Gisborne part 1: Mystery and history

Had I been naive to think there would be an overhead locker in which to store my laptop bag on the 19-seater Beechcraft 1900D aeroplane that was clanging its way to Gisborne? I can happily do without inadequate airline coffee or those weird “veggie crisps” things that Air New Zealand serves in flight. But I guess I do have an expectation that, should I wish to take all my stuff on holiday with me, there will be space for it on the plane.

But there wasn’t, leaving me having to cram both my bags under the seat in front of me, taking up most of my leg room. Not that there was a flight attendant to check – the plane can’t fit one of those either.

Flying to Gisborne on such a small plane made it feel kind of exotic, like rather than just flying to another part of the North Island, I was journeying to a remote Pacific Island. But perhaps I was.

Leis and hi-viz vests

Having arrived, I went for a wander along Gisborne’s main street, Gladstone Road. It felt like a cross between an ordinary New Zealand town and a capital city of a Pacific Island. There were shops selling leis, people slouching down the road in bare feet, cars driving erratically; and then there was a deli, a Farmers department store, a fancy bookshop. What a curious blend.

I know that many locals call Gisborne “Gizzy”, but I didn’t feel like I knew it well enough to call it that yet. To call it Gizzy would make me feel like someone’s gran saying, “Oh, lovely to meet you Mr Boofhead.” Nicknames develop over time, and Gisborne and I weren’t there yet.

Cook Landing Memorial

I consulted my travel guide, the 1969 edition of The Shell Guide to New Zealand (ed. Maurice Shadbolt). Located at the foot of Kaiti Hill, Maurice advises, “is the point where the first known Europeans set foot in New Zealand: beside [the] monument to Captain Cook which stands there is [a] ship’s cannon reputedly from Endeavour.”

But there was no sign of the ship’s cannon. It turns out it was later discovered to not actually be from the Endeavour, and now lives in the local museum, accurately labelled “Not Cook’s cannon”.

The Historic Cook Landing Site was, at one point, right by the sea shore, gazing out to the vast Pacific Ocean. But subsequent reclamation of the waterfront means it’s now located in a little park wedged between the road and a logging depot. I was a little shocked by this – this site of national significance has essentially been destroyed just to make room for logs to be stored.

But the Department of Conservation have thoughtfully displayed a photo showing the opening of the monument in 1906. As I looked at the photo, I noticed a curious thing – while the monument currently only has text on one of its four sides, at the 1906 unveiling there was obviously text on at least two other sides. Something had been removed from the memorial at some point in history? But what? And why?

After some googling, I found a series of of letters to the editor of the Poverty Bay Herald from 1906. It appears that while funds were being raised to build the memorial, a group called the Patriotic Committee donated £150 on the condition that the monument also contain the names of the New Zealand troopers who fought in the Boer War.

This was met with fierce opposition from many people, including troopers themselves (like this letter from Colonel TW Porter). It was offensive to Cook’s memory having to share his monument with another cause, and it was offensive to the troopers to not be worthy of their own memorial.

So it seems that indeed the off-topic words were scrubbed from the memorial, leaving three blank sides and the feeling of a story not fully told.

Museum! Art Gallery

Maurice also recommended the “interesting museum”, which is otherwise known as Tairawhiti Museum. Though wouldn’t it be cool if there actually was a museum called The Interesting Museum? I would go there.

And indeed Tairawhiti Museum is interesting. It tells the tale of Gisborne from the first Maori, to Cook’s landing, right through to modern times, including all the craziness around the year 2000, what with Gisborne being THE FIRST PLACE IN THE WORLD TO SEE THE SUNRISE OF THE NEW MILLENNIUM. Here, have a plastic cup with “Gisborne 2000” printed on it.

The museum building has been expanded over the years, giving it a fun, eclectic feel, moving from room to room. Past the gift shop; through a gallery showcasing both traditional and modern Maori art; into another room with a stellar collection of work from contemporary New Zealand artists; down a stairway (which was also showing a selection of photos of Gisborne in the 1930s and ’40s by local photographer Jack Hollamby); into the maritime collection, including many fine surfboards; along a short corridor; through a door and suddenly there’s the captain’s cabin of the Star of Canada, an Edwardian boat.

It’s like visiting your friend’s uncle, who was made redundant in the ’80s and took his severance and built himself a house out of whatever bits and pieces he could talk people into giving him.

And more regional museums could learn from the ‘weird uncle’ approach. Tairawhiti Museum is almost a perfect museum and shows that you don’t need an animatronic blacksmith telling stories about ye olden days to have a good museum.

Toot toot

2 thoughts on “Gisborne part 1: Mystery and history”

  1. I say good on the Troopers. Who would want to be tacked on to the sides and back of somebody else’s memorial? It makes one wonder what is round the back of the Lincoln Memorial, or tucked into a corner of Trafalgar Square.

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