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‘New Zealand’s ‘Critics of Empire’ wins 2015 Bert Roth Award

The committee used the same criteria as last year: How well does the work reveal exploitation and people’s efforts to challenge exploitation?  Does it give voice to those whose histories remain out of view or marginal to mainstream history? Is it well written or presented and is the work accessible to the public?

One of the pleasures of the shortlist is that many of the creators may not have seen themselves as writing labour history.  Work and struggle over work are present in many different kinds of history.

These works draw connections across time and place. While several of the works engage with questions that have already seen wide discussion within New Zealand Labour History, it is exciting to see works that bridge out from a focus of 1913-1933 (or 1890-1951). One work on the shortlist begins in 1793 and another is set primarily in 1979. The works on the shortlist also cover a vast geographical area expanding beyond the islands now known as New Zealand into the Pacific and across the Tasman as well as North to England and South to Antarctica.

The works we examined used a wide variety of sources and techniques to uncover and represent the past.  We have a play, documentary and a collection of photographs, as well as academic texts.

In the introduction to Once We Built a Tower, one of the short-listed workers, Dean Parker made a strong statement of the value of art: “Art’s not there to stop bullying in schools or increase awareness of racial and sexual diversity or advance Maori sovereignty… or achieve equal pay and elect a Labour-led government. It may well be employed in achieving these ends, but that’s not its essential function; its essential function is to make us pause and look about ourselves and share the wonder and the misery of it all.” This is a statement that we believe applies equally to writing labour history.

We selected Nicholas Hoare’s MA Thesis ‘New Zealand’s ‘Critics of Empire’: Domestic Opposition to New Zealand’s Pacific Empire, 1883-1948’ as the winner of the 2015 Bert Roth Award.

Hoare explores the changing opposition to New Zealand taking an imperial role in the Pacific, both before and after this role was a reality.   He does not romanticise opposition, instead he takes the time to tease out the changing basis for it and discusses paternalistic and xenophobic opposition.  He demonstrates the connections between opposition to New Zealand’s imperialism in Samoa and anti-colonial movements within New Zealand. This thesis is analytically sharp, focused and willing to explore the complexities of a changing situation. We are pleased to give the award to a work that makes use of Bert Roth’s extensive files, now available at the Turnbull Library. It is perhaps particularly pleasing that, at a time when some are trying to revive political Labour’s more xenophobic traditions, Hoare’s work documents another tradition of solidarity and connections.

Short List

Ryan Bodman ‘The Public have had a gutsful and so have we: The Alienation of Organized Labour in New Zealand, 1968-1975’ New Zealand Journal of History, 48, 1.

Georgina Craw, ‘A World Beyond the Waters’: Māori Travel in the Tasman World, 1793-1839’, MA, University of Auckland

Kristyn Harman ‘“Making Shift”: Mary Ann Hodgkinson And Hybrid Domesticity In Early Colonial New Zealand’ New Zealand Journal of History, 48, 1.

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

Working Lives c.1900: A Photographic Essay by Eric Olssen,.Otago University Press.

Once We Built a Tower by Dean Parker. Performed by The Bacchanals at BATS, Theatre, Wellington 11-15 March.

Charlotte Purdy, Peter Burger, Erebus: Operation Overdue, documentary.

Georgina Craw’s thesis discusses Māori trans-Tasman travel before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Her analysis is sophisticated and Māori working as seamen and in Poihakena (Port Jackson) is an important thread of her story.  Her wider focus means that she examines labour alongside a range of other reasons Māori travelled.  She explores some of the harsh ways Māori workers were treated and also their agency.   The earliest contact and exchange between Māori and Europeans is an important period to study and Craw’s contribution is substantial.

Kristyn Harman’s article is another that explores transnational movement; it begins with Mary Ann Hodgkins’ migration from Nottinghamshire to Nelson.  Harman focuses on Hodgkins’ domestic work to ensure her family’s survival in the new environment.  In doing so she explores the hybrid domesticity of colonial women and their relationships with Māori. This article embeds reproduction and survival into the colonial history of New Zealand.

Eric Olssen’s work is in some ways more focused than most on this list.  This book is examining a narrow time, the turn of the 19th Century, and a single place, Dunedin.   The huge range of photographs that he’s collected over decades gives a sense of the materiality of work, in a way that written sources can rarely match. His work ends with a discussion of the labour movement and the Labour Party.

Like Olssen’s work, Once We Built a Tower, is interested in the rise of political labour. Its opening act is set in Kurow work camp where Arnold Nordmeyer was the Minister and Gervan McMillan the doctor, and its second act dramatizes when they were in parliament and attempting to pass social security legislation.  The play uses songs and theatrical devices to explore different voices from this time, and the struggle over what a welfare state might look like.  It is worth noting that entry to watch the play was by Koha, because those producing it wanted to make theatre accessible.

Ryan Bodman focuses on the opposition to organised Labour in the 1960s and 1970s.  Bodman explores the attempts to delegitimise the active, organised labour movement of this period.  His work shows that the framing of media attacks on the union movement changed over this period.  His work is particularly interesting for those who want to understand how quickly the New Zealand labour movement lost its power in the 1980s and 1990s.

Erebus: Operation Overdue tells the story of the workers who found and identified the bodies after the Erebus crash, using interviews, contemporary footage and reconstructions. The rescue workers’ experiences were not acknowledged when they returned and they received no assistance or support. The documentary is a powerful recognition of their work and workplace trauma.  It is a reminder of how much work is invisible, even in events that receive significant media attention.