Waiheathens: Voices From a Mining Town by Mark Derby, with Paintings by Bob Kerr (Atuanui Press, $30)
Reviewed by Alison McCulloch
As the year of the Waihi gold miners strike centenary drew to a close, Waihi was still a town divided over mining. And while the times and issues have certainly changed, the wounds often run just as deep.
Waihi’s 21st century struggle bears little resemblance to the labour versus capital clashes of 1912. For one thing, this time the union is firmly on the company’s side. “We have a well-established respectful Union/Employer relationship with the Waihi Gold Company Ltd,” the EPMU said in a submission on Newmont Waihi Gold’s latest expansion plan, “and have considerable confidence that they will deliver what they say they will.”
Others, however, are not so sure. Among an increasing number of Waihi and area residents expressing opposition to the proposal, known as Golden Link, is a local iwi, Te Kupenga o Ngati Hako . One of the oldest surviving Hauraki tangata whenua groups, Ngati Hako says the company promised to close the biggest mine in town , the Martha Pit, by 2006 – something Newmont has disputed – and it objects to Golden Link, which would include mining underneath the eastern part of Waihi township.
The Māori dimension is often lost in the present day struggle amid technical debates about things like decibel levels and vibration limits. Similarly, its absence echoes through accounts of earlier disputes, including the 1912 miners strike.
Which is why the opening chapter of Mark Derby and Bob Kerr’s book Waiheathens: Voices From a Mining Town is so welcome. Titled “The Flesh of the Land,” its four short pages chronicle the ultimately hopeless effort by Ohinemuri Māori, and one kuia in particular, named Mere Kuru, to keep surveyors and prospectors off their tribal lands. “The gold will not be given up,” Mere reportedly told a hui in 1868, “there is death in giving it up.”
Derby chronicles the canny efforts of government agent, James Mackay, to cultivate tribal dissent and break down Māori resistance. His methods included advancing credit to iwi for store goods, credit that – together with some creative accounting by storekeepers – ultimately left them deeply in debt. As Derby explains it, Māori were then advised “that this crushing debt might be cleared at a stroke if it was treated as an advance payment on the prospecting rights in their region”.
The deal that followed has been described by Crown lawyers in more recent times as a “particularly regrettable transaction”. Among those who had misgivings at the time – besides Mere – was a chief named Mataia, from whom the chapter draws its title: “Although I gave you the flesh of the land,” he is reported to have said, “I kept the skin of it, and the golden parts have been handed over to you… I want to see whether I will have life in the part I keep or whether the contract will be a cause of ruin for me.”
This chapter, together with 14 other equally short, stirring reports, comprises the first half of the book. (The second is filled with Bob Kerr’s art, of which more later.)
Derby is well equipped to tackle an issue as fraught this. He is an accomplished historian and author who has worked for Waitangi Tribunal, and is a skilled reader and translator of Te Reo. His previous works include The Prophet and the Policeman – the Story of Rua Kenana and John Cullen  and Kiwi Compañeros – New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War .
In an introduction, Derby points out that much about the events of 1912 remains unresolved, with a paucity of authentic source material on the strike. His chapters don’t “attempt to repeat, summarise or contest earlier accounts”, but to supplement them “with relatively little-known or previously unpublished sources of information”, in particular, a focus on the voices of participants rather than commentators.
Those first-person accounts are what bring the written half of this compact book to life. Among the voices speaking through these pages are pioneering New Zealand filmmaker Rudall Hayward, who got a taste for cinema helping out at his family’s movie screenings around the Waikato and Coromandel in the first decades of the 20th century; miner and unionist Tim Armstrong, whose 1917 prison letter to his children provides a rich account of a workingman’s life; a local police inspector writing in the middle of the six-month strike to the infamous anti-union police commissioner, John Cullen (a subject of Derby’s The Prophet and the Policeman) that he foresaw no imminent trouble (miner Fred Evans was to be killed in violent clashes just a few months later).
Waiheathens, along with Kerr’s exhibition marking the 1912 strike, were unveiled in Waihi on 10 November 2012 as part of a commemorative weekend organised by Derby and other members of the Labour History Project . The crowd gathered inside the Waihi Arts Centre and Museum for the launch was packed fairly tight making it a little difficult to step back and really look at the paintings, which deserve both space and close attention.
Those depicting the mining landscape, like “The Pukewa Workings”, “The Open Cut”, and “The Talisman Battery”, have a bleak air to them. In browns and deep greens and blues they, like the portraits, feel haunted, with soft paint strokes that blur one element into another.
Kerr says he sometimes thinks of painting as “controlled accident” – “a balance between being in control of the painting and being open to accidental runs and drips and big swipes of the brush.” Those swipes evoke movement, or impermanence, or both. The figure in “The Rebel” bleeds into the background as he dashes across a railway line clutching a sheaf of papers – perhaps one of the many articles he wrote about Waihi. (The subject of that painting, Charles Smith, was a miner, a socialist who wrote about Waihi under the pen-name “The Rebel”.)
What’s striking about many of Kerr’s portraits – “Pat Hickey”, “Bob Semple”, “Paddy Webb” and “Georgina Parry” for example – are the piercing eyes that glare out at you. Suddenly, though, there’s “Peter Fraser”, eerily blinded under Kerr’s brush by his opaque spectacles.
The book’s cover is from the painting titled “Bill Parry” after the miners’ union president (he was jailed for his activism during the 1912 strike) who helped found the Federation of Labour and was later a Labour cabinet minister and Michael Joseph Savage Loyalist. “Bill Parry,” one of the larger works (180 cm x 45 cm and, like all the paintings, oil on board) is a staunch painting – if you can say that about a work of art – depicting a fearless Parry in the foreground, his arms folded in determination, his figure dominating mine workings in the distant background.
“Gold Strike” is part of a series of five exhibitions dealing with the period 1912 to 1935, and Kerr worked on the Waihi paintings for about three years “on and off”. (The others in the series are “The Rua Expedition”, “Number One Field Punishment – Archibald Baxter’s Opposition to Military Conscription,” “Hell Here Now – The Gallipoli Diary of Alfred Cameron,” and “The Three Wise Men of Kurow”.)
In an email exchange, Kerr explained that the shows “look at issues of authority, dissent and the role of the police and the state”. “I find it interesting how the leaders of the Waihi strike were defeated by the state and the police in 1912, but by 1935 many of them were in Cabinet where they teamed up with those ‘Three Wise Men of Kurow’ to come up with some remarkable social legislation that shaped New Zealand.” (For more information on Kerr and his work, visit his blog, Undercoat .)
“Gold Strike” will be showing next at the Rotorua Museum from mid April till the end of June. Waiheathens is available from Atuanui Press .
Alison McCulloch is a freelancer based in the Bay of Plenty. She contributes book reviews to The New York Times Book Review, and writes for other outlets including Werewolf. Her book on the abortion rights struggle in New Zealand is forthcoming from Victoria University Press.