Part I Chapter VIII [The Australian Crisis, by C.H. Kirmess, 1909]

[Editor: This is a chapter from the novel The Australian Crisis by C.H. Kirmess.]

Chapter VIII

Colonial fancies

The arrival at Port Darwin of the Japanese deputation, and the public professions of loyalty to the British flag by its members, induced the Imperial Government to communicate, without further delay, the Mikado’s offer, proposing transfer of allegiance, by official sanction, to the Commonwealth authorities. It was the receipt of this information, as well as tactical party considerations, which led to the publication of all the cable interchanges. Australian statesmen had naturally a much clearer insight into the political instincts by which the other dependencies were swayed than into British habits of mind. Accordingly, they forgot the vexation, which their indiscretion must cause to the latter, in their desire to rally the sister dominions to their side by the disclosure of the Japanese suggestion. Nor were they mistaken in their estimation of the effect. The white colonies, already deeply agitated by the first news of the fresh immigration movement, stood aghast at the cool proposition that a simple oath of allegiance to the King of England should be held sufficient to open a passage for the brown or yellow man into the jealously guarded reserves of the white race. Their stupor, relieved by the energetic action of the Federal executive, made way for a deafening chorus of applause, urging on Australia to persist in its violent course, and calling upon Great Britain to keep its upstart ally in his proper place.

The unanimous anxiety of the autonomous dependencies was perfectly logical; they were all exposed to the same danger. Canada had recently been the playground of Turanian insolence, and it was rather due to the relentless determination of the United States than to British endeavours, that the Japanese immigration into America had been reduced to moderate limits. Its western seaboard, fertile and very thinly populated, stretched invitingly directly opposite the crowded eastern slopes of Asia. There was no guarantee that the latter might not disgorge another unassimilative torrent of humanity upon the shores of Columbia in the future, particularly if the idea should gain ground that the white man was relaxing his hold. Maoriland was in a still worse position. The “Little Dominion” had been even more intolerant of the Asiatic than its big neighbour. Once the coloured alien succeeded in getting a firm foothold there its own policy of exclusion would become untenable. Perhaps South Africa appeared less directly concerned for the moment. Its distance and isolation might prove some protection. Troubled, however, by the indigenous negro problem, as well as by the imported evil of a growing Indian coolie population, it was also vitally interested in the principle that the white man’s pleasure should be the law of the universe. So the ring was complete. Greater Britain was consolidated by common needs and spoke with one voice.

And it pleaded moral justification. The restrictive laws of the several colonies had all received the Royal assent. They were all based on the same premises. Clearly, therefore, if they could be broken with impunity in one instance, they might as well be abolished everywhere, for all the security they would give after that. There was no doubt that the Japanese landing in the Northern Territory was a distinct infringement of a special act, which rendered all the immigrants liable not only to deportation, but also to a fine or imprisonment. But although Australia was thus concerned in the first place, the issue did really pass continental confines. It was Imperial, because the validity of the laws in the other colonies was involved. For this reason, the oversea dominions did not exceed their rights by demanding that Great Britain, as keeper of the Imperial sword, should enter the ring in defence of their privileges.

England looked upon the question in quite a different light. It had, of course, to be admitted that the restrictive laws had been sanctioned. But the Crown could hardly be expected to investigate in every instance whether the self-governing bodies, who promoted such measure, and who were so suspicious of any attempt of interference by the central authorities, had made sure beforehand of their ability to carry out the clauses. A law which cannot be enforced must be bad. Great Britain did not care to identify itself with failures. Moreover, the colonies had their own executives, whom they could hold responsible if scapegoats were required. People and politicians of the Mother Country did not like being burdened with the consequences of the shortcomings of others.

Excitement in the white dominions grew apace. At this early stage Australia managed to keep its indignation well in check, and its public protests, though firm enough, were comparatively free of bombast. Both Canada and Maoriland eclipsed it in outward show of resentment. There, even statesmen who had a reputation to lose, and papers which were known for impartiality and moderation in ordinary times, looked upon war as a foregone conclusion. After the collapse of the criminal prosecution of the Japanese deputation, a paroxysm of disappointed rage swept the two dominions, and the cry for war rose louder and louder. Perhaps this violence was not natural. It may have been an hysterical effort to conceal the military weakness of the colonies, which this crisis threatened to expose to all the world, and which could only remain secret if a patriotic panic in England made available the formidable resources of that Power by forcing the hands of its rulers.

But the Imperial Government was perfectly aware of its peril, and retained its mastery at home by the judicious use of Press and Parliament. So there was not much danger of a sudden national stampede. All responsible men were profuse in their expression of sympathy with the aspirations of the daughter nations. Nevertheless, all insisted that the Japanese immigration was a local incident which would have to be dealt with in the ordinary diplomatic way. The Stock Exchange advanced the shares of certain cable companies in view of an expected increase of revenue, while the hubbub lasted — a rather facetious compliment. The colonies, however, were not in the humour to appreciate jokes. Exasperated by the indifference of the British people they changed their tune, and threats of war against Japan gave way to threats of secession from England.

Unfortunately, this was not a new theme either. Great Britain was becoming accustomed to these occasional colonial storms. There had been so many of them of late. The Alaska boundary settlement, the problem of foreign possessions in the South Seas, the Newfoundland fisheries dispute, were all cases in point. Every time there had been a furious outburst of indignation, followed by resigned acceptance of the inevitable, under the noble plea of self-sacrifice for the sake of the Empire. The recollection of past scares discounted the effect of the latest sensation upon the stolid English mind, which was influenced by the talk of war and secession, precisely as formerly, by reports of Irish excesses. Instead of betraying fear and precipitancy, it became more obstinate and deliberate than ever.

The root of the trouble was that the military resources of the Empire were Imperial only in name, as they had been paid for almost exclusively by the over-burdened toilers of the United Kingdom. Certainly, some of the colonies contributed a small amount for the upkeep of the navy; yet if the whole sum thus received had been lumped up from the outset, it would hardly have been sufficient for the construction and maintenance of a single Dreadnought. Great Britain accepted the dole as evidence of good will, but without the least idea that the givers should thereby become entitled to a share in the control of the armaments, which was, indeed, the colonial contention, not in so many words, but in fact. For if the central authorities alone had the right to grant or to withhold the support of the Imperial forces, in every instance where foreigners threatened the interests of the self-governing dominions, then the latter were in all essentials reduced to abject dependency on England, in spite of airy boasts and complaisant acknowledgments of equality.

The colonies had all along mistaken territorial bigness for power. The misleading appearance of wealth, which was in reality merely the expression of the disproportion between the enormous natural resources of the new countries and their smallness of population, had given them an altogether exaggerated idea of their own importance. Born in a more enlightened age, free of the inherited economic and political difficulties which cleft the Old World, they scorned the European method of propitiating the insatiable God of Battles, by pouring ceaseless torrents of treasure upon his altars in the effort to keep them bloodless. The colonies preferred more rational investments; their savings went entirely into the work of opening up their vast dominions, and they also mortgaged their future prospects up to the hilt for the same purpose. That was well enough as long as world policy was a hobby confined to European nations. England was too vitally interested in the Balance of Power there, to allow any continental rival to become too strong, either by absorbing weaker neighbours or by establishing new bases in other parts of the globe, which might some day become formidable. A stupendous public debt still remained as a constant reminder of the determination with which Great Britain had fought for security in the past. Where so much had been suffered for the cause, and where, moreover, the probable course of future developments was so well defined, the watchfulness of England might well be trusted, and its daughters could afford to slumber peacefully. But a change came over the spirit of their dreams when Japan, with rapid strides, leapt to the front, and was introduced by the Imperial Government into the sacred circle of Great Powers as its friend and partner in world politics. Some honest fanatics tried to rouse the sleepers. Yet, before they could make any deep impression colonial sentiment was drugged fatally by the outburst of maudlin enthusiasm, which rewarded the valiant ally for his feats against the traditional enemy of Anglo-Saxondom, Russia.

After that the pace became furious. A new Great Power had arisen, removed very far from the centres of British naval supremacy, an aggressive Island Empire, dependent for its existence on the possession of an unconquerable fleet. The two maritime nations were drawn together by the strongest impulses, for they had the choice of but two unalterable alternatives: to be friends or, sooner or later, to fight to the death, as the globe is too small for two naval supremacies. Wisely, they had agreed on the first proposition, which promised a rich harvest to both. All points of difference had been settled, and an extended, closer alliance was formed on the premises of real, mutual equity. And Japan proceeded, at the first opportune moment, to test the sincerity of its friend. It began in Canada, but had to withdraw before the uncompromising attitude of the United States, who dared to enforce a slightly varied Monroe doctrine, even on foreign soil, as long as it was American. Japan, therefore, was compelled to select a field for its experiments where the Monroe doctrine did not apply. Hence its descent upon the Northern Territory. And the rudely-awakened colonies perceived too late that empty square miles don’t fight, and that, having neglected to provide for independent means of defence, they were absolutely helpless.

They could not even strike a blow at the invader, which, though perhaps insufficient in itself, might have placed Great Britain in the awkward position of either having to accept the responsibility of such action, and the consequences of such moral support, or else of appearing to desert its children before the eye of an astonished world. For Japan, as well as the invaded district, was accessible only by sea, and the colonies did not own a battleship between them. That was the less excusable when it is considered that much of their wealth was piled up on or near the seaboard, where their magnificent ports and capitals lie open to attack from the ocean or from rivers navigable for Dreadnoughts. It is not wonderful that in the dread hour of disillusion, panic shook them like the all-embracing tremors of an earthquake.

Still, some good came out of sound and fury. In Maoriland, the charming home of grandiloquent epithets, the “Defence League of all the Whites” was formed on May 22, 1909, and spread quickly to Canada, South Africa, and even to the United States. The avowed aim of the new association was the creation of a centre of enthusiasm, and the raising of funds for armaments in the interests of Australia. But this original purpose was soon overshadowed by its development into a recruiting organization. Many members emigrated to the Commonwealth, others persuaded or financed patriots and adventurers in the prime of life to do the same, all bent on resisting and repulsing by force the coloured invader. A considerable number of these were Americans from the Pacific slopes — men who did not need to be taught bitter hatred against the Japanese, and whose influence can be traced in the trend of later events. The whole movement may be said to have one achievement to its credit. It properly inspired, or suggested in some way, the formation of the White Guard, of glorious and tragic memory.



Source:
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909

Editor’s notes:
Turanian = in this context, Turanian refers to Asians (in this chapter, specifically to Japanese); from the theory that the three major races in Asia and Europe have three corresponding major language groups, being the Turanians (including the Ural-Altaic peoples and languages), Semites, and Aryans [see the Encyclopædia Britannica article “classification of religions: ethnographic-linguistic” (accessed 3 August 2012)]

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