Saturday, April 25, 2020

Covid lockdowns give us a chance to reimagine Anzac Day and consider war more honestly

A wreath made from fallen Kauri tree leaves commemorates Anzac Day in a driveway in Auckland, New Zealand. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images
My latest article for The Guardian.

Public memory is a funny business.

The New Zealand government spent $65m on its first world war commemoration programme. According to its own figures, 93% of New Zealanders aged 15 and over engaged in the centennial in some way. The futility of war was the most-cited emotional response, which is interesting when put alongside the programme’s objective to strengthen “national identity” (read: the nation state) and an “enduring commitment to peace, global security and international cooperation” (read: current and future wars).

The foundation stone of this nationalist and militarist commemoration was, and is, Anzac Day. Every year on 25 April the country marks the anniversary of New Zealand and Australia’s 1915 colonial invasion of Turkey. State events and dawn ceremonies have been present from the very beginning, held every year since 1916.

But this year Aotearoa New Zealand will not mark Anzac Day with public services. Lockdown restrictions to eliminate Covid-19 has seen all dawn ceremonies and other civil events cancelled. Instead, people can decorate their letterbox, lay a virtual poppy or hashtag their tweets. For the first time since 1916, Anzac Day will be relatively free of the state.

For some, the idea of not having a public dawn service will be hard. Even this historian of wartime resistance has trouble imagining what Anzac Day will look like without them. Some of my earliest memories of Anzac are of emerging into the cold, autumnal morning to attend a dawn service. My understandings of why were vague. Yet the message was clear. The simple act of getting out of bed and attending a dawn service was enough to say to an eight-year-old boy: if you fight and die for your country, you will be remembered.

This year, we have an opportunity to jettison the militarism and remember the trauma of war in a different way. This year, we may be able to escape what the Pulitzer prize-winning novelist and scholar Viet Thanh Nguyen calls the “industrialisation of memory” and consider the root causes of war, as well as the voices that are heard in wartime commemorations and those that are not. Not having a public commemoration defined and organised by the state might just enable a “just” remembering of war.

What would a just remembering of war look like? This year we don’t need to ban politicians, as Guardian writer Paul Daley has suggested, as there are no public events for them to crash. Would it be to focus on the horror of war, what David Aldridge claims to be the only justifiable approach to the commemoration of war, especially in education? Would it be to widen our remembering to others, to those our grandfathers and great-grandfathers killed with bullets and bayonets, and the millions of civilians killed and maimed? Would it mean recognising the thousands of wartime resisters – Māori included – who would not fight for the state? Would it mean refusing the day altogether?

“When it comes to war, the basic dialectic of memory and amnesia is not only about remembering and forgetting certain events or people,” writes Nguyen. It is also “about remembering our humanity and forgetting our inhumanity, while conversely remembering the inhumanity of others and forgetting their humanity.” For Nguyen, doing justice to the historical trauma caused by war involves recognition of both the humanity and inhumanity within ourselves and within others.

Personal reflection at home might be the perfect way to start. So, as we stay in our bubbles and avoid state-sanctioned memory-making, we can decide to commemorate Anzac Day (or not) on our own terms. And maybe it will mark the dawn of an honest, meaningful, and “just” remembering of war.

Monday, February 3, 2020

'Dead Letters' longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards

Last week I was happy to have finally finished my article on the 1843 Nelson labourers' revolt. To learn that Dead Letters had made the long list of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards was mind-blowing! The category of general non-fiction is a field packed with some amazing titles, and I'm so happy to be one of the ten writers in the running for the shortlist:

Thanks to the team at Otago University Press and everyone who made Dead Letters possible, including the descendants of those whose stories feature in the book. 

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The History of a Riot: Class, Popular Protest and Violence in Early Colonial Nelson

On Saturday 26 August 1843, pay day for the gang-men employed on the New Zealand Company’s public relief works, acting police magistrate George White frantically prepared for the confrontation to come. Having deployed Nelson’s entire police force to the port and hidden them inside houses surrounding the Company store, White was on his way himself when he was met by a constable in haste. An angry group of 70 to 80 gang-men, armed with guns, clubs and the collective experience of months of continuous conflict, were waiting for him. 

White sent for reinforcements, hoping the Sheriff could muster up some settlers as special constables. “The generality of the persons however were very reluctant to be sworn in, and some refused.” Settlers believed that they too would become objects of attack. Class lines between settlers and labourers had been drawn. In fact, they were there from the beginning.

The next hour would not go well for White. Nor was it the first time White, his fellow magistrates and the New Zealand Company officials had confronted the gang-men – agricultural labourers, artisans and their wives who found themselves relying on relief work not dissimilar to schemes administered by the English parishes they had only recently left behind. For the directors of the Company, “nearly all the evils of the old English Poor Law system prevailed in the Settlement”, and they repeatedly demanded an end to a scheme that was so drastically draining their funds. For White, the gang-men’s continued efforts to assert control over their situation had created a power vacuum in the young settlement: Nelson was “in a state little short of Anarchy and Civil War.”

But what of the gang-men themselves? Who were they, and what had led them to such acts of collective revolt? The events of August and September 1843 were a culmination of struggles, including ‘combination’, petitions, public meetings, strikes, go-slows, work refusal, violence to both persons and property, and armed revolt. The self-activity of the gang-men had a significant impact on the development of Nelson. Yet much of the existing literature on this period simply list the men as ‘labourers’ – a faceless mass whose collective agency is inferred but given little political weight, or dismissed as relatively peaceful. Causality is put down to simple hardship, the result of an imbalance between capital and labour in the settlement that dissipates with time; the gang-men’s future as pioneering colonial farmers a teleological given.

If the gang-men remain nameless in most histories, then their wives fare even worse. As Kristyn Harman notes, personal accounts of working people’s experiences in early colonial New Zealand are scarce due to illiteracy. The voices of working-class emigrants – especially working-class women – are under-represented. Not to mention the inattention of male-focused histories to gender and gendered work, one of the defining features of the lives of the labouring poor in the nineteenth century but something that is too often relegated to the side-lines of the male experience. The hidden half of the gang-men’s struggle was the reproductive labour of their wives, who marshalled wit, kin networks and class-based strategies of making shift to complement the Company’s meagre rations.

What follows is a microhistory of collective revolt. It attempts to uncover the people involved, the handling of their situation in class ways and the impact they had on the composition of capitalist relations in 1840s Nelson. The emigrants who travelled steerage across unforgiving oceans had names, families and a history, bringing with them traditions of collective rituals, shared labour and memories of agricultural and political unrest. How did their experience of popular protest before arriving in Nelson play out in their struggle? And how did they force the Company to rethink its plans for colonisation and recompose wage and property relations in Nelson? As Geoff Eley notes, “the collective action of ordinary people exposes the fallacy of treating ‘violence’, ‘protest’, or ‘disorder’ as a world apart, as a phenomenon distinct from high politics, as a mere reaction to stress… By the actions that authorities call disorder, ordinary people fight injustice, challenge exploitation, and claim their own place in the structure of power."

After a brief discussion of class, Part I continues with a narrative of events surrounding the tumultuous pay day of 26 August 1843. Part II shifts in focus to the who, how and why. Using the pay lists of the New Zealand Company, I detail the 70-odd men of the gangs most involved, and explore their forms of collective resistance with reference to their past experiences of parish relief and popular protest. Following Raewyn Dalziel, I believe the agricultural backgrounds of many of the emigrants and the conflicts of the English countryside – including but not limited to the Swing Riots of 1830/31 – played a role in structuring the gang-men’s response to their situation. Finally, Part III tells how the power of the gang-men was countered by the Company. It draws on theories of class composition – with its focus on worker’s resistance to capital and capital’s efforts to decompose such class resistance – to analyse the dynamic of capitalist development in 1840s Nelson. Settler privilege, in the form of access to land, played a significant role in the division and ultimate decomposition of the gang-men’s power.

Read the rest of the article online:

Published by the Labour History Project, January 2020. ISBN: 978-0-473-51230-9. This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0

Thursday, January 16, 2020

A Hundred Little Treaties

Click to enlarge
Sharing my 2016 article for Mana Magazine about the Crown Purchase Deeds held at Archives New Zealand. Click on the image to read the article.

Monday, January 6, 2020

#AuthorsForFireys - signed books in aid of a good cause

To support our Australian friends in this time of need, my #AuthorsForFireys offer is a signed copy of all three of my books shipped free to NZ or AUS:

- Dead Letters
- Remains to Be Seen
- Sewing Freedom

You can bid an amount on my Twitter feed, and the full amount of the winning bid will go to the CFA in Australia. Info on the hashtag auction here: Auction closes 11 Jan.

Here's the Twitter post for any bids:

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

'From the Bottom Up': Review of Dead Letters

Review of Dead Letters by Emma Jean Kelly and Matariki Roche from the LHP Bulletin 76, August 2019.

This incredible book almost makes you wish that Thomas Pynchon’s secret underground (and fictional) postal service from his novel The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) actually existed. In Pynchon’s alternate universe, the letters of the colourful characters that feature in Jared Davidson’s Dead Letters could have been received by lovers, mates, friends and comrades. But the irony, not lost on Davidson, is that without a censorship which operated extensively during wartime, and after, and the state’s interception of these letters, we never would have met the Andersons, dairy farmers writing Bolshevik poetry, the pigeon thought to be carrying secrets, or Marie Weitzl, one of the "only Germans among the worms."

The censorship and surveillance of British mail had deep roots, going back to the seventeenth century. In the twentieth century a number of British citizens complained to the authorities when they learned that their mail was being read by the Chief Censor. Some believed as British subjects in New Zealand this should not be able to happen, and that it would not happen if they were at 'home.' In general however, people appeared to trust that their mail would reach its destination without being tampered with – and this is itself an interesting aspect of the thinking of the populace at that time, where war regulations allowed the government enormous powers to interfere in the lives of private citizens, whether that be to insist they fight in the First World War, to regulate their relationships or to ensure they did no damage to the apparatus of the state. And despite this, there is a feeling of uncovering treasure in this book. Davidson clearly feels that charge of electricity as he uncovers each new gem from the archive of censored letters which were never delivered. As an archivist himself, Davidson has an intimate knowledge of the materials kept in the government records system, and he has a talent for bringing these dead letters to life.

Many of those surveilled were aware that censorship was in practice, and tried various ways to evade the authorities. Invisible inks were made illegal at this time, but Davidson describes baking soda being used as a homemade version of invisible writing material. The postal service was the only way for these people to communicate with loved ones and colleagues. It is difficult perhaps for many people to imagine only one way to communicate with friends who were not in your immediate vicinity; and that your relationships could be directly impacted upon by the state which chooses to censor and surveil its citizens.

For example, Davidson describes the story of Hjelmar Dannevill, naturopath and supposed cross­dresser, who was interned on Somes/Matiu Island as an enemy alien. It was accusations from a society primed to scapegoat, coupled with letters from society women in which their affection for her is clearly stated, that led to her incarceration. Her internment on Somes/Matiu Island lasted only two months before she suffered a breakdown of some description. Prior to this she was a doctor at the Lahmann Home, Miramar, a naturopathic and holistic centre opened by Prime Minister Massey himself two years before the outbreak of war. A fear of lesbianism and independent women was intense at the time, as Davidson writes:

"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' (174)."

Davidson is an extraordinary researcher; he has found out everything he can about each of the subjects he focuses on in the book. Each chapter covers a particular letter, or set of letters, and then describes and examines the life of that person as an individual, but extrapolates to wider movements and practices of the time. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies as they were commonly known), the Federation of Labour (Red Feds), German socialists, working-­class unionists, Irish Nationalists and anarchist booksellers all feature in this book, which seeks to tell the story ‘from the bottom up’ of working peoples’ experience of censorship.

This is a work with a careful feminist methodology. Davidson ensures that women’s experience of war, of work, of family life and politics is not just nodded to but focussed upon through the stories of Hjelmar, Marie Weitzel, a farmer, mother and activist, and Laura Anderson, a middle class and educated woman who chooses to live and work as a farmer in Swanson with her husband who is prone to utopian visions. It is Laura’s letter to a cousin which opens the chapter on her and her husband’s lives. Davidson asks:

"What did Laura make of Carl’s revelations? How did it affect their relationship? It’s clear she was a loyal scribe, for it was Laura who wrote out reams of Carl’s poetry into bound volumes that survive to this day…Was she playing her role as a faithful wife, as was expected of her, or was Laura a fellow traveller – and not just in the communist sense? (234)"

One of the most charming things about this serious and wide ranging volume is the small detail which Davidson includes. For example, the fact that to this day the track to Carl and Laura’s farm in Swanson is still called ‘Anderson’s Track’, or that he and his family cleaned the grave of Auckland watersider, Berthold Charles Richard Matzke, who was interned and died at Featherston Camp, because he and his wife Florence had no offspring of their own to maintain it for them.

Davidson offers an opportunity to consider the past, how the state has and does surveil its citizens, what that means for working class people in the past and the future, but also creates the space for us to consider what else might be in the archives, just waiting for the right person to bring the past to life. This is labour history at its best, joyful and also respectful of those whose lives are revealed here. Davidson contacted families to ensure they were aware of his project, and in some cases they were able to see letters he had found which they never knew existed. Some offered him articles and other pieces of information he would not have otherwise seen. And some even came to the book launch on 7 March 2019 at Unity Books in Wellington; there can be no better endorsement for a flaxroots history than the families of those described being there to support the author of such a rich and fascinating volume.

After the terrorist attack on two Christchurch mosques on the 15 March 2019, some of the very questions raised by this book regarding letters written one hundred years ago are still present and pertinent. New Zealanders were sending about 6 million letters per week during the period 1914­-1920 – an extraordinary amount compared to today, yet Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and other social media platforms as well as more traditional email formats will be proportional in ensuring many millions of communications each year. But who decides which letters, topics or people are surveilled and who are not? At the Wellington Vigil held for Christchurch on 17 March 2019 at the Basin Reserve in Wellington, a speaker pointed out that the Linwood Mosque congregation had been surveilled by the New Zealand Government for twenty years while white supremacists were not. While in the early twentieth century it was Irish Nationalist, Māori, unionist, working class and opinionated women who were being surveilled. If the censorship of white supremacists with dreams of racial purity and murderous tendencies were a priority at the time, perhaps the history of the twentieth century may have been quite different.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Joshua Clover on the commune

Joshua Clover on the commune: “When I say commune, I really don’t mean what the common associations of that. I don’t mean the Paris Commune of 1871, although that seems amazing. Nor do I mean other historical communes – there’s the really interesting commune in Mexico, in Morelos in 1910-11, the Shanghai Commune, and many other examples – I don’t really mean that. And nor do I mean this thing I associate with my parent’s generation, of sort of ‘back to the land’ movements of the 70s, where a bunch of people who could moved to a cheap place in upstate New York an start growing their own zucchini. I don’t mean either of those things.

I mean a specific kind of struggle which is neither a riot or a strike. So if I can lay out the scheme briefly. Riots are struggles in circulation, and they’re for people who are market-dependent but not necessarily wage-dependent – so that’s by definition the sphere of circulation and they’re struggling in that area. Strikes are for people, are struggles in the sphere of production, so they are wage dependent and can struggle there. This seems to describe all of capitalism right, production and circulation? But there’s this whole third sphere we forget all the time, which is the sphere of reproduction – where you and I and everyone else who is not a capitalist has to figure out how to stay alive each day, and keep their family alive. So sexual reproduction is the obvious example, but also buying food and finding shelter and caring for each other and all that.

Struggles that launch themselves from that sphere are what I’m calling the commune. The limit of the strike is that it’s inclined to ask for more and better labour, wages, work conditions, and so ends up affirming the wage relation – certainly in this day and age when it doesn’t have a revolutionary horizon to speak of. And the limit of the riot is that it ends up affirming the market – even if it gets down to looting, which is the clearest, truest and best part of the riot still it’s affirming this idea that there’s stores, they have commodities and we’re not going to pay this time – but still affirms that existence.

So the question for me is: what kind of struggle doesn’t affirm either the wage or the market? That kind of struggle I name the commune. So the commune is a kind of struggle that is not demanding a wage and is not demanding better access to consumer goods. It’s not fighting for either of those things, but it’s fighting to figure out how to reproduce itself socially without reference to those things.

But – there’s a huge but – that’s not going to be allowed to happen peacefully… I want to be able to think about that category which is the category of struggling from the space of social reproduction, entirely aware that it’s going to mean direct conflict with capital and the state. That is the horizon of revolutionary politics for me. The particulars of what it looks like? I don’t know: Road Warrior? Game of Thrones? Walking Dead? All these shows are trying to figure it out, right? This is the question. In this apocalyptic scene, where the organising forces of our world, state and capital, can no longer provide a good life for people, what does the attempt to survive look like? We need to have a better imagination than the Walking Dead, which is a Nietzschean version of that question. And we need to have a better answer, and that’s why we’re here, right? It’s not because we know the answer but because we’re committed to getting to that answer.”

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Some new reviews of 'Dead Letters'

Dead Letters has been out in the world for a number of months now, so it's been great to read some new reviews in the last few weeks. A full list can be found on my website, but here's some of the more recent reviews:

Review by Jonathan West for RNZ Nine to Noon with Kathryn Ryan

Looking for treasure in the censor’s archive review by Jeff Sparrow for Overland Journal

Watching the watchers review by Ian F. Grant in New Zealand Review of Books

The Mail Coach: Journal of the Postal History Society of New Zealand - click to enlarge
Review by Miles Dillon in The Mail Coach: Journal of the Postal History Society of New Zealand

State surveillance in Great War New Zealand review by John McLeod for Honest History

It's been an interesting process comparing reviews and learning what has struck a chord with readers, and also how reviewers approach the book. I'm very happy with the response to date, which gives me hope I've done the letter-writers in the book justice.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Dead Letters on the Educating for Social Change podcast

It was neat to be interviewed for Wellington Access Radio's Educating for Social Change podcast last week, covering Dead Letters, labour history, and more. You can listen in here.

My other interviews on air can found on the Dead Letters page of my website here.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Looking for treasure in the censor’s archive: Jared Davidson’s 'Dead Letters' - review by Jeff Sparrow

This review of Dead Letters by Jeff Sparrow was originally published by Overland. Jeff Sparrow is a writer, broadcaster and editor. His recent books include Trigger Warnings: Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right and No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson.

In the official celebrations, they tell us that ANZAC Day commemorates a fight for freedom. In reality, the First World War meant an extraordinary crack down on liberties in both Australia and New Zealand, the implications of which are still being felt.

As Jared Davidson explains in his new book Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920, many European countries no longer required passports before the war. They were brought back into use under the security regime mandated by the conflict. ‘The First World War,’ he says,

was therefore a turning point in the history of mobility and citizenship, where the aspiration to control finally coincided with the actual ability to control, and once these were institutionalized they were not dismantled.

Davidson’s project centres on a particular institution of control – the censorship of mail, which was embarked on with considerable enthusiasm by the New Zealand authorities.

As in Australia, the state justified its wartime regime by invoking the threat of espionage and the necessity to protect battlefield operations. As in Australia, the censors concentrated less on military secrets than on policing dissidence. Davidson notes that, in twenty-four pages of quarterly reports by the Deputy Chief Postal Censor Walter Tanner, only twelve lines mention naval or military information of value to the enemy.

In proportional terms, New Zealand charged or jailed far more people for seditious or disloyal remarks than Britain did, a quite remarkable statistic given the country’s distance from the frontlines.

Then again, the war came immediately after the 1913 Great Strike, one of the most intense industrial disputes in New Zealand history. Not without reason, the state worried about its ability to maintain control.

For his epigraph, Davidson cites Ha Jin’s observation that war ‘reduces human beings to abstract numbers’. However, that abstraction – the transformation of candid communications into evidence – gives the historian access to intimacies that wouldn’t have survived in other circumstances.

In a card dated 7 April 1918, for instance, a miner by the name Frank Burns expresses surprise in learning of a friend’s marriage. He asks:

Say, Doll, what kind of bloke is he. I hope he is not a bloody policeman, if he is, don’t answer this letter, and let me forget you forever, for Christ’s sake, leave the buggar, separate get a divorce or do anything rather than marry one of those useless, good for nothing mongrels.

Burns had evaded conscription by hiding in the bush, and was then been sentenced to two months with hard labour in Westport jail. Having reached the bottom of the paper, he jokes, ‘half time, turn over’, and launches cheerily into another anecdote with, ‘well my lovely bunch of sun-drops, I have got a little experience … to relate.’

The letter conveys as much through style as substance, providing a glimpse of the everyday working-class humour rarely registered in official documents.

Davidson takes Burns letter to his ‘Doll’ from the magnificently titled Army Department’s Secret Registry. Only a fraction of the letters surveilled by the authorities remain intact but they’re still sufficient to offer a window into the vanished world of pre-communist radicalism.

Take the letter addressed from ‘J Sweeny’ on 3 November 1915, which includes the following passage:

I have been in the back country for the last 10 weeks had 4 inches of snow in two days in camp had to clear a track from the tents to cook house had very rotten Has mouse dung in the flour and sugar.

The text reads like an apolitical account of rural deprivation – but then it concludes, ‘I am yours for Direct Action No Political Dope.’ That complimentary close identifies J Sweeney as a supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World, the revolutionaries who blended European syndicalism with American hoboism.

In Auckland, Davidson tells us, the IWW established ‘The Workers’ University Direct Action Group’, which they advertised – with typical elan – as required to ‘educate the mentally lazy and those who, by over-work, are shamefully robbed of that nerve force or energy so necessary for educational advancement.’

‘Spittoon philosophers and gasbags anchor outside,’ the Workers University flyer continued. ‘We want no wet blankets’.

In Australia, the IWW was banned and its leading cadre imprisoned. In New Zealand, the group remained legal but its members were often deported.

We know very little of J Sweeney, not even his first name. But even that brief letter gives a sense of how IWWism shaped the lives of militants. With his ‘No Political Dope’ valediction, he reaffirmed both his opposition to parliamentarianism and his commitment to the distinctive Wobbly lexicon.

The potted biographies Davidson constructs from the registry present wartime dissidence in all its diversity.

‘They tell us to fight for king and country,’ declared Māori leader Te Kirihaehae Te Puea Herangi. ‘We’ve got a King. But we haven’t got a country. That’s been taken off us. Let them give us back our land and then maybe we’ll think about it again.’

The rhetoric of Timothy Brosnan, an Irish Catholic road labourer court-martialled for resisting conscription, sounded remarkably similar. In a letter, he explained the answer he gave to the court that asked him to put on a uniform: ‘I said I was an Irishman, a Sinn Feiner … that I would never fight for John Bull but always fight against him.’

The registry also contains a 1916 letter from a certain Marie Weitzel to her brother in Germany that presents the hostility to John Bull from a different direction:

The English and their greed, are the roots of all misery that prevails in the world. … It is awfully lonely to be in this country, the only Germans among the worms, the only ones with a heart.

The anti-German sentiment in New Zealand pre-dated the war, with the colonies reflecting and intensifying hysteria emanating from the imperial centre. In 1909, with Britain engaged in naval arms race with Germany (and readers thrilling to HG Wells’ recent The War in the Air), a wave of Zeppelin sighting swept across New Zealand. At the town of Kelso in West Otago, a teacher and two dozen students swore that they’d witnessed a German airship swooping over the town, sending police scurrying to investigate.

The outbreak of hostilities intensified the terror of outsiders. Yet Weitzel came to the censor’s attention, not merely as a German but as a socialist.

In 1912, after losing court cases resulting from squabbles with her neighbours, she asked a local minister why she had been robbed of justice. He replied that socialists and anarchists had no right to justice.

The Women’s Anti-German League declared Weitzel ‘a dangerous person’ on the basis of the (actual) presence of visiting radicals in her family home. ‘Meetings are held there by the Socialists and the IWW,’ they declared.

As a result of the persecution she faced, Weitzel requested, at the end of the war, to be repatriated to Germany, only to be told that she wasn’t eligible … because of her British citizenship. The official who refused her request concluded:

the letter is couched in such an impertinent typically German manner that I think the applicant condemns her case at once.

But you didn’t have to share the nationality of the enemy to face racial persecution combined with bureaucratic obduracy. Another letter comes from a man called Arthur Muravleff, desperately seeking release from the Somes Island Internment Camp. Muravleff was Russian, and although the Russians were allies, they were considered foreign enough to be suspicious. In his correspondence, he sought, unsuccessfully, to find precisely what he’d done to warrant incarceration.

‘Please inform this Prisoner of War,’ wrote an officer in response, ‘that the Defence Department does not feel disposed to furnish him with full particulars for which he was interned.’

Muravleff was instructed to write to Peter Simonov, the Russian consul in Melbourne. But Simonov had also been imprisoned (by the Australian government, for his Bolshevik agitation) – and so Muravleff remained imprisoned until he escaped in 1920.

Dead Letters contains a striking photograph of a further Somes Island detainee – a woman by the name of Dr Hjelmer Dannevill, under suspicion of being a German spy but investigated mostly for her sexuality.

In the image, she wears a long skirt but also male boots, jacket and tie, with close-cropped hair. The authorities could determine neither her nationality nor her gender. They interrogated her about the first – and medically examined her to decide the second.

The registry holds letters confiscated from Dr Dannevill, in which other women shower her with endearments.

‘Oh my Hjelmar I do want you so,’ writes one. ‘I must let my heart’s love flow out to you in writing it will relieve me.’

The slim documentation surviving about her case includes an article from the Wellington Evening Star reporting that ‘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’, and a letter from a Mr JA Fothergill of Dunedin expressing his gratitude for Dr Dannevill’s medical skills and defending her ‘masculine style of dress’ as ‘merely a proof that her mind had risen superior to and emancipated from the tyranny and vanity of fashion.’

The First World War ushered in new modes for thinking about sexuality and politics. Dead Letters captures a moment of transition, an instant in which ideas we now take for granted still contended against ideas now forgotten.

Take the 1919 correspondence from Laura Anderson in Auckland to her cousin Sara in Denmark, in which Laura discusses the enthusiasm she and her husband Carl feel for the Russian revolution. She writes:

We are both very much interested in the Bolshevik movement in Europe, but there are so many contradictory reports in our newspapers that it is hard to know what to believe. No doubt you get more reliable news on account of living in a neutral and democratic country, and I would very much like to hear your opinion of the Bolshevik Governments. My husband … has written a poem about “Bolshevism” and we would like to send it to Lenin or Trotsky, but on account of the strict censorship we are unable to do so from here. If I sent the poem on to you; would you be able to address and send it on to either of them at Moscow.

We don’t tend to think of New Zealand as less democratic than Denmark but – less than a fortnight after Anderson posted her letter – it was being read by the Deputy Chief Postal Censor.

‘I should judge that the husband is a Bolshevik sympathizer,’ he, rather redundantly, concluded.

In fact, Carl Anderson was more than that. He and Laura farmed dairy on a remote property west of Auckland but Carl was also a visionary known as the ‘Mystic of the Waitakeres’, who believed he channeled cosmic forces with his poetry.

As for Laura, she was the daughter of a spiritualist, whose nephews founded the ‘Beeville’ commune in 1927, where pacifists, nudists and vegetarians forged an alternative lifestyle long before the sixties counterculture.

The intercepted letter of 1919 marks a time when the meaning of Bolshevism was still perceived as sufficiently in flux that Lenin and Trotsky, though embroiled in the Russian Civil War, might welcome some verses composed by a mystical farmer-poet at the other end of the world.

In places, the chronological jumps in Dead Letters make for challenging reading for those unfamiliar with New Zealand labour history. Yet, if you push through the difficulties what emerges – as Charlotte MacDonald says in her introduction – is ‘a map of radical New Zealand c1914-1920 and its connections with the wider world.’ The stories we hear might be framed by repression, but they speak about forgotten yearnings for political change.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The war that never ended: public history for the present

A success. That’s the verdict passed by New Zealand’s official First World War commemoration programme (WW100) on their own commemoration programme, released as a final report last month. The stats are indeed impressive: 93 percent of New Zealanders aged 15 years+ engaged in the programme in some way, thanks to the $65 million spent on the centennial. The futility of war was the most-cited emotional response, which is interesting when put alongside the programme’s objective to strengthen ‘national identity’ (read: the nation state) and an ‘enduring commitment to peace, global security and international cooperation (read: current and future wars).

Others have already analysed the report in more detail. Yet I can’t help but think more broadly about the gaps in WW100. What stories did those 93 percent engage with? Whose voices were heard, and whose were not? What did the programme have to say on the deeper themes of the conflict and its causes?

I believe that by not explicitly engaging with the root causes of the First World War—especially capitalism and white supremacy— the WW100 programme missed or muted histories that would otherwise have been available to tell. This not only includes the experiences or events chosen to study, but also how those events are portrayed.

It also affects periodisation. The Final Report was released in May 2019. But when did the First World War end? With the Armistice of November 1918? With the return of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force? Or somewhere else?

A selection of wartime experiences from my book Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920 illustrates how the analysis of capitalism and white supremacy points us towards stories that don't end comfortably in late 1918, or fit within the scope of WW100. These are just two of many possible frames of reference. While it may seem like I am distinguishing capitalism and white supremacy from each other and from other social relations, in reality, they form a unity of social experience, and were lived and felt as such.

The struggle for Irish independence, both in New Zealand and abroad, is an obvious example of a narrative that ran through and beyond the official war years. Molly and Timothy Brosnan were immigrants from Ireland, arriving in the decade before the war. Both were staunch Sinn Fein supporters and when Tim was conscripted for military service in March 1917, he quit his job as a navvy and went on the run. In similar terms to many indigenous Māori from the Waikato area, Tim refused to serve who he believed to be the colonizer and oppressor of his native homeland.

Arrested in August 1917 and incarcerated at Rotoaira Prison, as Armistice came and went Tim remained in jail and separated from his wife Molly. When the Religious Advisory Board came around in February 1919 to establish which objectors still in prison were considered genuine and who were not, Tim and 12 others refused to see them. He was classified as a defiant objector and lost all civil rights until 1927. Because of this, Tim’s time after his release was never truly free. He died at Taihape Hospital of pneumonia on 1 October 1929, aged 47, leaving a hole in both the family and the family story.

Feelings against working-class or republican Irish, ‘foreigners’, and fear of the ‘other’ had its roots in the interests and identities of New Zealand’s white settler society. Like a weathervane, the measure of Britishness, whiteness—and therefore acceptance—shifted with economic, cultural and global events. This not only affected how Germany and Germans in New Zealand were perceived before and after August 1914, but also those born in allied or neutral countries.

Arthur Muravleff was a labourer and an aspiring Maxim Gorky from Russia whose writing on working conditions in New Zealand was cut short by the state. Racialised by anonymous informants from 1914 and finally arrested as a suspected spy in December 1917, Arthur was interned and refused release after Armistice despite Russia being an ally during the war. This was partly because of a policy on internees remaining in jail until the return of frontline New Zealand troops, but also because of official attitudes towards the Bolshevik government, the paranoia of the Red Scare, and an ever-present Russophobia.

By March 1920, after more than two years of internment, he’d had enough. In the early morning hours of 17 March, Arthur pried open the floorboards of his Featherston prison cell and escaped.

Even Christensen was a watersider and labourer based in the South Island city of Dunedin. As a watersider Even occupied the frontline of port economies and felt keenly the charge and retreat of capitalism. As a watersider born in Norway, he bore the added weight of wartime hysteria despite his naturalisation, his 35-year residence in Dunedin and the neutral stance of his country of birth. The social construction of race and the enemy within, intensified by wartime conditions, extended to Scandinavians like Even. Hounded by the press and the state, he was among the many naturalized subjects forced to register as an alien (as non-British subjects were called) in 1917.

Upset at his treatment, in June 1919 Even wrote a bitter letter to a friend. That letter was stopped by a postal censor and, as a result, Even’s naturalization was revoked. Unlike the wealth his labour created, he could no longer cross borders freely or obtain a passport; all legal and political rights were forfeited: he could not vote, access any kind of state aid or purchase rural land, and any land he owned became first in line to be taken for public works. He was barred from working in certain jobs or in certain industries, and if he committed any crime there was a much higher chance of his being deported. Despite the petitions of his son, Even died stateless in 1930.

Berthold Matzke was a watersider and member of the Direct Action Group, an anti-capitalist and anti-war collective of Wobblies (members of the Industrial Workers of the World) based in New Zealand’s vibrant city of Auckland. Prominent during the Great Strike of 1913 that saw class war erupt across many New Zealand ports and cities, Berthold was active on the waterfront despite being blacklisted from the pro-employer unions. His vocal opposition to militarism and his German heritage made him a favourite target of the police, who regarded him as a highly successful agitator.

For his anti-capitalist politics Berthold was interned, denied his freedom despite being dangerously unwell, and died of pneumonia at Featherston Camp on 16 June 1919. His wife Florence, who remained in Auckland during his jail time, was ‘lucky’ enough to make it to the funeral. She eventually commissioned a headstone for him. But the couple had no offspring to maintain it, and so it took some time for my family and I to find it when we searched last April. Once we found it, we cleaned it up and left flowers—a small gesture acknowledging his wartime experience.

As I explore more thoroughly in Dead Letters, structures and powers of state surveillance, coupled with extended wartime legislation, continued to impact on the lives of many well beyond 1918 and 1919. Sedition and firearm laws, and the introduction of the passport, are just two examples.

The WW100 programme covered aspects of this in a feature on censorship and an online entry called ‘Policing the war effort’. However, in these and other features, I felt the WW100 programme only ever scratched the surface.

In exploring the April 1916 police raid on Māori prophet Rua Kēnana and his community at Maungapōhatu, where was the analysis of colonization and white supremacy? In highlighting anti-German hysteria, where was the analysis of whiteness and the construction of race? In writing about war weariness and the cost of living, where was the analysis of class and gender relations?

Where, in short, was capitalism?

Indeed, throughout the long years of the centennial programme, I kept waiting for the official narratives to go deeper—to ask why.

The programme’s treatment of Armistice and the class struggles that erupted across Europe throughout 1918 is a prime example. As I wrote for Overland, I searched the programme resources in vain for any reference to how and why Armistice came about. There was a notable silence on the strikes, mutinies and class struggles of the masses of working men and women who contributed to the war’s end.

There was also nothing on the riotous NZEF troops of 14 November 1918, whose direct action in France forced the hand of their ‘superiors’, or the mutinous troops at Featherson Camp two weeks later. The WW100 feature on the Sling Camp riots of March 1919—the most serious breakdown of discipline in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the European theatre—dedicated a single paragraph to the actual riot and, with little analysis, repeated the typical causal narrative of demobilisation.

Yes, frustration around demobilisation was a major factor, but not the only one. 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.’

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 throughout the war. Yet this fact is absent from both the Armistice and Sling Camp riot accounts.

The Surafend Massacre of December 1918 is the other timely example. How might the WW100 feature on Surafend have differed if the event had been analysed within the framework of white supremacy? Considering it was a highly racialized act of terror that saw New Zealand and other Allied troops kill at least 40 Palestinian Arabs, there is no mention of racism or white supremacy in the feature. It notes ‘long-standing grievances against the Arabs’ and then seemingly blames the previous actions of the victims themselves: ‘soldiers had been required to treat all Arabs with sensitivity so as to maintain their allegiance in the war’ and only post-armistice could the ANZACs show their true colours. Despite recent research on the massacre, we also learn nothing about the victims. They remain the nameless collateral of our ANZAC’s ‘dark thoughts.’

Perhaps I’m being far too critical of the WW100 programme and the small pool of public historians who worked on WW100-related events. As Douglas Hay reminds us, the writing of history ‘is deeply conditioned not only by our personal political and moral histories, but also by the times in which we live, and where we live.’ And also, I would add, where we work.

I feel the silences described above stem from a wider issue for official public history. That is the idea of neutrality and the political choice of ‘not being political’, of taking ‘the middle ground’, or not taking any ground at all. As a result, like the colourful lights flickering across the surface of Wellington’s Carillion, we catch glimpses and shadows, but never full illumination.

Perhaps official histories by and for the state are complicated by the capitalist and white supremacist nature of the state itself. However, I believe official public historians have a role to play. And in these times and in this place, I think we should question whether neutrality and the middle ground is tenable. Because the middle ground is being swept away by the flash floods and wild fires of climate change; or occupied by racist and ill-informed rhetoric.

Sadly, as the 15 March 2019 terror attack on Muslims in Christchurch shows, the same horrific causes of the First World War continue to harm in the present. It’s a sober reminder that we’re not talking in the abstract.

Whatever comes our way next, whether it is the New Zealand Wars or this year’s commemoration of Māori encounters with Captain Cook and the Endeavour, I ask that we strive towards a bold and brave public history—histories that can grapple with all the complexities and uncomfortableness of the past. Histories that gets at the root of an issue, in the original meaning of the word ‘radical.’ In short, I want us to ask why.

Because my biggest fear, more than just producing bad or incomplete histories, is that despite our best intentions, we end up normalising the harm caused by capitalism and white supremacy both in the past, and in the present.

Jared Davidson is a labour historian and archivist based in Wellington, New Zealand. He’s the author of three books, including his latest, Dead Letters: Censorship and subversion in New Zealand 1914–1920. This paper was first presented at the PHANZA Conference in April 2019: many thanks to Ross Webb for his feedback.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Dead Letters reviewed by the Otago Daily Times

"A fascinating insight into a time and way of thinking which may seem far distant but is much closer to today than we may have supposed or hoped." A wee review of Dead Letters by the Otago Daily Times (click to enlarge).

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Join the Labour History Project!

LHP Bulletin No.75 is now out for our current members! It's also time to renew your membership for 2019-2020, or if you haven't already, to join the LHP!

By joining the Labour History Project you will be supporting the promotion of working-class history, receive the LHP Bulletin three times a year, and keep up-to-date with the latest news, reviews and events. Find out how to join here:

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

New Zealand's 'dead' letters brought to life

Click to enlarge
In late April and early May 2019, nine NZME regional newspapers ran an interview with me about Dead Letters. Click on the image above to read the interview in full.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Dead Letters, Great War Stories

Image by Glenn Humphries
On 24 April 2019 I gave a talk with Anna Cottrell at the National Library's Wellington auditorium. The event was called 'Dead Letters, Great War Stories' and included a screening of eight films from the Great War Stories project. Here's my talk from the event. Many thanks to Anna, and the National Library and Alexander Turnbull Library team for making the event happen.

Today being 24 April is an auspicious date for my talk. It is of course the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, but closer to home, 24 April is when the Prince of Wales arrived in New Zealand for his 1920 Royal Tour. For anyone who has read Dead Letters, the Prince of Wales is the thread that ties together the beginning and end letters of the book. It was also a research topic close to David Colquhoun’s heart. David passed away last year, so I’d like to acknowledge David and his long association with the Alexander Turnbull Library.

I want to begin with a letter written by Robert Gould. As I read it, I’d like you to think back on the four-plus years of the WW100 centennial. Hold on to any images or memories that come to you…

R Gould, 4 Tinakori Rd, Wellington. 28/8/18

I was elected to go and fight for our “Glorious Empire” but the trouble is I don’t feel any of that patriotic spirit running down my backbone. I am not going unless of course they wind and gag me and they are not past doing that in this splendid little bit of our Empire. I did not go before the Medical Board and I did not appeal but you will see by the papers that about 40 wharfies appealed and only eleven were turned down and have to go to camp, unless they are prepared to go to one of Bill’s Boarding Houses.

I suppose you heard about the treatment of the C.O.’s at Wanganui Prison, it was pretty hot, some of the chaps were just about driven insane. When you hear about Huns just refer them to N.Z. and a little place called Wanganui, and it is not stretched at all by the accounts I have got, of course the warders etc. were shifted from there to other places, but the Head Officer there, up to the present is still in charge. I got a letter from a chap up there today, it was smuggled out and he said that when he went there the C.O. in charge told him he would like to shoot him, so you can see the respectable gentleman they have in charge there.

They may arrest me any time now, it is seven weeks since I should have visited the doctor, anyhow I don’t intend to go, they can do what they like, they have the power because the slaves in uniform do all their dirty work for them and the organisations are really assisting them by their rotten attitude, it makes a man disgusted with his fellows…  
I saw Charlie Johnstone he is out of his little spot and quite well. The military arrested Jones last week and sent him to Wanganui for 28 days and then he will get a C.M. and 2 years when he comes back to Trentham. However there are too many to mention names going for the two years and that is the only ray of hope that shines out in the whole damned business.

I received your letter alright—did you get mine?

Remember me to any friends with hope for the revolution some day at any rate.

Yours in revolt, R Gould
PS Things are only middling with the miners and they are either going out or going slow and there is no coal in the country worth speaking about. Just got word Jones is pretty bad at Wanganui gaol and the Officer in Charge there is a dog.

In the space of four paragraphs, the four years of official WW100 commemoration are confronted with a very different story – one of resistance, defiance, and objection. We learn of the anti-militarist movement and its members, of whom over 650 had been imprisoned by the state. We learn of the Wanganui Detention Barracks scandal, when an official enquiry found overwhelming evidence of mistreatment and brutality that led to the prison camp being shut down. We learn of the strikes and go-slows the government worked so quickly to stop, believing, in the words of Defence Minister James Allen, that the nation was doomed. Thanks to the letter of Robert Gould, we gain an insight into the views of an ordinary, working-class writer during an extraordinary time.

It is the experiences of Robert and others on the margins of wartime society that are the focus of my book, Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914 -1920. In fact, Robert is not a main protagonist in the book and makes but a brief appearance (on p.110 if anyone is looking). But his letter is an excellent entry into the confiscated letters of the Army Department’s ‘Secret Registry’, personal experiences of the First World War, and the Great War Stories that will be screening shortly.


So who was Robert Gould? Born in England and late of Timaru, Robert was a 36-year old watersider, socialist, husband, and father of two who was known as a boxer in his youth. 5’5” with greying hair and brown eyes, Robert had scars on his arms and neck from his waterfront work and a tattoo of a woman’s head on his right forearm. Skilled with a winch and crane, Robert was also an avid reader and largely self-educated. When asked about his views, he would quip that socialism would bring a little more butter on the bread, and a little more light in the home and work.

A month after writing his letter, Robert was arrested and sent to camp, where he refused all military orders. He was sentenced to 23 months hard labour and imprisoned at Waikeria, near Te Awamutu. In April 1919, as he languished in a cell alongside other resistors, Robert learned that his wife was seriously ill. He asked to be transferred to Wellington to be near her. His request was denied. So Robert went on hunger strike, refused all work, and was placed in solitary confinement. Others soon followed in protest, and Robert was quickly removed to Mt. Eden prison.

But the hunger strike did not end with Robert’s transfer. Within 3 days, 36 military prisoners had joined the hunger strike, partly in sympathy with Robert and partly through frustration at being jailed despite Armistice having come and gone. 15 days later, a hardcore group were still refusing all food, drink and work. The authorities were stumped, and with no real answers, were extremely relieved when the strike was called off by the prisoners themselves.

Meanwhile, Robert had been transferred to Wellington and was eventually released on 20 October 1919. He would go on to join the Communist Party of New Zealand, where he gave lectures on the Russian Revolution and continued his love of reading. He later fell foul of the censors for importing banned literature, and later, of the Party as well. He was expelled from the Party in 1922


Robert’s letter was just one of the 1.2 million letters stopped and examined by military postal censors during the First World War. As Charlotte Macdonald writes in the Foreword to Dead Letters, ‘mail was connection, vital to keeping relationships, political ideas, and social movements alive. And in that force lay its danger.’

By November 1920, when the censorship of domestic mail officially came to an end, writers critical of the government had had their mail detained, were put under close surveillance, or had their homes or offices raided. Some were jailed. Others were deported. In an era when post was paramount, the wartime censorship of domestic correspondence heralded the largest state intrusion into Pākehā private life in New Zealand history.

It is hard to know exactly how many of these letters were withheld or destroyed, because it was policy after the war simply to destroy any letters and packets that had been confiscated. Despite this, some letters ended up in the Army Department’s Secret Registry. A writer whose correspondence went into this exclusive set of records would have a constable following their every move, enquiries made with their employer or a raid of their home. It meant censors in New Zealand and Australia were talking about them, as were the chief of general staff, the commissioner of police, the upper echelons of parliament and, in some cases, the prime minister. It put a halt to the intended trajectories of the letters. And if they made it through the haphazard recordkeeping of the twentieth century, the letters found a home in the long metal stacks of the modern archive.

The Secret Registry appears to have been set up before 1912 as a way for the military to store confidential material too sensitive for their main filing system. The incomplete nature of the records suggests the Secret Registry was far larger in the past. Yet among the 500 surviving records in the registry are more than 50 complete letters, and extracts from many others.

As objects they are a real treat. Close to half remain in their original, handwritten form; the rest have been meticulously transcribed on a typewriter. The archival experience of viewing and handling these artefacts is near-impossible to convey – the joy of each discovery, the smell, the texture, grappling with their hundred-year-old folds. Some contain treasure within treasure: a clipping of a West Coast fern, perfectly dried and preserved; money order receipts from a Te Aro post office; pocket-sized pamphlets printed on a rebel press. Others feature elaborate letterheads, patterns of splattered ink and loose scribbles designed to convey order.


My book is about postal censorship, but really, I was drawn to the writers behind the words. The letters provide us with a personalised snapshot of life from the bottom up. Indeed, because the writers describe their day-to-day lives and the issues that concerned them, the letters allow us to undertake an exercise in biography and identity formation from below. As the historian Marcus Rediker wrote, ‘we do not, for once, have to ask repression to recount the history of what it was repressing’.

In their own words and often in intimate detail, the writers describe the social forces that shaped opinion and the lenses used to make sense of war. Even the language they use is one way these fragments of everyday life steer us towards a larger and more complex story. Because of this the letters are a useful companion to generalisations about the impact of the war on New Zealand society and culture.

As a unique record of working-class experience, the letters also allow us to hear voices often silenced by traditional histories. Most working-class women and men like Robert Gould did not keep diaries, publish their thoughts or fill the shelves of manuscript libraries with their personal archives. Miles Fairburn, writing about the remarkable exception of Wairarapa labourer James Cox, notes how illiteracy, work-related fatigue, the stress of economic insecurity and lack of spare time deprived many workers of the opportunity to keep a diary. Letter-writing was far more common, yet even these snippets of working-class life are wholly dependent on whether they were kept or – in the case of this book, detained.

Indeed, by intercepting, confiscating and archiving these letters, the state has preserved their resistance far better than if the letters had been allowed to reach their intended destinations. The unintended consequence – and a satisfying form of poetic justice – is that the letters are now available to a far larger audience.


Charlotte Macdonald noted that these letters remind us ‘that WW1 was fought in conditions of political turbulence. It is an important reminder, as the historical discourse of 1914-18 has come to be strongly characterised by rather too neatly drawn themes of consensual patriotism, duty and sacrifice.’ According to Charlotte, the people whose letters were confiscated — the agitators, non-conformists, socialists, anarchists, Irish nationalists, and questioners of authority asking stirring questions of the ethics of war — show us ‘a New Zealand beyond the pieties of the war memorial.’

I hope my talk today has given you a glimpse into a wartime New Zealand that remains largely hidden, but is slowly revealing itself. The confiscated letters are one avenue. The other is film. So it gives me great pleasure to now hand over to Anna Cottrell and her Great War Stories. Kia ora koutou.