Between the Lines: A Cartoon Century of New Zealand Political History, 1906-2005
Ian F Grant
New Zealand Cartoon Archive, $39.00,
Jews, Maori, Chinese, unionists, socialists, Red-feds, imbibers, wowsers, women, wharfies and, most frequently of all, politicians, have all been caricatured in cartoons over the last 100 years in New Zealand. Grant’s book is more than a history of political cartooning: it is a wicked and often perceptive look at New Zealand struggling to find an identity and become a nation. Much has changed, but many old issues have a strangely modern ring to them. The recent decision by the Government to microchip all dogs, which has prompted farmers to declare their intent to defy the law, is much like the 1898 dispute when Northland Maori took up arms in the “Dog Tax War”. That dog tax nearly resulted in open conflict and bloodshed in the Far North.
In 1894, discussing the prospects should women get the vote, one Dr Bakwell said, “This is the way we shall be governed now, by emotional creatures, who have not, and never can, possess the logical faculty.” I imagine John Tamihere nodding his head in agreement. Women were blamed for enticing men to drink in pubs, and a law passed in 1911, preventing the employment of barmaids, was not repealed until 1960. Women in general probably supported this except, I imagine, the barmaids. Grant says:
The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union thought that the banning of liquor was vital to the emancipation of women; between 1890 and 1920 the prohibition movement could point proudly to about 50 laws controlling liquor consumption.
Women could not work behind the bar, but Peter Fraser allowed them to join the police force: “The first 10 women police graduated in 1942 … . It was 1961 before a woman was allowed to serve behind a bar again.” Prohibitionists fought a long battle against the sale of alcohol and came very close to winning.
I first encountered the six-o’clock swill in the waterfront pub we called the Blood House in Quay Street, Auckland in 1958. As a young merchant seaman, I had thought the West Coast of Africa a crazy run ashore, but what
seemed like a drunken riot in the Blood House that first night in Auckland horrified me. That lunacy had been a part of New Zealand social life since 1917 when six o’clock closing was introduced as a wartime measure. Some war. It lasted until 1967.
We like to boast about how early in our history women were allowed to vote, but they had a hard time getting anything like equality… if they ever did:
A married woman, while having some social status and respectability, had no legal ability to control her own life and possessions and was effectively her husband’s chattel until the 1884 Married Women’s Property Act recognised married women’s legal existence and restored to them the right to acquire, hold and dispose of property in their own right.
The Depression produced some bitter cartoons, with one of a woman tied to a crucifix:
The depression hardly touched some New Zealanders; the worst affected were the unemployed, unskilled, over-mortgaged small farmers, most Maori, and women. The 1930 Unemployment Act obliged women in the paid workforce to pay an unemployment levy whilst excluding them from relief payments when unemployed.
The phrase “Unemployment Act” seems Orwellian to those who have never experienced a depression.
Early New Zealand was a racist society, with the Chinese portrayed as almost ape-like in cartoons of the day. They were compared to imported pests, like weasels and stoats. When the gold rush was over and they turned to market gardening, they soon dominated the market and European growers found they could not compete on costs. This was bitterly resented. “The Chinaman on Top Again” was the cartoon in the New Zealand Observer and Freelance 1892. It features a stunted Mongoloid-looking Chinese speaking in pidgin English to a tall well-built European: “Choppee stick allee Johnee Chinaman’s furniture me live velly cheaply.”
Anti-Semitism was also rife in the 1920s, and all the old stereotypes were featured. In one cartoon a Jewish man is asking a European who had just rescued a child from drowning, “Vas you the man that saved my little Ikey from drowning ven he was fishing?” The European answers, “That’s me mister”, and the Jewish man then says, “Vel vere’s de sinker off his line?” It was a cliché that Jews put possessions before people, and those early cartoonists used it frequently. Jewish settlers had been in New Zealand from the early days of European settlement, and were well accepted. But Grant states that there was “a strange, almost schizophrenic attitude to the Jewish community in New Zealand”.
Cartoonists have recorded our history well. Much of what they drew was a gut reaction to events as they happened. They were in tune with what the general public was thinking and often far away from where the paper’s editor was, politically and socially. By comparison, a collection of a 100 years of editorials would be as boring as reading the back of a can of beans. The 1951 Waterfront Dispute was a dark period in our cartoon history. At a time when vicious laws were passed against the watersiders and their families, and we were an eyelash away from fascism, unions were not allowed to gather legally or state their case. Armed troops took over the waterfront: “With media coverage universally and often violently opposed to them, the watersiders told their side of the story in crude cyclostyled pamphlets.” The cartoonists were anti-worker, with Minhinnick in the New Zealand Herald leading the charge. The communist bogey was used constantly – ironic, as a majority of the watersiders and seamen had fought in the war, and there were very few communists in their ranks. Both unions were democratic: that was their strength and their weakness.
There is only one New Zealand instance of a court case involving a New Zealand political cartoon. In 1911, William Massey, then leader of the opposition, sued the New Zealand Times over a cartoon he claimed portrayed him as a liar and responsible for mean and despicable acts. The jury concurred that the cartoon did indeed depict Massey in the way alleged but being political comment was not libellous.
I like this decision. Much the same could be said about our politicians; but I doubt you would get away with saying that about them today.
Cartooning is one of the last male-dominated crafts worldwide, with few, if any, women cartoonists featuring in the national papers, and none in New Zealand. The recent violent reaction to the Danish cartoons on Mohammed shows how effective and controversial cartooning can be. Since the invasion of Iraq, the American press has been ingenuous when dealing with the propaganda from the White House. Cartoonists have not been so gullible, and their cartoons have been hard hitting, and now constantly refer to the conflict as the Iraq Civil War.
Grant’s first book on cartooning was titled The Unauthorised Version. It was a bestseller. Between The Lines is a splendid work. The 600 cartoons and precise text are the result of meticulous research. It should be called the
“Authorised Version”. Grant has done a great service to
New Zealand with this book. It is encyclopaedic in its detail, and right up to date to the general election in 2005. I recommend it unreservedly.
Gerry Evans’ latest book, Killing Your Darlings, is from Awa Press.