Thursday, February 04, 2016

Strange beasts on Queen Street

Early this week Aucklanders began to share a blurred photograph on facebook and twitter. The photograph seemed to show several large military vehicles - were they armoured personnel carriers? - riding through the city's business district on the back of a truck. Some of the people who saw the photograph believed that the vehicles had been brought to Auckland in preparation for the signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement on February the 4th. Trade ministers from a dozen Asian and Pacific nations would be gathering for the signing at the Sky City convention centre, in downtown Auckland, and opponents of the agreement had promised to not only march down Queen Street but blockade Sky City. Could the Key government be planning to clear a path through central Auckland with steel and guns?

As it turned out, the sinister vehicles belonged to the army of Singapore, and were en route to the vast and bleak forbidden realm in the central North Island known as the Waiouru Military Base. Soldiers from the city state have long visited Waiouru to drive tanks and armoured personnel carriers on uncongested roads and fire mortars and machine guns into empty spaces.

Some commentators might chuckle at the panic that blurred photograph prompted on social media, but I wonder whether the sight of strange vehicles moving through Auckland streets didn't induce collective memories of 1913, the year that hundreds of farmers armed with horses, long batons, and booze stormed into the centres of New Zealand's cities and attacked the striking wharfies who had occupied and blockaded ports. The farmers, who were given the half-satirical, half-honorific nickname 'Massey's Cossacks', were supported by police armed with pistols, rifles, and the odd machine gun. The wharfies and their fellow members of the 'Red' Federation of Labour had a few guns of their own, and shots were heard for days in Auckland and elsewhere.

When the industrious James Belich slogged his way through the archives of New Zealand's hospitals, he discovered that in 1913 folks with gunshot wounds were suddenly occupying beds. Belich likened the New Zealand of 1913 to the Russia of 1917; his fellow historian Len Richardson talked about 1913 as a year of 'revolutionary turmoil'.

In 2013 a few middle-aged men attempted to reenact the great clashes of 1913 in central Wellington. They grew long moustaches, put on uncomfortable clothes, climbed laboriously onto the backs of a few bemused horses, and made half-hearted lunges at equally bemused tourists and journalists. In twenty-first century New Zealand the horse has become an absurdly anachronistic machine; when dropped into the middle of a large city it looks either cute, or vulnerable, or both. In 1913, though, the horse still had some of the majesty and menace that made it a protagonist of so many classical and myths and martial songs. Massey's Cossacks used horses every day on their farms, and could ride and guide the animals at high speeds. Many of them belonged to hunting clubs; a few had ridden down Boers and blacks on the African veldt.

The police who confront protesters in Auckland today will not be riding horses, but they will be wielding long black batons that are descended from the weapons Massey's horsemen used to break the ribs of wharfies in 1913, and they have access to tear gas and plastic bullets. The sense of menace that the wharfies knew in 1913 remains, and accounts for the response to that sinister blurred photograph.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


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