The flutter of excitement into which the Commonwealth had been thrown by the cablegrams from Thursday Island relating to the Changsha discovery, died quickly away for want of nourishment. Thomas Burt and his friend were on the water again, bound for Brisbane. Taught by bitter experience, they had resolved not to fritter away their knowledge, but to keep their lips tightly shut until they were face to face with the Prime Minister of Australia, when they would make their great patriotic effort to gain the confidence of that statesman. Accordingly, they refused, on arrival in Brisbane, to supply information to the Press, leaving this to their fellow-passengers, who, knowing of the alleged immigration only by hearsay, preferred to confine their remarks to the wreck. The two friends continued their journey without delay by train to Sydney and Melbourne.
In this way a few more precious days were lost to the Australian people, who, in the absence of all confirmation, began to look upon the matter as a paper scare. Suspicion had always been ripe that Chinese sometimes entered the North without permission. If Japanese coolies should now have followed their example, it was plain that the thing could not go on much longer in this fashion, and that means would have to be devised to close the back-door effectually. It was the duty of Government to see to that and there was really no occasion for alarm. Such was the somnolent habit of thought of the average citizen of the Commonwealth right through the first third of the month of May, 1912, until he was broken of it by an avalanche of disquieting developments.
On May 10 the cablegrams of the morning press announced the official Japanese admission that immigration had really occurred. It caused general consternation. Nobody understood the purpose of this astounding move. While the majority maintained that the admission was a guarantee that the allied nation would assist in the withdrawal of the undesirable aliens, an influential Melbourne daily took the opposite view that nothing worse could have happened. After Japan, it argued, had formally interfered, it was sure to side with its subjects. This conflict of opinion was just arresting general attention when the two friends arrived in Melbourne and sprang their account, which left no doubt that an armed invasion had taken place, upon the already anxious continent. At last they had a full triumph of revenge. After having been slighted for so long by minor officials they were listened to by the Prime Minister of Australia. And the transparent sincerity of their forceful, concise report gained them his credence to such an extent that a summary was at once made available to the Press on behalf of the Government, thus acquiring the character of an official communication. It created an enormous impression. Within twenty-four hours there rose the cry, from the shores of the Pacific to Cape Leeuwin, that the Japanese must go, and that the insult to the Commonwealth must be atoned for. Backed up by such unanimous indignation, the Federal Government hastened to lodge a passionate complaint in London and to claim boldly the immediate employment of all the resources of the Empire in support of its cause.
The appeal reached Downing Street on the morning of May 13, the date on which the Ambassador of the Mikado chose to throw light on the situation from his point of view. It was a combination calculated to try sorely the patience of the Imperial statesmen. That an intrigue had been laid with consummate skill to shatter the anti-colour policy of the great southern dependency was plain enough. But the question before the responsible rulers of Great Britain was how far they should commit themselves in defence of principles of racial exclusiveness which were not shared by the masses in the United Kingdom. Rashness either way could only lead to disaster. For immense issues were at stake: on the one hand, the estrangement of a proud nation whose alliance was invaluable in Asia; on the other, fierce colonial resentment. British interests, paramount to all other considerations, demanded dilatory treatment of this awkward complication. Accordingly, the reply to Melbourne and the dispatches detailing the latest Japanese explanations were couched in reassuring terms implying full sympathy with Australian ideals though carefully avoiding any definite promise.
These early dispatches are remarkable for one striking omission, which illustrates better than many words could do the infinite capacity of the English Government for “riding a rail” during a grave colonial crisis. While the Ambassador’s statement of facts is repeated fully and fairly enough, no mention is made of the Mikado’s proposal regarding the transfer of allegiance. It has been attempted to justify the suppression on the ground that the offer was nebulous and that it was merely launched as a ballon d’essai. But the true reason why this suggestion was held back was certainly the fear that its introduction would have provoked the Commonwealth beyond endurance and, as far as the latter was concerned, would have put a stop to the further employment of diplomatic means there and then.
Meanwhile, the Press was used to pour oil on the troubled waters and, incidentally, to test popular feeling in Great Britain. That was decidedly in favour of Japan. No daily paper of standing in the United Kingdom had ever been critical regarding the ethics of the alliance. On the contrary, all had applauded it from the outset and a sudden somersault of any solid public organ into violent denunciation of the ally was therefore out of the question. Some fiercely Imperial sheets ventured on a gentle chiding, but on the whole the printed comments ran on calm, superior, impartial lines and it became quickly apparent that this moderation corresponded entirely with the present temper of the nation. The syndicated cable service of the great Australian dailies was conducted exclusively from London and, in consequence, reflected faithfully the sentiments prevailing there. So it was even in this case. After the first fulminations, there was a marked relaxation, and leading articles appealed to the people of the Commonwealth to curb their passions and to leave their grievances in the hands of the British Government who could be trusted to see justice done. In due course, cabled extracts of these well-intentioned exhortations found their way into the English Press which paraded them as a proof that Australia, with the exception of a few irresponsibles, was quite satisfied to accept whatever settlement the Imperial authorities should consider proper. And thus arose a misconception than which none could have been more dangerous or more fatal to Commonwealth aspirations at a time when the British mind was yet impressionable before it had settled in a definite groove.
All soporific efforts collapsed before the march of events. On May 16 astonishing news reached Melbourne by wire from Port Darwin. A Japanese deputation had arrived at the latter place consisting of three members who made a dignified entry under the folds of a Union Jack. Its mission was to pay homage to the Resident in his capacity as chief officer of the Territory. Though the reception was chilly the members did not seem to notice it. Two of them professed entire ignorance of the English language. That was another master stroke of Oriental cunning, for it left them free to spy about and to assist in every way the third colleague, the spokesman, without exposing them to the slightest risk of contradicting his statements. The spokesman, on his part, made haste to intimate that he exercised no particular authority over his comrades, and that he had not been selected for the leadership of the party by reason of his exalted station in the Japanese community, but simply because he was one of the very few who understood English. Having thus plainly defined his personal insignificance, he was by no means averse to answer questions, and his replies fitted in so closely with the official
explanations of the Ambassador that no discerning observer can doubt that both emanated from the same source. Above all, he protested against the description of his compatriots as prohibited immigrants. They knew nothing about that. Kind, wealthy men of their own race, pitying their sufferings from famine, had helped them to leave the stricken provinces. But now they had voluntarily adopted the nationality of the country which enabled them to live and were willing to defend it against all comers. To give expression to this feeling of loyalty they had travelled so far to make dutiful submission to their new rulers. Everything in connexion with their settlement, he said, was open to official inspection. He could not state the total number of refugees, as they had landed at different points and were widely dispersed. However, he thought they exceeded two thousand. He hoped that business relations would soon be established between them and Port Darwin.
Their solemn exhibition of humble loyalty was not to be its own reward. The deputation pursued more practical aims. Towards the end of the interview, the spokesman informed the Resident that he had been charged by his compatriots to solicit a special favour. It was hoped that the Government might soon see its way to open schools, in which his people could be taught the language and the customs of their adopted country, so that they might quickly become desirable citizens. All expense so incurred would be paid for in produce after the first harvest was gathered.
The Resident assigned an empty cottage for the use of his visitors-in-state and demanded instructions by wire. Late the same evening (May 16) the Federal Executive in Melbourne met in council. A great opportunity was before it, for by a rare chance the invaders had delivered themselves into its hands. Port Darwin being within jurisdiction of the Commonwealth, the whole issue was transferred from London to the Antipodes the very moment that the offenders — or some of them — came within reach of the Australian authorities. Why they should have done so voluntarily cannot be easily explained. Probably Japan tried to bluff the Federal Government into some sort of negotiations with the deputation, when it would have seized upon the slightest signs of hesitation and weakness as evidence for British consumption that Australia itself had recognized that the problem called for diplomatic treatment. If so, its deep plot miscarried, for the Federal Executive was not in the mood for trifling. Its orders to the Resident of the Northern Territory were calculated, on the contrary, to force the game against Tokio as well as against London.
Next morning the three members of the Japanese deputation were arrested on a charge of shooting at British subjects with intent to murder. Other “persons unknown” were joined under the same indictment. But it was only the beginning. Warrants were issued against these “persons unknown, of Japanese nationality, who had entered the country without permission and had murderously assaulted white men, British subjects.” It was a sweeping, skilful move which did away with the international aspect of the case, for it imputed to the refugees a common crime to be dealt with in a common court of law. A few lines from the department of Justice had made outlaws of all the invaders.
Everything depended now on the possibility of proving the charge. The Federal Attorney-General decided to supervise the proceedings personally on the spot. As a fast P. & O. mail steamer happened to be in port in Sydney, she was chartered under pressure. The Attorney-General, his staff and the witnesses for the prosecution, viz., Thomas Burt and his friend, were rushed by train overland to catch her. At top speed, the splendid liner raced to the north (May 19) and covered the distance to Port Darwin in the record time of just under six days.
Australia was wild with joy over the energetic action of the national Government. Even the great dailies, spoon-fed with Tory sentiments from London, did not care to disagree and were content with some guarded appeals for circumspection and moderation addressed to Parliament. The Continent was now looking forward to the third session of its fourth Parliament, fixed by Executive proclamation (May 18) to open on May 30, 1912.
The Imperial authorities had not apprehended such rash enterprise on the part of the Commonwealth, the limitations of which were so manifest. It possessed no navy, and speedy land communications with the tropical North were non-existent. The deputation incident could not have been foreseen, of course. Still less, that it should be thus rapidly turned to advantage in Melbourne. London resigned itself to let the case proceed on its merits. If the arrested men could be proved guilty, they would have to suffer the penalty for their crime. No civilized people could quarrel about it. Anyhow, the trial would take some time, and for this reason alone it commended itself to British caution — Japan, too, refrained from protest. Doubtless its statesmen had not counted on this development. But they could not deny the right of Australia to have recourse to law, as the alleged offence had occurred within its dominions. For once, they had played straight into the hands of their antagonists and they had now to trust to chance to regain the lead.
The trial lasted one day (May 27). The evidence of the witnesses for the prosecution was unanswerable as far as it went. But the prisoners, who pleaded not guilty, set up a stubborn negative defence. Admitting that they were armed, they stated that the disembarkment had been carried out from several steamers simultaneously, over a wide stretch of beach. They had not discharged their rifles on the morning of the landing and had not heard any shots. It was impossible to refute their denials. The white witnesses had to admit that the Japanese were distributed over a large distance and that they had probably not all taken part in the assault. Identification of the prisoners as active accessories to the crime was naturally out of the question. So the case against the three Japanese broke down and they were released.
But they were immediately re-arrested under the charge of being prohibited immigrants and promptly sentenced to gaol pending the arrival of the first boat bound for the East, in which they were to be deported. This was at best a Pyrrhic victory, for it restored the international base of the dispute. Not that Japan contested this special decision. That would merely have prejudiced its case. The three men were prohibited immigrants and had gone into a trap. As for the bulk of the new settlers, hidden away in the inaccessible bush, it was quite a different matter. First of all, it would require some effort to bring them to justice. In the enormity of that problem, Oriental cunning would have a fair field to come into play.
Though foiled in one particular, the Federal Government abated nothing of its pushfulness. A proclamation, issued (May 29) to the people of Australia and cabled to London and to the Governments of all autonomous Colonies, called attention to the fact that the Commonwealth was invaded by hordes of murderous criminals carrying arms, who had entered in defiance of the laws sanctioned by the King, and warned every good citizen of the British Empire to have nothing to do with them, but to assist the authorities in every way to punish and to expel the miscreants. Supplementing the strong language, a body of specially picked constabulary was despatched by sea to Port Darwin (May 31). It numbered only twenty-five men, for the Federal Executive, unable to put into the field at once an army strong enough to cope with several thousand armed Japanese, affected to follow the rules of ordinary police administration. Should they be defied, then the matter passed continental confines, and Greater Britain would have to enforce respect for its acknowledged methods of procedure. That, at least, was the contention of the harassed Commonwealth authorities.
Both the proclamation and the threatened resort to force were furiously denounced in the leading Tokio journals, which asserted that there was no justification for them and that the real crime of the helpless refugees was their nationality. Herein, they maintained, lay a mortal insult to the Japanese race and the Government was exhorted not to stand idly by to see violence offered to men of their own colour. Officially stony silence was kept, but nothing was done to curb the intemperance of the Press in its endeavours to rouse popular passions.
The next step of the Federal Cabinet was the publication of the full text of their cable interchanges with London, under the plea that the sovereign people were vitally interested and had a right to know the full extent of their danger. This piece of strategy was contrary to diplomatic traditions and certain to hurt Imperial susceptibilities. Its result, as intended, was a startling convulsion of Australian and Colonial sentiment, leaving no doubt that the Commonwealth was wedded to the principle of a White Continent and would not tolerate any leader who did not champion it against all odds. That manifestation was of the highest value to the Ministry at this moment for Parliamentary reasons. It proved that the continuation of aggressive policy was the will of the people. And the Opposition would have to conform to it when it came to deal with the bold measures which the Government was formulating.
This memorable session opened on May 30.
C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909
ballon d’essai = (French) trial balloon; to initiate a policy or project on a trial basis to gauge its effects
[Editor: Corrected “dutiul submission” to “dutiful submission”.]