Spectrum 352. The martyrs of Ripa

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Documentary radio programs
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RNZ Collection
Perkins, Jack (b.1940), Presenter
Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand (estab. 1976, closed 1988), Broadcaster

In June 1913, William Massey's government clamped down on youths who were avoiding recently introduced military training. When thirteen young conscientious objectors were incarcerated in Fort Jervois on Ripapa Island in Lyttelton Harbour, the controversy erupted country-wide. This documentary re-enacts the controversy, from contemporary accounts.

Jack Perkins and an unidentified man visit Ripapa Island (or Ripa Island). They describe the fort on the island, Fort Jervois, with its iron gates and prison-like environment.

The history of the island is explained. Māori prisoners were sent there during the Land Wars, and Fort Jervois was fortified during the Russian scare but the guns were never used. It was a prison during the First World War, and held Count von Luckner, the captured German war hero. In June 1913, thirteen youths aged from eighteen to twenty from Christchurch and the West Coast were jailed there for refusing military training. In the newspapers of the time they were referred to as "The Martyrs of Ripa".

Jack Perkins explains the background to their case, with the passing of the Defence Act of 1909. This Act introduced compulsory military training for youths, and set up the Territorials Scheme. Many did not take kindly to this as they saw it as a precursor to full conscription, and pacifist opposition groups sprang up: The Passive Resisters Union, The Peace Council, and the We Won'ts. The main centres of resistance were Christchurch and coal-mining centres on the West Coast.

Middle class liberals and the emerging Labour movement both opposed the Act. Massey's Reform government decided to enforce the Act as war clouds gathered in Europe.

The following re-enactments are heard:
- General Godley in a June 1913 interview with the Lyttelton Times, explaining plans to crack down on defaulters who were not turning up to training in Canterbury.
- Two letters to the Editor from Christchurch women Louisa Nuttall and Susan Worrell, whose pacifist sons who were arrested for refusing to do military training.
- Reports from a newspaper on the transport of four boys to Ripapa Island. They were escorted by armed men, and cheered on by pacifist sympathisers. The number of defaulters continued to grow. Many refusing to even register as being of age for military training.
- A letter from one of the boys about the conditions on Ripapa Island.
- An exchange from a passive resister to the Minister of Defence, James Allan, in which he explains why he refuses military service.
- An article from a newspaper about some members of the Passive Resisters Union threatening to attack Ripapa prison if the young men held there were not released.
- Prime Minister Massey speaking in Parliament, where he is unbending in his favour for the Defence Act, and in not releasing the young men.
- Further letters to the Editor about the Resisters.
- A mock advertisement for Fort Jervois (as if for a hotel), by one of the detainees.
- Letters from the detainees to Charles Mackie, and later to the Passive Resisters of New Zealand.
- A letter from Lieutenant McDonald, officer in charge, to headquarters. He speaks about problems at the Fort, and the lack of discipline of the detainees, and their visitors.

Of the original thirteen, three were not released for over three months. But by then the whole affair had faded from the public mind - overshadowed by the bloody clashes between Massey's Cossacks (mounted 'special' constables) and the 'Red Feds' (the Federation of Labour); and the general strike of late 1913. Throughout 1914 defaulters were still sentenced to military detention. There were over 4,000 convictions, and a government reward was paid to police officers for each missing trainee tracked down and convicted.

It's a moot point whether, under normal conditions, the Defence Act would have been changed or repealed. But the outbreak of war saw a flood-tide of patriotic fervour which transformed the anti-militarists into near-traitors, as New Zealand responded immediately and wholeheartedly in defence of empire.