[Editor: This is a chapter from the novel The Australian Crisis by C.H. Kirmess.]
Chapter V: Great Britain garrisons the Northern Territory
Great Britain garrisons the Northern Territory
Ever since the closure of the Northern Territory Coast the British Government had been anxious to extend its control right over the district invaded by the Japanese. It is doubtful whether it was prompted by its ally; if so, the latter must have felt somewhat fearful of the White Guard, then on its march; and the eagerness, calmness and destructive thoroughness with which that body was met rather discount this assumption. Quite possibly the English Cabinet was moved entirely by a desire to achieve some progress regarding the interminable Australian entanglement, not only from reasons of Imperial import, but also from party-tactical considerations. So many signs were laid at its door by an amiable Opposition — estrangement of the Colonies, insecurity of foreign policy, financial weakness — that it was about time Ministers should score on their part, if they did not wish to be overwhelmed politically. The difficulty was to find a method which could be represented to the Home electors as tending towards a final settlement while meeting also with Australian applause.
The Imperial statesmen found themselves in a tight corner. Though the masses of the people, in their present temper, would have applauded any pressure put upon Australia, it would have been very unsafe to rely too much on the fact. As soon as calmness would prevail once more) everybody would be forced to admit that it was not the Commonwealth which had started the trouble, though its methods of dealing with it might be considered objectionable. Democracy is always sure to turn back from its extreme moods and to crush in the process the tools which gratified them. Apart from this danger, fully recognized by the astute managers of the party in power, it is certain that these were honest patriots and quite willing to help forward the cause of Australia as long as such a course did not imperil the delicate balance of international forces upon which their world-policy rested.
The Federal intimation that compensation would be granted to the sufferers from the anti-colour riots, on condition that the Japanese would leave the Northern Territory, was made by London the base of negotiations with Tokio, which was informed that the justice of its protests and claims would be greatly enhanced in the eyes of civilized humanity, if the immigrants, who had in effect broken the laws of the community entered by them, would be repatriated. In exchange for this graceful re-arrangement, Great Britain promised that it would use all its influence to mitigate the severity of the Commonwealth enactments against Asiatics.
But the Japanese very naturally preferred the bird in hand, and pointed once more to the famine existing in their provinces, as rendering impossible the proposed step. London retorted that nobody asked them to return the refugees to the districts whence they had come originally, while in the Island of Formosa and on the mainland fertile, thinly settled lands abounded. In reply, the advisers of the Mikado stuck to their batch of old excuses. Their ally was quite right, and even as was suggested, they did unceasingly. Consequently, all resources were strained to breaking point in the effort of hurrying famishing hordes to salvation in those inviting spaces. However, there was a limit; it would be criminal to dump larger numbers without preparations and provisions to keep them alive. Others would be doomed to perdition, if a check was applied in favour of outsiders who were well off where they were now.
It seems that the British Government went so far as to propose unofficially that the Imperial Exchequer should bear a share of the repatriation expenses, in recognition of the economic crisis which Japan was just passing through. But Tokio, on the ground that it would be more merciful to shoot the thousands of refugees than to kill them by slow starvation, refused definitely to agree to their removal, insisting that they were interfering with nobody’s rights. Moreover, it revived the offer regarding the transfer of allegiance. Nothing was gained by the diplomatic effort, except that Japan did not choose to push any further its claims for an indemnity and satisfaction from the Commonwealth. Meanwhile, the control of the Northern Territory waters was quite one-sided. It was absolutely preventive with regard to Australia navigation. But if the stories of naval men, since retired, can be believed at all, there is no doubt that the restrictions were merely formal as far as Japan was concerned. Steamers under the ensign of the Rising Sun were always hovering about the prohibited coast, ostensibly employed to convey stores and love-gifts from their native country to the “famishing exiles.” So much has been admitted, in fact, by members of the English Cabinet, who have stated in Parliament that out of humanitarian considerations the supply of provisions to the settlement had been permitted, because such large numbers could not support themselves in the wilderness from the outset, and because, as long as their presence was tolerated, it would have been an impossible cruelty to let them starve. Apparently the indulgence was carried to the extent that the Japanese vessels were never searched and that nobody watched their movements closely. Under the circumstances it can be imagined easily how the cunning Orientals may have taken advantage of the laxity. Not only the manifold necessaries and even luxuries of life in an uncultivated country were imported, but also arms, ammunition, more men, and lastly the women who had formed part of the original settlement in Formosa and were to bring forth shortly a new generation, heirs by birthright of the new land.
Perhaps the British Government received, about the end of July, some special information which made it desirous of exercising, after all, a closer supervision. At all events, it proposed to the Federal authorities that an Imperial garrison should be placed in the Northern Territory. At first Melbourne would not hear of this, suspecting, no doubt, that a wish to interfere with the movements of the White Guard lay at the bottom of the suggestion. Moreover, its materialization would have looked very much like the establishment of a British protectorate over a province of the Commonwealth. But time passed, and nothing became known of any brilliant achievements on the part of the White Guard. Then came the revolt of Western Australia, and the turmoil and convulsion of that great crisis seemed likely to tax the resources of the Federation to the utmost for a long period. At this juncture London renewed its proposition and undertook, in proof of its good faith, to issue a declaration to Tokio, stating that the occupation of the Japanese settlement by an Imperial garrison would be on behalf of and without prejudice to the sovereign rights of the Commonwealth. As an additional bait it was hinted that the occupation would prepare the way for a later substitution of the Federal garrison after the restoration of law and order throughout the Continent. Probably this last suggestion induced the Federal Government to consent. After some further negotiations, Great Britain gained its point. No time was lost in giving effect to the agreement.
On October 1, 1912, a force of 400 marines, drawn from Singapore, landed in Junction Bay. Two days earlier the Imperial Government had addressed the note to Tokio, which had been formulated as the prerequisite of the occupation. The advisers of the Mikado confined themselves to a courteous acknowledgement. And the Japanese settlers welcomed the garrison among great rejoicings. For nearly a week the most suspicious landmark in the wilderness was the Union Jack, which, on its pole, seemed to be their most cultivated plant. The fort in the centre of the main village was given up to the marines as barracks — the same block of buildings upon which little more than a month ago the doomed heroes of the White Guard had gazed with eyes burning and mortal hatred in their hearts. Everything was done to make the new occupants comfortable. Very soon the headmen, quiet citizens in shabby European dress as befitted honorary magistrates of a struggling community, paid calls to do homage to the English officers, for whom, afterwards, a gay round of life began. The Japanese, with childlike blandness, quickly won their hearts: what a good impression the members of the garrison gained is plainly discernible in the books and articles written by some of them.
Sport, of course, was the chief means of combating the dullness of the sojourn so far from civilization. Nearly every form of it could be had in a district abounding with animal life, some of it not altogether harmless. A coolie was told off as body-servant for each officer, and others were ready to obey their orders, happy as kings at the magnificent remuneration of a shilling per day. But the rank and file were not forgotten either. Plenty of amusements were provided for them also; they had even the advantage of their officers, for no settler would dream of expecting payment for voluntary assistance rendered. An Anglo-Japanese cricket-match was arranged and went in favour of the British, as might have been guessed. In water sports, however, the Japanese more than held their own. At one end of the capital several houses of pleasure catered for the men, at whose command was a considerable number of lubras of all ages and some Malay women. Later, several geishas lent variety to the charms. A more select establishment in another quarter was reserved for the officers.
In spite of so many diversions, the garrison found leisure to explore the district thoroughly. It had the guidance of Japanese dignitaries who explained everything. Nevertheless, in the voluminous reports of the commanding Lieutenant-Colonel not many fresh facts are brought to light. They are marvels of exactness, but their compiler did not view things with those “eyes full of suspicion” which enabled Thomas Burt to discover so many formidable defence works. The British were, and felt, safe with friends. That has to be remembered at perusal of their despatches. The breast-high ramparts behind ditches must have appeared to these observers as mere lines of demarcation, and the logs placed cunningly to provide shelter passages as trees felled for timber or firewood, for nowhere are these features alluded to as possible fortifications. Some comment, however, is made with regard to the exceeding solidness of the houses, built not of boards but of stout timber, forming the outer ring of the villages.
There is nothing but praise on the state of the cultivations and the good condition of stock. “Apart from the race question,” the Lieutenant-Colonel sums up in one report, “there can be no doubt that these industrious settlers have done a great service by their careful cultivation and methodical penetration of the wilderness.” In another one he says: “Judging from what I have seen, not only in the central settlement, but in and around the outlying villages, I must state that English colonists, working individually, could hardly have done better. Occasionally an experienced farmer might have done better in some particular, but there would not have been such systematic thoroughness. The immigrants are eager to ask advice, and now that they have become better acquainted with us, they are glad of any casual hint which helps them to improve on their work. Unfortunately,” he continues, “the poor fellows do not always seem to be sufficiently educated to grasp our meaning, and persist in going on as they did before.” The Commandant shows that he has not grasped the working of the Japanese mind nor its method of cloaking iron tenacity under bland, seemingly yielding civility, or he would not have made such a refreshingly artless remark. He mentions that a quarter of the capital was being reconstructed at the time of his arrival after having been destroyed by fire; also, that during his wanderings he came across several burnt-out villages. No doubt these were the places burnt by the White Guard. But that struggle, or any fight against white men, was never alluded to by the Japanese in the presence of the British. Probably the garrison, fresh from Singapore, had either not heard of, or paid no attention to, the rumours at this early period.
Yet one fact impressed even the unsuspecting Lieutenant-Colonel: the complete absence of any male aboriginals, while so many native women were about. Inquiries on this subject evoked a rather feeble reply on the part of the Japanese. The lubras, they said, had been sold to them by their relatives, who, however, could not immediately enjoy life on the proceeds because the supply of tobacco and liquor to the blacks was prohibited. Therefore the latter had probably departed to the vicinity of Port Darwin, where they would have better opportunities. Others had always been shy of approaching the settlements, being afraid that they would be forced to work. But these stories, no doubt, were made up. It is not difficult to imagine why the presence of the male natives must have been inconvenient to the immigrants. The fellows had seen too much and might begin to boast of it to the British as soon as they should have discovered, with natural cunning, that the white and yellow races were really opposed to each other in spite of momentary friendliness. Moreover, the blacks were no longer useful as guides, since the country had been explored thoroughly, nor as subsidiaries, now that no further attacks were apprehended. On the other hand they might have become troublesome enemies in the bush. That possibility had to be guarded against. Probably the Japanese copied the example of the White Guard and butchered the male aboriginals.
However, the British accepted the explanation of their fellow-subjects of the second degree. As was the case all through, nobody felt called upon to push independent investigations. Some exceptions to the rule, men who had grown somewhat suspicious, perhaps on account of vague tales of the lubras, were discouraged officially to pursue too far adventurous quests, which it was by no means their duty to engage in. Imperial troops had to preserve above all England’s old reputation of dealing fairly by Asiatics. A prying policy among people who showed every confidence and friendship would not have been in account with this aim. The moderation had its reward. The longer the garrison stayed the more British interests benefited, and the popularity of the Empire became even more pronounced among the brown candidates for citizenship under the Union Jack.
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909
Leave a Reply