Rwanda reliant on new colonial master China

Rwanda and China's fate may become inextricably linked in the coming years.
Rwanda and China’s fate may become inextricably linked in the coming years.

I watched Hotel Rwanda on television last night for the first time since I saw it at the cinema when it came out in early 2005.  It’s a fine film, not among the greats, but it is honest, tells an important story and it played a crucial role in my personal political awakening. Hotel Rwanda tells the story of the 1994 Rwandan genocide from the point of view of Paul Rusesabagina, manager of the international Hotel des Milles Collines in the capital Kigali. The hotel became a sanctuary for hundreds of people, as all around them Hutu militia rampaged on their genocidal mass slaughter of Tutsi people.

As good as the film was, I remember being left unsatisfied as it did not answer the question as to how, in my lifetime, up to a million people could be murdered purely on the basis of a national characteristic. I thought this was something that happened in cruel times of the past, not in our enlightened era. I was 30 years old when the massacres happened, naive, and living an undisturbed life far away in Australia. I remembered the Edmund Burke phrase that all it takes for evil to thrive is for good people to do nothing. Was I somehow to blame, blissfully ignorant of the causes? How could this happen in the 1990s? What did I know about Rwanda, and Africa more generally? I decided to find out.

That Easter 2005 I was supposed to go away on a four-day long weekend, but for whatever reason the plan fell through. Instead I printed off the 900-page Human Rights Watch report “Leave none to tell the story” and stayed at home riveted to the heartbreaking conclusions on every page. When explained, Rwanda’s genocide was even more baffling than ever, the result of a bogus and arbitrary division of people, African warring, European meddling, and lack of American intervention at the most important time. Worse still, the causes remained uncured and the possibility of it happening again remains real.

Rwanda, like every country in Africa, is a tool in the great game of global influence. In the 19th century it was a pawn in colonial negotiations between the British and the Germans. In the 20th century, first Belgian and then French influence grew. Then in de-colonial times, it vacillated between the Americans and Soviets. Now like most African countries, it is coming under the gravitational pull of China. Long-time Rwandan leader Paul Kagame optimistically paints that current relationship with Beijing as one of equal partnership in “sustainable development, mutual prosperity and respect.”

Yet it is hard to imagine China being any more sympathetic to local needs than any of the previous superpowers for whom Rwanda was a client state. Kagame, a leader supreme for two decades, may be part of the problem. Paul Kagame led the Tutsi rebels that overthrew the Hutu extremists in 1994 after the genocide. An undoubted hero to his people for restoring law and order, his regime has come at the cost of political repression with internal enemies ruthlessly suppressed. This is an African tradition dating back to the end of colonial times but Rwanda’s problems go even further back.

The Hutu and Tutsi people are differentiated purely by when they first arrived in central Africa. The Kingdom of Rwanda was a Tutsi enclave but operated a sophisticated power-sharing arrangement with Hutu people on the basis of cattle patronage. At the time Rwanda was uncolonised, but unbeknown to it, the faraway Berlin Conference of 1884 assigned the territory to Germany as part of the greedy but civilised European takeover of Africa.

Because of the convenient lack of British interference, German needed to send only a small contingent of troops to take Rwanda. The German brought euro-centric notions of racism to Rwanda, handing local administration to Tutsis on the basis they originally hailed from the “more white” Ethiopia. German defeat in the First World War saw new European overseers arrive: the Belgians. The Belgians already managed next door Congo and brought their post-Leopold administrative zeal to the new province, concentrating further power in Tutsi royalty. In 1935 they took the fateful step of issuing identity cards labelling people as Hutu, Tutsi and Twa, ending the fluid movement between what were effectively castes.

The end of the Second World War saw the rise of nationalist movements across Africa including Rwanda. Because Hutus were the most numerous, they dominated the resistance movement, and a notion of Hutu nationalism emerged in 1957. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, the desperate Belgians replaced all Tutsi leaders with Hutus in 1960 but could not stave off inevitable independence.

There followed a civil war in 1963 and mass emigration of Tutsis, destabilising neighbouring Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and Congo (Zaire). Nevertheless there was a population explosion in Rwanda’s fertile lands rising from 1.6 million in the 1930s to 7.1 million by the end of the 1980s. Hutu leaders carefully held power, backed by American, Belgian and French forces, while disconcented Tutsis bided their time. Around 1990, a perfect storm of events ended the status quo.

When the prices of Rwanda’s chief export, coffee collapsed at the end of the 1980s, there was an economic crisis. Meanwhile across the border in Uganda, exiles backed the overthrow of anti-Tutsi president Milton Obote. The new dictator Yoweri Musavene secretly supported installing a Tutsi regime in Kigali. Finally the fall of the Soviet Union meant Africa was no longer critical in forging pro or anti-Communist regimes and American support for the Hutu regime dissipated.

The second civil war started in 1990 but hopes of a quick Tutsi victory were dashed by the entry of French and Belgian troops in support of the Hutu regime of president Juvenal Habyarimana. The conflict descended into stalemate and guerrilla warfare until a ceasefire in 1992. The Arusha Accords called for power-sharing but fighting continued. Another Tutsi offensive in 1993 was stopped again by the French.

Power in Kigali was moving slowly away from the distracted army to a hard-line paramilitary group known as the Interihamwe. Organising itself with the aid of a radio station, the Interihamwe promoted the total elimination of Tutsi people whom it called “cockroaches”. They could not act too openly while Habyarimana controlled the army. Their moment came when Habyarimana’s plane was shot down at Kigali Airport as he returned from peace negotiations in Burundi. The Burundi president also died in the attack. No one claimed responsibility for the double assassination but hard-line Hutus were the beneficiary, at least in Rwanda. Within hours the Interihamwe mobilised death squads with guns and machetes and began large scale killings across the country.

With the army still hamstrung as it dealt with the Tutsi resistance, the way was left clear for a 100 days of savage slaughter, far from western eyes. The small, mostly Pakistani, UN contingent in Kigali alerted the world to the predicament but Bill Clinton’s America, chastened by ignominious failures in Mogadishu a year earlier, refused to commit US troops to the region. An inept Europe looked on in horror, and the killing spiralled out of control.

On June 18, the French finally invaded in Operation Turquoise. While the UN sanctioned this operation, this was a cynical move by President Mitterrand to shore up French interests in the region. The massacre had ended, but it was the Tutsi rebels that ended it, not the French. Kagame’s forces had finally routed the Hutu army and taken Kigali. Operation Turquoise assisted only in helping two million people flee the country and arrested none of the Hutu massacre leaders. The mission lasted two months and on its end, the Tutsi rebels united the whole of Rwanda under their leadership.

The Interihamwe leaders that caused the carnage mostly escaped into the Congo and Uganda. They used Congolese camps for incursions into Rwanda and also attacked Tutsi refugees in the Congo. The latter formed militias to defend themselves and attacked the Hutus and also the Mobutu government that defended them, opening up the first Congo War, which ultimately overthrew the Mobutu regime. There were still 1.5 million Rwandan refugees in Congo which new president Kabila saw as a destabilising influence. He expelled all Rwandans and Ugandans from his country, an action which, in tandem with the rapacious western need for minerals used in mobile phone technology, only served to open up a new conflict, called the Second Congo War.

The Second Congo War is unknown to the rest of the world, but is the deadliest war in African history. It dragged in almost every country in the south of the continent. It lasted four years, caused thousands of deaths directly, millions of deaths indirectly. It ended with a new government in the Congo, but Uganda’s and Rwanda’s long-term pro-Tutsi governments emerged stronger than ever. Both countries sold the mineral coltan, a crucial component for mobile phone capacitors, found only in eastern Congo.

Kagame was formally elected president of Rwanda in 2003 and re-elected in 2010.  That second election was widely believed to be rigged and dozens of opposition figures murdered. Kagame was re-elected with 93% of the vote, a sure sign of intimidation. However he would probably have won anyway in an open vote. The Rwandan economy is recovering and annual growth was 8% from 2004-2010, including during the GFC. The services sector has grown strongly with good communications and technology infrastructure in a small, populous and relatively well-educated country. Kagame has also done well to improve integrity and remove corruption. Paul Rusesabagina and his family have left the country for Belgium, but Hotel des Milles Collines is still open and thriving again.

Kagame can take much of the credit for his country’s stability but dangerous times lie ahead. The next presidential elections are due in 2017 and having served two terms Kagame is constitutionally barred from running again. The question will be how he deals with that and how the country moves into a post-Kagame transition. Hutu murder groups are still at large in eastern Congo and are spoiling for the opportunity to return to their homelands. The role of China in protecting its increasingly large stake in Rwanda’s economy could be crucial. Saving democracy is not a priority.

The next Turnbullence is only thirty bad Newspolls away

turnbull2It used to be that in order to you change the country, you had to change the government, but these days all you need to do is change prime minister. The incompetent, fear-mongering and doctrinaire Tony Abbott regime already seems like a bad dream the country is quickly awakening from. Just over a week into office Abbott’s replacement Malcolm Turnbull looks relaxed and assured as prime minister having ushered in his new front bench, promising a return to cabinet government with him as “first among equals”. Turnbull is a patrician and the first real born-to-rule prime minister since the previous Malcolm in the job, Fraser.

The overthrow has happened with the minimum of fuss, indeed Turnbull has set the benchmark for future plotters: “30 bad Newspolls” (poll owner Rupert Murdoch will be delighted with the implied compliment, if unhappy at the outcome). Meanwhile Turnbull has attacked the job with gusto, seamlessly riding through the choppy waters of negotiating with his enemies in parliament (mostly Liberals and Nationals) while a hapless Labor struggles to keep up with the new realities.

Bill Shorten’s minimising of difference with the ousted prime minister has now spectacularly backfired: Turnbull is so much better at not being Tony Abbott than he is. Labor’s policy vacuum has left them looking lacklustre and bereft of ideas now that a substantial leader has emerged on the other side. Unlike the Rudd-Gillard stoush which was primarily a battle of personalities, Turnbull represents clear change from the hard right-wing social conservative style beloved of Abbott and his acolytes.

Liberal backers in the media are torn between denouncing the coup and applauding the bounce in the polls. The voters are far less split. They like Malcolm Turnbull. He has made the Liberals electorally competitive again swooping on Australia’s large swinging vote. The party was always capable of getting half the vote, they did so in 2010 and would have won government were it not for Abbott’s obstinate leadership and unpopularity.

Abbott had still not cured that by 2013, so much so that a desperate Labour turned back to a poisoned Kevin Rudd thinking his relative popularity could turn around the election. Abbott annihilated Labor in 2013, though Labor thanked itself it wasn’t worse. In five years Rudd had gone from saving the world to just saving the furniture.

With Gillard gone from parliament too (what Labor could do with her as leader at the moment), the stage was free for Tony Abbott to turn opinion in his favour. He failed miserably. His high point was the immediate handling of the MH17 crash but as that developed in to a lengthy judicial case, there were few shirt-fronting opportunities. His bluster also flopped at home where the Tone needed to be more subtle. He ruled initially with the support of Clive Palmer whose senators celebrated wildly when the carbon tax was repealed. When Palmer’s group disintegrated and Abbott had to corral any six from eight, he was less successful. The end of entitlement budget was the beginning of the end of Abbott’s entitlement giving the party dismal numbers to match the leader.

Remarkably Malcolm Turnbull comes to the top job as a cleanskin, despite his long record as a minister in the Howard and Abbott governments. He managed to always keep his distance from Abbott’s pratfalls though NBN’s failures may yet burn him. His cabinet looks a lot more promising than the fossilised collection of old men that Abbott had around him. Arthur Sinodinos as cabinet secretary and Tony Nutt as “director of transition” will guide the government in a controlled yet consultative way that the obsessive PMOs of Abbott (and his Labor predecessors) could not manage.

Turnbull’s biggest attributes will be to articulately sell a positive message and work with the cross-benches, including the more middle-ground Greens under Richard Di Natale. He has paid off suspicious Nationals with the water portfolio and kept the new darling of the right (Scott Morrison) inside the tent. There will be some tricky tight-rope walking ahead, especially as he delicately disengages from some of Abbott’s more egregious policies without alienating the base. But he will have plenty of goodwill and an energised party, especially when those bad Newspolls disappear. A Liberal election win in 2016 was a prospect that seemed utterly unlikely two weeks ago. Now the Liberals will enter the next election against a muddled Labor Party with renewed vigour and optimism.

Malcolm Turnbull is Australia’s new prime minister

turnbullThe sixth Australian prime ministerial spill in five years is over, producing the third change of leadership following the coups of Julia Gillard in 2010 and Kevin Rudd in 2013. Outgoing prime minister Tony Abbott fought desperately tonight on the notion that the Liberals were different from Labor and that only the people should change the leader. He proved wrong on both counts. In the end it was 98 men and women who decided 54-44 that Malcolm Turnbull should lead the party, and therefore the country.

The vote brings full circle an even tighter ballot that brought Abbott to the leadership six years ago in 2009, when he prevailed over then leader Turnbull by one vote. But ambitious politicians play a long game and just as Rudd crucially didn’t quit politics and waited three years to gain revenge over Julia Gillard, Turnbull also cemented his position as a popular alternative in waiting, and sat tight until a combination of circumstances made Abbott’s continued rule untenable.

Turnbull put it down to 30 successive bad Newspolls, but in truth Tony Abbott was never a popular prime minister. There is unlikely to be the same public sense of grievance and denial of justice that greeted Labor’s panicky move in 2010. At that point in the electoral cycle, Labor still led. Rudd no longer had the stratospheric positive polls he had a year earlier but surely had the measure of Tony Abbott in an election that would have been called a few months later.

Instead Labor imploded and with the help of Rudd feeding the media, Julia Gillard’s government was undermined from day one. That they hung on to power for another three years was testament to her formidable powers of negotiation but also to the failures of Tony Abbott. The undermining never stopped however and although Rudd succeeded in winning back power, it proved a Pyrrhic victory and Labor was deservedly punished by the electorate in 2013 for putting itself first.

The only problem was that it brought Tony Abbott to power where all his failings were writ large. Abbott was the perennial battler who had no nuance to squeeze the most from power. Ruling as he did from the right of his party, he was out of step with the centre, despite the crude and continuous barracking of Murdoch’s News Ltd empire.

His and Joe Hockey’s first budget announced the end of the age of entitlement but its vindictive nature made it seem that only their enemies were having their incomes docked. They were not helped by fractious Senate cross-bench but their failure to sell their message of economic correction was a totally self-inflicted wound.

Liberal poll numbers never recovered as they never do, and Tony Abbott lost his leadership there and then. The last 12 months have been the prolonged agony of a slowly drowning man refusing to accept his fate and hiding behind a façade of flags and security announcements. An early positive reputation as a strong leader was replaced by a sloganeering, fear-mongering robot.

A Turnbull leadership will change all that and all the smirking tweets today from Labor MPs enjoying the discomfort of their rivals may come back to haunt them. Bill Shorten’s one appearance today was appalling and ill-timed, failing in the old adage of never interrupting your enemy while they are making errors. Shorten was a shoo-in to become next prime minister as long as Tony Abbott was the incumbent. Now Labor have to find a way of giving him substance. Turnbull has many faults, not least his towering ego and impatience, but zingers alone won’t beat him. His victory today may turn the spotlight on Labor’s own recurring leadership woes. Australia’s leadership merry-go-round goes on and on.

The Australian’s laughable war on Twitter

frayIt may be 2015 but Australia’s only national newspaper The Australian remains stuck in the 20th century, raging against the dying of the light. This weekend the ever-pompous broadsheet reached into its grab-bag of perceived enemies and pulled out the one marked “Twitter”. For hundreds of millions of users worldwide, Twitter is a great communications tool that companies, organisations and individuals use to market themselves and find out what is happening in their chosen field. For The Australian, it’s more personal. As its banner headline reads Twitter is “debasing quality journalism”.

No doubt the Oz has themselves in mind when they talk about “quality journalism” and there remains many talented journalists in their ranks. Unfortunately their work is skewed by editorial decisions tied to owner Rupert Murdoch’s increasingly unhinged world view. Was Murdoch debasing quality journalism with his tweetstorm last week, based on his observations after returning to Australia last month? Murdoch called the country “ungovernable” thanks to “extreme greenies”, “corrupt violent unions” and “deadly drugs”. The solution to this odious cocktail according to Murdoch? More of the same – another Abbott government.

The Australian is a faithful servant of His Master’s Voice ranting against environmentalism, unionism, drugs and more. It has long defended its position as the sacred arbiter of the news and its opinion pages are clogged with political analysts mostly to the right of Genghis Khan. The newspaper has been particularly dismissive of “pyjama-clad bloggers” and “under-employed academics” who dare venture into its chosen field with alternative views. Twitter, with its easy facility to talk back to power, has long been a target. But would @rupertmurdoch (now 1500 tweets old and counting, with 608,000 followers) appreciate a full page of this weekend’s Inquirer section devoted to exposing the evils of the 140-character communications mechanism?

The lead story on the page from reporter John Lyons (a talented journalist who seems reluctantly roped into this auto da fé) was about the Border Force debacle in Melbourne last week. The headline “The news, brought to you unedited” is dripping in irony at a company that sacked most of its sub-editors in 2013.

Yet the sub-headline continued to push the house message: “The idea of checking facts and verifying sources is alien to Twitter”.  It is a statement that makes as much sense as saying “the idea of checking facts and verifying sources is alien to paper”. Twitter is a tool used by hundreds of millions of people, with hundreds of millions different reasons. “Twitter” (even in the narrow News Ltd sense as “the people that use Twitter politically”) is made up mostly of individuals, not news organisations and they are not bound by the institutional, and increasingly fraught “rules of journalism”.

Despite calling it a Twitter war, Lyons initially plays a straight bat on the #borderfarce story acknowledging the effect Twitter has on the news cycle. But then it gets judgmental. There is a ritual attack on Fairfax before decrying the lack of filters in Twitter with people “re-tweeting” (his quotation marks, it’s obviously not a real word yet) information that often was wrong. That’s true, but no different to newspapers, and with far less influence. Traditional media says Lyons, “usually” (my quotation marks, it’s getting less and less usual) has several pairs of eyes looking at articles before publication.

The problem says Lyons is that (political) Twitter is skewed towards “the young and the left”, constituencies the Australian has well-nigh abandoned. Lyons quotes social media expert Axel Bruns who denies that simplistic skew saying Twitter was used by all sorts of constituencies for all sorts of reasons. That’s true. I was at an AgForce forum in Roma last week where farmers (hardly young and left) were encouraged to get their personal brand out on Twitter. Lyons attempts to be even handed but the headlines and fact-box “A Friday Afternoon Twitterstorm” push the house line that “Twitter” cannot be trusted.

This point is emphasised in the second story on the page, “When the Twitter tail wags the dog” by deputy editor Peter Fray. Once again, the frame is set by the sub-headline: “Some newsrooms are allowing social media to dictate what constitutes a news story”.  In this context “some newsrooms” is code for the enemies Fairfax and the ABC and Fray mentions them both in the context of the Australian Border Force story. Fray’s lament is not the stupidity or dangers of paramilitary government bodies but that Dutton’s jihadists (Fairfax and the ABC) prefer the “siren song” of social media over “sober tones of fact-checking, empirical evidence, objectivity and plain common sense.” The plea for common sense is a sure signal this is a right-wing rant and Fray does not explain why social media and journalistic practice has to be either/or and not both.

Fray (who tweets @peterfray) has three “truisms” to share about Twitter. It is fast not deep, it is dominated by “media types” and it is both a blessing and a curse for time-poor journalists. I would take issue with all three. To say it is not deep takes no account of hyperlinks; its supposed domination by media takes no account of celebrities or the millions of other non-media users; and it is only a curse to those that allow themselves to be ruled by it. Yes, there are unsubstantiated claims but lies are found out just as quickly. In a social media world where your reputation is everything, it doesn’t pay to muck around with the truth for too long.

But that seems completely lost on the writer of the hilariously awful third article on the page. Margaret Kelly (“who holds a degree in English literature and language”) was angry about lazy language, but inevitably social media comes in the firing line. In a confused rant that pours doubt on climate change and has Orwell disapproving of Facebook, Kelly laid into “groupthink” which “lives today in cyberspace where people want to be unknown”.  Kelly does not define groupthink but she says it leads to terrible things like Trending on Twitter. Kelly does define trending, which she says is “a lot of people saying the same sorts of things, mostly unconsidered… and trending is just what groupthink means.” Though her readers are none the wiser (not least at the ellipses which are in Kelly’s text) after this nonsense, it all leads to one definitive conclusion. “Frankly, in my view,” Kelly says, “only twits tweet.” Take that, all you 2.8 million Australian users of Twitter, you’ve been told. Though frankly, in my view, Ms Kelly ought to be careful about what she says about Rupert Murdoch in one of his papers.

Maralinga: The shame of Australian nuclear testing Part 1

Australia's first nuclear explosion in October 1952 at Monte Bello Islands off the north-west coast of WA.
Australia’s first nuclear explosion in October 1952 at Monte Bello Islands off the north-west coast of WA.

With the world remembering the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombs in Japan, reading Frank Walker’s book Maralinga proved a timely reminder of Australia’s own nuclear shame. In the 1950s Prime Minister Robert Menzies colluded with the British government to turn Australia into a giant nuclear experiment and its nine million people into guinea pigs.

Britain had been frozen out of the American nuclear testing program for good reason: many of its intelligence officers were double agents working for the Soviets. Britain needed a site for its post-war testing program and Australia’s remoteness, friendliness and utter compliance fitted the bill. The site it chose was the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of WA. On September 16, 1950 British prime minister Clement Attlee cabled Menzies to see if Australia would agree to the testing and for British “experts” to conduct reconnaissance of the islands. They wanted to drop the bomb in October 1952, and expected winds would take the radioactive cloud out to sea. Attlee said the area would be contaminated for “three years”.

Incredibly, without bothering to consult anyone, Menzies responded with an enthusiastic yes. There was no Australian oversight and Britain had total control of safety. After winning an election in 1951, Menzies finally announced the news to the public in February 1952 saying there was no danger to the public, but did not say where it would happen. There was no debate, instead the mood was one of excitement and the press speculated on the likely site (most assumed it would be at Woomera rocket range in SA). Parliament quickly passed a bill to deny Australians entry to huge zones of the country that might be used for testing.

Menzies painted a rosy picture of equal partnership but Australians provided labour and land only. There was a third secret use of Aussies: as lab rats for British nuclear experiments. Australia’s leading nuclear expert physicist Mark Oliphant was barred from the program for having the temerity to be publicly “appalled” at the atomic bombs’ impact on Japan. Instead Australia’s head scientist was the Briton Ernest Titterton who helped developed the US bomb. Titterton was an ardent supporter of nuclear weapons and his biggest fear was they might be stopped.

The ageing British Navy frigate HMS Plym was donated to be the carrier of the first atomic bomb in Australia. It sailed from Britain with the frame of the bomb while the radioactive core was flown to Australia. WA newspapers had wind of something big happening at Monte Bello as British and Australians built buildings and structures for the test. The nearest mainland town, Onslow, became packed with journalists as the big day approached. The day itself depended on the wind conditions when it was blowing north-west towards Indonesia (which wasn’t a concern). At 8am on October 3, 1952 officers sent an electronic signal to spark the explosives around the plutonium core.

The 25 kiloton blast disintegrated the Plym and created a seven meter deep crater in the seabed. Witnesses saw a blinding electric blue light and many reported seeing the bones of their hands.  The 4km high cloud formed a Z shape rather than the more familiar mushroom cloud. While the wind initially took it west, it changed direction and took it back towards the mainland. Under the strictest secrecy, Australian and British soldiers were ordered into the blast area to pick up pieces of the Plym and put them into drums. They wore no protective gear and were not tested for radiation.

The bomb was front page news and it was all positive. The West Australian praised Britain’s skill in providing “a reliable shield for the Commonwealth”. Closer to the scene, sailors on the HMAS Macquarie saw thousands of dead fish in the water, many of which were scooped up and cooked. Only a day later did the captain get orders not to eat the fish. Many on the Macquarie later died of cancer and many of their families also had health issues. It was a similar story for crews of other vessels sent to the scene. Confidential documents warned that some degree of risk had to be run to get the full value of the test. Meanwhile fallout spread across northern Australia reaching Cairns and Townsville on the east coast.

Even before Monte Bello, Menzies approved further testing on the mainland. The area chosen was Emu Field, about 650km north-west of Woomera. The date set was 12 months on from the first test on October 15, 1953. RAAF crews were told they have to fly into the mushroom cloud without protective gear to find out what goes on inside. They were told it might affect sterility and were offered the chance to turn it down. None did. When the bomb was detonated on the ground, the RAAF men were in the air 20km away and the explosion nearly tore the planes apart. They turned towards the mushroom cloud and proceeded to take photos. When they went inside the cloud, it was like entering a tornado. They were “entering the gates of hell”, as one airman put it. Under British orders they were told to re-enter the cloud a second time.

When they finally landed, they were greeted by scientists in space suits breathing with oxygen bottles who wouldn’t come near the pilots. Instead they wanted the canisters attached to the planes and flew them direct to England. The pilots realised they were lab rats. They were forced to continue the mission to track the radioactive cloud across Australian which drifted east. One pilot said the cloud stayed over one Queensland town for five days as it rained but would not reveal the town for fear of being jailed.  As at Monte Bello, soldiers were forced to enter the bomb zone without protection to conduct clean-up operations while Geiger counters “went berserk”.

Northern SA is the home of the Yankunytjatjara people. Around 170km north-west of Emu Field, 11-year-old Yami Lester heard a huge bang in the distance. The following morning a big black cloud rolled in like a dust storm. Lester told the 1985 Royal Commission it frightened his people and he could feel sticky dirt from the black mist. People felt sick and had sore and watery eyes. Many died in the following days. Lester became blind but doctors dismissed a link with the bomb. It was an experience repeated across the north of the state. But Aboriginal people did not have a vote in 1953 and no one cared about their plight, nor the plight of Australian military personnel in harm’s way. Menzies hailed the bomb a great success. Progress was too important, as was Australian toadying to Britain.

Survivors of the Hive shipwreck: Irish convicts in Australia

BHC3504 001No wonder Australia is addicted to off-shore jails in Nauru and Manus Island, it too was founded as one, to solve a political problem. British jails were heaving in the 18th century as the state harshly punished crimes against property. Australia was founded to swallow Britain’s criminal class, a “transparent labyrinth” as Robert Hughes called it, with walls 14,000 miles thick. In this gigantic social experiment a special place was reserved for the Irish, different by religion and whose crimes were believed to be especially violent.

This reputation was put down to Ireland’s situation during the half century of the convict era (1790s to 1840s). While the period was bookended by failed rebellions in 1798 and 1848, it was characterised by subdued hatred between the Protestant landholding class and the majority Catholic peasantry which occasionally bubbled to the surface.

Opponents of transportation used these factors to defend the reckless violence of the Irish in Australia. Activists like Carolyn Chisholm not only fought transportation but tried to make life better for those affected by the policy. However, Chisholm’s attitude was rare. The Irish found it hard to shake their status as foreign “Popish” intruders in an outpost of empire. The Castle Hill rebellion of 1804 was a dismal failure but it helped perpetuate the myth of treacherous outsiders.

Their safety was in numbers and one in five convicts arriving in New South Wales were Irish making them a significant minority. Researcher Babette Smith was determined to challenge this view of victimhood in her book “The Luck of the Irish” which concentrates on the period between 1825 and 1845. Smith meticulously researched convict records to see why they had been transported and what they did in Australia.

The centrepiece of her book and Smith’s sub-title is a little-remembered convict shipwreck in 1835: How a shipload of convicts survived the wreck of the Hive to make a new life in Australia. The Hive, with 250 prisoners aboard, was 109 days out from Cork and just one day away from Sydney when she ran into bad weather off the south NSW coast. On a windy night the Hive ran aground on the coast near Jervis Bay. Captain John Nutting was missing in action at the time, drunk and in bed. Crews nervously obeyed his instruction to sail close to the shore. When the ship struck a reef, Nutting’s contradictory instructions made matters worse. The crew wanted to abandon ship but he insisted first they stay aboard and then they all swim to shore. The doctor of the ship pulled rank in the interests of safety and the crew got the longboats ready to ferry the passengers to shore, against the wishes of the peeved captain.

The doctor was right to be worried, the surf was dangerous. One youth tried to swim ashore and got in difficulties before the boatswain dived in to save him. However the boatswain hit his head on the stern and drowned. Incredibly he was the only person to die as a result of the shipwreck of the Hive. The youth survived and heroic chief officer Edward Canney escorted every longboat to shore, up to his neck in water each time. He saved the lives of 300 people without a single accident.

When they got ashore Captain Nutting resumed command as if nothing had happened. No one had any idea where they were other than being “a day’s sail from Sydney”. Aboriginal people approached, offering help to the stranded Europeans. By sign language and broken English they offered to guide someone to the nearest white man who lived “up the hill”.  A junior officer Waldron Kelly volunteered for the task and after two hours arrived at Erowal, the farm of John Lamb. Lamb, alarmed by the prospect of escaped convicts, took Kelly another 12 hours walk north to Shoalhaven, then owned by prominent settler Alexander Berry. Berry immediately wrote to the Colonial Secretary about the incident and set out with Kelly the following morning to the Hive.

The shipwreck news caused a sensation in Sydney. Three ships were dispatched to the scene and rumours of missing treasure caused a buzz in town. After five days the Tamar steam-packet brought back half the crew and passengers. A few days later HM brig Zebra brought the rest of the convicts. The remaining crew and soldiers stayed on to salvage what they could. Captain Nutting was among the last to get to Sydney in time for the official inquiry where Canney contradicted his testimony. The inquiry blamed Nutting for going to bed when the mate told him they were too near land. It also endorsed the doctor’s action in removing his command.

While Nutting fled to England in disgrace (though still in charge of a vessel), the Irish all remained in Australia. After the dramatic circumstances of their arrival, Babette Smith asked the question: why did none attempt escape at Jervis Bay despite 250 convicts outnumbering 29 soldiers? There were certainly enough prisoners who could do the overpowering. Many were transported for violent crimes which Smith divides into four categories of tribal, political, religious and sexual violence.

For example, Maurice Leehy, 37, was transported for his part in a “savage atrocity” between two clans at the Tralee races. Police read the “riot act” which was ignored. Clan members used sticks and stones on each other and 16 people died in the violence. Leehy was one of 18 people charged, and he received transportation for life.

Some violence was political. The British occupation spawned secret societies with colourful names such as the Whiteboys and the Ribbonmen. They carried out arson, assault, cattle-maiming and sent threatening letters. Fanton Delany, 22, ended up on the Hive after his Whiteboy group tried to force farmer Maurice Kelly to give up his land. Fenton posted a threatening letter but someone informed on him. He went on the run but was caught asleep at a farmer’s house. The Kildare Assizes sentenced him to seven years transportation.

Irish Catholics suffered under the Penal Laws which prevented them from owning land and voting in elections. Under the leadership of Daniel O’Connell and a newly energised Catholic Church, emancipation and education reforms were won in 1829. By the time of the Hive, NSW’s governor was Richard Bourke, a liberal protestant Irishman under the influence of his great relative Edmund Bourke. As a magistrate in Ireland Richard Bourke recognised “the lack of basic civil rights such as religious freedom and a fair and impartial system of justice, was the cause of much social unrest”.

Fifteen aboard the Hive were sentenced for murder or manslaughter. Joseph Ryan hit his victim with a hammer for called him a “whitefoot”, another was part of a group who pelted a man with stones, while many, like Leahy were involved in deadly riots. Timothy Cleary, 21, didn’t kill anyone but he pointed out his victim to another man who killed him with a stick. The victim had taken land from the Cleary family. Murder was ecumenical. A Monaghan Protestant, James McCabe, 47, was sentenced for his part in an Orange Day sectarian brawl.

Sexual violence was also prevalent with “abduction” a common crime in Ireland at the time. Bride theft was an ancient Gaelic custom, usually by gangs against female victims who were wealthy, single or who had land. James Dalton had his death sentence commuted to seven years transportation for the crime of “aiding and assisting the abduction of Catherine Hartney”. Dalton’s 60-year-old father-in-law James Ryan was earlier transported for leading a group to force a farmer to relinquish land. Dalton assisted Ryan to kidnap Hartney for his son Daniel Ryan, who also sailed on the Hive with Dalton.

But almost half the offenders aboard were thieves, burglars and robbers. They were little different to the thousands of English thieves sentenced to Australia. They were poor but they missed out on the Famine and also left before the Catholic Church renaissance took full effect. So they, like the English criminals they lived among, were ready to become honest Australians.

Some, such as James Dalton, had family in Ireland, and the Irish made up 60% of those who applied to have their family sent out. Though the British stopped that process to save money in 1840, Caroline Chisholm persuaded the government to change its mind in 1846 to support Irish families who wanted to move to Australia.

By then Dalton was free having served seven years at the pastoral holding of Archibald Campbell near Bathurst. Dalton was a model prisoner and on his release in 1842 went into the carting business. He later became a storekeeper at Blackman’s Swamp (which became Orange in 1846). His wife Ellen had died and Dalton applied for his three children to join him. Elder siblings Thomas and Margaret had already emigrated to Canada leaving youngest son James an orphan in the middle of the Famine.

Dalton’s request was approved and James Dalton Jr arrived in Australia on the Panama in 1849. By then his father had moved into a bigger store in Orange. The father and son ran the business together before James junior took it over in 1853 as James senior became a publican. Their timing was impeccable. In 1851 gold was found near Bathurst and Orange and the Daltons took full advantage of the goldrush as established traders in the region. The family quickly became wealthy. Elder siblings Thomas and Margaret Dalton moved to Australia to join the enterprise in the 1850s and their business expanded to become one of the biggest merchants, retailers, millers and pastoral holdings in NSW.

James the elder died in 1860 having laid the groundwork for a significant family contribution to their adopted country. James junior and Thomas became mayors of Orange. Thomas represented the town in the NSW Legislative Assembly and later became active in the Illawarra where his memory is retained in park and stadium names. The family eventually married into the Redmond political dynasty cementing bonds between Ireland and Australia. Their father, James Dalton Sr was probably the only rags to riches story from the Hive, but their stories show why the Irish did not rebel in Jervis Bay. Australia was offering up something better than the land they left.

That Unhappy Race Part 9 – Queensland adopts Meston’s system

Cherbourg was one of the reserves created by Meston's Proposed System.
Cherbourg was one of the reserves created by Meston’s Proposed System.

Although the Queensland newspapers of 1895 agreed with Archibald Meston’s Proposed System to manage Aboriginal people, Colonial Secretary Horace Tozer initially did nothing. An impatient Meston wrote to Tozer chastising him for lack of action, threatening to run again for parliament at the next election. Tozer was worried it would become a large social welfare system at the government’s expense. Stalling for time, he called for another report. He ordered Meston to survey Aboriginal missions and inquire into the troubles on the Cape York frontier.

Meston was pleased to be finally on the government payroll and set off north in 1896 in a long, slow trawl of Cape York indigenous communities, visiting missions at Yarrabah and Mappoon. He was particularly impressed by Cape Bedford where Lutheran missionaries spoke the local language and gained Indigenous respect. Meston concluded the tribes should stay together in reserves where they could be transformed into Christians. That meant three reserves in Queensland (not the two he originally asked for) in the north, centre and south. He followed Gideon Lang, calling for the abolition of the native police and recommended the end of Aboriginal slave labour in the pearling and trepanning industries.

This earned the ire of northern newspapers but Meston was confident when he presented his report to Tozer in October 1896. However under-secretary and police commissioner William Parry-Okeden took exception to the criticism of the native police. Tozer asked Parry-Okeden to improve police strategy in his own tour of north Queensland. At Normanton Parry-Okeden met the government’s medical officer in the north, Dr Walter Roth. Roth impressed him and he urged Tozer to support Roth’s research.

In Parry-Okeden’s February 1897 report, he called for the continuation of a strong, well-officered native police. He said friendly relations between the races could only be established by “affording equal protection and dealing out even-handed justice.” Tozer took Parry-Okeden’s suggestions to restructure the force to Premier Hugh Nelson though it was only a temporary reprieve. This notorious “machine for murder” as 19th century historian William Rusden called the native police, finally petered out by 1900 replaced by white constables assisted by trackers.

Meanwhile Meston’s system of reserves took shape in 1897. He earmarked Lukin’s Fraser Island site as the southern reserve and 50 blacks were “rounded up” from Maryborough and removed to the island. Meston went west and reported on Aborigines at Charleville, Mitchell and Roma, where many were addicted to opium and destroyed by syphilis. Tozer authorised their removal to a new reserve at Durundur, near Woodford. Meston’s report also proposed a draft bill for parliament based on American precedents for reserves under the authority of the Home Secretary, administered by protectors.

The bill gave control of every area of Aboriginal lives to protectors who could withhold wages and keep them on reserves. There would be strict penalties against alcohol and opium and employers had to give police details of Aboriginal employees. Tozer took Meston’s suggestion to divide the state but also took Parry-Okeden’s advice to give the northern section to the commissioner of police.

The bill passed through parliament without drama, the only debate being a definition of “half-caste”. Tozer told parliament it was “the offspring of an aboriginal mother and other than an aboriginal father” (No one could contemplate a white woman having sex with an aboriginal male). When it was pointed out many half-caste males had important roles of responsibility managing white men and cattle, Tozer made the half-caste rule apply only to females. The Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Bill received Royal Assent on December 10, 1897. It was Tozer’s last major piece of legislation, he retired in 1898.

Tozer appointed Parry-Okeden as Chief Protector for Queensland, with Meston named southern division protector and Roth northern division protector. In 1899 Parry-Okeden was removed from his role with Meston and Roth reporting directly to the Home Secretary. Roth had the extra ethnological task of collecting information about Aborigines in the north. He reported he was being “rushed” by applicants for permits to employ local blacks. Roth’s hope to end slavery in the pearling trade ran into squatter opposition and the commissioner of police told him not to take “too drastic action”.

In the south Meston claimed to have wiped out the opium trade by 1900. He estimated the total number of Aboriginal people below the 22nd parallel (between Sarina and Rockhampton) as 3500 of which 2300 were employed, 800 were dependent on those, and 400 were “finding for themselves”. Meston removed 300 Aboriginal people to reserves at Fraser Island, Durundur and Deebing Creek (near Ipswich). Another 50 “half-caste” girls were placed in institutions like Wooloowin’s Magdalen Asylum and St Vincent’s Catholic orphanage at Nudgee. Removals at the reserves came from every part of Queensland and Meston proudly boasted he had practiced “severe economy”.

Meston and his son Harold managed Fraser Island like a penal colony with discipline sternly applied and inmates “encouraged” to hunt food for themselves. Malnutrition, unsanitary conditions and debilitation brought disease and a high death rate. The government, hearing about violence at the camp, took management from the Mestons and gave it to the Anglican Church. Queensland’s indigenous population was so large, a third protector, Alexander Gordon, was appointed to manage the west from Boulia. However proposals to establish a western reserve were ruled out as too expensive. The furthest settlement west was Taroom in the Upper Dawson, created in 1911 but closed down within 10 years. Barambah (later Cherbourg) established in 1904 became the main reserve in the south after the closure of Durundur and Fraser Island.

Gordon was not particularly active and Meston complained that he never left Boulia. Meston roamed southern and western Queensland arranging to remove local blacks over the protests of local station managers.  He supported an amendment to the 1897 Act introduced in 1901 to prevent Aboriginal marriages without the protector’s permit saying he had a “strong aversion to the admixture of black and white races”.  That act remained on Queensland statutes until 1972.

Meston’s self-appointed role as “expert on Aborigines” had mixed success. In 1907, he stood for election again in the Cape York seat of Cook but was soundly defeated. Three years later he was appointed director of the Queensland Intelligence and Tourist Bureau in Sydney. He applied unsuccessfully for the position of chief protector of Aborigines in the NT. He eventually died of tetanus infection at home in Brisbane in 1924, aged 72.

His legacy was the principle of compulsory segregation which dominated Queensland’s Aboriginal policies in the 20th century. Meston was inspired by a desire to help Aboriginal people. But as Gordon Reid says, his rigid idealisation would not allow him to accept their ability to adapt to new circumstances. Queensland’s inflexible protection system held Aboriginal people in a historical vacuum, “unchanging in a changing world”.

Meston’s Proposal was advanced for its time, though it brought together ingredients brewing in Queensland for half a century. It ended the gruesome reign of the native police and genuinely tried to help Aboriginal people. Its great fault, as Reid said, was it lasted long after its need passed. Queensland would spend more on Aboriginal health and housing than other Australian government. But it also cleared people from their land, provided a cheap labour pool and severely restricted personal freedoms.

These aims of protection, removal and exploitation were too contradictory. Power over concentration camps at Cherbourg, Woorabinda and Palm Island was something premier Bjelke-Petersen was reluctant to concede in the 1970s.  “We want them set aside in black man’s country – we want them to live exactly like we do”. Joh’s paternalism was a direct link to Archibald Meston. It took the threat of an African boycott of Brisbane’s beloved Commonwealth games to scrap the last vestige of legal protection in 1982. Queensland’s Indigenous people were finally free.

See the earlier parts:

Part 1: Historical background

Part 2: Queensland’s violent frontier

Part 3: The squatters’ inquiry

Part 4: the influence of Gideon Lang

Part 5: The Drew and Hale Commissions

Part 6: The empty years (1870s-1880s)

Part 7: Archibald Meston

Part 8: Horace Tozer