Ultima Thule

ultima Thule: a place beyond the border of the known world

This is a story about Waikawa, Southland between 1887 and 1893.

When you start writing about a place and a time far removed it’s tempting to be distracted by incidents: by shipwrecks, and sawmills; local dances and balls; court proceedings, or the body of a man found washed up on the flats.  But it’s not those things which are crucial to understanding: it’s something else.  Something earlier.

What really comes to define a place in a colonised country is that time when someone came to that area with some paper, and a pen and the equipment required to complete a surveyor’s map.

With that person came the impulses and skills of a particular culture.  Out of that map of Waikawa would come plots of land for sale, and then countless short reports in local newspapers about the transfer, for cash, of the newly divided plots of land from one party to another.  It’s that map that explains shipwrecks, and sawmills; local dances and balls; court proceedings, and the body of a man found washed up on the flats.  As with most things in history, what shapes the architecture of our lives is hidden in plain sight in the most drab news items and documents.

This week’s Provincial Government Gazette contains a proclamation by His Honour the Superintendent, setting apart certain lands at Catlin’s River and Waikawa River “as a site for a settlement for colonisation.” [1]

No such straight lines exist [2]
Surveyor’s maps are a great violence to nature, and to all un-industrialised minds.  They put straight lines across a world where no such lines exist and call it order.  Which is what makes them pleasing to the industrialised mind. To that mind they give a sense of control over what has been uncontrollable.  That type of mind takes the chaotic turn of a river – which is not chaotic but obeys another law – and grids it off.  Having demarcated the land as a resource it can have materials extracted from it, planted on it.  Jetty, road, railway: they can follow.  Shops.  Schools.  Churches and halls.

This type of order, this kind of marking, and calculation – we must remember – is not the definition of the word ‘order’ but merely an example.  Order, defined, is “the arrangement or disposition of people or things in relation to each other according to a particular sequence, pattern, or method.”

Think of it this way: the universe is a chicken.  To serve the chicken we can ‘order’ it with our blade in different ways.  We can cut it in the way of an Asian, or in the way of a European.  With a cleaver or a knife.  Including the bone or avoiding it.  Suddenly seeing the world as a survey map is like being shown the way the British carve a roast after years of chopping like the Chinese.  Everything seems to be going the wrong way; but there are only ways and they are neither right nor wrong.  And, of course, there is the chicken itself which does not understand itself as food.

The rules that underpin the complex but comprehensible systems of nature make another kind of sense of Waikawa; are another way to order things.  Yet an imaginary line through a creek, across a hill, bisecting a tree can unleash in the minds of men who believe in those lines hot words, fists, and lead.  Lines that the bird, the fish, and the wind do not accept.

…and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Genesis 1: 28

Or we could see Papatūānuku as the Māori saw it.  As nodes of seasonal resources governed by the moon and connected to groups of people.  As groups of people connected to land and each other by relationships and history.  Like a net thrown loosely across the land and the sea; bunched in some places, spread in others, with – in areas – the layers of other nets underneath and above.

The coloniser’s history of a place begins with the map.  That is not wrong.  It is a place to start.  One of many.  It may be fairer to existence though to start the history of an area in multiple arbitrary places, and follow the network of the events that constitute different stories.  There are three suggestions above for how to proceed: the story of the people of the map, the story of the people of Papatūānuku, and the story of world they both inhabit.



[1] Chart: Map of Otata, Waikawa & parts of Toetoes & Tautuku survey district, drawn by W. Deverell, April 1899.

[ 2] News of the Week.  Otago Witness, Issue 1052, 27 January 1872, p.14.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō