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: http://www.lhp.org.nz/index.php/join/.

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.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

'Dead Letters' out now!

Image by Dani Henki
I'm very happy to note that my latest book, Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914 - 1920, is out now with by Otago University Press

We launched it into the world with great cheer at Unity Books, which you can read about from the Unity Books website. As Dani Henki of Unity Books writes, "laughter and applause rippled through the crowd numerous times while Jared spoke about the journey that led to the creation of Dead Letters, acknowledging the families of letter writers included in the book, descendants of anti-war farmers, socialists, lovers, and people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was an incredible turnout, some folks came from as far north as Auckland and as far south as Christchurch."

I want to thank everyone who made it to the launch (including descendants of the letter writers), as well as Rachel Scott and Charlotte Macdonald, who spoke on the night. It was great to be surrounded by so many friends, family, and colleagues. 

As the reviews and things slowly roll in, I'm keeping track of them on my personal website, which you can follow here: https://jared-davidson.com/deadletters/info/

Finally, you can order your copy at Nationwide Books (free shipping within NZ), or get your local library to request a copy.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

History from below: a reading list with Marcus Rediker


First published in Overland Literary Journal, February 2019.

The writing of history, argued Douglas Hay, ‘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.’ Whether we acknowledge it or not, all historians and writers ‘take stands by our choice of words, handling of evidence, and analytic categories. And also by our silences.’

It is these silences – of the historical record and the conscious/subconscious approaches of many historians – that history from below seeks to recover. But what exactly is history from below? Who is below? And now that modern historians of any worth must consider the aims and methods of social history, as well as class, gender and race, is there still value in the label history from below?

Sometimes known as ‘people’s history’ or ‘radical history’, according to the Institute of Historical Research, history from below is history that:
seeks to take as its subjects ordinary people, and concentrates on their experiences and perspectives, contrasting itself with the stereotype of traditional political history and its focus on the actions of ‘great men’. It also differs from traditional labour history in that its exponents are more interested in popular protest and culture than in the organisations of the working class.
For David Hitchcock, history from below is history which preserves, and which foregrounds, the marginalised stories and experiences of people who, all else being equal, did not get the chance to author their own story. The recovery of voices missing from the historical narrative is a central purpose of history from below.

An active and world-renowned practitioner of history from below is Marcus Rediker, Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and author of many prize-winning books (my favourite, by a pinch, is The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic with Peter Linebaugh). For Rediker, history from below is a variety of social history that emerged in the New Left to explore the experiences and history-making power of working people who had long been left out of elite, ‘top-down’ historical narratives. It is an approach to the past ‘that concentrates not on the traditional subjects of history, not the kings and the presidents and the philosophers, but on ordinary working people, not simply for what they experienced in the past but for their ability to shape the way history happens.’ Finding and exalting the collective self-activity or agency of working people is paramount. As Rediker notes, ‘the phrase ‘history from below’ is a rhetorical assertion of political sympathy but also of how history happens.’

It would be wrong, however, to think that history from below ignores power relations or the powerful. As Geoff Eley argues, setting history from below against histories of ‘the bosses, bankers and brokers who run the economy’ is to invoke a false antinomy. ‘Historians from below’, notes Rediker, ‘study power.’

In doing so, history from below (especially feminist work and studies of slavery and unfree labour) has expanded our understanding of the working class and working-class struggle beyond waged labour. Rediker’s own work on slavery and the revolutionary Atlantic is a case in point, for it includes the waged and the unwaged, men and women, and people of many different ethnicities and cultures. Previously overlooked forms of resistance to capitalism have joined the ranks of more traditional labour actions.

Those who have worked to this end includes the American historian Jesse Lemisch, who passed away in late 2018. In his preface to Lemisch’s Jack Tar vs. John Bull: The Role of New York’s Seamen in Precipitating the Revolution, Rediker writes that Lemisch helped to internationalise American history and to make its study more sophisticated ‘by adapting and popularizing the work of the British Marxist historians – Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, George Rudé, and especially E.P. Thompson, all of whom eschewed dogmatism, reductionism, determinism, and excessive abstraction in favour of a flexible, concrete humanism in the writing of politically-engaged history.’

Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class showed historian Ruth Mather ‘a new way of doing history, one which didn’t patronise working people, or subsume them in a narrative of progress, but instead constructed a story about thinking, feeling people with their own ideas about their lives and their own strategies for living them.’ Rediker argues that Lemisch went beyond these distinguished scholars in several respects:
If the British Marxist historians, along with the French historians Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul, had pioneered ‘history from below,’ which made historical actors of religious radicals, rioters, peasants, and artisans, Lemisch pushed the phrase and the history further and harder with ‘history from the bottom up,’ a more inclusive and comprehensive formulation that brought all subjects, especially slaves and women, more fully into the historian’s field of vision… by insisting that sailors and other workers had ideas of their own, he [also] made a point that many historians have yet to grasp – the history of the working class must be an intellectual as well as a social history.
However there is more to it than simply the people we choose to write about (although they are crucial). In researching and telling history from below, the ‘how’ is just as important. This includes the methodologies we use, the sources we scour, and the narratives we employ to tell the story. Eley notes how history from below posits ‘a set of conceptual rules and protocols, methodologies and theoretical approaches, topics and fields, cautions and incitements, that allow the largest of analytical questions to be brought down to the ground.’ Viewpoint is critical. Rediker, echoing George Rawick, notes that ‘if you write something in which an ordinary working person couldn’t see him or herself in that story, somehow you’ve failed. That’s a question of audience, of sympathy, of the subjects you choose to treat, and how you treat them.’

In this vein, Rediker believes all good storytellers (and good historians) tell a big story within a little story. In his own work ‘the big story has always been the violent, terror-filled rise of capitalism and the many-sided resistance to it from below, whether from the point-of-view of an enslaved African woman trapped in the bowels of a fetid slave ship; a common sailor who mutinied and raised the black flag of piracy aboard a brig on the wide Atlantic; or a runaway former slave who escaped the plantation for a Maroon community in a swamp.’

By emphasising resistance and the agency of everyday people, history from below has always challenged dominant historical narratives and the power relations they help to maintain. Which is why history from below remains as pertinent as ever. As Hitchcock notes, ‘history must be uncomfortable. If history allows you to be complacent, it is not doing its job.’

For Rediker, part of that work is teaching. He is currently the visiting professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where he is running the graduate course, ‘How to Write History from Below.’ The course explores the key theories, methods, and issues in history from below, from its origin in the 1930s, through the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, to the present.

As Marcus prepared for his stint in Hawai’i, he shared online the books that he thought were essential for anyone interested in learning how to write history from below. Thinking they would make a great reading list, I wrote to Marcus and, with his permission, they are reproduced here. They also made me wonder: what books could be considered exemplars of Australian or New Zealand histories from below?

Happy reading!

C.L.R. James, Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, Vintage, 1938.

‘This powerful, intensely dramatic book is the definitive account of the Haitian Revolution of 1794-1803, a revolution that began in the wake of the Bastille but became the model for the Third World liberation movements from Africa to Cuba.’

E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Vintage, 1963.


‘A seminal text on the history of the working class by one of the most important intellectuals of the twentieth century … The work has become one of the most influential social commentaries every written.’

Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas in the English Revolution, Penguin, 1972.

‘Christopher Hill studies the beliefs of such radical groups as the Diggers, the Ranters, the Levellers, and others, and the social and emotional impulses that gave rise to them … It is a portrait not of the bourgeois revolution that actually took place but of the impulse towards a far more fundamental overturning of society.’

Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre, Harvard University Press, 1983.
‘Natalie Zemon Davis reconstructs the lives of ordinary people, in a sparkling way that reveals the hidden attachments and sensibilities of nonliterate sixteenth-century villagers.’

Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
‘An incisive study of popular culture in the sixteenth century as seen through the eyes of one man, the miller known as Menocchio, who was accused of heresy during the Inquisition and sentenced to death … Ginzburg’s influential book has been widely regarded as an early example of the analytic, case-oriented approach known as microhistory.’

Joan Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, Columbia University Press, 1988.
‘This landmark work from a renowned feminist historian is a trenchant critique of women’s history and gender inequality. Exploring topics ranging from language and gender to the politics of work and family, Gender and the Politics of History is a crucial interrogation of the uses of gender as a tool for cultural and historical analysis.’

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, Autonomedia, 2004.
‘In the neoliberal era of postmodernism, the proletariat is whited-out from the pages of history… Federici shows that the birth of the proletariat required a war against women, inaugurating a new sexual pact and a new patriarchal era: the patriarchy of the wage.’

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Beacon Press, 2015.
‘Acclaimed historian and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz offers a history of the United States told from the perspective of Indigenous peoples and reveals how Native Americans, for centuries, actively resisted expansion of the US empire.’

Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Beacon Press, 2004.
‘Long before the American Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a motley crew of sailors, slaves, pirates, laborers, market women, and indentured servants had ideas about freedom and equality that would forever change history … Marshalling an impressive range of original research from archives in the Americas and Europe, the authors show how ordinary working people led dozens of rebellions on both sides of the North Atlantic.’

Marcus Rediker, The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom, Penguin, 2012.
‘In this powerful and highly original account, Marcus Rediker reclaims the Amistad rebellion for its true proponents: the enslaved Africans who risked death to stake a claim for freedom.’

Julius Scott, The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution, Verso, 2018.
‘A gripping and colorful account of the intercontinental networks that tied together the free and enslaved masses of the New World… by tracking the colliding worlds of buccaneers, military deserters, and maroon communards from Venezuela to Virginia, Scott records the transmission of contagious mutinies and insurrections in unparalleled detail, providing readers with an intellectual history of the enslaved.’’

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/