This post is about a famous – in New Zealand – story surrounding the Tarawera Eruption, the event that also destroyed the Pink and White Terraces. This story is etched into the New Zealand psyche, so much that I did not feel the need to explain the basics at the beginning of this post. Nearly any Kiwi will be well-versed in this legend.
If you are from outside NZ or if you are a New Zealander who has not heard this particular legend, the Wikipedia link above will give you an overview.
“Our liking for vivid sensations explains, in part, the tendency to supplement terrors that are real by the prodigies of fancy. Wairoa Maoris chiefly, who, having since lost their all, are clearly entitled to have seen this or any other portent that affords them comfort in the retrospect. No one can deny that the phantom canoe, manned by shadowy warriors fleeing across the mysterious lake from their burial place on Tarawera Mountain, threatened by volcanic fires, is a very pretty and poetical conceit which does the Maori imagination credit. It is somewhat startling, however, to learn that the apparition was also beheld by a party of well-known European tourists.”
Sober, old-fashioned paternalistic racism in the article, but from a writer who clearly had respect (of a kind) for Maori traditions in relation to recent tragedy. Unfortunately, apart from the dated prose, this quote also sums up the attitude the NZ public has about this event today.
I’m a skeptic. I know there’s a romantic, literary appeal to think a group of tourists and guides saw a mysterious ancestral canoe just over a week before the eruption of Tarawera, but my first reaction is to want to find out the ‘Truth’ (capital ‘T’) about the event. I’m one of the crazy folk who think there’s no difference between the claim that the tourists saw a phantom Maori war canoe in Tarawera a week before the 1886 eruption, and the claim that Ken Ring predicted the Christchurch earthquake. Both need to be investigated on their merits alone, and personally (I know it’s not a popular opinion) I think both claims disrespect the people involved in the event and the later disaster if we accept them out of hand.
The stories of the phantom canoe began the day after the 1886 eruption. Journalists interviewed some of the tourists, and in a way the story has stayed consistent. Tourists and their Maori guides saw what they reported as a war canoe gliding along the lake, and the occupants didn’t reply to the shouts of the Maori guides who were with the tourists. The canoe disappeared in the direction of the old burial site in Tarawera and some of the local Maori said it was clearly a supernatural omen of bad luck because no war canoe was known to be in the region.
Over the next couple of days, more stories came out that verified some of the claims and added more information. Yes, they were crossing the lake in two boats with a well-known guide named Sophia. The canoe was definitely a double-headed canoe and the paddlers were clearly distinguished. G L Sise – in an interview specifically about the “phantom canoe”stories that had been printed from 11-17 June – stated that he was in a canoe and said he saw nine (“not thirteen”) people, three of them stood up while the tourist group watched, and Sise saw the flash of three paddles on the visible side, but he also said that since the craft was half a mile or so away it was impossible “to ascertain whether they were clothed or not, and their was absolutely nothing en evidence to show that they were warriers. They might have been apple-women or nurse-girls.”
Other reports attempted to clarify the earlier stories. The group was on their way to Rotomahana from Wairoa, the morning was bright and clear with no clouds “or the least obscurity in the atmosphere.” The canoe went parallel to them, apparently racing and the crew were standing and paddling. The boat did not disappear as has been previously reported, the ship was lost to view as they passed down a different arm of the lake. The local hotelier of the Wairoa hotel for the last 17 years, Mr McRae, could testify to the Maori guide claims that there was no canoe like that anywhere in the district.
Another statement in the same story is that “at first they counted eleven men in her, and afterwards not more than three.” This sounds to me like lazy, vague writing – I have no idea what the reporter was implying or what the reporter was trying to get across – but I’ll explain later how this statement could lend weight to the other, supernatural, direction that some people took the story.
There seems to be some agreement that the sighting was on the 31st March, but even a week or so after the event there are differing opinions. Take the well-known Maori guide Sophia who hailed the “phantom canoe” and will be the key to the next hundred+ years of this story. A woman tourist from Cambridge who took a trip to the Pink and White Terraces on 3rd of June said Sophia acted concerned and was clearly worried about the volcanic activity (i.e. the sound coming from the Devil’s Hole). However, another tourist who travelled on the same (Wairoa to Rotomahana) canoe trip on 7th June said the Maori boatmen and Sophia were “in the highest spirits”, and that Sophia not only didn’t mention the phantom canoe, but also made “some laughing allusion.. to such an apparition in days gone by.”
But why would Sophia be inclined to say anything to a bunch of foreign tourists she was steering around in a lake for a day, even if she was worried about an omen of death (more about that later)? She is on record as having said something to a colleague she knew closely. Sometime before a story on 11th September 1886, The “writer of sketches of the New Wonderland in the NZ Herald” says Sophia told him (the writer) that after the boat trip on 31st May she discussed the omen with the hotelier McRae, saying “I shall not make many more trips to the terraces… I feel that something is going to happen – I know not what, but this I do know, I shall not go much oftener to the terraces.”
It is clear by now isn’t it… what this boat trip represents. In one small gift-wrapped morsel – connected with one of the worst natural disasters in post-colonial history – it describes the clash of credulity (faith) and logic (close-mindedness). Not only that, but the key to this story is somewhere in the thicket of 19th Century (and modern-day) Maori and NZ European culture.
Crowded in the boat is a bunch of rich NZ European tourists, out for a jaunt to the Lakes for a holiday. They are patronising and critical of the Maori guides. In the words of the reporter interviewing Mr G L Sise:
“they [the Maori locals] were in a state of abject superstitious terror [due to recent tribal conflict, death of an elder and the volcanic activity], and were prepared for anything marvellous from a mermaid to a banshee. The boat in which they were traversing the lake was the boat of the dead and decaying chief and on board was an ancient harridan who crooned dismally during the passage… [after the sighting the Maori guides made] the cheerful announcement ‘we all die to-day’. Sise thinks it was a ‘got up arrangement’ – a ‘put up job’ on the part of the tohunga.”
Crammed in the same boat with the rich white tourists are the Maori locals. These include a respected guide (Sophia) who already had a reputation for clairvoyance. They lived and worked in an area with a supernatural history and were scared for their lives and their livelihoods because there had been waves, noises and volcanic activity recently that weren’t like anything they had come across.
This post is getting long and it is really one long setup for what I really want to talk about – the fact that the myth has developed over time.
More than that, I want to question whether it should develop. As you can see, there’s agreement from everyone who was there for a memorable and compelling story. But human nature makes us want more. Less than twenty years will pass from the date of the sighting before the story is changed even more. Artists will show a stormy, foggy night rather than a bright, calm Monday morning. Years later Sophia will say the boat travelled at superhuman speed, the warrior paddlers had “dogs heads on the bodies of men…”, the boat disappeared into thin air…
And this is in the official record in NZ government, museum and historical sites – sites that report more what the myth became, not what was reported as seen at the time. Because of the mystery and romance of the story, this story is moving into legend, and the habit is to add, and emphasise the supernatural, whether it’s mist and a stormy night (rather than a calm, bright morning), or dog-headed men. That’s what I think is worrying, to choose to throw away all the other possible explanations for the sake of romance.
Should we go along with treating this as a supernatural story because it “affords comfort in the retrospect”? How would we feel if someone made a claim to seeing dog-headed ghosts before 9/11 or the Christchurch Earthquake?
Read Part 2 of this article Tarawera eruption – phantom canoe? Part 2 of 2