A natural break from our colonial past

DR KATIE PICKLES
Last updated 10:21 08/04/2011

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The February 22 earthquake is Christchurch's postcolonial moment. It's time to break free, argues Dr KATIE PICKLES. --------------------

This is Christchurch's darkest hour: a bleak time of tragic loss of life, the destruction of homes, neighbourhoods, livelihoods and hopes and dreams. Normality has departed and fear and high alert abounds. As the cleanup begins, unlike the mounds of rubble being dumped, fallen statues have been rescued and stored away as Pakeha treasures.

On February 22, the city's founding father, John Robert Godley, director of the Canterbury Association, was shaken off his pedestal after 143 years standing in Cathedral Square. A statue of early provincial superintendent William Rolleston fell backwards off its plinth to lie beheaded by the forces of nature. British imperial adventurer Captain Robert Falcon Scott's likeness was also knocked over and is in need of repair.

These damaged statues are symbolic of the end of a colonial era in Christchurch. In getting back up, regrouping and rebuilding after the earthquakes, it is important to recognise that the city has literally broken free from the past once and for all. February 22 is our postcolonial moment.

There is much to be proud of in Christchurch's history, but 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.

The felled Christchurch works of art evoke images of statues of former leaders such as Saddam Hussein and Josef Stalin being eagerly and emotionally pulled down by societies erasing the old and advancing the new. Some former colonies of the British Empire have removed statues that evoke colonisation. In India, Queen Victoria statues are in storage, while in 1963 Quebec's Front de Liberation du Quebec blew the head off a Queen Victoria statue, making clear its desire to break from the past. The statue, head still detached, is now displayed in a museum.

Prince William's "morale-boosting" visit officially displayed continuity with colonial times when monarchs surveyed their kingdoms and empires to assess the damage. Yet, to most, the prince is now a celebrity, famous for being famous, along with Justin Bieber. Those who gained comfort from his presence likely had more pressing concerns than the implied reassertion of constitutional monarchy.

Would the student army put their lives on the line to fight for Britain? Probably not. The patriotism is gone, but the celebrity remains.

In the formerly peaceful, charming, garden city of Christchurch, it has taken the environment to clarify our move to a new stage where society is complex, inclusive and self-determined, with some of our colonial heroes symbolically toppled by a natural disaster.

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Our postcolonial moment has not come about through traditional warfare; it is deeper than grassroots movements, and is instead being unstoppably led from under the earth. And, while the majority of the city's statues might still be standing, the inner-city zone that they occupy has changed forever, and there can be no going back to the olden days.

Until February 22, Christchurch enjoyed one of the tidiest colonial histories in the world. Colonialism is a process whereby people from dominant territories, usually expanding empires, leave their familiar old world and migrate to settle in a new place. Individuals were often pawns of imperial powers. Indigenous peoples were expected to make way for progress, and settlers were to reproduce their society, only better, in the new world. This meant importing imperial attitudes that confidently asserted superiority over local knowledge.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, movement to parts of the British Empire was often involuntary, with the Highland Clearances, the Irish Famine and transportation to Australia being examples of forced out-migration. On the contrary, the Canterbury Association was the brainchild of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, whose dream was to systematically colonise the area with a respectable mix of classes in a Church of England settlement.

The appropriately named Godley actualised the vision, in 1848, forming the Canterbury Association with Wakefield. In the same year, without struggle and with a number of guaranteed reserves, Ngai Tahu sold a large tract of land stretching from Kaiapoi to Otago, clearing the way for settlement. The experienced Captain Joseph Thomas was commissioned to choose a site for the new settlement and to survey the land in preparation for the arrival of the First Four Ships of pilgrims in 1850.

Surveyors were aware that the swampy nature of coastal Canterbury was unsuited to urban development. The site chosen was the first reasonably dry and slightly elevated area handy to the limits of boat navigation on the Heathcote and Avon rivers. Unfortunately, the colonists were unaware of the pitfalls of liquefaction that has recently destroyed so much. They optimistically believed that nature could be conquered.

And so Christchurch became "the city on the swamp", with all its attendant problems of ill health, smog, and difficulties with drainage.

A feature of colonial settlement was to start with a blank slate, leaving out the indigenous past. Thomas and his assistant, Edward Jollie, set about naming the streets with familiar old-world reference points. Firmly cementing Christchurch as a part of the British Empire, the names of streets were taken from bishoprics in England, Ireland, Wales and other colonies. Durham, Armagh, St Asaph, Montreal and Madras are streets whose names promoted colonial ties.

Perhaps most symbolic of the all-encompassing imperial stamp was the Anglican Cathedral. A long time in the planning, the main building was ready in 1881 and provided the iconic centre of colonial Christchurch.

The settlement of Christchurch is now so distant that most people today probably don't know or care who launched the city on its colonial pathway. The four avenues that are the boundary of the inner-city disaster zone are named after the city's first four superintendents of the period of provincial government: FitzGerald, Moorhouse, Bealey and Rolleston.

Their proud Halswell quarry stone Provincial Council Chambers is also unfortunately damaged. Indeed, much of Christchurch's visible colonial heart has been fractured and is now a place associated with death and destruction. The distinctive Gothic-revival architecture that unites Christchurch with other British settlements of the same era in Australia, Canada, India and Britain was built before modern local knowledge about the danger of earthquakes.

Typical of the era, the style was copied from elsewhere, as were views of preserving heritage that expensively and nostalgically attempted to care for buildings feared to be earthquake risks.

Now, very suddenly, the earthquakes have hurried along a process of decolonisation. Many of the features of colonial Christchurch had already transformed. While Anglican was initially the largest Christian denomination, it was never the sole religion. At the beginning of the 21st century, only 51 per cent of Christchurch citizens identified themselves as Christian, and 35 per cent said they had no religion. The reality of spiritual belief is increasing diversity and a move away from Christianity.

The Christ Church Cathedral exists for many as a hollow icon with good branding potential – an image to be tattooed on to an arm, placed on a letterhead, or stamped on a wheelie bin. It calls out "Christchurch" in all its multiplicity of meanings, promising everything and nothing at once.

Economic restructuring has seen the artisan roots of the city, and its key role as an agricultural service town, transform and diversify. The central city had become a tourism site, with the area within the four avenues a colonial theme park featuring the Gothic-revival architecture, statues and gardens. Meanwhile, American-style suburban drift occurred during the second half of the 20th century. Roads became increasingly clogged with cars, and shopping malls went from strength to strength. The sea and rail transportation so vital in the colonial era gave way to an extensive roading network and the airport became a hub.

Culturally, as the city grew it harboured a unique mixture of the conservative, radical, global and local identities. Although most people still identified as European, the percentage declined, and more ethnic groups became part of Christchurch. Asian migration has dramatically changed the city, fostering a regional Asia-Pacific identity. Maori migration from the North Island to Christchurch in the post-World War II years, and Pacific Island migration have added much, with the current cry of "kia kaha" evidence of the hope of a bicultural society.

The suburban impact of the earthquakes has made it clear that, akin to other postcolonial cities such as Vancouver and Melbourne, Christchurch does have distinct ethnic suburban enclaves.

The removal of the Rugby World Cup from Christchurch is another signal of postcolonial times. Part religion, part culture and part sport, rugby thrived in colonial New Zealand because it needed few resources, suiting the muddy environment and the character of pioneers, office workers and, most recently, a cross-section of cultures. Yet, in professional times, providing significant revenue to the game is paramount.

A hundred years ago the games would have carried on at any number of appropriate Canterbury fields. Yet in postcolonial times the global market reigns, leaving the colonial spirit dead.

The horrific death and destruction suffered on February 22 has undoubtedly changed Christchurch forever. We have entered tense and tentative times and live in a place of ruptured and uneven surfaces. Amid the adjustment it is important to come to terms with the fact that the colonial past is over. We should treasure this past and learn from it.

Remnant statues might be put together in a memorial statue park, along the lines of Melbourne's Birdwood Ave, that gracefully displays an assortment of works of art. 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. The time is now.

Dr Katie Pickles is Associate Professor in History at the University of Canterbury.

- The Press

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