Monday, August 17, 2020

‘Dead Letters’ wins the 2020 Bert Roth Award

From the LHP website
: Jared Davidson is the winner of the 2020 Bert Roth Award for Labour History for his book, Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920, published by Otago University Press.

The award was announced at the Labour History Project AGM on Tuesday 11 August.

Named for the late historian Herbert Roth, the award is presented annually to the work that best depicts the history of work and resistance in New Zealand published in the previous calendar year.

The award was judged this year by Paul Maunder, Cybele Locke, Claire-Louise, Ross Webb, and Mark Derby.

‘In his excellent book, Dead Letters, archivist and historian Jared Davidson introduces us to a range of extraordinary characters whose stories and struggles challenge the nationalist narratives of the war’, the judges found.

‘These historical characters, as introduced in the blurb of the book, include “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”’.

‘What connects this cast of characters is that their activities, their letters, and in some cases their activism against the war, was of interest to the New Zealand state. The letters they wrote, to loved ones, friends, and comrades, were never delivered, but were intercepted by the state. They are now held at Archives New Zealand, in the Special Registry File, where Davidson discovered them 100 years later’.

‘In telling their stories, Davidson not only provides a compelling historical narrative, he also contributes to our understanding of the First World War home front, to the early history of surveillance, to the history of political and industrial activism and dissent (often in the most surprising places!), and more broadly to New Zealand social history and the history of the modern state’.

2020 Runner Up

Tony Sutorius, Director, Helen Kelly – Together, 2019.

2020 Shortlist

Stephanie Gibson, Matariki Williams and Puawai Cairns, Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance, Te Papa Press, 2019.

Barbara Brookes, Jane McCabe and Angela Wanhalla. eds., Past Caring? Women, Work and Emotion, Otago University Press, 2019.

Hilary Stace, JB Munro: Community Citizen, Wellington, 2019.

Caitlin Lynch, Director, Harriet Morrison – Fighting for Fairness, 2019.

Max Nichol, An ‘Organ of Student Opinion’? Alternative Print, Protest, and the Politics of Education in Salient, 1973-1989, MA Thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2019.

Rachel Standfield and Michael J. Stevens, ‘New Histories but Old Patterns: Kāi Tahu in Australia’ in Victoria Stead and Jon Altman, ed., Labour Lines and Colonial Power: Indigenous and Pacific Islander Labour Mobility in Australia, Canberra, 2019.

Toby Boraman, ‘Indigeneity, Dissent, and Solidarity: Māori and Strikes in the Meat Industry in Aotearoa New Zealand During the Long 1970s’, International Review of Social History, 64, 1, 2019, pp.1-35.

Past Winners of the Bert Roth Award

2019 Winner: David Haines and Jonathan West, ‘Crew Cultures in the Tasman World’ in Francis Steele, ed., New Zealand and the Sea: Historical Perspectives, Bridget Williams Books.

2019 Runner-up: Caren Wilton, My Body My Business: NZ Sex Workers in an Era of Change, Otago University Press

2018 Winner:
Helen McNeil, A Striking Truth, Cloud Ink Press.

2018 Runner-up: Renée, These Two Hands: a memoir

2017 Winner: Tearepa Kahi, Director, Poi E: The Story of our Song

2016 Winner: Melissa Williams, Panguru and the city: Kāinga Tahi, Kāinga Rua: An urban migration history, Bridget Williams Books

2015 Winner: Nicholas Hoare ‘Imperial Dissenters: Anti-Colonial Voices in New Zealand, 1883-1945’, MA, Victoria University of Wellington.

2014 Winner: Rebecca Macfie, Tragedy at Pike River Mine: How and why 29 Men died, Awa Press.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Silencing the past: reflections on remembering and forgetting

Issues of public history continue to raise important questions on both sides of the Tasman. From the attacks on Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu and Invasion day protests in Australia, to the ongoing effects of the New Zealand Wars and the compulsory teaching of history in Aotearoa New Zealand’s schools, more and more people are grappling with narratives about the past. Social media feeds are flooded with programmes such as the civics series The Citizen’s Handbook and live, COVID-clouded discussions on colonisation and constitutional transformation. Debates on remembering and forgetting are more and more common, helped along by the tweets and press conferences of an embattled President Trump. As an archivist and labour historian, it’s exciting to see such a public engagement with history.

For me, it’s also timely. This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of a book that profoundly changed the way I understand the production of history. I’m only now realising that it also influenced my working trajectory as an archivist and my own practice as a historian. More importantly, the book continues to offer insights into why some stories are remembered and others are not, and how historical narratives are produced and reproduced.

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Haitian writer Michel-Rolph Trouillot was first published in 1995. Twenty-five years on, its weaving of personal narrative with stories of slave rebellion, black Jacobins in the Haitian Revolution and the ‘discovery’ of the Americas still resonate. As I write, filmmaker Raoul Peck is using it as one of the key sources for Exterminate All the Brutes, a four-part docuseries about the exploitative and genocidal aspects of European colonialism. Written with a nod to postmodernism and a critique of structuralism, Silencing the Past nonetheless blends such an approach with the best aspects of social history and its analysis of power relations.

This, however, is not intended as a review (of which there are plenty online, and I’d encourage you to read them). Instead, I want to pull out the bits that speak directly to discussions of remembering and forgetting; the bits that remind us that history is more than just individual or collective memory recall.

There are several insights in Silencing the Past that now seem like common sense but were relatively novel at the time: ‘The past – or, more accurately, pastness – is a position’; power ‘does not enter the story once and for all, but at different times and from different angles. It precedes the narrative proper, contributes to its creation and to its interpretation … in history, power begins at the source.’ As an archivist, I geek out at statements like ‘historical narratives are premised on previous understandings, which are themselves premised on the distribution of archival power’ and ‘archives are the institutions that organise facts and sources and condition the possibility of existence of historical statements.’

Silence and the act of silencing have become buzzwords in historical scholarship, used as markers or tropes without further explanation. In response, some historians have pointed to the wealth of archival sources available to us, from oral histories to nineteenth century documents. Yet it’s Trouillot’s treatment of silences in the production of history that are especially important.

For Trouillot, silence is ‘an active and transitive process: one ‘silences’ a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun. One engages in the practice of silencing. Mentions and silences are thus active.’ He emphasises that history is constantly produced, that what we understand as ‘history’ changes with time and place, and that what is said to have happened as the recall of facts is indeed a process filled with silences. For Trouillot, it is not just a matter of what is remembered or forgotten. Silences are produced and reproduced throughout any telling of a story.

Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance).

And further: these moments ‘are not meant to provide a realistic description of the making of any individual narrative. Rather, they help us understand why not all silences are equal and why they cannot be addressed – or redressed – in the same manner.’ In other words, ‘any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process, and the operation required to deconstruct these silences will vary accordingly.’

I’ve written about the last three moments for Overland before, reflecting on the WW100 commemorations or the hidden history of prison labour. The writing of history from below is a partial attempt to amplify the voices of the silenced. However, questioning the moment of fact creation is just as crucial.

As Trouillot notes, ‘silences are inherent in history because any single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing. Something is always left out while something else is recorded.’ Take the Imperial officer reporting on an engagement with Māori during the Waikato War, or the Tasmanian colonist recording hints of a frontier massacre in his diary; the ‘facts’ they choose to put down on paper come with their own ‘inborn absences, specific to its production.’ Historical facts are not created equal, nor are they neutral. The mentions or silences engaged in by the person creating a story ‘reflect differential control of the means of historical production’ from ‘the very first engraving that transforms an event into a fact.’

Even if we are blessed with a wealth of sources, they are still shaped by silences. In my day job as an archivist I work with documents from German Sāmoa, during the period before New Zealand invaded the country with its own imperial ambitions. At that time, indentured Chinese labourers (or ‘coolies’) were shipped in by boatload to work the various Sāmoan plantations mostly owned by German or British nationals. Thousands of Chinese men flushed through these capitalist ventures, by choice or by circumstance. In some cases, they challenged their poor conditions and treatment through riots, strikes and absenteeism. Yet, while we hold container after container of German Sāmoan records, the names of Chinese labourers are nearly never recorded. They exist in the documents as Kuli. No.323, or simply Kuli (the German word for coolie). Only by painstakingly cross-referencing scattered fragments (or mentions) can the names and human agency of some Chinese labourers be rescued from the produced silences of German clerks.

Hence the mention of ‘power’ in the by-line of Silencing the Past. ‘Power is constitutive of the story’ writes Trouillot. ‘Tracking power through various moments helps emphasise the fundamentally processual character of historical production, to insist that what history is matters less that how history works.’ This not only includes power from above, but power from below. As Vincent Brown notes in his masterful history of ‘Tacky’s revolt’, the Jamaican slave war that influenced the Haitian revolution: ‘as surely as wind and water change the contours of stone, slavery’s archival sources have been shaped by the black people they rarely describe.’

An understanding of context is radical, in the original meaning of the term (of relating to a root, to get to the root of something). It is context that allows us to make sense of a source and its creation, and to place it in relation to others. It is context that can unveil the legal fictions of state or white supremacist narratives. As we continue to discuss the past and its impact on our present, as we question what stories are remembered and what stories are forgotten, I look to Trouillot and the scores of critical writers since as a reminder of how power relations continue to shape history; how context matters; and how, sometimes, remembering alone is not enough.

First published by Overland Literary Journal, 28 May 2020

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

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