[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]
Lady Baggs gives a dinner.
Sir John Baggs was both an ex-Cabinet Minister and a member of the existing Parliament, and Lady Baggs was his wife. Sometimes, possibly, he wished she was not; but, then, wives are more difficult to drop than most other early associations. Not that her ladyship had not risen to the occasion. In point of fact, her expansion had been phenomenal. Perhaps the fact that she had seen so much of them in her young days had disgusted her with the ‘lower orders’; but be that as it may, her ladyship’s arrogance to the creatures who remained creatures was now only exceeded by her affability towards the creatures who, like herself, had become plutocrats. This was occasionally a little embarrassing for Sir John, as the masses managed to retain their memories, which did not matter, and occasionally voted accordingly, which did. In one respect, however, his wife was a distinct advance on the member for Frog’s Hole. Being a woman, she had adapted herself to her new surroundings, and, so far as the conventionalities were concerned, passed muster as a lady, until one got to know her. Sir John, on the other hand, in the first five minutes told you he was a self-made man, and in the next ten made you wish to Heaven he had failed to create himself.
The arrival in Sydney of Sir Peter McLoskie, Premier of Queensland and high-priest of land-grant railways and cheap alien labour, had suggested to Lady Baggs the idea of showing off her husband’s costly steam-yacht by means of a water-party.
Sir John, being largely interested in sugar-plantations, and consequently a warm admirer of the Northern Premier, gladly fell in with the project. In his eyes Sir Peter was a veritable champion, fighting for law and order as against anarchy and the annihilation of the sacred bulwarks of ‘vested rights.’ For Australia was practically divided into two hostile factions, one of which denominated itself Capital, the other Labour. One, because it possessed money, assumed that the national prosperity depended solely on its absolute ascendancy. The other, because it dug and delved, held as illogically that it alone possessed the right of shaping the nation’s destinies. Distinct from, and disregarded by, both these opposing forces stood a vast number of people who, in the popular sense, were neither capitalists nor yet labourers. These, because they refused to admit that either of the above classes were of necessity the salt of the earth, were scorned by both. But for some inexplicable reason, while viewing with suspicion the blatant advocates both of capital and labour, this vast section, representing the real intellectual and creating power of Australasia, sat idly by, allowing itself in turn to be made the cat’s-paw of both parties.
For the present Capital was in the ascendant. Labour, torn by a thousand petty jealousies, and led by men either wanting in administrative ability or unable to hold the confidence of the heterogeneous masses under their command, had hurled itself against the solid phalanx of wealth, only to fall back broken and more disunited than before. The silent despot, pitiless and strong enough to lead alone, and untrammelled by the interference of petty agitators, had not as yet arisen, and so labour shouted its empty threats and shook its nerveless fists, and capital occupied both its wind and its hands in building up stronger barriers against the day of wrath. As a skilled engineer in this work of fortification Sir Peter McLoskie stood alone.
So the water-party was to take the form of a welcome, and to lend to it extra significance, the Premier, the leader of the Opposition, and other prominent social and political lights, among them Count Zenski and Dromeroff, were invited.
The lunch, served in the luxurious if somewhat floridly-decorated saloon of the Aphrodite, was worthy of its givers. As Zenski muttered to his neighbour, ‘Who better should be able to create dishes than a one-time cook?’
Edith chanced to have Sir Robert Blake for a companion. Usually a delightful raconteur, he to-day started off on his favourite hobby, Russian aggression.
‘I assure you, we may see them at any moment,’ said he impressively.
‘How delightful!’ replied his listener cheerfully. ‘I suppose, if they do come, furs will be all the rage; and they are so becoming, you know, Sir Robert.’
‘You might find the Bear’s claw less comforting than his fur, young lady,’ retorted the leader of the Opposition, and then he changed the subject.
On one side of Heather sat Dromeroff, on the other the Minister for War. As McFee found it difficult to talk and eat at the same time, he invariably devoted himself to the more practical exercise. Thus the girl found herself given over to the Russian.
Unlike Zenski, Dromeroff, if cynical, seldom let his cynicism be seen, and, being a soldier, never neglected an opportunity of making himself agreeable to a pretty woman. As he had been everywhere, Heather soon found that many spots in the older world were known to them both. Still haunted by the idea that the man had possibly met her lover, the girl felt a singular interest in speaking to him, hoping that he might at any moment tell her something of the story her soul hungered to hear.
On the right of the host sat Sir Peter McLoskie. Stout and somewhat bloated, his face exhibited in a marked degree the characteristics both of command and fixity of purpose. It was the face of a strong man, one who to gain his ends would sacrifice much, possibly even that strange, impalpable thing called honour. At one period of his career he, like Sir Robert Blake, had posed as a Republican. Visionaries spoke of him as the possible president of a United Australia. But that was long ago. To-day he was Dictator of Queensland, and head and front of a powerful oligarchy, whose plantations covered the North, whose railways shot their snake-like arms far into the interior, and whose cheap alien labour created dividends unknown in the days when a white population existed. He was working out his destiny. Figs do not grow on thistles, neither could the cap of the Republican long sit on a head that might have belonged to a Roman Emperor. He was now expatiating to Sir John on the beauties of his policy.
‘Socialism and anarchy are dead,’ said he; ‘the unions crushed, and, thank God, we have won back the confidence of the foreign capitalists. Trade was never so flourishing, for, through our introduction of cheap labour, the plantations have at last been made to pay.’
‘I am aware of it, my dear sir,’ interposed Sir John enviously. ‘Here we are blocked at hevery turn. Last session my Bill to enable the Government to dispose of our existing railways, and so pay off our national debt, was thrown out on the second reading by a majority of ten!’
‘Surely that was bad generalship?’
‘But, my dear sir,’ protested Baggs, ‘we couldn’t persuade everybody.’
‘We did. You remember the fuss there was about our Land-grant Railway Bill?’
Sir John nodded.
‘It was a big fight, but we won. Every man with a stake in the country fought nobly for us; and what is the result?’ asked McLoskie proudly.
‘Well, what is it?’ queried a Queenslander, who, though a friend, was politically opposed to the Premier.
‘It is this,’ answered McLoskie, glaring at his questioner: ‘ We have hundreds of miles of railway constructed for nothing, and, thanks to the introduction of coolies, the labour unions are crushed, while the profits from the sugar, coffee, and cattle properties are enormous.’
‘And who gets them?’ asked the Queenslander dubiously.
‘The capitalists, of course — the men who make a country.’
‘And live out of it.’
Ignoring the remark, McLoskie went on:
‘You should be the last to grumble, considering the market we have opened up with the East for the Northern cattle.’
‘I prefer not to be living in a suburb of Canton, all the same,’ muttered the Northern man, one of the few left who could call his station and his soul his own.
‘Isn’t it possible to overdo this question?’ asked Sir Robert Blake. ‘Clearly understand that I merely ask for information. I am sure you know me well enough to acquit me of all sympathy with unionism.’
‘My dear Sir Robert,’ answered McLoskie, ‘practically it is only in its infancy. Of its beneficial results you can already judge. Eventually all Northern Australia must adopt our method. As you know, it is already in full force in that part of the Northern territory lately sold to England.’
‘With what result?’
‘A magnificent one. There, under the old system, a territory as big as Spain, France, and Great Britain, watered near the coast by navigable rivers, and in many parts splendidly fertile, remained a waste, simply because white labour refused to work it at a price which would leave a margin of profit.’
‘I always understood the climate was the great difficulty?’ hazarded a sporting doctor.
‘It doesn’t trouble the Chinaman, apparently,’ grinned McLoskie. ‘The whole country has been taken up by English and other capitalists, and Kalmuck stockmen and coolie plantation hands are working it for them. They only want our friend to build them a few railways,’ added the Premier, ‘to make it as big a paradise as our own Gulf country.’
‘I am always at the service of the Australians,’ replied Zenski politely, ‘in particular at that of Sir Peter McLoskie.’
‘I hope your company will reap as rich a harvest as their enterprise deserves, Count,’ said the Premier.
‘Be at rest,’ replied the Russian. ‘I feel certain that before long our traffic will increase amazingly.’
‘Is there no danger of these aliens becoming a menace to the whole of the colonies?’ asked the doctor who had before spoken.
‘Bah! they are slaves,’ exclaimed Zenski. ‘ A crack of the whip will always frighten beasts of burden.’
‘The Count is right,’ added McLoskie. ‘From them there is nothing to fear; their natural position is in the North. If they are a menace at all it is to the unions, and if for that alone we must retain them. Once let the coolies go, and good-bye for ever to commercial prosperity.’
‘You are right, Sir Peter,’ said Zenski. ‘And what, after all, is the discontent of a few canaille as compared with the vast industries and vested rights you are fostering?’
‘While I am quite with you, McLoskie, with regard to coloured labour for the plantations,’ remarked the New South Wales Premier, a handsome, somewhat Jewish type of man, noted alike for his opposition to the new unionism and for possessing the courage of his opinions, ‘still, there is no hiding the fact that your confounded Chinamen are spreading all over the Southern colonies. Personally I can see little to choose between the two classes of labour.’
‘Then why trouble, my friend?’ interposed Zenski. ‘The Chinaman is cheaper and will obey; what more do you want?’
‘Nothing from that standpoint, Count,’ retorted the Hon. Henry Lewis; ‘but while I am determined that this colony is not to be ruled by labour leaders, I am just as certain that the people will not tolerate its becoming a Chinese camp, and I am with them so far.’
‘Then we must have federation,’ suggested the sporting doctor, who was a bit of a humorist in his way.
For a moment there was a silence, such as falls when a crime is referred to in the presence of the perpetrators.
‘I observe, gentlemen,’ said Sir John Baggs, ‘that our political discussion has driven the ladies on deck. I propose that we follow them.’
As Sir John had said, the ladies, and, indeed, most of the men, had silently stolen away, and now the small group who remained rose to follow.
‘But what about federation, Baggs?’ persisted the doctor as they reached the deck.
‘Federation is in the hair, doctor,’ replied the ex-Minister solemnly.
Graceful as a sea-bird, the sharp-prowed pleasure-boat moved on down the winding river. They had lunched in one of the inlets above the Brothers, and now steamed homeward past the broken column which rises out of the water, whose rippling waves have known the swift, strong sweep of many a stout-armed oarsman. Now the white monument of the dead and forgotten champion fades scarce swifter than his fame, and they are moving on with gardened villas on either shore.
As the Aphrodite swung round Dawes Point, a Government launch ran alongside.
‘A message for the Premier!’ shouted a man standing in her stern.
Lying to for a moment, the yacht again steamed on towards the Governor’s stairs. Tearing open the envelope, the Hon. Henry Lewis glanced at its contents. On the deck the conversation had ceased. All felt that some strange, possibly fateful thing had happened.
Holding up his hand, the head of the Government read slowly:
‘Can Australia supply 5,000 men if needed?’
‘Viceroy of India.’
For a moment no one spoke. Then the Premier said, glancing at the leader of the Opposition:
‘What do you think?’
‘Think!’ exclaimed Sir Robert Blake. ‘Act, man! — cable back “Yes.”’
‘Gentlemen,’ said Zenski, ‘although not of your blood, permit me to call for three cheers for the flag of the free!’
Moved by a common impulse, they cheered till the stevedores on the ships ran to the bulwarks and the men in the boats around them lay on their oars. Then, led by Sir Robert, they sang the national anthem, and the sailors on the warships took it up, and the people on the shore carried it on.
So on sea and land his subjects shouted, ‘God save the King!’ Why, few of them knew, and less of them cared.
‘Will they be fools enough to do it?’ whispered Dromeroff amid the din.
‘Why not?’ replied Zenski. ‘They suspect nothing, and if they did, pardieu, these democrats would sell their souls for a star.’
Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 111-120