Editorial: History comes in shades of grey, Mr Lee

Criticism of Queens Wharf artwork ignores fact that strike-breaking 'Massey's Cossacks' of 1913 were heroes to many citizens at the time

Mike Lee said the piece paid homage to 'thugs and bashers on the people's wharf'. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Mike Lee said the piece paid homage to 'thugs and bashers on the people's wharf'. Photo / Brett Phibbs

History is rarely black and white, as much as those who seek to rewrite it would like it to be so. In many cases, new slants placed on events would astound the people who actually lived through them. During this process, those widely regarded as heroes at the time can become villains, and occurrences that attracted limited support can be viewed as populist outbreaks.

As much is evident in the backlash against an artwork on Queens Wharf depicting the 1913 waterfront strike.

A two-dimensional black silhouette showing a baton-wielding strike-breaker has been removed at the request of Mike Lee, who said it paid homage to "thugs and bashers on the people's wharf". To an extent, this is an understandable sentiment for the councillor, whose great-grandfather and grandfather were watersiders. So, too, is his statement that "we have really lost our way if heritage experts believe vigilante thugs rounded up to attack striking working people are deemed to be heroes".

But heroes they undoubtedly were for many people at a time of fear and uncertainty in the lead-up to World War I. These people worried about the introduction of revolutionary trade unionism from the United States and Europe, a sentiment reinforced by the willingness of some members of the fledgling union movement to flex their muscles.

When a strike that began in Wellington and Huntly spread to the Auckland waterfront, such people undoubtedly saw many of their fears coming to fruition. And while some may have recognised that the Government of William Massey was playing on their concern in taking the opportunity to strike a decisive blow, they had few quibbles about the intervention of the special constables who became known as Massey's Cossacks.

These men, mainly from the Waikato, were viewed as saviours in a country that feared its vital export trade falling prey to urban unionism.

Massey's brutal strike-breaking tactics make him a figure of infamy for some. Yet his popularity at that time is evidenced by the fact that he was the Prime Minister from 1912 to his death in 1925, the second-longest term in office in our history, and only three months shorter than that of Richard Seddon. After subsequently heading a national Administration with the Liberals during World War I, he won a clear majority at the 1919 elections.

This bears parallels with Sir Sidney Holland, who called a snap election after breaking the 1951 waterfront strike using labour from the armed services. He was returned to power with an increased majority.

In both instances, the strike-breakers believed they were doing their best for their country and their city. "From our homes in the backblocks of Auckland we came to help down the strike and keep the town's name," said Jim Ross, who was featured on the Queens Wharf artwork. Today, many people would agree with Mr Lee that his ardour was misplaced. But, clearly, that was not the popular view in his day.

Hindsight always affords a greater clarity, but that does not mean shades of grey should be summarily dismissed. History should never be distorted so much that it essentially ignores prevailing sentiment at a particular time. Mr Lee's objection to the waterfront artwork heads down that road. The sensible course would be for both sides of the strike to be represented on Queens Wharf. History warts and all.

- NZ Herald

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