You can’t sink a rainbow

History curator Stephanie Gibson looks back to the 1980s, and an explosive event that shook New Zealand.

Badge, ’Greenpeace’, circa 1985, New Zealand, by Greenpeace. Gift of Ken Thomas, 2008. Te Papa (GH011822)

Badge, ’Greenpeace’, circa 1985, New Zealand, by Greenpeace. Gift of Ken Thomas, 2008. Te Papa (GH011822)

Thirty years ago, on 10 July 1985, French government agents attached bombs to the hull of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior and sank it in Auckland Harbour. The French government had feared that the ship would draw attention to its nuclear testing at Moruroa atoll. One crew member was killed in the explosion.

The bombing sparked a diplomatic row between New Zealand and France – nations that were normally friendly allies. Prime Minister David Lange described the bombing as ‘a sordid act of international state-backed terrorism’.

Label, ’Buy New Zealand Nuclear Free Goods’, 1985, New Zealand, by Eastern Suburbs Peace Group. Gift of Mark Strange, 1989. Te Papa (GH003650/24)

Label, ’Buy New Zealand Nuclear Free Goods’, 1985, New Zealand, by Eastern Suburbs Peace Group. Gift of Mark Strange, 1989. Te Papa (GH003650/24)

The French had failed to take into account the small, politically active population of New Zealand, and the uniqueness of such an attack. The public was horrified and flooded the police with information. Agents Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur were arrested, and each was given a 10-year sentence for manslaughter. But within a year they were sent to French Polynesia, and from there they soon returned to France.

’Nuclear-Free Quilt’, 1994, Auckland, by Joanne Bains, Pacific Island women. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (GH007076)

’Nuclear-Free Quilt’, 1994, Auckland, by Joanne Bains, Pacific Island women. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. Te Papa (GH007076)

The attack galvanised the anti-nuclear movement in New Zealand. Ultimately, the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior strengthened opposition in New Zealand to the military application of nuclear technology in any form.

  • See fragments from the Rainbow Warrior’s devastated deck on display at Te Papa, in Slice of Heaven: 20th Century Aotearoa on level 4.
  • Read more on this topic on Te Papa’s Collections Online and the Slice of Heaven website

 

 

6 Responses

  1. Phillip

    Interesting to read the french agents comments on NZ at the time!

    Also what a spot of luck that rental company was able to keep them there until the police arrived!

    Reply
  2. Julie-Anne

    I was seven when this happened– It’s probably my earliest enduring memory or news-awareness, and stuck with me, even though we had no TV!
    It was kind of weird when I was sitting in a lecture theatre years later, learning about the bombing and comparing what I learned to my memories.
    I remember that everyone was proud of our people for working out what had happened, when the French Govt clearly believed that they would avoid detection. I also remember everyone being really put-out that the two French operatives served so little time, when they killed a man.

    Reply
    • Stephanie Gibson

      Thank you very much Julie-Anne for sharing your memories.

  3. Antony Kusabs

    Great blog Stephanie
    The dull thud of the (second?) explosion was heard from our home in suburban Auckland, a 15 minute drive from the bomb site. I was 10 and remember spending a week or more documenting the case in my current affairs school book. This act of terrorism and the death of Fernando Pereira certainly galvanised the nation under a common cause to a point that I have not witnessed since. Fernando Pereira would be 65 today.

    Reply
    • Stephanie Gibson

      Thanks very much Antony for your memories of that time, and acknowledging Fernando Pereira. It’s fascinating to hear that children were just as engaged in following the events as they unfolded.

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