8 December 2009


Not Katherine in New Zealand - that very talented artist who produces "The Last Visible Dog" blog but another Katherine - Katherine Routledge who lived between 1866 and 1935. She was an historian, anthropologist and would-be archaeologist. She hailed from Darlington in northern England and won a history scholarship to Oxford.

In 1913, with her husband Scoresby she led an expedition to Easter Island. They had a boat specially built for the journey and named it "The Mana". They took 147 days to voyage from England. Incredibly this was to be the first proper "scientific" investigation of the island's archaeological treasures. She lived there for over eighteen months and made strenuous efforts to solve several of the puzzles that still make Rapa Nui one of the most tantalising places on this planet. She dug, she walked, she talked, she observed, she drew, she mapped and she recorded.
In 1919 Katherine published her account of the expedition - "The Mystery of Easter Island" which I finished reading just yesterday. In her foreword she writes: "The story of Easter is yet a tangled skein. The dim past, to which the megalithic works bear witness - the island as the early voyagers found it -its more recent history and present state, all of these are intermingled threads..."
Back in 1913 there were only about 250 indigenous Easter Islanders living in comparative destitution - their once unique island world now dominated by the Williams and Balfour Trading Company that had set up a giant sheep farm and insisted that the islanders should all move to the little village of Hanga Roa on the west coast. Once there may have been up to fifteen thousand Polynesian inhabitants - back in the heyday of the statue builders.
Katherine's work on the island was of enormous importance in getting a handle on the place. She spoke with old islanders who could link back to earlier traditions, one or two of whom had tales to tell of burial rites, the birdman cult and the production of the mysterious "rongo rongo" script. She even became fairly proficient in the Rapa Nui language. However, she recognised that though numerous pieces of the jigsaw puzzle were present, several key pieces were forever lost.
Throughout her adult life, Katherine Routledge suffered from bouts of mental illness. Maybe it's there in her photograph at the head of this post. In her book she humbly refers to herself as "The Stewardess" of the expedition boat. She died in a mental institution in 1935 having been kidnapped by her estranged husband and placed there for her own safety.
Relating to some of the dates - 1866 - the year she was born was also when my village primary school opened in East Yorkshire. For me that date is like a buoy in the sea of time. When she was on the island my father was born back in Malton in North Yorkshire - another guiding buoy. And when she died, Hitler was already clambering for greatness in Nazi Germany just before World War II erupted.
Reading her book has meant a lot to me. Images and thoughts of Easter Island continue to swirl in my mind. It's as if unravelling "the mystery" would somehow help to make sense of the wider world. Maybe I should book my own bed in a mental institution!

A cave entrance on Easter Island


  1. Great post, and not just because you mention my name in the same 'breath'...

    I was interested to read that Katherine named her boat 'Mana', because this word means 'power' in Maori, and led me to look up the origins of the Rapa Nui language. It appears that it and Maori and are both classified together under 'Austronesian' and have many similarities.

    The Maori however, never had a written language. It was all oral.

  2. Easter Island's captured your imagination as The Kon-Tiki Expedition did mine - I read the book again and again. I hadn't heard of this lady and I'm glad you've introduced me to her.

  3. RHYMES Exactly so.
    KATHERINE Your namesake and her husband thought long and hard about a name for the ship and were well aware of the Polynesian overtones. It may be that the rongo rongo script was essentially an aide-memoire for storytellers so that the symbols sparked morethan single words or sounds.
    DAPHNE I also read about Thor Heyerdahl's "Kon Tiki" which has much to do with Easter Island as it happens. You can still see the raft in a museum in Oslo. It is no co-incidence that Heyerdahl spent many months working on the island in the early fifties. He was partly trying to prove his theories about Pacific migration.

  4. Can't imagine you absorbing, digesting and regurgitating info like this while swashbuckling your way through a Y9 SATs lesson thrice weekly, so good on yer!

    Perhaps its time to strap on your Dan Brown brogues and Conan Doyle deerstalker and unravel the final pieces of Easter Island fabric, methinks...

    If you need your usual Passepartot, I might be available sooner then you think...more to follow...


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