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Image: Tina Tiller
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SocietyNovember 9, 2022

A brief history of sabotage in New Zealand

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

It first appeared in New Zealand law in the Crimes Act 1961, but the history of sabotage in this country dates back much further.

Sabotage is in the news. The trial of Graham Philip – said to be the first person ever convicted of sabotage in New Zealand – is shrouded in legal fog. Having pleaded guilty to seven charges of sabotage and one charge of entering agricultural land with intent to commit an imprisonable offence, Philip faces lengthy jail time. Exactly what he did in November 2021 is unclear. Citing fears of copycat offending, the details cannot be reported. Instead, news agencies have focused on the historic milestone the case represents.

According to the Ministry of Justice, “a search of the Case Management System for records for the period of January 1, 1980 and December 31, 2021 for charges or convictions of sabotage produced no results.” In New Zealand law, the crime of sabotage first appears in the Crimes Act 1961, one of many crimes deemed treasonous to the Queen and state.

Yet sabotage has a much older history in New Zealand. Its local story encompasses machine breaking by disgruntled farm labourers, rural arson (aka “incendiarism”), industrial sabotage and responses to the First World War.

In the mid 19th century, many of the working-class Pākehā arrivals from the UK had lived experience of popular protest. Revolts by impoverished agricultural labourers such as the Swing Riots of 1830–31 would have been still fresh in their minds. The targets of such uprisings were often threshing machines, which were destroyed in droves. Wrecking farm equipment and burning property was a collective, widespread movement aimed at improving the economic lot of those suffering a poor harvest and a swollen labour market, with very little means to survive besides poor relief. For these new arrivals, memories of sabotage were stored away like luggage and brought with them to Aotearoa.

‘GREAT FIRE AT DUNEDIN’. Evening Post, 6 December 1880. (National Library of New Zealand)

The state recognised this too. But instead of the word “sabotage”, New Zealand law in the 1860s prohibited “malicious injuries to property”. Fire had always been a weapon of the poor. Setting fire to “any house stable coach-house outhouse warehouse office shop mill malt-house hop-oast barn storehouse granary hovel shed or fold or to any farm building or to any building or erection used in farming land or in carrying on any trade or manufacture” was strictly illegal. Property was protected against the protests of those who had none.

By the 1890s, cases of arson and rural incendiarism in New Zealand were rife. “A bad spate of fire-raising in 1892 and early 1893, when fields, stacks of wheat and farm buildings on estates were destroyed, was attributed to sinister and revolutionary incendiarists” writes Steven Eldred-Grigg. “Fire-raising occurred all through the period, with another severe bout beginning in 1896 with a large fire on Coldstream.”

The law now labelled such protest as “mischief”, which included setting fire to crops, obstructing railways, hindering the operation of a coal mine or providing gunpowder to commit a crime. By 1908, the Crimes Act had codified these acts of “mischief” to manage an increasingly militant working-class movement, some of whom openly advocated “scientific sabotage” as a weapon of class war.

Formed in 1905 in Chicago, the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, whose members were known as Wobblies), took up the idea of industrial sabotage popularised by radical movements in Europe. Coded references to “the wooden shoe” harked back to the sabots or wooden shoes worn by French peasants in early factories. In one telling, slipping a wooden sabot into a loom or machine was the original act of industrial sabotage. A more likely version is that getting around in wooden shoes was slow, clumsy and inefficient. Sabotage in this sense meant to work slowly.

An Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) graphic from 1915 showing a wooden shoe (sabot) crushing a top-hatted capitalist. The quotation is from IWW official W.D. Haywood (Image: Public Domain)

Indeed, sabotage in Wobbly terms was aimed at the wallets of the capitalist class, not their persons. “Sabotage absolutely does not imply personal violence,” explained the newspaper of the New Zealand IWW. “We emphasise that statement, for the arch-lie levelled against the IWW is that we have no respect for life and limb.” Sabotage “does not aim for the destruction of a thing, but at the profits of an industry through the hampering of production. Simply, it is a form of strike which precludes starvation.” Going slow, working to rule (the original “quiet quitting”) and the collective withdrawal of workplace efficiency was how workers could win better conditions and shorter hours.

The Great Strike of 1913 – which included acts of industrial sabotage – followed by the First World War, meant sabotage was daily news. Newspaper headlines screamed of Wobblies, anarchists and foreigners said to be sinking ships at will. Take the case of “Gretchen”, a German woman who supposedly confessed to wrapping a bomb in baby clothes to sink an ocean liner in the United States. The story of “The baby and the bomb” was fake news, although it delighted at least one poet:

She pays her mysterious visit,
Down to the swarming pier;
Baby or bomb, which is it,
The bundle she carries here?
’Ware how you stoop to pick up
The parcel that goes tick-tock;
It may be a baby’s hiccup.
Or a dreadful dynamite clock.

The weekly pictorial newspaper The Free Lance believed pro-German foreigners and “stealthy rascals” with “anarchical intentions” were stalking the wharves with pocket-sized bombs, ready to plant infernal machines into ships. The government was not immune to such hysteria. “Information has been received that the Germans are now sending infernal machines from Sweden to USA in the form of a preserved meat tin,” reported one official. When the Port Kembla hit a German mine off the coast of Farewell Spit in 1917, the captain, crew, reporters and politicians were certain the cause was sabotage.

The front page image of the New Zealand Observer, December 16, 1916. (National Library of New Zealand)

From 1914 onwards, War Regulations were passed to prevent the sabotage of military equipment and access to the wharves and other defence sites were curtailed. Xenophobia and fear of the “enemy within” was rife. Everyone was talking about sabotage.

Which brings us back to 2022. Modern laws preventing the sabotage of government infrastructure – such as the law Graham Philip is charged under – have their origin in First World War regulations and the longer history of industrial protest. However, the advocates of industrial sabotage such as the IWW had legitimate grievances. They were grounded in a larger workers’ movement, a movement that took on the ills of capitalism and aimed for meaningful, collective and material change. That’s an important difference.

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