Friday, January 14, 2022

Interview with Tia Ebert for 'Some Archives'

Recently I was lucky enough to be interviewed for
Some Archives, an artist book designed, printed and edited by Tia Ebert. Some Archives features four interviews exploring the social and creative potential of archives in Aotearoa New Zealand. A PDF of the publication will be made available in July; in the meantime, here's my section (reproduced with permission).

T: I’m really interested in your trajectory from graphic design and screen-printing posters for bands to working in an archive, could you briefly explain that journey?

JD: Moving from graphic design to archives wasn’t planned in any way, but I’ve come to realise they have a lot in common – especially if we think about archives and design as storytelling or the production of narratives. Growing up I’d always wanted to be a graphic designer, and went straight to Ilam School of Fine Arts after finishing high school. Discovering punk music and anarchism, and working a number of jobs (including night shift in an electronics factory) opened my eyes to social movements, and after leaving Fine Arts I set up a screenprinting studio called Garage Collective. For two years I worked fulltime designing and printing gig posters, artworks for bands and not-for-profits, and great work by other designers. It was great! Especially as I’d been told by a designer in my fourth year that such work would only ever amount to being a hobby.

And then the archive bug bit me. In 2008 I designed and screenprinted a poster celebrating the centennial of the 1908 Blackball Strike. Arriving in Blackball for the event, I was thrust into a working-class world of work refusal, solidarity and radicalism I never knew existed in New Zealand. I thought I’d try and learn more about it. So I visited the archives. Before long I was studying to be an archivist and eventually landed a job in Wellington, where I worked helping people access the holdings at Archives New Zealand. That was 2012 and I’m still working in the area today.

Your love for 80s hardcore records relates quite specifically to the act of collecting, which one of your non-users mentioned in relation to the Enlightenment - “the weird idea of collecting as a thing in of itself: a noble pursuit to collect stuff”… Is there some kind of connection to be made from here to your position today?

Archives and the work of archivists are varied. In a small organisation, a single archivist might do a bit of everything – collection management, appraisal, description, preservation, access and digitisation, for example. My work has mostly focused on access, rather than collecting. I think that idea of being able to collect everything, to own and harness knowledge, is inherently colonial – the need to possess entails a certain aspect of dispossession and exclusion, especially when we think about institutions in their classic sense (the traditional museum or archive, for example). What I love about 80s hardcore is the Do-It-Yourself, participatory nature of the music and its ephemera – gig posters, set lists, flyers, shitty recordings, blurry footage. I feel like that upends so many ways of being in the world, and what’s interesting is that it has spilled into the creation and care of its archives. I’m thinking here about the full catalogue of live shows Fugazi has made online. I feel archival institutions are finally catching up to the idea of decentralised access points and participatory ownership and creation of records, especially thanks to post-custodial thinking and praxis – the idea that an institution doesn’t actually collect, but provides skills and resources so that communities can do it themselves. That’s exciting, and it’s the kind of thinking that has been embedded in hardcore from the beginning.

As someone with a background in graphic design, do you think “research through design” (or any other creative practice) is supported in current archival structures? Is the validity of this research comparable to academic research in archival spaces?

I’m limited to what I’ve experienced myself, and the type of research I do. Probably the closest thing in the institutions I’ve worked in is the current craze of Agile. Government departments love Agile methodology, which is billed as a design methodology used in project management – especially digital projects. For all its buzzwords it is actually refreshing to work in such a way, which does remind me of sitting in on a design critique. There’s also been projects in collaboration with designers and artists. Whether structures across archival institutions allow for research through design probably depends, like all structures, on the relationships between its people and issues of power – time and money, especially. Archives are often time-poor and literally poor: underfunded and understaffed. Which might also lend itself well to research through design.

What was the motivating factor for you to undertake research into non-user understandings of archives? Was there anything which surfaced through this research that was surprising to you?

I was lucky enough to study under the Canadian archivist Wendy Duff, and she taught a paper on archives, advocacy and outreach. I was hooked. But it also fit my design background and the practice of communicating visually. So when it came to choose a thesis topic in my final year, I wanted to look at something understudied that related to access. There were (and are) very little studies on people who don’t use archives, ie non-users. So that became my topic. I was surprised that, for all its grandiose statements of public memory and keeping government to account, public archives in New Zealand hadn’t really thought about why someone might not use archives, let alone if people knew about them and what they held. Finding that people only really make use of institutions they know about seems pretty obvious, but nonetheless, the paper has been useful for a number of archives engaging with the public.

In reference to Sue McKemmish (from Colonial Continuum), “the very form of the archive provides evidence of the power relationships and social values of the society that produced it”, what do you personally see as the benefit in making these structures and values visible?

To paraphrase Robin D.G. Kelley, writing about white supremacy and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, holding a mirror to something isn’t that dangerous because it only reflects the surface. What’s needed is an X-Ray. In all of my work I've tried to get to the root of something, which is the original meaning of the word ‘radical’. Making hierarchies and uneven power relations visible means we can see them, name them, and then hopefully dismantle them. Marx wrote that capital, first and foremost, is a social relation. That’s a round-about way to say that how we act and interact with each other determines structures of power. Especially if we understand structures as ways of relating to each other that have solidified over time. Understanding this means we can start to relate to each other in less destructive and more humane ways.

Who do you see archives being in service to in our current time?

If structures are ways of relating to each other that have formed over time, then archives and the stories they provide can either prop up those structures, or help wear them down. Archives don’t exist in a vacuum, however, so if archives are to do more than just provide an information need for people, they need to be seen as being part of a bigger picture – as sites for the production of narratives. What narratives we choose to tell or remember become important to that bigger picture. Hence the huge interest in the new Histories in Schools curriculum at the moment, and the role archives will play in that.

The fact that archives can’t tell every story is a worthwhile idea to explore when thinking about the archive as subject. What do you think is the benefit of understanding the decision processes surrounding the acquisition and care of materials as well as the facilitation of access? (The theory of the archive vs the labour of the archive)

The benefit is knowing how silences are produced and reproduced in the stories we tell – stories that affect our past, present and futures. I wrote something for Overland Literary Journal about silences and the activity of remembering and forgetting, which was an ode to Haitian writer Michel-Rolph Trouillot. 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. He goes on to show at least four moments where these silences are created: 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). I’m sharing this in full because it’s been such a useful way for me to think about archives, stories and narrative in so many aspects of my work.

Historically, many archival records have been created and preserved by colonial settlers about indigenous subjects - how might institutional archives better support documentation and history preserving efforts lead by indigenous people?

This is a massive (and heavy) topic that is evolving as we write, ranging from adding intuitive metadata that reflects indigenous ways of being, through to repatriation of archives, data sovereignty and basically getting out of the way. As I mentioned earlier, archives don’t exist in a vacuum. Institutions can either support or prevent what Moana Jackson calls re-Māorification, the promise of indigenous people determining the space, content and practice of institutions according to indigenous autonomy and independence. I’m not sure colonial institutions can be made or moulded into anything different than a less harmful colonial institution, but that doesn’t mean Pākehā working in such spaces shouldn’t try. As Tangata Tiriti with a huge amount of power, the onus is on us to change or get out of the way.

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.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

A list of New Zealand gluten-free, gluten-reduced and low gluten craft beers

Developing a gluten intolerance in the midst of a flourishing craft brew world was bad timing to say the least. Headaches. Tiredness. Sore guts. General grumpiness. All because of gluten! Alas, it seemed my days of IPAs and stalking the aisles of New World had come to a sorry, sorghum-filled end. 

A bit of research and trial and error, however, has meant there are a few craft beers available in New Zealand that are still ok for me to drink. I say research, because it's actually quite hard to find out which craft beers are low-gluten or gluten-reduced. Which is totally understandable. Part of the reason some beers are not labelled as gluten-reduced or gluten-free, despite containing next-to-no gluten content, is because of the importance of proper testing and labelling for those that actually are coeliac. Here's a disclaimer: I'm not coeliac, and people experience discomfort from gluten differently and at different levels. As Coeliac New Zealand suggest, if you're not sure how how you'll go with one of these beers it's probably best to contact the brewer directly or avoid it.

As the team at BGFB write, "beer that is 100% gluten free is brewed with 100% gluten free ingredients." Beers that are 'gluten reduced' or 'crafted to remove gluten' have used a process to strip or reduce the gluten content out of gluten ingredients (using Brewers Clarex, for example). This process can land a beer's gluten content close to the gluten-free mark of under 3ppm (parts per million). But they're not gluten free. Unless it has been brewed using gluten-free ingredients, a beer that has less than 3ppm or 20mg of gluten is technically 'gluten-reduced'.

With that in mind, here's my list of New Zealand gluten-reduced, low gluten and gluten-free craft beers.

Gluten-reduced or low gluten

Eddyline Brewery (entire range!)
For a great-tasting range of gluten-reduced beers, you needn't go much further than Eddyline. Every single brew in their line-up has been brewed with DSM Brewer's Clarex that reduces gluten content to below 5ppm, and their beers are labelled as such. Plus they come in nice, tall 440ml cans. My favourtites include the go-to Trail Carver Pale Ale (5.1%) and CrankYanker IPA (6.3%), a "bold West-Coast style IPA featuring El Dorado and Mosaic hops with a complex malt profile. Emphasis is on aroma over bitterness. Tropical and pine flavours with a hint of citrus-pineapple aroma." Yum.
Stoke NPA - Nelson Pale Ale (4.2%)
The Stoke Nelson Pale Ale is a gluten-reduced drop that is batch tested and labelled as 'low gluten', with the gluten content coming in at less than 3ppm. A light-ish ale in terms of alcohol content and body, there's enough hops and bitterness to make this one a nice, late-arvo refresher and feel like you're drinking a 'normal' beer. Great price too.

Garage Project BEER (Pale Lager, 4.8%
My despair at being gluten intolerant was knowing I'd have to stop drinking Garage Project (namely Pernicious Weed - sad face). Luckily, the crisp, single-malt BEER has a naturally-low gluten count. There's no claims to being gluten-free or gluten-reduced here, and its effect on people will differ, but a batch test did show a low gluten count of under 20ppm. Works for me.

Hallertau (1-7 Numbers range)
A 2016 Stuff article made much of Hallertau's use of an "additive enzyme which breaks down gluten components leaving less than three parts per million (ppm) – enough to meet New Zealand's strict gluten-free legal requirements." These days Hallertau seem less willing to make a song and dance about their brewing process as they don't batch test for gluten content. Nonetheless, the core of their Numbers range (1-7) are brewed using Brewers Clarex and can therefore be considered gluten-reduced.


Kereru - Auro Ale (5%), Apex Hoppy APA (5.8%) and Aviatrix Raspberry Ale (5%)
Of the few New Zealand craft beers that are actually gluten-free - ie. they are brewed with 100% gluten-free ingredients - Kereru are leading the (admittedly-small) pack with three gluten-free brews. My favourite by a millet mile is the Apex Hoppy APA with its mix of US and NZ hops. You can tell from the body and head its gluten-free, but it is not lacking in taste. The Auro Ale is a little light for my taste buds but still a nice drop.

Scotts Brewing Co. - Pale Ale (4.5%)
For a long time Scott's Pale Ale was the only gluten-free beer available, so for that reason alone they deserve credit. It's also easy to find in most stores. It's a shame I don't like it. Have no idea if their other beers are gluten-free or not.

Garage Project Dirty Water (Seltzer, 4.5%)
Due out this week, Garage Project's Dirty Water Seltzer is "brewed not blended - with gluten free grain, real fruit and natural flavours. This delivers a sparkling clean, alcoholic seltzer." Comes in three flavours, plus "10% of profits go to supporting clean water initiatives in our own backyard." Let's hope this is the start of more brewers crafting gluten-free options.

Missing something? Drop me a line

Monday, January 11, 2021

Archive Stories, Archive Realities

Below is my chapter for Public Knowledge, first published by Freerange Press in December 2019. You can purchase the book from the Freerange Press website. It was subsequently re-published in Archifacts. Download the PDF version from Academia.

In May 1840, a furious William Hobson learned from a passing ship’s captain that the New Zealand Company in Wellington had set up its own form of government. Stinging from the usurped authority and high treason of the colonists, Lieutenant-Governor Hobson issued two proclamations. In the name of Her Majesty, Hobson claimed sovereignty over Aotearoa New Zealand. The North Island was claimed by cession via Te Tiriti o Waitangi (despite the fact that hui with rangatira were still being held across the country, and despite having only two signed sheets in his possession). The South Island was claimed based on Captain James Cook’s ‘discovery’.

Having asserted sovereignty with the stroke of a pen and the stamp of a Paihia printing press, Hobson hastily despatched Colonial Secretary Willoughby Shortland to Wellington. With him were troops from the 80th Regiment, mounted police and orders to dismantle any New Zealand Company council, flags or insignia he found. They arrived on the evening of 2 June and sent copies of Hobson’s proclamations ashore, but Wellington weather prevented an official landing. Shortland and four members of the police force finally landed near Pipitea Pā on the afternoon of 4 June, where they were met by Colonel Wakefield and others of the New Zealand Company. Here, Shortland read Hobson’s proclamations, and the legal fiction of crown sovereignty was officially enacted.

The proclamations of sovereignty were indeed a legal fiction, for they ignored some crucial caveats: those who signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi signed a Māori-language document that never ceded sovereignty, and in tikanga Māori, or Māori law, ceding sovereignty was impossible.1

Hobson’s claim of discovery stretched legal fiction into pure fantasy. ‘There is a certain strange magic in the belief that waving a piece of coloured cloth could transfer indigenous lands to someone else,’ notes Moana Jackson, ‘but it was a theatre that had long been established in the law of all European colonisers. The fact that it would have had no legitimacy in the law of the Indigenous Peoples being “discovered” was never deemed to be relevant.’2

This magical realism – ‘legal and political gymnastics performed behind a veil of apparently reasoned justification’ – was, and is, made possible by the stories, symbols and statecraft that are public archives.3 Te Tiriti o Waitangi is an obvious example. As legal documents and ‘Talmudic symbols of imagined imperial symbiosis’, writes Adele Perry, treaties, like flags, have served colonial projects the world over.4 Others include the 1839 appointment of Hobson as Lieutenant-Governor, the letters patent that made Aotearoa New Zealand a colony of New South Wales, the pre-Tiriti proclamations of 30 January 1840 that assumed a power not yet granted and the May proclamations themselves, as bungled and back-dated as they were (the South Island proclamation had to be reissued because Hobson left off the grounds for sovereignty on the copy he sent to London, and the North Island proclamation was incorrectly back-dated to 5 February instead of 6 February).

Together these documents formed the earliest holdings of Aotearoa New Zealand’s public archive, Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga Archives New Zealand.5 They joined the larger imperial archive, ‘a fantasy of knowledge collected and united in the service of state and Empire’.6 In this fantasy, world mastery was possible through documentation and the public knowledge stored within the ‘total-archive’.7

Fiction, magic and fantasy are not words most people would associate with public archives. As the official guardian of government records, Archives New Zealand is tasked with ensuring confidence in the integrity of public and local authority archives. Enabling trusted government information is its mantra. Weaving in and out of public discourse and supplementing the many sources of public knowledge, public archives often act as uncontested stand-ins for ‘the facts’ or ‘the Truth’. As written documents of evidential value, they sit at the ‘authentic’ end of the knowledge continuum, where they are contrasted with less-trustworthy sources of public knowledge such as oral testimony and fake news.

Yet at their most basic, archives are stories. All peoples use archives as stories, whether transmitted through speech, written in text, woven within tāniko patterns or embodied in tā moko, performed as ritual or shared in everyday practices, or displayed in objects or in the land itself. Using Te Tiriti o Waitangi to weave a story of sovereignty was not limited to the colony’s fledgling civil service. Many Māori descendants of those who signed, especially Ngāpuhi-nui-tonu, have pointed to the Māori-language document and the sacred covenant of its terms as a way of acknowledging both their tino rangatiratanga and their centrality to the event.

When brought together as a public archive in the form of a state institution, archives are amplified into a grandiose narrative of nationhood—a metanarrative. Indeed, some theorists go so far as to claim there is no state without archives.8 This is because archives have power. And in turn, archives are created and shaped by ever-contested power relations. Public archives are not ‘passive storehouses of old stuff, but active sites where social power is negotiated, contested, confirmed.’9 Their holdings ‘wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies’.10 Archives allow people to marshal stories and to make meaning. Archives are the very possibility of politics.11

As Hobson’s actions and subsequent governments show, Aotearoa New Zealand’s public archive has always been about power. Stradling the intersection of past, present and future, it has its origin in capitalism’s vampire-like need to turn all of life into work for its own reproduction.12 Many of the seven million plus archives held in the repositories of Archives New Zealand reflect, and serve as justification for, the gendered, racialised class relations that created them. Because of this, certain voices in the archive have been privileged over others. Silences abound.

Archival power is, in part, the power to allow voices to be heard. It consists of highlighting certain narratives and of including certain types of records created by certain groups. The power of the archive is witnessed in the act of inclusion, but this is only one of its components. The power to exclude is a fundamental aspect of the archive. Inevitably, there are distortions, omissions, erasures, and silences in the archive. Not every story is told.13

Despite this, public archives are also potential sites for resistance, counter-narratives and enriching the public knowledge commons. In today’s cybernetic vortex of class power and commodification, archives and their emphasis on context are more relevant than ever.14


There is a huge body of work on the relationship between memory and stories, archives and power. It weaves through many disciplines and in and out of academia. We might think of the novels of George Orwell, such as 1984, or the importance of archives in Star Wars, from the plans of the Death Star to the location of the last Jedi. In the final season of Game of Thrones, Bran Stark reveals the archival motive of the Night King: ‘He wants to erase this world and I am its memory.’ As an archive, Bran becomes a target for erasure.

Those of the nascent labour force in Europe – whose activities were recorded and controlled by the state to become more legible to the state (hence the creation of parish registers, birth certificates and censuses) – certainly knew of their power. It is telling how many peasant rebellions began with the destruction of official archives. Writing of the introduction of the capitalist wage relation and the violent enclosure of the commons, Silvia Federici notes how people organised themselves into bands, raided manors and land registries and destroyed the archives ‘where the written marks of their servitude were kept’.15

The state knew too. Countless examples of the state destroying archives litter history—the recent Mau Mau and Windrush scandals in Britain are prime examples.16 In New Zealand, there was no public archive institution until 1956. Government agencies could pretty much do what they liked with their archives. As a result, only 3 to 4 per cent of everything ever created by government has survived. The New Zealand Police Force archives, for example, are woefully patchy for the years between 1900–1950 due to an in-house purge of records – only a sample of high-profile murder cases were kept. Police record books note detailed files on labour movement leaders and others deemed threatening to the state, but the files themselves no longer exist.17

The state also launched successive waves of attack on the archives of te ao Māori, for these represented te māramatanga o ngā tikanga, the philosophy of law deeply interwoven throughout Māori life, and were therefore incompatible with colonial authority.18 Pākehā governments supressed tā moko, punished the practice of tohunga, sanctioned the beating of Māori-language speakers in school and paved highways over wāhi tapu, violently divorcing Māori from their philosophical base. In doing so, the colonial archive not only dismissed the Māori word and replaced it with the Pākehā word, it made colonised ‘others’ available to the extractive enterprises of colonial capital.19

Despite this acknowledgement of archival power by the state, throughout the twentieth century, public archives were seen as passive, objective and neutral. The public archivist was an impartial custodian – interpretation was the job of those using archives and not that of the archivist. ‘The good Archivist’, wrote Sir Hilary Jenkinson, the grandfather of the Western archival canon, was ‘perhaps the most selfless devotee of Truth the modern world produces.’20 Archives were the evidence from which Truth (with a capital ‘T’) could be found.

More recently, the post-custodial turn has challenged this view. A questioning of the profession’s objectivity has reframed or refigured archives and archival institutions. There has been a move from archive-as-source to archive-as-subject.21 Archives are increasingly viewed as social constructs – they don’t simply ‘arrive or emerge fully formed, nor are they innocent of struggles for power in either their creation or their interpretive applications . . . all archives come into being in and as history as a result of specific political, cultural, and socioeconomic pressures.’22 Feminist and indigenous scholarship has exposed the gendered, colonial nature of archives, while ethnographic approaches denaturalise the archive to show how people encounter, interpret and make use of them as living and dynamic spaces.23 The evidential nature of their contents have also been questioned: no longer can we think of archives as the simple bearers of fact or truth. Just as much as oral testimony, a written document reflects the biases and needs of its creator.

What does this mean for public knowledge? It means that public archives should be viewed not as mere sites of knowledge retrieval, but as sites of knowledge production in both the past and the present.24 And this is a good thing. For it is as a site of knowledge production that public archives become important for counter-narratives. It allows us to read its holdings against and along the grain, to notice the gaps, to hear the silences and to tell the stories that have not been told.25 Archives read this way can challenge state power or hold that power to account. And, ideally, it can help the circulation of struggles and create possibilities that go beyond hierarchical, statist forms of power. If in one reading there is no state without archives, another reading suggests that ‘the very existence of the archive constitutes a threat to the state’.26


The value of public archives for those challenging power or creating counter-power depends on its use. Free and open access to public archives is therefore an important issue. Like Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the metanarrative of the public archive is ever vulnerable to changing governments and changing priorities. Or, in plain speak, the public archive is a political football – where it lands depends on who is kicking it.

In the archival profession access often comes second to the acquisition or preservation of records. Faced with unwieldy paper-finding aids or online search engines with outdated, incorrect or zero metadata, users not only have to deal with organising principles totally different from those of a library, such as provenance and original order, but often have no meaningful way to find and access what they need. This is even more telling in our colonial context. Māori users of the public archive must also grapple with the privileging of Pākehā terms over te reo Māori (many of which are misspelt), non-indigenous systems of knowledge, monocultural spaces and institutional anxiety, and the historical trauma of dispossession and deprivation. 27 As one Māori participant in a study of non-users noted:

there are all sorts of ways that people are disenfranchised from accessing information [at archives] – whether that’s various kinds of literacy i.e. the most basic literacy, or literacy on the level of being able to filter and understand the particular languages that are used by officialdom. And also that emotional reality of being disenfranchised – what’s your motivation to access information and know about the particulars of your disenfranchisement if you don’t have hope for things being different?28

The post-custodial turn has thankfully placed a greater importance on access within public archives. As well as culturally appropriate spatial design and the increasing use of Māori-intuitive metadata, there has been a steady investment in digitisation. Digitisation is not the cure-all solution many think it is, but it has undeniably changed the nature of archival access.29 Digital divides and digital literacies aside, the digitisation of archives has made them more accessible than ever before, allowing users to shape public discourse and dissent within the information age. Online search engines, global databases and crowdsourcing platforms have made millions of digital surrogates available to view or download from one’s personal device. Where before a researcher had no choice but to visit the archive, they can now access, use and re-use digital archives anywhere, any time – unless, of course, they are locked behind a paywall. More and more digital archives are finding their way into educational resources, policy documents, family and local histories and mainstream media, while machine-reading technology allows the automated transcription of digitised handwritten documents, making them discoverable to Google and other web crawlers.

However, we need to remind ourselves that today’s knowledge economy rests on very material relations of domination and exploitation; automation and immiseration; colonisation and incarceration. It is no coincidence that internet fibre optic cables trace the trade routes of former empires, or that the cloud – which the New Zealand government has directed its agencies to privilege over other digital storage systems – has its data warehouses in disputed post-colonial territories in order to exploit their ambiguous status, raising the issue of Māori data sovereignty.30 The extraction of raw materials needed for the information age destroys both land and labour across the globe, while the computer industry’s use of toxic substances makes places like Silicon Valley – the bastion of cybernetic capital – home to some of the highest concentrations of hazardous waste sites in the United States.31 The gap between the rich and poor there is particularly stark, as the work of elite, highly paid programmers (the cognitariat) is made possible by low-paid and gendered labour.32 For Marxist author Nick Dyer-Witheford, ‘the conjunction of automation and globalization enabled by information technology raises to a new intensity a fundamental dynamic of capitalism – its drive to simultaneously draw people into waged labour and expel them as superfluous un- or underemployed.’33 Like the service workers of Silicon Valley, these are often women, indigenous peoples or people of colour. They are the same people who fill prison cells and whose labour is then used to continue the circulation of capital. FamilySearch, one the world’s biggest genealogical sites and the host of digitised archives from Archives New Zealand, uses prison labour to digitise and index its holdings.34

Archives do not exist in a vacuum. It would be wrong to believe the power of archives is present outside of concrete relations between people, and that archives in themselves possess all the powers attributed to them. Archives, like information, must be made and used.35 It is also naïve to believe that discourse informed by public knowledge is enough to undo these relations.

Which brings us all the way back to archives as stories and public archives as sites of knowledge production. Despite what this chapter might seem to suggest, understanding archives as social constructs shaped by material social relations is a strength. If ‘the task is less to distinguish fiction from fact than to track the production and consumption of those facticities themselves’, then context is everything.36 After all, the most cherished organising principle of the archival profession is context. It is context that allows us to make sense of an archive and its content, and to place it in relation to others. It is context that can unveil the legal fictions and metanarratives both inside and outside of the public archive. It is in this sense that 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). Because if we truly want to get at the root of the social and ecological disaster that is capitalism, knowledge in itself is not enough. Knowledge must be used, and in ways that radically rupture and reorient our current modes of relationship – including our relationship to knowledge itself.

1. Moana Jackson, “The Treaty and the Word: the Colonization of Māori Philosophy” in Justice, Ethics, and New Zealand Society, eds. Graham Oddie and Roy W. Perrett (Australia and New Zealand: Oxford University Press, 1992), 1–10. This was confirmed by the Waitangi Tribunal’s 2014 finding that by signing Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Ngāpuhi – and by extension other signatories – never ceded sovereignty. Waitangi Tribunal, He Whakaputanga me te Tiriti/The Declaration and the Treaty: The Report on Stage 1 of the Te Paparahi o Te Raki Inquiry (Wai 1040, 2014).
2. Moana Jackson, “James Cook and our monuments to colonisation,” E-Tangata, accessed June 3, 2019,
3. Jackson, “The Treaty and the Word.”
4. Adele Perry, “The Colonial Archive on Trial: Possession, Dispossession, and History in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia,” in Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions and the Writing of History, ed. Antoinette Burton (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 325.
5. Incidentally, the largest repository of Archives New Zealand sits on the former lands of Pipitea Pā in Wellington.
6. Thomas Richards, The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire (London: Verso, 1993), 6.
7. Tony Ballantyne, “Archive, Discipline, State: Power and Knowledge in South Asian Historiography,” New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies, 3, no. 1 (2001): 90.
8. Achille Mbembe, “The Power of the Archive and Its Limits,” in Refiguring the Archive, eds. Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, Jane Taylor, Michele Pickover, Graeme Reid and Razia Saleh (Cape Town: New Africa Books, 2002), 23.
9. Joan Schwartz and Terry Cook, “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” in Archival Science, no. 2 (2002): 1–2.
10. Schwartz and Cook, “Archives, Records, and Power,” 2.
11. Verne Harris, Archives and Justice: A South African Perspective (Chicago: The Society of American Archivists, 2007), 345. See also Randall Jimerson, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2009).
12. For an indigenous understanding of Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation and capitalist modes of production as ‘modes’ or ‘forms of life’ see Glenn Coulthard, “The Colonialism of the Present,” Jacobin, accessed May 30, 2019, and Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
13. Rodney Carter, “Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence,” in Archivaria, no. 61 (2016): 216.
14. For more on the cybernetic vortex, see Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex (London: Pluto Press, 2015) and his earlier work, Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-technology Capitalism (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1999), which draw upon autonomist Marxist traditions. For Dyer-Witheford, ‘contemporary capital increasingly subordinates the reproduction of variable capital (humans) to that of the fixed capital (machines) of which the capitalist class is the personified representative. This is an accelerating movement that proceeds by intermediate cyborg or symbiant stages towards even higher levels of automation. In this process, the creation of surplus populations, appearing in various forms of precarity, informal work, unemployment and destitution in differentiated global zones becomes the characteristic form of proletarianization,’ Cyber-Proletariat, 196.
15. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), 45.
16. In 2012 it was discovered that thousands of documents detailing crimes committed during the final years of the British empire were systematically destroyed or secretly withheld from the public. The discovery came after a group of Kenyans detained and allegedly tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion won the right to sue the British government, and access previously hidden files. More recently, in 2018, it was discovered that the British Home Office had destroyed thousands of landing card slips recording Windrush immigrants’ arrival dates in the United Kingdom, an important source of residency status for older Caribbean-born residents. For a useful introduction to state destruction of archives, see Eric Ketelaar, “Recordkeeping and Societal Power,” in Archives: Recordkeeping in Society, eds. Sue McKemmish, Michael Piggott, Barbara Reed and Frank Upward (Wagga-Wagga: Charles Sturt University, 2005), 277–298.
17. For more on this topic, see Jared Davidson, Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914–1920 (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2019).
18. Jackson, “The Treaty and the Word.”
19. Tony Ballantyne, “Littoral Literacy: Sealers, Whalers, and the Entanglements of Empire,” in Critical Perspectives on Colonialism: Writing the Empire from Below, eds. Fiona Paisley and Kirsty Reid (New York: Routledge, 2014), 160. See also Tony Ballantyne, Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2012).
20. Hilary Jenkinson, “British Archives and The War,” in The American Archivist 7, no. 1 (1944): 1–17.
21. Ann Laura Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance: On the Content in the Form’ in Refiguring the Archive, eds. Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, Jane Taylor, Michele Pickover, Graeme Reid and Razia Saleh (Cape Town: New Africa Books, 2002), 86.
22. Antoinette Burton, “Introduction: Archive Fever, Archive Stories,” in Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, ed. Antoinette Burton (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005), 6.
23. Kirsty Reid and Fiona Paisley, “Introduction,” in Sources and Methods in Histories of Colonialism: Approaching the Imperial Archive, eds. Kirsty Reid and Fiona Paisley (New York: Routledge, 2017), 5. See also Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002). 
24. Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” 85.
25. For more on reading archives along the archival grain, see Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). For a summary of ‘history from below’ see Jared Davidson, “History from Below: A Reading List with Marcus Rediker,” History Workshop Journal, accessed June 10, 2019,
26. Mbembe, “The Power of the Archive and Its Limits,” 23.
27. See Jared Davidson, “Colonial Continuum: Archives, Access and Power,” in Archifacts (April 2015): 17–24.
28. Jared Davidson, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Non-user Understandings of Archives in Aotearoa New Zealand” (Master’s Thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2014), 23.
29. Issues of labour time and the cost of both digitisation equipment and ongoing digital storage costs often gets lost in the demand to ‘digitise everything and put it online’, as do questions of data sovereignty and cultural and intellectual property rights.
30. See James Bridle, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (London: Verso, 2018).
31. Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Marx, 235.
32. On the cognitariat and the role of knowledge and knowledge commons in cognitive capitalism, see Carlo Vercellone, “From the Mass-Worker to Cognitive Labour: Historical and Theoretical Considerations” in Beyond Marx: Theorising the Global Labour Relations of the Twenty-First Century, eds. Marcel van der Linden and Karl Heinz Roth (Leiden and Boston: Brill 2014), 440.
33. Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Proletariat, 15. On the phenomenon of capital’s creation of surplus populations and resistance to it, see Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (London: Verso, 2016).
34. Shane Bauer, “Your Family’s Genealogical Records May Have Been Digitized by a Prisoner,” Mother Jones, accessed June 4, 2019, See also Archives and the Old Mole, “Ancestry, Ancestry, White Power, and Corpsefucking,” accessed June 4, 2019,
35. To paraphrase Richards, The Imperial Archive, 73.
36. Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” 85.

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 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.