Origins of the working class in New Zealand

The modern proletariat is a propertyless class. Evicted from the land, dispossessed of the means of life, the proletarians are thereby compelled, under threat of starvation, to sell their labour-power to the owners of the means of production, the capitalists, in return for a wage. In every country in the world, without exception, where the capitalist mode of production has established itself, the working class has first been born in a process of dispossession by force and violence.

In New Zealand, there were two principal acts of dispossession which gave birth to the proletariat in the nineteenth-century. The first of these was the dispossession of the indigenous people of their land.

Maori were skilled in the use of modern weapons prior to arrival of many European settlers. Haka performed with mixed Maori and European weapons, watercolour by Joseph Jenner Merrett, about 1845. Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia (Ref:nla.pic-an2948236)

Maori were skilled in the use of modern weapons prior to arrival of many European settlers. Haka performed with mixed Maori and European weapons, watercolour by Joseph Jenner Merrett, about 1845. Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia (Ref:nla.pic-an2948236)

Maori communal ownership of the land presented a formidable obstacle to the development of capitalist social relations in New Zealand. A substantial population (about 100,000 at the time of first European contact) Maori had strong martial traditions, and were, since long before European settlers arrived in significant numbers, familiar with the use of modern firearms. For the first half of the nineteenth century, European settlers in the North Island lived entirely by the grace of the tangata whenua, dependent on Maori for most of their food supplies, and for timber and other construction materials. The Treaty of Waitangi, which formally established the British colonial settler-state in 1840, reflects this relationship of forces. It guaranteed to Maori “exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates, Forests, Fisheries, and other properties,” because Maori had no reason to agree to anything less than that.

Maori were willing to accommodate the new arrivals, and sold extensive tracts of land in exchange for the great advantages that trading with the Europeans provided: metal tools and guns, woollen clothing and blankets, high-yielding European crop plants (especially the potato) and domesticated animals for meat (the pig). Over the first twenty years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, which in its English language version asserted that only the Crown could extinguish Maori customary land title, (the “right of pre-emption”), the Crown purchased large acreages of Maori land to on-sell to settlers. European acquisition and settlement of the land developed especially rapidly in the South Island, where the Maori population was far smaller and more widely dispersed than in the North. By 1865 only 1% of the South Island was still in Maori hands. [1]

But the lands conceded were never sufficient to satisfy the hunger of the settlers. As more settlers continued to arrive in the middle years of the century, the drive intensified to acquire for them the best farmland that remained in Maori hands, while Maori resistance against further encroachment hardened. A series of early armed skirmishes in the middle 1840s over fraudulent land purchases ended with the settlers partly pushed back. But more settlers continued to arrive. In 1860, with settlers now about equal in number to Maori, a new round of military conflict began. This time the governmental and legal trappings of the fledgling settler-state were more firmly established, with funds to support 14,000 British and colonial troops, equipped with artillery and cavalry.

Over the next decade, through a series of brutal (if often inconclusive) military engagements, Maori military resistance to the encroachments on their lands was eventually overpowered. The government pressed its advantage, imposing punitive confiscations of the land belonging to ‘rebellious’ tribes. The confiscations were just the beginning of a much longer and broader process of land alienation. Very soon, Maori who had fought alongside the colonial forces were also hit with confiscations or forced purchases under threat of it. [2]

Armed constabulary at Parihaka 1881. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library 10X8-1070-G, ATL

Armed constabulary at Parihaka 1881. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library 10X8-1070-G, ATL

Even at the conclusion of the land wars and confiscations, a large proportion of the land in the North Island remained in Maori hands. But with Maori now lacking any means of armed resistance, the forces of impoverishment, indebtedness, and the legal mechanisms for destruction of Maori forms of communal land ownership had free rein. The Native Lands Acts of 1862, 1865, and 1873 were the keystone of the legal mechanisms by which customary land tenure was transformed into bourgeois forms of land ownership, mostly freehold, as the land was prised from the grasp of its Maori owners. Meanwhile, new settlers continued to arrive at an accelerating rate. Some 195,000 arrived in the decade beginning 1861, more than doubling the European population in ten years. The following decade, it doubled again.

Of the 28.5 million acres of land in the North Island, the heartland of the Maori population, about 6 million acres had been purchased by the Crown under the pre-emptive regime which operated up to the 1860s, and a further 2.6 million acres were taken in the punitive confiscations. Over the years from 1870 to 1928 at least another 9.4 million acres were purchased by the Crown. The remaining 10.5 million acres is accounted for by private purchase and whatever was left in Maori hands.

There were two periods of accelerated purchase: in the late 1870s, peaking in 1880-81, and in the 1890s under the Liberal government, peaking in 1896-97. The Reform government of 1912-28 continued to purchase Maori land at a slower pace; slower only because the available land to purchase had dwindled. In fact, as a proportion of the land still in Maori hands the rate of alienation was still increasing. By 1920, Maori remained in formal ownership of 4.8 million acres, but even the larger part of this was either leased or unoccupied. Only 380,000 acres of land were still actually occupied by their Maori owners.[3]

The newly-vacated land was occupied by sheep: contrary to the plans of the architects of the colony (who had imagined a country of wheat-farmers) extensive sheep-farming for wool, on large tracts of land acquired cheaply by a few wealthy individuals, became the predominant form of farming in the early days of the colony, especially on the open grasslands of the South Island. In 1851 there were 233,000 sheep in New Zealand, by 1870 this number had grown to ten million.

Maori housing with cloth roof and walls 1929. H N Whitehead Collection, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington (Ref: G-5639-1/1)

Maori housing with cloth roof and walls 1929. H N Whitehead Collection, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington (Ref: G-5639-1/1)

Maori, therefore, were not transformed into a proletariat in one blow. For decades, many attempted to eke out a subsistence on the poorest and most remote lands still in their possession – while being denied the means to develop the land in free competition with the settlers. They became, for a period, an impoverished and marginalised population largely outside of the capitalist economy. The number of Maori dropped from 100,000 to 40,000 at its nadir at the opening of the 20th century.

There were, however, from the earliest days of New Zealand capitalism, many individual Maori proletarians. These were mainly rural wage-workers employed on farms and in forests, clearing land and building roads. The first recorded strike in New Zealand was by a group of “native sawyers [timber workers]” in the Bay of Islands, who in 1821, according to a missionary’s account, “immediately struck work, and demanded payment for their labour in Money, as was the case in England, or else in Gun Powder.” [4] In some regions, like the East Coast, where extensive sheep-farming was established early in a region with high Maori population, Maori made up a large proportion of the shepherds, drovers, and shearers – the core of the rural proletariat – as well as domestic servants. There were also kauri gum diggers, fishers and farmers producing on their own account for sale on the market.

With the development of rural-based industries towards the end of the century, such as flax-milling, dairy-processing, and the slaughter of animals for meat and leather, a Maori proletariat began to emerge and take firmer shape. This process was one of the engines driving the working class movement that came to be known as the ‘Red Feds’ in the early 20th century.


As the wars of dispossession of the Maori were just beginning in the mid-19th century, on the opposite side of the globe another historic dispossession was drawing to a close.

In Scotland, as in New Zealand, the land had been held in common ownership by the clans which occupied them, the chief of the clan being only the titular owner, in the same sense that the Queen of England is the titular owner of all the lands in England. However, whereas in New Zealand the Maori chiefs fought alongside their people in defence of the common land, in Scotland the chiefs of the clans were the agents of dispossession.

After the defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the clan system went into decline. Scottish customs and culture were suppressed, and the complex system of mutual obligations between the chiefs and the clansmen occupying and cultivating their lands broke down. The highland warlords were gradually transformed into landlords, turning their nominal right of ownership into a right of private property in land. The farmers became tenant crofters.

Concurrent with this, the English textile industry was expanding rapidly, raising the demand for fibre. Cotton from Egypt, India and the United States, and wool were needed to supply the burgeoning textile mills. The highland landlord-chiefs found that it was more profitable to run sheep on their lands than to have them cultivated. They began forcibly evicting the crofters to make way for sheep, burning their homes to make it impossible for them to return.

Marx describes the case of one such clan leader, Elizabeth Gordon, the Duchess of Sutherland, in Capital.[5]

Duchess of Sutherland, clan leader become landlord

Duchess of Sutherland, clan leader become landlord

“This person… resolved, when she succeeded to the leadership of the clan… to turn the whole county of Sutherland, the population of which had already been reduced to 15,000 by similar processes, into a sheep-walk. Between 1814 and 1820 these 15,000 inhabitants, about 3,000 families, were systematically hunted and rooted out. All their villages were destroyed and burnt, all their fields turned into pasturage. British soldiers enforced this mass of evictions, and came to blows with the inhabitants. One old woman was burnt to death in the flames of the hut she refused to leave.

“It was in this manner that this fine lady appropriated 794,000 acres of land which had belonged to the clan since time immemorial. She assigned to the expelled inhabitants some 6,000 acres on the sea-shore – 2 acres per family. The 6,000 acres had until this time lain waste, and brought no income to their owners. The Duchess, in the nobility of her heart, actually went so far as to let these waste lands at an average rent of 2s. 6d per acre to the clansmen, who for centuries had shed their blood for her family. She divided the whole of the stolen land of the clan into twenty-nine huge sheep farms…

“The remnant of the original inhabitants, who had been flung onto the sea-shore, tried to live by catching fish. But… the smell of their fish rose to the noses of the ‘great men’ of the clan. They scented some profit in it, and let the sea-shore to the big London fishmongers. For the second time the Gaels were driven out.”

The Scots evicted from their highland crofts, then evicted again from their marginal lands on the coast, were at first legally forbidden from emigrating. They crowded into the slums of Edinburgh and Dundee, and especially industrial Glasgow, which grew into one of the wealthiest and most miserable cities in Britain. Cholera and tuberculosis took a fearful toll. Those still clinging to the marginal lands were hit by the same potato blight that devastated Ireland in mid-century; in the marginal lands to which they had been driven, potatoes were the only crop they could grow. Starvation was rife. Some had little choice but to join the British army, whereupon they were required to do to the inhabitants of other lands what had been done to them.

Ruined croft houses, Fuaigh Mor, cleared in 1841. Photo: Sarah Egan

Ruined croft houses, Fuaigh Mor, cleared in 1841. Photo: Sarah Egan

After the potato famine, no laws could hold back the wave of emigration. Throughout the nineteenth century Scotland was progressively depopulated as boatloads of the dispossessed departed for America, especially Nova Scotia – New Scotland – in Canada, and the United States, and also to Australasia. Over twenty years from 1840, about 90,000 Scots emigrated – about one-third of the population of the highlands and islands of Scotland.

The highland clearances were the last violent convulsion, the culmination of a longer process of dispossession of the producers from the land in the British Isles, which had begun in England in the time of the Tudors, and which is known as the enclosures of the commons. In the highlands of Scotland the enclosure was brief, rapid and brutal, but it was equally thorough in the Scottish lowlands, England and Ireland.

Rural landless labourers in England and Ireland, and those in danger of sharing their fate, also looked to emigration for relief from their miseries. The depopulation of Ireland began with the famine of 1846, but continued for almost another hundred years, as the change from cereal cultivation to pastoral farming continued.[6] Even in the twenty-first century, the population of Ireland is lower than it was in 1840.

The dispossessed Scots, Irish, and English formed the core of the wave of migrants that flooded into the settler-colonies of Australia and New Zealand from the 1840s onwards. Dunedin (Dùn Èideann, the Scots Gaelic name for Edinburgh) was the largest population centre in New Zealand up to the beginning of the twentieth century. Smaller numbers of migrants also arrived from Germany, Austria (chiefly from present-day Croatia) and Scandinavian countries in the nineteenth century. It was largely from these populations that the proletariat was formed in New Zealand, alongside the dispossessed Maori.


The formation of a proletariat did not occur immediately on the arrival of these thousands of settlers, however. For the first half-century of the existence of the settler-colony in New Zealand, there was wage-labour, but no working class. A similar situation prevailed in Australia, at a slightly earlier time period.

For while Maori were finding the land under their feet eroding year by year, the settlers met with the opposite situation: they arrived in a country where abundant new land was being opened up to them as fast as roads could be built, swamps drained, forests cleared, and Maori evicted. (Some settlers, in fact, acquired their land by way of military land grants, as a reward for service in the militias fighting in  the Taranaki land wars.) [7] For an extended period, wage-labour was, or could be, a temporary condition, after which the labourer could reasonably expect to acquire a piece of land and farm on their own account.

Wealthy immigrants, accustomed to the situation where wealth commanded all labour, complained loudly about the consequences of this situation in the Australasian colonies. Some had brought a full complement of servants out to the colonies with them, only to find that their servants left their service on arrival. Marx quotes Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s description of the famous case of Thomas Peel of Swan River:[8]

“A Mr. Peel, [Wakefield] complains, took with him from England to the Swan River district of Western Australia, means of subsistence and of production to the amount of £50,000. This Mr. Peel had the foresight to bring with him, besides, 300 persons of the working-class, men, women, and children. Once arrived at his destination, “Mr. Peel was left without a servant to make his bed or fetch him water from the river.”

Marx comments wryly: “Unhappy Mr. Peel, who provided for everything except the export of English modes of production to Swan River.”

Similar complaints can be found in the diaries of wealthy immigrants to New Zealand.

“All labourers, mechanics, and those who work with their hands, succeed excellently,” wrote Martha Adams, [9] who arrived in New Zealand in 1850, “soon purchase a cow which increases to a herd, and are fed on the hills at very little expense – build their own house, which however rude and ugly is soon covered in vines and creepers; and keep geese etc on the common land. Thus far once, and they soon grow rich; but those who require people to work for them have to pay such a high ratio of wages, that the profit is small, and they are slower in gathering around them the comforts of life than the industrious labourers.”

Wage-labour in the colonies was, as Martha Adams found, qualitatively different from wage-labour in the British Isles. Wages were higher and conditions of work far more favourable to the workers.

The best illustration of this fact was the question of the length of the working day. In capitalist industry in Britain the length of the working day had been extended to the point where, as Marx describes “every boundary set by morality and nature, age and sex, day and night, was broken down.” Workers in English factories, including children, worked 12, 14 hours and more each day in the early nineteenth century. By the middle of the century, the proletarians of England had coalesced into a class and had begun to form trade unions to fight for their class interests. Central to this was the fight for limitation of the hours of work. The Factory Acts of 1833 to 1864, which restricted the hours of work for children and young people, then for women, first to twelve hours a day, and then to ten, were the result of a long class struggle.  The Ten Hours Bill which came into force in 1848 was the product of sustained political agitation by the proletarian Chartist movement. It met with fierce resistance from the capitalists, both at the time of the enactment of the legislation, and still more, in the implementation and enforcement of it.

Among the immigrants to New Zealand were many workers who had taken part in the union and Chartist agitation for the shorter working day. They brought these ideas with them – and immediately found the situation much more favourable for winning these demands.

Samuel Parnell in 1890. Wright, Henry Charles Clarke, 1844-1936 :Negatives. Ref: 1/1-020462-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Samuel Parnell in 1890.
Wright, Henry Charles Clarke, 1844-1936 :Negatives. Ref: 1/1-020462-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Samuel Duncan Parnell, a carpenter, arrived in Wellington in 1840 (some eight years before the passage of the Ten Hours Bill in England). Upon arrival, he was engaged to build a store by a fellow-passenger, the merchant George Hunter, who was expecting a cargo to goods to arrive soon. Parnell declared himself willing to work an 8-hour day, starting at 8 o’clock. Hunter protested strongly, but was eventually obliged to accept Parnell’s terms. Other tradesmen followed Parnell’s example. They arranged to meet incoming immigrant ships to ensure that the new arrivals also insist on the eight-hour day. A short strike by labourers employed in building the road from Wellington to the Hutt Valley in 1841 ensured that these conditions applied to unskilled workers as well. [10]

Wellington was not the only settlement where this occurred. When Dunedin was settled in 1848, an eight-hour day was likewise established, over the objections of William Cargill, the local agent of the New Zealand Company, who attempted to impose the “good old Scotch rule” of a ten-hour, 5-shilling day. In Auckland, which was not a New Zealand Company settlement, it took a little longer, but a campaign led by the Chartist immigrant painter William Griffin had won at least partial acceptance of the eight-hour day there by the late 1850s. By then, workers in many smaller towns had also won the eight-hour day.

All of this was achieved almost without strikes, with only the most rudimentary forms of organisation, and without the need for legislation, inspections and enforcement – how different this was from Britain. Wages were also far higher than in Britain, according to accounts of both employers and employees – and not just for skilled workers like the carpenter Parnell, who could earn 12 shillings a day. “Even labourers might make £1 a week and generous rations from cutting horse trails through the bush.” [11]

“Labour is enormous, for example a man and his wife require fifty pounds per year with their maintenance and that of their children – which must be good and abundant, and many of them are so independent as it is termed and they often leave their employers for to do their own work,” complained Georgiana Bowen from her new home in Canterbury in 1851.[11]

“I invite you all to come out here; we are getting fine wages,” an immigrant from the Shetland Islands wrote home to his family in 1870. [12] “The country is fine and healthy. Wages are for labourers eight shillings a day, carpenters twelve shillings, blacksmiths ten to fifteen shillings, shoemakers three pounds a week, tailors three pounds a week… Sailors are getting eight pounds a month.” (By comparison, agricultural labourers in England earned about 12 shillings a week in 1870).

This is wage labour, but not yet a class which has no alternative but to sell but its labour power to a capitalist. The key to the situation is the mobility described in these accounts: while land remained abundant, workers could easily walk away from employment and become ‘independent,’ just as Georgiana Bowen complained. As long as this situation lasted, workers and bosses could join together to build the colony in a relation not far from equality.

But the situation could not last. As more immigrants continued to arrive, and as the available land became increasingly monopolised by a small layer of wealthy sheep-run holders, capitalist relations of production began to develop.

One big influx of immigrants occurred following the discovery of gold in Central Otago in 1861, (and further discoveries in other regions, especially the West Coast in 1864.) Some 64,000 gold miners flocked to Otago between 1861 and 1863. While many moved on again as the easy gold ran out, the influx permanently raised the population of Otago and made Dunedin the first centre of banking and industrial capital.

Among those who flocked to Otago were many veterans of the earlier gold rushes in Victoria, Australia and California, establishing links with the labour movements in those countries which grew and strengthened over the next half-century. The miners also brought with them rights won on the goldfields of Victoria, including in particular the right to vote. At the time in New Zealand, in order to vote in elections one had to be the owner of land worth at least £50, but an exception to the property qualification was enacted in 1862 which permitted anyone with a miner’s licence to vote. This right had been won by miners in Ballarat, Victoria, in the wake of a pitched battle with the authorities known as the Eureka Stockade.

Mining for gold in black sand, West Coast, 1870. Photo: History House

Mining for gold in black sand, West Coast, 1870.
Photo: History House

As the Otago gold fields were exhausted, new fields on the West Coast opened up, with 17,000 miners arriving in Westland between 1865 and 1867. This was a region of very high rainfall, ill-suited to sheep farming, bereft of the needed infrastructure of roads and bridges, and poorly connected with the closest major commercial and political centre in Christchurch. The West Coast’s communications and commerce with Melbourne were stronger than they were with any city in New Zealand. There was coal on the Coast as well as gold. The isolated West Coast mining towns and their population of rowdy, rootless Australian and Californian immigrants developed a particular social character which in later decades was to have an influence on working class politics far out of proportion to their numbers.

Just as the influx of gold miners was waning and partially reversing, a new wave of immigration rose, which in terms of migrant numbers dwarfed even the gold rush. In 1870 the government of Julius Vogel embarked on a programme of state-funded public works, especially the building of roads and railways. Loans were raised in Britain, both to finance these undertakings, and also to encourage immigration by offering free passage to New Zealand.

Britain was in the throes of a depression at that time. Agricultural workers were especially hard-hit, as British grain production succumbed to the competition of cheap imported grain from the United States, Australia, and Argentina. There had been efforts to unionise the farm workers in England in the early 1870s, and these were followed by widespread blacklisting and lockouts of the union workers – some 10,000 in East Anglia alone. The farm workers’ union then actively collaborated with the emigration schemes being promoted by New Zealand representatives, in order to relieve the resulting misery of the blacklisted workers.

(It was not uncommon at this time for unions in Britain to have an emigration committee, through which they sought to send unemployed workers abroad and thereby reduce competition for jobs. Such emigration schemes were strenuously opposed by the capitalists, who sought to keep the unemployed at home, where their competition exerted a downward pressure on wages. During the depths of the depression in the textile industry caused by the American Civil War, the cotton manufacturers campaigned against schemes to alleviate the misery of the unemployed cotton workers through emigration. “Can anything be worse for landowners or masters than parting with the best of the workers, and demoralizing and disappointing the rest by an extended depletive emigration?” one asked.) [13]

Partly as a result of the union collaboration, in the year 1874 some 11,000 emigrants travelled to New Zealand on assisted passages. By 1875 this number had risen to 28,580. [14]  In total about 200,000 people migrated to New Zealand between 1870 and 1880. From 1871 to 1881 the non-Maori population of New Zealand almost doubled for the second decade in succession, rising from 267,000 to 501,000.[15]

In the same decade, the opportunities for workers to leave the ranks of the wage-labourers and acquire land of their own closed off. During the period of provincial governments from 1856 to 1876, when the only people who could vote (apart from miners) were the European landowners, wealthy sheep-farmers had taken advantage of their control of the provincial governments to monopolise the available land.

The Vogel loan programme offered further opportunities for these layers to enrich themselves: the arrival of a wave of immigrants, together with the expenditure of £20 million of loan money in a short period, set off a frenzy of land speculation, in which the existing big landowners held all the advantages. Land values in Canterbury increased four-fold in the decade from 1871, swallowing up a large share of the available credit in over-valued land. Vogel’s original plan, to fund the costs of building the railways by the sale of part of the new lands brought into production by the roads and railways, was overturned. The landowners kept the profits from these lands for themselves.[16]

By 1891 some 7 million of the 12.5 million acres of land in private ownership was held by just 584 persons. [17] Wealthy sheep-farmer-land-speculators formed the core of an indigenous capitalist class, in a slightly uneasy alliance with the smaller layer of urban merchants and financiers.

These two changes, the influx of immigrants and the closing off of their access to the land, resulted in rapidly-deteriorating conditions for wage workers. One early indication of this was a strike of bootmakers in Wellington in 1873, in which the workers demanded an hourly wage of 1s 3d, and an end to the 16-hour working day. Bootmakers were one of a number of skilled trades which formed trade unions in the 1860s and 1870s. Others included printers, engineers, tailors, and bakers, and somewhat later, butchers, and carpenters. [18] Seafarers and lumpers (waterside workers), mostly unskilled, also took the first steps towards unionisation at this time.

The unions were often established as branches of unions existing in Britain or Australia, and were often as much mutual benefit societies as true unions. A Trade Union Act of 1878, modelled on a similar law passed in Britain in 1871, gave these fledgling organisations legal recognition. In the four largest cities of Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland, the unions came together in Trades and Labour Councils. Universal adult male suffrage was granted in 1879, albeit with extra votes for landowners who owned property in several districts.

Across the globe, railways were the engine of industrialisation, and in New Zealand industrialisation accelerated with Vogel’s railway-construction scheme. By the 1880s railway wagons and even locomotives were being built in state-owned railway workshops in the main cities and even some provincial centres in New Zealand. These were the largest industrial enterprises in the country, employing thousands of skilled and unskilled workers – engineers, boilermakers, moulders, smiths, furnace operators, carpenters and rivet-boys.

Women workers at Roslyn Woollen Mill, Dunedin. Mill was built 1879. Photo: Ref: MNZ-0704-1/4-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Women workers at Roslyn Woollen Mill, Dunedin. Mill was built 1879.  Photo: Ref: MNZ-0704-1/4-F.  Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.


Woollen mills, clothing and footwear factories, manufactures of agricultural machinery, and food processing industries, serving both the domestic and export markets, were also established at this time, albeit on a small scale. [19] Coal mining expanded, both on the West Coast and at Huntly in the North Island, to supply the railways, steam ships, and stationary steam engines powering factories. (Coal also continued to be imported from Newcastle in Australia. Economic activity in Australia and New Zealand remained closely tied.)

However, the price of wool began falling from the beginning of the 1870s; such that despite a 50% increase in the quantity of wool exported from 1876 to 1886, the amount received for it dropped by 10%. Thus began a long economic slowdown that lasted for the next two decades, deepening especially towards the end of the 1880s. By that time, wages had fallen dramatically. A more or less permanent pool of unemployed workers now bore down on the wages and conditions of those in employment – what Marx called the industrial reserve army, the necessary complement of the working class. The conditions of wage labour had come to resemble those in Britain – that is to say, true capitalist economic and social relations. A working class was about to take its first breath in New Zealand.



  1. National Overview: Waitangi Tribunal Rangahaua Whanui Series Volumes I-III. Quoted in Boast Buying the Land, Selling the land. footnote p.32.
  2. Boast and Hill, eds. Raupatu: The Confiscation of Maori Land, Victoria University Press 2009. See especially Chapters 2 and 9.
  3. Boast, Richard Buying the Land, Selling the land. Governments and Maori land in the North Island 1865-1921. Victoria University Press 2008.
  4. Roth, Herbert, and Hammond, Janny. “Toil and Trouble, The struggle for a better life in New Zealand,” Methuen 1981. p.14
  5. Marx, Capital Volume I, Penguin, p.891
  6. Marx described the de-population of Ireland in Capital, Chapter 25, section 5 (f) pp. 854–70 of the Penguin edition.
  7. Sutch, W.  B. The quest for security in New Zealand, Oxford University Press 1966, p.40.
  8. Marx, Capital Volume I, Penguin, p.932
  9. Quoted in Simpson, Tony, “The Immigrants” Godwit 1997 p.92
  10. Condliffe, J.B. New Zealand in the making, Allen and Unwin 1959, p.176
  11. Mary McKain, writing in Port Nicholson (Wellington). Quoted in Simpson, Tony, “The Immigrants” Godwit 1997 p.93
  12. Simpson ibid p.115
  13. Marx describes this agitation in detail in Capital. See Marx, Capital Volume 1, Penguin 1976, Chapter 23, Simple Reproduction pp 719-23.
  14. Simpson ibid p.180
  15. Official handbook of New Zealand 1883. Quoted in Simpson, p.97.
  16. Sutch ibid p.59
  17. Sinclair, Keith, A history of New Zealand, Penguin 1980, p.159
  18. Sutch, ibid, p.59
  19. Condliffe, J.B. New Zealand in the making, Allen and Unwin 1959. Condliffe presents a table of manufacturing industries in 1890, including the number of factories in each category, the number of workers employed, and total capital value.

2 responses to “Origins of the working class in New Zealand

  1. Pingback: The sheltered childhood of the working class in New Zealand: 1890-1912 | A communist at large·

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