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Archifacts Review

Book Review from Archifacts, the official publication of the Archives and Records Association of New Zealand (ARANZ). Issue 1988/3 pp.27-29.

Ronald Frank KEAM. Tarawera. Published by the author, c/o Physics Department, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, 1988. 472p. ISBN 0-473-00444-5. [NZ$225] posted in the North Island, [NZ$228] posted in the South Island.

The very violent eruption of Tarawera, during the early hours of 1886 June 10th, was one of the most notable events of the 19th century in New Zealand. That eruption was heard over most of the country; about 108 people were killed, and the world-renowned White and Pink Terraces were utterly destroyed. The author has been interested in the Thermal Regions since early childhood, and for nearly 40 years he has systematically collected historical material relating to the Thermal Regions, and particularly to the eruption of Tarawera. This book gives a minutely detailed history of Tarawera and the surrounding region, from December 1885 to August 1886: the author announces his intention to produce two further volumes, dealing with the history of Tarawera before and after that 9-month period. The physical and geological aspects of the eruption are discussed in Chapters 33 to 35 (pages 340-359), and the underlying phenomena of plate tectonics are briefly considered in Appendices Q and R (pp 395-400).

Many lengthy quotations from original sources are given. Much of the material comes from newspapers of the period - the author explains that he has not seen the files of the Western Star (Riverton) or of the West Coast Times (Hokitika), but otherwise he has examined the files of all known surviving newspapers of New Zealand for June and July of 1886. He has analysed postal records and discovered that, during the 2 months following the eruption, the number of New Zealand newspapers which were posted ‘Home’ was 140,000 greater than the average for that period. There are quotations from very many letters, diaries, field notebooks by surveyors and geologists, scientific reports and reminiscences by people who experienced the eruption. The surveyor Henry Roche wrote an especially valuable detailed eyewitness report of the successive stages of the eruption and its aftermath. Roche did not publish that account until 62 years later - but the author explains that Roche wrote his account a few weeks after the eruption.

The White and Pink Terraces at Lake Rotomahana had aroused worldwide attention once the first pakehas to see them (in the 1840s) had reported their existence. An organised tourist industry flourished at Te Wairoa village from about 1872, and by 1886 no visit to the Antipodean colonies was considered complete without the climactic experience of bathing in the uniquely beautiful hot pools of the Terraces. Several artists had painted the Terraces, and after the invention of dry-plate photography very many photographs were taken of the Terraces, Tarawera, Te Wairoa and Lake Rotorua.

In 1886, the people of Te Wairoa and the smaller villages around Lake Tarawera, of Ohinemutu village and its newly-founded suburb of Rotorua, were engrossed in their everyday affairs, with much concern over an epidemic in which many of the inhabitants of Te Wairoa died. Telegraph lines had linked Rotorua immediately to much of the world. Transport facilities had been developed to the stage where tourists could travel from Ohinemutu to Auckland in one day, and the tourist industry was confidently expected to continue expanding.

On 1886 May 31st a party of tourists embarking on Lake Tarawera for the Terraces, with the guide Sophia, were startled by rapid surges in the water of the lake, and another tourist heard an explosive booming sound. The tourists in the boat, and their Maori crew, were then much surprised to see clearly a tall canoe moving parallel to them a half mile to the north, with the crew of that canoe paddling rapidly towards Mount Tarawera and paying no attention to signals from the tourist boat. At the Pink Terrace, Sophia expressed disquiet about the very vigorous boiling of the water at the fountainhead of the Pink Terrace. When the tourist party returned to Te Wairoa, the local Maori people, who were distressed by the many recent deaths there, were much alarmed to hear of the 'phantom' canoe. This book publishes detailed accounts by some witnesses - an exceptionally interesting letter written by Mrs Louise Sise on 1886 June 17th was presented to the author during the printing of this book and it is published in Appendix C.

The legend of that "Phantom canoe" has continued to enthral many people. Kennett Watkins’s splendidly dramatic painting of the phantom canoe (1888) is reproduced (in colour) on page 72. In Appendix E the author tentatively suggests a possible explanation. His suggestion combines successfully so many events into a comprehensible pattern that many readers who study carefully the original accounts (given in this book) will feel satisfied that the author's tentative hypothesis does provide a sufficient explanation for the mysterious events of 1886 May 31st.

At Lake Tarawera in January 1886 the prophet Te Kooti (formerly the guerilla leader) had made a striking prediction of indefinite disaster. But otherwise, the author's intensive researches have not revealed any other occurrences which could have suggested that something unusual was about to happen at Tarawera.

And early in the morning of 1886 June 10th, a series of tremendous explosions was heard and seen, from Hokianga to Christchurch. Many people, including a writer in the New Zealand Herald, concluded that the Russians were bombarding New Zealand. Near the volcano the sound was not overwhelmingly loud, and some survivors told how they were awe-struck with the magnificence of the spectacle as huge shafts of glowing lava were ejected into the stratosphere from the entire length of the ridge of Tarawera. Those spectators did not feel afraid, until scoria and mud began cascading down onto them. The experiences reported by many of the survivors make very moving reading. Some people displayed active courage in protecting their neighbours, and many people faced imminent death bravely and with dignity.

The major eruptions ceased by 6am, and at 8am the telegraph operator at Rotorua managed to get a dramatic message through to Napier. Within a few hours most of the population of New Zealand was astonished to learn that the explosions had come from a violent eruption of Tarawera. Rescue parties promptly set out from Ohinemutu to Te Wairoa, and on June 14th two search parties reached the sites of two villages at the southeast of Lake Tarawera, finding the land so devastated that it was difficult to decide where those villages had been. One of those search parties had set out from Ohinemutu, and the other party, all Maori, had come from Matata to discover the fate of their relatives. The chance meeting of those search parties amidst the devastation was one of the strangest incidents in the aftermath of the eruption. In contrast to all earlier accounts of the eruption, this book provides much information about the Maori people involved in the eruption.

Within a few days after the eruption, the region around Tarawera was being closely examined by numerous journalists and photographers, followed closely by scientists and surveyors. With admirable determination and energy they investigated and recorded the fate of Te Wairoa and other villages, and examined the huge steaming chasm which marked the former site of the White and Pink Terraces.

The author has organised the enormous quantity of source material into a clear and very detailed history of the eruption and of many of the people involved with it. Many unexpected relations between various people and events are discussed. The author has succeeded in identifying many writers and other people who had been unidentified in previous accounts. He writes with insight and wit, and he makes clear what an appalling experience the eruption was for the Maori victims, with the land itself literally rising against them. In the final chapter he points out that the several volcanic zones of New Zealand must be expected to erupt violently again, even after thousands of years have passed since the last eruptions there, and there may be no more prior evidence of imminent eruption than was the case at Tarawera in 1886. Some writers have commented disparagingly on those residents of Ohinemutu and Rotorua who had fled during the eruption - but the author explains that it was rational for them to flee. Hundreds of boiling springs had broken out around Lake Rotorua, and the chance of catastrophic eruption there was quite significant.

The author himself has published this very large book (3 kilograms), designing it himself in consultation with experienced book designers. The result is one of the most beautifully produced volumes that I have ever examined. The text is printed in fine typography on large pages (297 by 210mm) of acid-free paper, with binding of very high quality. Notes to the text are conveniently printed in the margin, with numbered citations to the References after the text. The many appendices include annotated lists of people involved and lists of photographs, the Bibliography is very extensive, and the Index is admirably thorough. This book is magnificently illustrated, with numerous paintings reproduced in colour, photographs, drawings, engravings, maps and diagrams. There are many pairs of photographs, showing places before and after the eruption in amazingly sharp detail - the author has extracted some remarkable information from microscopic examination of the original negatives. An informative series of maps depicts the movements of numerous individuals during each of the 5 days following the eruption. The artist Ronald Cometti has executed, under the direction of the author, an impressive painting of the eruption, as seen from Punaromia on the western shore of Lake Tarawera at 2.10am - that is reproduced as the frontispiece and also (on a slightly larger scale) on the dustjacket.

There are a very small number of misprints e.g. "Philps's" for "Philp's" (p.262) and "telgraphed"(p.106). 1 have detected one factual error: in the list of casualties in Appendix M the age of the English tourist Edwin Bainbridge is given as 21, whereas be had reached the age of 20 on 1886 May 5th.

It seems highly improbable that this book will ever be superseded, as the definitive history of the eruption of Tarawera.

G.J. Tee,

University of Auckland.


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