Frontier Forsaken: Proletarian Internationalism in the Pacific

Last week the new Prime Minister of the ‘Cook’ Islands, Mark Brown, said that there would be a travel bubble between New Zealand and the Cook Islands by Christmas. Many Kiwis have a very limited understanding of the relationship between the two nations, and the history of this colonial relationship is even less understood. The Islands became a British protectorate in 1888 and were annexed by New Zealand in 1901. From annexation the Islands were ruled by a series of colonial dictators – NZ-appointed Resident Commissioners – until achieving ‘self-governing’ status in 1965. 

In 1947 R.A.K. Mason, NZ poet, communist and trade unionist, wrote a book on the history of the Cook Islands entitled ‘Frontier Forsaken.’ Its last two chapters, ‘The Scandal That Could Not Be Hushed Up’ and ‘Industrial Labour Moves Again,’ provide a fascinating account of the postwar struggle for democracy, workers’ rights and national liberation on the Islands. Mason, at the time, had just stopped editing People’s Voice, the newspaper of the Communist Party of New Zealand, to become Assistant Secretary of the Auckland Builders’ and General Labourers’ Union. 

The movement began in 1945 with the Makatea (French Polynesia) phosphate mine scandal. Over 400 Cook Islanders were “‘blackbirded’ to slave for a French Company (whose headquarters at the time were under Hitler domination) – and this with the complicity of the Cook Island Administration.” This was forced indentured servitude, with workers receiving 4 shillings (~$17) per day under terrible conditions. Mason called it “the worst labour scandal in New Zealand history.” 

There was a meeting held between significant figures in Rarotonga where the case was fully investigated, and instead of remaining in official circles, minutes of the meeting were sent to T. ‘Pat’ Potter, Māori Liaison Officer to the Auckland Trades Council. Immediately the report was published in Challenge, the Trades Union paper that also published Frontier Forsaken which Mason was editing at the time. On top of this it was brought up at the next Auckland Trades Council meeting, where it was unanimously decided to ask the Government for an immediate investigation into the case. This had swift results: a change of management at Makatea and an improvement of conditions. But this was just the beginning. 

Having been founded on Rarotonga in 1944, the Cook Islands Progressive Association set up branches in New Zealand, with Albert Henry – the future first Prime Minister of CK – leading the Auckland Branch. The CIPA soon established a strong relationship with both Princess Te Puea Herangi of Waikato Tainui and the Auckland Trades Council. Mason describes the significance of this new alliance:

“…by the end of 1945 the position had reached a new stage. No longer would it be possible for some autocratic administration to stifle their grievances, which were many and mounting, and keep them shut in a little bag from which only a murmur emerged. The people were not only aroused by the general upsurge of down-trodden peoples the world over, but they had an organisation spreading rapidly, both in the Islands and in New Zealand. They had direct contact with Māori and European friends, staunch and tested allies, they had means of maintaining pressure and publicity.”

In 1946 the watersiders on Rarotonga “took the lead in national emancipation.” They were being paid 4/6 (~$21) for a 9 hour day, skilfully loading and unloading ships far out at sea, without a harbour or anchorage. All this while being fed small amounts of terrible food “rudely cooked on the open wharf amid dirt, dust and squalor,” portioned out on “filthy bare boards” and eaten out of their hands. They demanded 1/- (~$4) per hour during an eight hour day, with penalty rates for overtime work and Sundays. Wages at the time of the dispute were paid by the Union Steamship Company, which had been NZ’s largest private-sector employer in 1913, and which operated a near-monopoly on Rarotonga as a contractor of the Government. After the colonial administration, and the company it supported, insisted on paying them no more than 6/- (~$25) a day, the watersiders threatened strike action “with remarkable discipline and solidarity,” telling them unanimously: “Eight shillings a day – or no work.”

The success of the watersiders, their demands having been met, spurred not only the Islands’ first wave of strikes – among watersiders, nurses and fruit-packers – but set in motion a broader struggle for democracy, development, workers’ rights and self-determination. Throughout this process, the NZ Federation of Labour, the New Zealand members of the CIPA and Princess Te Puea Herangi supported their struggle to the hilt. Te Puea gave an official visit to the Islands in 1947 in solidarity with their struggle and in the same year the Annual Conference of the FoL unanimously expressed its “dissatisfaction with the economic position of the Cook Islanders and recommend[ed] to the Government that an investigation be made, with the object of removing grounds for dissatisfaction.” Shortly after the Conference, the famous NZ Waterside Workers’ Union sponsored the application of Rarotongan watersiders to send a delegate to the forthcoming Pan-Pacific Conference of waterside workers. 

The internationalism and anticolonial edge of the NZ workers’ movement has often been ignored or denied in the accounts of recent decades, and often by people who have little to no interest in the struggles of the working and oppressed of the world. But here we see a shining example of proletarian internationalism on the half of the NZ Trade Unions and the Communist Party that should serve as inspiration for our efforts to create lasting peace and development in the Pacific.

Since 1965, the Cook Islands have been an ‘associated state’ of New Zealand – essentially a protectorate. They nominally govern their own affairs but external issues are decided by the NZ Government. New Zealand imperialism is currently expanding its military presence in the Pacific in order to both contribute to the US-led aggression against China and dominate an increasingly independent region. The freedom and prosperity of the Pacific, and the end of imperialism and war, are battles that must be directed at the huge corporations and financial institutions in whose interest our State operates. The same monopolies that fuel reaction – racism, sexism, colonialism etc. – inside New Zealand also power the neo-colonial subjugation of the Pacific. We must learn from the history of our movement to understand that united, principled action, led by the working class can affect real and lasting progress in our world.

Frontier Forsaken has unfortunately been out of print for quite some time now but can be found in public libraries all over the country.