Petitions, public meetings, strikes, go-slows, violence and armed revolt. Nelson, New Zealand in 1843 was said to be 'in a state little short of anarchy'. In this paper, Jared Davidson argues that the self-activity of the Nelson labourers and their wives had a significant impact on the development of Nelson, drawing on traditions of popular protest, class power and the gendered labour of making shift. The agricultural backgrounds of many of the emigrants and the conflicts of the English countryside – including but not limited to the Swing Riots of 1830/31 – played a role in structuring the gang-men’s response to their situation.
On Saturday 26 August 1843, pay day for the gang-men employed on the New Zealand Company’s public relief works, acting police magistrate George White frantically prepared for the confrontation to come. Having deployed Nelson’s entire police force to the port and hidden them inside houses surrounding the Company store, White was on his way himself when he was met by a constable in haste. An angry group of 70 to 80 gang-men, armed with guns, clubs and the collective experience of months of continuous conflict, were waiting for him. White sent for reinforcements, hoping the Sheriff could muster up some settlers as special constables. “The generality of the persons however were very reluctant to be sworn in, and some refused.” Settlers believed that they too would become objects of attack. Class lines between settlers and labourers had been drawn. In fact, they were there from the beginning.
The next hour would not go well for White. Nor was it the first time White, his fellow magistrates and the New Zealand Company officials had confronted the gang-men – agricultural labourers, artisans and their wives who found themselves relying on relief work not dissimilar to schemes administered by the English parishes they had only recently left behind. For the directors of the Company, “nearly all the evils of the old English Poor Law system prevailed in the Settlement”, and they repeatedly demanded an end to a scheme that was so drastically draining their funds. For White, the gang-men’s continued efforts to assert control over their situation had created a power vacuum in the young settlement: Nelson was “in a state little short of Anarchy and Civil War.”
But what of the gang-men themselves? Who were they, and what had led them to such acts of collective revolt? The events of August and September 1843 were a culmination of struggles, including ‘combination’, petitions, public meetings, strikes, go-slows, work refusal, violence to both persons and property, and armed revolt. The self-activity of the gang-men had a significant impact on the development of Nelson. Yet much of the existing literature on this period simply list the men as ‘labourers’ – a faceless mass whose collective agency is inferred but given little political weight, or dismissed as relatively peaceful. Causality is put down to simple hardship, the result of an imbalance between capital and labour in the settlement that dissipates with time; the gang-men’s future as pioneering colonial farmers a teleological given.
If the gang-men remain nameless in most histories, then their wives fare even worse. As Kristyn Harman notes, personal accounts of working people’s experiences in early colonial New Zealand are scarce due to illiteracy. The voices of working-class emigrants – especially working-class women – are under-represented. Not to mention the inattention of male-focused histories to gender and gendered work, one of the defining features of the lives of the labouring poor in the nineteenth century but something that is too often relegated to the side-lines of the male experience. The hidden half of the gang-men’s struggle was the reproductive labour of their wives, who marshalled wit, kin networks and class-based strategies of making shift to complement the Company’s meagre rations.
What follows is a microhistory of collective revolt. It attempts to uncover the people involved, the handling of their situation in class ways and the impact they had on the composition of capitalist relations in 1840s Nelson. The emigrants who travelled steerage across unforgiving oceans had names, families and a history, bringing with them traditions of collective rituals, shared labour and memories of agricultural and political unrest. How did their experience of popular protest before arriving in Nelson play out in their struggle? And how did they force the Company to rethink its plans for colonisation and recompose wage and property relations in Nelson? As Geoff Eley notes, “the collective action of ordinary people exposes the fallacy of treating ‘violence’, ‘protest’, or ‘disorder’ as a world apart, as a phenomenon distinct from high politics, as a mere reaction to stress… By the actions that authorities call disorder, ordinary people fight injustice, challenge exploitation, and claim their own place in the structure of power."
After a brief discussion of class, Part I continues with a narrative of events surrounding the tumultuous pay day of 26 August 1843. Part II shifts in focus to the who, how and why. Using the pay lists of the New Zealand Company, I detail the 70-odd men of the gangs most involved, and explore their forms of collective resistance with reference to their past experiences of parish relief and popular protest. Following Raewyn Dalziel, I believe the agricultural backgrounds of many of the emigrants and the conflicts of the English countryside – including but not limited to the Swing Riots of 1830/31 – played a role in structuring the gang-men’s response to their situation. Finally, Part III tells how the power of the gang-men was countered by the Company. It draws on theories of class composition – with its focus on worker’s resistance to capital and capital’s efforts to decompose such class resistance – to analyse the dynamic of capitalist development in 1840s Nelson. Settler privilege, in the form of access to land, played a significant role in the division and ultimate decomposition of the gang-men’s power.
Published by the Labour History Project online here, January 2020. ISBN: 978-0-473-51230-9.