Steve Sawyer, Greenpeace campaigner on the last voyage of the Rainbow Warrior, reviews David Robie’s Eyes of Fire: The Last Voyage of the Rainbow Warrior.
Among the many newspaper stories, films and books that followed the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior and the murder of Fernando Pereira by French secret service agents, David Robie’s Eyes of Fire: The Last Voyage of the Rainbow Warrior stands alone.
While most accounts focus on the bombing, the ensuing spy scandal and the political tumult in Paris, Robie’s book places the events of 1985 in the context of the politics and people of the Pacific.
He also delves into the history of the Warrior and Greenpeace to divine the reasons, however ill-considered, why the French felt it imperative to blow up the organisation’s flagship and attempt to kill its crew.
Robie is uniquely qualified to tell the story, as he sailed on the Warrior’s last voyage from Honolulu to New Zealand, via the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Vanuatu.
During the long days at sea he gained an intimate sense of the ship and her crew that rings truer than the accounts of journalists who reconstructed the events after the fact.
The book begins with a thumbnail sketch of the history of the Greenpeace flagship – from her beginning as a fisheries research trawler and her discovery by Greenpeace, rusting in a London dockyard.
He describes her renaissance as the brightly coloured flagship of the budding European Greenpeace movement, her daring escape from incarceration by the Spanish navy in 1980 and her arrival in North America in 1981.
With a new engine and the backing of a growing global organization, the Rainbow Warrior spent the next two years dashing up and down the eastern seaboard, into the Pacific and Peru, up to the Bering Sea and to the then Soviet Union, a campaign highlighted by the now-famous escape from a Soviet warship after documenting illegal Soviet whaling activities on the Siberian coast.
The main focus of the book, however, is the Rainbow Warrior’s last voyage. In the late (northern) autumn of 1984, Greenpeace outfitted the trawler with a large and innovative sail rig to give her unlimited range in the vast Pacific.
The ship’s first mission in the Marshall Islands was to evacuate the 304 residents of Rongelap atoll, contaminated by US atmospheric nuclear tests.
The evacuation, a deeply moving experience for the Greenpeace crew and journalists on board the Warrior, is sensitively and compellingly retold by Robie.
Robie accurately recounts the shock and the horror experienced by the Greenpeace volunteers and friends in New Zealand after the now infamous act of state terrorism – the first attack on New Zealand in its history as a sovereign nation.
Robie’s analysis places the bombing squarely in the context of South Pacific politics and people, providing a much-needed human backdrop to the soulless brinkmanship practiced in the South Pacific by the then superpowers.
His story is at once a chronicle of historical events and a moving companion to the cry of the people of the region: “If it is safe, test it in Paris, dump it in Tokyo, store it in Washington … but keep my Pacific nuclear-free!”
Greenpeace, Vol 12, No 3, 1986.