Anniversary seasons

Hay's float, Canterbury centennial floral procession, February 1951 (Image: Private collection, http://earlycanterbury.blogspot.co.nz)

Hay's float, Canterbury centennial floral procession, February 1951 (Image: Private collection)

Anniversaries do not just happen. They come about because people decide that past events are worth commemorating.  And sometimes people seem to get an anniversary bug particularly strongly and we get anniversary seasons. In 19th-century New Zealand, while important anniversaries like the centenary of James Cook’s landing in 1769 passed almost without notice, there was a season of anniversaries at the end of the century.  It was kicked off by Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887, followed by a series of provincial 50-year jubilees in 1890 (Auckland and Wellington), 1892 (Nelson), 1898 (Otago) and 1900 (Canterbury). Then in 1940 there was another season as the nation and the provinces reached 100 years.

For the next 40 years we turned away from our past, and certain events which might have been widely commemorated, like the 50th anniversary of Gallipoli in 1965 and Cook’s 150th in 1969, were largely ignored. When in 1990 the sesquicentennial of the nation came along, we found it hard to get too excited. It took women, on the 1993 anniversary of women’s suffrage, to rekindle an anniversary enthusiasm.

We are now entering another anniversary season – the 150th of important New Zealand wars battles this year, the centenary of the First World War for the next four years, the 125th of women’s suffrage in 2018 and Cook’s 250th in 2019. So it was an inspired decision by a combined grouping of PHANZA, the W. H. Oliver Humanities Research Academy at Massey University and Te Manawa to hold a one-day conference on Friday, entitled ‘Commemorating: history and anniversaries’.

Some of the papers dealt with past anniversaries. I drew on my forthcoming Te Ara story to suggest that the commemoration of an anniversary is a totally contrived happening. It is never automatic, and is therefore a reflection of cultural and political concerns. In 1940, for example, the centennial focused on the hard work of the pioneers and the progress which a century of endeavour had brought because the Labour government was keen to inspire such attitudes with a world war just beginning. Similarly Vince O’Malley, examining the 50th commemoration of the battle of Ōrākau in 1914, showed that this was almost exclusively a Pākehā event which served to emphasise the value of fighting for the Empire. Local Māori felt very uncomfortable about giving support to such a celebration. O’Malley’s paper made a fascinating contrast with a presentation by Amy Hobbs and Te Kenehi Teira who described the commemoration at Rangiriri last year. The initiative came from the local iwi, and was marked by wonderful new carvings and by hugely impressive kapa haka on the anniversary day. Compared with 1914, few Pākehā politicians were present.

This presentation brought the focus onto contemporary concerns. To my mind it was the issues of how anniversaries should be observed today, rather than how they have been observed in the past, which made the conference so pertinent and engrossing. Here are some of the issues that were broached:

  • Dates: Margaret Tennant raised an important issue with a discussion about founding days. She is writing the history of the Red Cross, and discovered that it was not an easy matter to decide exactly when the New Zealand Red Cross actually began. But anniversaries do not live easily with complexity - a date must be found.
  • Myths: Damien Fenton, in examining contemporary observation of the Battle for Australia Day, showed that anniversaries need simple myths - so the historical questions as to whether there really was any intention by the Japanese to conquer Australia had to be avoided. Historians and anniversaries do not always live together comfortably.
  • Types of memorial: Puawai Cairns is involved in planning Te Papa’s First World War exhibition, and she talked about her idea of bringing back some stones from the beach at Gallipoli. This is a traditional Māori form of remembrance – note the memorial to the pioneer battalion at Whanganui where soil from major Great War battles was originally placed in the corners of the memorial (although was later stolen!).
  • Alternative anniversaries: Peter Clayworth, Marie Russell and Joan McCracken discussed the initiative of the Labour History Project, Turnbull Library and Museum of Wellington City and Sea, who got together to commemorate the 1913 strike with an exhibition, a series of talks and weekend walks around sites in Wellington.
  • When to stop? Paul Thompson raised an interesting question with respect to the Wellington Museum of City and Sea’s annual Wahine Day. Over the last few years the number of survivors of the Wahine sinking attending the event has diminished. So how do you decide when to stop?
  • Sounds of the past: Finally, in a wonderful session, Jack Perkins from Radio New Zealand talked of different ways radio could be used to record anniversaries.

It is not often that a day sitting in a lecture room can engage an audience consistently. Perhaps on this occasion it was simply the quality of the speakers (and I have not even mentioned two excellent talks by Michael Belgrave and Bronwyn Labrum). More likely, I suspect, the interest came about because many in the audience were thinking about the upcoming anniversaries and wrestling with issues of whether and how they should be remembered. In all it was a great start to our anniversary season.

One comment added so far

  1. Comment made by Childhood stories enriched | Thinking about ideas || October 24th, 2014

    [...] of emotion that is difficult to express in the written word. This was emphasised to me at the Professional Historians conference in Palmerston North earlier this year, when Jack Perkins from Radio NZ gave an excellent [...]

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