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

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

Chapter XI

Furor Australiensis

So Australia, at last, was made to wake up — under sledge-hammer blows: Imperial attempt of legislative interference, annihilation of naval screen, isolation of the invaded territory, debacle of public finance; under such an avalanche of disasters the young Commonwealth staggered into consciousness of its desperate position. But it was no longer a merciful Commonwealth marching proudly in the van of humanitarian effort. It was a wounded giant groping blindly round, in the first fierce transport of rage, for something he might wreak vengeance on — for some victim. In vain the beginnings of the election campaign! That could wait. Later, when its time was ripe, it would grow of itself into that raging, tearing convulsion known to history, for good reasons, as the “Flaming Elections.” At present the elections seemed too far off to attract popular passion. Some immediate scapegoat was wanted. And who was nearer than the unfortunate coloured aliens still residing in the country? So far the genius of Australia had been opposed to the infliction of personal revenge on private individuals for failings of the race to which they belonged. But where so many sacred illusions were swept away, this fine generosity could not last much longer. Imperceptibly and rapidly the idea gained ground that it must be the first and foremost business of Australia to get rid of the Asiatics altogether, before other problems could be taken in hand. At this moment immigrants from the western slope of North America began to enter the Commonwealth, firstfruits of the “Defence League of All the Whites.” The new arrivals were yet few in number, but quite sufficient to permeate the seething multitudes with Yankee notions of race standards and with Yankee methods of dealing with inferior races.

The storm broke in Melbourne. A pushing Emporium there, famous for topical advertisements, alluded in one of these to the universal brotherhood of man. It also exhibited in one of its show windows a white and a yellow figure shaking hands over a conciliatory motto. Of course commercial men might wish for relaxation of the tension, but a more ridiculous blunder could not have been made just then. Crowds assembled in front of the shop and soon became threatening. The window was smashed and the whole concern on the point of being sacked. Only the valour of the police and the presence of mind of the proprietor saved the situation. Big posters were made hurriedly and pasted everywhere, reading: “Down with the Japs,” “No quarter for Mongolians,” “White Australia for ever,” a change of mind which satisfied the besiegers and proved a sound stroke of business as well. From that moment onward nearly all shops displayed signs: “No coloured people served.” The boycott had begun.

It was merely the prelude to racial convulsions all over the Continent. Some of the worst excesses have become known as the Sydney Riots.

The immediate cause was a quarrel on board a ferry steamer on Saturday afternoon (July 13). A couple of Chinamen were accused of having annoyed, either by looks or words, some white girls. In the end the alleged offenders were thrown into the harbour. When the boat arrived at Circular Quay the police made an attempt to arrest the supposed ringleaders. But they were rescued by other passengers. The Quay is always crowded. Soon thousands thronged round the wharf where the disturbance took place. They were thickly interspersed with rough elements, who quickly got tired of looking on passively. Some Japanese seamen from a Nippon Yushan Kaisha steamer which was in port, passed at this moment and were subjected to jeering remarks. Other coloured marines received the same attention. There are generally plenty of them about in that quarter on their way between the City and the transoceanic steamers. Feeling secure by reason of numbers of supporters within, call, they did not conceal their resentment. A gang of half-grown boys, emboldened by the chance of exhibiting pluck before a large audience, thereupon began to pelt them with dirt. The coloured men retaliated forcibly and some young-fellows were badly beaten. This spectacle infuriated the crowd, while the noise attracted comrades of the seamen from the ships near by. They brought iron bars and other heavy weapons as means of defence. The opposing forces soon came to blows and a pitched battle raged between the white riff-raff on the one hand and a yelling multitude of maddened Lascars, Chinamen, Japanese and other Asiatics on the other. Knives and revolvers came into play. Night had fallen before the police, compelled to side with the populace and to use freely their firearms, succeeded in crushing the resistance of the coloured crews. About a dozen of the fighters and some harmless citizens caught in the throng lost their lives, and many more were wounded.

Crazy with the sight and scent of blood, the masses surged up town, amidst cries of revenge. Their numbers were continually swelled by fresh recruits. A huge mob assembled round Belmore Markets, on the other end of the City, in the Chinese quarter. On Saturday nights a cheap fair used to be held there, which attracted, beside a large contingent of the poorer decent classes, a goodly percentage of the lowest scum. Many selling-booths were hired by Orientals and the coloured element was much in evidence. It is not probable that a demonstration there had been planned beforehand. Rather it may have been that the chance of loot under cover of racial excitement animated the meanest whites. Anyhow, a series of scuffles ensued round the Asiatic booths, the owners of which defended their property with all the stolid obstinacy which marks the race. In the overwrought state of public feeling, this was sufficient to start a general fray. Even decent, order-loving whites took part in it, and they and meek, peaceable Chinamen battled against one another like maniacs. Everywhere goods were strewn, shrieking women and children were dragged down and trampled upon. The harassed police stopped the uproar by cutting off the electric light. Hundreds rushed to the exits, careless of prostrate bodies which they trod down. Suddenly, a fire broke out in the wooden shed. Somebody picking his way through the darkness and confusion may have dropped a lighted match on the heaps of inflammable stuff littered about. Many persons, men hurt in the fight, women and children, were still in the tottering ancient pile. A terrible panic followed. The flames leapt up and enveloped everything with lightning speed. Within three minutes it had become impossible to save any one. The surrounding streets were choked with multitudes demented by horror. Through them the police, assisted by volunteers, now opened approaches for the fire brigades. No further regard was paid to human life. Over quivering forms, which had been flung into the roadway by the jostling crowds, fire-engines thundered. For the conflagration, raging next to the gasworks in a district of produce and dry goods stores, threatened the whole city with destruction. This was Sydney’s delirious night of colour riots.

How many were burnt and otherwise killed had never been officially stated. According to private computations, over two hundred perished. The fire was overcome in the early hours of Sunday morning. Quiet reigned all that day. No coloured seaman was allowed to leave ship. The alien inhabitants kept behind closed doors, and when they ventured forth again they were seldom exposed to anything worse than occasional horseplay. Sydney had had enough of the ruling passion.

The centre of the disturbance swiftly shifted to Melbourne. Some disgraceful scenes occurred there, too, on Saturday night in the pleasure part of Bourke Street. However, the police managed to suppress outrage in that quarter. But the ball had been set rolling. The pushes, alert to perceive the advantage vouchsafed to them by the moral lapse of the community, organized little private raids on unprotected Chinese shops in the suburbs. Windows were smashed, goods robbed, and occasionally, in a well-timed rush, the till-money was carried triumphantly. Bad as this was, when Sunday morning dawned, Melbourne was yet free of murder. The papers, breaking the local laws against Sunday publications, issued extras detailing the Sydney happenings exaggerated beyond their hideous reality. All town discussed them, and in the evening suspicious gangs appeared in the crowded streets. As the aliens had been warned and did not show themselves in public, the police relaxed their vigilance somewhat, especially as no excesses were reported during the most lively hours. About 9 o’clock noise arose in the Chinese quarter. It appears that a band of larrikins had invaded Little Bourke Street. At that late hour, the Mongolians had most likely grown less anxious, reassured by the previous unbroken tranquillity. Some youths, at any rate, managed to close with the yellow-skins who, conscious of their numbers, struck a defiant attitude. All at once a piercing cry was heard. A young Australian had been stabbed; he staggered along the street, only to collapse in the gutter. Within an incredibly short time, hundreds of rough whites filled the back street, athirst for revenge. Many of them carried weapons. The Chinese retreated behind walls, but it was too late. While the advance of the police was blocked under showers of stones, doors were beaten in, windows forced open, and in dens, courtyards and alleys a mortal combat raged. Half an hour elapsed before the constabulary, with full reinforcements from the central barracks near by, could restore a semblance of order. Several policemen were killed and wounded; the civilian losses on both sides were considerable. It was rumoured that some ruffians, caught red-handed as they were setting fire to a place, were despatched on the spot. On Monday morning Melbourne had resumed its usual busy way. As in Port Jackson, no coloured seamen were allowed to land. And the Asiatic inhabitants were too scared to give further challenge by parading in the open.

The example set by the two sea-capitals was emulated all over the interior of the Continent wherever the hated aliens dwelt. A long list of deeds of violence against a helpless minority stains the fair record of Australia here. Everywhere the same features were repeated. Ingrained contempt changed into sullen suspicion; some imprudence or impudence committed by a yellow man followed by a white blaze of indignation quenched only by the trickling of the red blood of the maimed offender or his unfortunate kinsfolk. A number of the wildest outrages has never become known outside a restricted local circle. They are of interest only to the student of national waves of dementia.

In the big ports the resentment against the coloured aliens smouldered on, although its expression did not again become so sanguinary. The struggle became now economic.

On Wednesday, July 17, 1912, an edict was issued by the Trades Halls of Sydney and Melbourne forbidding to the affiliated maritime unions any work in connexion with any vessels carrying coloured crews. Every Australian port, large or small, fell into line loyally as soon as the telegraph had transmitted the message. With twenty-four hours, it had become impossible along the whole coast of the Commonwealth to coal, load or discharge, or even to victual ships coming under the prohibition. The employers of the sea-capitals very naturally tried to break down the boycott. But they found few willing hands to aid them. A handful of unfortunates recruited by King Hunger — for that potentate too was on the point of invading the Continent where his very name had been unknown so long — were overawed by the populace and had to be withdrawn, since even the police would not guarantee their safety. The imagination of the whole nation was fascinated by the boldness of the boycott. Though the White Australia doctrine was threatened at the heart, the Extremists, undaunted, declared that the Ocean should be white as well. It was not a new policy, as it had been a pet ideal of advanced patriots of years, and had been officially advocated by the Commonwealth delegates at the last Imperial Navigation Conference. But its reassertion in the present crisis was a stroke of daring worthy of the stern Romans of old who carried war into Africa while unconquered Hannibal still menaced their gates. Alas, the times and circumstances were very different now!

Nevertheless, at first, results were not of a kind to make the Extremists repent of their thoroughness. The suffering on account of the partial stoppage of oversea circulation was counteracted to some extent by a sensational decline in the price of the necessaries of life. Monopolistic rings, which had kept high the local values while shipping cheaply for competition in the world’s markets, collapsed when the shrinking of export facilities overwhelmed the outlets with supplies of perishable goods.

While the maritime boycott was in full swing, news arrived from Queensland of further excesses eclipsing in cruelty the southern riots. In the latter, the white riff-raff had borne the largest share. It was quite different in the North, while on the contrary decent, influential white men were the ringleaders. In tropical Queensland, Japanese used to run many of the bad houses, to which coloured womenfolk resorted. Unfortunately, the matter did not rest there. They insisted on running them on such peculiar lines of their own that it had often been prophesied that one day the whole thing would be washed off in blood. After the invasion, the hatred of these Pandars was augumented by the fear that every one of them might be a spy. Their opportunities in that direction were certainly considerable by reason of their trade. The disgust which had accumulated against them had become at least equal to the ferocity which burned negroes at the stake on the other side of the Pacific.

Upon this poisonous ground Western Americans, with all their traditions of race violence, set foot in quest of the White Guard. It is not probable that their influence was employed in the interests of law and order. Soon after their advent, in poured the reports of how the South had dealt with the Asiatics. What followed has never been cleared up fully. It seems that a secret league was formed among the best white elements and rapidly extended to all the picturesque townships scattered along the blue Pacific and round to the Gulf of Carpentaria. One evening, nearly a fortnight after the capitals had given the signal, an end was made with one accord right over North Queensland (July 27). The brothels were entered, all inmates seized. Of the subsequent proceedings no official version exists. Close private inquiry on the spot would be unsafe, for too many influential persons are still alive who were deeply implicated in the conspiracy. Apparently the culprits were not only exterminated, but exterminated in the most degrading fashion. In towns where only a few were taken, they were burnt at the stake. Where the numbers were larger, they were hanged and made targets of. So far it is hardly possible to pity the victims much. But there is one blot. The coloured trade goods disappeared for ever. These unfortunates, brought up to a life of infamy, perhaps sold into it by fond parents, were irresponsible. Some say that they were shot and buried quietly; others, that they were drowned. As a fitting termination, the Asiatics who plied less contemptible callings received warning that their safety could be guaranteed only until after the departure of the next few steamers bound north.

The first news of anti-colour riots was served up to the British public as Sunday reading. Several up-to-date preachers referred to it in their sermons, likening the misguided Antipodeans unto Assyrian wolves. On Monday the London Stock Exchange marked its disapproval in a more practical manner by depressing Australian State funds several points more. And they fell still lower when the meaning of the boycott was realized. There never was a worse dislocation of trade. The leading shipping companies met boycott with boycott by holding back steamers due for the journey out or by diverting them to other parts of the world, and by cabling orders for the vessels in Commonwealth waters either to leave undischarged or to be laid up where they happened to be at the time. The stoppage sent up the prices for meat, butter and fruit in the markets of the United Kingdom. Moreover, the woollen industry began to suffer under the uncertainty of the outlook in the chief wool-producing country at a period when the early shearing should have started.

But the material losses were of small account compared to the damage inflicted upon the national pride. The greatest indignation was caused by the alertness of competitive foreigners to gather profits at the expense of British shipping supremacy. Continental lines discovered a method to end the deadlock. As is well known they already maintained regular services and had secured a large portion of the best paying Australian trade. Very quickly they rushed out a steamer-load of white seamen sufficient to work their laid-up vessels independent of coloured labour. Other steamers manned exclusively by European crews followed in quick succession, calling at English ports for cargo and thus giving a long start to the enterprising Continentals, who were placed incidentally in a position to dictate monopoly rates for return freight. At last the British companies had to adopt the same course. The counter boycott was broken. For the moment white labour had won the day. And the foreigners had established still more firmly their hold on Pacific trade.

The disgust of classes and masses alike in the United Kingdom against the Commonwealth had had time to become deep-rooted when the first rumour of the Queensland atrocities — so called by the London Press — leaked out. Public opinion was emphatic in condemnation. The effect was electric and transformed the existing bitterness into a dead set against Australia which nothing could overcome. Should Britannia bare her righteous sword in defence of such brutal, bloody deeds? The thing was not to be thought of. Several sensational journals demanded bombardment of the guilty ports and a blockade of the Commonwealth until all the perpetrators of the outrage should be punished, and until satisfaction should be given to the insulted nations. There can be no doubt that the series of violent outbreaks, and particularly this culmination, did immense harm to the Australian cause. Above all, weak-kneed adherents in the sister dependencies who were peering round anxiously for a chance to conciliate the financial over-lords, were supplied with a pretext to recant their former implicit applause under the plea of horrified humanity. From this period may be dated the ascendency of the Moderates in the other autonomous colonies.

Japan and China renewed their protest in more pressing terms. Ominous accounts were bruited about of significant movements on the part of the navy of the former Power. The Imperial Government promised a searching investigation and immediately lodged a claim with the Commonwealth for a substantial indemnity to be paid to the victims or their relatives. The Federal Executive replied that they were willing to consider favourably all reasonable demands on condition, however, that the beneficiaries should agree to leave the Continent for ever. Moreover, they insisted upon the speedy removal of the prohibited immigrants from the Northern Territory, on the ground that without such a safeguard they were unable to guarantee the non-recurrence of excesses. It was a clever piece of strategy, diverting the attention from the past to the future by a counter-claim the perfect legality of which rather weakened the case for Asia as long as it was not complied with. The advisers of the Mikado did not relish the proposition.

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

Editor’s notes:
Furor Australiensis = a furor over Australia; a public outburst of anger or excitement, a protest or uproar, frenzy

Pandars = pimps; someone who procures customers for prostitutes; from Pandarus, a Trojan noble in Homer’s Iliad, who in later medieval literature was portrayed as the person who facilitated the affair between Troilus and Cressida

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