When tyre-kickers leaf through your books…

Last week I sauntered into the (last) bookstore in Wellington’s Lambton Quay, New Zealand’s Golden Mile of retail shopping. I soon found some of my books – quite a number of my Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand, in fact, cover-out, which is the very best way to display such things.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). A display from earlier days.

Cheered, I went to leave, when someone standing nearby picked up a copy and began leafing through it. I loitered. He leafed, frowned, smiled, leafed again, smiled, looked quizzical, and leafed some more. Finally he put it back in the shelf. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Would you mind telling me what stopped you buying the book? I’m the author, you see.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I was just browsing.’

I guess you can lead the horse to water. If the guy had no intention of buying and was simply passing time, he wasn’t likely to be captured by the book even if it had ‘buy me, you bastard’ in fluorescent ink at the top of every page. In point of fact, I wrote the whole thing to be appealing (obviously) – but not to capture a reader with hook lines every paragraph. That would ruin the book. That’s why TV is so terrible at the moment, incidentally; the pacing is designed to capture people as they idly channel surf, meaning action/drama every eight seconds (literally). It really affects the structure.

I walked off, “No Sale” signs chinking up in my mind’s eye. Better luck with the next customer. Maybe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Getting away from the re-remythologising of history

I’ve always thought it curious that our view of New Zealand’s history has always been a process of ‘re-mythologising’ – of discrediting one set of myths and replacing them with another. It happens once a generation.

Close-up of the reconstructed palisades at Otatara, Taradale.

Close-up of the reconstructed palisades at Otatara, Taradale.

When I was a kid, around 1970, my school taught that New Zealand had been settled by two races. Moriori were displaced by Maori, who had arrived in a great single canoe fleet, and who were in turn displaced by the British. This was the supposed ‘truth’ on which kids of my generation were brought up – despite the fact that the ‘two race’ settlement idea had been discredited by anthropologist Henry Devenish Skinner in 1923.

Moriori, in reality, are the people of the Chathams. It has always saddened me that the fantasy of a ‘two race’ settlement persists, to this day, in the disgraceful and ignorant pseudo-history peddled by those who would prefer that Celts had arrived in New Zealand first.

The other myth of the nineteenth century – the ‘great migration’ – persisted into the 1970s, though it was increasingly evident that no such adventure occurred. It was Jeff Simmonds, I think, who first proved the point.

Today we know the ‘great migration’ was another settler-era fantasy, created before the turn of the twentieth century by amateur ethnographer Stephenson Percy Smith, who concocted it by ‘rationalising’ Maori oral traditions into a form that suited the way pakeha of that day preferred to see their world. Settler-age thinkers such as William Colenso, who lived a generation or two before Smith, knew there had never been a great migration. But once popularised in the School Journal, it was all the rage.

The reality is that New Zealand was settled around 1280 AD by Polynesians from the Cook Islands. The first landing was likely on the Wairau bar. No humans had touched the place prior. Others arrived from the Marquesas islands. There were also return journeys. All this stopped during the fifteenth century on the back of the Little Ice Age, leaving New Zealand’s Polynesian colonists isolated. Maori emerged, indigenously in New Zealand, as a development of Polynesian settler culture. There is some evidence that there may, some time later, have been an arrival from Tahiti on the East Coast of the North Island – a point that could explain quite a bit. But it has yet to be proven.

The cover of my next book.

The cover of my brief history of the New Zealand Wars.

The mythologies of ‘two race settlement’ and ‘great migration’ were products of their time – a demonstration of the way that history is re-filtered through contemporary lenses. Even Maori of the day joined the band-wagon; Te Rangi Hiroa, for example, leaped upon the ‘great migration’ concept whole-heartedly, portraying Maori as ‘Vikings of the sunrise’.

Are we more enlightened in the twenty-first century? Of course not. Since the 1980s, New Zealand’s history has been re-written yet again. The so-called ‘revisionists’ have successfully dislodged old settler ideas. But these post-Vietnam baby boomers have also re-shaped our past in the image of their own ideals, the ‘post-colonial’ view that reversed – but which has not transcended – the parameters of settler age thinking. And while some new understandings have emerged, out of it has also come some of the most startling fantasies yet peddled about our past – fantasies that have once again seized the imaginations of particular intellectual groups, and so filtered through to wider society, as if true.

I’ve covered the story in my new book The New Zealand Wars – a brief history. And more besides. It’s time to get clear of the relentless cycle of re-mythologisation. Step one on that path is to understand the process.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Fringe thinking fruit-loops or just misunderstood?

I am often bemused at the way some people seem to think. Particularly those who advocate what we might call ‘fringe’ theories.

I took this photo of the Moeraki boulders in 2007. They fact that they are not perfect spheres is evident.

Moeraki boulders, north of Dunedin. It’s been argued that they are weights used by Chinese sailors to raise sail. As I know the natural geological origin of them, that’s not a theory I believe myself, but hey…

These are often portrayed in pseudo-scientific terms; there is a hypothesis. Then comes the apparent basis for the hypothesis, frequently explicitly titled ‘the evidence’ or ‘the facts’. And finally, the fringe thinker tells us that this evidence therefore proves the proposal. QED.

All of which sounds suitably watertight, except that – every time – the connection between the hypothesis and the evidence offered to support it is non-existent by actual scientific measure. Or the evidence is presented without proper context.

Some years ago I was asked to review a book which hypothesised that a Chinese civilisation had existed in New Zealand before what they called ‘Maori’ arrived. (I think they mean ‘Polynesians’, but hey…)

This Chinese hypothesis stood against orthodox archaeology which discredited the notion of a ‘pre-Maori’ settlement as early as 1923, and has since shown that New Zealand was settled by Polynesians around 1280 AD. They were the first humans to ever walk this land. Their Polynesian settler culture, later, developed into a distinct form whose people called themselves Maori. In other words, the Maori never ‘arrived’ – they were indigenous to New Zealand.

This picture has been built from a multi-disciplinary approach; archaeology, linguistics, genetic analysis, and available oral record. Data from all these different forms of scholarship fits together. It is also consistent with the wider picture of how the South Pacific was settled, including the places the Polynesian settlers came from.

Nonetheless, that didn’t stop someone touring the South Island looking for ‘facts’ to ‘prove’ that a Chinese civilisation had been thriving here before they were (inevitably) conquered by arriving Maori. This ‘evidence’ was packed off to the Rafter Radiation Laboratory in Gracefield, Lower Hutt, for carbon dating. And sure enough, it was of suitable age. Proof, of course, that the hypothesis had been ‘scientifically’ proven. Aha! QED.

Except, of course, it wasn’t proof at all. Like any good journalist I rang the head of the lab and discovered that they’d been given some bagged samples of debris, which they were asked to test. They did, and provided the answer without comment. The problem was that the material had been provided without context. This meant the results were scientifically meaningless.

I’m contemplating writing a book myself on the pseudo-science phenomenon with its hilarious syllogisms and wonderful exploration of every logical fallacy so far discovered. How do these crazy ideas get such traction? Why do they seem to appeal more than the obvious science?

Would anybody be interested if I wrote something on this whole intriguing phenomenon?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing prompt: suddenly it was 1938…

I’ve been playing with some of the photos I took during the Art Deco Weekend, Napier, a few months back.

Here’s one of them. It got me thinking of a story. You?

Anybody would think it was 1938...

Anybody would think it was 1938…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Lamenting the sadness of war, and of New Zealand’s war historians

Flags are at half mast today across New Zealand to mark the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War.

A shell bursting near New Zealand troops, Bailleul, World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013399-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23121937

A shell bursting near New Zealand troops, Bailleul, World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013399-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23121937

Over 100,000 young Kiwi men were drawn into that conflict over a four year span. Of these, more than 58,000 became casualties, 16,500 of them dead. For a country of just on a million souls it was a heart-wrenching tragedy.

New Zealand, of course, was far from alone.

That human cost was multiplied by the fact that survivors came back damaged; this was the war that introduced ‘shell shock’ – post traumatic stress disorder – to the world on the largest scale. During the 1920s, broken men tried to pick up the shattered threads of their lives as best they could. There was often little help. An experience wonderfully described in J L Carr’s A Month In The Country.

Today the overwhelming impression of the war – certainly the way that New Zealand historiography and popular recollection has been shaped – is of unrelenting tragedy. A senseless war of senseless slaughter in which stupid generals didn’t know what to do, other than send innocent men walking very slowly towards machine guns.

Call it the ‘Blackadder’ interpretation.

World War 1 New Zealand machine gunners using a captured German position, Puisiuex, France. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013511-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22304585

World War 1 New Zealand machine gunners using a captured German position, Puisiuex, France. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013511-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22304585

This has been the overwhelming tenor of the key interpretations of the war, shaping even academic history. From the military viewpoint it’s not true. Despite the appalling casualty lists and human cost, the tactical reality on the ground was a good deal more sophisticated than historians usually allow. And there is a good deal else that has yet to be discussed – lost, until now, amidst the overwhelming power of human sorrow. The war’s beginning has been portrayed, narrative-style, as a mechanistic result of nationalist pride and inflexible European alliance systems. In fact, there were choices; but the underlying motives for the decision to fight have barely been discussed by historians.  Could it be that, from the viewpoint of British and French politicians in 1914, it was necessary – even essential – to make a stand? A lot was said at the time about German ‘frightfulness’. Was this propaganda or a fair assessment? How far can the underlying trends and issues be validly traced?

A New Zealand 18 pound gun in action at Beaussart, France, during World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013221-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22371427

A New Zealand 18 pound gun in action at Beaussart, France, during World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013221-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22371427

As yet, these debates have barely begun. They are being raised in Britain – I keep getting invited to contribute papers to symposia and conferences there, via the Royal Historical Society of which I am a Fellow.

Whether I can do anything about exploring the same ideas in New Zealand is moot. I write and publish on my own merits. Alas, New Zealand’s local public- and university-funded military historical crowd – all of whom prosper on full-time salaries at my expense as taxpayer – have rewarded my independent commercial work in their field by treating me like a war criminal. I know these strangers only through their public worth-denials of my scholarship and the commercial work I do to complement their taxpayer-funded activities. They do not respond to my correspondence, I cannot get added to mailing lists, and I have been unable to join their symposia even as audience – I only found out about the latest by accident. All from strangers who have felt unable to approach me directly in the first instance, but have been happy enough to go behind my back to attack me in public and then cowered behind silence when approached over their conduct. However, I’ve been told their status is such that I have no grounds to criticise them.

westernTo me the study of history – as with all human endeavour – is all about positively working together with good will, generous spirit and kindness. Grow the pie, and everybody benefits. But I appear to be a lone voice. And the experience makes me ask why I am paying the salaries, travel expenses and subsidising the publications of this little group through my taxes. There is a LOT of public money sloshing around the First World War centenary in New Zealand. Should it all be accumulated to a few public servants and academics who flourish at taxpayer expense and whose response to commercial authors seeking to work with them is to publicly attack and exclude the interloper?

Wright_Shattered Glory coverThe practical outcome is there seems little chance of my getting support for what I want to do. I’d like to look at New Zealand’s First World War from a different perspective – not to dislodge the ‘Blackadder’ view, but to add to it. There are many questions, including issues to do with New Zealand’s national identity – something I touched, briefly, in my book Shattered Glory (Penguin, 2010). But I can’t see myself being in a position to take that further.

But enough about the schreklichkeit of New Zealand’s military-historical academics. Instead, let’s take a moment to pause and think about the realities of the world a century ago – a world when, for a few brief weeks at least, the notion of a new war seemed somehow adventurous. It would, most of those who flocked to enlist were certain, be over by Christmas 1914.

Of course it wasn’t. As always, the enthusiastic young men, the hopeful patriots, the eager populations of 1914 did not know their future.

More on this soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Remembering the wars that never ended

The New Zealand Wars were fought over a generation from 1845 until the early 1870s. Despite the tendency to pin their closing curtain on the last pot-shots fired after the fleeing terror leader Te Kooti A Rikirangi Te Turuki in 1872, reality was not so sharp.

The cover of my next book.

The cover of my latest book on the New Zealand Wars.

New Zealand of the early 1870s was in a state of turbulent peace. The war in the Waikato of 1863-64 had been a sharp British victory against the Waikato/King Country from a military perspective – but had not been pursued to a final conclusion. The reasons were largely political and economic. Wars were expensive. In order to attack and defeat around 2000 Maori toa (warriors), the British had deployed 10,000 men of their best regiments, gunboats, artillery, naval forces and marines. From the perspective of the Imperial government in London, New Zealand was a sideline. By late 1864 they had taken the declared territory. Maori were unwilling to continue fighting; and even at the height of their Imperial power, the British did not fight wars of annihilation. And so both peoples stood aside.

But they were not at peace, and that was as true in the early 1870s as it had been a decade earlier – even though the separate brush-fire wars of Te Kooti and Titokowaru had essentially ended by then. That was why Matamata resident Josiah Firth built a concrete tower on his property. Today, we know the wars were over. At the time, Firth didn’t.

What happened? My take on it is that Maori switched the focus of combat from the battlefield to the courts and parliament. The drive was led by Ngati Kahungunu, the people of Heretaunga (Hawke’s Bay). It was warfare of a different kind; an acknowledgement that the colony was there to stay – but that there were still ways of resisting the intrusion. That left the King Country as a semi-independent state; but the government resolved that too. By the early 1880s, key King Country leaders, including  Tawhiao, were prepared to talk peace. But the real enforcement of it did not come until later in the 1880s, when the Main Trunk Line was quite deliberately pushed through the King Country.

I first published that interpretation in 2006, and you can read my latest discussion of it in The New Zealand Wars: A Brief History. Available now.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Announcing my next book on the New Zealand Wars

I’m pleased to announce my first title for 2014. It’s being published by Libro International on 29 July. Here’s their media release. I’m quite excited, and I hope you will be too.

The cover of my next book.

The cover of my next book.

The New Zealand Wars – a brief history tells the tale (briefly!) of the thirty years of sporadic fighting that marked New Zealand’s mid-nineteenth century.  Two of these wars played out at the same time – and with much the same technologies – as the US Civil War being fought on the other side of the Pacific.

It’s an era that had had its share of controversy and its share of myth-making. Late twentieth century historians reversed the way the wars had traditionally been seen. But were they right? And what was the actual story – in brief – behind the dramatic events of the day?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

New Zealand and the American Declaration of Independence

I am often intrigued by the unlikely ways history has conspired to make the world we know today – the connections, often unlikely, that link the world.

John Trumbull's painting, of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

John Trumbull’s well known painting of the authors of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Take the US Declaration of Independence, for instance. I figure that it was thanks to a combination of this document and the fact that too many Englishmen were caught poaching that we have Australia and New Zealand as we know them today.

Let me explain. The British lost the War of Independence – and with it, one jewel in their Imperial crown, America. It had a significant ripple effect – and in ways nobody could have predicted. You see, Britain didn’t have a state prison system as such. After 1717, most poor criminals who weren’t hanged were banished to America. By 1776 some 40,000 had been bundled off across the Atlantic, where they were usually put to work as labourers.  That door closed with the revolution – just at the moment when, as far as anybody in Whitehall could tell, places to exile petty criminals were needed more than ever.

Pickpocket in action. Picture by Thomas Rowlandson, from his 1820 book Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders. British Library, public domain.

Pickpocket in action. Picture by Thomas Rowlandson, from his ‘Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders’ (1820). British Library, public domain.

The problem was that the American Revolution came just as Britain also fell into the Industrial Revolution. That brought social upheaval on unprecedented scale. Authorities responded by tightening punishments on those dispossessed by the change, who had been reduced as a result to petty crime. But there were a lot of them, and by the early 1780s there was nowhere to put them, except the rotting prison hulks anchored around Britain’s harbours. Home Secretary Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney, summed it up. These places were so crowded that ‘the greatest danger is to be apprehended, not only from their escape, but from infectious distempers, which may hourly be expected to break out amongst them.’

The prospect that they might also become a focus for uprising was probably not lost on authorities. There was only one answer; and at the end of August 1786, Sydney ordered the Admiralty to get moving on a scheme to set up a new prison colony on the other side of the world in Botany Bay, on the south-eastern coast of Australia.  The first fleet of eleven ships, led by HMS Sirius, left Portsmouth in May 1787.

Botany Bay, New South Wales, around 1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore, collections of the State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public domain.

Botany Bay, New South Wales, around 1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore, collections of the State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public domain.

The prison colony at Botany Bay soon expanded; other prisons were set up – all with the aim of becoming nuclei of proper settlements. And they began leaking. Prisoners who had no idea where they were took to small boats, thinking they might reach Tahiti – or home. Actually, many ended up in New Zealand, where there was virtually no European presence at the time. Others went across on ships – men given their parole who found work on sealers and whalers. All lived riotously, and they soon gave New Zealand a repute for wild lawlessness.

New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Maori, were disgusted with the behaviours they saw playing out before them – and complained, on occasion, to authorities in Sydney.

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

It was largely to curb this bad-boy behaviour by British subjects who were out of reach of the law that the British finally angled towards setting up a Crown colony, formally, in the late 1830s. But there was no money available, and prevailing mood in the Colonial Office was tempered by the Church Missionary Society. A colony, the Colonial Office insisted, could only be set up with free agreement of Maori.

The Treaty of Waitangi followed – a three-clause document hastily written and signed for the first time at Waitangi in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands in February 1840. Today it is regarded as New Zealand’s founding document, much as the US uphold the Declaration of Independence. And – by the path laid out here – likely wouldn’t have happened if the American colonies hadn’t decided to do something about the problems they were having with the British.

History, as I say, has some funny connections. Do you ever think about the way events conspire to connect – and create the world we know today?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Remembering Jutland – and a double family connection

It is 98 years, this weekend, since the Battle of Jutland – the only fleet action of the First World War. My great uncle – H. C. Wright – was in the thick of it, on board the super-dreadnought HMS Orion.

The battle was fought over a hectic afternoon and night on 31 May – 1 June 1916; the last shots came as the sky turned grey with the loom of dawn, and a British destroyer torpedoed and sank a German battleship.

HMS Orion during the First World War. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

HMS Orion during the First World War. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

Uncle Bert was 19 years of age, serving with the Royal Marines. Like most Marines he was assigned a place in fire-control, one of thirty-odd people in the forward transmitting station, the link between the fire control director in the foretop and the Dumaresq plotter and Dreyer Fire Control Table. Between them, these mechanical computers produced a firing solution – all with 1900-era clockwork tech. The Dreyer FCT didn’t quite work in real time, but it was an astonishing machine.

Uncle Bert couldn’t see anything down in the depths of the ship behind 12 inches of armour. For him the battle was lit by the yellow-white glow of electric lamps and consisted of enemy bearings shouted from above via his Graham Pattern 2463 Navyphone, duly passed on to the half-dozen Dreyer operators – all punctuated by the thud and rumble of the ship’s ten 13.5-inch guns, which discharged 51 rounds during the battle.

The fleets only came to blows briefly, but it was a hands-down British victory. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commanding the British Grand Fleet, out-manoeuvered the Germans twice and was only prevented from re-engaging next morning because of disastrous reporting failures by his scouting cruisers. But it didn’t matter in the longer run because the Germans ran for home – and on the grey  morning of 1 June, the British had total possession of the North Sea.

Sir John Jellicoe, as Governor-General of New Zealand, picnicking on Ninety Mile Beach in January 1924. Northwood, Arthur James, 1880-1949. Lord Jellicoe picnicking at 90 Mile Beach. Northwood brothers :Photographs of Northland. Ref: 1/1-006355-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22313306

Sir John Jellicoe, victor of Jutland, picnicking on New Zealand’s Ninety Mile Beach in January 1924. Photo: Northwood, Arthur James, 1880-1949. Lord Jellicoe picnicking at 90 Mile Beach. Northwood brothers :Photographs of Northland. Ref: 1/1-006355-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22313306

That was what counted. Jellicoe’s priority wasn’t sinking enemy ships, it was keeping control of those waters – which he did, and without major damage to his fleet. It was a masterful effort.

Unfortunately the general public had been conditioned to expect a second Trafalgar – to them, only the annihilation of the German High Seas Fleet counted as victory. Incredibly, despite having won the battle in every practical sense, Jellicoe found himself under a cloud and was soon ‘booted upwards’ to become First Sea Lord, while the dashing and popular Admiral Sir David Beatty took over command at sea.

The other family connection to the battle? My wife’s grandmother worked for Jellicoe when he came to New Zealand as Governor General after the war. He was, by the family account, a very kind man – modest, quiet, caring. In some ways it was curious that someone of his stature should come half way around the world to a government position. But from the British viewpoint it got him out of the way – this man who was still being blamed, even in the glow of Allied victory, for not giving Britain its second Trafalgar.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

It’s true. New Zealand Moa once flew. Cool.

The latest science suggests that the Moa, New Zealand’s giant and extinct flightless bird, may not always have been flightless.

A conjectural picture of a Moa drowning in a swamp by early New Zealand settler Walter Mantell - son of the man who first discovered the Iguanadon, in England. Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant (Hon), 1820-1895. [Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant] 1820-1895 :Moa in a swamp. [1875-1900]. Ref: C-107-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.  From the collection of the New Zealand National Library, http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22299292

A conjectural picture of a Moa drowning in a swamp by early New Zealand settler Walter Mantell – son of the man who first discovered the Iguanadon, in England. Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant (Hon), 1820-1895. [Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant] 1820-1895 :Moa in a swamp. [1875-1900]. Ref: C-107-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. From the collection of the New Zealand National Library, http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22299292

Yup, Moa once flew. Setting aside the prospects of what might happen to anybody caught underneath one of these giant ratites at the moment when they decided to release one of their commensurately plus-sized dollops of Moa-guano , it also raises the question about what they might have been called. Flymo, perhaps?

Moa died out very soon after humans arrived in New Zealand. We’re lucky enough to have specimens of moa tissue – mummified skin and feathers, found in dry caves. I still recall being able to examine some of these, close up, behind the scenes at the Otago Museum. A great privelige. Anyway, the latest DNA analysis suggests the likely closest relative, which definitely still flies, is the South American tinamou.

We’ve already discovered that Kiwi probably also flew – in fact, may well have flown here after New Zealand broke away from Gondwanaland, near the end of the Cretaceous period.

Both they and moa lost the power of flight, once here, because there were no predators – no need to keep flying, in fact. Along the way, moa split into several distinct species. Not as many as we once thought; they seem to have also had extreme dimorphism – what settler-age analysts thought were separate species, we now know, were actually males and females of the same species.

It’s pretty cool. We’re learning more and more about these extinct creatures every year. And it is also, I think, time to put one issue to rest. The debate over whether they died out for natural reasons – or because they were hunted to extinction.

The actual answer is that they were hunted to extinction. And fairly quickly. The archaeological evidence is extremely clear. New Zealand was the last large land mass in the world reached by humans. They arrived late in the piece from Polynesia – the Cooks and Marqueses islands, mainly – around 1280 AD, probably at the Wairau bar. And a biota that had been largely stable for hundreds of thousands of years suddenly changed.

It was the last great collision between humans and Pliestocene megafauna – and the result was the same in New Zealand as it was elsewhere. Moa, in particular, were unafraid of humans; had no evolved response to them.  And they were slaughtered. Hunting parties would roam the high country, snacking on moa eggs and killing the birds. Often they would partially butcher them on the spot, then carry the choicest cuts downstream to great ovens near the coasts.

All of this is very clear in the archaeological evidence. And the hunters didn’t have to kill the last moa. All they had to do was reduce the population below breeding viability. It didn’t take long. By the fifteenth century at the latest they were largely gone. It is possible that relict populations may have survived a little longer in places like Fijordland, but soon they too were gone.

The fact that this happened has been ideologically difficult to accept; the arguments have raged back and forth, mirroring the way that indigenous populations have been re-invented in post-colonioal vision as greener and more eco-friendly than our own. Which they were, to a large extent. But that doesn’t reduce the clear evidence of an orgy of slash-and-dine in fourteenth century New Zealand. We have to accept the point. Moa died out not because their population was much in decline, not because of sudden climate change – but because they were delicious.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

Shameless self promotion:

Available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

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Buy the print edition: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410