Ruptures: History crumbled in the Christchurch quakes and that's good

Katie Pickles didn't want John Godley's statue returned to Cathedral Square.

Katie Pickles didn't want John Godley's statue returned to Cathedral Square.

A university professor shocked many when she suggested Christchurch should break free from its colonial past. Now she's back with a book on the subject. WILL HARVIE reports.

Be advised that this story is about University of Canterbury professor of history Dr Katie Pickles.

She has previously been described in The Press as a "disgrace to New Zealand scholarship". Her "sickly liberal guilt" made her a "perpetrator of . . . cultural vandalism" and a writer of "Soviet-style historiography". She was also "insincere" and should "resign". And those were just letters to editor.

Sunnyside Hospital: dark Gothic architecture.

Sunnyside Hospital: dark Gothic architecture.

The Press itself came down heavily on Pickles: "The world is full of examples of the social sickness that descends on the deniers of history," we wrote in an editorial. "It is misguided to characterise Canterbury's colonial history as shameful," the Press continued. On the contrary, what the province's founders accomplished was "high achievement".

Oh dear. What did Pickles say to bring this about?

She wrote an opinion piece in The Press in April 2011 that  argued "it is now time to carefully and clearly move on from a colonial history that was already well on its way out before the earth moved".

University of Canterbury historian Katie Pickles considers what's changed about Christchurch, what's best left in the ...

University of Canterbury historian Katie Pickles considers what's changed about Christchurch, what's best left in the past and what should be recovered.

Among other things, we shouldn't return the fallen statues of John Godley, William Rolleston and Robert Falcon Scott – those colonial symbols toppled by the February 2011 earthquake – to their places of prominence in central Christchurch. Rather, let's bung them into a far corner of Hagley Park, say. They'll still be displayed and honoured, just not at the centre of rebuilt Christchurch. Get the point? 

"There can be no going back to the olden days," wrote Pickles.

Pickles didn't resign from the university; indeed she's since been promoted to full professor. And now she's expanded her original 1600-word article into a 160-page book called Christchurch Ruptures. It builds out the themes of the article and a "Christchurch 1850-2010" history course she teaches. She's not backing down, she's doubling down. 

Parkland after an aftershock. The east-west divide strengthened after the quakes.

Parkland after an aftershock. The east-west divide strengthened after the quakes.

Ruptures isn't narrative history: the prime minister did this, then the mayor did that. Rather it picks out elements of Christchurch that were ruptured by the earthquakes.  

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From a "historian's perspective", she considers "what has changed about Christchurch, what is best left in the past, and what should be recovered". Cultural vandalism?

Let's start with Christchurch's neo-Gothic architecture. First, there wasn't much before the earthquakes and less now. Even if we wanted to be a future Gothic city, the likelihood is remote. 

Gothic architecture was supposed to be "uplifting, morally positive and enlightened", Pickles writes. It was good and loved by many.

But the neo-Gothic movement wasn't just buildings. It was literature too. Novels such as Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Dracula were Gothic novels. There is a dark side to Gothic. In Christchurch that manifested as the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum, later Sunnyside Hospital, Addington Prison and even the Parker-Hulme murder case, Pickles writes.

Romancing neo-Gothic architecture is rewriting Christchurch history in a sense. It's "unhelpful and inaccurate to cling to an imagined city", Pickles writes. 

So too with "Englishness", the idea that Christchurch was a most English city. This was true in many respects, being founded by the Anglican church, groomed with European trees and dominated by descendants of the passengers of the first four ships "claiming social superiority over those who followed". This is the Christchurch origin mythology, Pickles writes.  

That version of Christchurch is missing Catholics (10 per cent of the population by 1878), Dutch (over 10,000 arrived in 1951-54) and most importantly Maori.

In 1848, Ngai Tahu sold 20 million acres in Canterbury to the Crown for £2000. At the time, they were living across what became Christchurch, including several sites in the CBD, Lyttelton Harbour and around the Estuary, as well as at Horseshoe Lake and Bromley. 

By the 1860s, however, Ngai Tahu were marginalised, living at a subsistence level on the outskirts. This lasted until the 1930s, when Maori started coming to the city for work. Following a post-war Maori renaissance and decades of struggle, Ngai Tahu sign a treaty settlement in 1998.  

That story of Christchurch rarely made Pakeha histories. Even in 2000, Governor-General Sir Michael Hardie Boys claimed the early pioneers "found swampland, and bequeathed a city".

Why do "some aspects of the past become celebrated while others are expunged", asks Pickles. The answer is that history is reworked according to current needs.


Katie Pickles has Christchurch chops. She arrived here, aged 7, from England. She grew up in Parklands in the 1970s and 80s. She quotes Sister Pauline O'Regan on the suburb, with approval: "a social wasteland . . . where these young people were left exposed to real mental and emotional poverty".

She attended the old Christchurch Girls High School. She remembers travelling through the Square in the 1980s and and how it often smelled of urine. In those days, girls and women were expected to dress up to come into town. Men not so much.

She's got history chops too. She got her BA in history from the University of Canterbury and her masters and PhD from two Canadian universities. 

She returned to Canterbury to climb the academic ladder, her research focused on female imperialism, heroines in history and the construction of colonial identities. She's compared the colonial experiences in Canada, NZ and Australia. She's written often about Edith Cavell, the British nurse executed for treason by the Germans in 1915. Last year, she co-edited a 288-page book that "investigates New Zealand's history as an imperial power" in the Pacific and Antarctica. 

Christchurch Ruptures is an "insider's book", Pickles says in an interview. She was here on February 22, she lived here through the last five years. With an historian's eye, she watched Christchurch institutions and mythologies get demolished. It's different from writing about Edith Cavell, known only through words and a handful of photographs. 

"I'm trying to make a contribution to the rebuild through the past," she says.

In the book, Pickles offers several visions for future Christchurch: "respect for all peoples, regardless of race or ethnicity, and regardless of length of residency in the city"; "a safe city that adequately cares for its citizens and that turns its back on fear and repression"; "a just and inclusive future that moves beyond solitude and separate identities".

Is this the role of a historian? Why not, she responds. "Studying the past will help us sort out a better future". 

"Rather than put things back how they were, it is time to regenerate the city so that everybody is valued and included in a safe and healthy environment."

There's another point too. Ngai Tahu already has a central role in the rebuild, as property developers and in official roles. The iwi will likely get two seats on Environment Canterbury's board. Is a Maori seat on city council that far off? Most of the heritage architecture is gone. What remains will be valued even more.

And not everything about Christchurch ruptured in the quakes. The biggest surviving characteristic is the east-west divide. It has strengthened, she says. And the Godley sculpture has been returned to Cathedral Square.

She writes: "It is time for dialogue. What place do settler formation narratives have in the post-quake city? How do such narratives fit with Ngai Tahu's rapidly changing part in the city? How can all who live in the city be made to feel at home?"

Katie Pickles, the Parklands girl elevated by education, has kicked her way into the debate about future Christchurch. And why not; it's her city too.


Christchurch Ruptures, by Katie Pickles,, $14.99.

Christchurch Ruptures is short, just 160 pages, but manages to pack in plenty of hard-thought ideas. It won't be easy reading for those enamoured with Christchurch's mainstream past. It will be probably be more pleasing for those on the fringes: Maori, non-European Pakeha, the poor, the weak.  

Author Katie Pickles clearly knows her Christchurch history. Who else remembers the Rational Dress Association, formed in 1894 after Canterbury College refused to let student Alice Burn wear a divided skirt under her academic gown? Really?

Pickles can write and develop a cogent point of view. Calling for an more inclusive Christchurch shouldn't generate much argument in 2016, but it probably will.

Christchurch Ruptures is an important document for the rebuild. It should be read by all who are interested in future Christchurch, whether or not they agree with Pickles' view of colonialism and some aspects of the city's past.  - Will Harvie

 - Stuff


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