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Jared Davidson’s Blood & Dirt: Prison Labour and the Making of New Zealand (Image: Archi Banal)
Jared Davidson’s Blood & Dirt: Prison Labour and the Making of New Zealand (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksNovember 7, 2023

Convict New Zealand? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds

Jared Davidson’s Blood & Dirt: Prison Labour and the Making of New Zealand (Image: Archi Banal)
Jared Davidson’s Blood & Dirt: Prison Labour and the Making of New Zealand (Image: Archi Banal)

Ever since writing Blood and Dirt: Prison Labour and the Making of New Zealand, Jared Davidson can’t help but see Aotearoa through the lens of the forced labour that helped build some of our most iconic places.

At Officers Point in the South Island town of Lyttelton, sun-baked prisoners scratched at the cliff face, the dust and scree a constant companion, their tools a rudimentary set of pickaxes, carts and dynamite  In 1863, a commission of inquiry had recommended the construction of a breakwater – increased shipping would bring prosperity to the province. So, for close to a decade, gangs of imprisoned men were marched out of gaol and put to work bludgeoning a headland into rubble.

By September 1866, imprisoned workers had moved over 21,000 cubic metres of earth, used 2,000 kilograms of explosive powder and fired 877 shots into the hillside. The rubble became a breakwater, and the breakwater became Gladstone Pier in 1874. Today it services a major international port.

Prison labour is embedded throughout Lyttelton, from its stone gutters to the slopes of Mount Pleasant. But it’s not the only place in New Zealand where prison labour was used to create key infrastructure. The chain gang was a crucial cog of the progress industry: public works that attacked the Indigenous environment and paved the way for Pākehā settlement. 

Prisoners working at Waikeria Prison Farm. Archives New Zealand (Creative Commons).

In the 19th century prisoners cleared and levelled the landscape; drained swamps, diverted waterways, built bridges and retaining walls; created foundations for schools and universities; maintained cemeteries, reserves and botanic gardens; forged roads; founded farms and forests; mined guano, and spurred the grasslands revolution. Prison labour was not an anomaly but crucial to the colonisation of both New Zealand and its Pacific Empire. And its use was there from the very beginning of Pākehā settlement.

The imprint left by the incarcerated is all around us. We just need to know where to look.

To start, we might look beyond the prison to the streets throughout our cities, where the hubris of the present masks the forced labour of the past. Or we might look to Invercargill Airport, which sits atop some of the 10 square kilometres of reclaimed land at the New River Estuary, all drained by prisoners. That’s over 1,500 football fields worth of prime real-estate.

We could cast our eyes towards the vast forests planted by prisoners, where acres and acres of tussock were transformed into a multi-billion-dollar industry. Or to the farms cleared by prisoners, worked by prisoners, and whose crops were fertilised by guano mined, in part, by prisoners in New Zealand’s Pacific.

Or perhaps we could look to the very heart of state power, Parliament House, whose internal bricks were cut, shaped and fired by prisoners out of Pukeahu Mount Cook clay – itself a prison for close to 100 years. Prison labour pulses within the very heart of New Zealand’s parliament.

The spaces that have benefited from unfree labour are everywhere, accessible and in most cases frequented every day. Prison labour is beneath our feet and before our very eyes. It is folded into the richly textured histories of our landscapes, embedded alongside Indigenous histories of place. It may be a hidden history, but it is deeply connected with the flow of people and profit through the modern-day city, forest or port. 

This was hit home to me when, part way through writing Blood and Dirt, my whānau and I sat down to play the New Zealand version of Monopoly. As I moved my counter across the iconic sites, it dawned on me that I was looking upon an archive of forced labour.

The marble block beneath the Parliament Buildings, Wellington, undergoing construction. Government House can be seen in the background. Taken by an unidentified photographer in 1912. Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-025320.

Now, when I see Milford Sound on the Monopoly board, I don’t see the track but Milford Sound Prison, where prisoners battled the weather and formed part of “the finest walk in the world”. When I see Lake Taupō and Rotorua, I see the vast prison forests of Waiotapu, Kāingaroa, Waipā and Whakarewarewa, and an environment forever altered. When I see the Waitangi grounds, I don’t just think Te Tiriti o Waitangi, but of the Irish convicts who built the first European structures there in 1815. When I see the Ōhākune Carrot, I think of the first highways through the Central Plateau and up to Mount Ruapehu, forged by prisoners in the 1910s and 1920s and maintained for decades after. And I see the Chateau Tongariro, also built by prisoners.

Convict Australia and the myth of New Zealand exceptionalism has meant the history of prison labour has been largely overlooked. Yet prison labour helped to shape modern New Zealand; so much so that the land of the long white cloud, land of milk and honey, might better be characterised as a prison land. Perhaps it’s too much of a stretch to compare New Zealand with convict Australia. But whether New Zealand is a prison land or not, it’s now impossible for us to view the landscape and our past as we once did. At least, that is my hope.

Blood and Dirt: Prison Labour and the Making of New Zealand ($50, Bridget Williams Books) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland. Jared Davidson will be speaking with Pip Adam at Verb Readers & Writers Festival, Wellington, 12 November.

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