Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Parnell Ghost - part 2 of 2

Advance warning - This blog gets fairly heavy by the end.

Okay, I need to give a disclaimer and say I don't believe in ghosts or the supernatural.  I don't take this Parnell Ghost story "seriously" in the literal sense, but, saying that, I want to look at how this kind of story is repeated, recycled and re-whatevered over the years.

How does this relate to ghosts?  Well, think about 'urban legends'... Is the most important thing about the urban legend getting to the bottom of whether the "hook man" was a real account or why so many people believe a story about a serial killer under someone's bed?  

Of course not.  It's because the importance of urban legends is the context they're told in, the reasons they're told and the common themes that speak to shared culture and world views, not the details of what is actually said - which after all changes every time you tell the story.

It's clear by the tone and content of the news articles that most of the people involved in the Parnell Ghost story actually believed there was a ghost as much as you believe "hook man" was going to get you.  As I said in the first post, this story as it was originally told was a way for people to start to acknowledge a shared history.  It was also a good excuse for a cheap night-time thrill (which is the main reason for 'urban legends') and a way for some of the political figures at the time to get some free column inches.  

So the last thing you should focus on when looking at a ghost story is the ghost...?  Well that goes completely against human nature doesn't it.  Of course you should look at the "ghost" part but don't assume the most important thing you are looking at is the ghost.

So how many ghosts are there in Parnell?

Lets give in for a second and embrace the supernatural.  It's fun after all, right (?).  What are we looking for?  A female figure and/or a young girl ghost dressed in white.  There's not much more to go on.  One of the reports says the ghost was of a young girl who disappeared "very suddenly some years ago [from the well-to-do Parnell house] and the mystery surrounding whose fate has never been cleared up."  Surprisingly I can't find any newspaper record of something like this happening in Parnell in the 1870s or 1880s - you'd think a story like that would be fairly widely reported.

Although one of the original articles said the owner was planning to pull the house down, I kept on looking for reports of ghosts in Parnell - on the off chance.  Ends up that there's two apparently "haunted houses" in Parnell at the moment - Kinder House which is apparently haunted by a scary ghost, and Ewelme Cottage where the reports are that it was haunted by a family friendly ghost, maybe even by children. 

Great, big bonus! 




It's easy to forget what you're ultimately looking at when you talk about these "ghost stories" - that is, in this case, dead children.  However they pretend to be 'sympathetic' to these cases in ghost hunting shows, ultimately they're cashing in on and cheapening human tragedy...

...which segues neatly with "Ghost Hunt", the TVNZ production in 2005 that seems to be the source that is set to continue this ghost story into the 21st Century.  In fact, in the Wikipedia entry about Kinder House and Ewelme Cottage, the only reference given about the claim either house was haunted is to the promotional book written to accompany this tv series.  

But wait... the Wikipedia entry states that reports of the haunted house date back to (only) 1945!! and that the young female ghost was seen near the oak tree by the house - a ghost who according to a local clairvoyant (... see my comment above about "cashing in on and cheapening...) was of a young female who was mentally insane.  

Even coming with a skeptical eye to all this, it's easy to get caught up in the mystery of it, and to "look at the hits while ignoring the misses".  Yes I am a skeptic but one thing most skeptics would agree on is that they'd love to be proven wrong.  I'd love to see definitive proof that ghosts exist, and how cool would it be if I could get a scoop to show sightings fifty years earlier that also uncannily align with reports of a young (insane and/or murdered) spirit!! ... especially since Ewelme Cottage is very close to the Manukau Road part of Parnell - the hinted location of the house in "The Spectre Bride" that borrowed heavily from the 1893 incident...

... it's pseudo-scientific enough to make some kind of spurious and spooky correlation and that's all we're after... right!!

Well, going down that track is an all to easy habit for people to fall into, and much too far down the Ghost Hunt-ish "... cheapening human tragedy" end of the rabbit hole for my comfort.

Still, I've got to give some space here to "debunk".  A quick check shows that although Ewelme Cottage was rented or left empty from 1871 to 1882 while the family was in England, it was occupied by Reverend Vicesimus Lush's wife (Blanche (nee Hawkins)) and her children from 1882 till 1968

1863-64 - Ewelme Cottage built
1865 - Family moved in, name 'Ewelme Cottage' first used by Reverend Lush.
1871 - Family joined Reverend Lush in Thames
1871-1882 - House rented/empty
1882-1968 - Wife, children & descendants returned to house when Reverend died in 1882.
1969 - House purchased by Auckland City Council, opened to public in 1971.

I hope I'm not going out on a limb here by saying that much as the Observer and Auckland Star were trying to fill column space with a 'fun' story, I doubt they'd stoop to writing a story about a house owned & occupied at the time (& for the previous 10 years) by a widow & children of a well-known Reverend.  It's also unlikely they'd repeatedly make the mistake that the house was frequently rented before & during 1893 & early 1894.

But of course now the fog of history has started to descend on the house it can be considered 'fair game' </sarcasm>, enough so that our national television station can run a breathy & excitable episode (complete with hyperactive graphic design and no actual evidence cited) about the house and the insane girl ghost.  I'm sure "Ghost Hunt" viewers will be disappointed to hear that although Blanche lost four of her children when the family was in New Zealand, three were from scarlet fever in 1854 (before the house was built) and one to scarlet fever in 1876 (when the family was in Thames).  

What is so hard about looking at New Zealand history as a historical record?  Does a historical story need to be given a 'hook' (excuse the pun) by attaching a ghost story to it, and if you discard the history and the real information for the sake of the ghost, is there anything substantial left? (I don't excuse that pun, that was kind of good)

What I'm starting to see is that we (post-colonial New Zealanders) seem to crave the mythical - probably because we have so little of our own mythos to look to.  That's why we borrow from Maori legends (a la Tarawera eruption), why 'real' ghost and psychic shows are so popular here, and why - despite everyone roundly despising Ken Ring - he gets more and more space in the news cycle for his crazy comments.

But this habit destroys what is actually valuable about the history.  Yes the Ghost Hunt story made people aware of a valuable historical house - probably the highest profile coverage this place has had for the previous thirty years - is that coverage worth the price?  Especially when the Ghost Hunt show didn't even make passing reference to the Lush family that contributed so much (including their long-standing family home and around 95% of its contents) to the Auckland public.  

That's the difference between getting thrills (and a production company or a psychic making $$) from these stories as well as from ghost hunt or psychic detective shows, rather than making a good, fun, honest show about "hook man".  You can't have it both ways when you're watching these ghost hunting shows.  You can't have a trendy, funny, exciting show about a 'real' ghost story without acknowledging that what you're subscribing to is someone cashing in on and cheapening real human tragedy.  

Does that make you uncomfortable?

Maybe it should.

Because these shows and websites are trash.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ewelme Cottage - real history just waiting to be steampunked

We went to Ewelme Cottage today, an old-fashioned kauri house built in the 1860's for a Reverend and his family.  I'll write more about this cottage in my Parnell Ghost part II blog (to be done).  And no - although I took a whole lot of photos I can't see any ghostly images hidden in the picture, not even a freakin lens flare!

We have been going to Motat lately and I have started to be interested in Auckland history/life from reading the old newspapers on the papers past website.  While Motat has static displays with roped and glassed off rooms, Ewelme's roped areas don't interrupt the feel of the place.  It gives the real impression that the owners have just stepped out for the afternoon and you're getting a glimpse of their lives.

Check out the study (pics below).  Get rid of the flowers, put a decent bookshelf and armchair in and clean the carpet ... and it could be a brilliant study.  

All you need - apart from clearing out the religious trash - is a steampunk keyboard and maybe a few indiana jones-style artifacts scattered around the room (nix the crystal skull) for an authentic feel.

Don't change the desk at all
Some electricity would help too.

Oh, and a globe.  You've gotta have a globe.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Short stories x2 - (macabre) 'Reincarnation' and 'Geppetto'

For some weird reason I want to list these together.  They're very different stories but they're both quirky & macabre fantasy:


  • Cute, funny story about the downsides of a global conspiracy around strategic reincarnation.


  • Macabre & disturbing (Tim Burton-esque) story about love, trust and free will.

Short story - Theme (caveman pov) 'A shot in the dark'

This story didn't win the weekly short story comp.  It's very dense, especially at the start, and I think it's probably hard for people to settle into.

Still, in terms of trying to put myself fully in the character's head it's one of the favourite stories I have written.  

It's fairly obvious what I was trying to write - a literal translation of Platos Cave.

Short story - (pub yarn) 'Devil Pact'

Part of entering these short story comps was to put me out of my comfort zone.  Going into the story I knew I wanted to write a quirky fireside tale in a strange style.  I tried writing something "to be spoken aloud".  

Personally I think it worked fairly well - some of the prose looks pretty clunky on the page, but that's mainly because the rhythm & wording is for speaking rather than reading.

Short story - (literary) 'Pre-written character'

This was a weekly competition with a twist.  We were given a pre-written character and a snippet of what actions they were doing at the time.

I didn't gel with 'Chloe' - or particularly like her - when I first read her description, but after writing the story the character really grew on me and I could see this expanding into a full-length novel.  There's definitely enough background to it.

I was trying to write this in a fairly 'literary' style.  I wasn't sure exactly how it would turn out, but I wanted to have a go at creating some kind of mythical creature that didn't fit with the usual vampire/werewolf/zombie/ghost tropes.

Short story - theme 'Catch 22'

This is another story written as an entry for the weekly short story comp.  Theme was 'Catch 22' so I couldn't help writing about the lighter side of recruitment.

Take it from someone with plenty of experience on both sides of the table in the interview room.  There's a lot more non-fiction in this story than you'd think!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Tarawera eruption - phantom canoe? Part 1 of 2

The Tarawera Eruption
"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 - 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Parnell Ghost - part 1 of 2

Late November 1893, the middle of a balmy summer night in Auckland.  Despite the late hour there are three hundred people crowd in a street, spilling onto the road and chattering noisily.  All eyes are focused on one house.  It has been the same for the last two weeks.  First it was a few gawkers who had read the Auckland Star article on the 11th of November, quickly rising to around a hundred just two days later.  Reports of a ghost will sure bring in the crowds.  Smartly dressed men in suits, and women in the latest dresses, chatter with some of the poorer boarders and workers from the general area.  You can tell the Parnell women, eyeing each other to catch who has been following the latest London and Paris fashions through the pages of the New Zealand Graphic and Ladies' Journal.

Some are fresh from the latest parliamentary debates that are rocking the country - this will be the first experiment in giving the woman the vote, and the men in the crowd have taken care to educate their wives in the analysis of critical speaking, even taking them to some of the local town hall meetings.  In the Parnell electorate the career politician William Shepherd Allen has challenged Frank Lawry, appearing all around the city and giving passionate speeches, but most feel he needn't have bothered.  Lawry, the dapper old cattle man, is well known and liked in the area and seems like a shoe-in for the Parnell electorate.  Never one to miss an opportunity, Lawry is here in fact, weaving through the crowd and shaking hands with his people and ignoring the jeers of some of the older folk who are standing in a group to the side.  These are some of the Prohibitionist set, having finished their march through the city and passing by this street on their way home.  The movement is gaining momentum in the country and it looks like they will have some real influence on government policy in the next few years.  Some of them whisper loudly and tut-tut under their breath as Lawry passes.  They know an ideological enemy when they see one.

"There!" a voice shouts.  "I can see the ghost!  Coming out of the chimney!"

The crowd presses forward, jostling for a good view.  It is hard to make out even the silhouette of the chimney against the night sky.

"I see it!" shouts someone else.  "It's getting bigger."

"No" someone else's voice, a man's near the front.  "It's getting smaller.  It's going back in."

"He's right... no, wait, there it is again!"  This goes on for some time as different people claim to see moving shapes in the darkness above the house.

"Lawry," says someone, "you're the persuasive one, why don't you appeal to this poor lost soul."

"A ghost? now that's taking suffrage a little far isn't it!" someone says in a stage whisper.  Ignoring the heckler, Lawry straightens his suit jacket and steps forward to appeal to spirit world on behalf of his constituency.

Well... let's take a step back ourselves and see what's going on.

Late 1893 seems like one of those turning points in New Zealand.  As you can see above the country was gearing up to give women the vote for the first time, and in the Waikato the British were positioning themselves for what was to be the bloodiest battle on record (Rangiriri) against the local Maori tribes.  In parliament, the prohibition movement was finally gaining ground and seemed like it could make some real progress.  In short, the tiny British colony down the end of the globe was finally getting an idea of what its identity could be as a country of its own, not one that had to be a carbon copy of the land they had left behind.

So what else to create shock and gossip, to create some light drawing room entertainment, as well as to cement the young town as a "real" and established city, than to lay claim to your very own ghost stories? It may seem a jump in focus but bear with me.  Claiming to have ghosts is to assume your town has interesting and compelling stories, and that there is some kind of 'history' you are looking back on.  Ghosts speak of tragedy, love, passion, mystery.  The person telling the ghost story wants the others to think the location and the story are worth the "ghost" thrill.

So this is what I think the Observer was talking about when on 18th November 1893 it claimed Parnell was rejoicing in the possession of "a genuine hall-marked spectre, who has taken up her (or its) abode in a desirable family residence."

What the Observer was referring to was an article the previous week in the Auckland Star.  Here is the story in a nutshell.  The house was rented frequently over the years.  Recently one of the girls was practicing the piano when she felt a presence in the room and saw an apparition in white.  This spooked ( ;) ) the family who left soon after.  The next residents' children often saw a woman in white in the room.  They moved on.  Next group had a guest staying over who saw a female enter his room when he was sleeping.  Like I said, this resulted in people doing the 19th century equivalent of "cruising by" to check out the haunted house, around 100 people on the 13th of November.

The next step in this tale was that a local claimed he was walking past the house at night and was shocked when he felt the ghost jump on his back.  The only information I can find is that the claimant was a portly man by the name of Mowbray who was well-known in racing circles.  The Fretful Porcupine column in the Observer - clearly a bastion of investigative journalism at the time - gives some more clarity to the story on the 25th of November, when it says the crowd of onlookers had swelled to 300.  A late tenant says the ghost walked through his closed bedroom door.  Another tenant says the ghost entered the room and passed through the floor.  The Observer writer says "it is said the ghost is that of a young girl (a former inmate of this house) who disappeared very suddenly some years ago and the mystery surrounding whose fate has never been cleared up."

The short-lived Parnell Ghost craze culminates in a handy Observer article on the 2nd of December, illustrated with pictures describing the highlights of the gossip-worthy story.  Seymour Thorne George, nephew of Sir George Grey and close confidant of Richard Seddon, makes an appearance in the illustrations, claiming Lawry was using the ghost story to his political advantage (shock, horror).  I can't find anything in writing about this claim, but if you read this article you can see the two were clearly on opposite ends of the political arena at the time, and that Lawry wasn't above some dirty tricks.

Like any short piece of gossip the story dies down quickly after as the tea and scones set moves onto the next scandal.  The Observer says on the 9th of December that the Parnell haunted house has a rent-free tenant, a "hard-headed party who doesn't believe in spooks but keeps his revolver handy in case of any fooling."  I keep on picturing Mr T in a waistcoat.

On the 13th January 1894 the Observer reports, to the relief of the nation, "that the Parnell ghost is 'laid' at last".  No reports on whether Lawry took the credit for that one.

Finally, in terms of this particular Parnell Ghost (more in part 2 of this blog), the Observer decided to resurrect (groan) the Parnell Ghost one last time for its Christmas Annual edition of 1904, in a story entitled "The Spectre Bride".

Although a piece of schlock fiction, it gives some interesting clues as to where the house could have been.  As I will go into later on, I have had a hard time tracking down how this story has panned out over the next 100 years.  Anyway, according to the writer - who obviously had an idea of a "Parnell ghost" reported by his/her own paper ten years previously - the house was "not a hundred yards from the busiest part of the Manukau Road, in Parnell, an old-fashioned, "eerie-looking structure, which still boasted some pretension to architectural style, it had probably been built in the days when Auckland was the capital city of the colony and Parnell the centre of local military and official and consequently, fashionable society."  As you may have seen, the previous reports only said that the house was not near a cemetery but it was near a church.

Unfortunately the Christmas short story goes downhill from this first paragraph and "The Spectre Bride" culminates in a beautiful ghost girl in a white veil standing next to a headless man "in gay military uniform, and from the severed neck blood fairly spurted."  It gets worse.  According to the author of the short story the headless man fought in the battle of Rangiriri, having his head blown off during the gunfire, but fortunately reunited in the afterlife (wet, spurty afterlife) with his betrothed).  Obviously 11 or so years having passed it was no longer "too soon" to start telling Christmas ghost stories about the Rangiriri engagement.

Oh, and to save you clicking, the battle of Rangiriri was on the 21st of November 1893, over a week after the first Parnell Ghost report in the Auckland Star on the 11th November.  So the story should have been entitled "The Time Travelling Spectre Bride."

Friday, January 13, 2012

Life and times of the unlucky Captain Christensen

Here's an old New Zealander you would have loved to share a beer with.  Welcome Captain Christensen.

Christensen was the captain of a fishing ketch named the Three Brothers, out from Gisborne.  In September 1888 he was caught in a storm and, lashed to the helm, steered the boat into shore until they were washed up the beach.

Christensen hired a cutter, the Ann Eliza, to salvage some of the gear from the Three Brothers, and during the return voyage he was hit squarely on the head by a winch that was being used to haul the anchor.  "On his hat, which had been jambed tightly over his head, being removed by those who had been called to help a vast quantity of blood came copiously from the wound."  Fortunately they didn't judge it as serious.

The Poverty Bay Herald printed an appeal on Christensen's behalf in order for him to get on his feet, as he had lost everything he had and the vessel was uninsured.  They wrote "Those acquainted with Captain Christensen express the opinion that he is a straightforward and kind-hearted sailor, who has always endeavored to pay his way and keep out of debt.  It is a pity to see a man of that stamp so far down in luck."

Maybe that knock on the head contributed to the next stage in the saga of Captain Christensen.  Or maybe not.  He took on a cutter by the name of the Alarm.  Sailing out near Great Mercury islands in 1893 he reported seeing a sea monster in the shape of a giant flying fish.  "It appeared to be about 30ft long, and had wings from 10ft to 15ft long, which it flapped together as it rose about 10ft above the water.  Mr Christensen states he has heard of similar fish having been seen by whalers, and also that they are to be found off the coast of Africa.

Now, the Mercury Islands is actually the famous site of the Maori myth where Paikea rode a whale from Hawaiki to land at Ahuahu, i.e. Great Mercury Island.  The myth was actually the basis of the book and movie "Whale Rider".  This area (Hauraki Gulf) is a migration area for humpback whales so maybe what Christensen saw was a humpback whale?  The description definitely fits, a 30ft long fish-shape with long wings (fins?), jumping out of the water.  But humpback whales were well-known during the times so how could an experienced ship captain who sailed regularly in the Hauraki Gulf confuse a humpback whale for a sea monster?  The article also says whalers also regularly saw these "fish", i.e. implying that they were fish as opposed to humpback whales which whalers are used to close contact with.  Or maybe the journalist was being sarcastic...?

Is that the end of the story of Captain Christensen?  Not sure.  There is a report of a "Captain Christensen" in this 1897 report of a shipwreck of the Kameruka, a steamer that wrecked off Pedro Reef near Sydney.  The vessel ran aground in rough and hazy weather, and was buffeted by waves while trapped against the rocks.  Unable to launch a boat from the ship, the crew and passengers had to float lines ashore.  They attached lines to pigs (?!) which swam the 200 yards between the vessel and dry land.  Once those on land were able to secure the lines, the crew fashioned a rough sling/cradle and those on the ship were drawn through the surf to land.

So what happened to Christensen?  It's hard to tell, since whether it's one person or more it was a bad time to be a ship Captain by the name of Christensen at that time.  I hope it was more than one person, otherwise this guy had a hard, hard life.  First there was a Norwegian barge called the Alma, that was wrecked at Malden Island in February 1906 after sailing from Lyttelton via Launceston.  Not a good place to wreck with nothing but a boat-load of guano.

Next on the Christensen hall of infamy is from June 1907.  Captain Christensen was in command of the Norwegian Barque Albania, which had sprung a leak when the cargo shifted and had been abandoned by the crew about four hundred miles to the south of Tonga (nine days in the lifeboats before arriving in Tonga then taken to Sydney by the Atua).

Probably a sign of how hard things were for ship captains in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and shows us how much we take for granted now about air travel and container ships.  But I tell you what, I'll be checking the surname of my pilot in my next international trip.  You know.  Just in case.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Those crazy old-timers

I found this today while busily reading an 1899 Auckland newspaper (don't ask).  Thought it was worth repeating with a hundred and twelve +/- years hindsight...

I guess someone should tell Whitehall to break out the champagne, to celebrate their final success in total world domination.

"A nation only lives a few thousand years. Look at  the great nations of 4000 years ago. Egypt, Yucatan, Mexico, Peru, Assyria are all dead and buried. China is only staying alive to save funeral expenses... 

the United States, Russia and Germany are gaining in population, wealth and power but the British Empire is extending more rapidly than any one of them... 

The British Empire is growing, and it will keep on growing, along the lines of least resistance. At the present rate, the whole land surface of the planet will be absorbed by the year 2349 A.D. But as Greater Britain grows it comes into closer contact with the boundaries of the United States, Russia and Germany. Even if we could, we have no wish to swallow these or any other decently governed countries. The United States, Russia, Germany and Japan are playing the same game. The British Empire is nearly as large as the four combined. As England does not wish to conquer the well-governed countries, the area open to annexation may be diminished by half. In that case, all the world will be properly governed by the year 2012 A.D.  So, in 113 years from the present time, the British Empire must stop spreading for lack of room on the planet.  

Even then it will grow in wealth and population, but, meanwhile these little islands are getting very old. Sooner or later we may feel theweakness of age, and be no longer able to fight for our possessions our colonies may cut adrift from us; the conquered countries, like India, may revolt. If all this should happen, as politicians of a pessimistic temperament are already predicting, it would only be a case of history repeating itself. How long will that be? Well," Rome rose in 400 years, as we did,' and took 1000 years to decline. Our Empire is infinitely greater, stronger and more loyal than the Roman."