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MIchael King talks moa, flightless geese and the name Aotearoa

1ZB Interview with Michael King - co-recipient of the inaugural Prime Minister's Awards for literary achievment. Presenter (Paul…


1ZB Interview with Michael King - co-recipient of the inaugural Prime Minister's Awards for literary achievment.

Presenter (Paul Holmes): Well, it was a very big night last night at Parliament for three of our most celebrated literary figures. 1ZB Interview with Michael King - co-recipient of the inaugural Prime Minister's Awards for literary achievment.

Presenter (Paul Holmes): Well, it was a very big night last night at Parliament for three of our most celebrated literary figures.Last night Janet Frame, the poet Hone Tuwhare and Michael King, the historian and biographer Michael King, were recognised in the inaugural Prime Minister's Awards for literary achievement. Now, historian and biographer Michael King has a new book as a matter of fact, coming out not this week but next week. "The Penguin History of New Zealand" it is called. It hits the shelves next Monday, October 13, so that's next Monday. Well, Michael King is with us on the line, good morning.

Michael King (biographer and historian): Good morning, Paul.

Presenter Paul Holmes: The Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement, what does that mean to you Michael, apart from the $60,000? But I mean it's a great honour?

King: Yes, it is a great honour, Paul. It's an honour especially to be a co-awardee as it were, with those two other writers whom I have revered all my life, Janet Frame and Hone Tuwhare. They're very much my elders and betters but that's certainly something that very much increases the honour as far as I am concerned.
Presenter: "The Penguin History of New Zealand", why would you take on another history of New Zealand, Michael?

King: Well Paul, I've never written a general history before. All my other books have been about specific aspects of New Zealand history or about particular lives and over probably a period of 20 years I've thought that one day that's something I would like to do but I kept putting it off, thinking I didn't know enough. What you tend to do in this business, you get to know a great deal about a small number of things and a little bit about a larger number of things and I really wanted to reach the point where I felt I had as much breadth and depth as I would have in the subject and then attempt it. There's also the business of the old parabola effect of memory. You know, for most of your life you're on the upward movement and you accumulate things and you remember them but you're aware that come middle age and old age, you might start losing them because memory is perishable, and I wanted to wait until I had, I thought, a sufficient accumulation of experience but not leave it to the point where I was no longer believing the things I was remembering.

Presenter: Your book is particularly strong on New Zealand's pre-history. Can you paint this fascinating picture you paint in your book for us, of what New Zealand was like, what these islands were like before any human life came here in terms of the insect life, the animal life and so forth?

King: Yes. This interests me very much, Paul, and it interests me because of course it's a backdrop to the human history and the human history and culture that's evolved in New Zealand has evolved in association with this New Zealand environment. Well, what happened was basically, about 80 million years ago a piece of the old super continent of Gondwana broke off. That is what became New Zealand. It had a particular set of trees, a particular set of birds, insects and reptiles and all these creatures lived in isolation for another 80-odd million years and of particular interest and this is something which distinguishes New Zealand from the rest of the world, all our bird life evolved without mammalian predators so all the niches that normally are filled by various kinds of mammals or marsupials were all filled by birds in New Zealand and we had teeming bird life from the floor of the forest, the flightless Moa, the flightless geese and so on, right up through the layers of forest and right up to the canopy and what this meant of course was that when humankind eventually arrived, the ancestors of the Maori, they could walk right up to these giant birds like the Moa and simply knock them on the head. The birds wouldn't have run away. They had no reason to fear mammals, and Maori did this for about a hundred years. They lived very well on all this easily accessible protein but after about a hundred years they had wiped it out and that's when Maori culture had to completely reorient, go back to gardening, find ways of killing the smaller forest birds and so on. But prior to all that, you know, New Zealand was a beautiful pristine environment without animals and without humankind.
Presenter: you also suggest there is very little doubt now of the brilliant navigational skills of the Polynesians because we were taught weren't we at school, perhaps they were blown off course and so forth. The evidence now is very firm that they knew how to go out and knew how to come back?

King: Yes, yes, Absolutely. I was like you, I was taught that all these voyages of so-called discovery were accidental but we now know as a result of studying the traditional culture and as a result of studying the journals of the earliest navigators, European navigators to enter the pacific, that the Polynesians had an extremely sophisticated system of navigation using stars by night, using ocean swell, bird directions, cloud formations in the daytime. We now know that as they moved eastward through the pacific they went against the wind, tacking in quadrants, going that way so that they always had a safe way of getting home again through coming downwind, and through that process they worked their way right across the pacific. There's evidence that they got as.. [break in transmission] or South America or Central America because that's how the kumara came back into the pacific, and they were doing this thousands of years before Europeans had even left the Continent of Europe and one of the things they say is that peter buck, when he wrote his book "Vikings of the sunrise" thought he was paying a compliment to his people by calling them Vikings but in fact it should be the other way round. The Vikings would have been paid a compliment had they been called Polynesians. And I think the only thing you can liken this degree of exploration to really is humankind later going off the planet and going out into space because the pacific, this vast expanse of ocean dotted with a few islands, was something of a kind of terrestrial reflection of the milky way which lay above it.

Presenter: Which is a beautiful way of putting it. Michael, stay there if you would. We'll be back with Michael King shortly, talking about his new book "The Penguin History of New Zealand".

(Commercial break)

Presenter: We're talking to Dr Michael King whose new book is "The Penguin History of New Zealand". It's out next Monday. And of course one curious thing Michael, you were... You point out is the question of who first called this country New Zealand?

King: We don't know. That's one of the interesting mysteries of New Zealand history. People assume it was Abel Tasman but it wasn't. Abel Tasman called the little scratch of coastline he sailed up, Statenland because an earlier Dutch navigator had found a Statenland at the beginning of the 17th century on the other side of the Pacific but one..

Presenter: Mmm, he wondered if it was the western border of that, didn't he?

King: That's right.

Presenter: Yep.

King: Within about two years of Tasman being here, the cartographers and the Dutch East Company who were drawing up the maps of the Dutch navigators, realised that Statenland on our side of the Pacific couldn't be the Staten Island on the other side, So somebody in the Dutch East India Company decided to call it Zealandia Novai, matching the fact that Tasman had already called Tasmania New Holland. So you had New Holland on one side of the Tasman Sea and you had New Zealand on the other side and that's where it came from.

Presenter: The other thing you talk about it.. You talk about in your book is the word, the name "Aotearoa" and you say that in fact pre European, Maori did not actually call this place Aotearoa?

King: There were some Maori tribes that had a tradition that the North Island had been called Aotea and Aotearoa but the two writers who popularised the Aotearoa name and the story of Kupe associated with it, were a man called Stephen St Percy-Smith and Willim Pember-Reeves and in a school journal in particular, it went into every school in the country in the early 20th century, they used Percy-Smith's material and the story about Kupe and Aotearoa said this is a wonderful name and it's a wonderful story, wouldn't it be great if everybody called New Zealand Aotearoa. And the result was that Maori children went to school.. We had a pretty extensive education system both in general schools and in the native school system.. And they learnt at school that the Maori name of New Zealand was Aotearoa and that's how it became the Maori name.

Presenter: Well, we also learnt about Kupe didn't we, we also learned about toi, we also learned about the great migration.

King: That's right, that's right.

Presenter: And you.. and there is now a great deal of scepticism about those particular events, if in fact they were events?

King: Yes, well the scepticism really is about the story as it was presented to us again through the school journals. There certainly was a navigator called Kupe. He was a great navigator and he named many parts of the coast but in almost all the Maori genealogies that have him and have stories about him, he came to New Zealand some time in the 13th or 14th century, he didn't come at 950 A.D as the old version had it.

Presenter: And the great migration, did it happen?

King: Well, that's an interesting one, Paul, because we all learnt about that, seven or eight canoes or nine, depending which version you heard, all setting out from island Polynesia together and coming to New Zealand. in the later years of the 20th century anthropologists and pre-historians said that simply wasn't true, that the 19th century encounter Maori traditions didn't talk about a fleet, they talked about individual canoes with the exception of two of them, Tainui and Te Arawa that were supposed to have set out together. But even more recently, just in the last couple of years, archaeologists have decided that in fact New Zealand was probably settled very quickly by many canoes, possibly as many as half a dozen, possibly even a few more, not necessarily coming from the same island in East Polynesia but certainly coming from the same island area, islands like the Society Islands and the Marquises and the Tuamutus and so on. So although we've finished up with not quite the great fleet story, we've got closer to it. Certainly a number of people, possibly as many as 200, arrived in New Zealand very quickly round about the 13th or 14th century A.D.

Presenter: It's fascinating, isn't it. Michael King we're speaking to, he is the author of "The Penguin History of New Zealand". Back shortly with more from Michael.

(Commercial break)
Presenter: Gosh, we've run out of time for Michael King unfortunately. Michael.. We have had to leave Michael there but he is very interesting on New Zealand's place in the world and really how we were once terribly frightened of the world and suspicious of anyone that wasn't British or Maori and how much more open really the television age I suppose, the end of the 20th century and the jet travel age at the end of the 20th century has changed us. So the book is to be launched next Monday, the book goes on sale next Monday, "The Penguin History of New Zealand" designed really for the general reader as well as for the students I guess, but very much a book for the general reader and you'll find it a fascinating read and there's some real new thinking on a good number of things. So Michael King of course, last night was one of the three recipients of the Prime Minister's Literary Achievement Awards, along with Hone Tuwhare the poet, and Janet Frame, our greatest novelist.

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