Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Island of Secrets: Matiu Somes

Matiu Somes Island, First World War Barracks.
David McGill's aptly-named book is the title of this post, which I write after finally visiting Matiu Somes Island. Our family was fortunate enough to spend Christmas there—three nights in the middle of Te Whanganui-a-Tara with friends and whānau, the weather, and layers of history.

I've written about a number of First World War internees on Matiu Somes; from the German-born anarchist Carl Mumme to Hjelmar Dannevill. A number of war resisters who feature in my latest work also ended up on Matiu Somes. So exploring the island had a particular resonance for me.

Inside the Barracks
We were shown around the barracks by our friend and island ranger Jeff Hall. There used to be more, and the one that remains had been cut in half to make room for newer buildings, but I could still get a sense of what confinement might have been like. Did Carl sleep here? Or maybe Arthur Muravleff, an aspiring Maxim Gorky suspected of being a spy? The weatherboards and decaying roof couldn't tell us.


I wanted to place the barracks in context, so I trooped up the hill and attempted to replicate a photograph of the camp as it was during the First World War (thank you Alexander Turnbull Library). Close enough.


Then and now: Matiu Somes Internment Camp, First World War; Matiu Somes December 2017
There are too many secrets to share in one post, including its pre-European history or its history after 1918. I look forward to learning more of them, but for now, I'm thankful to have spent three nights on Matiu Somes by choice, rather than by coercion. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

Precarious Pasts and Postwork Futures


This article was first published in the November 2017 edition of the LHP Bulletin, which had precarious work as its theme. Other articles from that Bulletin will be available on the LHP website in 2018.

Precarious labour is nothing new. Insecure and irregular work has been the norm rather than the exception in the history of capitalism. “For most of human history, work has occurred under unstable conditions, with little legal regulation and little expectation of long-term continuity.” Precarious labour today is not so much a new phenomenon “but the return of precarious labour after a three-decade interruption during the Fordist era in some parts of the world.”1

But this is only half the picture. Women and racialised minorities have always had a precarious relation to waged labour.2 Even at the height of Fordism, ‘standard employment relations’—regular, full-time, and long-term work characterised by (mostly) male workers concentrated in a single workplace or industry—were premised on the precarious and often invisible labour of others. As Angela Mitropoulos notes, the stability of ‘standard’ work presupposed vast amounts of unpaid domestic labour by women and the colonisation of indigenous peoples.3 For Mitropoulos, “the recent rise of precarity is actually its discovery among those who had not expected it”; the orthodox union movement with its blindness to longstanding hierarchies within waged and unwaged labour.4

The return (or discovery) of precarious labour has mostly been viewed by traditional unions as a threat, not only to working conditions but to the continuing existence of unions themselves. As mediators of exploitation rather than advocates for its abolition, the answer to precarious labour for such unions is often government-regulated work, the promotion of ‘decent work’, and job creation—in a nutshell, more work—none of which address the root causes of precarity.

Yet there are other, more liberatory alternatives. The struggle against the wage relation and its gendered and racial divisions has been present in the best of Marx’s writing, certain anarchist and communist currents (such as the Industrial Workers of the World, IWW), and revolutionary feminist thought. The problem for this perspective today, notes Kathi Weeks, is that “the gospel of work and the work ethic have so colonized our lives that it is difficult to conceive a life not centered on and subordinated to work.”5

Using examples of precarious work from New Zealand’s past, I want to explore this antiwork tradition and the refusal of work as a potential strategy for both the abolition of precarious labour, and the very relations that call capital and the proletariat into being.6 A related question, and one of interest to the discipline of labour history, is how resistance to work might reshape the way labour militancy is defined and measured, and how the historical emergence and re-emergence of certain forms of struggle can situate the present in the history of capital.7

Precarious pasts

Stout despite his sixty years and clean-shaven except for a greying moustache, in 1918 Joseph Goss was an aging watersider and agricultural labourer living in Waitara, Taranaki. While he called Waitara home, his precarious working situation meant he often moved about for work. At sixty he was one of the many aging labourers on the edge of the cash economy, trying to pick up jobs where he could.8

Before arriving in Waitara in 1914, Joseph had laboured on the wharves in both Wellington and Whanganui. To earn a day’s shift Joseph had to stand on the dock to be selected like cattle at auction, only to work physically exhausting, dangerous jobs. Joseph had hoped to fare better in a smaller port like Waitara, but he was mistaken.

Joseph was a prolific letter writer, and the struggle for and against work is a recurring theme in his letters. Joseph wrote that since leaving Whanganui there had been no work for him “or any man of his type and principles”, and figured that for over four years he had not averaged more than 10/1 shillings per week. In 1918, that could buy around twenty-five loaves of bread or two large bags of flour. It was only “thanks to our frugal mode of living, coupled with simple wants, we have been able to carry on.”9 The reproduction—the survival—of Joseph and his wife Mary, relied as much on Mary’s unwaged work as the meager wages Joseph could earn.

Thanks to his age, or possibly his opposition to capitalism, Joseph could not hold down a permanent job, even with the labour shortage caused by the First World War. Irregular work was the norm. “Since I last wrote I have had a job for a fortnight in the cooling chamber, and a couple of days out at the Kersone Sheds. I have been able to square up with Room money, so I am alright for a short while.”10 The cash, however, did not last. “As for your financial position, I am pleased to know things are going so well with you. Wish I could say the same for myself”, Joseph wrote three months later. “Would have sent you papers oftener from this side, but could not afford the stamps.”11

His precarious working life, plus the militarism of the war, left Joseph despondent and bitter. “Life for me has lost all charm”, wrote Joseph, who vented his anger at the military, the ruling class, and his fellow workers.12 He wasn’t alone. Henry Aloysius Murphy was a gristly Australian labourer working on the Auckland wharves. Quoting Emerson, Henry believed that “Doomsday is every day for the workers”, and poured out his disgust at his co-worker’s desire for work. “I hate to talk about work it’s the most degrading thing that I know of” wrote Henry in May 1919. “Things have slackened up here on the wharves (but) seven home boats expected in next month, that ought to gladden the heart of bone headed bastards that’s all they want (plenty work). I would work them 2 death if I had my way!”13

It wasn’t long before these letters were stopped by the state. From the perspective of power, these were seditious ideas. Work was to be worshipped and the myth of the dignity of labour preserved. Echoing longstanding concerns over vagrants—those who failed or refused to internalise dominant middle-class values of work, industry and respectability—the state linked these letters to criminality and social threat.14

Henry was hauled before the court for failing to register as a reservist under the Military Service Act and was sentenced to fourteen days hard labour. On his release he was due to be deported, but agreed to leave New Zealand ‘voluntarily’ and returned to Australia. Joseph fared slightly better. His age saved him from prosecution, but his precarious existence continued. In 1919, Joseph had moved inland to find more work, and by 1923 he eked out a living as a gardener in Napier. It was here that Joseph Goss died on 26 March 1934. He was 76 years old.

Toil - travail - tripalium - torture

These letters suggest that Joseph and Henry viewed waged work as dead time rather than a source of dignity or the pillar of social value. Their precarious working experience also shows that for many in their position (like most precarious workers today), unions and their membership fees were mostly out of reach. Traditional unions were (and are) based on the world of paid work, something Joseph and Henry either struggled to find or ultimately abhorred. They were not alone. Stevan Eldred-Grigg found that many workers “saw their work as something actually distasteful, boring, depressing and tedious. The dislike they felt for their work was one of the most fundamental limitations of the union movement.”15 The mystical cult of work pushed by employers, teachers, the clergy, middle-class socialists and most union leaders was far from accepted. Some amongst New Zealand’s working-class were more likely to sympathise with Paul Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy, with its defence of idleness, than the proud workers portrayed in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards.

This is hardly surprising. The French word travail, to toil, comes from the Latin tripalium or ‘instrument of torture’, and as the case of Henry Murphy suggests, there is a rich vein of working-class struggle against toil—those who believed in liberation from work rather than liberation through work. Yet resistance to work during the twentieth century has often been underestimated by labour historians. More often than not work has been viewed as creation rather than coercion, and workers as producers rather than resisters who must be constantly disciplined or seduced to accept work.16 Traditional yardsticks of working class militancy are therefore measured in organisational or ideological terms.

But something interesting happens if resistance to work rather than party or union membership is taken as a measure of class-consciousness. Not only does it widen the terrain of study, it gives working people like Joseph Goss and Henry Murphy agency in the making of their own history. It moves “the self-activity of the working class to centre stage” even if that activity was rooted in self-preservation.17

As Michael Steidman notes in his classic Workers Against Work, an investigation of workers’ resistance to work also links the histories of women, unemployed workers, and immigrants and makes those histories more visible:

Instead of viewing female workers as less militant because they were relatively uninterested in joining parties and unions, an investigation of their struggles over maternity leave, absenteeism, illnesses, and gossip demonstrates that women also participated in the class struggle… Women identified less with the workplace because of the temporary and unskilled character of their jobs, lower salaries, and familial responsibilities.18

If their avoidance of the workplace is taken as a measure of class-consciousness, “then many women’s minimal identification with their role as producer might lead to the conclusion that females were among the true vanguard or consciousness of the working class.”19

Postwork futures 

The examples of Joseph Goss and Henry Murphy, two precarious workers with a tenuous relationship to work and the union movement, helps us to take a longer view of insecure work and how to struggle against it. How the racialised sphere of unpaid or reproductive labour must be at the forefront of organising against capitalist precarity, for example, and that socialist programs of the past, with their affirmation of labour rather than the abolition of labour, are at best outdated, if not irrelevant and counterproductive. Work refusal and liberation from labour should be at the heart of our struggles. And the forms these struggles take need to recover the original sense of the word ‘proletariat’ as those without reserves, including those beyond the formal wage.20

Like Steidman’s challenge in Workers Against Work, this immediately poses questions around worker identity and class-consciousness. Most labour movements were built around an affirmable worker’s identity, one that claimed a universal class character but was actually of a very narrow make-up—the white male industrial worker or those who “conformed to a certain image of respectability, dignity, hard work, family, organisation, and sobriety.”21 This flaw has long been pointed out by Marxist feminists (and others), and their critique seems especially relevant in the present. Thanks to the breakdown of Fordist discipline and managerial techniques, and the return of precarious, flexible working conditions, employers need workers to identify with their work more than ever before. Does it make sense for those resisting precarity to affirm the very same identification with work? As the Endnotes collective argue, “the fundamental contradiction of our society (proletariat-capital) is only potentially deadly to capitalism if the worker confronts her work and therefore takes on not just the capitalist, but what capital makes of her, i.e. if she takes on what she does and is.”22

In this sense, writes Kathi Weeks,

the politics of and against work has the potential to expand the terrain of class struggle to include actors well beyond that classic figure of traditional class politics, the industrial proletariat… after all, work, including the dearth of it, is the way that capitalist valorization bears most directly and most intensively on more and more people’s lives.23

This call to refuse work is not a utopian denial of the terrible, anxiety-ridden experience of precarious labour and the constant struggle to make ends meet. Precarious workers have difficulty refusing work because they have only ever had a discontinuous, uncertain, and temporary relationship with it.24 Demands for better working conditions can and must be made. But as Weeks notes, it is the demand itself that can broaden the struggle, and with it, people’s horizons. Demands that go beyond those offered by traditional unions and the majority of the left—alternatives that seem to end at fair and equitable work—can win material improvements while pointing to postwork futures. They can be a means to a different end—a world where work does not dominate life—rather than an end in themselves.

Past examples of antiwork demands that expand the scope of struggle include the IWW’s campaign for a four hour day with eight hours pay, the Wages for Housework movement, and more recently, the demand for universal basic income.25 With the return of precarious labour, what form these demands take in the present is crucial. For example, in Riot. Strike. Riot, Joshua Clover charts the return of the riot as a form of struggle within the sphere of capitalist circulation. Mapping the food riots of the 18th century to the machine-breaking of Captain Swing and the Luddites to the riots of Watts, Detroit, Newark, Chicago, Los Angeles, Athens, Oakland, and Ferguson, Clover argues that the blockade of circulation, often in the form of rioting, is the modern-day equivalent of the Fordist strike, and the recourse of those “chronically outside the formal wage.”26

Circulation struggles that bring together those beyond the formal wage is just one example from the past with relevance for today. There are countless others—although we should be wary of grafting the past onto the present. Yet as I hope this paper shows, there are lessons from the past that a long view can uncover, just as historical narratives can shed light on examples of antiwork politics. The role of labour historians in the struggle against precarity is to make such examples visible; to provide alternatives that expand the horizon of such struggles; and to question the relationship between precarious and unwaged labour, labour history, and the affirmation of labour rather than its abolition.



1. Sarah Mosoetsa, Joel Stillerman, Chris Tilly, ‘Precarious Labor, South and North: An Introduction’, International Labor and Working-Class History 89 (2016).
2. Silvia Federici, ‘Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint’, accessed 11 September 2017 https://inthemiddleofthewhirlwind.wordpress.com/precarious-labor-a-feminist-viewpoint/
3. Angela Mitropoulos, ‘Precari-us?’, Mute (2005), accessed 4 September 2017 http://eipcp.net/transversal/0704/mitropoulos/en
4. Mitropoulos, as cited by Steve Wright, ‘There and back again: mapping the pathways within autonomist Marxism’, accessed 4 September 2017 http://libcom.org/library/there-and-back-again-mapping-the-pathways-within-autonomist-marxism-steve-wright
5. Kathi Weeks, ‘Imagining non-work’, accessed 11 September 2017 http://libcom.org/library/imagining-non-work-kathi-weeks. For Weeks, the refusal of work is directed against the system of (re)production organized around, but not limited to, the wage system.
6. ‘What matters in reality are the social relations which determine human activity as labour—the point is thus the abolition of these relations and not the abolition of work.’ Théorie Communiste, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, Endnotes 1 (2008), accessed 19 September 2017 https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/1/en/theorie-communiste-much-ado-about-nothing
7. Joshua Clover, ‘Final Remarks’, from ‘The Crisis and the Rift: A Symposium on Joshua Clover’s Riot. Strike.Riot’, accessed 18 September 2017 https://www.viewpointmag.com/2016/09/29/final-remarks/
8. Steven Eldred-Grigg, New Zealand Working People (Dunmore: Palmerston North, 1990), 69.
9. Joseph Goss, 8 June 1918, AD10 Box 10/ 19/10, Archives New Zealand (ANZ).
10. Goss, 8 June 1918, AD10 Box 10/ 19/10, ANZ.
11. Goss, 8 June 1918, AD10 Box 10/ 19/10, ANZ.
12. Goss, 8 June 1918, AD10 Box 10/ 19/10, ANZ.
13. Henry Murphy, 2 May 1919, AD10 Box 19/ 23, ANZ.
14. David Bright, ‘Loafers are not going to subsist upon public credulence: Vagrancy and the Law in Calgary, 1900-1914’, Labour/Le Travail 36 (1995), 43.
15. Eldred-Grigg, New Zealand Working People, 130.
16. Michael Seidman, Workers Against Work: Labor in Paris and Barcelona During the Popular Front (University of California Press: Berkley) accessed 4 September 2017 https://libcom.org/library/workers-against-work-michael-seidman
17. Richard Price, as cited by Anna Green, ‘Spelling, Go-Slows, Gliding Away and Theft: Informal Control Over Work on the New Zealand Waterfront 1915-1951’, Labour History 63 (1992), 101.
18. Seidman, Workers Against Work. 19. Seidman, Workers Against Work.
20. Joshua Clover, ‘Final Remarks’, from ‘The Crisis and the Rift: A Symposium on Joshua Clover’s Riot. Strike.Riot’, accessed 18 September 2017 https://www.viewpointmag.com/2016/09/29/final-remarks/
21. Endnotes Collective, ‘A History of Separation’, Endnotes 4 (2015), accessed 15 September 2017 https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/4/en/endnotes-the-infrastructure-of-the-modern-world
22. Gilles Dauvé & Karl Nesic, ‘Love of Labour? Love of Labour Lost…’, Endnotes 1 (2008), accessed 15 September 2017 https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/1/en/gilles-dauve-karl-nesic-love-of-labour-love-of-labour-lost
23. Kathi Weeks, The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics & Postwork Imaginaries (Duke University Press: Durham, 2011), 17-18.
24. Ann Curcio, ‘Social reproduction, neoliberal crisis, and the problem with work: a conversation with Kathi Weeks’, accessed 11 September 2017 http://libcom.org/library/social-reproduction-neoliberal-crisis-problem-work-conversation-kathi-weeks
25. However, if the demand for universal basic income is for a mere supplement to wages, it will entrench the wage relation and precarious labour rather than open up postwork horizons. See Weeks, The Problem With Work, 137-150.
26. Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot (Verso: UK, 2016), as cited by Michael Robbins, accessed 12 September 2017 http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-riot-strike-riot-joshua-clover-20160505-story.html


Thursday, December 7, 2017

'My Dear Doctor': Hjelmar von Dannevill

Hjelmar Dannevill. From the file 'Dr von Dannevill, October 1914 - June 1917' [Archives Reference: AD 10 Box 9 17/26] Archives New Zealand The Department of Internal Affairs Te Tari Taiwhenua

Below is an excerpt from a chapter in my forthcoming book, Between the Devil and the Sea, on the remarkable Wellington figure of Hjelmar Dannevill. During the First World War her private letters were confiscated and Hjelmar was eventually interned on Matiu Somes Island for a brief period - one of the few women to be interned during the war. Her sexuality and disruption of gender norms was a major factor.

A Visit to Miramar

On 21 May 1917, Police Matron Beck and Detectives Boddam and Cox left the tram and made their way towards the Lahmann Home’s impressive entrance. Built in 1907 by the director of a short-lived amusement park called Wonderland, the grand wooden building had been purchased in 1911 by Dr Edith Huntley, a well-known advocate of women’s health and the first woman councillor of Miramar. But it was Hjelmar Dannevill who answered the door. She was dressed in her distinctive style—collar, shirt and waistcoat, an immaculately tailored jacket adorned with a pocket watch, and a long skirt that reached to her leather boots. Hjelmar was known to have smoked from a pipe, but not on this occasion.

Once inside the detectives found a picturesque foyer of dark red walls and stained wooden panels. Great bowls of scarlet gladioli and vases of feathery-looking ixia dotted the space, and Boddam noted the staircase that led to the Home’s second floor and its exterior balconies. ‘After informing her who we were in the usual way’ wrote Boddam, ‘I requested her to accompany us at once to the office of the Commissioner of Police, who desired to interview her.’[i] After confiscating a bag of letters, books and other papers, Hjelmar went quietly, saving Boddam the task of using the warrant for her arrest.

As Hjelmar boarded the tram surrounded by Police she must have pondered her sudden change in fortune. Five years earlier she and Dr Huntley had been the hosts to over two hundred women of high society. The December 1912 opening of the Lahmann Home was a grand affair. Guests toured the grounds with cups of high tea accompanied by the music of the Miramar Band, while those inside were treated to performances on the grand piano.

It was also a chance to rub shoulders with Wellington’s elite, including the Prime Minister himself. Earlier that afternoon Massey had announced his pleasure at opening the Home, one he believed was ‘the first of its type in the British Dominion and the first in all the world to be entirely conducted by women.’ It was a place where those ‘suffering from chronic disease or permanent weakness might be afforded all the relief possible’, a place where ‘business men, professional men, or even politicians, if they happened to be overworked, could be given an opportunity of recuperating.’ ‘Someday’, joked Massey, ‘it might be necessary for me to come to the home, but, as you can all gather from appearances, that time was not yet. (Laughter and “hear, hear!”).’[ii]

If Massey had ever checked in to the Home he would have experienced the relatively novel treatment of naturopathy, an alternative medicine on the rise. Modelled on the teachings of German physician Heinrich Lahmann, the Miramar retreat offered a natural care system of massage, hydrotherapy, a vegetarian diet, and plenty of fresh air. Lahmann himself was a staunch advocate of animal rights, refusing to use them in laboratory experiments. The Home was probably equipped with air baths as per Lahmann’s teachings, but it also provided less natural cures: electrical therapy (which some brave guests were ‘treated’ to on open days). A central-city office on Willis Street also offered electrical treatment for those pressed for time.

Hjelmar and the Lahamnn Home seem to have been an accepted part of the Wellington community. She was the host of a number of talks, known as an ‘At Home’, where women gathered at the retreat for music and more tea. ‘Dr Edith Huntley wore a dress of shot violet and green velvet with trimming to match. Dr von Dannevill was in navy blue’ reported one gossip column.[iii] Well into 1915 she spoke publically at women’s events, such as the Moral and Physical Health Society’s annual lecture or to the Pioneer Club, whose upper-class audience included Anne Salmond, the wife of Solicitor General Salmond. At ease on stage or behind the grand piano, no one cared, or cared to mention, Hjelmar’s masculine attire.

But by 1917 attitudes against difference had hardened, and spurred by Edward Bond’s complaints, not even Hjelmar’s high-society friends could save her. She now found herself at the Lampton Quay Police Station and face-to-face with the Commissioner of Police.

O’Donovan interrogated her at length about her past, her nationality, and her gender, hoping to find holes in a story that even today seems impossible to corroborate. The transcript—neatly typed and amended with question marks and notes such as ‘long pause’—fills most of the Army Department file. It reads like Bruce Chatwin story, dancing across European cities to New York, then south to Brazil, Argentina and Chile before sidestepping over to the African continent. India, Russia, China, Canada—almost every major country featured in Hjelmar’s travels.

‘What were you doing in all these places?’ asked O’Donovan.

‘Teaching anything I could, music, languages, first-aid, anatomy’ she replied, adding that she had trained as a musician in Leipzig before attending Zurich University to study medicine. ‘I got recommendations from one place to another. I also began doing journalistic work for various papers.’[iv] O’Donovan questioned her over what papers, which newspaper agents, and in what languages, before eventually discovering the nature of her later work—the study of venereal disease.

Hjelmar said that around 1890, she had made the acquaintance of a man named Hugo Fischer:

He was very wealthy and had lost his only son by syphilis. I had heard that he was keen, by this disastrous loss, to make investigations all over the world to find out the present state of venereal diseases amongst civilised nations as well as the more primitive races and savages even. He intended these investigations to equip about 7 or 8 people to travel over the globe to make investigations into these diseases. After I met him he began to give instructions in what he wanted carried out. He gave credit to draw on his finances to a very high extent and made a written appointment about the matter we had to send in to him. We had also to promise not to make any copies of any notes, as it naturally concerned a great many intimate affairs of people and the discover of gambling places etc.[v]

Using assumed names, Hjelmar mingled with hospital orderlies, clergymen, Police officers and women across the globe, gathering information on the taboo subject. Employing false names ‘was part of the instructions we had from Mr Fischer… he was afraid the leading power in Austria, the Order of Jesuits, would get hold of [their work].’[vi] This was also one of the reasons she wore men’s clothing—entering into seedy dens and asking questions as a woman was not an option, she argued.

O’Donovan was clearly thrown by her gender variance as much as Ellison and Salmond and repeatedly dwelled on it during the interrogation. ‘Were you dressed as you are now?’ asked O’Donovan.

‘I was not dressed in the same clothing.’

‘You were wearing a man’s hat and coat and an ordinary vest and collar of a man?’

‘Yes I think so, and a skirt.’

‘Did any question arise between you and Mr Ellison as regards whether you were a man or a woman?’

‘He said there was no objections to my wearing men’s clothing so long as he knew I was a woman.’[vii]

And later: ‘Did you ask Mr Ellison to certify that you were a woman?’

‘You mean in writing? No.’

‘If Mr Ellison said you were anxious to get a written document from him to say you were a woman would you say that was incorrect?’

‘I did not ask him for a document. I simply asked him for his advice. Dr Huntley thought perhaps it would be best to have a paper in order to identify myself when I came into touch with a rude crowd or investigating policemen and so on, as I had before, to be protected.’[viii]

As a result O’Donovan asked Hjelmer if she would submit to a medical examination, which she did. ‘I hereby certify that I have this day examined Dr H.W. Dannevill, and that the anatomical configuration shows that she is of the female sex’ reads the impassionate medical note.

Hjelmar’s sex was now recorded but O’Donovan was still not convinced of her nationality. Although she claimed to have been born somewhere near Copenhagen in 1862, she could not recall the name of the town nor produce any documentation.

However she did possess documents of a different kind—the confiscated letters shared at the start of this chapter. The file contains no further information on the letters or their writers. They were found amongst Hjelmar’s papers, which were eventually returned to her except for the four letters (including the two above). Three are from women, and in a possible explanation for why they were detained, hint at sexual activity between women.

‘I never wanted you so much as now’

Applying a contested, historically specific category such as ‘lesbian’ to an earlier period is problematic. Lesbian identity is a late twentieth-century concept, and the historical past was a very different sexual place. Women who loved and/or had sex with women, cross-dressed, or resisted heterosexuality did not necessarily have a language to describe themselves as lovers of women. They understood their desires, behaviour and experiences within the social context of their own time.[ix]

Yet these letters, and their wider context centred on Hjelmar and the Lahmann Home, point strongly to lesbian sexuality. Besides some of the leading prose, Katherine’s letter suggests that like Mary Bond she abhorred the thought of her husband visiting her (‘I dread the man intensely’). Could it be that her sexual desire was non-heterosexual? Was she one of many women whose sexuality had been suppressed by Victorian social mores?[x]

Affection is also there in another letter from Helene of Timaru. Its cramped script matches the letter shared at the start of this chapter, but as it is undated and on different paper it was probably written at a different time. Remarkably, it contains a dictated letter from a toddler in the care of Helene named William Stewart—who was none other than the son of Mary Bond.

In the letter written on behalf of William, Helene notes how much he is like his mother and recounts how he calls Dannevill ‘Docket’:
What about the boat Docket? On Wednesday carried the boat down + cleaned it out, and put it in the water. I did get in the boat Docket see!! Mrs Peuko put me on the boat. What shall I tell Docket? Kisses the paper (I kiss Docket!)… when are you coming down mummy + Docket to Peuko’s house? I good boy + do a lot every day.

He then signed off, in his own writing, with ‘William Stewart. I love you Docket.’[xi]

In her second letter Helene longs for the company of Hjelmar. ‘It always comforts me to read your dear loving words and to recall their sweet accompaniments’ she wrote. ‘I wish you were here now, how I long to lay my head against your shoulder and feel the thrill of spirit answering spirit. I do call you at night and early in the morning. I can sometimes feel that I am in your arms.’ In what could be suggestive prose or code, Helen recalls how she liked ‘to think of the iris buds opening… Think of me as they do, my most precious one.’[xii] Her letter also highlights the kinship felt between these women, when she asks,
Do you feel bound to spend your Christmas at Miramar, or could you not bring Molly and well as Mary Stewart and come here for a fortnight? Or as long as you like. Molly could have a tent and a verandah bed. Do answer this question Dear one! Will you! Sit down at the cocoa interval and send me a line. And I hope it will be yes if not, as soon after as possible. You must have a holiday and I do want you so! And we could make you comfortable and happy. My love to Mary Stewart.[xiii]

Are these letters evidence of sexual relationships between women or simply an example of romantic friendships? Late nineteenth and early twentieth century letters between women could be used to convey loving feelings or to discuss plans and fantasies, without necessarily meaning a sexual relationship. The power and intensity of love between women can be portrayed strongly in words, which sometimes included expressions of sensual and physical affection.[xiv]

Feminist historian Lelia Rupp suggests there are three behavioural features or characteristics that relate to lesbian historical evidence: romantic love between women, transgender identities, and sexual acts.[xv] Hjelmar’s letters and her non-binary gender seem to lean towards such evidence, but there is little consistency in historians’ understandings of women’s cross-dressing and its links with lesbian sexuality.[xvi]

Regardless of what we call her lived reality, there were many ways in which gender bending and same-sex relationships were policed before, during and after the First World War. The New Zealand government did not criminalise lesbian sex acts, writes Historian Alison Laurie, but outlawed lesbians through a complex web of regulations and strategies. The state could punish women who transgressed against gender-codes by cross-dressing or with unacceptable sexual behaviours through connecting lesbianism with promiscuity and prostitution. In doing so, ‘the law contained and controlled women’s access to public spaces and to self-determined sexual expression… where these methods proved inadequate on their own, lesbianism was contained by the medical profession who from the earliest times classified it as a disorder.[xvii]

Wartime simply added fuel to the flames. ‘Imperialism, while extolling the self-sacrificing single man who gave his life to tame some remote part of the empire, called for women to return to their traditional roles… independent women were accused of sex hatred and pilloried for preferring their own sex to men.’[xviii]

Not long after Hjelmar’s arrest, such a stance was taken to the extreme in Britain when MP Noel Billing claimed that Germany possessed a ‘Black Book’ of ‘forty-seven-thousand English men and women’ involved in lesbianism and other so-called deviant acts. According to Billing, the British Empire was about to collapse from within—one blackmail at a time. Billing argued that ‘in lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of State were threatened.’[xix]

This was the socio-legal setting in which Hjelmar’s letters were detained, and what she challenged with every collar or waistcoat she wore. Indeed, clothing itself was crucial to how gender was read by others. Victorianism expected women to demonstrate a meticulous personal daintiness. Their gestures were to be free of any sign of masculinity and their clothes and hair were to have ‘a precarious fragility.’[xx] From the late nineteenth century the plainer, more masculine style worn by ‘new women’, such as students, teachers, and office workers, had begun to challenge this view. But when gender variance intersected with male-defined ideas of sexuality, it was seen as a potential enemy of heterosexuality, gender order, and the nation itself.[xxi] In a patriarchal society, such cases had to be controlled.

The war had facilitated a deep intrusion into Hjelmar’s personal relationships by the state, and what it found unsettled Salmond. ‘Although the question of sex has now been settled by medical examination, the further information received and now submitted to me in no way alters the opinion which I formerly expressed, but rather confirms it’. After speaking with Gibbon, he ordered the immediate internment of Hjelmar. She was formerly arrested as an enemy alien on 26 May 1917 and escorted under guard to Matiu Somes Island. She was one of the few women to be interned in New Zealand during the First World War.

A number of newspapers carried the mild sensation of her arrest and usually finished with a comment on her attire. ‘The internment of Dr Hjelmar von Dannevill, which was effected yesterday, did not surprise the Wellington people’ reported the Evening Star. ‘The voice of gossip has insisted for a long time past that this lady, who claimed to be of Danish nationality, would find more congenial company on Somes Island.’[xxii] Her ‘eccentricities’ included wearing ‘her hair short’, a ‘hat, coat, vest, collar’, and ‘boots of a masculine pattern with a woman’s skirt.’[xxiii] The Northern Advocate quipped that the ‘quaint little figure’ who ‘would have passed for a boy easily were it not that she announced her sex by wearing one of the most characteristic garments of woman—a skirt’, would be missed.[xxiv]

Mr JA Fothergill of Dunedin felt compelled to write in support of Hjelmar, noting with regret that the reports on her internment ‘hardly does the citizens of Wellington justice… there must be hundreds of grateful patients (of whom I am one) throughout New Zealand who owe the doctor thanks for unwearied skilled attention and deep sympathy.’ That she wore ‘a masculine style of dress is merely a proof that her mind had risen superior to and emancipated from, the tyranny and vanity of fashion.’[xxv]

Although she was interviewed again—this time by the military—no personal file of her time on Matiu Somes Island has survived. This may be due to her short amount of time in the camp. Two months into her internment, Hjelmar is said to have suffered a severe nervous breakdown. Ironically, with the permission of Defence Minister James Allen she was transferred to the Lahmann Home to recuperate. NZ Truth was bemused and ridiculed the government for interning her in the first place. Rumour had it that her arrest was due to her losing a handbag ‘alleged to have contained incriminating correspondence with Europe,’ read the story.[xxvi] In the end, the rumour was not too far from the truth.


[i] Report of Constable Bodamm, date, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office.
[ii]  Dominion, 16 December 1912.
[iii] Freelance, 3 May 1913
[iv] Interview between Dannevill and O’Donovan, 21 May 1917, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office.
[v] Ibid.
[vi]
Ibid. 
[vii] Ibid.
[viii]
Ibid.
[ix] “Women who loved” Oram and Turnbull,
The Lesbian History Sourcebook: Love and Sex Between Women in Britain from 1780 to 1970, Routledge: London & New York, 2001,.p.1. I am also aware that my own reading of the sources as a heterosexual, cis-male outsider is just as problematic.
[x] See Martha Vicinus
, Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women 1850-1920, Virago: 1985, p. 17
[xi] Helene to Dannevill, undated, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office. William Paul Bond was born on 7 August 1913, which made him three in 1916. He died in The US in 1973.
[xii] Helene to Dannevill, undated, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office.
[xiii] Helene to Dannevill, undated, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office.
[xiv]Oram and Turnbull, The Lesbian History Sourcebook, p.51. Hjelmar’s masculinity and her blurring of binary genders adds a further complexity. Judith Halberstam argues that ‘many other models existed beyond the either-or proposition of an asexual friendship or a butch-femme sexual dynamic.’ She suggests that theorising a range of multiple genders and sexual desires would better explain female masculinity than the term lesbian. 

[xv] Leila Rupp, as cited by Julie Glamuzina.
[xvi] Oram and Turnbull, The Lesbian History Sourcebook, p.12.
[xvii] Alison J Laurie,
Lady-Husbands and Kamp Ladies, Thesis, p. 57-58
[xviii] Vicinus, Independent Women, p.285
[xix] Noel Billing, January 1918, as cited by Alison J Laurie, Lady-Husbands and Kamp Ladies, p.64
[xx] Vern Bullough and Bonnie Bullough, Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1993, p.155
[xxi] Oram and Turnbull, The Lesbian History Sourcebook, p.14.
[xxii] Evening Star, 29 May 1917
[xxiii] Dominion, 29 May 1917
[xxiv] Northern Advocate, 2 June 1917
[xxv] Evening Post, 5 June 1917
[xxvi] NZ Truth, 21 July 1917

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Wobblies of the World: New Zealand Launch!



Join New Zealand contributors, Mark Derby and Peter Clayworth, plus special guests, for a presentation of this new history of the global nature of the radical union, the Industrial Workers of the World.

Both Mark and Peter are New Zealand historians, who have a strong association with labour and trade union history through the Labour History Project. Their chapters in the book focus on the New Zealand Wobblies Percy Short and Pat Hickey, respectively.

30 November at Auckland Trades Hall
5:30 - drinks and nibbles
6pm- presentation
Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/1957924197555337/

More on the book here: https://www.plutobooks.com/9780745399591/wobblies-of-the-world/

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Beyond the Suffrage Petition - History from Below

Women working in the Roslyn Woollen Mill. MNZ-0704-1/4-F. Alexander Turnbull Library /records/23246571

Making the invisible visible, and telling history from below – these are some of the key themes that have stuck with me from our biographical work on the 1893 Women's Suffrage Petition.

The lives of ordinary, working-class, nineteenth-century women can be hard to find in government archives. The opportunity to rescue their stories and make them visible has been a major success of the project. We now know a lot more about women who may not have been active organisers or community leaders, but who nonetheless added their name to the cause of women’s franchise – women such as Elizabeth Rosevear, housekeeper; Henrietta McKaigue, domestic servant; and Fanny Oliver, the wife of a bricklayer. These are individuals who, by acting together, made history.

This is not only a type of history from below – an historical narrative that emphasises the perspective of common people rather than leaders – but a history by and for below. This has very much been a project of collaboration and crowdsourcing, motivated by love of the documents and the stories they tell rather than for material gain or academic prestige. 

Thanks to the passion and energy of family historians, students, librarians, archivists, and other researchers, these stories are now not only visible, but accessible. Anyone with an internet connection can explore the online database, read the research, and make their own contribution through the comments function. It is only fitting that the suffragists’ struggle for wider participation in society finds its ideals echoed, all these years later, in the way these biographies have been created and shared.

My contribution to 'Beyond the Suffrage Petition', a Facebook Note by NZHistory.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Dissent during the First World War Conference, 31 Aug - 2 Sep 2017

Thomas Moynihan, conscientious objector, Wanganui Detention Barracks 1918. Archives New Zealand

Hosted by the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies and the Labour History Project, with support from The Ministry for Culture and Heritage, and The Archives and Records Association of NZ (ARANZ), this two day conference will cover a range of topics on dissent, and how the First World War divided New Zealand society in many ways. In the current commemorative climate little attention has been paid to the perceptions and actions of those who opposed the war. 

More information can be found on the Conference event page, and here is the Conference Programme (pdf).

I'll be speaking at the Conference on Friday morning, and chairing a session in the afternoon. Here's my abstract, which presents work from my forthcoming book:

A War of Words: Domestic Postal Censorship and Dissent
Most histories of the First World War recall the muddied horror of the Western Front. But there was also a war at home, complete with violence, hardship and bravery. It was a war of ideas, and a key weapon in the armoury of authority was censorship.

Between August 1914 and November 1920, over 1.2 million civilian letters were opened and examined by the New Zealand military. Some were stamped and sent on. Others made their way into the hands of Police Commissioners, leading to covert surveillance, dawn raids, arrests, and deportation.

Employing a microhistory approach to a secret collection of confiscated letters, this paper explores domestic postal censorship, state attitudes towards dissent, and the people whose letters were originally blocked by military command. It suggests that wartime censorship was rooted in a need for imposing class discipline and maintaining capitalist/statist relations during what was a potentially turbulent time. Like the phenomenon of disaster capitalism, this expanded and made permanent ways of monitoring dissent for years to come.

Monday, July 3, 2017

New authors page

https://jared-davidson.com/

I'm the first to admit how poorly I've been maintaining this blog. Most of my time has been spent on writing a book, which is not far from being finished. Hopefully I'll be able to add more to this blog from the book, and from other musings.

One thing that is new is my authors page, which I've set up over at www.jared-davidson.com. There's no blogging happening there, but it is where I record my past and present work in the hope of making it more accessible.

In the meantime, if you want to read interesting history blogs with changing content, I've been enjoying The Many-headed Monster and The Age of Revolutions.