Echoes of the Rainbow Warrior

The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior happened 35 years ago this year. The event had ramifications across the Pacific, and politicised a generation of New Zealanders. But in this age of climate change and global pandemic, have we held onto the lessons we learnt on that winter’s night in 1985? Matthew Scott investigates.

The water must have been freezing.

It was close to midnight. July in Auckland.

Two men rocket over the moonlit waters of Waitemata Harbour in an inflatable speed boat. They leave from Tamaki Drive, near the Parnell Baths, crossing the obsidian harbour to Marsden Wharf.

Bundled onto the boat are two limpet mines. They look innocuous - oversized lawn bowls, designed to attach to the hull of a larger ship. But they are designed to destroy.

On the 11th of July, 1985, New Zealand awoke to find that we were the victims of a terrorist attack. The Rainbow Warrior was in pieces under the harbour. A man was dead.

The drowning of Fernando Pereira - a Dutch photographer who had been a part of the crew - raised the profile of the incident for the average kiwi. Suddenly, French nuclear tests in the South Pacific were on everybody’s lips. How dare they? Cross our peaceful borders and kill in cold blood?

It became a defining night for a generation. New Zealand’s nuclear-free stance solidified, and the plight of people on nuclear test-affected islands across the Pacific had a moment in the spotlight.

But 35 years on, have the people forgotten what it was really all about?

Photo by FRED at French Wikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
"People are still dying." - Ena Manuireva

On the mountainsides of the Polynesian island of Mangareva, there is a cemetery with too many headstones for babies. The women that troop up through the tropical heat to lay their flowers and wreaths are all too likely to carry the tell-tale scar of a thyroidectomy on their throat.

Ena Manuireva left when he was 6 months old. Mother’s intuition, he calls it. “Mums just have that sense of the danger coming.”

Ena Manuireva was born in 1967 on the 8 kilometre long island, in the southeast corner of the archipelagos of French Polynesia. Or as proponents of indigenous sovereignty prefer - French-occupied Polynesia.

A year before he was born, the French government detonated a plutonium fission bomb on the atoll of Mururoa, some 400 km northwest of Mangareva. Ena says his mother recalled seeing the blast from afar. “The people weren’t told when, so she was still at work. She saw the mushroom.”

The winds brought the fallout down to Mangareva. “The effects hit the island pretty quickly,” Ena said. “It was so callous of the French to not give any damn about the people’s lives. They didn’t care whatsoever.”

The tests began in 1966, and the last one was in 1996 - but it’s not over for the people of French Polynesia.

It was put bluntly in a seminar marking the 35th anniversary of the bombing in July by prominent indigenous activist Oscar Temaru. He also happens to be the five times former president of French-occupied Polynesia, and he insisted that this isn’t just a matter that can be shut up in the history books.

"File:Oscar Temaru.jpg" by avaiki nius is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

“I bury people nearly every day, dying from different types of cancer,” he said. “I just wonder what sin it was that we did to the French.”

The numbers tell the same story. A 2000 study in medical journal Cancer Causes and Control found that rates of thyroid cancer in French-occupied Polynesia were between double and triple as high as those in similar Polynesian populations in Hawaii and New Zealand.

The authors of this research suggested more focused studies on the populations living close to Mururoa were necessary before a link between the cancer and the fallout could be proven.

However, for Ena Manuireva, the proof is back home on the island of Mangareva. “People are still dying. If you go to the cemetery up on the mountain you see the small plaques for babies who have died. The people you meet carry the scars.”

Back in New Zealand, the Rainbow Warrior summons images of national pride. It’s a symbol of our national cock-suredness, our willingness to throw a haymaker outside of our weight class. But to some, the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior was just the first terrorist act in a war that continues to this day.

“In New Zealand, the awareness has dwindled. It would be nice to call back on this moment of outrage, and wake up to say it’s still happening - people are still dying over there.”

"It's dropped out of people's consciousness." Graeme ball, head of the new zealand history teachers' association

Thyroid cancer and irradiated reefs are not what Kiwis think of when we think of the Rainbow Warrior.

The Kiwi narrative of the Rainbow Warrior is centered around the relationship between France and New Zealand.

But the old cliche that they who do not know their own history are doomed to repeat it is alive and well, according to Graeme Ball, head of the New Zealand History Teachers’ Association.

Mr Ball, who also works at Auckland’s Northcote College, has launched a campaign to put a focus on New Zealand history in the school curriculum.

“You need to understand your own country’s history if you are going to make sense of the present and use that to help guide future decision making.”

Being given short shrift in the school history curriculum and New Zealand’s relationship with France not being particularly topical have allowed the event to recede in our memories, Mr Ball said.

“It’s dropped out of a lot of people’s consciousness.”

However, understanding how the bombing put us on the map in terms of relationships with global superpowers is an important lesson for today’s world.

“The Rainbow Warrior and our wider relationship with our allies and enemies is important to understand as we geolocate ourselves and look ahead into the growing climate of hostility between America and China particularly.”

"they couldn’t be that absolutely crazy to do this. It was outlandish." - Professor David robie, academic and journalist who spent time aboard the rainbow warrior

Journalist and AUT professor David Robie saw the attack as provoking an emotional reaction in Kiwis.

“Most New Zealanders saw it on very personal terms,” he said. “A friendly country carrying out a dastardly attack in our largest port on a peaceful environmental ship - it was outrageous.”

David Robie had specific reason to see it personally - prior to the attack, he had spent ten weeks onboard the Rainbow Warrior, documenting its odyssey from the Marshall Islands down to New Zealand. He literally wrote the book on the subject.

The journey included the resettling of the people of Rongelap Atoll, which had been heavily affected by US nuclear tests.

The ship arrived in Rongelap to find the villagers debating the move to Mujato, a safer island to the south. While the crew of the Rainbow Warrior waited, the people of the island dismantled their entire village.

Across four voyages, the Rainbow Warrior moved their entire lives across the sea to a distant island. The people of Rongelap had to say goodbye to their ancestral home, while simultaneously giving their children the chance at a healthy future.

It was the most emotional and challenging experience of David Robie’s years as a journalist. “It stayed with me the rest of my life,” he said.

Little did he know that this ship, defined by its humanitarian purpose, would soon lie in pieces on the bed of the Waitemata Harbour, a casualty of the bully tactics of a colonial power on the other side of the world.

David Robie recalls the shock of receiving the news the morning after. “I had no doubt that France was involved somewhere along the line,” he said. “But I also thought, they couldn’t be that absolutely crazy to do this. It was outlandish.”

The news forced Kiwis to engage with politics. “The Rainbow Warrior was the catalyst - it galvanised people.” Suddenly, there was a strong sense that New Zealand should stand independent from neocolonial players such as France and the USA as they asserted their power over their subjects.

Nuclear-free New Zealand, although already a strong movement, became the sticker seen on the side of mailboxes country-wide.

In her campaign launch speech back in 2017, Jacinda Ardern referenced how our politics shaped our identity back in the 1980s. “[Climate change] is my generation’s nuclear-free moment,” she said.

David Robie thinks that the climate crisis hasn’t had its Rainbow Warrior moment just yet. “There isn’t a catalyst yet. There will be, I’m sure,” he said. “There’s evidence of what is happening globally but because it’s so slow by comparison with the threat of nuclear weapons, people don’t realise the urgency and how we are running out of time.”

So have we forgotten the lesson that the Rainbow Warrior taught us? On that evening in 1985, we were taught that we are not a true island - we can always be affected by the events of the wider world. Of course, there’s always a silver lining. We can affect them, too.

But as our Pacific neighbours feel the brunt of the changing climate, are we doing enough?

“We need to have a strategy that welcomes those people. We are already seeing dramatic changes in climate in the last two or three years and the process is going to accelerate,” David Robie said. “New Zealand does have responsibility.”

Nowadays, the spot where the Rainbow Warrior sank lies unremarked, kept from the public by a layer of electrified fencing. Nearby is a humble mosaic dedicated to it. It is down in the industrial end of town, seen daily by nobody but forklift operators and the occasional jogger casting a sidelong glance as they troop by.

As the location lies largely forgotten at the bottom of town, so does the attack itself and everything that it represented.

Unless we make the effort to remember.