Friday, October 1, 2021

Review: The History of a Riot

Review by Greg Fleming of The History of a Riot for Kete Books.

BWB Texts specialise in publishing “short books on big subjects.” That includes everything from a book on antibiotic resistance by Covid-star Siouxsie Wiles to one entitled Two Hundred and Fifty Ways to Start an Essay about Captain Cook.

The celebrated imprint has been around for decades under the leadership of publishing veteran Bridget Williams and has a strong focus on New Zealand and Māori history, women’s issues and contemporary political and social topics.

BWB’s latest release is by historian and archivist Jared Davidson who has a reputation for exploring and questioning history through a focus on the lives of ordinary people, ones often overlooked by historians.

Here he zeroes in on an uprising that occurred at Nelson’s port in 1843, when 80 armed labourers stormed the New Zealand Company store, protesting their poor working conditions and low pay.

Davidson’s contention is that the incident reveals the presence of a strong, politically adept working class who were not afraid to take their demands to their overbearing employers. While this is an academic text some of the events it describes between settlers and labourers read like an episode of the visceral TV show Deadwood. These guys were the colonial version of punk rockers.

“In 1843,” Davidson writes, “it was not the gang-men’s hard work that won them access to land, but idleness, work refusal and rioting."

In a way it wasn’t a surprising turn of events; the men and their families were lured here with promises of employment and a weekly parcel of rations. When the harsh reality of life in a new country hit them and those promises weren’t fully kept, the men organised among themselves and fought back the only way they knew how - through petitions, strikes and violence. Many had experienced or seen or taken part in labour struggles and political unrest in England and replicated that collective action here.

Further, Davidson shows how The New Zealand Company, responsible for luring the workers across oceans, underestimated the workers’ resolve and ultimately paid the price. It’s a fascinating micro-study of a little known corner of our colonial history and one that questions what Davidson calls “the myth of New Zealand exceptionalism.”

Davidson wrote in a piece promoting the book on Stuff that the accepted understanding that our colonial history is somehow “unique” is both erroneous and damaging. “From it stems other myths,” he wrote — “from ‘the best race relations in the world’ to New Zealand as ‘a worker’s paradise’.”

His thesis is that the struggle of the workers and their wives — Davidson makes an effort to tell their stories too — proves that this sort of violence and protest was evident early, a view that challenges the familiar image of the pioneering men and women who toiled away and “made good.”

With the new Aotearoa history curriculum scheduled to start in all schools next year, the publication of this lively, immaculately researched, pocket-sized primer on our early class struggles will intrigue a new generation of readers.

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