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Sunday, June 21, 2020


Not in Narrow Seas by New Zealand economist, consultant and political commentator, Brian Easton, is an interesting book on many levels.

First, there is the striking cover image.  A painting by New Zealand artist Nigel Brown, it is based on a work by the Tahitian high priest Tupaia, who sailed on the Endeavour with Captain Cook, and was instrumental in forging a productive, and largely non-combative relationship between the crew, captain, and supernumeraries of the ship and the Maori of New Zealand.

This is what Tupaia drew:

Having a dry sense of humor, Tupaia was enjoying a private joke when he made this sketch of Joseph Banks, the young and somewhat pompous botanist with the expedition, in a stand-off situation with a Maori chief. Banks's intention was to barter a piece of tapa cloth for a crayfish (New Zealand lobster), but neither he nor the Maori were willing to let go first. Eventually, the exchange was made, but in an atmosphere of deep suspicion.  It was a potent and eloquent prediction of the trading future of all the peoples of New Zealand, now as well as back then.

Thus, Brown's version of the same scene (the only difference being that the European is trading a nail instead of cloth) is the perfect illustration for Easton's book, As he meditates in chapter five, "Maori meet the Market," which of the two is getting the better deal? Is it the Briton who is receiving food, the very basis of life? Or is it the Maori man who is receiving a capital good which will markedly increase his productivity?

Economists observe that it is a voluntary exchange, so their answer is "both."

Something else that makes this book different is its emphasis on the environment.  Justifiably, the publishers claim that this "is the first economic history to underline the central role of the environment, beginning with the geological formation of these islands."  Where other economists have concentrated on the produce of the soil, and the quarrying of the land, Easton is also passionate about the economic challenges of global warming. "About the time this was first written," he points out, "tens of thousands of New Zealand children and hundreds of thousands throughout the world took a day off school to march to demand that global warming be taken more seriously."  Certain politicians and tycoons might not have taken much notice, but Easton certainly did.

Then there is the title.  "Not in Narrow Seas," as Easton explains in his introduction, is New Zealand poet Allen Curnow's "pioneering 1939 work, a collection of great poems evoking New Zealand's isolationg and fragility.

In your atlas two islands not in narrow seas -- it begins --
Like a child's kite anchored in the indifferent blue...

The poet is describing what is commonly known as "the tyranny of distance," a geographical fact that separates the country from the rest of the world in general, and "Mother England" in particular, an awareness that is very much part of the national psyche. "Curnow's poetry is a gift for an economist," says Easton.  "It captures certain brutal truths about our country.  If the land mass later known as New Zealand had sunk beneath the waves 23 million-odd years ago, the history of the world would have been little different." Very true -- back then -- but in this age of the internet and international flight, is it still true today?  This is a large part of what this book explores, starting with the profound effect of refrigerated shipping on the farm-based economy.

And, as Easton also goes on to explore, does New Zealand have anything to offer to the wider world, apart from sheep meat, dairy products, enviable scenery, a tricky touch with filmmaking, fine wine and wool?   Is it possible that such a small country could create new insights into political, social, environmental or economic matters?  Is it surprising, for instance, that universal suffrage had such an early start here -- or that a cooperative populace was willing to make sacrifices to stem the latest pandemic?

The administration of Aotearoa is different from many, in that it is politically centralized.  As Easton points out, most interestingly, this is because government was already established when European mass settlement began, while -- "In other former colonies such as the United States, settlements began 150 years before a federal government was formed." This meant that in America musket-armed, log-cabin-building, fundamentally Christian pioneers had already stamped their presence on the scene by the time America won its independence, a fact that the Founding Fathers had to take on board when establishing a government, something that is amply illustrated within the Constitution.

This book is full of such thought-provoking insights, which would make it worth reading even if it were not so entertaining.  That it is so accessible is the result of Easton's many years of writing popular columns of political, social, and economic commentary.  Despite the subtitle, the book is really an economist's meditations on the history of Aotearoa New Zealand, and it is this that makes it different, as well as valuable.

I was pleased to be one of the audience at a well-attended occasion at Unity Books, Wellington, where Brian Easton was interviewed by another eminent economist, Allan Bollard, who drew out very interesting insights into sheep farming, refrigeration, and the Maori economy.

There is also a warm review in today's Newsroom daily briefing.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Fishing and fishermen

San Aspiring and San Aotea

New Zealand has a particularly close association with the ocean.  The Polynesians, when they first arrived from the eastern Pacific, found a lush land that was strangely short of food plants, but was surrounded by a most bounteous pantry of a sea.  And so it has continued -- unsurprisingly, when satellite images of the country are considered.  Basically, Aotearoa is a thin string of islands, surrounded by a terrific lot of water.

Which meant that it did come as a surprise to find that New Zealand's biggest fishing enterprise, Sanford, has a trawler in the South Georgia Sea, a long way south of Cape Horn.  The ship, San Aspiring, has been fishing for toothfish there since February, and, as Radio NZ reported, 15 of the crew need to get home.  And so a sister ship, San Aotea, is forging through the frigid Southern Ocean on a rescue mission.

These fishermen have not been exposed to Covid-19 at all, and the idea is that they should stay that way.  Sanford spokesperson Fiona MacMillan said with no flights from South America or any way to get the crew home without potentially exposing them to Covid-19 in transit they decided the best option was to just go and get them.
"It's the right thing to do. Those guys did not sign up to be stuck out at sea for eight months, they signed up for a specific fishing mission."
The two ships will meet up near the Falkland Islands in a couple of weeks, the two crews will change places, and the seafarers who had been on San Aspiring should be home by July.
Sanford, as well as having one of the prettiest website home pages I have ever seen, has a very interesting history.  The company's founder, Albert Sanford, arrived in New Zealand on New Year's Day, 1864, and within a year was fishing from his first boat, an ex-pilot cutter named Foam.  He smoked the snapper he caught by burning kauri offcuts, creating a product that was soon very popular in the Auckland market.   By 1881 he had his own store, and launched a downtown fish market in 1894.  Another ten years, and a limited liability company had been established.  Sanford was a name becoming known throughout New Zealand.

An operation that had started with just one cutter had blossomed into a fleet, and the single market had become just one of 15 shops.  The Great Depression stalled progress for a bit, and Sanford trawlers were requisitioned by the government during World War Two.  Then regulation of the sea meant that all fishing vessels had to be licensed.  Sanford NZ, however, persevered, and flourished, partly by means of buying up other companies' licences, and partly by selling shares on the stock exchange.  Overseas markets beckoned, particularly in Australia and Japan. Then, in the 1980s, the company began to invest in aquaculture, farming oysters, first, and then mussels, the green-lipped mussel being a particularly successful venture.
And then there is the Antarctic toothfish, the catch that has stranded 15 fishermen who need to get back to New Zealand.  The ground is the sea about South Georgia, and the fishing is only done there in the southern summer months -- and winter has come.  Hence the rescue mission
Back home, meantime, the company has opened a new fish market in Auckland -- complete with nine seafood restaurants, and a pub called, somewhat bizarrely, "The Wreck."

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Time does tell

Tearing down the statues is the topic du jour -- or so it seems.

It began with the tearing down of the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol.  Francine Howarth, historical novelist, wrote an impassioned opinion, which aroused a huge amount of comment on facebook.

Personally, I am against the tearing down of history.  I was sad when the statue of Robert E. Lee was destroyed, as he was a true hero in his time.  He just happened to fight on the wrong side.

In Japan, I was intrigued to find secretive memorials to the kamikaze pilots.  But why shouldn't they be remembered?  They, too, were on the wrong side.  Their courage is undoubted.

But, as British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, described so eloquently in 1818, it all makes no difference, in the end.  The lapse of time rules.

Tearing down the statues

Guest post from Francine Howarth

Tearing down statues achieves nothing and I am no apologist for slavery. I've included it within novels, and believe me I do not paint history by way of a rose tinted perspective as anyone will know if they've read any of my 17th century based novels, and later Georgian and Regency romances where the subject of black slavery and white bond slaves crops up.
Why though, tear down statues that represent the past (regardless of who they were - good or evil), because once they are gone or hidden away what those people did will be forgotten in a world where history is rarely taught in schools these days, where kids don't ask questions and don't bother to read history to gain knowledge of facts when a movie glorifies one sort of violence and condemns another without reasoned thought of the era in comparison to the modern age, There is disparity in society worldwide no matter the colour of skin. There always has been disparity, and sadly always will be, and education is so important to bettering one's chances in life.
Barack Hussain Obama became the 44th President of the USA, he achieved it by hard graft schooling and higher education, by being what he could be with effort and determination to succeed. Don't say African Americans and African Brits can't rise to heights of glory, they can and do. It's tough, but it's tough out there for kids with Downs syndrome, it's tough for kids with missing limbs, it was no doubt tough for Peter Hayden Dinklage in his younger days (Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones) but he didn't give up he soldiered on and look at him now,
One has to realise the past was brutal in so many ways and slavery rife throughout the ages from Egypt to Rome, to the Ottoman Empire, and it still happens today and yet most people turn a blind eye to it. So why does slavery during the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries stir such strong emotions today, in particular British involvement in slavery of Black Africans, even though the French and Dutch shipped as many slaves in the same period, and for a goodly while after Britain had abolished slavery? We cannot change the past, nor should we excuse it, equally rebellion and violence never ends well as history tells us, for it often leads to dictatorships, martial law, or total breakdown of society and worse poverty and civil wars.
To study history can teach one so much more than set belief in one way or another, thus fact can often surprise one and open one's eyes to the cruel reality Britain of today is little different than any other European country of today, and little different than Europe of yester years, barring it once had an empire on which the sun never set. Is that the fault of the youth of today, their parents, or grandparents, no, it was down to great grandparents, great great grandees back through the centuries, and here's a little about Edward Colston's past and those he mingled with in royal circles. He was a son of Bristol, but died at Mortlake.
James VI and I (James Charles Stuart; 19 June 1566–27 March 1625) was King of Scotland as James VI from 24 July 1567 and King of England 24 March 1603 until his death in 1625.
In 1625 his son Charles I became king. When Charles I was beheaded 1649, Cromwell took command and later became Lord High Protector. Cromwell died in 1658 and his son Richard was toppled in favour of Charles II (the restoration 1660).
In 1619 James I was on throne when some 20 Africans arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, where they were purchased from Dutch privateers to aid in the English colony’s lucrative, labor-intensive cultivation of tobacco. As profits piled up and slavery spread through the American colonies, the British crown decided to exert control over the slave trade to the colonies (and the wealth it generated) lasting throughout James I's liftime, Charles I, and Cromwell's term in office 1649-1658. Also bear in mind thousands of white bond slaves from England post English Civil Wars and Monmouth Rebellion, were likewise shipped to the colonies.
Later according to the Navigation Act of 1660, only English-owned ships could enter colonial ports. That same year, King Charles II granted a charter to the "Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa", which was led and championed by the king’s younger brother James, Duke of York (later King James II), this group had a monopoly on British trade with West Africa, including gold, silver and slaves. But during England’s war with the Netherlands, the original company collapsed under mounting debts in 1667, reemerging in 1672 with a new royal charter and a new name: the Royal African Company (RAC).
With the death of William, and Mary, her sister Anne came to the throne 1702, she died in 1714.
With Anne's death came the reign of George I 1714 until his death 1727.
Renember Edward Colston was born in 1636, had been trading in cloth, oil, wine, sherry and fruit from Spain, Portugal, Italy and North Africa for many years and played no part in slavery at all in the early years of his life, nor did he own any slaves. He was by this time already an extremely wealthy man, his father a merchant before him who served during the English Civil Wars, and one of many Merchant Venturers of Bristol & London, thus he followed in his father's footsteps and set up charities for the poor, built almshouses, schools, hospitals, and owned much of Bristol's housing stock, some still standing today. He traded out of both cities, and bear in mind, at that time Bristol was the second most important port next to London during Charles II's reign until Liverpool became the favoured haven for slavers in George II's reign. He became the High Sheriff of the city, became an MP, and little different than most men of his era. I am not excusing him on account of charitable foundations, just stating fact not fiction.
Colston joined London’s Royal Africa Company in 1680 in middle age during the reign of Charles II, which was run by James Duke of York (later James II) With James II coming to the throne in 1685 Edward Colston was offically appointed to the former office of James Duke of York. and he became closely involved in the management of the company (RAC) over the next eleven years and was its Deputy Governor for two years. Colston will have benefited financially from his membership and was actively involved in decisions concerning the transportation of many thousands of enslaved Africans as had James Duke of York. During the time he was associated with the Company (not in charge throughout) it is estimated that around 80,000 slaves were embarked onto ships and around 20% of them died on the passage across the Atlantic. In 1698 the company’s monopoly ended and the slave trade was opened up to all British ports including Bristol and Liverpool. In the following century it was thought as many as half a million Africans were transported to the Americas in ships registered within Bristol and Liverpool where before they were registered in London. Throughout his lifetime the slave trade was promoted by the King and pursued by other European trading countries as a legitimate trade, in particular Holland and France.
Demand for slaves was still too high for one company to meet, however the RAC effectively lost its monopoly in 1689 after the Glorious Revolution when King James II was toppled in favor of William and Mary. It was some 30 years after Colston’s death before the abolition movement started and it was not until 1833 the reign of William IV, that the Abolition of Slavery Act officially banned all forms of slavery, though the transportation of African slaves by British ships was banned in 1807 during the reign of George III. In the meanwhile criminals in the UK, men and women, were shipped to Australasia.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Stranded at sea

There are many vessels stranded by the Covid-19 pandemic, including the 19 cruise ships floating forlornly in the harbor at Manila.  There is a well-known sailing ship in search of a port, too, as reported by Old Salt Blog.

But even more unusual is the pretty craft pictured above, the Arka Kinari, the present habitat of some really colorful artists.

The owners are musicians Grey Filastine and his Indonesian partner Nova Ruth, and the seven-strong crew is multinational.  Their original plan was to create a multimedia performance on board a wind-driven craft, with a message about the climate crisis and the health of the oceans. The vessel they envisaged was a traditional pinisi schooner, the boat-of-choice for Bugis pirates.

There are plenty of pinisi around, as you can see from these pictures I took at Semarang, Java, but the innovative couple could not afford the hardwood necessary.  So they ended up buying an old steel-hulled schooner, and rebuilding her in Rotterdam.

As you can see, they managed to replicate the drama and color of the traditional craft.

So off they sailed on their worldwide adventure, producing their multi-media performance in the ports where they paused, using the sails as screens.

The venture stuttered to a halt after leaving Mexico on 21 February.  They headed west, but there was nowhere to stay.  All the islands were closed to travelers.  All they could do was aim for Indonesia, dodging typhoons, and hoping for the crisis to end.

Food, of course, is running out -- but there are fish in the ocean, eagerly caught by one-time Vegans.  And they have managed to grow some little lettuces.  Like all successful castaways, they keep busy, have a roster of work, and foster a sense of community with shared tasks and song.  They are blessed by a common goal, their sense of brotherhood, and effective leadership.

So, in a way, they are carrying out their original mission, but in a most unexpected fashion.