An archivist by day and author by night, Jared Davidson is a writer based in Lower Hutt, Aotearoa New Zealand. His work has appeared in Overland, The Guardian, History Workshop, Radical Futures, Labour History, The Spinoff and other publications. Dead Letters won the Bert Roth Award for Labour History, was shortlisted for the W.H. Oliver Prize for best book on any aspect of New Zealand history and longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Award for General Non-Fiction. He is currently the Research Librarian Manuscripts at the Alexander Turnbull Library, and was a judge for the 2023 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards (Booksellers NZ Award for Illustrated Nonfiction).

Jared’s latest book is about the unfree work of prisoners. Combining social and environmental history, Blood and Dirt: Prison Labour and the Making of New Zealand (forthcoming in August 2023 with Bridget Williams Books) explores prison labour from the Church Missionary Society’s use of convicts in 1814 to the state prison farms of the 1920s, including New Zealand’s Pacific.


Photo by Hagen Hopkins

Blood & Dirt

Picture, for a minute, every artwork of colonial New Zealand you can think of. Now add a chain gang. Hard labour men guarded by other men with guns. Men moving heavy metal. Men picking at the earth. Over and over again. This was the reality of nineteenth-century New Zealand.

Forced labour haunts the streets we walk today and the spaces we take for granted. The unfree work of prisoners has shaped New Zealand’s urban centres and rural landscapes and Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa – the Pacific – in profound and unsettling ways. Yet these stories are largely unknown: a hidden history in plain sight.

Blood and Dirt explains, for the first time, the making of New Zealand and its Pacific empire through the prism of prison labour. Jared Davidson asks us to look beyond the walls of our nineteenth- and early twentieth-century prisons to see penal practice as playing an active, central role in the creation of modern New Zealand. Journeying from the Hohi mission station in the Bay of Islands through to Milford Sound, vast forest plantations, and on to Parliament itself, this vivid and engaging book will change the way you view New Zealand. 

Forthcoming in August 2023 with Bridget Williams Books


Published by Bridget Williams Books, 2021

Published by Otago University Press, 2019

Published by AK Press, 2013

Published by Rebel Press, 2011