Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The lonesome grave of Fred Evans

Waikaraka Cemetery in Onehunga is not one of Auckland's more famous burial grounds. It is as large as the Grafton graveyard in the inner city, and almost as old as the vast necropolis at Waikumete in the west, but it has never had the mystique that either of those places enjoys. Wedged between a scruffy industrial district and the smooth but dirty waters of the upper Manukau Harbour, Waikaraka has never attracted the gangs of grave-scratching genealogists, stoned street kids, and neurotic teenage goths which infest Grafton and Waikumete. To rest at Waikaraka is to rest in peace, with only the occasional aged relative or lame seagull for company.

Waikaraka seems at once an ironic and an appropriate place for Fred Evans to rest. Ironic, because Evans died surrounded by a crowd, was mourned by huge crowds, and was laid to rest surrounded by a crowd. Appropriate, because Evans symbolises a period in New Zealand history which has been made mysterious by both the passage of time and the changing of political fashion.

Fred Evans was shot dead in 1912 during a protracted and bitter strike in the gold mining town of Waihi south of Auckland. The thirty-three year old miner's killers were the drunken and undisciplined 'special' policemen who would reappear the following year to play a brutal and perhaps decisive role in the smashing of the revolutionary general strike called by the 'Red' Federation of Labour. The defeat of the Red Feds and the outbreak of World War One in 1914 marked the end of the radical period in New Zealand labour history, and set the stage for the emergence of a gradualist Labour Party and a trade union movement devoted to partnership with employers rather than the overthrow of the wage system. A small and frustrated minority has looked back to the model of 1912 and 1913.

Fred Evans has not been completely forgotten - commemorations are still held on the anniversary of his death by small groups of Kiwi trade unionists and leftists - but he is undoubtedly an obscure figure in New Zealand history, a footnote to an era that has itself become a footnote. In 1912, though, Evans was a martyr mourned by tens of thousands of workers in Waihi and Auckland. Though he died peniless, he was buried under a handsome headstone paid for by hundreds of donations.

The inscriptions on the middle and lower parts of the headstone read 'He died for his class' and 'Greater love hath no man, than he who layeth down his life for his friends'. Another part of the stone shows two hands shaking inside the slogan 'Workers of the World Unite'. One is reminded both of Christianity's faith in sacrifice and of syndicalism's faith in the 'one big union'. (Nonconformist Christians played an important part in the formation of early socialist groups in New Zealand, and by 1912 the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World had become a force inside the Red Federation of Labour.)

The NZ History site has a tasteful and interesting page on Fred Evans, but can't avoid giving the impression that the cause the man died for is historical, if not simply ridiculous. Many Kiwi historians would agree with such an assessment: Keith Sinclair's trailblazing national history gave the Red Feds a cameo role before the birth of the 'mature' labour movement, and Sinclair's successor Michael King was also keen to downplay the organisation Evans died for as out of step with the moderation and good common sense that mark New Zealand society and therefore doomed to failure.

Others have disagreed: in his fine history of the coal mining unionism in this country the Marxist scholar Len Richardson characterised 1912 and 1913 as a time of 'revolutionary turmoil', and more recently the academic heavyweight James Belich has unearthed hospital admission records which suggest that serious street fighting was taking place in New Zealand's large cities in 1913.

Which view of Fred Evans and the Red Feds will win out? Will the grave beside the quiet waters of the Manukau remain a curiousity, or will it one day be seen as an important piece of history? The answers to these questions depend on the fortunes of the labour movement of today. Watch this space, and others like it.


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