History you can touch – now available in North America

New Zealand has a short history by world standards – the first humans to even reach these shores did not arrive until around 1280. But it is unquestionably an interesting past – particularly once we get into the so-called ‘historical’ period after 1840, when British and Maori came into collision.

St Alban's Church at Pauahatanui, near Wellington - site of a major pa in 1845.

St Alban’s Church at Pauahatanui, near Wellington – site of a major pa in 1845.

Open warfare flared between 1845 and the early 1870s, from Northland to the northern South Island. That is virtually yesterday by historical standards, and that makes those events a history we can touch. The more so because many of those events were not in remote bush locations – but in places we can see and touch. The Battle of Boulcott Farm, for instance, was in the middle of what is today suburban Lower Hutt. The bush pa of Titokowaru, Te Ngutu o te Manu, became the Hawera District Council camping ground. Really! The Battle of St John’s Wood, in Whanganui, became a supermarket. Gate Pa is, these days, a Tauranga bowling club lawn. Te Rangihaeata’s pa at Pauatahanui became a churchyard. And so it goes on.

The cover of my next book.

The cover – click to go to Amazon

It is a salutary reminder of the way history gets forgotten that these places – used daily by ordinary Kiwis – have such a dramatic past. And that’s why I made a point, in my latest book on the New Zealand Wars, of highlighting some of the easier places to get to. We should. History comes alive if we can visit the terrain – and history this recent should not be forgotten.

The New Zealand Wars – a brief history is my third book on the subject. And it’s been released this week, in print, for the North American market. Which I think is pretty cool.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

‘Kiwi Air Power’ – out now, and it’s the best launch party e-v-a-h!

There ain’t nothing like the sound of a Rolls Royce Merlin thundering overhead as you sip your morning coffee.

I’m on my annual pilgrimage to the Art Deco weekend in Napier, New Zealand; a light-hearted nod to the styles of the 1930s and early 1940s. And its hardware. This was the age when Britain’s Supermarine Spitfire and the North American Mustang reigned supreme in Europe’s skies on the back of genius design, heroic pilots – and their Merlin power-plants.

This weekend, they’re supreme in my skies – flying over residential Napier doing aerobatics, which is super-cool. And from my perspective that’s apt, because this is the moment Intruder Books are re-releasing my original military aviation title, Kiwi Air Power.

Wright - Kiwi Air Power 450 pxKiwi Air Power was originally published in 1998, but it’s been out of print for fifteen years, and I’m delighted that Intruder have been able to bring it to a new audience. The main thrust of the book is the Second World War and its long-duration scion, the Cold War. And you can get Kiwi Air Power for Kindle right now. If you haven’t got a Kindle, you can get a Kindle reader for PC or whatever device you own, here.

Kiwi Air Power is the first of a series of re-releases from my military-historical back list, and the REAL launch party, the one you’ll all share, will happen when Intruder publish the second title from my back list. Watch this space.

As for the amazing Hollywood-style deco age fantasy I’m in the middle of? It’s still unfolding – watch this space, and check my Facebook author page for pictures – if you haven’t ‘liked’ already, the widget’s in the right hand column.

But enough from me. I’m back to the deco-age Hollywood magic. And that classic Merlin sound. Woah!

Catch you soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Kiwi Air Power: cover reveal and a sneak preview!

Here’s the cover of my book Kiwi Air Power, my history of New Zealand’s military aviation to the end of the Cold War, which is being republished as No. 1 in a new military series by Intruder Books.

Wright - Kiwi Air Power 450 pxYou can get Kiwi Air Power for Kindle right now – it’s being officially launched next week, but it’s already been released to trade and is for sale on Amazon if you want to buy ahead of the launch (sssh).

If you haven’t got a Kindle, you can get a Kindle reader for PC or whatever device you own, here.

The inspiration for the new edition cover is a photo I took last year as an RNZAF UH-1D Iroquois did some truly spectacular aerobatics over my head. Which sums up how I feel about this release. Kiwi Air Power was originally published in a case-bound edition by Reed NZ Ltd in 1998, but it’s been out of print for fifteen years. Now you can buy Kiwi Air Power on Kindle – and it’s the first release in a series that’s going to bring selected titles from my military-historical back-list to the market – and at reasonable prices – for the first time in years.

They’re also being published, initially, as e-books, meaning they’ll be available for readers anywhere in the world with a click. Reversing the old order of release embraces all the change that’s been sweeping the industry. And that’s super cool.

I’ve got other writing news soon, about my forward list, which isn’t military or non-fiction, and that is a return to my roots as a writer. Those roots are what made it possible for me to more easily find and infuse human truths into the non-fiction for which my academic work has been recognised.

Watch this space.

And on top of that, I figure when the next book in the New Zealand Military History series comes out – a re-release of my First World War title Western Front – I should throw an online party. What do you say?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Making ancient mysteries like Gobekli Tepe go away – with science!

I am always intrigued by the way ‘ancient mysteries’ go away with new science discoveries. All without recourse to secret ancient civilisations or helpful aliens.

Gobelkili Tepe by Teomancimit. Creative Commons license via Wikipedia.

Gobelkli Tepe by Teomancimit. Creative Commons license via Wikipedia.

Take Gobekli Tepe. This construction in southeastern Turkey is made of 7-10 ton upright stones, elaborately carved, and was recognised for what it was in the early 1990s by archaeologist Klaus Schmidt. Current theory suggests it was a gathering place for worship from a wide area.

There’s no mystery about how it was built; it’s within the capability of classic late paleolithic tech, providing they had an organised labour force and surplus food. That’s the point. Archaeologists have given the technology available to ice-age humans many names and classifications, often based on where variants were found – all of which is rather academic because in the broadest sense the people who invented this technology were as smart as we are, and it was smart tech, making best use of available materials; not just stone but also fire, wood, animal products, plant products, minerals and resins.

The only problem with Gobekli Tepe is when it went up – around 11,000 years before present, before villages and agriculture. That’s the mystery. Hunter-gatherer bands were typically a close-related kin group of around 150. We know this because that lifestyle is still followed in places today, such as the Kalahari. This, it seems, is the maximum scale of community that hunter-gathering can reasonably feed (humans today are apparently hard-wired to personally know groups of about 150 - something anthropologist Robin Dunbar puts down to that hunter-gatherer ancestry).

The thing is that hunter-gatherers, theoretically, didn’t have surplus production (food) for luxuries like temple building. The conventional view is this. Between about 11,000 and 8000 years before the present, einkorn wheat opened up agriculture in the northern reaches of the Middle East. Animal domestication followed. All this opened the gates to larger communities, notably Jericho and Catal Huyuk. The latter was a curious ‘one building’ city that flourished from around 9000 years before the present in what is now central Turkey, supporting a population estimated at anywhere from 6000 to 10,000. These agricultural centres could support specialists and feed a labour force that didn’t contribute, itself, to food growing – making larger-scale constructions possible.

Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain, via Wikipedia.

So what about Gobekli Tepe? Humans at the end of the ice age were still hunter-gatherers. No agriculture. But – clearly – there was surplus food and organised labour. What gives? Explanations have included assertions about alien originated civilisations, unknown to conventional archaeology but obvious in ‘clues’ that only enthusiasts are able to detect. Or it has been called the Garden of Eden.

How can I put this? Folks – it’s bullshit. Even in conventional terms there’s no mystery to Gobleki Tepe once we understand how agriculture rose after the ice ages. It turns out that neither flour, nor domestication of animals, nor villages were new. All had been invented before, largely by the Gravettian culture that flourished from Bulgaria to the Crimea, around 30,000 years ago.

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. Public domain, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

These people were well on the way to an agricultural revolution nearly twenty millennia before ‘our’ one. They had semi-permanent habitations and had learned to make bread from wild wheat. They had grain stores. They had horticulture. They fished – indeed, analysis of nitrogen isotope ratios has shown that a lot of their protein came from fish. There is evidence of semi-domesticated animals, certainly domesticated dogs. But that came to an abrupt end when the world plunged into new glaciation some 26,500 years ago, culminating in the Last Glacial Maximum around 20,000 years ago. The cause, possibly, was the Taupo super-volcano in New Zealand, which erupted with world-shattering effect and may have triggered a catastrophic climatic downturn.

World climates oscillated for a while, but began decisively warming with the end of the Younger Dryas glaciation some 11,500 years ago. Humans began moving into what is now eastern Europe. And it seems their version of hunter-gathering was supplemented with wild wheat. Grinding stones have been found as an accompaniment to their camps across a wide region, implying that flour was being ground from wheat before it was domesticated.

Mix that potential with determination and intellect – remembering these people were just as smart as we are and just as capable of doing stuff – and that, I think, is all we need to explain Gobekli Tepe. No secret ancient super-civilisation or alien woo required. Sure, later discoveries make other things possible – but that doesn’t reduce the intellect or humanity of those who achieved things with the technologies on which later developments rest.

Lest there be any doubt, New Zealand Maori, up until the point of contact with Britain, had a similar mix of technology to those who built Gobleki Tepe, and in many ways fewer opportunities. The Maori economy was a composite of hunter-gathering, with significant fishing, supplemented with horticulture north of the ‘kumara line’, but they had no wheat, corn, or metals, and no domestic animals other than the Polynesian dog (a type that went extinct in colonial times). Clay was available, but pottery – though known in the ancestral Polynesian islands from which Maori came – was not used.

Otatara pa with reconstructed elements of palisade, Taradale, Napier. Click to enlarge.

Otatara pa with reconstructed elements of palisade, Taradale, Napier. Click to enlarge.

What happened? Maori developed a complex, sophisticated, vibrant and organised society able to build over six thousand pa (fortified places) across New Zealand between about 1500 and 1800 CE, all demanding surplus production and a social scale of organisation that often ran way beyond the 150-ish figure of the main Maori social structure, the hapu. Some of these, such as the horticulture on Mount Eden or the pa at Otatara, far outstrip Gobleki Tepe in scale. When the British arrived, mainly after 1800 CE, they had to invent a whole new classification (the ‘noble savage’, in settler period terms) to explain a people who, to British thinking of the nineteenth century, ran outside what was ‘supposed’ to happen by what the British knew at the time. But Maori had done it anyway, by their own capabilities. The problem, of course, was with how nineteenth century British thinkers saw the world.

Now go figure about those late ice-age folks and Gobleki Tepe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Where woo woo comes from and why it’s so seductive

If we are to explore some of the woo woo that’s been peddled about perfectly ordinary – and hugely spectacular – things on the planet, like ancient pyramids or apparently mysterious rock formations, I guess the first port of call is to understand why these things get turned into mysteries in the first place.

Some 20 km east of Lake Taupo in New Zealand’s North Island is a curious natural structure known as the ‘Kaimanawa Wall’. It’s made of ignimbrite and was formed by a pyroclastic flow that rolled across this part of New Zealand some 330,000 years ago. As the flow cooled, it split in a way that left the exposed side of the flow looking remarkably like a stone wall.

Needless to say, the fact that it looks like a stone wall has meant, to various ‘independent thinkers’, that it therefore is one, thus ‘proving’ that an ancient civilisation existed in New Zealand. The total lack of any actual evidence of such an entity hasn’t stopped them. Nor does the hard scientific data, which shows its natural origins. That’s rejected because, after all, the wall is obviously a wall.

It’s a style of thinking I have a hard job fathoming.

Modern scientific thinking runs something like this. There are hidden truths behind the superficial appearance of most things, the issue is finding out what they are. So we look at the ‘Kaimanawa Wall’, hypothesise that it might be an artificial structure, and the first question is whether that is literally true. We test the hypothesis, carefully investigating the material it’s made of and its context, to discover what lies beneath the superficial appearance – its composition, age and so forth. From that emerges the actual story of its origins – origins which, I might add, are consistent with the known geology of the era.

The ‘woo brigade’, on the other hand, also assume that there are hidden truths behind what they see up front, but have a very different idea about how these truths are hidden. They  look at the ‘Kaimanawa Wall’, note the similarity to an artificial structure on the face of it, and take that to be a literal and immutable truth. No testing is needed, because it seems self-evident, and from that assumption flows questions about how such a structure might have been built.

1195430130203966891liftarn_Writing_My_Master_s_Words_svg_medIt’s a kind of logic that was used by Medieval monks and other thinkers of a millennium or more ago – the world we see is literally what it seems, and points to hidden truths that can be discovered not by experimentation, but by deductive logic.  The approach was superseded by the very different thinking of the Early Modern period and the Age of Reason.

The consequence is that the woo brigade assume that the literal appearance of many of the apparently ‘mysterious’ artefacts and structures around the world reveals the actuality of what they see, and do not question the conclusions that follow. But if that initial premise is in fact not true, then the whole chain of logic they build after that breaks down – because it’s built on a faulty assumption.

This is me doing my 'writing getaway' impression on Rarotonga.

This is me doing my ‘writing getaway’ impression on Rarotonga, the key island from which Polynesians migrated to New Zealand around 1280 AD. The departure place is marked on the island. (Yes, it’s that well known).

That, of course, is why modern scientific method demands that we have to test that first assumption, as the very first port of call.

The other point is that woo offers simple certainties; anybody can ‘get’ the obvious literal answers it provides. And that’s attractive.

I’ve gone into this in some detail because it explains a good deal about how ‘woo’ gets traction in terms of various apparent archaeological mysteries and phenomena, around the world. More on this soon.

As for the ‘Kaimanawa Wall’ – well, the main problem with the woo brigade here isn’t that they think it’s artificial. It’s the rest of what follows – a fantasy construction about ancient ‘pre-Maori’ civilisations in New Zealand that inevitably ends up being tangled up with the assumption that these imaginary ‘pre-Maori’ settlers were ‘Celtic’. Dog-whistle code, in short, for some extremely unpalatable present-day bigotry.

The take-home facts? The ‘Kaimanawa Wall’, a natural formation, was already ancient around 1280 AD when New Zealand became the last large land mass in the world to be settled by humans. These settlers probably landed on the Wairau Bar, were probably preceded by exploratory voyages, and were Polynesians who came from the Cook and Marquesas islands. This has been established beyond doubt from a wide range of disparate evidence – genetic, linguistic, archaeological and so forth. No humans existed in New Zealand before then – evidenced, among other things, by the fact that the original flora and fauna were untouched when the Polynesians arrived, but succumbed quickly soon afterwards in the last of the great Pleistocene collisions. A distinctly ‘Maori’ culture emerged indigenously from the Polynesian settlements during the fifteenth century, a turbulent time of significant culture change.

All this is well established – as, indeed, is the origin of the ‘Kaimanawa Wall’. No woo required.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Does what we write define us as writers?

My book Coal: The Rise and Fall of King Coal in New Zealand was published late last year by David Bateman Ltd. It was my second science-oriented book in a month.

It’s not often that authors are able to publish books in quick succession with major publishers. In point of fact, my schedule included four releases between July 2014 and January 2015, and this is not due to luck. Such results have to be worked for. I sacrificed time that many perhaps take for granted to achieve it. Coal 200 pxCoal remains a particularly important title for me, because it sets out my views on climate change. To me, the deeper ramifications of the themes I explore are vital questions that must be answered if we are to ensure the long-term survival of humanity.

Both my recent science books have provoked some curious comments from the media in New Zealand – ‘how can a historian understand physics’, ‘I thought you were a military historian’ and so forth. As if I were a one-trick pony. A review of my science book Living On Shaky Ground (Penguin Random House 2014) in the New Zealand Listener referred to me as a ‘historian’.

I’ve published a lot of history – but if I have to wear a label of any kind, the word is ‘writer’. I write on things that interest me – and, for a long time, that was history. But it’s not an exclusive interest. I always regard my home field as the sciences, particularly physics, with which I was brought up and where, aged 15, I won a regional science prize for my interpretation of Einstein’s physics as it applied to black holes. I was taught, at post-graduate level, by Peter Munz, a student of Karl Popper – who defined the philosophy of modern scientific method – and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

I don’t validate myself as ‘an historian’, still less by imagined ‘status’ in a particular topic. I just do stuff that involves thinking, and which carries my enthusiasm and allows me to express my thoughts on the human condition. To me there is no challenge or reward in repeatedly going over a single topic. And that’s true for all things we might write about. That doesn’t mean falling into the Kruger-Dunning trap – the supposition that a subject is ‘easy’. You know – ‘History – it’s just collecting data. How hard can it be?’ Quite.

The challenge is achieving an understanding of topic before venturing forth. It also means also accepting, given my experience with military history, that public-funded bullies probably exist in every field, and we have to accept their tactics as part of the human condition. Where next? Well, my next writing project has involved me sitting down and doing a lot of math, purely to make sure I got the background details accurate.

The term you want isn’t ‘geek’. It’s ‘intellectual badass’. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Waitangi Day: the story behind the Treaty

It’s Waitangi Day here in New Zealand – the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty that established a Crown Colony in these islands. These days it’s a public holiday.

Possibly the closest equivalent in the US is Independence Day, though the New Zealand version isn’t quite the same. Our day is usually divisive, and the normal outcome is a succession of public spats in a couple of key places around the country – including Waitangi itself – while just about everybody else ignores it and has a day off. To me that isn’t really how it should be, but it’s hard to see what can be done to change it – such matters are generational.

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 of the Treaty being signed. Note William Hobson (left centre) in his blue morning coat and hat. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

I’d like to think things might be less tense if people better understood the differing historical and present realities of the Treaty of Waitangi, so called because it was signed at Waitangi (Wailing Waters) just north of the Te Tii marae (formal meeting place) in the Bay of Islands. These are indicative of the way that the Treaty is a living document, not just a historical relic – something that underscores its importance and value to New Zealand. Legally and constitutionally, it remains a key founding document; and the idea of the Treaty – its social place and meaning – has been re-cast many times since it was signed, reflecting changing values, all of them valid to their own times. Some of the mid-nineteenth century ideas were backdrop to the career of the man whose hidden private life and character I explored in my latest book Man Of Secrets – The Private Life of Donald McLean (Penguin Random House 2015). Donald McLean,  coincidentally, arrived in the Bay of Islands just as the Treaty was being signed – little realising that he had a career ahead of him as a major Crown land buyer and Native Minister whose job it was to live by its values. Sort of, anyway. (Click on the cover in the sidebar to the right to check it out).

Those ideas, in turn, were very different from the way it was seen in the late nineteenth century, or the twentieth, or today. Needless to say, all of the ways the Treaty has been seen are a far cry from the gimcrack way the Treaty was actually set up in 1840.

Gimcrack? Sure. In 1839-40, when it was mooted and then signed, the British weren’t very interested in setting up a colony in New Zealand. Theirs was a trading Empire, and although there was a supply centre developing in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand lay far off the main trading routes. To a penurious Treasury, it seemed to offer only cost and very little benefit.

Treaty grounds at Waitangi - now a national historical site. The Treaty was signed near a marquee raised on the grass to the right of the flagpole, which is about where the flagpole was in 1840.

Treaty grounds at Waitangi – now a national historical site. The Treaty was signed near a marquee on the grass to the right of the flagpole, about where the flagpole was in 1840.

But pressure was growing to do something. The place had become a haven for white criminals – escaped convicts from Australia among them – and there had been some nasty incidents, including the Elizabeth affair, when a British sea captain apparently chartered his ship to Maori so they could conduct a war expedition that ended in heavy bloodshed and, allegedly, cannibal feasting on board the British vessel. Nobody objected to what Maori had done; it was accepted that they were at war and the conduct of the war party was precisely correct according to their own values. The problem was the intimate involvement of a British sea captain; not only had he profited from it, but apparently his crew had gotten rather too enthusiastically involved – and by British law, those actions rendered him a pirate.

A photo I took in 2011 of the 'Treaty House' at Waitangi - the home of British Resident, James Busby from 1833. Now restored as a museum. The Treaty was finalised in the room behind the window on the right, which is laid out today as it was on 5 February 1840.

A photo I took of the ‘Treaty House’ at Waitangi – home of British Resident James Busby from 1833. The Treaty was finalised in the room behind the window on the right, which is laid out today as it was on 5 February 1840.

In this context the Treaty was an expedient – a cheap way of applying British law to a country that, it seemed, was going to be drawn into the British sphere whether the Treasury and Colonial Office in London wanted it or not.

The moment came in a brief window of time when a war-weary Britain was exploring a more liberal and humanist approach to the world. The Anglican-based Church Missionary Society led the charge, arguing that British civilisation would unerringly destroy any indigenous peoples it encountered. The Colonial Office was effectively a hot-bed of ex-CMS officials; and the Treasury – which reflected similar thinking – was insistent that a New Zealand colony could only be set up with the full consent of Maori, by Treaty.

That was why the Treaty was ordered. It was done in haste by officials such as William Hobson, who were not familiar with New Zealand – he was, in fact, a naval commander – and it was drafted in circumstances where neither he nor his local advisors were sure whether it should apply to the whole of the New Zealand archipelago or just the part around the Bay of Islands. Even the way it was signed was ad-hoc. It was put to local rangitira (chiefs) on 5 February 1840; they did not agree during korero (discussion) that day, so Hobson arranged for a further meeting on 7 February. But next morning, 6 February, chiefs arrived to sign it. Hobson decided to take up the offer and rushed to arrange it, clad informally in a morning coat rather than his official naval uniform. Later, when the Treaty was taken around New Zealand, the only people the British actively sought to sign it were rangitira who had signed the 1835 Declaration of Independence, which the Treaty of Waitangi superseded – its whole first clause, in fact, was given over to that purpose.

The Treaty remains the only example of its kind in the world – and it’s fitting that it has become a blueprint in New Zealand for race relations since. But that’s a far cry from its gimcrack origins, a fact that underscores just how times change, and how interesting a foreign land history really is.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015