Avarua, Rarotonga, in 1899. (Te Papa)

In a new book, Blood and Dirt, archivist and writer Jared Davidson looks at the little-known history of prison labour and the coercion and violence that went into the building of colonial New Zealand. That forced-labour model was even exported to New Zealand’s Pacific territories, where new laws and new prisons soon followed, as this extract shows.


Descriptions of the Cook Islands in turn-of-the-century government reports read like real estate listings for imperialists. Rarotonga, lying to the south of the other islands in the Southern Group, was “a beautiful island, nine miles long, of volcanic origin, very fertile, and producing excellent coffee, copra, oranges, and all tropical fruits.”

Only a quarter of the island was cultivated, while Mangaia and Aitutaki were “also beautiful and fertile islands”. To the north, Manihiki had valuable coconut groves, while the coconut on Rakahanga “excited the astonishment of all mariners who have visited”. Timber, pearls and fertile soil were everywhere, and ripe for improvement.

Niue sits 900 kilometres to the west of Rarotonga — a saucer-shaped plateau of coral rock with steep cliffs. But even this small island, almost entirely made of uplifted coral, had “good soil upon it, and the place is productive, yielding a great quantity of arrowroot, and good cotton”.

While it was capitalism that first brought these islands into the frame of empire, Christianity sharpened the picture. Missionaries were the vanguard of colonisation in Niue and the Cook Islands, introducing new laws, hierarchies and social controls.

Like the Crown officials who followed them, missionaries spoke of protection and improvement in the same breath that relegated Islanders to a stage of development beneath Europeans.

Indigenous ways of being, including the balancing of wrongs, were replaced by missionary laws and enforced by missionary-appointed police. As early as 1827 in Rarotonga, a freshly constructed church was followed by a code of laws that introduced punishments ranging from fines and hard labour to imprisonment and banishment. Like the Hohi mission station in New Zealand, the first police and prisons in the Cook Islands were formed in the footsteps of God’s anointed.

One of those policemen was Maretu, a 25-year-old Rarotongan from the village of Ngatangiia. Maretu left a remarkable account of his missionary life that mentions the use of forced labour. After joining the police in 1827, Maretu found himself spreading the gospel and policing a range of new crimes, including sorcery, sex before marriage, playing cards, tattooing, crying over a dead woman who was not a relative, and polygamy.

Maretu writes that when a dispute involving chiefly wives arose in 1834, one of the opposing groups was fined and forced to build a stone wall in Ngatangiia. When a woman with two husbands converted to Christianity and, fearing the consequences, fled to Rakahanga, the two men gave chase, only to be arrested, fined and imprisoned in Rakahanga gaol — one of the first in the Cook Islands. It seems missionary police were everywhere.

On average, roughly one-third of the adult male population were police officers, while on Mangaia the numbers were even higher.

Rarotonga’s first prison after it was built in 1915. (Archives New Zealand)

When Frederick Moss arrived from Auckland in the recently declared British protectorate of Rarotonga in 1890, one of his first acts as Resident was to reduce the number of missionary police: in Mangaia he cut the force down from 155 to 12. Writing of “the most narrow and tyrannical system of church discipline”, Moss despaired for those fined, forced to work or expelled from their village.

But that did not mean the improving zeal of the missionaries had been put aside. Moss disapproved of the Islanders’ “family communism” that, despite giving “refuge to all” and preventing pauperism, “kills energy and enterprise”. He believed that “the recognition of individual gain and the cultivation of individual greed are the strongest possible incentives to enterprise and the best possible foundation for national progress and prosperity”. Rather than being put to the service of capitalist agriculture, he believed, too much land lay idle: “their lovely islands are gradually becoming waste places”.

The appointment of Moss as Resident marked the shift towards formal empire and its imperatives. Moss aimed to make land available for European settlement or increase productivity by individualising property and attacking chiefly authority.

While a range of improving laws were introduced under Moss (he even considered importing Japanese labourers to cultivate waste land), it wasn’t until he was undone by political intrigue and replaced in August 1898 that “improvement” gathered pace. His replacement, Lieutenant Colonel Walter Gudgeon, marked empire proper. Annexation followed in 1901. The colony of New Zealand had gained itself some colonies at last.

Gudgeon’s barely hidden dislike of Islanders was a constant feature of his rule. He publicly dismissed their courts and councils as playing at government, while privately he described them as “lazy, sensual and thievish”. Paternalism was the order of the day.

As the historian Damon Salesa notes, colonial officials in New Zealand’s Pacific “wielded an astonishing array of autocratic powers” with few checks against abuse. These were men disproportionately drawn from police, legal or military backgrounds, and their paternalism was tied to an underlying belief in their racial superiority. The Resident Commissioner led the charge, but he was not alone.

Gudgeon was joined by bureaucrats who governed the Cook Islands with varying degrees of ability. Some went too far even for Gudgeon, among them Major John Thompson Large, a fellow veteran of the New Zealand Wars, whose “violent and vindictive behaviour in the High Court” saw him bounced from island to island.

Regardless of their temperament, officials benefited from prison labour on almost every island in the Southern Group: Rarotonga, Mangaia, Aitutaki, Ātiu, Ma‘uke and Manuae. It was empire on the cheap.

The guano landscape on Malden in the Cook Islands. Pacific Islanders, both free and unfree, mined this lucrative fertiliser for use on New Zealand farms. (National Archives UK)

Prison labour was crucial to a spatial order that officials feared they couldn’t achieve otherwise. This included a litany of laws, regulations and ordinances that policed Islanders with the threat of fines and forced work. There was an ordinance for everything, from wandering pigs to wandering workers.

The results were predictable. On Rarotonga, criminal cases increased from 233 in 1909 to 855 in 1918 — except for 1912. According to annual reports, the drop from 306 cases in 1911 to 197 in 1912 was because “the system of sentencing frequent offenders to terms of imprisonment on outlying islands has had a deterrent effect on others, and has largely contributed to the decrease in crime”.

What were these crimes? Drunkenness and bush-beermaking were by far the most common offences, followed by public order charges, theft and adultery. Those found guilty and fined could pay up or work it off: in 1915, for example, 56 people were put to labour rather than paying a fine.

In New Zealand itself, outdoor work provided relief from the shoddy condition of the prisons.

In Rarotonga, there was no prison until 1915. Instead, as we have seen, prisoners were banished to outer islands — Malden was one of them, but some were also sent to Manuae, Palmerston and Tongareva (Penrhyn), where the local agent combined his legal duties with trading pearl shell.

Sometimes offenders were confined in windowless copra sheds and other dwellings designated as temporary prisons. However, most of them worked off their penalties on local public works, roads and plantations, from which they were allowed to head home each evening.

Visitors commented on this lack of prisons and noted how offenders were as free as their neighbours at night. Prisoners may have preferred this arrangement, especially if it allowed them to meet family and community obligations. But this also worked in empire’s favour. It was far more useful to put Islanders to work than to lock them up.

Imprisoned workers were essential to creating the basic infrastructure of New Zealand’s Pacific empire. Government agents needed government buildings, so offenders who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pay their fines built residencies, courthouses and other imperial premises.

On Rarotonga, Gudgeon wrote of the money saved by using prisoners to establish government properties, a regular gang of six to 10 prisoners being available to haul rock while harnessed to a prison cart. In 1905, however, progress on the construction of tourist accommodation (the Sanatorium or Whare Manuhiri) was not as good as he had hoped, owing to Islanders not having found “time to break the law”.

Over on Mangaia, Major Large had no such trouble. Work carried out by prisoners under his direct supervision included his personal residency, a Customs office and cargo shed crucial to the export of produce, a commodious stone courthouse at Oneroa and two more at Ivirua and Tamarua, a lockup at Oneroa, a cleared and planted government reserve at Makatea, as well as flagstaffs, lime-washed walls and a channel through the island’s reef. “Mangaia is now the best-equipped agency of the administration in these islands,” wrote the major.

For Large, the use of prison labour became a personal quest and a badge of honour, even if his heavy-handed approach fostered powerful opposition to New Zealand rule. It was, he wrote, a way to “counter-act the evils of the Maori Communism and its progeny” — a “white man’s burden” he was more than happy for the bodies of Indigenous prisoners to bear.

Building fences and stone walls on Rarotonga. (Alexander Turnbull Library)

“Having broken in Aitutaki” and then moved to Mangaia, Large “was pleased to state a radical change has taken place since I succeeded in establishing law and order on the island. Justice has been efficiently administered, the island revenue has quadrupled in amount, also the exports.”

Although prison labour meant offenders were not paying their fines into government coffers, Large ”was able to employ the hard labor men profitably on the many public works . . . what was lost in one way was fully made up in another”.

To cut costs and avoiding feeding prisoners, Large reduced working hours from 6 a.m.–4 p.m. to 6 a.m.–12 noon. Those who worked a full day, such as prisoners sent outside of their settlements to salvage timber or repair hurricane damage, cost “the Government only 1 ration of biscuit per man per day”. Here was improvement at its finest: cheap, and with long-lasting social and environmental impact. “I think the foregoing will show that I have left my mark on Mangaia.”


This extract is from Blood and Dirt: Prison Labour and the Making of New Zealand, written by Jared Davidson and published by Bridget Williams Books.

Jared Davidson is an archivist at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, and an award-winning writer. His books include the acclaimed Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914–1920 (Otago University Press, 2019), Sewing Freedom (AK Press, 2013), The History of a Riot (BWB Texts, 2021) and the co-authored He Whakaputanga: The Declaration of Independence (Bridget Williams Books, 2017).

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