Friday, July 03, 2015

After the ta'e

Last month I posted the introduction to 'Pass the ta'e please', an essay about kava drinking and cultural revolution that I had written for the Aussie journal Overland. Now the rest of my ta'e has turned up on the Overland website, alongside some psychedelic kava leaves.

'Pass the ta'e' ends with an account of an exciting and infuriating evening in October 2013, when members of the avant-garde kava Seleka kava club visited the kava drinkers of 'Atenisi, the little university on the edge of Nuku'alofa where I taught for a year. 'Atenisi was founded by the late philosopher Futa Helu, and has long been a bastion of secularism and dissent in the Kingdom of Tonga.

For a couple of former students of 'Atenisi, though, the wild hair, amplified music, and Cubist paintings of the Seleka gang were an affront to Futa Helu, as much as to Tonga's churches and monarchy. The fact that Tevita Latu, the founder of Seleka, had been charged with treason in the aftermath of the riot that wrecked much of downtown Nuku'alofa in 2006 only made the club more suspect.

'Pass the ta'e' records my worry at the inability of some 'Atenisians to accept their visitors, as well as my belief that the Seleka Club, with its internationalism and creativity, is perpetuating rather than a betraying Futa Helu's project.
But I might have been worrying too much, in typical palangi style, when I wrote 'Pass the ta'e'. The Director of 'Atenisi, Futa Helu's daughter Sisi'uno, recently curated an exhibition that featured not only several important Niua Sila-based Tongan artists but Tevita Latu and his fellow Selekarian Taniela Potelo. Alas, I'll be arriving in Nuku'alofa a few days too late for the show!

My essay for Overland also describes 'Atenisi's battle for survival over the last decade or so. The school remains poor and under-attended, but over the last couple of months its staff and supporters have been buoyed by the news that three of its recent students have been awarded scholarships to undertake postgraduate studies overseas. One will go to the University of Northern Illinois, another to Warsaw University, and a third to the University of the Ryukus in Okinawa. I taught all three students in 2013, and am very excited for them. I hope that their success will encourage more young Tongans to knock on 'Atenisi's doors.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, June 27, 2015

'Savage garbage gatherers': the New Zealand Herald on our local slaves

When he shot nine African Americans in a South Carolina church, the baby-faced white supremacist Dylann Roof was hoping to incite a race war; instead, he has prompted a loud discussion about the meaning and legacy of the Confederate States of America, the ramshackle and short-lived slaveholders' republic whose battle flag still adorns many public places in the American south. 
New Zealanders tend to see the American south, with its history of slavery and secession and its ongoing racial agonies, as a distant and alien part of the world. As I've argued in the past, though, there are surprising and troubling connections between the Confederate creed of slavery and the South Pacific. In the second half of the nineteenth century slavery flourished in the Pacific, as thousands of islanders were abducted and sailed to plantations in Queensland, Fiji, and even New Zealand. After their defeat and ruin at the hands of the north, a number of Confederates fled to the Pacific, and tried to create a new pigmentopia in the region. The Ku Klux Klan had a branch in Fiji. 


Next month I'll be travelling to Tonga, to share some of my research into the slave raid on the island of 'Ata; when I return from the Friendly Islands I'll be taking up a residency on Waiheke and writing a short book about New Zealand's contribution to the Pacific slave trade. 
Here's one of the fascinating but disturbing documents I've been recovering from New Zealand's nineteenth century newspapers, as I pursue my research into slavery. It is an editorial published in the New Zealand Herald on the 21st of September, 1870, nearly four months after a schooner named the Lulu landed at Auckland carrying twenty-seven men from the island of Efate. As the captain of the Lulu admitted in an article for the Auckland press, the men had been recruited with the help of bribes paid to Efatean chiefs. They were bound by 'contracts' that promised them ten pounds in exchange for three years of hard labour, and were soon put to work in flax mills. 
The Efateans were by no means the only indentured labourers to arrive in New Zealand in the nineteenth century. I've found evidence that significant numbers of bonded domestic servants were being brought from Fiji and the New Hebrides to toil in the homes of Auckland's elite during the 1870s. 
Like many other New Zealand papers and a number of prominent politicians, the New Zealand Herald opposed the bringing of indentured labourers to these islands. As the editorial reproduced below shows, though, this opposition was motivated less by anti-racism than by a fear that Melanesians would contaminate the 'Britain of the south' that colonists were constructing in New Zealand. 
During the 1860s and '70s Pakeha were preoccupied with recruiting new colonists from the old country. Only by attracting huge numbers of new settlers could they occupy the land they had taken from Maori after the Waikato War, and create a viable market for the industries that struggled in little cities like Auckland. But new settlers would not be attracted to a country where plantations took up most of the good farmland, where slave labour drove down wages, and where the 'abominable fetishes' of Melanesian 'niggers' were visible. 

I have broken the Herald's article into smaller paragraphs. You can (just) read the original text here.
DISGUSTING RESULTS OF IMPORTED SOUTH SEA LABOUR.
We have had occasion some time since to direct public attention to the fact that certain enterprising persons have imported to this colony a number of South Sea Islanders. The ostensible object of the enterprise was declared to be the progress and development of the flax industry and the supply of needful labour. 
The aspect of the whole affair bad a very equivocal signification, which is borne out by the alarm suggested to some English writers that the importation of slave labour has commenced in a colony which proudly calls itself the Britain of the South. We are told with complacent scorn that slavery as an institution, though bruised and trodden out in America, has found a place in New Zealand. This talk is no doubt the exaggeration which insufficient information allows, but we should not forget that the allegation upon which it is raised is a substantial fact and no a priori reasoning can disturb it. 
We assume that the "niggers" brought here by the Lulu were induced to leave their own country by offers of advantage, perhaps of freedom. It is extremely probable that their chiefs have received the wages for which they are to toil. They may or  may not have been kidnapped. It is possible that the engagement to which they are held bound will take the form, if it have none of the spirit, of an equitable contract. 
What concerns us now is, if the traffic should continue, the introduction of a new social element. British subjects, for the most part, pride themselves upon their sense of justice no less than their love of liberty, and it becomes important to consider not merely the limit of authority to which these bondsmen have subjected themselves, but the position they are to occupy in relation to the white or civilized population, and to the brown-skinned, but free Maoris, who are as jealous of their national prejudices as any people in the world. It was a fortunate circumstance that through the New Zealand Press, the English Parliament was informed of the inceptive progress of this importation of black labour, and that the Colonial Legislature lost no time before conferring upon the Governor in Council the necessary powers to enforce the practice and treatment of humanity towards these blacks. 
But there is one bearing of the question which we do not see provided for in the Act. These islanders are savages of the lowest type. Their customs are not regulated by an apprehension of the vicissitudes of war and a warlike spirit, as is the way with the Maori people. Their habits are the product of an abominable fetishism. They are foul to the farthest extent of indecency, and their appetites are unclean to the most scandalous and shocking forms of cannibalism. 
As a proof that we in no way magnify the features of this unpleasant subject, we may inform our readers of the foundations upon which our assertions rest. We have received letters from several correspondents complaining with considerable bitterness of the odious sights to which their families are exposed by the manners and habits of these woolly barbarians. In one case we hear that they have exhumed the bodies of animals which have died of disease, and devoured them greedily. In another we hear that they have scoured the creeks and landed putrid carrion on which they feasted exultingly. Dead animals of all kinds arc dainty bits to these insular epicures. Their behaviour in other respects is described as extremely disgusting. 
The precise point which we desire to impress upon those interested is, that these savage proclivities may be tolerable in the South Sea Islands, or be readable in a book of travels, but if exhibited in New Zealand in the midst of white people of all ages and both sexes cannot be endured. Our own people hare reproached the law that it has punished them for offences which, committed by the Maori, were not noticed. Whatever toleration of the Maori may have been justified it cannot be pleaded for those who have placed the naked and depressed savage in our midst. If the law has very properly declared that the employer of compulsory servitude shall not be inhuman, it should take guarantees that he shall not be the means of outraging common sense and I decency. If he must have "slaves," let him be compelled to provide accommodation for them so that they may not become a public nuisance. A tradesman in Queen Street is liable to prosecution if he allows offal to be offensive to his neighbours. Such manners as we have described cannot be very elevating to those who witness them. It is obvious that while natural horror may preserve from the imitation of them, familiarity with them may sow the seeds of an unseen demoralization. The worst forms of grossness are communicable and co-existent with an outward refinement.  
There is little doubt that His Excellency will give give effect to the intention of the Legislature and stand between these wretched islanders and unfair treatment. But it is equally necessary that he should insist upon the observance on the part of their employers, of conditions that shall deprive the presence of these men of offensiveness. We say nothing at present of the moral or political bearings of this new question; but we can assure those most interested that they are serious. What we insist upon is that the eves of men shall not be offended by the sight of savage garbage gatherers gorging at our threshold the offal which our pigs refuse. 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, June 26, 2015

Without a mouth

New Zealand has had a very cold week, and some of that coldness has seeped into my latest dream poem.

I apologise, by the way, to readers who have grown weary, or perhaps were always weary, of reports from my subconscious delivered in free verse. I'm too busy, and too cold, to write anything more sensible today, but follow the links in my twitter feed to read less hopelessly subjective and shamelessly trivial material. If you can only read one serious piece of prose this week, then check out Chris Trotter's revelations about the Australasian-assisted demise of democracy on Nauru, the unhappy country that Vaughan Rapatahana described so compellingly on this blog.

June Dream

Lying under the duvet, with my eyes still shut,
I know that he is standing on the porch.
His torso is made from whirling snow.
His head is an empty birdcage.
His eyes are weak blue, are the beams
of pocket torches. I know that he is immortal,
like nitrate or flint.

I pad up the hall
and through the lounge,
pausing to touch the moonlight
that has gathered like frost
on a photograph of my grandparents.
I pull at the curtains:
they crack open like ice.

He stands on the porch
singing. The notes of his song spiral upward,
like snowflakes blown
by a jet engine.
He sings about flax fronds
and a twitching ocean
and the small pale faces
of baby mice.
He sings without a mouth.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Don't mention the (race) war

After he had removed his cap the older soldier began repairing his hair. He ran the comb slowly from his forehead to the back of his neck, and fiddled with the mirror he had found in his breastpocket, just beneath the patch that showed an imperial eagle balanced on a swastika. When he had finished he put the mirror away, looked into the distance, and blew a long, phlegmy kiss.

The other soldier, who had SS markings on his helmet and his shoulder and pimple scars on his chin, looked embarrassed, and stared down at his muddy boots and at the muddy butt of his rifle.

I followed the kiss into the puddled field in front of the Nazis' tents. A few kids stood in the field, but they had their backs to the Nazis, and they were staring up at the louring sky, trying to distinguish spitfires from seagulls.
A few metres away a large man in a trenchcoat slowly mounted a German motorcycle. His helmet wore a pair of heavy black goggles. Underneath his helmet, his eyes angled downward and his nose was flat. I later found the man posing in a series of photographs on a website of the New Zealand Military Reenactment Society, and learned that his name is Michael Chong.

The motorcycle bobbled across a brown no man's land toward a tent that flew an American flag. Inside the tent two men sat on deckchairs; a map sat in their laps. The map was pale green, with brown and grey blotches that represented cities and towns and prison camps. It looked like an army issue blanket that had been burned with cigarette ends and smeared with cigarette ashes.

Hearing the motorcycle's muddy sound, the Americans stepped out of their tent, tugging at their skimpy garrison caps as the rain began to strike their hair. The motorycyclist had been joined by the vain old Nazi and the young SS recruit, and I wondered whether all three might be about to surrender to the Americans. But the enemies slapped each other's backs, giggled at each other, then wandered together towards the food stall near the edge of one of Ardmore airport's hangars. By the time the Nazis were finishing their hot dogs a spitfire was flying low over their encampment, dropping imaginary bombs.
Reenactors' Nazi impressions have not always been appreciated overseas. A Republican candidate for Congress was discredited after photos showing him hanging out with his SS Unit appeared on the internet. A Yorkshire town banned its reenactors from wandering round in Nazi uniforms, saying that their performances were offensive.

New Zealand's Military Reeanctment Society seems to have tried to preempt objections to its war games by pursuing a policy of multiracial Nazism. As it refights the battles of the Second World War, the Society will not hesitate to hand a mauser rifle or an iron cross to a Chinese or a Maori or a Jewish member. Historical authenticity may suffer, as the rigorous and ferocious racism of the Nazism is elided, but offence is avoided.

There is something inescapably absurd, though, about attempts to make Hitler's army a place of racial harmony.* The reenactors at Ardmore reminded me of an old Fry and Laurie sketch in which a kindly but very confused English vicar attempted to argue that, in the name of tolerance, the Church of England and Satanist covens should join forces.
I am sure that bad weather rather than quibbles about historical authenticity kept the masses away from this year's event at Ardmore Warbirds festival. Certainly, last year's event, which included many Nazis and was not raided by stormclouds, was a large and ebullient affair. New Zealanders remain fascinated by World War Two, and the fascination is perhaps especially strong in South Auckland and Franklin, districts that were occupied by many thousands of American troops during 1942 and '43.

As their commanders pondered defeats in the tropical Pacific and plotted the reconquest of Melanesia and Micronesia, American troops and airmen raised tents and barracks at camps in Papakura, Pukekohe, Helvetia and a dozen other bewildered suburbs and villages. They trained in local forests, hills,  pubs, and dance halls, scattering bullet cases and used condoms wherever they went.

My grandparents' farm was briefly occupied by hundreds of soldiers, who used it as a platform for the an assault on a Japanese-controlled island named the Drury Hills, and I grew up hearing vivid and ambivalent tales about the invaders.
Ardmore airport itself was built in 1943 for American and New Zealand corsairs and dive bombers. A wartime map shows the 'Aerial Ladder' that began in Auckland and ascended through the air bases on Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, Tonga, Fiji, and Espiritu Santo.

And yet Americans were not the first foreign power to occupy southern Auckland. Eighty years before the GIs, the British imperial army established a network of forts that extended from the little colonial town of Auckland to the border of the Maori-controlled Waikato, a region they would eventually invade and conquer.

These redoubts were linked by the Great South Road and its tributaries, and together housed more than ten thousand troops. The larger redoubts had libraries, chapels, and drinking dens. After the beginning of the Waikato War in July 1863 Maori guerrillas began to snipe at the forts, and to raid the armed convoys that supplied them with bullets and beef and brandy. For years after the end of the war, the redoubts were maintained and staffed by local militia.

The remains of one of the larger Waikato War redoubts lie a short distance from Ardmore airport. Ring's Redoubt protected the trail that ran east from Papakura to the port village of Clevedon. Its high earth walls made a square, and two of its corners boasted curved, specially strengthened 'bastions' where soldiers could fire at the guerrilla parties that sometimes emerged from the bush-barricaded hills behind Papakura.

But no crowds come to Ring's Redoubt to remember the Waikato War. For a long time the site was part of a farm, and in 2013 a businessman from Orewa announced plans to cover most of it in houses.
When a handful of local historians complained, the developer noted that almost all of the redoubt's walls and ditches had already been knocked down and filled in. Papakura's politicians and planners were apparently satisfied with his promise to create a tiny reserve, surrounded on three sides by houses, for the vestiges of the redoubt.

I talked recently with Ian Barton, whose Queen's Redoubt Trust is building a Visitor's Centre on the site of the largest of all the Waikato War forts. 'A lot of Pakeha don't want to remember the Waikato War' he told me sadly, after explaining the Trust's struggles to attract volunteers. Certainly, New Zealand's military reenactors seem much more interested in the wars of the twentieth than the nineteenth century. And the reenactors' coyness about Nazism can perhaps be linked to the silence that many Kiwis maintain about the Waikato War and other Maori-Pakeha conflicts.
Like the Second World War that is commemorated so curiously every year at Ardmore, the struggle for the Waikato was started by politicians and waged by commanders who believed that their race was superior to and bound to triumph over its enemies. Wartime Premier Alfred Domett spoke for the consensus when he declared his enemies 'savages', who needed to learn the necessity of 'the white man's domination'.  Just as the reenactors who meet at Ardmore do not want to remind their audiences of the racism of the Nazis, so much of the wider New Zealand population remains reluctant to remember a local war that was often justified and understood in racial terms.

*It might be argued that the Society's fantasy of a multiracial Nazism has an antecedent, in this part of the world.

In the late 1930s a few white residents of Samoa resentful of New Zealand colonial rule and nostalgic for German control created a Nazi Party. But the Samoan Nazis upset their mentors by admitting Polynesians and Jews to their party. Alfred Matthes, the Fuhrer of the Samoan Nazis, had a Polynesian wife. Polemical letters flapped back and forth between Apia and Deutschland, as the Nazis and their distant allies disputed the correct definitions of Aryan, Semite, and Savage.

I was recently astonished and depressed to learn, from a tiny article in a seventy year old issue of the Pacific Islands Monthly, that two young Samoan half-castes, one of whom bore the name Matthes, died in German uniforms, fighting on the Russian front of World War Two.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Road links

My mug has been all over the papers. In Manukau and on the North Shore, couriers have reproduced Rose Rees-Owen's article about the study of the Great South Road I've been conducting with Paul Janman and Ian Powell.

I'm grateful to the folks who have seen me in their local paper, gotten in touch, and shown me old photographs and maps and fortifications. Last weekend I visited Pokeno with Ian Barton, whose Queen's Redoubt Trust has recreated the largest fort of the Waikato War, and is now raising a Visitors Centre.

A couple of people have asked me to help them find them some of the images and descriptions of the Great South Road stored on this blog. Here are a few links.

Paul Janman called me and suggested making a sort of movie about the Great South Road after reading the manifesto of the Committee for the Reconstruction of Space and Time (or Crostopi, for short). The manifesto called for the fearless exploration of some of the less glamorous corners of New Zealand and, in an essay that also turned up in brief, I took a look at Mutukaroa, Auckland's largest traffic island.

Towards the end of 2011 Paul and I produced a short clip and a written plan for the film we wanted to make. We promised to document the Great South Road's history as a route for a British army going to war against Waikato Maori as well as its present as the main path through the southern half of one of the world's most ethnically and linguistically diverse cities. In an account of one of his own walks down the Great South Road, Steve Braunias called our proposed twenty-part movie 'audacious'. It was probably far too audacious.

Our promo clip was full of shots taken from a moving car; Bill Direen was unimpressed, and complained that we had made a drive down the Great South Road seem like a 'human safari'. Paul wrote a careful reply that discussed his experiences making a movie in the Kingdom of Tonga.

The Crostopi Manifesto claims that Auckland's famous Domain was a sort of fragrant barracks in the early 1860s, because it was used to acclimatise some of the species that would soon invade the Waikato Kingdom alongside the British army. In 2012 Paul and his fellow camera geek Ian Powell began exploring the Domain's crevices and grottoes. They were able to shoot not only quaint imperial gardens but the ruined Parnell railway workshops, which have since been extirpated by local politicians preoccupied with beautification. In 2014 Paul and Ian returned to the Domain with a sinister and short-lived character named Felice Quail, whose father Felix had earlier given us trouble.

As we researched the history of the Great South Road, and the writers and image makers who had wandered and described the route, I became preoccupied with, and began to write about, William Temple, the military doctor and amateur photographer who made a series of sinister blurred images as he advanced south into the Waikato with the British army.

I grew up alongside the Great South Road, and began to lean on family members and old friends for help with research. I started collecting stories about the old folks home in Papakura, and visiting the little graveyard in Drury where the first Anzacs to die in battle lie in something like secrecy. Ian set up his tripod on Te Maketu, the ancient pa where I played as a kid, and where Kingite guerrillas went to observe traffic down the Great South Road during the first months of the Waikato War.

I lived overseas in 2013, and Paul spent much of that year promoting his film Tongan Ark. At the beginning of 2014, though, an old photograph of a field of maize made me want to restart our Great South Road adventure.

In 2013 an interactive map that Paul had made of the Great South Road was part of an exhibition at Artspace; early in 2014 we were asked to contribute to a show at Papakura Art Gallery called A Sense of Place. We unfolded a table in the gallery and filled it with old maps, letters from the future, counterfeit money, an account of the trial of Roger Douglas and toys, and then stowed similar items in a series of geocaches - or conceptual bombs, as I rather extravagantly called them - that we hid in trees and under bridges up and down the Great South Road. During a break in our journey I watered one of the sacred shrines of New Zealand's white supremacist movement, and by doing so upset one of this country's most venerable right-wing windbags. The geocaches were very popular, and Paul has periodically replenished them.

Last year Paul and I ventured under the Great South Road, visiting a cave where left-wing dissidents had published an illegal newspaper during the early stages of World War Two. Paul strapped a light to his camera and shot what sometimes looks like a safety awareness advertisement.

While we were struggling through dank places, the Ngati Koroki sculptor Brett Graham was taking an aerial route south. In the series of sculptures he exhibited in Papakura, Graham looked down on the redoubts Pakeha had raised along the Great South Road in the 1860s like a vengeful God or a drone pilot. Like William Temple, Graham has turned the Great South Road into great art.

There have been more art shows. Last November we contributed a geocache and a set of 'peeroscopes' to Mangere's Bridge, as part of the Other Waters festival, and recently Paul and Ian contributed images shot near the Great South Road to another exhibition at the Papakura Art Gallery.

All of this material will be going into the film Paul is committed to finishing for next year's festival season, and into the book that I'm delivering in return for the Auckland Mayoral Literary Award. Thanks to people like Ian Barton, and the material they've recently been retrieving from attics and archives to show me, I'll be able to add a few new chapters to the book.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Walt Whitman in the Waikato

My dream about a jog through the Tongan jungle with Marshall Sahlins amused some anthropologists. Here's another dream poem. The title is pinched from a Wallace Stevens poem in which Whitman makes a guest appearance. 

Can All Men, Together, Avenge one of the Leaves that Have Fallen in Autumn? 

Walt Whitman was born in Huntly,
not Camden. 
His paddlesteamers and trains pushed
through the Waikato and the Taieri Gorge
not the Mississippi or the Midwest.

When his steamer snagged
on a taniwha-shaped shoal
just downwind from Mercer's sewage pipe
Whitman was below deck, composing the line
I am small, I contain solitudes.

Later, at Huntly, power station chimneys made
a tundra in the sky. 
On the riverbank Whitman inspected willows and oaks.
With their bare branches and twigs they reminded him
of X-rayed bodies.

Whitman's staff was not made of leaping flame 
but Boston mahogany. 
He swung it, knocking consciousness
into a trunk. 
On the other side of the Waikato
the lights of Huntly winked automatically. 

Whitman knelt and, with the sharp end of his cane, 
and began to carve a poem:
I sing the body electrocuted... 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Overland to Tongatapu

[I'm grateful to the indefatigable Giovanni Tiso for including my essay 'Pass the Ta'e, please' in the special New Zealand issue of long-time Aussie cultural journal Overland that was launched last week in Wellington. Giovanni has blogged about his work as the guest editor of Overland 219, and his issue has been reviewed by Fairfax journalist Philip Matthews. 
My contribution to Overland is part of a long-running campaign to convince my fellow palangi that the little island of Tongatapu, and not New York or Berlin or Shanghai, is the hippest and most interesting place in the world to live, make art, and take drugs. 
My essay describes the night when the kava circle at 'Atenisi, Tonga's legendary radical school, is visited by thirsty members of the artistically and politically radical Selaka Club. I don't want to discourage anyone from buying a copy of Giovanni's Overland, so I'll only reproduce the first quarter or so of my text.]
When I worked at the ‘Atenisi Institute, a small and poor university on the outskirts of Nuku’alofa, the capital and only city of the Kingdom of Tonga, most of my Friday evenings began the same way. I would come home from my last class of the week, shower and change into a fresh tupenu, or Tongan skirt, and then walk out to buy a bag of drugs with my employer’s money.
Halfway down Tupoulahi Road, on the eastern side of Nuku’alofa, I would knock on the door of a fibrolite cottage with cardboard in its windows. A small boy would open the door, and wordlessly exchange ‘Atenisi’s ten pa’anga note for a bag of brown powder.
Across the road from my drug house was a yard where dozens of concrete pillars, foundations of an invisible house, rose a few feet through weeds, and pigs gnawed watermelon scalps. Forty years ago, the yard had been the site of one of the first Fofo’anga clubs.
Fofo’anga is the Tongan word for the pumice stones – light, porous, pink-white things – that wash up on the beaches of the kingdom’s one hundred and seventy islands. Futa Helu, Tonga’s most important modern intellectual, thought of Fofo’anga when he set up a network of clubs where people could, in return for a small donation, sit, talk, and consume kava, a drink made with cold water and the pounded and ground roots of the piper methysticum plant.
For hundreds of years, and possibly much longer, kava had been consumed by Tongan men at carefully organised ceremonies. Almost every important public event in Tonga, whether it is a wedding or a funeral or a coronation, still involves ritualised kava drinking, where highly ranked men – royals, nobles, local chiefs - are seated close to the bowl, and long, decorous speeches are made. 
Helu’s Fofo’anga clubs popularised a new way of enjoying kava.  In the 1950s and early ‘60s, Helu had studied at Sydney University, where he befriended the classicist, philosopher and political provocateur John Anderson, and became part of the circle of bohemians known as the Sydney Push.
Inspired by the boozy and disputatious gatherings of the Push and by the symposia of ancient Greece, Helu set up a new sort of kava circle after returning to Tonga in 1963. He asked his friends to sit wherever they liked around his kava bowl, and encouraged them to discuss both the political and economic problems of Tonga and the philosophical connundra he had encountered in Sydney.
Helu’s kava circle became both notorious and very popular, and by the end of the ‘60s he and his followers decided that Tonga needed a set of kava clubs where thought and discussion could move as freely as the fofo’anga that float between the kingdom’s islands. 
Today every suburb of Nuku’alofa and every village outside the city has at least one Fofo’anga-style club, and many have two or three. The clubs raise hundreds of thousands of dollars every year for charities, and no politician can hope to be elected without touring them. The Fofo’anga club that made its base on Tupoulahi Road has moved to salubrious new premises beside the sea. 
After buying my bag of kava, I would carry it across Nuku’alofa. By the end of any weekday, the city’s cars and dogs and pigs had stirred clouds of dust off its coral streets. On a Friday evening, coral dust mixed with smoke from hundreds of backyard fires, as pigs turned on spits and potatoes roasted in pits in preparation for weekend feasts. I walked through the smoggy dusk past shack-shops selling bootleg DVDs, currency exchange bureaus set up in the front rooms of old villas, and lots burnt black by the riot that destroyed a third of central Nuku’alofa in 2006. Beside the city’s main street statues of Tonga’s kings and queens stood surrounded by razor-tipped wire. A series of steeples outreached the highest coconut palms, monuments to the fundraising skills of the kingdom’s competing Christian sects. 
On the western side of Nuku’alofa’s main drag I turned down a long straight lane that ran beside a series of ponds where pigs sloshed about lethargically. The lane ended outside the two-storey Lolo Masi building, which was the least dilapidated of the dozen or so structures still standing on the campus of the ‘Atenisi Institute. 
Like the Fofo’anga movement, ‘Atenisi grew from the kava circle Futa Helu established fifty years ago. Helu had studied subjects as different as philosophy, classics, English literature, opera and mathematics during his time in Sydney, and he was often asked to share his knowledge around the kava bowl. Eventually his students offered to help him build a school. ‘Atenisi is Tongan for Athens, and Helu encouraged every student he enrolled to study the Greek language and Greek philosophy, as well as Tongan song and dance. 
By the middle of the 1970s ‘Atenisi had more than a thousand students; by the end of the ‘80s it had become the base for Tonga’s pro-democracy movement. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, though, buildings were crumbling and rolls were falling. Paul Janman’s feature-length documentary film Tongan Ark, which was shot in the years before Helu’s death in 2010, shows lecturers addressing classes of two or three students, and pigs laying siege to a library.
On the evening I am remembering, cars were parked outside the Lolo Masi building, and bikes leaned against its open windows. Inside, some of ‘Atenisi’s students had dragged a long table and plastic chairs across the concrete floor to the centre of the room, and placed a big kava bowl and a pile of wooden cups on the table.
I emptied my kava into a filter bag held up by Tuiahai Helu, a grandson of ‘Atenisi’s founder. Helu looked like the young Will Smith, and played guitar for One in Blood, one of Nuku’alofa’s noisiest bands. Tevita Manu’atu, a nineteen year-old with a huge Afro and a thorough knowledge of Nietzsche, poured water through the bag, and the bowl began to fill with the mud-coloured national drink of Tonga.
Visitors took places around the table. A few ‘Atenisi graduates had come along to sing with current students and talk about the school’s heyday. A handful of members of the Baha’i faith had stopped in on their way to their own school’s kava circle. A dozen or so expatriate palangi – teachers, aid workers, resort managers, surfers, beachcombers – were swapping anecdotes about mosquitoes. A lanky young man in the tropical blue uniform of Sia’atoutai, the theological college run by Tonga’s establishment Free Wesleyan Church, stepped through the door and grinned, ready for another evening of arguments about the nature of the Trinity and the errors of Papists and atheists.
I heard ‘Opeti Taliai and Michael Horowitz creak down the stairs from their offices. Taliai was an ‘Atenisi gradute who returned as dean after getting his PhD in New Zealand; Horowitz was a former student of Herbert Marcuse and activist in America’s New Left, who settled in Tonga in the ‘90s and quickly became a friend and employee of Futa Helu.
At traditional kava ceremonies, the drug is dispensed by girls or virginal women; at ‘Atenisi, whoever sits closest to the bowl does the job. Tuiahai Helu dipped, filled, and passed cup after cup; drinkers downed the kava in one gulp, as though they were taking shots of liquor, then reached for the lollies that Tuiahai scattered across the table. I bit into a jellybaby, and the bitter taste of the drink disappeared.
“I hope I don’t have to carry you out of here, Sikoti”, Tuiahai joked. Many kava clubs stay open all night. My tongue and lips were already numb; after a few more cups my limbs would become light, and the walls of the Lolo Masi building would seem to soften and retreat... 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]