The Japanese colony in the Northern Territory had been successfully founded. Of its first period of existence and growth no official information has yet become available. It seems that during the few days that followed the landing of the men, stores and stock were discharged in large quantities, and that the fleet then withdrew discreetly, leaving the new settlers to themselves. Since white men had witnessed the invasion, contrary to calculation, and therefore inquiries might soon be instituted, that step was natural. Most likely, as a further precaution against too early detection, the new colonists left the coast altogether and proceeded some miles into the interior, burning the bush behind, so that every vestige of its presence should be wiped out. That, at least, is the only explanation for the negative results of the search from Port Darwin.
Meanwhile Tokio, silent and alert, awaited developments. The triumph of its policy depended on delay. Its subjects were all the time establishing a moral claim and demonstrating their peaceful intentions by patiently cultivating the wilderness. Given two or three months of quiet possession, such marvellous progress would be achieved as would touch the great heart of the British people, provided that it was skilfully and gradually prepared for the revelation. The Japanese statesmen had studied their problem well. Australia was merely a pawn in the game, not a player. Everything turned on the reception which the bold move would have in the United Kingdom. If it was there accepted as a challenge, then indeed a crisis would be precipitated. This was exactly the danger which had to be guarded against; a sudden explosion of British national pride, which would vent itself in the peremptory cry, “Hands off.” After that, submission or armed resistance would have been the only alternatives. Perhaps it would not be safe to assert that Japan would not have gone to war under any circumstances; that pushful Power owed its phenomenal rise mainly to its courage in facing the worst and to its infinite capacity in preparing for it. But Japan did not seriously contemplate war. Its rulers relied on their ability to convince the English masses of the harmlessness of the immigration, and to persuade them that the new citizens of their Empire were not standard bearers of militant conquest, but of patient civilization. None knew better that British sentimentality and the White Australian ideal had nothing in common.
Fortune favours the bold. The white witnesses of the landing failed in their warnings. April passed without alarm, and it was only in May that the cablegrams as to the discovery of the mysterious wreck by ss. Changsha, sent the first quivers of vague fear through the Commonwealth. There was really nothing definite about it, as not even the nationality of the wreck was known. Nevertheless, the Federal Government decided to place the facts before the Imperial authorities, together with a report of the Port Darwin rumours. This evoked nothing beyond a formal acknowledgment, and then, it seems, the matter was in the best way of being forgotten.
Several days later, however, the Japanese Ambassador became communicative. Probably Tokio considered that secrecy could not be maintained much longer, and that a voluntary statement, as an act of courtesy to an ally, would serve its ends best. Accordingly, the Japanese Ambassador informed the British Cabinet that the Japanese Consuls in Australia had drawn the attention of his Government to some rumours current there. His Government had pursued inquiries, and it had been ascertained that, in fact, a number of Japanese had entered the Northern Territory. His superiors regretted the occurrence and must decline responsibility, as they had been kept in absolute ignorance. It appeared that a committee of private philanthropists had been formed for the purpose of relieving the chronic famine by removing sufferers from the congested districts, and in its eagerness it had shipped some to the wastes of the Australian North, where it was understood they would prejudice no previous title, as the Territory carried no settled population. His Government apologized that it had failed to control private efforts properly so that no overflow into the possessions of its ally could have happened. No trouble would be spared to get at the exact facts, which would occupy some time. Great Britain would be kept fully informed, and early consideration would be extended to the question of how best to make amends.
The right cord had been struck. A powerful appeal had been made to the sentiment of the average Englishman, while simultaneously his patriotic conceits were flattered. Famished people, frantic but generous measures to help them, and a strong Government expressing sorrow for any breach of proprieties which might have been committed — to turn the scales against such facts would require a strong case indeed. Of course, the explanations and assurances proffered could be read in many ways. But British Ministers chose to take the most cheerful view; their despatches to the Commonwealth reflected it, and consequently had a soothing influence, implying, as they undoubtedly did, that not the slightest misgivings existed regarding a speedy, satisfactory settlement.
Some critics in the Empire were not so easily quieted, and the central authorities might have come in for scathing condemnation if a more convenient scapegoat had not offered in the person of the British Ambassador at Tokio. It was indeed unpardonable that he had not had the slightest inkling of events happening under his very nose, according to the Japanese version. Yet something can be said in excuse. In Tokio the high game of world-politics was, and is, played at such a pace that it strained every nerve of the accredited diplomats. The significance of incidents of local import escaped them in this whirlpool of excitement. Perhaps the one who least troubled about them was the Imperial representative, resting secure on the loyalty of an ally. Nobody was more surprised than the dignitary himself when he received rather curt orders to investigate the matter on his part. But he was able to elucidate very little beyond what had been voluntarily disclosed. The committee of philanthropists existed, though he was sceptical about the accuracy of the date of its constitution; and its members acknowledged their full and sole responsibility for chartering and employing several steamers for the transport of starving emigrants to the Northern Territory. They also expressed hopes that they might be permitted to ship Japanese women to join the settlers, so that “the stain of immorality might be kept from Australia.”
This last intimation alarmed the Imperial Government. It looked like an inspired indiscretion, revealing that some definite plan had been formed; for had the Japanese ever been indiscreet except for a purpose? Henceforth the incident was regarded as serious. When the Ambassador of the Mikado notified his readiness to supply more details (May 13), he was subjected to searching examination. What London wanted to know was why, under any circumstances, the Northern Territory should have been selected as a dumping ground, while the large dependencies acquired in the last campaign were only half filled, and should, therefore, offer scope to private enterprise quite apart from official policy. Was there not enough room for both?
But the Ambassador pleaded impossibility. Those provinces, he said, were reserved to State control. The Japanizing process was being pushed on there with utmost energy, if only for strategic and economic reasons. It could not be accelerated further. What must not be forgotten was that famine conditions prevailed to a large extent on the continent, not only in China, as was well known, but also in Manchuria, and even in Korea. So the syndicate of philanthropists had endeavoured to open new avenues of relief.
This explanation was plain enough; yet it was merely the prelude to straighter talk. Apparently the Japanese Government recognized that delay and vagueness had been worked for all they were worth. Bold bluff now took their place. The ally was overwhelmed with a veritable deluge of frankness.
A point, the Ambassador said, which his Government desired to make clear was its non-interference with private citizens in the organization and execution of such a great enterprise. The fact was that, in his country, everything in which the Government of the day participated became a party issue. Political rivalries were so bitter that it might be truthfully said that even the famine was blamed on to the party in power. As no responsible Minister wished to prejudice private charity in the eyes of public opponents, they were compelled to take no notice whatever of these humanitarian efforts either one way or another.
The Ambassador was now in a position to state that some thousand Japanese had been landed in the Northern Territory about half way between Port Darwin and the Gulf of Carpentaria. They were all able-bodied men; sick or old people had been rigorously excluded. As yet no women had been sent; the health, intelligence, and general usefulness of the emigrants were such as would make them desirable workers anywhere. Why had they been disembarked many hundred miles from places where employment was probable, if they were such willing labourers? Why was a secrecy maintained which justified suspicions that the real object of the enterprise was seizure of the land? His Government admitted that the committee of philanthropists must have lost their heads to act as they did. It considered that they went practically mad, face to face with huge numbers of starving compatriots, who were doomed to hunger for want of an outlet, while yet uninhabited stretches of fertile country were only a few days’ sail away. Should they obey restrictive laws which condemned them to inhumanity against kith and kin? Or should they help their people if it could be done without violating openly those harsh laws? As for the seizure of land, that was hardly the correct expression, because there was nobody from whom it could be taken. If consular reports were not mistaken, it was free to the landless, even in the settled parts of Australia, to raise and to harvest a crop on unused Crown lands. That was exactly what the famishing refugees did. They were raising crops on unused Crown lands, and did not claim the proprietorship of an acre. What they claimed was the right to keep alive in a district where they competed against no one and infringed on no vested interests. Surely no objections should stand against the dictates of common humanity.
The British Foreign Secretary replied that no doubt humanitarian draperies were convenient garments at times. Nothing could do away with the fact that here they had a large organized force virtually taking possession of country which had been under the British flag well nigh a century. It appeared that peaceable white men had been pursued and fired at. There was not much meekness in that; much more did it look like a criminal attempt to exclude all others.
But the Ambassador protested blandly that his Government knew nothing of blunders which the Japanese exiles might have committed. No means of communication with them existed. Whatever might be their sins, or crimes, there was no thought of sheltering the culprits. Let them be brought to law and be adequately punished. However, matters might not be so bad. Some excuse might be found for slight excesses. The refugees were in strange surroundings, and therefore liable to sudden panic. Perhaps, under the influence of some unaccountable excitement, they used their rifles unadvisedly. That phase would soon pass. Then the immigrants were all armed? Why, naturally. Official immigrants, as well as committees organizing private emigration, were supplied with discarded service rifles. In Korea and Manchuria that was absolutely necessary for the safety of the settlers. And the Northern Territory contained much game which, it was hoped, would help to carry the colonists over the worst until the first crops would be harvested.
He became stern then. “There are also,” he continued, “lawless characters in every country, particularly in borderlands of civilization. To be perfectly frank, it is not the intention of my Government to allow its long-suffering subjects to become the victims of such. It would have been more in keeping with the traditions of my race to let them perish at home, if they are to perish. But we are no longer fatalists.”
Perhaps the Ambassador overstepped his mark in conveying a hint of such directness. But he wound up his explanations in the approved style of guarded diplomacy. His Government, he stated, declined to discuss British supremacy over the Northern Territory, because it must regard the mere raising of that issue as an insult to Great Britain. On the contrary, Japan, true to its alliance, was ready to employ all its naval and military forces against any nation which should dare to challenge that supremacy, Moreover, in proof of its own loyalty, it was willing to waive all claims to the future allegiance of its emigrants to Australia. No refugee had a brighter hope, or a desire more sincere than to be allowed to live and die a faithful subject under the British flag, which to his race was the emblem of justice. Just as in the Straits Settlements the Chinese were made welcome and soon yielded to none in fealty, so nothing better was asked by his compatriots. It was quite true that his Government pleaded that mercy be extended to starving exiles, but it had no sinister motives. In fact, as soon as the Imperial authorities had made known their will and taken the immigrants under their protection, the Mikado would be glad to issue a solemn proclamation, releasing all Japanese settlers in the Northern Territory from their dutiful obedience, and commanding them to be loyal subjects of the King.
That was the parting shot aimed straight at the White Heart of Australia.
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909