pakeha were able to take over an obviously interesting one, not least because she has, she tells me, a native American whaler in her whakapapa. She tells me she works for the local council, driving up and down the East Coast and ‘building relationships.’ This is what she’s focussed on; she says we should leave bygones to be bygones and tells me she prays to God so that he’ll bring the whole community together. Not that she seems particularly worried.

Perhaps she should be. New Zealand is soon to have a new history curriculum at school level. Is it going to display the same level of patient level-headedness as Patience, or the same balance as Ferguson manages? 

One of the elementary points made by the latter is that not all empires are the same. Among the European empires of the modern period (themselves much less quick to impale or crucify, it might be noted, than some ancient empires), the Belgian King’s fiefdom in the Congo stands out for its extraordinary cruelty; and the Germans’ colonial projects in South-East and (especially) South-West Afrika in some ways prepared the way for the racial policies of the Nazi era. 

Even in the Pacific (though Ferguson’s book once again has bigger fish to fry), some empires were better than others. Many acted less than high-mindedly. The overthrow of the Hawaiian Queen Lili’uokalani by a band of American revolutionaries in 1893 (aided and abetted by their national government) might seem to take the palm for cynicism, but they had previous examples of similar behaviour to inspire them. In 1843 the French admiral du Petit-Thouars overthrew the Tahitian Queen Pomare, after which point the territory was ruled directly (and with a striking combination of rigidness and absent-mindedness) from Paris. 

At the same time, the cynical foreigners brought with them modern clothing, technology, and medicine, not to mention a lifeline to a global economy that was now rising like a tide, lifting boats, lifting rafts, lifting single-outrigger canoes. (Might their superior technology also explain why the Europeans became more colonizers rather than colonized – or can we put that down to them simply being inexplicably rapacious?) Whether the Europeans intended it or not (and some did), these tides of economic and technological progress also lifted millions of people to previously uncharted levels of wealth, of health, and of longevity. 

In New Zealand, the British signed a treaty at Waitangi with many of the leading Māori chiefs, which promised them the rights of British subjects in return for acknowledging the leadership of the Crown. The treaty was aimed partly at defending Māori from unscrupulous settlers, though it didn’t stop the land repossessions that were a central part of the New Zealand Wars (nés The Māori Wars) – which are now to be, in their turn, a central part of the new New Zealand history curriculum. Not all empires are the same; while the Akkadian, Persian, Roman, Assyrian, Muslim, Inca, Mongol, Aztec, Han and other empires do not generally seem to have entered into restitution processes for land they took, the New Zealand government has, in an extensive series of claims heard before the Waitangi Tribunals. 

The guy who drives me to the airport has the same patience as Patience. He’s from a community up the coast. 

‘Must be quite small,’ I say. 

‘Aw nah,’ he replied. ‘It’s quite big actually. Though obviously not as big as Gizzy.’

He told me how he gave up drinking years ago. But he did like a beer in his younger days. He also liked to party, he told me. Lots of pretty girls round here, but you had to watch out with those Pakeha girls – before you knew it, they’d be wanting to introduce you to their parents, talking about settling down…

Only an observer who was writing in an oppressive, PC-crazed environment would shy away from the rather banal observation that there are still noticeable differences between Māori and Pakeha in Gizzy, as there are in the East Cape, the Waikato, and elsewhere. But the historical differences are being worked out in the courts; the other ones, I’m hopeful, will keep on being worked out on the rugby pitch and in the bedroom. Both places where the activists will find it hard to stop people from doing what comes naturally: from building relationships in the way (or maybe not quite the way) that Patience is praying for; and from judging each other, as people will do, just as other people, without getting too caught up on where they, or their ancestors, have come from.