Chapter 15 [Fools’ Harvest, by Erle Cox, 1939]

[Editor: This is a chapter from Fools’ Harvest (1939) by Erle Cox.]

Chapter XV.

Throughout the country that day more than 40,000 men laid down their arms, and our conquest was complete. We entered on the third stage of our humiliation. The first was that three weeks of inglorious warfare with its single decisive battle. The second was the two years of guerilla warfare. And this, the long-drawn agony of hopeless bondage with the knowledge that the Paramount Power will never honour its treaty obligations or relax its hold on the prize it has snatched from a people who could not hold it.

From our first concentration camp at Mansfield where we remained for a fortnight before we were dispersed, we learned what our fate would be. They fed us on boiled wheat and treacle, with the coarsest of meat twice a week. Meanwhile, we were questioned individually and registered. They ascertained our previous occupations, and any of us such as Fergus, who possessed special useful qualifications as a metallurgist, were separated from the rest, who were drafted for hard labour. We found that those who had taken part in the guerilla warfare were marked men from then on.

Our discipline was more severe, our punishments harsher, and our work more laborious than that given to those who had not taken up arms. They made us distinguishable from all the others by shaving our heads. Others could hope for some alleviation of their bondage through relaxed regulations, better food and shorter hours. The only concession we were ever given came at a later date, when, in the camps we were allowed four hours’ liberty a week. After a few escaped to the bush, preferring the risk of starvation to bondage, they ensured our return by instituting a system of hostages. Each man had to nominate two comrades as hostages. If he escaped his hostages were shot after 24 hours.

The men who were married were drafted into separate camps with their families. But their children were taken from them at the age of 10 years, and set to work. Few parents know what became of them, and few ever saw them again unless accident threw them together. We ex-guerillas, however had one compensation. It became an unwritten law among our own people to render us any possible service as a labour of love. They would leave food or some little luxury of clothing where they knew we would find it. They conveyed messages and passed on information to us. Though this was strictly forbidden not all the ceaseless vigilance of the Paramount Power could prevent this intercommunication.

It was the policy of the Paramount Power that all the products of Australia were either diverted to their own use, or exported and sold overseas. Our wool was sent abroad and sold overseas. We were allowed only synthetic fabrics. All coal except that for their own use was exported. Fergus had predicted that they would strip Australia bare, and they did. Vast areas of forest land were stripped of timber and were never replanted. The bread we were given was made from waste wheat, unfit for export, badly milled, and half bran at that. Our vineyards were exploited in the same manner. Our orchards were cultivated, but only those who worked in them ever saw the fruit. Labouring gangs grew vegetables for our masters, but cabbages were the only vegetable allowed to us.

Our Australia must be a truly profitable prize for the Paramount Power. Labour costs nothing, although we are supposed to be paid at the rate of ninepence a day. But as this is always mortgaged for the wretched clothing and boots that are charged against us, we never see any money. Some in the higher professions, such as Fergus, who has a hut of his own, receive as much as 12/- a week in money — but they are the aristocrats. Whatever this cost of labour may be it is so low as to be scarcely appreciable. The entire revenue for exports of primary and secondary products goes to the Paramount Power. It must be enormous, but they are always able to prove to the American Committees of Inspection that they are running the country at a loss, because of the high cost of administration and the necessity for maintaining an army of occupation. Maybe! It is said the salary of the military Governor-General is £100,000 per annum.

Before long the systematic brutality of our treatment bore fruit in a war of sabotage. We cannot kill, but we can and do destroy. Sabotage is carried out, especially among factory workers, with an impish ingenuity. I think this must be the only serious cost of administration to the Paramount Power. But it goes on despite the severity of penalties. Detection means a blank wall and a firing squad, or a sentence to the Yampi iron mines, from which there is no return — worse perhaps than the firing party. If they cannot catch the individual, which they very seldom do, the gang on a job or in a factory, is put on short rations or longer hours. For nearly the three first years I worked on a timber mill, and I think the average of stoppages for repairs to machinery must have been one week in four.

But among us, and especially among the ex-guerillas, theft is even more prevalent than sabotage. This applies especially to such luxuries as good food. But the general principle is for a man to get away with anything he can lay his hands on, provided it is not too heavy. But weight does not mean immunity. In the timber camp I was one of six men who succeeded in getting away with a lorry-load of stores intended for the managing staff. They recovered nearly half of it, but our crowd lived well on the balance for a week or two.

I suppose we have become utterly amoral. But the doctrine we subscribe to is that we only take what is actually ours from the real thief. Personally, I have never felt any qualms of conscience, and my capacity for disgust at having to steal food has become atrophied. When I was drafted to Newcastle when the steel works were being rebuilt, the only ray of light in the gloom came with an unexpected reunion with Fergus and Lynda. During the entire interval of three years I had heard nothing from them. A few months later Bob Clifford was drafted in. We found they were selecting for the steel works camp all those ex-guerillas whom they suspected of being active in subversive movements. Here, before they organised the camp, Bob and I systematically raided enemy stores for luxuries, with uniform success, though on one or two occasions we left the scene of operation under fire. I doubt if Lynda’s baby would have lived but for the preserved milk that Bob and I procured for her.

But now, as I come to the end of the story, a more sinister and evil spirit has crept into our hatred of the Paramount Power. This is born of the knowledge that has come to us during the past two years that they have no intention of evacuating the four States at the end of the twenty years’ term.

Until then we were buoyed up with the thought that our servitude had a limit, but when the hope faded our spirit did not break; it became brutalised. Slowly the exactions and oppressions of the Paramount Power have become more inhuman and pitiless, and our silent underground resistance has become more vindictive. All those tyrannies that were once reserved for the ex-guerillas have been extended to the rest of the people. Hopelessness has bred a recklessness of life that would be unbelievable to people differently circumstanced.

Lately our numbers have been added to by the transportation of all the Australians in Queensland to the three southern continental States. For the past five years the Paramount Power has been populating Queensland with its own nationals. Our people were made to work for the farmers and orchardists and cane growers until there were sufficient Cambasians to take over the State completely. They have retained only the strongest among the men to do the most laborious work such as clearing new forest ground for cultivation.

Last year it was decreed that no Australian would be permitted to live in Brisbane or in any of the large provincial towns of Queensland. But several thousand men were kept as labourers to carry out the work of a complete rebuilding of Brisbane. Only the finest of the public buildings are being retained. It is evident to us that this policy of the elimination of the Australian by ill-treatment and hardship is being extended to the four southern States. The men who are coming down from Queensland are physical wrecks, worn out with ill-nourishment and overwork.

The consequence has been the development of a silent, passive resistance among us on the surface, beneath which is a seething mass of conspiracy and vindictive retaliation. This year, for the first time since the suppression of the guerilla warfare, killing has recommenced, despite reprisals. It has been carried out secretly for the most part, but occasionally as the result of a sudden outburst of rage by some victim of tyranny or brutality. Again and again, especially detested police officials have disappeared. About six months ago — just after I began writing this story — that Brigadier-General who took the surrender of Ben and Dumbell Wright came to Newcastle as Commandant. I got word of his advent from Fenner, who was working on the new breakwater. His administration proved more iniquitous than that of his predecessor. For two months one single organisation kept him under incessant observation. They cannot keep us all in concentration camps so that there are plenty outside to carry on the good work. He disappeared from his own house.

There were at least 50 people who knew how he was taken from his house and what became of the body. The P.P. police raged for a month and their vengeance was diabolic, but no one spoke. It is this silent killing that is getting on their nerves — and on ours. The same atmosphere of terror reigns everywhere.

For my own part, hope of release is gone. I have not dared to go near Fergus and Lynda again though I know they are safe so far. There are many among us who feel that the only chance of drawing the attention of the outside world to the terrible condition of our slavery is by a general rebellion. Such a move, however presents vast difficulties through the problem of co-ordination. But still the attempt is being planned. I fear it will take years before the organisation can be sufficiently advanced to take action. I am participating because I have reached the stage when I do not care what happens to me. Since the day I saw Fergus and Lynda last, and saw Bob Clifford in the gang that marched to the Yampi transport, I have lost heart. My only wonder is that I have escaped so far. But sooner or later they will reach out for me, and when that day comes I will have the satisfaction of knowing that whatever they may do to me has been paid for in advance.

It is strange that I can feel neither regret nor self reproach for what I have done during these past nine years. I set out to tell the whole story without hiding a detail. But my courage has not been equal to the task. But no one, I believe, could do so. I have killed bound men without pity or compunction. It has all been part of our harvest. One night in 1941, Clifford and I came on two wounded men after a raid. They begged —

(The Manuscript Closes Here.)

Erle Cox, Fools’ Harvest, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullen, 1939, pages 189-194

[Editor: Changed “I have lost heart,” to “I have lost heart.” (replaced the comma with a full stop).]

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