Perhaps, as the horrors – death and fire and endless mud – unfolded around him, the soldier could grasp the conch, feel the warmth of a distant ocean, maybe even hear it.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has unveiled a memorial at Pukeahu National War Memorial park, commemorating the war service of Pacific island people.
The memorial included a 4-meter-high bronze sculpture of a conch shell, called Te Reo Hotunui o Te Moana Nui a Kiwa. (The Deep Sigh of the Pacific)
Ardern said the ceremony was originally meant to take place a year earlier, but was delayed by the Covid-19 lockdown – making it more special now it has finally unveiled.
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“This memorial stands in recognition of the service and sacrifice of the Pacific peoples who supported New Zealand in the first and second world wars, and subsequent conflicts around the world.”
It was an enduring symbol of Aotearoa-New Zealand’s special bond with its Pacific neighbours, she said.
Capital-based artist Michel Tuffery, of Sāmoan and Cook Islands descent, created the shell after hearing the story of one discovered from World War 1.
Private Angene Angene, his friends and the conch
During World War I, the New Zealand Tunnelling Company – who were the first Kiwis to reach the Western Front – completed two vast quarry networks underneath the city of Arras, in northern France. Post-WWII the tunnels were closed, but sometime after they were rediscovered in 1990, a conch shell was found near a pillar inscribed by Private Angene Angene.
Angene – one of a small group of Cook Islanders who served with New Zealanders on the Western Front alongside Private Isaac Solomona and T Kopunaiti – enlisted in Rarotonga and survived the war.
The shell – a Chicoreus Ramosus – is of tropical Indo-Pacific origin and there’s speculation one of the trio took it on their journey and kept it while in Arras as a reminder of their home.
Speaking at the dedication, Tuffery said after finding out about the shell while in France, he tried to find it.
“I went on my own trip up to Arras to look for the shell, and the curators apologised on Armistice Day – the shell had been removed to a private museum.” While he didn’t find the shell, he said it gave him the inspiration to create “this beautiful narrative”.
The memorial, which adds to six other international memorials at Pukeahu, cost $450,000 and was funded by the Government.