Ancient giants and old delusions: a history of mysticism and racism in Aotearoa

A group discovered to be digging for proof of a giant pre-Māori race in the limestone caves of Waikato have not lost their minds all of a sudden, but are continuing a legacy of religion-based racism in the area, writes Scott Hamilton.

Earlier this month, RNZ’s Susan Strongman reported that amateur archaeologists were digging for the bones of ancient giants outside Huntly, in the hilly, sparsely populated area many locals call Limestone Country. The giants had supposedly stood at least eight feet tall, and had white skin. They had allegedly settled New Zealand thousands of years before Māori.

Working at night, without the consent of either the local landowner or the local iwi, Ngāti Taahinga, the group dug a 14-metre long tunnel. They were searching, they said, for a cave that had supposedly been the burial crypt for the giants. The cave had allegedly been discovered and then sealed by people determined to hide New Zealand’s secret history.

The diggers had found a bone, and had posted it on the internet. They believed it had come from an ancient giant. Experts Strongman consulted pointed out that the bone was hollow, and suggested it had probably belonged to a moa.

Strongman’s report from Limestone Country was so strange that many commentators decided the giant hunters must be victims of the internet era’s conspiracy theory culture. One commentator suggested that the diggers were part of the ‘incel’ movement that has grown up online among single, misogynistic men. Their digging, he thought, must be a distraction from their loneliness. On social media, many people decided that the giant hunters must have been taking mind-altering substances to develop such strange ideas.

But the giant hunters are not a 21st century aberration, explicable with references to the internet or to psychedelics. They are not an anomaly, but a part of a long and unfortunate history. And they are not the first racists with grand and eccentric visions of history to come to the limestone hills west of Huntly.

The story of Limestone Country begins in the sea. Billions of tiny, tentacled creatures were born, lived, and died in the warm waters off the west coast of the ancient supercontinent that palaeogeographers call Gondwanaland. The bodies of these bryozoa piled up on the shallow sea floor, then compacted and hardened, eventually turning to slabs of pale, porous stone that quakes and eruptions pushed and slid into the air.

When the first Polynesians arrived about a thousand years ago, puriri and karaka had already colonised the gullies and hilltops and crevices of this limestone landscape. Streams emerged from rocks, then disappeared again at the end of blind valleys. Sinkholes swallowed moa and weka. Thousands of caves opened like mute mouths from the hills. Over the centuries, as Māori communities grew, hills were cleared for taro and kumara and pā, and the caves became urupā.

Most of the Limestone Country was spared confiscation after the Waikato War, but a series of dubious land deals let in Pākehā settlers at the beginning of the 20th century. One of those settlers needs to be remembered, because he was a sort of spiritual ancestor of today’s giant hunters.

Charles Alma Baker was born in Ōamaru in 1857, worked as a surveyor, married a daughter of the colony’s premier, and made his first serious money in a dodgy land deal with Māori in 1889. By 1926 he was wealthy enough to buy a controlling interest in 8000 hectares of Limestone Country. He named his estate Limestone Downs, and soon made it a laboratory for a mystical and racialist ideology.

Baker believed in the superiority of the ‘British race’ over all other humans, and in the special destiny of the race. But he worried, as well, about Britons. He feared that urban life was weakening and sickening many of them, so that they were losing the virility and ferocity that had helped them conquer much of the world in the 19th century.

Baker’s beliefs in British superiority and fears for the future of his race were shared by many members of New Zealand’s elite a century ago.

Both the colony’s prime minister, William Massey, and its postwar governor general Lord Jellicoe were members of the British Israelite movement, whose members maintained that Britons and Celts were the descendants of a lost tribe of Israel, and that the king of England carried the bloodline of Moses. Massey saw the victory of the British Empire in World War I as a sign of God’s grace. The British Israelite faith healer Arthur Dallimore, who held weekly meetings at a packed Auckland town hall and raised his own church in Otāhuhu, preached that the British Empire was God’s kingdom on earth, and predicted that it would eventually cover the entire globe and be ruled by a returned Christ.

Charles Alma Baker and prime minister William Massey (right) were British Israelites, who shared the belief that the people of the British Isles are “genetically, racially, and linguistically the direct descendants” of the Ten Lost Tribes of ancient Israel.

But God’s kingdom had its troubles. For men like Baker and Massey, the British Empire in general, and New Zealand in particular, were menaced by both external and internal enemies. ‘Asiatic’ migrants threatened to undermine the morals and take the jobs of whites. And in the slums of imperial cities, poor diet, bad hygiene, and casual sex were creating disease and degeneration.

In 1921 New Zealand’s parliament passed the Immigration Amendment Act, which called for ‘race aliens’ to be excluded from the colony. In 1928 parliament voted for the Mental Defectives Amendment Act, which allowed for the indefinite isolation of undesirable breeders in psychiatric hospitals – homosexuals, the physically or intellectual disabled, petty criminals, and troubled children.

Some wealthy individuals tried to assist the state with their own schemes for racial regeneration. Doctor Truby King founded the Plunket Society to try to improve the health of white babies and infants. One of the Society’s slogans was ‘The Race marches forth on the feet of little children’.

In 1931 Cora Wilding launched the Sunlight League. Wilding thought that the sun, with its ‘unlimited free energy’, was the key to reviving racial health. She established a network of ‘health camps’ across New Zealand, where children from urban homes were made to salute the Union Jack and introduced to heliotherapy, which was a fancy word for sunburn.

Wilding believed in the extermination of the weakest members of her race. Her utopia was ancient Sparta, where newly born babies were supposedly left on rooftops by their parents, in an early test of their ability to survive in a cruel and martial world. In 1934 the Sunlight League published a pamphlet praising Nazi Germany’s Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. The law set up a ‘Genetic Health Court’ that could order the sterilisation or castration of disabled Germans. In his keynote speech at the Sunlight League’s 1934 conference, Dr F Montgomery Spencer hailed Hitler’s “vast experiment in eugenics”, and said that “soft-heartedness must be set aside” if the white race was to escape degeneration.

A poster championing Hitler’s 1933 law against Hereditarily Diseased Offspring (left), which allowed the state to castrate disabled Germans. The law was greeted with excitement in New Zealand by the Sunlight League and our Federation of JPs, who called for the sterilisation of New Zealand’s ‘unfit’ (Images: US Holocaust Museum/PapersPast)

Charles Alma Baker shared the British Israelism of William Massey as well as the sun obsession of Cora Wilding and Dr Spencer. He was also one of the first New Zealand proponents of anthroposophy, a doctrine created by the German mystic Rudolf Steiner, who died in 1925. Steiner is today best-known for the schools that bear his name, but education was only one of his interests. Steiner claimed to be able to talk to angels and travel to other planets and eras. He had decided, after conversations with Jesus, the Buddha, and other spiritual luminaries, that humanity was descended from a series of ‘root races’, races that had once lived in isolation from one another on sunken continents like Atlantis. Skin colour was a sign of spiritual advancement, and humans with pale skin and blonde hair had ‘higher’ souls than those with darker skin and hair.

Steiner’s ideas about agriculture were particularly appealing to Baker. Steiner taught that most fertilisers retarded rather than encouraged the growth of crops. He argued that farmers should plant their crops and rotate their herds according to the movement of cosmic bodies like the sun and moon and Saturn. He concocted a special, spiritually advanced fertiliser, which included stinging nettles, chamomile, and yarrow.

Charles Alma Baker decided that he would use Steiner’s methods to create a supply of purified food from Limestone Downs that would replenish the white race. Subsidised by the state, Baker recruited teams of Dalmation labourers to clear the scrub and bush that covered much of Limestone Downs. The Dalmatians were housed in a coastal kāinga whose Māori inhabitants had succumbed to the 1918 flu pandemic.

Once the land was cleared, Baker stocked it with sheep and cattle, and set up a series of experimental horticultural plots. He carefully sprinkled Steiner’s occult mineral preparations across his soil.

In the 1930s, as the Sunlight League thrived, Baker became increasingly obsessed with heliotherapy. The Dalmatians toiling on his estate were startled by the sight of their boss wandering naked down gullies and up hills, with his hands stretched upwards. Baker believed that the sacred light from heaven could make him immortal. He was wrong.

By the time Baker died in 1941, Limestone Downs was becoming a zone of weeds and scrub. The trust set up to administer the farm soon abandoned mystical ideas about race and soil. Today Limestone Downs has been converted to dairy production.

In the ’70s and ’80s a new generation of conservative Pākehā felt the racial unease that haunted the likes of Charles Alma Baker and Cora Wilding. Pasifika peoples had begun to settle in large numbers in the big cities; the Māori renaissance saw barricades and flags go up on disputed land. The hegemony Pākehā had enjoyed in New Zealand seemed under threat.

In response, some conservative Pākehā turned to the same racial mysticism that had soothed Charles Alma Baker. Kerry Bolton, a former leader of the fascist Nationalist Workers Party, published a small book that made some big claims about New Zealand history. In Lords of the Soil, Bolton insisted that whites rather than Polynesians had been the first peoples to discover and settle New Zealand. Pākehā were indigenous, and the burgeoning Māori land rights movement was the work of brown colonisers.

In 1999 Bolton’s claims were amplified by Martin Doutre’s weighty and weird volume Ancient Celtic New Zealand, which featured baffling maps of the ‘stone observatories’ an ancient white tribe of astronomers had supposedly left on Auckland’s volcanoes, and by Gary Cook’s The Secret Land, which detailed a series of outings to forests where white people had left carvings, and where their psychic residue persisted, in the form of ghostly ‘faery folk’.

When the internet arrived, the notion of a white tangata whenua went viral. A giant stone wall was ‘discovered’ in Kaimanawa; a stone city was located and lost in the Northland bush.

In 2017, Northland man Noel Hilliam took remains from a Māori burial site and claimed these facial reconstructions were created by an anonymous forensic pathologist from the University of Edinburgh. The university had no knowledge of any such research. Image: Northern Advocate

Limestone Country, with its bizarre land forms and hundreds of caves, quickly became an obsession for advocates of pre-Māori civilisations. Doutre claimed that the region was so rich in the remains of ancient Celtic settlements that special squads of anti-historians had been dispatched by the government to blow up ruins and seal caves. The state was desperate, Doutre claimed, to stop white New Zealanders discovering their true history. If Pākehā could only learn that they were tangata whenua, the heirs of ancient civilisation, then they would throw off the shackles of biculturalism, and recreate the pigmentopia of the imperial past.

Three days after she broke the story of the giant-hunters, Susan Strongman reported that the amateur archaeologists had suspended their work. Strongman quoted a statement by Robyn Davidson, who had outed himself as one of the tunnellers. Davidson boasted that he was a ‘master’ of a spiritual practice called reiki, which allowed him to control invisible energy flows. He said that he had placed a supernatural protection on the tunnel he had helped dig. Anyone who attempted to fill or seal the tunnel would suffer.

Davidson is far from the only believer in a pre-Māori civilisation to claim spiritual insights and powers. In the early 80s, Kerry Bolton founded the Church of Odin, an attempt to revive the religion of the Vikings in New Zealand. Jews were not invited to worship in Bolton’s church.

Martin Doutre also has a background in race-based religion. He was raised in America, and first visited New Zealand in the 70s as a Mormon missionary. In those days, the Mormons maintained several explicitly racist beliefs and practices. The church taught that black-skinned humans were the ‘Sons of Ham’, and had been cursed by God. African Americans were forbidden to serve as Mormon priests. White skin, the Mormons maintained, was a sign of God’s favour (a stance they didn’t walk back until the 1970s).

For his part, Gary Cook has become a popular speaker at New Age festivals, where he blends revelations of a pre-Polynesian civilisation with accounts of encounters with the ethereal faery folk who supposedly guard the forgotten ruins of that civilisation. Cook claims that he gained gained psychic powers after a near-death experience in 1973.

When they flourish their credentials as adepts of some esoteric spiritual practice, people like Robyn Davidson make the same claim to divine support as Baker and Massey. God is on their side, and on the side of the white race. The racial anxiety and religious mysticism that motivated Baker’s grand experiment at Limestone Downs persist. Old delusions die hard.


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