Monday, February 1, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“NIUE 1774-1974: Two Hundred Years of Contact and Change” by Margaret Pointer (Otago University Press, $NZ50)

I confess to my tardiness in reviewing Margaret Pointer’s excellent and well-illustrated Niue 1774-1974. The book was published in March of last year (2015) and has for too long been in my “to do” pile before at last, in my recent summer holidays, I got around to reading it.
            Like me, you probably have to look up Niue on a map. It is north of the Kermadecs, south of Samoa, between Tonga and the Cooks, and somehow connected to New Zealand. Its people are Polynesian. It is small, and with a resident population that is diminishing as more Niueans become permanent residents of Auckland and environs. There was once a politician called Robert Rex who was associated with it.
            That, in one short paragraph, is about as much as I, in my ignorance, knew about Niue before opening Niue 1774-1974.
Margaret Pointer’s husband was New Zealand High Commissioner on Niue in the late 1990s and she lived on the island with her family for five years. She has made a number of return visits in the course of researching her book. She describes her first sighting of the island in the 1990s as she saw it from a plane: “No looming volcanic peaks, no sparkling azure lagoon, no tiny atolls, just one large piece of flat rock less than half the size of Lake Taupo.” (Introduction, p.13). We are at once made aware of the island’s isolation and smallness, both of which have been factors in the Niueans’ development. In a popular and accessible style, but with a wealth of solid research behind it, Niue 1774-1974 sets out to tell the island’s story from first European contact to the achievement of internal self-government and independence.
Margaret Pointer neatly divides her text [liberally sprinkled with “break-ins” of stories with particular significance] into four sections. First, the island before any European settlement. Then the island coming gradually under British control and into the orbit of the British Empire in the late nineteenth century. Then the years from 1903 to the 1960s, when Niue was under New Zealand administration. And finally the shift towards independence.
The account of early contacts makes it clear the Niue was one of the last places in the Pacific in which Europeans took an interest. This was partly because, almost completely surrounded by a forbidding rocky reef, the island offers no safe anchorage; but partly, too, because the island had gained a reputation as one of the more savage and inhospitable places in the Pacific. It seems that, despite the smallness of Niue, there were mutually antagonistic clans on the island, frequently at war with one other. “The missionaries soon learned that every district of the island was separate from, and often hostile to, every other district and – as whalers had noticed – as soon at the ship drifted along the coast, canoes that had approached them from one area returned home rapidly before canoes came out from the next.” (Chapter 3 p.55) The islanders’ very first encounters with Europeans came when James Cook called there, on Resolution, in 1774. But both Cook’s attempts at greeting the natives ended badly with exchanges of stone-throwing and musket shots. Probably nobody was hurt, but Cook withdrew rapidly and Pointer remarks “There is an element of frustration and bad temper in his diary comments about the landing on Niue, especially regarding his decision to name the place Savage Island.” (Chap. 1 p.32)
The name Savage Island was itself a deterrent to further European interest, and it seems that it was not for fully another fifty-plus years before outsiders touched on the island - a Yankee whaler looking for fresh water in 1828. Only in 1849 (by which time most other Pacific islands had been mapped, explored or claimed by the British or the French) did a British naval vessel call on Niue. There was one widespread story of a shipwrecked crew having been murdered and eaten by islanders, but the detail of cannibalism is almost certainly fictitious. Niueans did not eat red meat. Fish and taro, yam and coconuts were their diet. Once Yankee and British ships began to visit, Niueans were eager to gain metal fishhooks as trade items, as they were so much more reliable than the bone and wooden hooks upon which they had had to rely for centuries. Europeans introduced pigs in the 1850s, but Niueans refused to eat them, and kept them only for barter when passing ships wanted provisions. Also, unlike most Polynesian peoples, Niueans did not practise tattooing. They were surprised by the tattoos that were sometimes sported by European sailors.
It was not explorers and passing whalers or naval men who changing Niuean society, however, but Protestant missionaries. Coming from the evangelical London Missionary Society, one missionary visited, but did not land on, the island in the 1830s. LMS-taught Samoan “native mission teachers” were landed on Niue in early 1850. They had an immediate impact and prepared the way for the first European missionary to set foot on the island in 1857. In some parts of the Pacific, prolonged early contacts with Europeans led to population decline as new diseases were introduced. Paradoxically, the population of Niue increased under the impact of missionaries as the newcomers preached against clan warfare and infanticide. Margaret Pointer suggests that, as in all Pacific missionary history, there have been debates concerning how much the initial acceptance of Christianity was a matter of being attracted to the material advantages Europeans had to offer. [See my earlier postings on The French Place in the Bay of Islands, Entanglements of Empire, Outcasts of the Gods? etc.]
When she settles into the second part of her history, Margaret Pointer has to concentrate on what amounts to the prolonged “rule” of the missionaries, and the tension that developed with other outside influences. As late as 1860, there was no single European resident on Niue. The first was the formidable LMS missionary William George Lawes in 1861. Pointer notes:
 “At the outset… Niue was something of an LMS ‘laboratory’. Where else did an English missionary settle to spread the word and not have to contend with other Europeans behaving badly? No idle, blaspheming sailors waiting for the next vessel, no traders tempting the locals into debt, no merchants offering the demon drink, no beachcombers or other arrivals seeking the pleasures of the flesh. No other missionary society attempted to establish itself on Niue in the nineteenth century.” (Chapter 5 p.90)
Up until the 1890s, Lawes and his extended missionary family were the only resident Europeans on Niue. Pointer stresses that the Lawes clan were respectful of local culture, hardworking and benevolent; but they did impose a moral code involving regularised Christian marriage, seemly dress and a prohibition of alcohol; and they suggested punishments (administered by the separate villages) for those who infringed the code. The influence of this code remained very strong until the mid-twentieth century, and was to come into conflict with later forms of governance. In the Lawes’ time, the village of Alofi and its church became the centre of island activity. But the island’s society began to change with the arrival of traders and the copra trade. By the 1890s, many young Niuean men were going off to indentured labour elsewhere. There were shocking experiences, such as groups of Niueans being kidnapped by Peruvian ships to work as forced labour collected guano. Single men were often indentured for guano digging on distant (and barren) Malden Island. Couples were sometimes indentured as labour in copra plantations in Fiji and elsewhere. By the early 1900s, about a tenth of Niue’s population was always away working elsewhere in the Pacific.
Under the impact of missionaries, there had developed a “Fono” or island council at which many village chiefs met together for general discussions and decision-making. There was a “king” for some years, but he was chosen from among the chiefs and the office did not last long. Sometimes the locals, encouraged by missionaries, sent petitions requesting that Niue become a British protectorate. But in the 1880s and 1890s, as the British and Germans jockeyed for influence in that part of Pacific, it was agreed the Niue would be “neutral” territory.
Finally the island did become a British protectorate in mid-1900. In the same year the imperialist Richard John Seddon visited Niue. Australian federation was looming and Seddon wanted to enhance New Zealand’s status by expanding its boundaries in the Pacific. In October 1900, Lord Ranfurly formally annexed Niue – with approval of Niuean chiefs – to the British Empire, not to New Zealand. But by a piece of diplomatic trickery, it was then agreed that New Zealand’s boundaries now included all the Cook Islands and Niue. Hence Niue was now de facto annexed to New Zealand. This caused much consternation among Niueans, as the annexation seemed to make them subordinate to Rarotonga. Only in 1903, when a group of New Zealand parliamentarians visited, was it agreed, to the Niueans’ satisfaction, that the island would be administered directly from Wellington, and not through the Cook Islands. Thenceforth, there was on Niue a residence for a New Zealand official.
In her long section on the sixty-odd years of New Zealand administration, it is clear that some enduring laws were very much of their age. Alcohol remained absolutely forbidden to the indigenous people, but acceptable for Europeans. European ministers could marry both indigenous and European couples, but indigenous ministers could marry only indigenous couples. Margaret Pointer does not dwell on this, but there is a slight whiff of apartheid to these and other laws and customs, although there was no ban on interracial marriage, which happened often enough considering the tiny size of the island’s Palagi population.
Regrettably for New Zealand’s reputation, it is clear that the administration of Niue tended to attract neither the most ambitious nor the most qualified New Zealand officials. Scandal (hushed up at the time) engulfed the first resident commissioner, Christopher Maxwell, who lasted only a few years. Maxwell broke the Suppression of Immorality Ordinance Act, which he had signed into law, by having an affair with a married native woman. The second resident commissioner Henry Cornwall lasted ten years (1907-17), but he too got into trouble and was eventually confronted over the fact that he had impregnated at least one native woman and seduced others and yet had passed, in court, judgment on men who had done similar heinous things.
We might now also pass different judgements from the patriotic ones that were passed at the time on the 125 young Niuean men served for New Zealand in the First World War. Like other non-white troops, but unlike at least some New Zealand Maori, they were not used as combat troops. Instead they  “carried supplies, loaded and unloaded vessels, stood guard, manned ammunition dumps, dug trenches and built duckboards, served food and cleaned latrines.” (p.194) In France the Niueans, out of their tropical climate, were put into the front line to dig trenches. Most of them quickly contracted pneumonia, were invalided out, and came back – permanently sick – to Niue within a year. Because shipping stopped there so rarely, Niue was spared the lethal “influenza” plague that visited Samoa (and New Zealand) in 1918-19, but the story of the Niuean soldiers is still a tragic instance of an indigenous people’s involvement in a war that was not theirs.  
After New Zealand had taken over the former German colony of Samoa, Niue became an even less desirable posting for New Zealand officials seeking work in the Pacific. Most preferred Samoa or the Cook Islands, which had more direct communications with the outside world (although Niue did get its first radio link with New Zealand in 1924). In 1921, there was the notorious case of a murder trial being ineptly conducted by the resident schoolteacher when the resident commissioner was absent and there was no qualified official to second him.
In the interwar years, the influence of the resident LMS missionaries was still very strong, but was beginning to weaken as government primary schools began to supersede missionary schools. A handful of Seventh Day Adventists took up residence on the island in the 1920s, and in the 1950s Mormons and other denominations arrived, causing the old evangelicals to lose their monopoly on religious belief. Missionaries had managed to chase away the first attempt to introduce movies in 1915. But by the 1930s there was electric lighting on the wharf at Alofi and dances were held there to recorded music provided by visiting ships. Niueans, says Margaret Pointer, swung to Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington “much to the consternation of the LMS, who complained of ‘the dangers arising from these imported customs… the Niueans not yet [being] ready for experiments in promiscuous dancing.’ ” (Chapter 11 “The Interwar Years”, p.224)
Niue did not directly contribute to forces in Second World War, although there were some young men who were willing to enlist. Indeed some came to New Zealand specifically to do so. One long-serving resident commissioner (again blotting the copybook of New Zealand administration) left with a huge and embarrassing pile of unpaid debts and clear signs of embezzlement. Then there was a big conflict between the old-style LMS missionary who was so deeply opposed to work on the Sabbath that for a number of years he virtually wrecked the island’s banana trade, because there were only limited times that ships could arrive to pick up the island’s produce. If they arrived on a Sunday, the crop of bananas could not be collected and was left to rot on the wharf, as there was no harbour allowing ships to anchor overnight. This problem was solved only when the old zealot was replaced by a more accommodating minister.
The biggest jolt that New Zealand administration of Niue ever received came in 1953. Hector Larsen, a forthright, outspoken, but capable resident commissioner, was murdered in his home at night by an intruder, with his wife and children barely escaping the same fate. In the ensuing trial (and condemnation to death) of the three prison escapees who committed the murder, a political storm blew up in New Zealand about inadequacies of the administration of justice in Niue, and the fact that New Zealand personnel sent to Niue were often poorly trained and ill-prepared for the administrative work they were meant to do. New Zealand was implicitly criticised for its failure to prepare Niue for the greater autonomy it should have been enjoying under new United Nations initiatives. Of Larsen’s murder, Margaret Pointer argues: “It has to be blamed on a systemic failure going back 50 years. It has to be seen within the context of successive New Zealand governments’ administration of Niue – their neglect, lack of understanding, oversight. It has to be seen within the context of colonial administration generally, and the administration of a small and isolated island in particular. The system of administration that had been allowed to evolve in Niue meant that Hector Larsen was let down by the New Zealand government. There were warning balls, some sounding back decades.” (Chapter 13 “An End to Complacency”, p.272)
            Logically, the fourth and last section of Niue 1774-1974 deals with the island’s road to (a sort of) independence. Robert Rex, beginning as a capable translator, emerged as the logical leader for an independent governing body. The cyclone disaster that struck Niue in 1959 oddly contributed to the move towards independence by showing some weaknesses in local organization, even though much necessary help was sent to Niue from New Zealand. By the 1960s there was a strong move towards internal self-government while sustaining links with New Zealand. By the time independence was achieved in 1974, the island was much more open to the world, with an airfield having been constructed and full communication links in place.
And it is at this point, forty years ago, that Margaret Pointer ends her story. Perhaps she thought it was not for a Palagi to chronicle the island’s political history over the last four decades. Even so, it does leave thing hanging in the air somewhat, and I wish her “Afterword” could have been longer and more comprehensive.
As you have probably gathered from my above simple summary of the book’s contents, I found Niue 1774-1974 interesting and very informative reading. While being aware that the island and its community are tiny, the book shows a very strong awareness that, for the island’s inhabitants, each event that it records was momentous. The island, in effect, was once (but is no longer) a world unto itself.
I must record a few minuses. Only in her brief afterword does Margaret Pointer note that Niue’s population is now merely somewhere between 1200 and 1500 people. Although it is mentioned elsewhere in the text, there is far too little on the impact of emigration, and the resident population’s decline from a maximum of about 4,500. We hear virtually nothing about the larger Niuean population that now lives in New Zealand. Because of this major demographic fact, I do not buy Pointer’s final vision of the unchanging and eternal island. Yes, the eternal waves may crash on the reef and the coral may endure (if climate change lets it) but this “eternity” of Niue is true only if you ignore the huge change that has happened to its people in the last two centuries.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.  

 “TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST” by Richard Henry Dana Jr. (first published 1840). 

            In exploring literature, one of the most curious things that can happen is to read a book about which one has heard for years, and to discover that in reality it is not very much like its public reputation. This has been my experience with Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast.
Only recently did I get around to reading it.
Over the preceding years, I had acquired the impression that it was a great work of protest – that the main purpose of its young author was to expose and condemn the harsh conditions under which sailors had to toil in the early nineteenth century. Now I discover by reading Dana’s own words (as opposed to brief references to him in literary histories) that this is only a minor part of Dana’s concerns. The major impact of Two Years Before the Mast is not as a work of protest, but as an interesting and varied travel book, more akin to such Victorian works as Kinglake’s Eothen than to vigorous muckraking expose.
And yet elements of protest there are.
Some background. Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1815-1882) was a New England Brahmin, associated with some of the foremost Yankee writers of his day. His father was also Richard Henry Dana and was also an author – for which reason the younger man was usually billed as Richard Henry Dana Junior. The younger man was taught by Ralph Waldo Emerson. James Russell Lowell was a classmate. One of his sons married the daughter of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This was American literary aristocracy. Dana Junior was a lawyer and an abolitionist who fought the good fight against slavery, rose to high position at the bar and was one of those who prosecuted the leaders of the defeated Confederacy after the American Civil War in the 1860s. Yet despite his achievements, and despite some other travel books, he would always be remembered chiefly for Two Years Before the Mast, which appeared when he was only 25.
Dana was a Harvard freshman in danger of ophthalmia after a severe bout of measles. Rather than take a rest cure by going to Europe, in 1834, when he was 19, he chose a more strenuous encounter with different climes by signed on as a sailor with the brig Pilgrim. The merchantman sailed from Boston in August 1834 and Dana did not see his home again until September 1836. But he did not spend all of those two years at sea.
The Pilgrim sailed around Cape Horn to California. It took the best part of six months (August 1834 to January 1835) to get from Boston to Santa Barbara in Alta California (remember, it was another 80 years before there was a Panama Canal). Only after they had been aboard for four months were Dana and S-, the two trainees, allowed to move from steerage to the forecastle where the other sailors slept  - in other words, only then were they literally “before the mast”. After this six-month outward voyage, Dana spent most of the following year in Alta California ashore and engaged in the long toil of gathering and hauling aboard the tons of cowhides that were valuable for their leather. For some months, he was put in charge of the whole process of drying and curing the hides, as well as ensuring their haulage to the merchantman, and he describes this process in great detail. Coastal runs acquainted him with the long distances between the old Californian mission stations and the inland settlement of Los Angeles. He observed and wrote about the locals and the region’s flora and fauna. All the time, he believed he had signed on for two years, and would return to Boston to resume his legal studies. He was therefore horrified to realise that his employers could bind him over for four years and he began to fret that he would never see home until he was too old to be a student. After months on shore, he managed to get transferred to the ship Alert and once again looked forward to the voyage home, but he was almost forced to re-join the crew of the Pilgrim. He escaped this fate by getting somebody else to sign on in his place. So he made the six-month journey back to Boston on board the Alert.
In effect, Two Years Before the Mast is the narrative of a year working on the coast of California sandwiched between narratives of a six-month outward voyage and a six-month homeward voyage.
In what respect in this a work of protest, as it is so often described? Only inasmuch as it describes honestly the hard-working and sometimes dangerous lives of sailors.
Dana and his readers would have been aware that harsh discipline was to be expected on naval vessels, but both the Pilgrim and the Alert are private merchantmen. Dana explains that on a merchantman the captain is “lord paramount”, and the first mate carries out his orders; but being the second mate is “a dog’s berth… he is neither officer nor man”. The steward is the captain’s personal servant. “The cook, usually a darkey, is the patron of the crew, and those who are in his favour can get their wet mittens and stockings dried, or light their pipes at the galley in the night watch”. The other skilled men aboard are the carpenter and sail-maker. It is a very hierarchical micro-society, and the sailors have, in effect, no say in how the ship is run. There is the principle of constant work for sailors – very little time is allowed for conversation or lounging on the deck. “In no state prison are the convicts more regularly set to work, and more closely watched.” (Chapter 3)
Once these truths are established, however, Two Years Before the Mast spends many chapters simply recording the hard work of the crew without registering protest at it – setting the sails, greasing the masts, holystoning the deck, keeping watch etc.
The major blow falls in Chapter 15. The captain (identified throughout only as “Captain T-”) flogs a simple-minded sailor who spoke a word out of turn. Another sailor attempts to intervene and he too is flogged. The special horror of this comes from the sadistic delight of the captain, who says he flogs as he enjoys it; and the denial of medical help to the men whose backs have been scoured; and the practical impotence of the crew, who know they would be tried for mutiny if they resisted the captain, or for piracy if they attempted to take over the ship. Shortly after this (Chapter 17) a sailor called Foster, who has been unfairly demoted from officer to mere sailor, takes the opportunity of a port visit to desert. But by Chapter 20, when Dana is ashore in California, the Pilgrim visits with a new and more affable captain, and the implication is that, in spite of the necessarily hard life of sailors, and the nasty misuse of power by “Captain T-”, this was a matter of a flawed captain rather than of a flawed system.
However, something goes wrong aboard the Alert as well. When Dana speaks of the mistreatment of another young and impressionable sailor on the homeward voyage, he remarks: “The truth is, the unlimited power which merchant captains have upon long voyages on strange coasts takes away the sense of responsibility, and too often, even in men otherwise well disposed, substitutes a disregard for the rights and feelings of others.” (Chapter 29)
On this return voyage (Chapter 31), members of the crew believe the captain of the Alert is behaving irresponsibly in not setting the correct course when they are threatened by icebergs. They appeal to the mate, who is almost ready to relieve the captain of his command. Technically, this would be mutiny. Fortunately, the captain responds diplomatically – after giving the mate a stern warning – no mutiny occurs, and the Alert sails peacefully on with a crew whose main focus is getting home.
These passages are as strident as Dana’s “protest” gets. Doubtless they would have been shocking to the memoir’s first readers, and Dana’s outrage at flogging is consonant with a man who worked so long for the abolition of slavery. But even so, these passages occupy only a very small part of the book, though they have featured greatly on the more lurid covers of cheap reprints, which would mislead readers into thinking that Two Years Before the Mast was entirely about sadistic discipline and the lash.
What surprises (and dismays) me much more in this book is the space given to what amounts to advance publicity for an American takeover of California. It is true that the chapters dealing with Alta California say some pleasant things about the region’s Hispanic inhabitants. There is a chapter rejoicing in the fiesta accompanying a wedding. There are pleasant accounts of being fed fine meals by priests at the mission stations. Dana diverts us (as 21st century readers) by explaining things that we would now take for granted. He explains what a strange vessel called a “catamaran” is, and tells us that Mexicans use “long leather ropes, called lassos” (Chapter 13) and discourses on “beach-combers” (Chapter 19) and describes the wild dog, the “coati” (coyote), and rattlesnakes.
But there is a subtext about how much better California would be if it were part of the USA. Remember, in 1840 when the book was published, Alaska was still owned by Russia and the contiguous states of the USA occupied approximately half the space they do now. All of Alta California was still Mexican territory. But (Chaps. 11 ff.) you can hear the drumbeat of “manifest destiny” and American imperialism when Dana describes Hispanics as lazy:
The Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves. The country abounds in grapes, yet they buy, at an immense price, wine made in Boston and brought round by us, and retail it among themselves at a real (twelve and a half cents) for the small wine glass. Their hides, too, which they value at two dollars in money, they barter for something which costs seventy-five cents in Boston; and buy shoes (as like as not made of their own hides, which have been carried twice around Cape Horn) at three and four dollars….” (Chapter 13)
Dana gives (in Chapter 21) his whole account of the government of California. He says the old church-run missions, in the days when Mexico was part of the vast Spanish Empire, began as genuine charities catering to the welfare of the indigenous people, but that they were spoilt by success and became exploitative and concerned for their own status. Their lands were largely expropriated by the new Mexican government when Mexico became independent. However, the new government administrators were even more exploitative than the church had been, and their administration of justice was arbitrary. In Mexican California, says Dana, a group of American and English hunters took the law into their own hands when a murder occurred and the Mexican administration was too lazy to do anything about it. “Forty Kentucky hunters, with their rifles, and a score of Yankees and Englishmen, were a match for a whole regiment of hungry, drawling, lazy half-breeds.”
Chapter 21 ends with what amounts to a call for American annexation when Dana says:
Such are the people who inhabit a country embracing four or five hundred miles of sea-coast, with several good harbours; with fine forests in the north; the waters filled with fish, and the plains covered with thousands of herds of cattle; blessed with a climate than which there can be no better in the world; free from all manner of diseases, whether epidemic or endemic; and with a soil in which corn yields from seventy to eighty fold. In the hands of an enterprising people, what might this country be!
Dana’s description of San Francisco Bay reads almost like the prospectus of a real-estate agent:
If California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the centre of its prosperity. The abundance of wood and water: the extreme fertility of its shores; the excellence of its climate, which is as near to being perfect as nay in the world; and its facilities for navigation, affording the best anchoring grounds in the whole western coast of America – all fit for a place of great importance.” (Chapter 26)
This was written less than a decade before the 1848 war of annexation, in which the United States basically appropriated (i.e. stole) about half the territory of Mexico – and then there was the gold rush of 1849 and the influx of non-Hispanic miners to seal the American grip on the territory. Dana’s book was certainly one impetus for all this.
I should add that while Dana could not reasonably be called racist by the standards of his day, was on the side of the underdog (slaves; mistreated sailors) and did say many positive things about both Hispanics and Pacific Islanders, there are other passages in the book which suggest an attitude of cultural superiority. We are told how lazy Italian crews are, over-staffing their ships with underworked men, unlike the efficient Yankees and British (Chapter 18). There is a very unflattering view of a Russian crew (down from “Russian America” – i.e. Alaska) as slovenly and unwashed and covered in grease (Chapter 26).
If Dana is to be credited as a reformer, let us also recall his implicit American imperialism and his cultural chauvinism.
Having noted these two aspects of Two Years Before the Mast, however, I must admit that I am being far too hard on Dana. His most famous book, when it engages with the sea, is simply delightful. Of course one has to match wits with a host of obscure sea-faring terms. I already knew what a few of the following terms meant, but others I had to work out by context, and still others remain a mystery to me. See how you do:
Slings, yard-arms, bunts, bow ports, futtock shrouds, hawser holes, knight-heads, topgallant, studding rail, tarring, “riding down”, martingale, spirit sail, trysail, courses, afteryards, royal, main royal, studding sails….
No jargon impedes the descriptions of the moods of the sea and life aboard and ashore, however.
As a novice, young Dana vomits copiously when he first has to go aloft during a storm, and the stench of bilge water is “like a good emetic”. (Chapter 2) Rounding Cape Horn on the outward voyage, he rejoices to hear whales breathing and singing. He is nearly knocked overboard by swaying jib. He enjoys “a tin pot full of hot tea (or, as the sailors call it, ‘water bewitched’) sweetened with molasses”. Great albatrosses lie sleeping on the sea swell. (Chapter 5) A sailor falls overboard and drowns (like so many sailors, he could not swim). (Chapter 6) Passing the island of Juan Fernandez inevitably brings out a reference to Robinson Crusoe.
In Alta California, Dana and his shipmates learn how to manage small boats coming in through the surf by watching how “Sandwich Islanders” do it. (Never once are the terms “Hawaii” or “Hawaiian” used.) (Chap. 9) The “Sandwich Islanders” call themselves “Kanaka” and also seem to apply the term to all other Polynesians. American sailors tease them about being cannibals and having eaten Captain Cook. The Hawaiians indignantly reply that they are not cannibals, saying “New Zealand Kanaka eat white man: Sandwich Island Kanaka – no. Sandwich Island Kanaka all ‘e same a’ you.” (Chapter 19) It is interesting confirmation of the fact that, to non-Maori, New Zealand was once regarded as one of the more dangerous places in the Pacific.
While revelling in at least some aspects of life afloat, Dana also rhapsodises the sailor’s sense of liberty when he is left ashore with a day’s leave to wander: “I shall never forget the delightful sensation of being in the open air, with the birds singing around me, and escaped from the confinement, labour, and strict rule of a vessel – of being once more in my life, though only for a day, my own master. A sailor’s liberty is but for a day; yet while it lasts it is entire….”(Chapter 16)
At sea on the voyage home, there is a sublime description of a huge and threatening wind blowing when the night sky is absolutely clear and the stars are shining and, but for the buffeting the ship was getting, one would imagine that it was a peaceful night (Chapter 25). Chapters 31 and 32 convey vividly the heavy storms before rounding Cape Horn and the threatening beauty of a huge iceberg and the howling gale and the perils of having to reset ice-covered rigging (these particular scenes were greatly admired by Herman Melville, who thought he could not match Dana’s description of rounding the Horn). But, in the midst of the violence of the sea, there is the added and poignant detail of Dana having to endure a dreadful toothache and, after much pleading, being allowed to spend a few days lying in the tiny space of the forecastle to recover. This is one of the most painful passages of illness endured during travel, standing comparison with Henry Fielding’s account of suffering gout and dropsy in his Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon.
There are, too, the quieter things which remind us of the loneliness and sense of isolation which sailors had to endure, and their desperation for diversion.  Dana mentions frequently the joy of receiving newspapers from home. Early in his book, he is delighted to find on ship a copy of an English novel, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s recent (1830) Paul Clifford, which he devours in his rare hours off duty below deck. In Chapter 29, he is lucky enough to acquire a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel Woodstock. The young man reads it aloud to fellow sailors, to pass their time and his. He also listens to yarns spun by crewmates, such as the one about the harpooner whose legs became entangled in the rope attached to his harpoon, and who was almost dragged under by the sinking corpse of the whale, which had ceased to be buoyant because it had been gutted (Chapter 5). In later chapters (especially when homeward bound) many such stories are told, including the varied career of the English sailor Tom Harris with whom Dana often kept watch. Harris impresses Dana with his wide learning despite his lack of formal education, and becomes almost the book’s image of a noble and capable sailor.
At this point I’m almost tempted to make a snarky comment about how there is no reference or allusion whatsoever to any sexual activity on board ship or in the freer times of shore leave – but there isn’t so, think what you will of sailors and their ways, that’s that.
Two lame points to conclude:
One odd quality, for the modern reader, is the “ghost” effect created when Dana mentions tiny little Hispanic settlements in California that are now megalopolises - Los Angeles, San Francisco etc. We can’t help visualising the modern freeway-torn urban monsters even when the words are describing villages.
There is also the sheer unevenness of the book, with many longueurs as Dana skips from topic to topic. This seems at least in part the effect of the memoir’s having been built up from diary entries. Even so, the descriptions of sea and the sailor’s life make it worth reading.
Informative footnote: 25 years after its first publication, Dana added a long postscript to Two Years Before the Mast, which apparently elaborated on his reformist ideas. He also emended the text somewhat. It is, however, the book in its original form upon which I have been commenting here.
Silly and impudent footnote: A book like Two Years Before the Mast, being a plotless collection of observations, descriptions and self-contained anecdotes, is essentially unfilmable and impossible to dramatise. In 1946, however, Old Hollywood brought out a film of the same name and claiming to be based on “the world famous novel”[sic]. Alan Ladd stars as a shanghaied sailor, William Bendix is a sadistic captain, Brian Dunleavy is a passive character who happens to be a writer called Dana. There are flogging scenes, love interest and a full-scale mutiny. In short, it has absolutely nothing to do with Dana’s book apart from the title, and plays like a standard piece of juvenile yo-he-ho maritime adventure; or maybe like a cheaper remake of Mutiny on the Bounty. Again one notes that those were the days when Hollywood still liked to capitalise on the titles of well-known books, even if they hadn’t the faintest idea what to do with them.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


One morning not too long ago, I had the pleasure of walking down the surf beach at Raglan, starting from its northern end – the end nearest the grassy strip that is the little airfield. Mount Karioi appealed to me. The waves dashing against the rocks appealed to me. The land on the other side of the estuary mouth appealed to me. It was a delightful place in that weather and at that time of day and in the company I was keeping (that of my wife, of course).

Then there was a moment of enchantment.

Ahead of me was a large piece of driftwood. As you might know before from this blog (look up the posting In Praise of Driftwood), I have looked before, and with interest, at driftwood on this same beach. But the large piece of driftwood I now saw was very special. From the distance at which I first noticed it, it had the exact same shape as a stately bird, long-necked and long-beaked and looking at the sky, perhaps wistfully, as the rest of its skein or flock disappeared across the horizon.

What a perfect natural work of art! ” I thought as I gazed at it from a distance of about fifty metres, moved by its swan-like or goose-like or teal-like poise.

But as I drew nearer and nearer the fine and poised bird dissolved. It became a rough piece of wood, eaten by the sea and its salt, burnt by the sun, with a rough and hole-ridden texture and looking like nothing in particular except a big piece of wood.

Is art made out of this sort of delusion, perhaps? Do we impose upon the natural world shapes that are not really there, giving them forms that do not belong to them, endowing them with feelings and qualities that come solely from our own brains?

In effect, do we see what we want to see, rather than seeing the material thing in front of us?

Some months back I read and reviewed A. Alvarez’s book about suicide The Savage God.  It was in that text that I, for the first time, heard the story of l’Inconnue de la Seine – the Unknown Woman of the Seine. The legend goes thus: sometime in the 1880s, the body of a young woman, probably a suicide and probably a teenager, was pulled out of the Seine. She was never identified. But when she was taken to the morgue, the chief attendant was so struck by her beauty that he at once had a death mask made of her. Everyone who saw the death mask was overcome by its rare beauty. Soon, many copies were made of the death mask. These copies appeared in the studios of artists and sculptors throughout France and then throughout the rest of Europe. For many, l’Inconnue de la Seine was the ideal of feminine beauty. People were intrigued by what appeared to be her mysterious smile, just as they were intrigued by the smile of the Mona Lisa. The artists were inspired by her when they painted portraits of other women. Poems and novels were written about her. Actresses tried to emulate her looks. There was speculation on whom exactly she was, and many fictional stories were woven of a great personal tragedy that had brought her to her end. Eventually, she had a strange posthumous fame when her face became the model for the face of the first CPR (artificial respiration) models.

Now nearly everything I have said about her was true.

There really was a rage for l’Inconnue de la Seine, and there really were numerous imaginative works written about her, by well-known literary figures, in the 1920s and 1930s.

But there is just one little snag to the tale.

Nobody has ever proven that the original story of the mask’s provenance is true; and the likelihood is that it is not. Anatomists have pointed out that the firmness of the mask’s skin suggests that the mask was made from a living young woman, and not from a corpse that had been floating in the water of the Seine for days. Further, from the 1880s to the 1920s when the legend was at its height, there are no records from any morgue in Paris referring to a young unknown woman pulled thus from the river and accorded a death mask. Precise dates and places and names are missing from the legend, as they are from all urban legends.

The consensus now is that the mask was taken from the face of a healthy, young and living teenage girl – indeed (though as untraced as the story of the love-struck morgue attendant), early in the rage for l’Inconnue de la Seine, there was a counter-narrative, which said the face belonged to the (living) teenage daughter of a Rhenish sculptor, who was astounded at the morbid fascination his daughter’s face aroused.

I step back from this, and look at photographs of the mask itself.

What do they depict?

An attractive young woman’s face, with firm skin and good cheekbones. Yes, the closed eyes do make her demure and (if you are so inclined) a little mysterious. She could be sleeping or she could be dead. But the expression on the lips (perhaps a smile, perhaps not) is clearly that of a living girl.

Is she the paragon of beauty? I think not. She looks like an ordinary and healthy young teenager.

So what happened to create this cultural phenomenon of l’Inconnue de la Seine? I think that, having heard the story of the love-struck morgue attendant and the death mask, and having imagined the story of the tragic suicide, those who looked at this attractive but ordinary face read into it the story they wanted to see. This was a mental illusion akin to the optical illusion that made me see a stately bird in a weather-beaten piece of wood.

This is indeed a “figure in the carpet” situation – or perhaps a “canals of Mars” situation. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in ourselves but in the structure of our brains.

We see what we choose to see.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“UNEARTHLY LANDSCAPES – New Zealand’s Early Cemeteries, Churchyards and Urupa” by Stephen Deed (Otago University Press, $NZ50)
As I have remarked before on this blog [look up the post Let’s Talk of Worms and Graves and Epitaphs], I have a longstanding interest in graveyards – or “cemeteries” if you wish to be more polite – and have always considered visiting them one of the most interesting things one can do when one is in a foreign city. Where else but in an old graveyard can one reflect so readily, not only on the passage of time, but also on the changing of fashions in the way the dead are honoured, on the inevitability of death and on other weighty and interesting matters? And what a pleasure it always is to look at what people once considered appropriate epitaphs and appropriate monumental decoration, and to see the birth and death dates of the interred corpses. If you are of an historical bent, reflections on both longevity and the instance of child mortality will soon arise. A graveyard (particularly a large one) is both a park and a history text spread before you. And usually such a peaceful place, too.
So it was with great engagement that I read Stephen Deed’s Unearthly Landscapes – New Zealand’s early cemeteries, churchyards and urupa. How reassuring to find at least another human being who shares my offbeat interest!
A bit over 200 pages long (exclusive of notes, bibliography and index) and presented in horizontal page shape to accommodate its many illustrations, Unearthly Landscapes devotes its second chapter to pre-European and early-European-era Maori funerary customs. It returns to Maori themes in Chapter 4. But Deed is mainly concerned with Pakeha graveyards and other burial places in New Zealand since the beginning of (post-1840) European settlement.
As with all books that are so lavishly illustrated, I (like, I suspect, most potential readers) first had an orgy of examining the pictures rather than the text – from the twin monumental angels at Koputaroa that face the title page to the ancient (1860s) photo of Auckland’s Symonds Street cemetery, which was removed in the 1960s when a motorway was pushed through; from the ostentatious Lanarch family tomb in North Dunedin (it looks like a ruddy cathedral) to the obelisks and family vaults of European city cemeteries; from the painted whakamaumaharatanga [monument made from the prow of a canoe] of atua to the more modest memorials outside tribal palisades; from the Chinese graves in Naseby cemetery to the 1863 image of Lambton Quay in Wellington, with the Bolton Street Cemetery looming above it; from the weird mortuary chapel outside Nelson’s Wakapuaka cemetery to the equally weird Underwood family vault (with its weeping and its triumphant angels) in Karori cemetery; and – yes – all those shots of decaying wooden headstones as opposed to sturdier stones ones, and of the unsightly picket fences that used to be built around individual graves, and of inopportunely-planted graveyard trees that grew to smash their way through concrete graves, and, alas, of the destructive work of time and vandals.
Of course skimming the book’s images in this way also led me to linger over the various “break-ins” to the text. There are the two pages on colonial diseases and hence the high rate of infant mortality – illustrated with an image of the (1860s) Wallace family tombstone, where the simultaneous deaths of five Wallace children (of scarlet fever) are recorded. Naturally there are break-ins about death by drowning – the “New Zealand death” – in rivers or on sea journeys. A two-page spread shows the urupa (monument) to the chief Honiana Te Puna in Petone as it looked 140 years ago and as it looks today. Another gives an account of the controversial Fenian “funeral” held at Hokitika Cemetery in 1868. It was really a political demonstration by Irish nationalists, and incurred the wrath of local Orangemen and British imperialists. And there is also that alluring break-in about shelter provided for mourners and other visitors at some graveyards, some of them looking more like bandstands than places of mourning.
So much for my first, superficial encounters with this book.
But it is quite misleading to see Unearthly Landscapes only in terms of its fascinating images and its break-ins. Stephen Deed follows an orderly progression in his nine chapters. First, the influence of British and European cemeteries upon colonial designs. Then an account of pre-Pakeha urupa (burial grounds) and the tapu that protected them. Then early missionary churchyards and memorials. Then the way Maori burial customs changed under Pakeha impact. Then the changing shape of Pakeha cemeteries as further immigration led to a more diverse Pakeha population. Then the various controversies over how and where people should be buried. Then the later nineteenth century cemeteries and their social role. Then (in many respects the most interesting chapter in the book) an account of the chosen locations of cemeteries and the materials of which their monuments were made. And finally, in open advocacy, a chapter on the importance of cemeteries as historical sites.
Over his eight well-researched chapters, Stephen Deed follows a number of weighty theses and ideas.
One has to do with the role of religion in the nineteenth century New Zealand cemetery. As Deed notes:
            The New Zealand cemetery was shaped not just by environment, but by the religious beliefs and ethnic composition of the society that developed here. Nearly all nineteenth century cemeteries were divided into sectarian divisions that mirrored the diverse origins and religious affiliations of the colonists: the frequent controversies over the issue of consecration and the provision of burial grounds highlighted the religious fractures present in colonial society. More than just places to bury the dead, cemeteries acted as forums for the expression of the political, racial and religious identities of the living too.” (Introduction, pp.10-11)
There are in the text frequent references to the segregated nature of cemeteries, sometimes with Anglicans assuming their denomination to be the colonial “norm” and with Catholics, Presbyterians, “dissenters’ (i.e. non-Anglican English Protestants) and Jews allocated some small portions of the general burial ground. Often enough there were controversies about this. Even in that most Anglican of settlements, Christchurch, members of the provincial council sometimes registered protest at what they saw as a breach of egalitarianism among the dead (see Chapter 3, p.72). Only in 1872 was the first truly non-denominational urban cemetery opened, this being the Northern Cemetery of Dunedin, which had originally been planned as a multi-denominational ground. (Chapter 8, p.158)
Another frequent theme relates to the difficulty of maintaining cemeteries when much of the nineteenth century settler population was rural and living in remote places:
            For settlers busy clearing land and building housing and roads, cemeteries were not always their first concern. The question of providing or preparing a suitable piece of land was often not considered until the need to bury someone arose…. Lack of a cemetery was one of the reasons for the creation of family cemeteries, or individual graves, in the early days of settlement. Another reason was isolation; even if there was a cemetery in the district or province, it might be too far away to make burial there practicable….” (Chapter 3, p.62)
The first Pakeha cemeteries had been imitations of English churchyards, with mission stations building graveyards around their chapels or churches. But where there were no chapels or churches, or where a rural locality was made up of many [Christian] faiths, rural cemeteries (as outlined at Chapter 7 pp.141 ff.) tended to become what Stephen Deed calls “utilitarian” with their general lack of neat layout or elaborate monuments. There was also the phenomenon of special purpose burial places – war cemeteries after the 1860s New Zealand Wars; cemeteries specifically to cater for those who died during Dunedin and Coromandel gold rushes; and the “quarantine” graveyard in cases of diseased migrants, such as that on Somes Island (Chapter 7, p.145).
It is when he gets to the physical locations of graveyards, and the materials of which they were made, that Deed is at his most informative. He notes the growing popularity of hillsides as sites for nineteenth century cemeteries (Chapter 8, p.153), not only because they allowed for drainage, but because they also gave the dead prominence over the community. [I think of this same concept whenever I drive past the hillside graveyard on the holy mountain outside Ngaruawahia]. Naturally he dwells on the materials of which gravestones and monuments were made. But he also discusses how, for Victorians, the trees and bushes planted in cemeteries were more than foliage and shade:
Many plantings had recognised symbolic significance…. Annually flowering species symbolised life after death and, on a more practical note, they required little maintenance. Ivy, which invoked immortality and friendship, was another favourite. In the nineteenth century, the weeping willow was popularly associated with death and mourning, although it was ridiculed by some as a modern and sentimental invention. Holly trees and yews, which had a far longer pedigree, would have been familiar to the settlers and were planted in many colonial churchyards and cemeteries…. Popular evergreens such as the cedar and cypress have been associated with death and immortality since antiquity.” (Chapter 8, p.166)
As for the epitaphs, they often emphasised:
the role of the cemetery as a place of public self-improvement, inscriptions set forth examples of patience under suffering and loss, of religious resignation and celebrated worldly success….. Epitaphs and inscriptions also encouraged reflection on the transitory nature of life on Earth, and the need to prepare for the life to come.” (Chapter 8, p.180)
Deed launches into his last chapter by noting :
The landscapes of our historic cemeteries are made up of a complex collection of components: monuments and headstones, fences, railings, gates, chapels, cottages, plantings, paths and roads. A wide range of materials was employed in the construction of these features: marble, sandstone, wood and iron. This variety makes each cemetery individual, and is one of their chief charms. However, this complexity is also a point of vulnerability, making cemeteries difficult places to maintain and protect. Although old cemeteries are intended as eternal resting places where the dead are memorialised in perpetuity, these environments are incredibly fragile, and have not always been able to resist change and ultimate destruction.” (end of Chapter 8, p.188)
The last sentence leads into Chapter 9 where Deed outlines how few, if any, other heritage sites capture generational changes in the community as well as cemeteries do. But there are now many threats to our old historic cemeteries. There is urban development, when motorways are pushed through graves and when city real estate becomes more valuable. There is the problem of natural decay. There are problems over the ownership of cemeteries and the responsibility for maintaining them, and controversies over how fully cemeteries should be funded out of rates. Deed is an advocate for the idea of more old cemeteries being given the protection of being deemed historic places (under the New Zealand Historic Places Trust). In an age where cremation has become the majority form of disposing of the dead, cemeteries are often undervalued – and sometimes suffer the wilful damage of vandalism. But Deed points out that cemeteries remain archives, in stone, for genealogists and historians:
The information contained in the cemetery can be applied to various scales of historical research: from the study of an individual or family, to a town or district, a city or region, or the nation as a whole. Cemeteries, as Thomas Hannon argues, are particularly valuable in regional and local studies, as they ‘provide intact significant portions of the cultural-historical record needed by the researcher who is attempting to get at the roots of the characteristics of a region.’ Hannon’s studies are based on American cemeteries, which can vary greatly from region to region – hence his favouring regional studies. Though New Zealand’s historical cemeteries are more homogenous, they still reflect the demographic, social and economic transitions that regions have passed through…” (Chapter 9, p.212)
The advocacy is understandable and timely.
I do not think it is only twilight idlers such as I who have a taste for cemeteries. They are wonderful places on many levels, and worth cherishing.