The multi-billion-dollar industry that grew from prison labour

In his new book Blood and Dirt: Prison Labour and the Making of New Zealand, Jared Davidson tracks the history of unfree work and how it shaped the Aotearoa we know today. This is an excerpt from the chapter ‘Plantation’.

On a January morning in 1903, intrepid journalist Constance Barnicoat stopped at the lonely Waiotapu Hotel, 30 kilometres south of Rotorua. From the cool shade of its veranda she had boundless views over volcanic plains covered with mānuka scrub and tall fern, framed by ranges of blue and purple mountains.

But then she spotted something out of place. “In the vast expanse of scrub-covered land, white as snow in spring with the blossoms of the aromatic mānuka, and in which steam is constantly rising in all directions from the numberless hot springs, one cluster of plain, unadorned, white buildings at once strikes the eye.” This was Waiotapu Prison, a forest plantation for prisoners, made up of box-like houses arranged in a U shape. “I cannot forbear to describe the situation,” she wrote of the frontier-like outpost. “Should prison settlements become common as blackberries, it is not likely that there would ever be another so remarkably situated as this.” 

As she continued her journey and wound her way through the scrub towards the prison, Barnicoat was surrounded by thermal wonders that had made the region so attractive to Māori and tourists alike: “boiling mud-holes, ‘porridge pots’ (fine mud bubbling like porridge), steam jets, little geysers, sulphur terraces and caves, excellent black sulphur baths, and an immense variety of hot springs and streams”. Prison plantations in every Australian state except Tasmania may have replicated New Zealand’s unfree forestry experiment, but they never had geysers. Waiotapu was a prison workscape like no other.

Felled timber ready to feed colonialism’s rapacious appetite for wood, c.1920. Alexander Turnbull Library

Today, roads in and out of Rotorua are bounded with pine trees that suggest a permanence that never existed. When Barnicoat visited to report on Waiotapu, the land was mostly free of trees and covered in a pumiceous, sandy deposit mixed with volcanic ash from eruptions at Tarawera, Kaharoa and Taupō.

Some of the trees the prisoners had planted were barely knee-high, like a field of upturned bottle-cleaners. Experiments to find the right species for this hostile environment were ongoing. Remarkably, exotic trees had taken where farmland could not. The 600,000 acres of Kāingaroa Plains acquired from Māori by the Crown were unsuitable for farming because their mineral-deficient soils gave rise to bush sickness, a disease that stunted and killed cattle.

Add the right minerals, however, and the land became ripe for settlement – and ripe for arguments over forestry versus farming that continue to this day. But in the 1890s, when a cure for bush sickness was still decades away, the Crown improved what it considered an unproductive ecosystem through afforestation, the planting of trees where no trees had stood before.

In the 19th century, fears that New Zealand would run out of timber were well founded. Native forests were being felled at alarming rates to make way for Pākehā settlement and its rapacious appetite for wood. The assault on the forest, argued one historian, was a “pitiful war” waged “under the guise of improvement”. Sawmills were “killing and slaying and burning and wasting” so much native bush that by the 1890s there was real concern about the scarcity of timber.

Corsican and ponderosa pine at Hanmer Forest, 1974. Prison plantations sought to turn so-called waste land into productive spaces. Archives New Zealand

As rulers of the British empire had long known, a lack of wood threatened the material, social and economic order: no wood, no kingdom. To address such issues in New Zealand, the conservation of existing forests was coupled with large-scale afforestation schemes. While statesmen, conservationists and representatives of the timber industry gathered to discuss the issue at a conference in July 1896, surveyors were forging roads around Rotorua, including roads designed to open up Te Urewera, the heartland of Ngāi Tūhoe, to settlement. The road to the military outpost of Galatea, established in 1869 to launch forays into the forest against Te Kooti, climbed over the northernmost arm of Kāingaroa.

It was here that surveyors began their planting – 12,600 ash, larch, spruce, chestnut, pine, red and blue gums, oak, golden willow and tōtara, to be precise. These embryonic plantings at Kāingaroa would expand into New Zealand’s foremost prison plantation and the jewel in the Crown’s state forests.

“The planting of treeless areas was a response to local timber supply problems,” writes the historical geographer Michael Roche. “But it was also a facet of the ‘improvement’ of the natural environment.” According to a royal commission on the subject in 1913, forestry was “the backbone of success in the important industries of every nation”. With “cheap land, economical management, and the right type of trees to plant, afforestation can be made a highly profitable investment for the State”. 

The cheap land was the product of dubious dealings with Māori, and economical management meant forced labour. Prison plantations sought to transform so-called waste lands into ordered, productive landscapes, and male criminals into productive workers. “Fallen men could redeem wasted landscapes and redeem themselves in the process,” writes Benedict Taylor, and be made as upright as trees.

Milford Prison had paved the way, but penal reform in the first decade of the twentieth century was also key. As John Pratt writes in Punishment in a Perfect Society, liberal reform of the New Zealand prison system, especially after the retirement of Arthur Hume in 1909 and under the direction of Minister of justice John Findlay, forever changed the criminal justice system – for men at least. 

Wages for male prisoners working in reformative detention were provided for under the Crimes Amendment Act 1910, and were introduced for some forestry prisoners in 1913. In 1920, thanks to the booming profits of its prison farms (see Chapter 7), the state finally “decided to pay a small wage to all prisoners who prior to their committal had wives, families, or others dependent upon them”. The impetus of pay, rehabilitation and selecting good-conduct prisoners for the camps saw the carceral state consider a man’s potential to reform, including his attitude, trustworthiness and reliability. This marked a shift from classical modes of justice.

Rather than focusing on retribution and a set punishment for a set crime, consideration of the person and their moral treatment became an important aspect of their sentence. The idea that prisons could “cure” criminal tendencies rather than just deter people from committing crimes took root.

While much of the literature on this moment in New Zealand’s penal history strikes a triumphant tone, work remained a central feature of the new penology. Prisons and hard labour were not going away. They just changed shape and moved inland. As members of the Liberal government argued, labour helped “substitute for the idle habit the work habit. The habit of work will effect the salvation of men and women more than any other habit in the world.” 

Productive labour transformed the lumpen-proletariat into producers of value, and the extraction of value “from even those most worthless members of the new and highly functional society” was something to celebrate. “Instead of becoming an irresponsible automaton deteriorating from year to year, he becomes a self-respecting individual . . . who on his release is capable, if allowed, of taking his place in the community as a useful and efficient wage-earner.”

To achieve this, authorities believed the prison’s motto should be nihil sine labore – nothing without labour.

On the vast prison plantations of Waiotapu, Whakarewarewa, Waipā and Kāingaroa in the North Island, and Hanmer and Dumgree in the South, this motto was made a reality. Between 1901 and 1920, prisoners planted 15,932 acres of so-called waste land with over 40 million trees. When they were thinned and harvested years later, these trees were turned into valuable firewood for homes and businesses, pulp for the country’s newsprint, or industrial items like butter boxes, door cores and frames, plywood, telegraph poles and props for mineshafts. In 1915, for example, more than 2,000 five-metre props found their way from Whakarewarewa to the lucrative mines of the Waihi Goldmining Company.

The forests themselves and the sawmills that spun from them were also extremely valuable, and remained so when they were sold off to private interests in the 1990s – a transaction dubbed “the Sale of the Century”. To this day, New Zealand forestry is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Unfree labour cultivated valuable commercial assets.

Barnicoat’s mid-summer tour of Waiotapu, meantime, left quite an impression. She marvelled at huts surrounded by vegetables bordered with pansies; at robust and healthy men at work in a healthy climate, “gentlemen by birth or education, with no appearance of the criminal about them” and no desire to escape. None of the warders needed weapons, she was told, because idleness and misconduct were absent. Forest officials and politicians were impressed, too. As Barnicoat’s article for the International Journal of Ethics was readied for publication, the experiment was extended.

On 2 April 1903, fifteen prisoners were ferried to Matiu/Somes Island in the middle of Wellington Harbour, where they dug more than 28,000 pits for saplings, and planted a mix of trees and scrub. In June 1903, Dumgree prison plantation was opened near Seddon in Marlborough. Hanmer, in Canterbury, followed three months later. Everything was exceedingly satisfactory. Barnicoat wondered: who wouldn’t prefer an invigorating outdoor life of productive labour to the grim walls of the English workhouse?

In this image of Waiotapu Prison taken c.1901–3, a group of visitors pose in front of the box-like prison huts, framed by the unplanted volcanic plateau. Unfree labour would radically alter this barren workscape. Alexander Turnbull Library

The first prisoner to escape from Waiotapu was a repeat offender, who made his getaway in January 1904. Another prisoner escaped soon after. Both were caught and transferred to other prisons. Then in August 1904, one month after Barnicoat’s article was published, Waiotapu was rocked by a string of disturbances. Richard Harris, aka ‘Spanker’ Bennett, a gambler and petty thief from Lyttelton, was caught “wilfully mismanaging his work by deliberately destroying the trees while planting”. When he was warned by a warder, Harris threw his spade at him. “I ordered him back to work,” the warder recalled, “and he told me he would see me fucked first before he would do it.”

Two days later, on 8 August, 22 prisoners went on strike over their hours of work – severe frost had meant their working day had started an hour late and they were expected to make up for lost time in the evening. The simmering tension led to a violent assault on a prisoner by Warder James Anderson that same morning. Samuel Appleby was not among the strikers and had gone to work, but his usual spade was at a different part of the plantation. He asked Warder Anderson if he could go and get it. Anderson told him to use the spade he was given. Appleby asked again. Anderson, Appleby recalled, “asked me if the spade was too heavy for me. I said no. Then he swore at me, said I was always trying to cause trouble. I said I was not and he said what are you doing now. I said going to work.” Suddenly the warder snapped. “He then hit me and knocked me down and then kicked me on the head and body about four times and said you Bastard go home.” Appleby dodged another kick and limped into camp, where he gave a statement to the gaoler. So did Anderson, who stated rather unconvincingly that he’d given Appleby “a kind of push and he fell on the ground and when I ordered him to get up he started to give me more cheek and I gave him a bit of a hit with the side of my foot”. Anderson’s bit of a hit saw him fired.

After refusing to work for two days, and suggesting a shorter lunch break so they could knock off earlier, the prisoners achieved a favourable change in their hours. Here was a strike in the country without strikes, and a winning one at that.

Blood and Dirt: Prison Labour and the Making of New Zealand by Jared Davidson (BWB, $50) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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