Black Christmas — Peace on Earth, but no great joy for Australia
In the afternoon of December 16, London time — two days after the massacre of the Federal garrison therefore — the Japanese Ambassador to the Court of St. James informed the British Government of the unfortunate occurrence. This was perhaps the most remarkable proof of the wonderful organization which enabled the invaders to flash wireless messages to Tokio within a few hours. That this method of communication existed was no longer a secret, because the quick response of the Japanese Press to the alleged oppression of the settlers by the Commonwealth Commander could only be explained in this way. The Ambassador was very suave on this occasion, as usual. He said that the dreaded clash between the tyrannical Federal garrison and the harassed refugees had at last come to pass. As far as he knew the blame rested with the Australians, who had presumed to maltreat several of his former compatriots under the pretext of a crime which without any doubt was no crime, but an accident, and any connexion with which, moreover, had not been proved against the hapless victims. Nevertheless, he was charged to express the sincere regrets of the Mikado and his advisers for the lamentable affair, which had resulted in the death of about a score of white soldiers, while the losses of the settlers were even larger. His Government must reserve the right to lodge reasonable claims against the Commonwealth on behalf of the refugees, since the latter, to the sorrow of every one of them, had not yet been admitted to British citizenship. At the same time he could assure the allied nation that Japan felt no resentment against individuals who, of course, had to obey orders, and was willing to consider favourably any suggestion of a compensation to the wounded and to the near relations of the dead, provided guarantees were given that the conditions, which had led up to the climax and were the cause of the proposed monetary sacrifice, could not recur.
But what the diplomat left unmentioned the Tokio Press boldly spoke out. The papers, which had already made furious comments about the jetty quarrel, now called distinctly for war against Australia, even against the Empire. With regard to the latter case, they indulged in some exquisite contortions for the purpose of conveying the impression that they could not contemplate or even talk about such a possibility without pangs of acute suffering. “Every one in this country is proud of our alliance with the Mistress of the Seas,” one journal wrote, “and every one desires to be loyal to her. These feelings are reciprocated by the people of Great Britain, as we know. But Britain is merely part of a whole, and if we may believe the clamours of other portions of her Empire she is a part rapidly diminishing in importance. We have to consider those others. The loudest among them at present is Australia. Who are the Australians? They are the men who have owned a Continent for a century and imagine that a handful of them have a better right to it than hundreds of millions of our race. They are the men who could not hold it for an hour against our will by their own strength. Yet they think that they may oppress a small number of our starved compatriots. They defy us daily. They insult us daily. By God, we shall end this shameful thing. If England can be ordered about by such people, she can be our friend no longer. We are all very sorry that our honourable friendship should terminate for such a paltry reason. But it is not our fault. Honour commands us to make war on Australia. Let us do so, and then we shall see. Let us make war against every one who helps Australia. They say England will have to help her. If so, we may be beaten. We are not afraid to face our fate and may admit at once, therefore, that according to all human calculation of probable events we shall be beaten by mighty England. That will not be a dishonour. The sons of Day Nippon do not quarrel with the inevitable. But do not let us drift into war. If Great Britain wants to fight us, not because of her own grievances, which do not exist, but because she has no will apart from the other portions of the Empire, well, let us strike the first blow with all our power, with all our heart.”
Other papers wrote in a similar strain. Moreover, Tokio gave an exhibition of its dreaded public opinion in another form. Crowds gathered in its streets and listened to popular orators denouncing the Commonwealth. Afterwards there were some riotous demonstrations. The Japanese Government did not forget to point to this occurrence as an expression of the will of the people. But another little incident had a far deeper effect on the temper of the British masses. It was reported by cable to the English Press that on December 18 a Japanese squadron, composed of three battleships of the Dreadnought type and two enormous cruisers, had paid a friendly visit at Weihawai, the British station at the entrance of the Gulf of Pechili. The same issue of the London morning papers which brought this item contained also a summary of the first Federal statement and protest to the Imperial authorities about the Northern Territory affair, which was described tersely and correctly as a massacre.
And that afternoon (December 19) the Japanese Ambassador demanded boldly an official apology on the part of the Commonwealth for the flogging of the eleven prisoners. He insisted that there was no justification for the punishment, because the offence of which these men had been accused, even supposing that they had been guilty of it, was not one for which flogging was resorted to in civilized communities. It was an outrage, an incitement to bloodshed, and his nation was proud of the fact that it had been revenged instantly. But that was not enough. Japan, as the representative of the Asiatic races against which this foul insult had been levelled, regretted the necessity of having to ask its ally to exact satisfaction from the latter’s dependency. This request was the crowning mercy of the record-breaking Far Eastern diplomacy. It did not only compel the Imperial authorities to take sides at once, but it determined the choice for them. The British people would never tolerate Ministers who shielded floggers. Everybody knows to-day, of course, that Colonel Ireton’s method of dealing with cowardly assassins erred rather in the direction of leniency. But if he had shot the male-factors, he would have had a better chance with the well-meaning, but insularly narrow-minded humanitarians who rule the Empire in the last instance and who have an inherited horror of corporeal chastisement.
That very influential section of the English Press which preaches Imperialism from a capitalistic point of view, and which would have smiled at the flogging of Asiatics if it had happened in India or in some other colony with approved conservative principles, had nothing to say to the Commonwealth. It did not even wax furious any more about the legislation passed by the Federal Parliament. Its readers, the wealthy classes of the United Kingdom and their hangers-on, had become resigned to the thought that Communism — as they termed it — must run its full course in Australia. They were no longer alarmed at any particular manifestations of those tendencies. In fact, they took such a hopeless view of Australian affairs that they were surprised at a state of mind which denotes the death of all sympathy. And their papers reflected the apathy and were only strong on one point: that the helpless and demoralized Commonwealth was now less than ever worth the risk of exposing the Heart of the Empire to danger.
The great hope of the Australian people, overwhelmed with so many internal difficulties and stupefied by this new terrible blow, was a resurrection of sentiment in the sister dominions. If anything was able to fan into flame again the hatred of coloured races, it was surely an affront directed against a section of the Imperial defence forces. But the autonomous colonies were as tired of the interminable Northern Territory deadlock as the mother country. Before it was finally settled, London refused to lift colonial securities out of the slough of despondency or to find fresh funds, which were required most urgently. The ordinary citizens of those far-away dependencies did not understand the causes which compelled the Australians to hang back from the enemy, instead of rushing at him in the good old British style. They would have joined gladly in a willing, closely contested war. This melancholy stagnation, however, proved too much for them.
Already in the evening of December 16 the Imperial authorities had preferred a peremptory demand that the Commonwealth should place the Northern Territory into their hands. The Federal Government, in its turn, asked for guarantees that the principle of the White Continent would be upheld. Its action was applauded by the whole nation. On December 19 Great Britain proclaimed a blockade of the whole Australian coast. Probably this step had been contemplated for some weeks, as the vessels of the Australian squadron, which were usually concentrated at Sydney, had been distributed among the capital ports about a fortnight ago. Now the men-of-war left the harbours and stationed themselves off the heads of the ports of Brisbane, Newcastle, Sydney, Melbourne and Freemantle. Two gunboats cruised off Adelaide. No merchant ships were allowed to pass in or out. Never had a blockade been rendered more easily efficient. There was a subtle irony in it, too: Australia’s subsidized navy was employed to coerce Australia.
The blockade created consternation in the ranks of the Extremists. It interrupted completely connexion with Western Australia, Tasmania and Northern Queensland. If it should last for some time, old separatist hopes might be revived. Moreover, the construction of the transcontinental railway to Port Darwin, which was wholly dependent on imports for its materials, would have to be stopped. On the other hand the Imperial statesmen, who had taken this desperate step, were secretly at least as anxious as the Federal politicians to terminate the blockade, which arrested absolutely the circulation of produce and was sure to bring about the entire economic ruin of the Commonwealth within a few weeks. Great Britain feared one thing — the repudiation of the public debt by Australia. There was really little danger of it as long as any other chance remained of restoring the fortunes of the community. For even the most resolute Extremists, while impatient of personal privilege and private monopoly, were too patriotic to contemplate calmly the disgrace which the disavowment of obligations entered into voluntarily would bring upon the nation. But a prolonged blockade might force the Continent into bankruptcy.
Under the circumstances it was natural that cable-grams were exchanged unceasingly between London and Melbourne. About noon on Christmas Eve it became known that a preliminary understanding had been arrived at and that the blockade was ended. That Christmas will never be forgotten in Australia. It was Black Christmas: Christmas of desolation. The open country was in the throes of a silent, merciless struggle. The harvest was in danger of being spoilt. Desperate landholders and farmers stopped short at nothing which would give them labour to prevent further damage. Men were hunted, trapped and, if they resisted, even killed like vermin. In retribution, many a fine homestead, many a grand wheat paddock blazed to the sky. In the big cities, people were hardly yet realizing the state of the interior. Still a few precursory murmurs made themselves heard already. Soon they were destined to swell into another wild street roar of sympathy with the oppressed toilers, which would drown all excuses, every plea of necessity by the owners of the soil, and would precipate the whole vexed, vital land problem for settlement by popular fury, suspicion and resentment. Buildings and streets, damaged in the riots, had fallen into disrepair. Many citizens, wealthy or well-to-do a short year ago, were beggared. Others, less unfortunate, did nevertheless feel beggared by comparison with their former standing. The principal financial institutions survived only by reason of protective Parliamentary enactments. The rate of unemployment was frightful. A majority of townspeople seemed to depend on casual jobs for a livelihood. And all over the Continent there remained hardly a family which did not mourn the recent death of some dear member killed in the wars, the riots, by disease, famine, or by some other horror for which the great crisis was responsible.
After the preliminary understanding had been announced, several weeks passed during which negotiations were carried on between London and Tokio, and between London and Melbourne. The final agreement was published on February 26, 1913, and contains the following clauses:
1. The Commonwealth cedes part of the Northern Territory to Great Britain, viz., the district between Alligator River west and the Gulf of Carpentaria east, and between the Roper River south and the sea to the north, including Coburg Peninsula and all the islands within the limit of 50 miles from the main land, but with the exception of all islands in Van Diemen’s Gulf and also of Groote Eylandt on condition that Great Britain guarantees never to cede this territory to any Foreign Power.
2. The Commonwealth has no voice in the Government of the ceded territory, but if Great Britain should desire at any time to retire from the possession the Commonwealth is to have first option of requirement, before a separate State or Colony may be formed of it. The retirement of Great Britain shall not be permissible before the year 1940.
3. Great Britain pays to the Commonwealth £10,000,000 in consideration of this cession and will guarantee another Commonwealth loan of £8,000,000 extended over five years. The influence of the Imperial Government will also be used to facilitate the renewal of Australian loans falling due within the next five years.
4. Great Britain recognizes the right of the Commonwealth to exclude coloured races from its own territory.
5. The laws passed by the Federal Parliament, which have not yet received the formal Royal assent, are to be submitted to a referendum of the people, and such as may be accepted by a simple majority will then receive the Royal assent.
6. Great Britain acknowledges the Federal High Court to be in future the last instance in all civil disputes within the Commonwealth.
The White Continent was now a memory of the past. But the White Commonwealth had at last become an acknowledged reality. In spite of its failure the defence of the greater ideal was not without beneficial results. Its very violence had destroyed the causes which underlay the failure and what had been saved had at least been saved on basic conditions which made the recurrence of former mistakes and sins impossible. Above all, a long peace was wanted now. Australia required immigrants, time to recover breath, leisure to work out its destiny along the track blazed in the Terrible Year. Therefore a practically unanimous Parliament accepted the agreement against the chief principle of which it had waged heroic war in vain.
It is impossible to review here the aftermath of the Commonwealth crisis — the prolonged economic convulsions, the agrarian excesses, and the slow, painful recovery. Suffice it to say that few outward traces of the national collapse remain to-day (1922). A rarely interrupted succession of good seasons has brought into full play the marvellous fertility of the soil. Again wealth is increasing, though the financial burdens incurred in consequence of the Japanese invasion are pressing heavily. The transcontinental railway to Port Darwin has been completed and is now being linked up with the Eastern lines.
A great deal depends on successful white settlement in the North. So far little has been achieved; perhaps the time has been too short. But it is the problem which in vital importance overshadows all others. For the alienated extreme Northern corner — Australia Irredenta — is flourishing with a hostile civilization. Under lenient British rule a new Japanese empire is in the making. Already it is said to contain, if the second generation is counted in, an Asiatic population of 200,000 souls. It is constructing railways and ports. A truce has been cried until 1940 A.D. Till then the Commonwealth must get ready for its relentless march to the North to save the purity of the race by sweeping the brown invaders back over the coral sea. The alternative is the irretrievable conquest of tropical Australia by the hordes of the Orient. In this struggle the still larger issue is bound up whether the White or the Yellow Race shall gain final supremacy. Christian civilization cannot afford the loss of this Continent, FOR AUSTRALIA IS THE PRECIOUS FRONT BUCKLE IN THE WHITE GIRDLE OF POWER AND PROGRESS ENCIRCLING THE GLOBE.
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909
irredenta = a region which is ethnically or historically related to one nation but is under the political control of a different nation