Mark Twain, the tourist

All people think that New Zealand is close to Australia or Asia, or somewhere, and that you cross to it on a bridge. But that is not so. It is not close to anything, but lies by itself, out in the water.

Newspaper advertisement for Mark Twain's performances [1895]
Advertisement , Star, Issue 5410, 11 November 1895, Page 3 via Papers Past
The talk of the town 120 years ago in Christchurch was the visit of Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain, who despite some initial ignorance as to our whereabouts (as illustrated in the above quote), made it safely to the shores of Aotearoa in spring 1895, and would spend 4 days in our own fair city.

It seems that Twain’s visit was on a par with those of pop stars of today. His performances were wildly popular. Originally scheduled to perform 3 shows at the Theatre Royal on Gloucester St, an extra date had to be added due to demand. He was hosted and shown the sights (such as the museum and botanic gardens), and a dinner was given in his honour. And as is still the case with foreign dignitaries, he was thoroughly interrogated by journalists into giving positive reviews of the scenery (some things never change).

Twain had undertaken a world tour due to financial troubles and used his travels as the basis for a “non-fiction” account Following the Equator which was published in 1897. I use the term non-fiction cautiously. Though the book does more or less faithfully document the itinerary of his world tour, Twain was a self-admitted liar and yarn-spinner and some of the stories in the book are of a spurious nature. Take for instance the information he gleans from a fellow traveller about the Moa.

The Moa stood thirteen feet high, and could step over an ordinary man’s head or kick his hat off; and his head, too, for that matter. He said it was wingless, but a swift runner. The natives used to ride it. It could make forty miles an hour, and keep it up for four hundred miles and come out reasonably fresh. It was still in existence when the railway was introduced into New Zealand; still in existence, and carrying the mails. The railroad began with the same schedule it has now: two expresses a week-time, twenty miles an hour. The company exterminated the moa to get the mails.

Oh, really?

This passage is accompanied by an utterly bizarre and grotesque illustration featuring a moa, being ridden by a Māori man, kicking the head off another – while also carrying a bag of mail.

Of course, this tale is related by an unnamed third party so Twain could always just have claimed he’d been misinformed if proved incorrect – which is an old, tale tellers’ trick… and a good one.

In any case, he did get to see his legendary moa (or at least the skeleton of one) at Canterbury Museum. In terms of scenery he thought our riverside weeping willows “the stateliest and most impressive” in the world. He was also struck by the Englishness of Christchurch saying, in his usual sardonic style –

If it had an established Church and social inequality it would be England over again with hardly a lack.

He also applauded the success of women’s suffrage in New Zealand (women had got the vote in 1893), the good sense of which he summed up in the following statement –

In the New Zealand law occurs this: “The word person wherever it occurs throughout the Act includes woman.”

Well, of course.

More about Mark Twain in Christchurch

Cover of Autobiography of Mark TwainSearch our catalogue

“No moa, no moa…”

…in old Aotearoa. Can’t get ’em, they’ve et ’em, they’ve gone and there ain’t no Moa.”

Would I be able to resist the overwhelming urge to quote, or worse, sing those lines? Surely Quinn Berentson would have heard them many times before? The man has a Masters in Science Communication and those lines communicate the science of extinction in a commendably pithy way, so perhaps he would be understanding.

Moa the Life and Death of New Zealand’s Legendary Bird takes a bit longer to explain how “first we killed them, then we ate them, and then we forgot about them”. In 2009 Berentson set out to follow the trail of the creature that became so large and strange that they were almost as much mammal as bird.

He discovered that there was far more to the story of the moa (it should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘more’, not ‘mower’ – who knew?) than he had ever imagined.  It’s not just the story of the birds, but also of the scientists who ‘discovered’ them and what we know about them now.

Berrentson pointed out that this was not as easy as it might seem as everything about the giant birds, from their biology, to their evolution and then to their extinction has been argued over and re-examined for the last 170 years.

The moa story came along at just the right time. It had been newly discovered that the world had once been dominated by huge creatures that no longer existed. When moa remains were first discovered the public’s imagination was captured by it as a bizarre and grotesque monster. They featured on the front page of popular  newspapers and were world famous; often the first thing people had heard about New Zealand.  They were one of the first museum specimens to be photographed and every museum had its own skeleton.

While this was all very interesting the real fascination of this session was the personalities of the men who made the moa. Richard Owen , the ‘father of the moa’ was ‘extremely malignant’ according to mild-mannered Charles Darwin, who wrote him out of history after a long and acrimonious relationship. Talk about survival of the fittest.

It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Owen though, as he stole the credit for the work and ideas of Gideon Mantell, an amateur whose wife found the ‘Mona Lisa of fossils’  – considered to be the first dinosaur fossil found. This treasure happens to reside at Te Papa, although it is not on show. Snarky comment resisted.

Mantell’s obsession with fossils lead to his wife and his son severing contact with him. He suffered a terrible accident which resulted in his becoming a hunchback and was in such pain that he self-medicated, becoming an opiate addict. He was a Dr. so access to the opiates was not a problem.

Then his son Walter Mantell came out to New Zealand. He found moa bones that he sent back to his father in an attempt at winning his approval. But Mantell Snr had to give them to that evil genius Owen. When he sent his last batch back Owen’s perfidy was no longer a problem because Gideon Mantell was dead of an overdose.  You couldn’t make it up.

This was a great session and I could go on but really the best thing is to read the book. Although I must add that the moa is close to the top of the list of animals that could be cloned because we have recovered so much DNA. Coming soon to a swamp near you?

And I did resist singing.