10 Questions with Frances Walsh


Q1: Choosing 100 objects from a large museum collection is no easy task for an author. Did it help that at the time the book project started you had been working at the Museum for a while?

Yes, sure. When the book received the green light I’d been working at the Museum as its in-house writer for five months and had already had some blimey, what-the-hell? moments, particularly in the back rooms that are closed to the public. I had come across a set of three objects, removed from whales in the days of slaughter in the Antarctic Ocean, for example. Two were whale ear bones — painted to resemble a human face in profile — the third was a much less-confronting sperm whale tooth inscribed with ‘Return to Me’, as if the whale itself was issuing a futile instruction about its body parts. It turned out that both the ear bones and the tooth were the work of a whaler, John Hoffman, who had worked on a South African factory ship in the late 1950s and had done the handiwork in his downtime between kills. Hoffman had inscribed the tooth for his wife: before he had left home, he had given her the vinyl record single Return to Me, recorded by crooner Dean Martin. He gave her the tooth to reassure her that he would come back to her after whaling seasons, like a boomerang. Scrimshaw like Hoffman’s was often made for loved ones left at home — tenderness existing alongside the brutality of an extractive industry. Hoffman’s collection made it into the book — three-quarters of the taonga in Endless Sea are not on public display.


Q2: Even so, you would have needed help on an initial scoping. How did you go about that?

My colleagues in the collections team put the case for likely subjects. Volunteers, too. Visitors also suggested objects for inclusion — an American marine engineer who was visiting the Museum told me one day that our display of outboard motors was ‘a vision of pain’. A lot of recreational boaties probably have the same reaction. A 1987 Seagull outboard motor features in Endless Sea — but the British-made two-stoke single-cylinder petrol engine probably didn’t have its owner tearing their hair out in its days of being attached to a dinghy: the motors — they had their heyday in the 1970s — may have been on the smelly and smoky side but they were also bullet-proof as well as affordable, having only three moving part at the engine end of the shaft. Seagull enthusiasts in New Zealand — there are a few — are competitive characters: yearly Seagull races take place on the Waikato River, and in Taupō, and in Waitara.


Q3: What did you need to make sure you covered off?

The collection is a cabinet of curiosities, so Endless Sea had to be true to that. Included, for instance, are Victorian woollen embroideries stitched by sailors. But we’re a working museum as well, so our fleet of four is among the 100 objects. The steam tug Puke, the brigantine Breeze, the scow Ted Ashby, and the former First World War hospital launch Nautilus take visitors round the Waitematā most days, crewed and maintained by volunteers and the Musuem’s shipwrights. There are also objects from seismic episodes in our history — a seafarer’s card issued by the New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union, given to members who ‘Stood Loyal Right Through’ the 151-day lockout in 1951. It was the biggest and costliest industrial dispute in New Zealand’s history — 8000 watersiders and 7000 other unionists and their families round the country were without wages for five months, and the National government brought in draconian measures to break the union — criminalising the giving of food to locked-out workers among them. Greenpeace gave the Museum ‘police exhibit 1490’ — a foot-pump recovered from Rainbow Warrior after it was bombed by French saboteurs in 1985, killing a crew member. Then there are objects tied to the Museum’s relationships and place, and Aoteoroa’s beginnings and future. When the Museum opened in 1993 kuia from Ngāti Whātua Orākei, who maintain the ahi kā in Auckland, gave us tukutuku panels that tell the story of ancestors who settled here after the voyage from Hawaiki.


Q4: What were a couple of the ‘must-haves’?

A Mercantile Marine medal, given to Captain Arthur Davey for voyaging through danger zones during the Great War. The Merchant Navy lost 15,000 seafarers in the war — transporting troops, their horses, Red Cross equipment, munitions and supplies. At home, though, merchant seafarers often faced humiliation — they didn’t fit with the narrative of the heroic soldier who gave it all for king and country. In Christchurch and elsewhere sabre-rattling women handed out white feathers to men who hadn’t joined the armed forces. These days merchant seafarers are also in dire circumstances — trapped in ships because of Covid-19. There are also a couple of impossibly good-looking and evocative objects: the 1933 Jon-El is a 14-and-a-half-foot mahogany and kauri speedboat, hand-built by Auckland engineer Roy Garton and designed by John L. Hacker, an American naval architect. It’s like a high-spec little sports car — with a wicker seat — driven by Cary Grant; and a tatā from the Gisborne rohe, which bailed water on a waka taua. When loaded up, waka had a low freeboard. Even in calm seas a couple of bailers would have been hard at it, pivoting their elbows on thighs and throwing the water behind them. The tatā is finely carved and user friendly — its curved handle may have prevented RSI.


Q5: And what were some of the more unassuming objects that you wanted to include?

Some objects look insignificant but represent the mother lode. There’s a fragment of Raukawa Moana Cook Strait telegraph cable — laid with difficulty in 1866. The superintendent of Nelson sent a telegram to the governor of New Zealand hoping that the cable would promote the unity of the two islands ‘and the two races’. The cable altered the concept of time and place, extending the telegraph network from Napier to Bluff and prompting the government to introduce a single time zone — before then, provincial centres kept their own time according to longitude, which made for a pretty disruptive telegraph service as stations opened and closed at different times. Ten years after the cable was laid it snapped — probably because of the fast-travelling pebbles on the seabed of Raukawa Moana. Captain Fairchild of SS Luna was in charge of grappling and splicing the cable in Wellington and Blenheim. The government was so grateful to Fairchild and others who did the job, it gave them a bonus. Fairchild refused his, but his wife wasn’t quite as hard-line; she accepted a set of diamond earrings and matching locket for services rendered by her husband in reconnecting the cable.


Q6: Considerable original research has clearly gone into these pieces. What were a couple of mysteries that you were very pleased to have solved?

I was pretty happy to track down the names of the 10 dogs that were bred on Rakiura Stewart Island and joined Ernest Shackleton aboard Nimrod in 1908, in the British Antarctic Expedition’s quest to be the first to reach the South Pole. Mercifully, Scamp and friends seemed to have all made it back to Lyttelton after the trip and weren’t eaten by the explorers — unlike the expedition’s Manchurian ponies. We also have a 1930 letter written in French that was salvaged from RMS Tahiti after it sank near Rarotonga on passage to San Francisco. It was from Adrienne (no surname is discernible) of Herne Bay, Auckland, to her brother in France. It had never been translated until Endless Sea. Some of the text has disappeared — letters and words lost to the Pacific Ocean. Adriene writes of being ill and lonesome. It’s heart-breaking.


Q7: You also spent time with some remarkable people. Who particularly stands out?

Two curious sisters up in Ōpua, who from the 1950s to the 1990s kept a record of over 400 merchant ships and cruise liners and their crews who visited the Northland port. Nancy and Myra Lane are still alive and kicking. They started out documenting the vessels themselves — going down to the wharf to record gross tonnage, length and beam dimensions, and collecting the officers’ signatures et cetera — they then persuaded crews to hand over all sorts of ephemera and information, including delicate line drawings of vessels. Myra struck trouble with the project in the 1980s when the council installed security gates on the wharf, preventing public access. Although she’s coy about it, she appears to have been among a group of democratic Ōpuans who under cover of darkness liberated the gates and threw them into the water. She was Northland’s first policewoman.


Q8: Aucklanders may think the museum is theirs, but it is very much a national collection isn’t it?

We range widely. One of the sweetest things in the Museum is a little booklet of photographs of the nine trawlers in the oyster fleet in Bluff in the late 1940s. It was issued by Mr W. Wong, a Bluff greengrocer and tobacconist, in the days of plenty — in the decade when something like 65 million oysters were taken annually from Foveaux Strait. Now that figure is more like 8 million. New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extends from 12 to 200 nautical miles from the coast — so the Museum has plenty of scope. We’re the keeper of the last surviving castaway depot boat from the Auckland Islands, one of the Subantarctic Islands. It was built around 1890. The Auckland Islands lie on the Great Circle trade route that sailing ships once took from Australia and New Zealand to Europe via Cape Horn, particularly before the Panama Canal opened in 1914. It was a fast but dangerous route. Many ships wrecked, so from 1877 to 1929 the New Zealand government managed a network of depots in the area, stocked with supplies, clothes, and a boat, so that castaways could fish or reach other islands as they waited for a ship to pick them up. Our bailiwick extends beyond the EEZ too — Endless Sea includes a line-up of pint-sized models of Oceanic craft, demonstrating in their vastly different designs a profound understanding of naval architecture, and of the Pacific Ocean.


Q9: What’s one amazing thing you learnt?

I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know about Aotea Great Barrier Island’s pigeon post, or about the connection between what may be the world’s first and only commercial pigeon post and the foundering of the SS Wairarapa, which slammed into the cliffs of Aotea in 1894. Aotea’s link to the outside world — to the mainland — was via a weekly steamer to Auckland and it took three days for news of the wreck and the deaths of around 121 crew and passengers to reach Auckland. The time lag set entrepreneurs thinking about speedier methods of communication. Walter Fricker sent his pigeons on training flights to Hamilton and Rotorua before launching the Great Barrier Pigeongram Agency in 1897. One of his flock — Ariel — made it to Auckland in one hour 45 minutes, with a burden of five sheets of quarto-sized paper, or ‘flimsies’. Fricker issued triangular stamps — we have one in the Museum, as well as two clay pipes that were recovered from the Wairarapa wreck.


Q10: Oh, go on then, what’s another?

The Museum has the figurehead from William Manson. The barque, built in Aberdeen in 1872, was involved in the last documented case of kidnapping in the Queensland labour/slave trade in the Pacific. In 1894 it was ‘recruiting’ workers for the sugar plantations and the pastoral and maritime industries at Malaita in the Solomon Islands when several locals were kidnapped. In the ensuing court case in Queensland, the captain was also accused of making one of the recruits pregnant.