A group of Maori, and two boatloads of European tourists see a mysterious canoe on Lake Tarawera. Although the tourists think little of it, the local Maori see it as an omen of evil. Around a week later, Mt Tarawera erupts, devastating the area and destroying the Pink and White Terraces. Later reports talk in depth about the significance of the “Tarawera phantom canoe.”
So what is the harm in a “very pretty and poetical conceit”, or the “prodigies of fancy… to have seen this or any other portent that affords .. comfort in the retrospect”, as the Otago Witness newspaper reported after the event?
As I mentioned in the first post on this topic, I want to look at how this legend is being developed over time. The clear trend is for reports to move towards the sensational, and there is enough ambiguity and misreporting of the event itself to see how this story is moving from the vaguely interesting to the purely mythical.
(part 1 – if you missed it: Tarawera eruption – phantom canoe? Part 1 of 2)
This is a myth that is supported by official agencies as well, basically because it seems to be a “pretty and poetical conceit” that ties in nicely with general New Zealand perception of Maori identity. Take the NZ government website Te Ara. Its section on the Tarawera Phantom Canoe states the canoe had a “ghostly outline in the morning mists”, with a “double row of occupants… wrapped in flax robes, their heads bowed and.. their hair plumed as for death with the feathers of the huia and the white heron.” Where did that come from? clearly not from the eyewitness reports. Although Mrs Sise states there was morning mist on the water, other eyewitnesses were at pains to say that the sky was clear, without “the least obscurity in the atmosphere.” Also, the reports from the Europeans in both boats said they were around half a mile – one kilometre – from the “phantom canoe”, not anywhere near enough to see clothing or anything else significant, other than whether those on the canoe were standing or sitting.
Some of the reporting can be put down to pure romanticism. The Auckland Art Gallery has the famous artwork by Kennett Watkins entitled ‘The Phantom canoe: a legend of Lake Tarawera’, and explains the factual inaccuracies in terms of artistic license. “Although the spectre was seen in broad daylight, Watkins presents it in a dramatic nocturnal setting illuminated by a full moon amidst billowing clouds, foreshadowing the volcanic blast to come.”
… incremental steps that build up to a NZ mythology. To be blunt, if it was a reported UFO we would have no issue of complicit credulity. The fact that looking into this myth in some way (and in a way literally) could be seen as intruding on Maori cultural values… that complicates things. Traditional Maori oral culture had no reason to make a distinction between the scientific and the supernatural, or between factual recollection and artistic licence. But to treat reports of Maori myth and storytelling as the same as attempts at objective eye-witness reporting is just lazy. Worse, in my view it discredits the Maori culture. I’m not sure if the 19th Century reporters, or today’s websites view the Maori account as a “prescientific” perspective or if they feel Maori views on events as somehow outside the bounds of rational analysis, but either view is patronizing.
Yes, before Maori learned of the scientific method they believed in psychics, ghosts and fairies, and you can say the same thing about any other culture on earth, including the British. But to think that somehow the myths (e.g. of taniwhas or St George’s dragon or UFOs) are therefore out of bounds of scientific reasoning is absurd – even if members of that culture still believe in and/or prefer the myths.
This is an understanding that seems to have gone out the window when official sources report on the experience of the Maori guide Sophia Hinerangi, who hailed the phantom canoe. Guide Sophia’s account of the incident seemed to get more and more elaborate over time, to the degree that she was reporting that the canoe actually grew and shrank to hold from one to thirteen people, that it was being paddled faster than humanly possible, that it disappeared into the waters of the lake, and – most significantly – that those on the boats actually had dog’s heads on the bodies of men. This seems to have been first reported – in the media – in a 1929 Evening Post letter to the editor, a quote which seems to have come from a 1904 book by EL Massey on the Tarawera eruption.
Again, I need to contrast this with the actual eyewitness interviews given at the time – that a canoe was a kilometre away (too far away to see clothing or detail), filled with about nine humans (some of whom stood up), and that the group watched the boat until it took another channel from the tour boats and was obscured by a headland.
Sophia was a regular tourist guide for rich Europeans, obviously used to marketing the Tarawera area. She was clearly aware of the impact of romantic Maori cultural myths on credulous tourists, and her story went through many iterations over the years (apparently R.F Keam talks about this in his book on Tarawera). Also, as a famous Maori “prophet”, and as one of the key figures in providing shelter and welfare in the community during the eruptions, she would have been frequently asked to talk about the “phantom canoe” story.
The fact is the European tourists didn’t see anything untoward on the canoe, and reported that it was actually too far away to see anything much at all. The reports of the canoe growing and shrinking and disappearing are clearly wrong, and even if Sophia – using her psychic powers – did see dog-headed men in the canoe in 1886, there is no suggestion she said anything about it to either the tourist group or to someone she knew and respected more than a boatload of spoiled tourists – like the hotelier McRae. Also, she recovered enough from the nightmarish vision to lead other tour groups onto the lake less than a week later and make jokes about a Maori myth of a phantom canoe (without mentioning her own recent vision).
Despite all this, the official stories about the “phantom canoe” tend towards the sensational. Why? Well, of course, if you’re skim-reading a story about a ghost ship sighting what will you remember – whether the eye-witnesses reported clear sky vs a sheen of morning mist, or the fact that the phantom rowers had the heads of dogs! No mention of what the two boatloads of people reported seeing – the second-/third-/fourth-hand account of Sophia’s 10 year old recollections are now used as evidence for what everyone saw that day.
NZ History online – “phantom canoe appeared with a sole paddler. The canoe grew bigger.. and boasted a crew of 13, each of whom had a dog’s head. The ghostly waka then shrank and disappeared.”
Auckland Museum – “a ghostly war canoe sailing past, its paddlers dressed for a funeral – some with the heads of dogs!”
Worst of all – in my opinion – is a learning resource
from the NZ national museum Te Papa. In a schools resource on Sophia’s ‘Hei Tiki’ (carved greenstone necklace). Question three for students: “What is another word for ‘premonition’? Think back on the story of Guide Sophia’s premonition. What do you think the single person in the waka becoming 13 people with ‘dog-like heads’ signified?” There’s no hint about the students questioning the accuracy of the prediction or the correctness. Students are asked to talk about themes and symbolism, while breathlessly accepting the ‘historical’ myth that has now replaced the actual events.
Oh, and according to our national museum, psychics exist. What happened to scientific analysis, or at least evidence-based research? You’re a museum for Christ’s sake! [irony intended]. No, I don’t accept giving a “free pass” to this myth because it relates to Maori cultural tropes, or because it is a ‘harmless’ story with a useful moral, or because there are precious little shared cultural narratives in post-colonial NZ, or because it lends perspective and gives interest to a vague historical disaster, or because it “affords comfort in the retrospect”.
Why is it reported this way? Clearly because “we” – as a catch-all word for people in NZ in general – want it to be true. It is a neat little story to explain an otherwise tragic event. It is an easily digested tale about the hubris of British and European scientific imperialism in the face of a romanticised version of the Maori cultural worldview.
It gives us the comfort of perspective that – while natural disasters may tear these shaky islands apart every once and a while – that we can have some kind of warning. That’s why we love the stories of children or village elders who herd their families to the top of a hill before a tsunami, or a mysterious psychic prophet foretelling an earthquake or volcano.
It is also why we place such faith in scientists and why when this faith is misplaced – in the case of Ken Ring’s self-promotion, or in the case of ESR selectively warning the Christchurch public about the risk of damaging aftershocks – that the public backlash and venom is so intense. We feel betrayed because accepting that people do not have some strange power to predict danger (or abuse the power) means we have to accept our vulnerabilities in the face of unimaginable forces that have the power to literally change the landscape around us.
So rather than accept our own humility through pre-scientific or trans-scientific faith, why can’t we accept our own humility through scientific awe at the unbelievable power and mystery of nature? Or are we so superficial that we are only able to glimpse the majesty of the world through the vague and blurry story of a dog-faced ghost?