Blood and Dirt is a story of the colonisation of Aotearoa — “a colonisation by capital of these lands, people and resources in which settler governments and churches were instruments.” Rob Campbell reviews Jared Davidson’s new book on how prison labour built New Zealand.

 

Historian Jared Davidson’s new book takes its title from one of Karl Marx’s evocative phrases: “Capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

His primary aim is to bring to the surface, largely hidden from history to date, the substantial role that convict labour had in building this country. He does this in spades. As well as with picks and bare hands.

You can read his story as simply this uncovering. There is a macabre fascination in learning how convict labour created familiar streets, infrastructure and buildings around the motu. And a reading like this also allows you to access some really good stories, bringing to life the people behind the numbers and illustrations, which are plentiful and relevant.

But you can also — and Davidson constructs his discovery work to encourage you — read this as an analysis of colonisation, where the convicts are not alone but simply part of a disempowered population, tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti, bound together.

It is a story of the colonisation of these islands, and other islands of Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. A colonisation by capital of these lands, people and resources in which settler governments and churches were instruments.

This colonisation is effectively related back to the enclosures and dispossessions of Europe which sparked the rise of capital. The annexation and exploitation in this part of the world was an advancement of an old theme. Alienation driving dependency and availability for waged work among Indigenous and migrant labour alike, framed and marked by the availability of forced labour, including convict labour.

Be it phosphate, copra, wool, dairy, gold, or grain, the owners of resources directly or indirectly gained wealth from the enforced availability of others to do the work under often oppressive conditions. This was not, in all but a very few situations, classical slavery, but the model and reality of convict labour hung over the process.

In these days, where what we call “modern slavery” is getting well-merited attention, it’s worth reflecting on the true story of how current wealth was built. You could add to this the better-researched and described contributions of those in the “reserve army of the unemployed”, from the depressions in the late 19th century and the 1930s.

Māori, of course, feature heavily among convict labour throughout, whether in prison for resistance to colonisation or simply from sharing the alienation and poverty of their Pākehā fellows, driven from the various means of dispossession imposed by the settler state. Imprisonment and forced labour, here and for Indigenous people in the Pacific Islands, were a deliberate means of breaking property and traditional work practice into the mould of capital.

As always, looking to the past to guide the future makes sense. But only if we can see and understand the past clearly. This work strips away many illusions.

 

Blood and Dirt, written by Jared Davidson and published by Bridget Williams Books. RRP $49.99

Rob Campbell trained as an economist and originally worked as a unionist before eventually becoming a professional director. He is chancellor of AUT University and chairs NZ Rural Land Co and renewable energy centre Ara Ake. He’s a former chair of Te Whatu Ora, the Environmental Protection Authority, SkyCity Casino, Tourism Holdings, WEL Networks and Summerset.

© E-Tangata, 2023

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.