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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 July, 2005, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
Eyewitness: Rainbow Warrior sinking
A worker looks at the hole in the ship, August 1985
Two limpet mines blew a hole in the side of the ship
Twenty years ago on Sunday, the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was blown up in New Zealand. Alexander Gillespie, now a law professor at the University of Waikato, remembers what happened.

Two days before the Rainbow Warrior was destroyed, I and two other student volunteers were painting it in preparation for the next leg of its journey in the South Pacific.

That was why it looked so good after it was sunk.

Had it been blown up before we'd finished painting, it would have looked a very different vessel to the one that posterity now recognises.

Despite knowing for months in advance that the legendary Rainbow Warrior was coming, volunteers to help prepare the vessel were very slow in coming, because the nuclear issue was off the boil.

Culture of protest

New Zealand was in a kind of limbo at that time. When, after years of campaigning, the newly elected government said no to any future visits from either nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed vessels, there was an odd silence.

Mr Gillespie's poster
Mr Gillespie designed an anti-nuclear poster in the 1980s
Looking back, the silence was all the more notable following a long series of very public protests.

We had recently emerged from an administration which had driven a wedge through the middle of the nation by inviting the Springbok rugby team to tour whilst apartheid was at its height.

The jails were full of the middle class, and protesting and speaking out was becoming part and parcel of the Kiwi psyche. Everyone had an opinion.

Protests over visits by nuclear vessels were of a different magnitude to those related to the Springbok tour.

From the late 1970s onwards, whenever a foreign nuclear vessel was invited to our country, protesters streamed onto the ocean in chaotic make-shift flotillas of everything from small boats to surfboards.

The anti-nuclear protests hit their peak in the early 1980s, as cruise missiles were deployed in Europe and the Cold War threatened to warm up.

The risk of a nuclear war seemed very real to my generation, and the sanctity of the South Pacific seemed unlikely in a nuclear winter.

I made a poster for Greenpeace entitled "A nuclear-free and independent Pacific". It sold in its thousands as people responded well to the nuclear-free message.

But then the administration changed, and when the newly elected government said no to any future visits from nuclear vessels, the megaphones and placards were put away.

The sales of my poster fell to single digits within a few months, and interest in the issue declined sharply.

For many people, the war was already over.

Shock and silence

Then the Rainbow Warrior was sunk, by two limpet mines, and a deep silence fell over the nation as the freshly painted vessel rested on the floor of Auckland harbour.

I remember being in the Greenpeace office the day after the bombing, trying to work out what to do, and no one knew what was appropriate.

Eventually some of us were sent down to the wharf with a charity box, and we just stood there trying to fathom the depth of the world we had now entered.

Protesters expected to be locked up, not bombed. Protesters expected governments to be angry with them, but not to kill them, especially not when operating in other countries.

We were stunned, as was the country in general.

It was not the first terrorist act of the decade in New Zealand. A suicide bomber had hit a few years earlier, along with a separate bombing of a trade union building.

But this was different. This was an act against a group of people who pledged non-violence, who sought to use free speech and public opinion to challenge governments, and who were protesting about an issue which had been building for 15 years.

Rainbow Warrior, 1970s
Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior was sunk by the French secret service
Most of the targets were visitors to our land, and our hospitality had been violated by professional saboteurs from France, a nation whose war cemeteries were full of New Zealand soldiers.

The stunned silence domestically was echoed by the muted silence of our neighbours and alleged Allies.

No nation came to the defence of the small but vocal country which said it would no longer partake in the high stakes game of nuclear brinkmanship, and no nation spoke out loudly about the atrocity.

When we refused to hand back the captured terrorists, we faced insurmountable trade threats, and New Zealand realized it was very alone in the world.

I believe it was at this point that New Zealand entered adulthood. We had no big friends, neighbours or family to fight for us, and we had to go it alone on an issue that came to galvanise all Kiwis.

The bombing and the response to it came to be seen as a crime against all Kiwis, not just those who were directly targeted.

It was not just about a bunch of hippies getting offside with the authorities, the nuclear issue, an act of war, our sovereignty or the silence.

Sales of my poster again took off, but this time purchasers placed an emphasis on the words "independent Pacific" - and we were.

Greenpeace marks bombing anniversary
07 Jul 05 |  Science/Nature
Woman killed in wreck dive
09 Apr 03 |  Beds/Bucks/Herts

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