A memorial pays tribute to the students who died at the terrorist attack at Cashmere High School, in Christchurch. (Photo by Peter Adones/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Cashmere connections: the long Muslim history of a Christchurch community

Cashmere High School attracted national attention as the school a number of terrorist victims attended, and the driving force behind last week’s emotional schools vigil in the centre of Christchurch. But Cashmere doesn’t just have a connection to the modern Muslim community – its ties go back much further, writes James Dann.

All young people have been affected by the attacks in Christchurch, but one school in particular has been the face of both hope and grief in the city. A number of the victims had connections to Cashmere High School, a co-ed school with a large catchment in the city’s south-west; the school’s pain was acknowledged by the prime minister, who made a point of visiting students there on one of her trips to the city last week.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern receives a hug from a student during her visit to Cashmere High School on 20 March 2019 (Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Two current students, Sayyad Milne and Hamza Mustafa, were killed at the mosque, as was Hamza’s father Khaled. A former student, Tariq Omar, was killed, along with the father of past pupil, Imran Safi. Zaid Mustafa, Hamza’s brother, was injured in the shooting. The Mustafas were one of our country’s most recent Muslim immigrants, a story that starts in the same suburb more than 150 years ago.

A tribute to former Cashmere High School student Tariq Omar (Photo: James Dann)

Sir John Cracroft Wilson was an early settler in Christchurch who would go on to become a thrice-elected New Zealand MP. Cracroft Wilson was born in India in 1808 and worked as a civil servant in British India, including helping with the military suppression of the growing rebellions of the Indian people. In 1854, he sailed to Australia before continuing on to Lyttelton on a ship called the Akbar. After crossing the hills from the harbour, he bought a tract of land along the Port Hills, giving it the name “Cashmere”, an Anglicisation of his favourite place in India, Kashmir. Cracroft Wilson brought many Indian workers with him to help in the establishment of his Christchurch estate. Among these were New Zealand’s first Muslim man.

The place, date, and even name of this man are unclear. He was variously called Mahomet Wuzera and Wuzera Moosleman, though most commonly he was referred to as “Old Wuzerah”. Being an Indian man of an unfamiliar religion, his presence in the Canterbury Association’s planned Anglican settlement was regularly noted. Wuzerah worked as a bullock driver, using his two favourite beasts, Baldy and Smuggler, to cart provisions from the Cashmere estate into town. As the Halswell Quarry was located at the western edge of the estate, there is a high probability that Old Wuzerah would have carted stone for the construction of the Christchurch Cathedral. If this is true, then the first Muslim in this country would have helped to build one of New Zealand’s most enduring symbol of Christianity.

Details about Old Wuzerah are hard to pin down. It is known that he had at least three sons, two of whom were born in New Zealand. In 1886, Wuzerah accused a local ranger of assaulting him. The case was dismissed – the first documented incident of violence against a Muslim, and the first case of the state ignoring it. Ninety-nine years after he was attacked, so was his grave stone. In 1985, vandals destroyed the marble plaque that marks his grave in the Sydenham Cemetery. A call was put out for descendants who could help with the restoration; none could be found. The plaque was repaired, re-set into concrete, and restored to the cemetery. This graveyard, less than a a kilometre from Cashmere High School, is also the resting place of Wuzerah’s sons, Robert Wazero, Mero Wizero and Noah Wizero.

Wuzerah’s tombstone in Sydenham Cemetery, Christchurch, still showing the damage from vandalism in 1985 (Photo: James Dann)

The Cashmere of today is very different from the bucolic, kahikatea-covered swamp of Cracroft Wilson and Old Wuzerah’s day. “Cashmere” itself refers to the suburb on the hill, one of the most desirable addresses in the city. Here, architecturally designed houses jostle with old villas for the best view over the plains. Cashmere High sits at the bottom of the hill, just a couple of hundred metres from Old Wuzerah’s cottage near the corner of Cashmere and Valley Roads. The school’s catchment is broad, from the affluent areas on the hill, and alongside the Heathcote River, to the traditional working-class areas of Sydenham, Waltham, Addington, and Spreydon. From this area come the diverse range of kids who have been front and centre of the youth response to the terror attacks.

The day following the attack, some of the students learnt that their fellow students had been affected. They swung into action, organising a food drive for both the families of the victims and the emergency workers who were treating the survivors. More than 100 people contributed to the drive, headquartered at the house of Cashmere High School head boy Okirano Tilaia. Two days later, on Monday, special assemblies were held at the school. Alongside the deans of the years to which the deceased students belonged, Wilson spoke to the students before holding a media conference to address the large number of enquiries from the press. “These events don’t define us a school, or as a country,” he said, and that he was “incredibly heartened by the way our young people responded.” Then Tilaia joined his peers to call on students from all schools to attend a vigil later in the afternoon, Students Uniting For Love.

The Students Uniting for Love schools vigil in central Christchurch (Photo: James Dann)

In South Hagley Park, near the edge of the cordon on Deans Ave outside the Al Noor Mosque, students from dozens of schools gathered under the trees at 4pm, after school. Tilaia opened proceedings, urging the thousands gathered to “come together in unity and show the world we are peaceful and loving”. There was a waiata, and then a Year 11 boy from St Thomas of Canterbury College read a couple of verses from the bible with the sort informal charm one might expect from a fifth former. He added his own words at the end: “together we can all show him, and Christchurch, and the world, that Christchurch is a strong city.”

The official part of the ceremony itself was short. It ended with a candle being lit by the students in the centre of the huddle; from there the flame was passed outwards until all candles were lit. Then, after the candles were blown out, a handful of students stood up and started the haka. As if inspired by the flames cascading between the candles, more kids jumped up to join in – and then more, and then more. It was a remarkable sight, conveying the shared grief felt by the students of Christchurch, not only for the victims of the attack, but for the city itself.

Following the haka, the thousands who had been gathered spread out. Some went to pay tribute at the mound of flowers on Deans Ave, while others followed the caution tape along the path until they were standing in front of the scene of the atrocity. Many others formed into smaller groups, coming together to sing songs or hymns, perform haka, or kneel in prayer circles.

At the Students Uniting For Love schools vigil (Photo: James Dann)

The morning following the vigil, Tilaia was on breakfast TV, in his maroon Cashmere High blazer weighed down by pins. He explained why he felt the need to hold the vigil. “It was about people like ourselves, giving them the hope and the inspiration to help others. Letting them know that they are us and we are them. If they need a shoulder, I’m here for them. We don’t want this to be just a one-day thing. We want it to be throughout the next few weeks.”

On Wednesday the 20th, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern entered the hall at Cashmere High School to a rousing haka. This was the same haka that had been performed at the vigil on Monday, footage of which had spread around the world. It is called ‘Tahu Pōtiki’, named for the founder of the Ngāi Tahu iwi. A number of Canterbury schools now teach the haka, as demonstrated by the many different school colours who joined in at Monday’s vigil. The lyrics describe a ruru, or morepork – the way it stands solid – and speaks of darkness, light and new understanding.

Tēnei te ruru
Te koukou nei
Kīhai māwhitiwhiti,
Kīhai mārakaraka
Te ūpoko nui o te rūrū
Terekou
He pō
He pō
He ao
Ka awatea!

This is the morepork
who calls
Whose head does not toss
From side to side, nor up and down
The head of the morepork is steadfast on its shoulders
As it calls us
From the darkness
From the darkness
And into the world of light
To a dawn of new understanding

Just a few hours after Ardern spoke at his school, Zaid Mustafa was at the Linwood Cemetery, burying two members of his family. Sitting in a wheelchair, he was an image of absolute grief, perched at the side of his family’s grave. A week after the attacks, he was at the Friday prayer service held in Hagley Park, just opposite the Al Noor mosque. As hundreds of worshippers bowed their heads, he was one of the few unable to prostrate completely, his wounds and his wheelchair preventing him from reaching the prayer mat.

Cashmere was the home of New Zealand’s first Muslim family, and is where their graves still are today. The commentator Morgan Godfery says that “white supremacy can trace its roots – Māori would call it its whakapapa – to the 19th century and colonisation”. What little we know about Wuzerah’s life on the Cracroft Wilson estate suggests that Islamophobia has been here almost as long as Islam has. The suburb that wrote the first chapter of New Zealand’s Muslim history was also home to some recent Muslim immigrants whose young lives were cut short. Though New Zealand has long history of bigotry and ignorance, the actions of many, including the Cashmere High School students and their peers, should give us hope. Devastated by the attacks on their fellows students they have found strength in shared action, and in doing so, inspired us all.


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