Friday, January 11, 2019

'Dead Letters' out 7 March 2019


I'm very happy to say that my latest book, Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920 published by Otago University Press, will be launched in Wellington on 7 March 2019.

In 1918, from deep within the West Coast bush, a miner on the run from the military wrote a letter to his sweetheart. Two months later he was in jail. Like millions of others, his letter had been steamed open by a team of censors shrouded in secrecy. Using their confiscated mail as a starting point, Dead Letters: Censorship and subversion in New Zealand 1914–1920 reveals the remarkable stories of people caught in the web of wartime surveillance. 
Among them was a feisty German-born socialist, a Norwegian watersider, an affectionate Irish nationalist, a love-struck miner, an aspiring Maxim Gorky, a cross-dressing doctor, a nameless rural labourer, an avid letter writer with a hatred of war, and two mystical dairy farmers with a poetic bent. Military censorship within New Zealand meant that their letters were stopped, confiscated and filed away, sealed and unread for over 100 years. Until now. 
Intimate and engaging, this dramatic narrative weaves together the personal and political, bringing to light the reality of wartime censorship. 
In an age of growing state power, new forms of surveillance and control, and fragility of the right to privacy, Dead Letters is a startling reminder that we have been here before.
More information about the book itself can be found on my author website: https://jared-davidson.com/deadletters/info/

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The untold history of armistice and the end of World War I



First published in Overland Literary Journal, November 2018.

In 1918, after four years of slaughter, deprivation and hardship, the Central Powers of Austro-Hungary and Germany were rocked by strikes and mutinies. In February, a naval mutiny broke out at Kotor and sailors shot their officers; by October, the Austro-Hungarian army had collapsed from mass desertions and political upheaval. Soon afterwards a mutiny by German sailors at Kiel merged with other uprisings and quickly escalated into a full-scale rebellion against the imperial state, sparking the abdication of the German Kaiser and the proclamation of a workers’ republic on 9 November 1918.

Preferring peace to full-scale revolution, an armistice with the Allied powers was signed two days later, on 11 November 1918. Working-class revolt had helped to end the First World War.

Not that you’d know this from New Zealand’s centennial commemoration of armistice Day, Armistice 100. People across the country will take part in a number of sanitised official events, from joining the ‘roaring chorus’ to texting the Armistice Beacon. They’re unlikely to learn much about the strikes, mutinies and resistance from below that toppled both generals and governments.

I’ve searched the program resources in vain for any reference to how and why armistice came about. Among messages of peace and the standard script of sacrifice and loss, there is a notable silence when it comes to the masses of working men and women who contributed to the war’s end. Instead, peace seems to fall upon the war like a happy sun-shower. The surrenders of the various Central Powers seem to just … happen.

Why is there such a gap in the historical narrative? Surely it is not for lack of time or information. We’ve had four years of commemoration and some big spends to go with them (although not as much as Australia, whose $1.1bn dwarfs the $31m spent in New Zealand). It’s not as if the date crept up on us.

Perhaps I’m being far too critical of the Armistice 100 program and the small pool of public historians working on WW100-related events. After all, I’ve been one of them, although if I’m honest, the feature on censorship and its marginal references to dissent during the First World War was possibly too little, too late.

It would be wrong to see this glaring omission as some devilish scheme designed to serve the interests of capital and the state. There’s no conspiracy at play here. Instead, official historians are often hamstrung by codes of conduct and the mythical stance of neutrality, or by what is or isn’t palatable to their managers and their manager’s managers. Histories of social revolution, radical ideas, and the agency of everyday, working-class people are hardly the thing of monthly reports or ministerial press releases. And despite the big-ticket items of commemoration, the long, hard slog of quality, in-depth research is like the work of any modern workplace – of trying to do more with less.


Perhaps, too, there’s something in the turn away from class as a framework of analysis – that is, if class was ever a frame of analysis in the first place (we have, after all, had numerous historians tell us that New Zealand was a classless society, free of a bourgeoisie and proletariat). As Paul Mason notes, ‘the termination of war by working-class action fits uneasily at a deeper level: for most of history the existence of a workforce with its own consciousness and organisations is an afterthought, or an anomaly.’ Instead of exploring the final months of the war through the experience of class or capitalist social relations, we have instead been fed a discourse that historian Charlotte Macdonald believes ‘has come to be strongly characterised by rather too neatly drawn themes of consensual patriotism, duty and sacrifice.’

Yet if we centre class, and class conflict, in our reading of armistice, the history it reveals is somewhat different to the official account on offer.

A few examples will suffice. On 16 October 1918, 14 men of the 1 New Zealand (Divisional) Employment Company were charged with mutiny after ‘combining together not to work in the NZ DIV laundry when it was their duty to do so.’ The men, most of whom were labourers, were all sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour for their collective work-refusal. That their sentences were later remitted does not negate their struggle.

Three days after armistice, on 14 November 1918, a riotous throng of men from the New Zealand Division gathered in the town square of Beauvois, France. Monty Ingram, a bank clerk from Whakatāne, recorded the event in his diary. ‘A great gathering of troops were harangued by a chap in the Dinks, who, standing on a box in true labour agitator style’ called on the military authorities to send them home. After a Padre was physically prevented from speaking and a staff officer was howled into silence, the men, now in their thousands, marched on Division Headquarters ‘and swarmed over the place like bees around a honeycomb.’ When Major General Andrew Russell finally appeared in the doorway, he was ‘badly heckled by all sorts of interjections thrown at him and by being called all the b-b-b’s under the sun.’ Russell’s speech fell on deaf ears. Instead, the crowd ordered their general to get in touch with the War Office and cancel any orders sending them to Germany. According to Christopher Pugsley, appeals to the honour of the Division and the threat of dire punishment prevented further action. Still, Russell recorded in his diary: ‘must watch for Bolshevism.’

This temporary levelling of rank was triggered by frustrations about demobilisation, but class was ever present. As Dave Lamb notes, the widespread mutinies across the Allied forces broke out too soon after armistice for delay in demobilisation to be the sole cause. ‘Antagonism towards officers, hatred of arbitrary discipline, and a revolt against bad conditions and uncertainty about the prospect of being sent to Russia all combined with the delay, confusion and uncertainty about demobilisation.’

Observed William Wilson, a farmer: ‘Codford [Camp] the last few weeks has been unbearable, discipline has gone to the pack and the troops don’t care a damn for officers and NCOs.’ Strikes by British dockers and seamen caused further delays, and further examples of direct action. There was conflict in Bulford and Sling camps, where New Zealand troops were charged with ‘endeavouring to persuade persons to mutiny’ and sentenced to hard labour. And on the transport ships home, unpopular officers found themselves victim to collective justice. In these moments, when the soldiers took power into their own hands, the generals were powerless to act.

Back in New Zealand, the sudden end to the war, coupled with the influenza pandemic, also tested the home front military command and their ability to enforce discipline. Two weeks after armistice, the Chief of General Staff, Colonel Charles Gibbon, found himself rushing to Featherston Military Camp, where the troops were mutinous. 5000 men had staged a ‘violent’ demonstration in front of camp headquarters and presented a list of demands to the commandant. Gibbon and Defence Minister James Allen endured a stormy confrontation with the men’s delegates. In the face of mass protest, Gibbon and Allen gave in to some of the soldiers’ demands around demobilisation. By December, the recruits were marching out of Featherston at the rapid rate of 500 a day.

The militant self-activity of working people – whether they were soldiers, industrial workers, or both – was a deeply entrenched concern for the New Zealand government. The upheavals of 1918, home and abroad, fed into a developing ‘red scare’. By 1919, red scare rhetoric came to dominate the public sphere. Prime Minister William Massey urged his Reform Party faithful to ‘secure good men to stem the tide of Anarchy and Bolshevism’. Allen believed ‘there was so much lawlessness in the country that the only thing that could save [it] from going to damnation was the drill sergeant.’

Wartime regulations were extended into peacetime. The power to deport undesirables was legislated in 1919. Distributing revolutionary books or pamphlets remained seditious. And now that soldiers trained in killing had returned to their jobs and their pay disputes, firearm acts were passed allowing the state to clamp down on whole working-class neighbourhoods.

Fear of working-class resistance strengthened the apparatus of state surveillance. Meetings of radicals were secretly attended by police and fortnightly reports were sent to Police Headquarters. Detectives in each district systemised this work by compiling an index of individuals who had ‘extreme revolutionary socialistic or IWW ideas’. This signaled the formation of New Zealand’s first ‘Special’ Branch and laid the groundwork for all future spy agencies in New Zealand. The unrest unleashed in the final months of the war directly influenced the monitoring of dissent in New Zealand for years to come.

This is a small taste of the untold history of armistice and the end of the First World War. Instead of learning about it, the turbulent events leading up to and after armistice are turned into joyous celebration. Cloaked in the language of peace, Armistice Day becomes an official exercise in justifying the insane loss of life.

We might even be tempted to see Armistice 100 as an example of what Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and scholar Viet Thanh Nguyen calls the ‘industrialisation of memory’. In his book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Nguyen also examines the ‘memory industry’ – the museums we take our children to visit, the sculptured grounds of Pukeahu National War Memorial, the Armistice Day parades at sunset. For Nguyen, at the root of this industry is the industrialisation of memory.
Industrialising memory proceeds in parallel with how warfare is industrialised as part and parcel of capitalist society, where the actual firepower exercised in a war is matched by the firepower of memory that defines and refines that war’s identity.
In other words, memory and the memory industry are weaponised. And while the memory industry produces kitsch, sentimentality, and spectacle, the industrialisation of memory ‘exploits memory as a strategic resource’.

It is how bodies are produced for current and future wars.

‘The best antidote to ideology is detail,’ writes Paul Mason. And the detail that’s missing this Armistice Day is that working people, when they take power into their own hands, can end whatever catastrophe is imposed on them.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Update on my book, Dead Letters



This is a quick update on my forthcoming book, Dead Letters: Censorship and subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920, to be published by Otago University Press:

In 1918, from deep within the West Coast bush, a miner on the run from the military wrote a letter to his sweetheart. Two months later he was in jail. Like millions of others, his letter had been steamed open by a team of censors shrouded in secrecy. Using their confiscated mail as a starting point, Dead Letters: Censorship and subversion in New Zealand 1914–1920 reveals the remarkable stories of people caught in the web of wartime surveillance. 
Among them was a feisty German-born socialist, a Norwegian watersider, an affectionate Irish nationalist, a love-struck miner, an aspiring Maxim Gorky, a cross-dressing doctor, a nameless rural labourer, an avid letter writer with a hatred of war, and two mystical dairy farmers with a poetic bent. Military censorship within New Zealand meant that their letters were stopped, confiscated and filed away, sealed and unread for over 100 years. Until now. 
Intimate and engaging, this dramatic narrative weaves together the personal and political, bringing to light the reality of wartime censorship. 
In an age of growing state power, new forms of surveillance and control, and fragility of the right to privacy, Dead Letters is a startling reminder that we have been here before.

Firstly, thank you to everyone who has helped me throughout my research on this work. I could not have done it without your input, so again, thank you very much.

The typesetting of Dead Letters has been completed by the capable team at OUP, and will be going to print in December. The Index is the final piece of work, which is being done now. The book will then be launched in March 2019, initially in Wellington

Here is a link to the new title info sheet from Otago University Press (PDF): https://www.otago.ac.nz/press/otago698253.pdf

You can find it on their website: https://www.otago.ac.nz/press/books/comingsoon/index.html.

I'm very excited we're so close to publishing this work. If you'd like more info an updates you can follow my tweets or posts on Instagram:

Twitter (me): https://twitter.com/anrchivist and for OUP: https://twitter.com/OtagoUniPress

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/anrchivist/

And there's more about the book on my website: https://jared-davidson.com/

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Slow down, comrades! There’s more than one way to strike



Below is my article reproduced from Overland Literary Journal, September 2018

In May 1925, Australian seaman and returned serviceman Noel Lyons was deported from New Zealand. His crime: encouraging fellow workers to slow down.

The quality of food served to trans-Tasman seamen had always caused discontent, especially when compared to the fine dining lavished upon first-class passengers. The situation came to a head aboard the Manuka when the crew refused to leave New Zealand’s capital of Wellington until their food was improved. The press quickly dubbed the incident the ‘ham and egg revolution’, and mocked the crew for their unreasonable demands.

But as the owners of the Manuka, the Union Steamship Company, made clear to reporters, the real issue was ‘the deliberate attempt to institute job control’ via the go-slow. Throughout the voyage Lyons – a coal trimmer – and his comrades had used the go-slow to good effect, hindering the running of the ship. Using the pretext of radical literature found on board, Lyons was read the Undesirable Immigrant Exclusion Act (1919) and given 28 days to leave New Zealand.
 
Instead, Lyons and the crew walked off their Sydney-bound vessel singing ‘Solidarity Forever’ and convened a meeting at the local communist hall.

Three-hundred people packed into the hall on Manners Street to hear Lyons speak about the ham and egg strike. ‘I have been described as a paid agitator,’ said Lyons, ‘but it is a well-known fact that all who take an active part in attempting to better the condition of the worker … develop whiskers overnight, and appear as a Bolshevik.’ Despite resolutions of protest from numerous unions, Lyons was imprisoned for two weeks before being shipped to Australia.

The idea of employees working as slowly as possible while still earning pay was a step too far for those in power, even within the so-called workers’ paradise that was New Zealand. Not only did it threaten production (and profits), the collective withdrawal of workplace efficiency challenged the social relations central to the wage system itself. Lyons was sent packing, all expenses paid by the state.

This example of direct action may be close to a century old, but it is timely. Workers across New Zealand are striking in larger numbers and more frequently than they have for decades. Half-day or full day strikes by nurses, teachers, and public servants have made the headlines and inspired many within and outside the union movement (around 17% of the New Zealand workforce is unionised). That workers are taking strike action – albeit within the limited confines of the law – has seemingly heralded a new period of class struggle.

Revisiting other forms of strike action might just widen the horizons of these struggles. When labour laws continue to restrict strikes to a narrow passage of time, making strikes outside of re-negotiating a collective agreement illegal, going slow and the related tactic of working-to-rule are useful means of fighting the boss on the job.

The go-slow has a long history. One widely publicised example of a successful go-slow is the 1889 Glasgow dockers’ struggle. After weeks of costly strike action had failed, the workers decided to end the strike. But they went back to work armed with a novel plan. As Geoff Brown notes in Sabotage, the ‘dockers returned to work, and for two or three days went “canny”, and worked as slowly and inefficiently as the blacklegs [scab labour] had worked.’ It was not long before the employers gave in to their demands.

The dockers’ ca’canny or go-slow made a splash in labour circles, and was soon popularised by other workers’ movements such as the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) in France, and members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Workers on the TSS Manuka (Owaka Museum Wahi Kahuika)
In New Zealand, the go-slow was actively promoted by the local IWW from at least 1907. But it was during the First World War that the go-slow was most used to good effect. Watersiders, miners, drivers, and tramway workers were all going-slow during the war, prompting the Defence Minister James Allen to write in 1917: ‘It is the most serious problem that we face at the present time … we cannot possibly allow this fatal practice to get hold in New Zealand or else the nation is doomed.’

As a result, the War Regulations of 16 February 1917 included going slow in the category of seditious strikes.

Despite continued legislation against it, examples of going slow remain a constant feature of workers’ struggle in New Zealand during the twentieth century. From sailors in the 1920s to meat workers in the 1970s, it was a much-used tactic to complement or continue more traditional forms of strike activity.

Like all tactics however, the go-slow has its pros and cons. Going slow is not an option for unwaged workers or caregivers, whose labour is often a matter of life or death for those in their care. In New Zealand, going slow is also illegal. Labour law defines going slow as ‘the act of a number of employees who wholly or partially stop work or reduce normal performance of work’, making it a strike. Asking people to challenge both the law and the work ethic is difficult. As Kathi Weeks notes in The Problem with Work: ‘the gospel of work and the work ethic have so colonized our lives that it is difficult to conceive a life not centered on and subordinated to work.’

The point is to draw upon the best tactics available. But to do so means expanding the toolbox to include the go-slow and other forms of on-the-job activity. When done collectively, and done well, the go-slow is an excellent means of winning a demand. As the IWW saying goes, ‘Slow Down! The hours are long, the pay is small, so take your time and buck ’em all.’

Friday, May 11, 2018

The house John Doe built: the hidden history of prison labour in New Zealand


Below is my article reproduced from Overland Literary Journal, May 2018.

In a first for the inmates of Rimutaka Prison – one of New Zealand’s largest carceral sites located about thirty kilometres north of Wellington – a three-bedroom house constructed with prison labour was recently added to the much-needed stock of Housing New Zealand. The house was lifted over the razor wire and out of the prison compound by crane, and politicians and prison officials were on hand to make the most of the moment. ‘It’s a good example of how we can connect things up to get a really good outcome for New Zealanders’, quipped the Minister of Education.

The Minister might not have intended his words to highlight the connections between colonisation and incarceration, enclosure and capitalism, the housing crisis and the state. Nor would he have wanted the house to be viewed as the outcome of unfree labour. Instead, it was an educational outcome and a housing outcome, and one that happily shifted attention away from the earlier news that inmates on similar incentives schemes were being paid as little as twenty cents an hour.

Ignoring for a moment that people should not have to be locked up to receive training, a house made with unfree labour and dressed up as self-improvement is not the first of its kind. In fact, if we lift the floorboards and peer a little deeper, the house that John Doe built reveals a long and hidden history of prison labour in New Zealand.

Although its use was never Imperial policy, as in Australia, prison labour weaves its way through almost every major urban centre and is entwined with many significant events in New Zealand’s past. Yet it is a history that is relatively unknown. An invisible history hidden in plain sight.

In August 1839, when discussing instructions from Lord Normanby on the annexation of New Zealand, Captain William Hobson asked for a supply of convicts from Sydney for use on roads and other public works. The Colonial Office turned down his request. But less than two years after the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840, prisoners were hard at work building the infrastructure of settler capitalism.

As Ben Schrader writes in The Big Smoke, the British had a long tradition of founding towns to impose control over new territories and Indigenous peoples. But the labour needed to build such towns was in short supply. Luckily, Hobson and his agents of empire were less interested in the use of hard labour within the confines of gaol than in the fact that they needed workers. There was far too much to be done on the ‘frontier’ to leave untapped labour within the hastily erected raupo huts that passed for New Zealand’s first prisons. With the formation of the Public Works Department still thirty years away, using forced labour on public works became the norm.

In Wellington in 1843, prisoners constructed Hill Street (alongside current-day Parliament Grounds), a waterfront road between the high water mark and neighbouring shops (in the area of Woodward Street). They laid drains in Manners Street and cut a road to Karori. Prison labour levelled the site of Terrace Gaol in 1851, built Cuba Street in 1856, and drained the Basin Reserve in the 1860s. From 1853, prison labour was used continuously on street works and public grounds around the burgeoning city. When they weren’t slogging through a ten-hour shift on roads, the incarcerated cut firewood to heat the buildings of government officials or crushed rock for more roads.

Like in Wellington, the spectacle of prison gangs being led daily through the streets of Auckland was a common occurrence in the early 1840s. Prison labour built Queen Street, Fort Street, High Street, Chancery Street and Victoria Street. Prisoners cleared land and built jetties on the shoreline. They were the main source of public works labour in Auckland until 1853, when outdoor work by prisoners was temporarily stopped.

Some of the hard-labour gangs were made up of the Parkhurst Boys, a group of 128 youths aged between twelve and twenty that had been transported from Britain to Auckland in 1842 and 1843. Gentleman settlers protested against ‘the inhuman attempt to convert our adopted colony into a pestilential convict colony’ and believed Auckland was becoming ‘the refuge for the juvenile delinquents of Great Britain.’ For the sympathetic, the sight of youngsters barely able to push a barrow load of metal was more worrying. The Sydney Morning Herald was aghast that boy labourers were ‘employed to break stones for little more than their food.’

Prison labour, including that of Māori prisoners of war, was essential to the development of Dunedin. Prisoners drained swamps, reclaimed harbours, deepened the berth alongside the Rattray Street jetty, built roads such as Cumberland and Castle Streets and roads on both sides of the harbour, and levelled entire hills. Rather than conforming to nature, settlers preferred to stick to the imposed grid of the surveyors. Bell Hill, which formed the Octagon in Dunedin’s city centre, was levelled by prisoners. One of them was the convicted arsonist Cyrus Hayley, who was shot dead while attempting to flee a Bell Hill work gang.

Bell Hill, Dunedin. (1986/69/1, Otago Settlers Museum)
In Lyttelton too, prisoners levelled, cleared, dug, stacked, packed, and poured the city’s streets, walls, drains, school sites and harbours. They helped build the iconic Timeball Station. They even constructed their Warder’s gothic-inspired home.

All of this forced labour was cheap and convenient. But its use was as much about ideology as it was pragmatic. ‘Habits of industry’, industriousness and the work ethic were (and are) essential to the maintenance of capitalist social relations. Forced labour was a way to instil labour-discipline, just as prison training incentives today try to instil labour-discipline and readiness for the labour market upon release.

The idle and disorderly threatened such values, and whether inside a prison or not, had to be contained. Between 1868 and 1878 the number of people imprisoned rose from 3,292 to 4,924. In a time of increased mobility and unemployment, this itinerant prison force was overwhelmingly made up of people charged with vagrancy and other crimes of social control.

To make space for the growing prison population, some of the worst offenders were drafted out of jails and into great prison ships – called hulks – so they could be sent wherever work ‘of great public utility’ was needed. The practice of providing casual forced labour from mobile hulks was eventually abolished in 1891 (today, a not-dissimilar practice is known as ‘labour hire’).

By the 1880s, when prisons came under centralised administration, the state met the challenge of inadequate space by forcing prisoners to build the very walls around them. Prison labour was used to construct new prisons in Wellington, Christchurch, New Plymouth, Auckland, Dunedin, Greymouth, Whanganui, Napier, Invercargill, Gisborne, and various places in between. Many of these prisons were situated on land taken or questionably ‘purchased’ from Māori (the connection between public works and Māori dispossession needs no explanation).

By the late nineteenth century, the focus of building prisons meant there was often little prison labour to spare for other work. Despite this, working hours of 7.30am to 6pm in summer and 8am to 5pm in winter saw forced labour used on roads in Dunedin, Wellington, Hokitika and Nelson. Prisoners were put to work for local corporations and harbour boards at Invercargill, Timaru and Whanganui. In 1881, unfree labour built the breakwater at Ngamotu – the work gangs of prisoners transferred to New Plymouth for the job were marched to work under armed guard, and waited out the tides and bad weather locked behind bars in a cave at the base of one of the Sugarloaf Islands.

In this period, prisoners built the New Plymouth Hospital, the Addington Water Tower, the Hokitika Racecourse, a seawall in Nelson, Marine Parade in Napier, and attempted to forge a road through Milford Sound. Prison labour was also used for militarist and defence purposes, such as Dunedin’s Fort Taiaroa, Kau Point and Point Halswell in Wellington, and Ripapa Island in Lyttelton Harbour.

Prison labour on the Milford Track (1/2-066563-F, Alexander Turnbull Library)
Prison labour and war have always been strongly connected. In 1846, during the military campaign against Hōne Heke, Kawiti, and other Ngāpuhi rangatira, a handful of convicts from New South Wales were shipped across the Tasman and used as bullock drivers, carting weapons and material for the Imperial troops. In 1869, seventy-four Māori prisoners of war – known as the Pakakohe group – were sent to Dunedin, where they were put to work on the city’s infrastructure, including the foundations of the University of Otago building, parts of Andersons Bay causeway, city roads, and the Botanic Garden’s stone walls. Locked in cold and filthy conditions, eighteen prisoners died. Ten years later, 137 Māori prisoners from Parihaka were again sent south and put to work.

During the First World War, resisters and conscientious objectors were herded into labour camps across the country and forced to build roads and bridges, or confined to state farms such as Weraroa, where generations of farmers before and since were taught the agricultural skills essential to the settler economy. Germans and other enemy aliens interned on Matiu Somes Island were forced to labour, violating the Hague Convention, while in Northland over 600 Dalmatians were forced into swamp drainage, railway construction and road-building, despite their willingness to serve in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

The Second World War re-established the use of objectors’ labour for the state, while at Featherston military camp, Japanese prisoners were put to work on state house chimneys and other tasks. On 25 February 1943, a group of about 240 staged a sit-down strike and refused to work. In the melee that followed, thirty-one Japanese were killed instantly, seventeen died later, and about seventy-four were wounded.

Japanese prisoner of war making chimneys for state houses. (1/4-000779-F, Alexander Turnbull Library)
The state house, for which the Japanese prisoners of Featherston paid dearly, is ubiquitous with New Zealand and the welfare state. Less known is that some of the timber they used, felled from the great forests owned by the state, were planted and maintained by prison labour. Between 1901 and 1920, close to 16,000 acres or forty million trees were planted by prisoners in Waikato, Rotorua, Taupō, Marlborough, and Canterbury. Unfree labour created valuable state assets.

Even the cherished dairy industry was tainted by prison labour. From 1909, prisoners were used to clear, break-in, and cultivate ‘waste’ land before it was subdivided into smaller holdings and sold to dairy farmers. By the 1930s, close to 27,000 acres of land had been cleared in the central North Island alone.

Underpinning it all was a gendered division of labour. It was women who did the invisible work that made the public work possible. Women made and mended clothes, washed laundry, sewed mattresses, repaired boots, scrubbed floors, baked bread, and completed a vast array of domestic duties. When they weren’t reproducing the labour power needed for public works, they picked oakum – the unravelling of old rope – for no other reason than to keep them working.

Prisoners planting trees on the Hanmer Plains. (Christchurch City Libraries, PhotoCD 1, IMG0090)
Such widespread use of prison labour disrupts the narrative of New Zealand exceptionalism, of the classless, hard-working settler escaping the drudgery of industrialism. Disruptive, too, were some of the incarcerated workers forced to labour for the state.

Officials in the 1840s and 1850s were dismayed by the number of prisoners in irons or solitary confinement for refusing to work. Seafarers and soldiers were especially unruly. Lieutenant Colonel C.E. Gold, commander of the 65th Regiment, complained in 1848 that many of his men preferred to be in gaol, where their subversion of discipline was more appealing than having to serve in the military.

In 1865, one woman inmate refused to work and threw her oakum ‘down the privy.’ After being punished for her ‘violent and insolent language,’ she was forced to retrieve the filth-covered rope and continue with her day’s quota.

In Kaingaroa, Paparua and Waikeria, First World War inmates went on hunger strike, refused to work or initiated go-slows to improve their plight. (At the time of writing, Waikeria was again in the spotlight for its disturbing conditions and confinement of inmates to their cells for up to twenty-two hours a day). Dalmatians downed tools at the Waihou River works, launched strikes on the Okahukura railway works, and refused to work the swamps near Kaitāia-Awanui. The man charged with their ‘care’, former Police Commissioner John Cullen, was upset at this work-refusal. Because Dalmatians had worked in wet and difficult conditions as gumdiggers, Cullen believed they would be happy to do forced labour on behalf of the state. He was wrong.

It has been said that the essence of imprisonment is organised compulsory work. It has also been said that capitalism is the subordination of all aspects of life to waged work. The connection between these two sides of the same coin – unfree and ‘free’ labour – is enclosure.

Enclosure is the ongoing process of divorcing people from their relationship with the land, from the commons, and from independent means of sustaining life. Enclosing bodies between prison walls is the ultimate expression of that process.

Even the rhetoric of prison rehabilitation cannot escape the connection, for the word ‘improve’, in its original sense, not only meant to make better but to do something for monetary profit. In particular, it meant to make land productive and profitable by enclosing it.

Enclosure and the violence of forced labour permeates the streets we walk every day and the public spaces we take for granted. It is a violence inseparable from colonisation and the dispossession that makes prisons and prison labour in New Zealand possible. For prisons were a Pākehā institution brought to these shores from without. And the use of unfree prison labour was there from the beginning.

First published by Overland Literary Journal, May 2018.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Class, Experience, Work

"It is counterproductive to identify individuals as members of this class or that class, in the manner of Madame Defarge in Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859). We need to recognize that the real substance of the class structure of capitalist society is the subordination of life to work and the resistance to it—and that the degree to which individuals act as agents of each of these tendencies varies enormously. This includes how we parse and understand our own actions. Self-reflection on how work is imposed on us, and on the ways and degrees to which we impose work on others and on ourselves, can not only reveal the forces that plague our lives but also help free us from them. Becoming conscious of these forces and analyzing them with care can both sharpen and facilitate our struggles, including our efforts to escape the conditioned, internalized self-discipline to impose work on ourselves. Once we recognize the little internal, capitalist devil urging us to get to work, and the equally internal but often long suppressed spirit of autonomy urging us to act on our own and with our friends, it is easier to resist the proddings of the former and follow the calls of the latter. Yes, I think it’s an “us versus them” world, even when Pogo is right that “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Being clear about these pressures that impoverish our lives and poison our relationships with each other can help us figure out how to both resist and get beyond them." - Harry Cleaver, Rupturing the Dialectic, pp.11-12

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Giving the Present a Name

Excerpt from 'Historicizing the Global, Politicizing Capital: Giving the Present a Name' by Geoff Eley, History Workshop Journal, Volume 63, Issue 1, 1 March 2007, Pages 154–188.

...if we take seriously on board this centrality of non-industrial work and the fundamental importance of service, domestic labour, and everything that's accomplished in households, while adding it to the driving importance of enslaved mass production, then our conventional understanding of the histories of political economy and working-class formation will surely have to change.

A further implication arises once we shoot our vision forward over the longest term of capitalism's history since the eighteenth century to return to our question about the distinctiveness of its forms in the present. Once we revise our understanding of the early histories of capital accumulation by acknowledging the generative contributions of slavery and servitude, in fact, we have already begun questioning the presumed centrality of waged work in manufacturing, extractive and other forms of modern industry for the overall narrative of the rise of capitalism. By shifting the perspective in that way, we effectively relativize wage labour's place in the social histories of working-class formation and open our accounts of the latter to other regimes of labour. By that logic, the claim of waged work to analytical precedence in the developmental histories of capitalism no longer seems secure. As it happens, in fact, the de-skilling, de-unionizing, de-benefiting, and de-nationalizing of labour via the processes of metropolitan deindustrialization and transnationalized capitalist restructuring in our own time have also been undermining that claim from the opposite end of the chronology, namely from a vantage-point in the present. Today the social relations of work are being drastically transformed in the direction of the new low-wage, semi-legal, and deregulated labour markets of a mainly service-based economy increasingly organized in complex transnational ways. In light of that radical reproletarianizing of labour under today's advanced capitalism, I want to argue, the preceding prevalence of socially valued forms of organized labour established after 1945, which postwar social democrats hoped so confidently could become normative, re-emerges as an extremely transitory phenomenon. The life of that recently defeated redistributive social-democratic vision of the humanizing of capitalism becomes revealed as an extremely finite and exceptional project, indeed as one that was mainly confined to the period between the postwar settlement after 1945 and its long and painful dismantling after the mid 1970s.

In light of that contemporary reproletarianizing of labour, perhaps we should even see the period in which labour became both collectively organized and socially valued via trade unions, public policy, wider common sense, and the acceptable ethics of a society's shared collective life as merely a brief blip in the history of capitalist social formations whose ordering principles have otherwise been quite differently institutionalized and understood, whether at the beginning (in the eighteenth century) or at the end (now). As I’ve just suggested, the blip in question may be located historically inside Eric Hobsbawm's ‘golden age’ of the unprecedented post-1945 capitalist boom whose forms of socio-political democratization (through planning, full employment, social services, redistributive taxation, recognition for trade unions, public schooling, collectivist ideals of social improvement, a general ethic of public goods) were brought steadily under brutally effective political attack after the mid 1970s.41 At most, one might argue, the labour movement's rise and political validation may be dated to the first three quarters of the twentieth century, varying markedly from country to country.

There are two features of this argument that deserve extra clarification. First, the suggestion that both slaves and servants be considered categories of workers may seem to depart so radically from the normal practice of defining the ‘working class’ by the wage relationship as to be needlessly confusing. Yet, as I’ve tried to argue, once related to the history of capitalism overall, the classic wage-earning proletariat actually re-emerges as a relatively transitory and sectorally specific formation produced in quite delimited historical periods and circumstances. Moreover, under any particular capitalism wage labour has in any case always continued to coexist with various types of unfree and coercive labour. The salience of such simultaneities – of the temporal coexistence inside a particular capitalist social formation of forced, indentured, enslaved, and unfree forms of work with the free wage relationship strictly understood – needs to be carefully acknowledged. Such simultaneities become all the more salient once we begin conceptualizing capital accumulation on a properly global scale by integrating the forms of surplus extraction occurring in the colonial, neocolonial, or underdeveloped worlds. The West's privileged prosperity, including precisely the possibility of the social-democratic improvements associated with the three decades after 1945, has been founded, constitutively, on horrendous repertoires of extraction and exploitation on such a world scale. Other forms of labour coercion have likewise been characteristic of even the most advanced capitalist economies in their time, as for instance during the two World Wars, or under the racialized New Order of the Third Reich. In these terms, I’d argue, the search for a ‘pure’ working-class formation, from which forms of enslavement, servitude, indenturing, impressment, conscription, imprisonment, and coercion have been purged, remains a chimera. Once we define working-class formation not by the creation of the wage relationship in the strict sense alone, therefore, but by labour's contributions to the wider variety of accumulation regimes we can encounter in the histories of capitalism between the eighteenth century and now, we can see the multiplicity of possible labour regimes more easily too.

...

To summarize what I’ve just been saying: on the one hand, there are strong grounds for seeing servitude and slavery as the social forms of labour that were foundational to the capitalist modernity forged during the eighteenth century; and on the other hand, there is equally compelling evidence since the late twentieth century of the shaping of a new and radically stripped-down version of the labour contract. These new forms of the exploitation of labour have been accumulating around the growing prevalence of minimum-wage, dequalified and deskilled, disorganized and deregulated, semi-legal and migrant labour markets, in which workers are systemically stripped of most forms of security and organized protections. This is what is characteristic for the circulation of labour power in the globalized and post-Fordist economies of the late capitalist world, and this is where we should begin the task of specifying the distinctiveness of the present. Whether from the standpoint of the ‘future’ of capitalism or from the standpoint of its ‘origins’, the more classical understanding of capitalism and its social formations as being centred around industrial production in manufacturing begins to seem like an incredibly partial and potentially distortive one, a phase to be found overwhelmingly in the West, in ways that presupposed precisely its absence from the rest of the world and lasted for a remarkably brief slice of historical time.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Island of Secrets: Matiu Somes

Matiu Somes Island, First World War Barracks.
David McGill's aptly-named book is the title of this post, which I write after finally visiting Matiu Somes Island. Our family was fortunate enough to spend Christmas there—three nights in the middle of Te Whanganui-a-Tara with friends and whānau, the weather, and layers of history.

I've written about a number of First World War internees on Matiu Somes; from the German-born anarchist Carl Mumme to Hjelmar Dannevill. A number of war resisters who feature in my latest work also ended up on Matiu Somes. So exploring the island had a particular resonance for me.

Inside the Barracks
We were shown around the barracks by our friend and island ranger Jeff Hall. There used to be more, and the one that remains had been cut in half to make room for newer buildings, but I could still get a sense of what confinement might have been like. Did Carl sleep here? Or maybe Arthur Muravleff, an aspiring Maxim Gorky suspected of being a spy? The weatherboards and decaying roof couldn't tell us.


I wanted to place the barracks in context, so I trooped up the hill and attempted to replicate a photograph of the camp as it was during the First World War (thank you Alexander Turnbull Library). Close enough.


Then and now: Matiu Somes Internment Camp, First World War; Matiu Somes December 2017
There are too many secrets to share in one post, including its pre-European history or its history after 1918. I look forward to learning more of them, but for now, I'm thankful to have spent three nights on Matiu Somes by choice, rather than by coercion. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

Precarious Pasts and Postwork Futures


This article was first published in the November 2017 edition of the LHP Bulletin, which had precarious work as its theme. Other articles from that Bulletin will be available on the LHP website in 2018.

Precarious labour is nothing new. Insecure and irregular work has been the norm rather than the exception in the history of capitalism. “For most of human history, work has occurred under unstable conditions, with little legal regulation and little expectation of long-term continuity.” Precarious labour today is not so much a new phenomenon “but the return of precarious labour after a three-decade interruption during the Fordist era in some parts of the world.”1

But this is only half the picture. Women and racialised minorities have always had a precarious relation to waged labour.2 Even at the height of Fordism, ‘standard employment relations’—regular, full-time, and long-term work characterised by (mostly) male workers concentrated in a single workplace or industry—were premised on the precarious and often invisible labour of others. As Angela Mitropoulos notes, the stability of ‘standard’ work presupposed vast amounts of unpaid domestic labour by women and the colonisation of indigenous peoples.3 For Mitropoulos, “the recent rise of precarity is actually its discovery among those who had not expected it”; the orthodox union movement with its blindness to longstanding hierarchies within waged and unwaged labour.4

The return (or discovery) of precarious labour has mostly been viewed by traditional unions as a threat, not only to working conditions but to the continuing existence of unions themselves. As mediators of exploitation rather than advocates for its abolition, the answer to precarious labour for such unions is often government-regulated work, the promotion of ‘decent work’, and job creation—in a nutshell, more work—none of which address the root causes of precarity.

Yet there are other, more liberatory alternatives. The struggle against the wage relation and its gendered and racial divisions has been present in the best of Marx’s writing, certain anarchist and communist currents (such as the Industrial Workers of the World, IWW), and revolutionary feminist thought. The problem for this perspective today, notes Kathi Weeks, is that “the gospel of work and the work ethic have so colonized our lives that it is difficult to conceive a life not centered on and subordinated to work.”5

Using examples of precarious work from New Zealand’s past, I want to explore this antiwork tradition and the refusal of work as a potential strategy for both the abolition of precarious labour, and the very relations that call capital and the proletariat into being.6 A related question, and one of interest to the discipline of labour history, is how resistance to work might reshape the way labour militancy is defined and measured, and how the historical emergence and re-emergence of certain forms of struggle can situate the present in the history of capital.7

Precarious pasts

Stout despite his sixty years and clean-shaven except for a greying moustache, in 1918 Joseph Goss was an aging watersider and agricultural labourer living in Waitara, Taranaki. While he called Waitara home, his precarious working situation meant he often moved about for work. At sixty he was one of the many aging labourers on the edge of the cash economy, trying to pick up jobs where he could.8

Before arriving in Waitara in 1914, Joseph had laboured on the wharves in both Wellington and Whanganui. To earn a day’s shift Joseph had to stand on the dock to be selected like cattle at auction, only to work physically exhausting, dangerous jobs. Joseph had hoped to fare better in a smaller port like Waitara, but he was mistaken.

Joseph was a prolific letter writer, and the struggle for and against work is a recurring theme in his letters. Joseph wrote that since leaving Whanganui there had been no work for him “or any man of his type and principles”, and figured that for over four years he had not averaged more than 10/1 shillings per week. In 1918, that could buy around twenty-five loaves of bread or two large bags of flour. It was only “thanks to our frugal mode of living, coupled with simple wants, we have been able to carry on.”9 The reproduction—the survival—of Joseph and his wife Mary, relied as much on Mary’s unwaged work as the meager wages Joseph could earn.

Thanks to his age, or possibly his opposition to capitalism, Joseph could not hold down a permanent job, even with the labour shortage caused by the First World War. Irregular work was the norm. “Since I last wrote I have had a job for a fortnight in the cooling chamber, and a couple of days out at the Kersone Sheds. I have been able to square up with Room money, so I am alright for a short while.”10 The cash, however, did not last. “As for your financial position, I am pleased to know things are going so well with you. Wish I could say the same for myself”, Joseph wrote three months later. “Would have sent you papers oftener from this side, but could not afford the stamps.”11

His precarious working life, plus the militarism of the war, left Joseph despondent and bitter. “Life for me has lost all charm”, wrote Joseph, who vented his anger at the military, the ruling class, and his fellow workers.12 He wasn’t alone. Henry Aloysius Murphy was a gristly Australian labourer working on the Auckland wharves. Quoting Emerson, Henry believed that “Doomsday is every day for the workers”, and poured out his disgust at his co-worker’s desire for work. “I hate to talk about work it’s the most degrading thing that I know of” wrote Henry in May 1919. “Things have slackened up here on the wharves (but) seven home boats expected in next month, that ought to gladden the heart of bone headed bastards that’s all they want (plenty work). I would work them 2 death if I had my way!”13

It wasn’t long before these letters were stopped by the state. From the perspective of power, these were seditious ideas. Work was to be worshipped and the myth of the dignity of labour preserved. Echoing longstanding concerns over vagrants—those who failed or refused to internalise dominant middle-class values of work, industry and respectability—the state linked these letters to criminality and social threat.14

Henry was hauled before the court for failing to register as a reservist under the Military Service Act and was sentenced to fourteen days hard labour. On his release he was due to be deported, but agreed to leave New Zealand ‘voluntarily’ and returned to Australia. Joseph fared slightly better. His age saved him from prosecution, but his precarious existence continued. In 1919, Joseph had moved inland to find more work, and by 1923 he eked out a living as a gardener in Napier. It was here that Joseph Goss died on 26 March 1934. He was 76 years old.

Toil - travail - tripalium - torture

These letters suggest that Joseph and Henry viewed waged work as dead time rather than a source of dignity or the pillar of social value. Their precarious working experience also shows that for many in their position (like most precarious workers today), unions and their membership fees were mostly out of reach. Traditional unions were (and are) based on the world of paid work, something Joseph and Henry either struggled to find or ultimately abhorred. They were not alone. Stevan Eldred-Grigg found that many workers “saw their work as something actually distasteful, boring, depressing and tedious. The dislike they felt for their work was one of the most fundamental limitations of the union movement.”15 The mystical cult of work pushed by employers, teachers, the clergy, middle-class socialists and most union leaders was far from accepted. Some amongst New Zealand’s working-class were more likely to sympathise with Paul Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy, with its defence of idleness, than the proud workers portrayed in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards.

This is hardly surprising. The French word travail, to toil, comes from the Latin tripalium or ‘instrument of torture’, and as the case of Henry Murphy suggests, there is a rich vein of working-class struggle against toil—those who believed in liberation from work rather than liberation through work. Yet resistance to work during the twentieth century has often been underestimated by labour historians. More often than not work has been viewed as creation rather than coercion, and workers as producers rather than resisters who must be constantly disciplined or seduced to accept work.16 Traditional yardsticks of working class militancy are therefore measured in organisational or ideological terms.

But something interesting happens if resistance to work rather than party or union membership is taken as a measure of class-consciousness. Not only does it widen the terrain of study, it gives working people like Joseph Goss and Henry Murphy agency in the making of their own history. It moves “the self-activity of the working class to centre stage” even if that activity was rooted in self-preservation.17

As Michael Steidman notes in his classic Workers Against Work, an investigation of workers’ resistance to work also links the histories of women, unemployed workers, and immigrants and makes those histories more visible:

Instead of viewing female workers as less militant because they were relatively uninterested in joining parties and unions, an investigation of their struggles over maternity leave, absenteeism, illnesses, and gossip demonstrates that women also participated in the class struggle… Women identified less with the workplace because of the temporary and unskilled character of their jobs, lower salaries, and familial responsibilities.18

If their avoidance of the workplace is taken as a measure of class-consciousness, “then many women’s minimal identification with their role as producer might lead to the conclusion that females were among the true vanguard or consciousness of the working class.”19

Postwork futures 

The examples of Joseph Goss and Henry Murphy, two precarious workers with a tenuous relationship to work and the union movement, helps us to take a longer view of insecure work and how to struggle against it. How the racialised sphere of unpaid or reproductive labour must be at the forefront of organising against capitalist precarity, for example, and that socialist programs of the past, with their affirmation of labour rather than the abolition of labour, are at best outdated, if not irrelevant and counterproductive. Work refusal and liberation from labour should be at the heart of our struggles. And the forms these struggles take need to recover the original sense of the word ‘proletariat’ as those without reserves, including those beyond the formal wage.20

Like Steidman’s challenge in Workers Against Work, this immediately poses questions around worker identity and class-consciousness. Most labour movements were built around an affirmable worker’s identity, one that claimed a universal class character but was actually of a very narrow make-up—the white male industrial worker or those who “conformed to a certain image of respectability, dignity, hard work, family, organisation, and sobriety.”21 This flaw has long been pointed out by Marxist feminists (and others), and their critique seems especially relevant in the present. Thanks to the breakdown of Fordist discipline and managerial techniques, and the return of precarious, flexible working conditions, employers need workers to identify with their work more than ever before. Does it make sense for those resisting precarity to affirm the very same identification with work? As the Endnotes collective argue, “the fundamental contradiction of our society (proletariat-capital) is only potentially deadly to capitalism if the worker confronts her work and therefore takes on not just the capitalist, but what capital makes of her, i.e. if she takes on what she does and is.”22

In this sense, writes Kathi Weeks,

the politics of and against work has the potential to expand the terrain of class struggle to include actors well beyond that classic figure of traditional class politics, the industrial proletariat… after all, work, including the dearth of it, is the way that capitalist valorization bears most directly and most intensively on more and more people’s lives.23

This call to refuse work is not a utopian denial of the terrible, anxiety-ridden experience of precarious labour and the constant struggle to make ends meet. Precarious workers have difficulty refusing work because they have only ever had a discontinuous, uncertain, and temporary relationship with it.24 Demands for better working conditions can and must be made. But as Weeks notes, it is the demand itself that can broaden the struggle, and with it, people’s horizons. Demands that go beyond those offered by traditional unions and the majority of the left—alternatives that seem to end at fair and equitable work—can win material improvements while pointing to postwork futures. They can be a means to a different end—a world where work does not dominate life—rather than an end in themselves.

Past examples of antiwork demands that expand the scope of struggle include the IWW’s campaign for a four hour day with eight hours pay, the Wages for Housework movement, and more recently, the demand for universal basic income.25 With the return of precarious labour, what form these demands take in the present is crucial. For example, in Riot. Strike. Riot, Joshua Clover charts the return of the riot as a form of struggle within the sphere of capitalist circulation. Mapping the food riots of the 18th century to the machine-breaking of Captain Swing and the Luddites to the riots of Watts, Detroit, Newark, Chicago, Los Angeles, Athens, Oakland, and Ferguson, Clover argues that the blockade of circulation, often in the form of rioting, is the modern-day equivalent of the Fordist strike, and the recourse of those “chronically outside the formal wage.”26

Circulation struggles that bring together those beyond the formal wage is just one example from the past with relevance for today. There are countless others—although we should be wary of grafting the past onto the present. Yet as I hope this paper shows, there are lessons from the past that a long view can uncover, just as historical narratives can shed light on examples of antiwork politics. The role of labour historians in the struggle against precarity is to make such examples visible; to provide alternatives that expand the horizon of such struggles; and to question the relationship between precarious and unwaged labour, labour history, and the affirmation of labour rather than its abolition.

- Jared Davidson, November 2017



1. Sarah Mosoetsa, Joel Stillerman, Chris Tilly, ‘Precarious Labor, South and North: An Introduction’, International Labor and Working-Class History 89 (2016).
2. Silvia Federici, ‘Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint’, accessed 11 September 2017 https://inthemiddleofthewhirlwind.wordpress.com/precarious-labor-a-feminist-viewpoint/
3. Angela Mitropoulos, ‘Precari-us?’, Mute (2005), accessed 4 September 2017 http://eipcp.net/transversal/0704/mitropoulos/en
4. Mitropoulos, as cited by Steve Wright, ‘There and back again: mapping the pathways within autonomist Marxism’, accessed 4 September 2017 http://libcom.org/library/there-and-back-again-mapping-the-pathways-within-autonomist-marxism-steve-wright
5. Kathi Weeks, ‘Imagining non-work’, accessed 11 September 2017 http://libcom.org/library/imagining-non-work-kathi-weeks. For Weeks, the refusal of work is directed against the system of (re)production organized around, but not limited to, the wage system.
6. ‘What matters in reality are the social relations which determine human activity as labour—the point is thus the abolition of these relations and not the abolition of work.’ Théorie Communiste, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, Endnotes 1 (2008), accessed 19 September 2017 https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/1/en/theorie-communiste-much-ado-about-nothing
7. Joshua Clover, ‘Final Remarks’, from ‘The Crisis and the Rift: A Symposium on Joshua Clover’s Riot. Strike.Riot’, accessed 18 September 2017 https://www.viewpointmag.com/2016/09/29/final-remarks/
8. Steven Eldred-Grigg, New Zealand Working People (Dunmore: Palmerston North, 1990), 69.
9. Joseph Goss, 8 June 1918, AD10 Box 10/ 19/10, Archives New Zealand (ANZ).
10. Goss, 8 June 1918, AD10 Box 10/ 19/10, ANZ.
11. Goss, 8 June 1918, AD10 Box 10/ 19/10, ANZ.
12. Goss, 8 June 1918, AD10 Box 10/ 19/10, ANZ.
13. Henry Murphy, 2 May 1919, AD10 Box 19/ 23, ANZ.
14. David Bright, ‘Loafers are not going to subsist upon public credulence: Vagrancy and the Law in Calgary, 1900-1914’, Labour/Le Travail 36 (1995), 43.
15. Eldred-Grigg, New Zealand Working People, 130.
16. Michael Seidman, Workers Against Work: Labor in Paris and Barcelona During the Popular Front (University of California Press: Berkley) accessed 4 September 2017 https://libcom.org/library/workers-against-work-michael-seidman
17. Richard Price, as cited by Anna Green, ‘Spelling, Go-Slows, Gliding Away and Theft: Informal Control Over Work on the New Zealand Waterfront 1915-1951’, Labour History 63 (1992), 101.
18. Seidman, Workers Against Work. 19. Seidman, Workers Against Work.
20. Joshua Clover, ‘Final Remarks’, from ‘The Crisis and the Rift: A Symposium on Joshua Clover’s Riot. Strike.Riot’, accessed 18 September 2017 https://www.viewpointmag.com/2016/09/29/final-remarks/
21. Endnotes Collective, ‘A History of Separation’, Endnotes 4 (2015), accessed 15 September 2017 https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/4/en/endnotes-the-infrastructure-of-the-modern-world
22. Gilles Dauvé & Karl Nesic, ‘Love of Labour? Love of Labour Lost…’, Endnotes 1 (2008), accessed 15 September 2017 https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/1/en/gilles-dauve-karl-nesic-love-of-labour-love-of-labour-lost
23. Kathi Weeks, The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics & Postwork Imaginaries (Duke University Press: Durham, 2011), 17-18.
24. Ann Curcio, ‘Social reproduction, neoliberal crisis, and the problem with work: a conversation with Kathi Weeks’, accessed 11 September 2017 http://libcom.org/library/social-reproduction-neoliberal-crisis-problem-work-conversation-kathi-weeks
25. However, if the demand for universal basic income is for a mere supplement to wages, it will entrench the wage relation and precarious labour rather than open up postwork horizons. See Weeks, The Problem With Work, 137-150.
26. Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot (Verso: UK, 2016), as cited by Michael Robbins, accessed 12 September 2017 http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-riot-strike-riot-joshua-clover-20160505-story.html


Thursday, December 7, 2017

'My Dear Doctor': Hjelmar von Dannevill

Hjelmar Dannevill. From the file 'Dr von Dannevill, October 1914 - June 1917' [Archives Reference: AD 10 Box 9 17/26] Archives New Zealand The Department of Internal Affairs Te Tari Taiwhenua

Below is an excerpt from a chapter in my forthcoming book on the remarkable Wellington figure of Hjelmar Dannevill. During the First World War her private letters were confiscated and Hjelmar was eventually interned on Matiu Somes Island for a brief period - one of the few women to be interned during the war. Her sexuality and disruption of gender norms was a major factor.

A Visit to Miramar

On 21 May 1917, Police Matron Beck and Detectives Boddam and Cox left the tram and made their way towards the Lahmann Home’s impressive entrance. Built in 1907 by the director of a short-lived amusement park called Wonderland, the grand wooden building had been purchased in 1911 by Dr Edith Huntley, a well-known advocate of women’s health and the first woman councillor of Miramar. But it was Hjelmar Dannevill who answered the door. She was dressed in her distinctive style—collar, shirt and waistcoat, an immaculately tailored jacket adorned with a pocket watch, and a long skirt that reached to her leather boots. Hjelmar was known to have smoked from a pipe, but not on this occasion.

Once inside the detectives found a picturesque foyer of dark red walls and stained wooden panels. Great bowls of scarlet gladioli and vases of feathery-looking ixia dotted the space, and Boddam noted the staircase that led to the Home’s second floor and its exterior balconies. ‘After informing her who we were in the usual way’ wrote Boddam, ‘I requested her to accompany us at once to the office of the Commissioner of Police, who desired to interview her.’[i] After confiscating a bag of letters, books and other papers, Hjelmar went quietly, saving Boddam the task of using the warrant for her arrest.

As Hjelmar boarded the tram surrounded by Police she must have pondered her sudden change in fortune. Five years earlier she and Dr Huntley had been the hosts to over two hundred women of high society. The December 1912 opening of the Lahmann Home was a grand affair. Guests toured the grounds with cups of high tea accompanied by the music of the Miramar Band, while those inside were treated to performances on the grand piano.

It was also a chance to rub shoulders with Wellington’s elite, including the Prime Minister himself. Earlier that afternoon Massey had announced his pleasure at opening the Home, one he believed was ‘the first of its type in the British Dominion and the first in all the world to be entirely conducted by women.’ It was a place where those ‘suffering from chronic disease or permanent weakness might be afforded all the relief possible’, a place where ‘business men, professional men, or even politicians, if they happened to be overworked, could be given an opportunity of recuperating.’ ‘Someday’, joked Massey, ‘it might be necessary for me to come to the home, but, as you can all gather from appearances, that time was not yet. (Laughter and “hear, hear!”).’[ii]

If Massey had ever checked in to the Home he would have experienced the relatively novel treatment of naturopathy, an alternative medicine on the rise. Modelled on the teachings of German physician Heinrich Lahmann, the Miramar retreat offered a natural care system of massage, hydrotherapy, a vegetarian diet, and plenty of fresh air. Lahmann himself was a staunch advocate of animal rights, refusing to use them in laboratory experiments. The Home was probably equipped with air baths as per Lahmann’s teachings, but it also provided less natural cures: electrical therapy (which some brave guests were ‘treated’ to on open days). A central-city office on Willis Street also offered electrical treatment for those pressed for time.

Hjelmar and the Lahamnn Home seem to have been an accepted part of the Wellington community. She was the host of a number of talks, known as an ‘At Home’, where women gathered at the retreat for music and more tea. ‘Dr Edith Huntley wore a dress of shot violet and green velvet with trimming to match. Dr von Dannevill was in navy blue’ reported one gossip column.[iii] Well into 1915 she spoke publically at women’s events, such as the Moral and Physical Health Society’s annual lecture or to the Pioneer Club, whose upper-class audience included Anne Salmond, the wife of Solicitor General Salmond. At ease on stage or behind the grand piano, no one cared, or cared to mention, Hjelmar’s masculine attire.

But by 1917 attitudes against difference had hardened, and spurred by Edward Bond’s complaints, not even Hjelmar’s high-society friends could save her. She now found herself at the Lampton Quay Police Station and face-to-face with the Commissioner of Police.

O’Donovan interrogated her at length about her past, her nationality, and her gender, hoping to find holes in a story that even today seems impossible to corroborate. The transcript—neatly typed and amended with question marks and notes such as ‘long pause’—fills most of the Army Department file. It reads like Bruce Chatwin story, dancing across European cities to New York, then south to Brazil, Argentina and Chile before sidestepping over to the African continent. India, Russia, China, Canada—almost every major country featured in Hjelmar’s travels.

‘What were you doing in all these places?’ asked O’Donovan.

‘Teaching anything I could, music, languages, first-aid, anatomy’ she replied, adding that she had trained as a musician in Leipzig before attending Zurich University to study medicine. ‘I got recommendations from one place to another. I also began doing journalistic work for various papers.’[iv] O’Donovan questioned her over what papers, which newspaper agents, and in what languages, before eventually discovering the nature of her later work—the study of venereal disease.

Hjelmar said that around 1890, she had made the acquaintance of a man named Hugo Fischer:

He was very wealthy and had lost his only son by syphilis. I had heard that he was keen, by this disastrous loss, to make investigations all over the world to find out the present state of venereal diseases amongst civilised nations as well as the more primitive races and savages even. He intended these investigations to equip about 7 or 8 people to travel over the globe to make investigations into these diseases. After I met him he began to give instructions in what he wanted carried out. He gave credit to draw on his finances to a very high extent and made a written appointment about the matter we had to send in to him. We had also to promise not to make any copies of any notes, as it naturally concerned a great many intimate affairs of people and the discover of gambling places etc.[v]

Using assumed names, Hjelmar mingled with hospital orderlies, clergymen, Police officers and women across the globe, gathering information on the taboo subject. Employing false names ‘was part of the instructions we had from Mr Fischer… he was afraid the leading power in Austria, the Order of Jesuits, would get hold of [their work].’[vi] This was also one of the reasons she wore men’s clothing—entering into seedy dens and asking questions as a woman was not an option, she argued.

O’Donovan was clearly thrown by her gender variance as much as Ellison and Salmond and repeatedly dwelled on it during the interrogation. ‘Were you dressed as you are now?’ asked O’Donovan.

‘I was not dressed in the same clothing.’

‘You were wearing a man’s hat and coat and an ordinary vest and collar of a man?’

‘Yes I think so, and a skirt.’

‘Did any question arise between you and Mr Ellison as regards whether you were a man or a woman?’

‘He said there was no objections to my wearing men’s clothing so long as he knew I was a woman.’[vii]

And later: ‘Did you ask Mr Ellison to certify that you were a woman?’

‘You mean in writing? No.’

‘If Mr Ellison said you were anxious to get a written document from him to say you were a woman would you say that was incorrect?’

‘I did not ask him for a document. I simply asked him for his advice. Dr Huntley thought perhaps it would be best to have a paper in order to identify myself when I came into touch with a rude crowd or investigating policemen and so on, as I had before, to be protected.’[viii]

As a result O’Donovan asked Hjelmer if she would submit to a medical examination, which she did. ‘I hereby certify that I have this day examined Dr H.W. Dannevill, and that the anatomical configuration shows that she is of the female sex’ reads the impassionate medical note.

Hjelmar’s sex was now recorded but O’Donovan was still not convinced of her nationality. Although she claimed to have been born somewhere near Copenhagen in 1862, she could not recall the name of the town nor produce any documentation.

However she did possess documents of a different kind—the confiscated letters shared at the start of this chapter. The file contains no further information on the letters or their writers. They were found amongst Hjelmar’s papers, which were eventually returned to her except for the four letters (including the two above). Three are from women, and in a possible explanation for why they were detained, hint at sexual activity between women.

‘I never wanted you so much as now’

Applying a contested, historically specific category such as ‘lesbian’ to an earlier period is problematic. Lesbian identity is a late twentieth-century concept, and the historical past was a very different sexual place. Women who loved and/or had sex with women, cross-dressed, or resisted heterosexuality did not necessarily have a language to describe themselves as lovers of women. They understood their desires, behaviour and experiences within the social context of their own time.[ix]

Yet these letters, and their wider context centred on Hjelmar and the Lahmann Home, point strongly to lesbian sexuality. Besides some of the leading prose, Katherine’s letter suggests that like Mary Bond she abhorred the thought of her husband visiting her (‘I dread the man intensely’). Could it be that her sexual desire was non-heterosexual? Was she one of many women whose sexuality had been suppressed by Victorian social mores?[x]

Affection is also there in another letter from Helene of Timaru. Its cramped script matches the letter shared at the start of this chapter, but as it is undated and on different paper it was probably written at a different time. Remarkably, it contains a dictated letter from a toddler in the care of Helene named William Stewart—who was none other than the son of Mary Bond.

In the letter written on behalf of William, Helene notes how much he is like his mother and recounts how he calls Dannevill ‘Docket’:
What about the boat Docket? On Wednesday carried the boat down + cleaned it out, and put it in the water. I did get in the boat Docket see!! Mrs Peuko put me on the boat. What shall I tell Docket? Kisses the paper (I kiss Docket!)… when are you coming down mummy + Docket to Peuko’s house? I good boy + do a lot every day.

He then signed off, in his own writing, with ‘William Stewart. I love you Docket.’[xi]

In her second letter Helene longs for the company of Hjelmar. ‘It always comforts me to read your dear loving words and to recall their sweet accompaniments’ she wrote. ‘I wish you were here now, how I long to lay my head against your shoulder and feel the thrill of spirit answering spirit. I do call you at night and early in the morning. I can sometimes feel that I am in your arms.’ In what could be suggestive prose or code, Helen recalls how she liked ‘to think of the iris buds opening… Think of me as they do, my most precious one.’[xii] Her letter also highlights the kinship felt between these women, when she asks,
Do you feel bound to spend your Christmas at Miramar, or could you not bring Molly and well as Mary Stewart and come here for a fortnight? Or as long as you like. Molly could have a tent and a verandah bed. Do answer this question Dear one! Will you! Sit down at the cocoa interval and send me a line. And I hope it will be yes if not, as soon after as possible. You must have a holiday and I do want you so! And we could make you comfortable and happy. My love to Mary Stewart.[xiii]

Are these letters evidence of sexual relationships between women or simply an example of romantic friendships? Late nineteenth and early twentieth century letters between women could be used to convey loving feelings or to discuss plans and fantasies, without necessarily meaning a sexual relationship. The power and intensity of love between women can be portrayed strongly in words, which sometimes included expressions of sensual and physical affection.[xiv]

Feminist historian Lelia Rupp suggests there are three behavioural features or characteristics that relate to lesbian historical evidence: romantic love between women, transgender identities, and sexual acts.[xv] Hjelmar’s letters and her non-binary gender seem to lean towards such evidence, but there is little consistency in historians’ understandings of women’s cross-dressing and its links with lesbian sexuality.[xvi]

Regardless of what we call her lived reality, there were many ways in which gender bending and same-sex relationships were policed before, during and after the First World War. The New Zealand government did not criminalise lesbian sex acts, writes Historian Alison Laurie, but outlawed lesbians through a complex web of regulations and strategies. The state could punish women who transgressed against gender-codes by cross-dressing or with unacceptable sexual behaviours through connecting lesbianism with promiscuity and prostitution. In doing so, ‘the law contained and controlled women’s access to public spaces and to self-determined sexual expression… where these methods proved inadequate on their own, lesbianism was contained by the medical profession who from the earliest times classified it as a disorder.[xvii]

Wartime simply added fuel to the flames. ‘Imperialism, while extolling the self-sacrificing single man who gave his life to tame some remote part of the empire, called for women to return to their traditional roles… independent women were accused of sex hatred and pilloried for preferring their own sex to men.’[xviii]

Not long after Hjelmar’s arrest, such a stance was taken to the extreme in Britain when MP Noel Billing claimed that Germany possessed a ‘Black Book’ of ‘forty-seven-thousand English men and women’ involved in lesbianism and other so-called deviant acts. According to Billing, the British Empire was about to collapse from within—one blackmail at a time. Billing argued that ‘in lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of State were threatened.’[xix]

This was the socio-legal setting in which Hjelmar’s letters were detained, and what she challenged with every collar or waistcoat she wore. Indeed, clothing itself was crucial to how gender was read by others. Victorianism expected women to demonstrate a meticulous personal daintiness. Their gestures were to be free of any sign of masculinity and their clothes and hair were to have ‘a precarious fragility.’[xx] From the late nineteenth century the plainer, more masculine style worn by ‘new women’, such as students, teachers, and office workers, had begun to challenge this view. But when gender variance intersected with male-defined ideas of sexuality, it was seen as a potential enemy of heterosexuality, gender order, and the nation itself.[xxi] In a patriarchal society, such cases had to be controlled.

The war had facilitated a deep intrusion into Hjelmar’s personal relationships by the state, and what it found unsettled Salmond. ‘Although the question of sex has now been settled by medical examination, the further information received and now submitted to me in no way alters the opinion which I formerly expressed, but rather confirms it’. After speaking with Gibbon, he ordered the immediate internment of Hjelmar. She was formerly arrested as an enemy alien on 26 May 1917 and escorted under guard to Matiu Somes Island. She was one of the few women to be interned in New Zealand during the First World War.

A number of newspapers carried the mild sensation of her arrest and usually finished with a comment on her attire. ‘The internment of Dr Hjelmar von Dannevill, which was effected yesterday, did not surprise the Wellington people’ reported the Evening Star. ‘The voice of gossip has insisted for a long time past that this lady, who claimed to be of Danish nationality, would find more congenial company on Somes Island.’[xxii] Her ‘eccentricities’ included wearing ‘her hair short’, a ‘hat, coat, vest, collar’, and ‘boots of a masculine pattern with a woman’s skirt.’[xxiii] The Northern Advocate quipped that the ‘quaint little figure’ who ‘would have passed for a boy easily were it not that she announced her sex by wearing one of the most characteristic garments of woman—a skirt’, would be missed.[xxiv]

Mr JA Fothergill of Dunedin felt compelled to write in support of Hjelmar, noting with regret that the reports on her internment ‘hardly does the citizens of Wellington justice… there must be hundreds of grateful patients (of whom I am one) throughout New Zealand who owe the doctor thanks for unwearied skilled attention and deep sympathy.’ That she wore ‘a masculine style of dress is merely a proof that her mind had risen superior to and emancipated from, the tyranny and vanity of fashion.’[xxv]

Although she was interviewed again—this time by the military—no personal file of her time on Matiu Somes Island has survived. This may be due to her short amount of time in the camp. Two months into her internment, Hjelmar is said to have suffered a severe nervous breakdown. Ironically, with the permission of Defence Minister James Allen she was transferred to the Lahmann Home to recuperate. NZ Truth was bemused and ridiculed the government for interning her in the first place. Rumour had it that her arrest was due to her losing a handbag ‘alleged to have contained incriminating correspondence with Europe,’ read the story.[xxvi] In the end, the rumour was not too far from the truth.


[i] Report of Constable Bodamm, date, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office.
[ii]  Dominion, 16 December 1912.
[iii] Freelance, 3 May 1913
[iv] Interview between Dannevill and O’Donovan, 21 May 1917, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office.
[v] Ibid.
[vi]
Ibid. 
[vii] Ibid.
[viii]
Ibid.
[ix] “Women who loved” Oram and Turnbull,
The Lesbian History Sourcebook: Love and Sex Between Women in Britain from 1780 to 1970, Routledge: London & New York, 2001,.p.1. I am also aware that my own reading of the sources as a heterosexual, cis-male outsider is just as problematic.
[x] See Martha Vicinus
, Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women 1850-1920, Virago: 1985, p. 17
[xi] Helene to Dannevill, undated, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office. William Paul Bond was born on 7 August 1913, which made him three in 1916. He died in The US in 1973.
[xii] Helene to Dannevill, undated, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office.
[xiii] Helene to Dannevill, undated, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office.
[xiv]Oram and Turnbull, The Lesbian History Sourcebook, p.51. Hjelmar’s masculinity and her blurring of binary genders adds a further complexity. Judith Halberstam argues that ‘many other models existed beyond the either-or proposition of an asexual friendship or a butch-femme sexual dynamic.’ She suggests that theorising a range of multiple genders and sexual desires would better explain female masculinity than the term lesbian. 

[xv] Leila Rupp, as cited by Julie Glamuzina.
[xvi] Oram and Turnbull, The Lesbian History Sourcebook, p.12.
[xvii] Alison J Laurie,
Lady-Husbands and Kamp Ladies, Thesis, p. 57-58
[xviii] Vicinus, Independent Women, p.285
[xix] Noel Billing, January 1918, as cited by Alison J Laurie, Lady-Husbands and Kamp Ladies, p.64
[xx] Vern Bullough and Bonnie Bullough, Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1993, p.155
[xxi] Oram and Turnbull, The Lesbian History Sourcebook, p.14.
[xxii] Evening Star, 29 May 1917
[xxiii] Dominion, 29 May 1917
[xxiv] Northern Advocate, 2 June 1917
[xxv] Evening Post, 5 June 1917
[xxvi] NZ Truth, 21 July 1917