The executive director of the Nantucket Historical Association talks about the whaling-age ties that still bind Nantucket and New Zealand.
One of the many pleasures of being executive director of the Nantucket Historical Association is being able to visit our properties at any time.Often, after our guests have departed and the shadows lengthen, I walk the halls of the Nantucket Whaling Museum. In its galleries are the pieces of our island’s past: portraits of whalers who spent most of their lives at sea; the skeleton of a young sperm whale that washed up on the shores of ‘Sconset; and silent movies, left on for the night, that tell of times that seem both distant and tantalizingly close.
Recently, on one of those strolls, I stood before a model of a Maori war canoe, known as a waka. Carved in the Bay of Islands in Northland, New Zealand, it was brought to Nantucket around 1850. This intricate piece captures in its carvings the gods of Maori legend, companions and protectors of the vessel’s crew. These carvings seemed alive in the twilight, and rightly so: Maori believe that such carvings are not mere representations, but the actual embodiment of the spirits of their ancestors.
The waka tells of a time when oceans were our highways and the sun governed the day’s affairs, a time when Nantucket whalers were as familiar with New Zealand’s northern bays as they were with the inlets and shores of their home. It reminds us that the past is itself a foreign country.
The connections between New Zealand and Nantucket are particularly intriguing to my family and me. We Tramposches lived in New Zealand for 12 years, having first visited when I had a Fulbright Fellowship in the 1980s. New Zealand is such an attractive country that it becomes a hard place to leave, so subsequently I became a director at the National Museum of New Zealand. Following that, I served as chief executive of New Zealand Historic Places Trust, an organization that oversees iconic heritage places throughout the islands. We are now dual citizens, and my wife and I periodically lead tours of New Zealand’s heritage places for those who share our passion for this country—and its connections to Nantucket that extend centuries into the past.