A bit I did a few weeks back on Radio One’s The Pillow Fort where guests go on to give a five-minute lecture, largely off the cuff, on a topic they specialize in. It was pretty fun and Andrew gave me a recording of the interview after, so I thought I’d transcribe it and chuck it up here. Hopefully my five minute spiel on why we need a People’s History of New Zealand did the topic justice!
The clock is about to begin, your five minutes start … now
So the story of New Zealand we’re most familiar with usually presents this country as an almost uniquely calm one. When you get instances of mass disorder they’re kinda passed off as these isolated incidents. They’re representative of their time, for sure, but they’re not representative of New Zealand history as a whole.
Essentially what you get is a country that we’re presented with that’s very occasionally punctuated with outbursts of disorder, but it’s an exception which proves the rule. Besides that New Zealand is super peaceful, super calm, we’re a people that don’t like rocking the boat.
Now the case for a people’s history of New Zealand is that that image of this country fails to relate how the people of New Zealand have shaped this country, and the wider Pacific as well. It fails to get at how workers, dissidents, women, queer folk, Maori, immigrants, peaceniks, hippies, punks, the lot; actually had a far greater role than we give them credit. In reality, far aside from this idyllic view of a very peaceful country that sorts through its problems through parliament, through peaceful means, that doesn’t like rocking the boat, just sorta muddles through and takes a very DIY approach to it … for over a hundred years the history of this country was one of cyclical surges in militant, radical activity that arose from really complex social conditions that built like a pressure cooker ready to blow.
Now they came in waves for a long time. You had the Maritime Strike in 1890 that came off the back of a really serious depression in the 1880s, and also off the back of a few decades of the working class getting on its feet with the first unions appearing.
After that you had arbitration for a while that really settled things down, and you had people from overseas coming over and writing books like ‘New Zealand: the country without strikes’.* That presented New Zealand as super peaceful, it’s kinda where the myth initially comes from.
Then in 1908 you had a really big strike at Blackball which kinda broke the arbitration system, and all hell broke loose. That peaked in 1912 at Waihi with the death of Fred Evans at the hands of police and strike breakers, and in 1913 with the Great Strike which is the closest this country has ever come to a full-scale revolution.
After that you have World War One of course, there was a lot of resistance to WWI that we kinda don’t really get the scale of. We don’t really talk about the fact that there were over two thousand people who lost all their rights as citizens for ten years after WWI as a result of their activism against the war. And the ’20s, because arbitration was broken, you started to see a building pattern of more working class activity, more strikes, and bubbling away in the background there’s also a lot of Maori activism that’s occurring.
Now in 1932 there was a series of riots, that’s the next big surge that happened. There’s two in Dunedin, there’s one in Wellington, and there’s the legendary Queen Street Riot in Auckland where for two whole nights thousands and thousands of people destroyed a fair part of Auckland.**
Then it goes more quiet for a bit. You’ve got the Watersiders Lockout in ’51, you’ve got the ‘nil wage order in ’68, you’ve got the Springbok Tour in ’81, and you’ve got the resistance to the ECA in 1991. Now typically what you might get in the usual history of New Zealand is a few of these events, and they’re portrayed as being one-offs.
But in reality, in between each of those you had social conditions we don’t really talk about and a lot of far more radical activism and political militancy that we don’t really remember. In the ’70s you had hundreds of thousands of people going on strike quite regularly, you had all these different social movements just explode. But if you open up say the Oxford History of New Zealand you get a few mentions that this was a time of social activism and you usually don’t even mention the strikes that occurred at the time. Despite the fact that this was really the peak of working class militant activity.
Another good example being the ECA, you see a statistic which claims which claims that 60,000 people went on strike in response to the ECA. It isn’t that much, to us it seems quite a lot, but in reality if you took all of the wildcat actions that were occurring, if you took all the protests that disrupted workplaces, what you actually had was 500,000 people taking industrial action in response to the ECA.
The same can be said for social movements all over this country. They’re a lot bigger, they’re a lot stronger than we give them credit. And a People’s History of New Zealand is what we need to actually portray that vision of New Zealand that gets forgotten.
*referring to Henry Lloyd’s A Country Without Strikes
**Queen Street. They destroyed Queen Street. Fuck-up on my part.