Empire City: Wellington Becomes the Capital of New Zealand
John E Martin
(Te Herenga Waka University Press) RRP $70, hardback
The opening to this academically robust and generously presented history of Wellington is strangely unpeopled. Ghosting through the late 1870s city, we get the lay of the land and the landmarks on it, but no bodies between them.
Thankfully, the pages are soon populated by a fascinating cast of characters, as ex-parliamentary historian John E Martin eloquently recounts a transformation of the harbour settlement from the early 1800s to a capital city in 1865 through their stories.
As well as the usual suspects (Featherston, Governor Grey, Te Rauparaha, Plimmer, Wi Tako and various Wakefields), John weaves in stories of less exalted figures – for example, J H Wallace, who, with his wife, lost six children to scarlet fever in 1865 after campaigning for urgently needed improvements to sanitation systems.
With 23 maps and more than 350 beautifully reproduced photos and illustrations, the narrative is largely chronological. Each chapter also follows a theme, which adds a satisfying complexity to the reading.
The subject matter remains wide ranging and built heritage features prominently, with regular overviews of Wellington streets and their buildings, creating a timelapse of familiar and forgotten landmarks.
Working-class struggles aren’t given as much airtime as the manipulation of government policy for personal gain by those in power. However, the many stories of the evolving city together testify to the unceasing challenge of sustaining a settlement, and then a city.
A complicated tension will arise for some readers who both champion the colonial story of Wellington becoming the city they love, but also see, through a post-colonial lens, the trauma and sacrifices of tangata whenua that made it possible: the almost complete eclipsing of Te Aro Pā by the “tide of industry and housing”, for example, and the rapid disintegration of the coastal communities by “the March of purchase”.
It’s not a simple tale of conquest, however, and John does justice to the multifaceted dynamics of power, conflict, ambition and luck, and the many twists, turns, allegiances and divisions that saw “a fishing village like Wellington” become a nation’s capital city.
Fossil Treasures of Foulden Maar: A Window into Miocene Zealandia
Daphne Lee, Uwe Kaulfuss, John Conran (Oxford University Press)
The 23-million-year-old weevils depicted in Fossil Treasures of Foulden Maar – a concise and delightful summary of New Zealand’s now world-famous palaeontological site near Middlemarch in Otago – were found lying prone on their sides, as if they’d just been having a nap while waiting to be discovered.
In fact, the writers tell us, it was “because their stout, long-legged bodies tipped over on their sides as they sank through the water to the lake floor”.
Twenty-three million years! It’s a time span the human mind can’t quite comprehend, but a book like this – written by three key researchers and their supporters, and full of wonder-inducing images –brings readers a step closer.
A maar is a type of cratershaped volcano, and since this one erupted, leaving behind a small lake, tens of thousands of layers of sediment have accumulated inside it, preserving a unique record of life.
The stacked layers are called biogenic varves, and in cross-section look like a barcode. These layers are dense with information about the pollens, spores, sponges, leaves, ferns, conifers, flowers, fungi, fish, spiders, insects and eels that once lived there.
The international significance of Foulden Maar has been recognised by scientists for decades, but the general public only became aware of it in 2019 when a report by the New Zealand branch of investment banker Goldman Sachs was leaked, revealing plans for a massive mining operation on the site.
The valuable diatomite (soft, siliceous sedimentary rock) in which all the fossilised specimens are preserved was to be excavated and exported for use as a stockfeed additive and fertiliser; 23 million years of knowledge, much of it as yet undocumented, as well as critical information about climate change to help us navigate the next century’s inevitable challenges, was to be destroyed.
The mining company, however, went bust and in February Dunedin City Council bought the land, ensuring the protection of this nationally significant fossil site.
“They are our biological heritage and merit the same attention and respect as other aspects of our national heritage,” the writers of this book conclude.
“The work at Foulden Maar has barely begun. Much treasure still lies buried.”
Hundertwasser in New Zealand
Andreas J Hirsch (translated by Uta Hoffmann)
(Oratia) RRP $70, hardback
A dream of New Zealand was sewn into world-famous Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s childhood by his Jewish mother, who told him stories of a far-off southern land free from conflict and at one with nature.
Hundertwasser spent the last 30 years of his life trying to realise that dream, which this biography diligently recounts. The book itself is exquisite – fabric-bound, with a high-gloss cover image of Storm in a Glass of Water (1999) and packed with beautifully reproduced paintings and photographs.
Hundertwasser is perhaps best known in Aotearoa for Kawakawa’s mosaic-tiled public toilets, but his influence on and engagement with his adopted country goes much further. He lived here from the mid-1970s, based on his land at Kaurinui, Northland, where he was buried in 2000. An early project was a Conservation Week poster depicting a weeping head; the tears were the trunks of trees (Chapter 3).
While he failed in several bids for large-scale architectural work, such as the national museum, a vision for a public art gallery was realised, posthumously, in the Hundertwasser Art Centre with Wairau Māori Art Gallery in Whangārei.
Something of his mother’s idealising and romanticising – and sometimes its problematic side – continued with Hundertwasser and can be seen in his New Zealand projects, particularly the architectural ones. His ambitions to create living buildings with humus-filled walls and tree “tenants” providing “natural cooling”, no longer hit the mark in a country that battled against damp, mouldy structures.
However, his vision for a “peace treaty” between humans and nature long before the environmental movement gained significant traction, his bids to protect heritage buildings, and his insistence on recycling and reusing materials mark him as a visionary.
Other titles of interest
Fono: The Contest for the Governance of Sāmoa
(Te Herenga Waka University Press) RRP $40
Tells the story of the development of Sāmoa’s unique system of governance from first settlement through German colonisation and New Zealand’s administration to indigenous governance.
(Penguin) RRP $30
Fifty years on, a reissue of this classic collection of short stories and Witi’s first book.
The Physician’s Gun
John Evan Harris
(Roiall Emerald) RRP $32.99
Adventure novel set during the New Zealand goldrush and inspired by the notorious Maungatapu murders of 1866, ages 11+.
The Fateful Voyage of the St Jean Baptiste
(Heritage Press) RRP $39.99, hardback
Another reisuue, 52 years after winning New Zealand’s premier book award. Tells the tale of Captain Jean de Surville’s journey to the South Pacific in 1769. Hardback with beautiful endpapers.
Te Wehenga: The Separation of Ranginui and Papatūānuku
(Allen & Unwin) RRP $36.99, hardback
From one of the authors of the award-winning The Adventures of Tupaia comes this retelling of the Māori creation story. Incredible illustrations.
The River in our Backyard/ Te Awa e Pātata Rawa Ana Malcolm Patterson and Martin Bailey
(Oratia) RRP $22.99
Newest bilingual picture book in the ‘Sharing our Stories’ series connecting kids with local heritage.
Dead Reckoning: A Latitude 35⁰ S Adventure
Second book in the ‘Latitude 35 Degrees South’ series. Novel charting the sailing adventure of three teens and a dog, and the lessons in local and national history learned along the way.
Mokorua: Ngā Kōrero Mō Tōku Moko Kauae – My Story of Moko Kauae
Ariana Tikao, photo essay by Matt Calman, te reo Māori text by Ross Calman (Auckland University Press) RRP $45
One woman’s journey to her moko kauae as an expression of her Kāi Tahu identity.
We have one copy of The Fateful Voyage of the St Jean Baptiste to give away. To enter the draw, send your name and address on the back of an envelope to Book Giveaways, Heritage New Zealand, PO Box 2629, Wellington 6140, before 30 March 2023. The winner of last issue’s book giveaway (Heart of the City: The Story of Christchurch’s Controversial Cathedral) was Alan Tunnicliffe of Christchurch.