Saving Boggo Road Gaol and the matter of history

The quadrangle of Boggo Road Gaol, photographed in 1912 (courtesy QldPics).
The quadrangle of Boggo Road Gaol, photographed in 1912 (courtesy QldPics).

History is essential to the task of making sense of ourselves. Our history provides a narrative that helps us understand where we have come from and guides us where we are going. I felt that strongly as a native Irishman, and am now beginning to feel its pull as an Aussie of 25 years standing. As an immigrant it was Australia’s geography that attracted me here in 1988 not its history. My earliest memories of Australia as a child were the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef though I was also fascinated by a second memory, that of a boomerang that when thrown would mysteriously return to the thrower. The boomerang reminded me Australia was the home of Aboriginal people. “Aborigines” was a whitefella construct as was “Aboriginal behaviour” which was non-existent in Melbourne where I lived for nine years. It was visible when I moved to Brisbane, though not to be admired as the “Aborigines” there were drunks, beggars or both. It was no surprise to find Indigenous people were over-represented in jail.  Brisbane’s jail (or gaol to use the spelling here) for over a hundred years, was Boggo Road, an imposing and intimidating castle on a mound in Brisbane’s southside where prisoners had some of the best views around.

The story of Boggo Road Gaol is essential to the story of Brisbane, and it is a story that may be under threat. Most prominently seen from Annerley Road I’d never been there until yesterday because as a northsider I’d never even been down that far south on Annerley Road.  I’d been thinking about visiting the prison for over a year, but my desire was quickened by media reports that suggest developers are hovering over it looking to make money. I believe it is essential they should be stopped, and the site kept and preserved by the State of Queensland, because so much of its history was made at this address.

Annerley Road was always an important thoroughfare on the way to Ipswich (if now neglected by us dreadful northsiders) but it had a reputation for its terrible condition. Initially called Bolgo Road, it became “Boggo” to users continually frustrated by the poor drainage along the road. When a penitentiary opened here in 1883 authorities called it Brisbane Jail but Boggo Road quickly seemed a better name to capture the immobility of its inmates.

The prison had one link to the long-gone convict era. Its oldest artifact is a bell forged in 1838 when it was still the Moreton Bay penal colony with a hundred mile ban on free settlement around Brisbane. The bell would have been mournful for convicts and still carried a threat in the Boggo era, being rung three times before an execution and three times 15 minutes afterwards. Patrick Kenniff would have heard the bell as he went to his death in 1903. Kenniff was a cattle duffer who was hanged for the murder of a policeman out west. Kenniff went to the gallows proclaiming his innocence, but he was probably guilty as was Ernest Austin hanged a decade later for the murder of a young girl.

Austin was the last to be executed at Boggo. Doubts over the effectiveness of capital punishment led Queensland to become the first state (pdf) in Australia to abolish it under the Labor government of EG Theodore in 1922, some 50 years after Boggo Road was built.  That Queensland was capable of such humanitarianism in the 1920s may come as a surprise, but although the bell rang no more, Boggo remained no place for a liberal. The prison was state of the art in the 1880s but was showing its age in its golden years; filthy, overcrowded and with a fearful reputation. It held Queensland’s worst murderers so it was secure but it also held many people on much lesser crimes, many jailed for their sex, their colour or their poverty, and for these people it was hell on earth.

By the 1940s the Nazis had discredited torture but innovations in punishment continued at Boggo. The worst cells were chicken wire sheds out in the open. These were home to recalcitrant prisoners or those the gaolers hated. They had no bed or blankets and their piss-and-shit-bucket would blow over in the wind. It was punishment more fitting for Changi than Brisbane and the gaolers denied its existence for years. Finally photos emerged forcing authorities to close it down. An underground dungeon continued regardless for recidivist offenders.

Boggo Road was not a foolproof prison and many escaped, oddly enough all in daylight. The most notorious escapee was Arthur “Slim” Halliday who absconded twice, and both by the same method. The rough shape of the prison enabled a couple of blind spots on the wall that guarders could not constantly observe. Halliday took advantage of the blind spot to escape in 1940. He was re-captured after two weeks and his gaolers increased the size of the guardhouse on the walls to guard against what inmates called “Halliday’s Leap”. The effect was to move the blind spot further down the wall. Halliday and two others found the new spot in 1946. Halliday was better at escaping than staying free and he was re-captured again after four days. But making fools of prison officers and police by escaping twice did not endear “the Houdini of Boggo Road” to authorities. When finally released Halliday was charged with the murder of a taxi driver, a charge he believed he was framed for, and he didn’t get out until the late 1970s.

By then the prison was dating horribly though the care of prisoners were hardly front and central in the attentions of hard-line Nationals leader Joh Bjelke-Petersen. His tough on crime approach was more geared to filling gaols rather than changing conditions in them. While the government presented a happy, contented and forward-looking Queensland at the expo in 1988, Boggo Road gaol remained a model of inhuman Victorian-era punishment.

The prisoners had the last laugh. The Nationals government booted Joh out of office ahead of Expo as the party became embroiled in corruption controversies. Within months five prisoners took to the roof of Boggo Rd. There they were initially fed by smuggled food from below but after two days it became a hunger strike like some in the cells below. After five days, there were protests outside the prison in favour of the prisoners. A rock band plugged their speakers into a nearby house and played their songs at full blast. An Aboriginal flag flew from the top of the prison, reminding the world their people were among the worst affected by incarceration.

This protest is a good news story. The UN had hammered Queensland on the atrocious treatment of its prisoners and with the government in strife it agreed to close Boggo Rd. The rooftop protesters came down in victory, especially with one additional condition they had got from their jailers: a bucketload of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Just 12 months later, the most notorious place in Queensland was empty. In the 1990s the women’s prison was demolished to make way for an Ecosciences Precinct and park (finally freeing up the wonderful view) leaving the remaining blocks now open for private tours. The Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society is unhappy about the tours which it is says are expensive (I paid $25 for a 90 minute tour yesterday). The Society says the gaol is a public asset and they have welcomed the plans by Leighton Properties to redevelop the site retaining the oldest buildings which date from 1903. But the tour operator Jack Sim is unhappy saying his business is on the line.

It’s difficult to know who is right. The remaining buildings are heritage-listed but that may not be enough to save them. I don’t fully trust Leighton Properties to do the right thing by Boggo Road as like most developers they are capable of killing the goose that lays their golden egg while pretending to honour history (Oaks Festival Towers, anyone?).  Whatever happens, it is crucial Boggo Road remains recognisable as a place of state internment, and its history faithfully recorded. Its ghosts and memories must not be demolished for greedy gain. Our history and our sense of self as Queenslanders, Australians and people demands nothing less.

Joining in the party on Irish history 1912-1923

irish historyTHERE may be no such thing as a free lunch but there may be such a thing as an free online course in history. Irish Central told me today Trinity College Dublin started a class in Irish history called “Irish lives in war and revolution: Exploring Ireland’s history 1912-1923.”  There’s no diploma at the end of it (though you can buy a certificate) but if nothing else it could be useful learning and a possibly stimulating discussion on the most tumultuous era in Ireland since Napoleonic times.

It might be a large discussion. Trinity are expecting as many as 17,000 people to sign up for this Massive Open Online Course. Though it began eight days ago, it’s not too late to join and I became student #17001 today. The course is expected to take six weeks, at five hours a week, with little expectation of prior knowledge of the history (though some knowledge will speed up the process). The 12 years chosen are watershed years. After 112 years of political union with Westminster, 1912 was the year Irish Home Rule was finally passed by the House of Commons (at that stage a bill covering the 32 counties) and 1923 was the end of the undeclared civil war that ensured a Treaty government in Dublin had a lot more power than home rule, but at the cost of six counties ceded to Britain. These events were framed by the modernism that was shaking the world and the Great War that almost tore that world asunder.

I did my catch up week today, and with the aid of fictional characters speaking real words, it introduced the three great main strands of early 20th century Irish political history: parliamentary reform, revolution, and unionism. The unionism is this context is the political union with Britain, not the Trade Unions, who were active but never organised as well in Ireland as they were across the water. The Unionist is the first character and she is a working class Protestant woman in Belfast dedicated to her family, her religion and her culture. Their proud shipbuilding tradition had just taken a huge hit with the sinking of the Titanic. Allied to the catastrophic news that London might approve a parliament in Dublin, it led to a deep sense of troubled times among northern Protestants. Home Rule was Rome Rule to these people, who feared a Catholic parliament would discriminate against them, destroying their industrial base in the process. Led by firebrand lawyer Sir Edward Carson (a nemesis of Oscar Wilde), the Unionists raised a volunteer force of 100,000 men at arms dedicated to stopping Home Rule by force.

The second voice was a moderate Catholic Dubliner. This man was a Redmondite, a follower of Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond, who seemed ready to succeed where the great Parnell had failed and convince London to vote for Home Rule. The Third Home Rule bill was being introduced to Westminster and the hostile Lords could only defer it for two years, meaning that by mid 1914 Ireland would have a parliament again. The Dubliner’s biggest worry was that huge volunteer army massing to the north in opposition. But he had a second worry and that was radicals in the south who were not satisfied with Redmond’s rapprochement with London and who wanted nothing less than full independence.

These radicals are represented by the third voice, a nationalist youth from Cork. This voice was much younger than the other two, a schoolboy influenced by a teacher spreading his own nationalist zeal. These people were frustrated by the delays in handing over power and wanted to speed up the process. In the meantime they poured their energies into cultural pursuits like Na Fianna and gaelic games.

The year 1913 was all about escalating tensions. The Home Rule bill was passed three times by the House and rejected three times by the Lords. Unwilling to wait for a solution from London, the Unionists prepared for civil war with the south. The south in turn copied the Unionists and organised their own large-scale paramilitary force.

When 1914 came, there was more frustration for the Nationalists. Instead of the long promised Home Rule, there was a Great War erupting on the continent. The Unionists, determined to show their loyalty, immediately deployed their entire force to this new conflict. A patient Redmond too had no choice but to support the war. Like most people he believed it would be over in a matter of months and he encouraged service for the King in Flanders to help the Irish cause after the war. The Nationalists were more suspicious. Though never a large number, they believed England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity. They formed a breakaway volunteer movement dedicated to complete rupture from Britain.

Reading the course notes, this Week 1 material aims to introduce the broad themes of the era as well as grappling with the chronology. It also looks at more broad questions of history such as what voices and what perspectives tell the story and why they are selected over others. I look forward to the next few weeks and providing my own perspective on turbulent times.

Australia in the First World War: Gallipoli

Australian Light Horse troopers defend Quinn's Post at Gallipoli.
Australian Light Horse troopers defend Quinn’s Post at Gallipoli.

The death of an Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo in the northern hemisphere summer of 1914 must have seemed like an impossibly distant and unimportant event to people in faraway Australia. Yet within weeks Britain had declared war on Germany and its Allies and that meant Australia was committed too.

As in Europe there was a wild wave of enthusiasm and patriotism and a new volunteer army of 20,000 soldiers sprung into being, called the Australian Imperial Force. The AIF assembled on 26 troopships at Albany, WA where it was joined by ten more troopships from New Zealand. They set sail on November 1, 1914 but not to Europe as most of the men aboard assumed. Turkey had entered the war on Germany’s side and the troops would be needed to defend the vital Suez Canal.

Once in Egypt the Anzacs (as they quickly became known) were placed under the command of Englishman Sir William Birdwood and they trained in the shadow of the pyramids. The army would be needed for First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill’s ambitious plan to knock Turkey out of the war. The plan involved an invasion of Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula which guarded the Dardanelle Straits and the approaches to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul).  The invasion would start at dawn on Sunday, April 25, 1915.

That morning, the men left the convoy of big ships and were towed in boats and rowed ashore. In the confusion of darkness the boats landed at the wrong spot on a beach facing high cliff and ravines. By 8am 8000 men made it ashore despite the heavy fire of Turkish defenders but the thick prickly scrub of the hills prevented easy advance. Some Anzacs penetrated high in the hills only to be cut off, surrounded or forced back. Their frustration was matched by similar British failures landing at the southern tip of Gallipoli at Cape Helles.

By mid-morning the Turks had rushed in reinforcements with orders to defend their country to the death. They engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat and successfully held the commanding heights while the Anzacs dug in on the strip of hills overlooking the beach they would call Anzac Cove. British commander Sir Ian Hamilton refused a dismayed Birdwood permission to withdraw. Birdwood told his men to “dig, dig, dig” and the Anzac line was formed. It would hardly change for the next eight months.

At least 650 Australians died that first day and 2000 were wounded. The weeks that followed took a further bloody toll. The Turkish assault of May 19 was so brutal that both sides agreed on a short armistice to allow burial of the decomposing dead in no-mans-land. The initial newspaper reports back home to Australia spoke of a great success and the number of casualties was hushed up. Yet slowly but surely news of the scale of the slaughter made it back across the world. In a country of five million people, there would be few communities not touched by tragedy.

Still the British commanders refused to acknowledge failure. They launched a fresh offensive in August to capture the high ground and simultaneously landed an invasion force to the north at Suvla Bay. Despite initial success, this operation failed like all the others. Australians began to hear about the names of unfamiliar places such as Lone Pine, the Nek and Chunuk Bair as sites which claimed thousands of casualties.

The August failure doomed the rest of the mission and Hamilton was sacked in October. His replacement General Munro recommended the peninsula be abandoned. When British war secretary Lord Kitchener finally visited Gallipoli he accepted Munro’s advice and by early December the War Cabinet ordered immediate withdrawal ahead of the coming winter. This was the one successful aspect of the campaign with thousands of troops evacuating under the noses of the unsuspecting Turks. The last boats departed before dawn on December 20.

The Australians had suffered 28,000 casualties including 8700 dead. They returned to Egypt and were joined in early 1916 by reinforcements from Australia. This huge force doubled the AIF size from two to four divisions. By March 1916 they were on their way to the Western Front. Many more years of bloody battles awaited before those that survived would see home again.

James Dalton: a tale of Green, White and Orange

Seeing as it is St Patrick’s Day I thought I would tell a whitefella story about a Green albeit one with a strong Orange taint. The green and white is an emigrant Irishman in Australia named James Dalton and the Orange is the beautiful and prosperous city in NSW three hours west of Sydney. I had passed through this city once before, but last week was the first time I’ve stopped to check it out properly.

The view of Summer St Orange from inside the Hotel Orange
The view of Summer St Orange from inside the Hotel Orange
James Dalton, the merchant of Orange.
James Dalton, the merchant of Orange.

The purpose of my visit was to research this chap on the right, James Dalton. Dalton was an Irishman who lived between 1834 and 1919 and made his fame and fortune in Orange, opening several stores, generally making a mint and becoming a leading light of the town as well as Sydney. I’d never heard of him until last year but then a friend of mine who the editor of the Irish Dictionary of Biography asked me would I do an entry on Dalton for the biography. I agreed and I have until September this year to do it.

Dalton already had an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography so I guess if nothing else I could simply have copied that. Written 40 years ago ADB’s Martha Rutledge (who sadly died last year) covers the key moments of his life. Dalton was born on a farm at Duntryleague, Co Limerick near Tipperary. His life course was set as a one year old when his father, also James, was transported to Australia for the crime of kidnapping a widow for the purpose of marrying his brother-in-law. James’s mother died young and his two elder siblings went to America leaving James orphaned in Limerick. Finally when his father obtained his ticket-of-leave, he called for his youngest son to join him in Australia. James senior had served his sentence in Bathurst and was now a storekeeper further west. James junior arrived in 1849, aged 15 and joined his father who was now at Summerhill, outside what would become the town of Orange. The pair were in the right place at the right. Nearby at Ophir and then at Lucknow, miners would find gold in large commercial quantities in the next two years, the first such finds in Australia.

The gold mine at Lucknow, just outside Orange.
The gold mine at Lucknow, just outside Orange.

The Dalton’s business did well as prospectors poured into the region. A township grew up at nearby Blackman’s Swamp (named for a Constable Blackman of Bathurst not the Aboriginal people who had been displaced from the district by white settlers). The burghers preferred to give it a name that Thomas Mitchell called the area when he came through exploring in 1830. Mitchell honoured the name of a Dutchman William, Prince of Orange, he served with in the Peninsular Wars against Napoleon in 1812. This was a descendant of the famous William of Orange, the scourge of Catholics in the glorious revolution in the 1690s, an irony surely not lost on the Irishman Dalton. Not that young James had too much time to ponder. He set himself up in business alone in a small shop near the post office. It would become the grandest department store in all of western NSW.

Now the site of Myer department store in Orange, the only sign this was once James Dalton's store is the text "founded in 1849" above the main entrance.
Now the site of Myer department store in Orange, the only sign this was once James Dalton’s store is the text “founded in 1849″ above the main entrance.
Dalton's mill (now demolished) on Summer St, Orange.
Dalton’s mill (now demolished) on Summer St, Orange.

At his store Dalton would accept gold and other items in barter. Much of the gold mined at Ophir ended up in the pockets of Orange merchants. Dalton had a particularly good reputation for being able to source anything miners needed and he established a good import network from Britain and America. By the late 1850s he was secure enough to court another merchant’s daughter and his wealth attracted his elder brother Thomas from America. Together they called their stores the Dalton Bros and they expanded to create Orange’s first flour mill. They shipped flour to England where it fetched a premium price and they also handled wool.

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The magnificent Duntryleague home was built in 1876 and now houses Orange Golf Club
Dalton and his wife Margaret had 12 children and he set about becoming a patriarch to the town as well as his family. He became a local magistrate and councillor. In 1865 he was the deputy captain of Orange’s first volunteer fire service and in 1869 he became mayor of Orange. He built several lavish town and country houses, most like Emly, Knocklong and Bruff named for places in Limerick and Tipperary of his youth. The most impressive Duntryleague, (in 1876) was named for his birthplace in Limerick, just a townland near Galbally, and now its namesake the home of the Orange golf club.

It was here in 1883 where Dalton hosted the Irish political figures, the brothers John and Willie Redmond. The Redmonds were Westminster MPs and Parnellites on a world tour to drum up support for home rule for Ireland. This is was controversial in Empire-supporting Australia, especially in the wake of the Phoenix Park murder of Ireland’s top British official a year earlier. When the Redmonds came to Orange, they spoke at Duntryleague because the town’s Protestant establishment would not supply a hall for them. Dalton gave the welcome speech to the Redmonds and he was attacked in the Sydney press for disloyalty and sedition. Dalton was forced to resign his magistracy as were several other prominent Catholic businessmen in Orange. Dalton was unabashed and built the Australian Hall in Orange so never again would officials stop them from hosting a public meeting. Though the Redmonds moved on, the link was permanent with John Redmond marrying the brothers’ half-sister Johanna and Willie Redmond marrying James’ daughter Eleanor. The young emigrant Dalton was now part of Ireland’s political royalty.

St Joseph's Catholic Church, Orange where Dalton was a prominent member. One of his houses was just across the road.
St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Orange where Dalton was a prominent member. One of his houses was just across the road.

James and Thomas Dalton would later split their business with Thomas looking after its Sydney interests. He also followed James as Mayor of Orange and served as an MP for New South Wales. James preferred to stay in Orange where he was a leading light in the Catholic community. James’s proudest moment was to be a mitre bearer as Sydney’s Irish Cardinal Patrick Moran unveiled the foundation stone on the extensions to St Joseph’s Church. His beloved wife died in 1904 aged 64 and James died on St Patrick’s Day 1919 aged 84. The value of his estate was £73,154. Eldest son Thomas Garrett (Gatty) married an Irish girl and succeeded his father managing the store, and becoming mayor of Orange 1903-06.  The Dalton family were feted in 2013 with an exhibition at Duntryleague marking 160 years of contribution to the town.The 2013 Dalton exhibition at Duntryleague, Orange (photo courtesy Euan Greer)

The 2013 Dalton exhibition at Duntryleague, Orange (photo courtesy Euan Greer, Orange Historical Society)

Australia: a country in desperate need of a climate change policy

Before someone puts Tony Abbott out of our misery, the Liberal Party should take a long moment to think about climate change and what its next leader should do about it. It is a process it needs to complete by December because its government will be representing Australia at the time of the Paris Climate Change conference. That conference has the express goal of containing “climate disruption” within a two degree upper limit and the adoption of an international agreement to move the world towards a low-carbon economy by 2020. And Australia hasn’t the slightest hope of meeting any such commitment based on its current policies.

The working document for this conference is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 Synthesis Report (or whatever will supersede it this year).The climate change science in this report is  telling us we are in bad shape. Each of the last three decades has been warmer than any decade since 1850. The last 30 years are likely to be the warmest 30 years of the last 1400 years. The upper ocean temperature is warming and ocean acidification has increased by a quarter in the industrial era. Arctic sea ice is decreasingly by 4% a decade and the sea level rose 0.2% in the 20th century. All this has resulted in large increases in carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, particularly in the last 40 years.

The future the report is predicting is of more rising sea levels, more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and more extreme weather events including cyclones, droughts and floods across the world. This is a dire scenario and if inter-generational theft means anything at all, then surely this is it. What then, is the government of the day in Australia doing about it?

Well, It’s actually hard to tell it is doing anything at all about it. While it is unsurprising to note that Tony Abbott hasn’t mentioned climate change in a speech in over three months, it’s more surprising to note that a search of the Liberal Party policies page has no official policy on climate change. That is, unless you think scrapping the carbon price, removing government oversight mechanisms, building highways and tunnels, and supporting the coal industry amount to addressing climate disruption.

The closest thing the Liberals have to an official environment policy is a $2 billion green army aimed at as much as heritage and agriculture protection as the environment. The Green Army is a John Howard-style militia inspired by the motherhood vision for Australia where “individually and collectively, we can more often be our best selves” so they can “do the right things by those around them.” But this army lacks the artillery to deal with the bigger environmental problems especially in two industries Australia is vulnerable in: manufacturing and mining.

Then there’s “direct action”.  Seen by almost everyone outside the government as a hopelessly ineffective solution, it does not even merit its own policy page on the Liberal website.  There is blurb on the Emissions Reduction Fund (the centrepiece of the policy) on the environment department website but that is severely lacking in detail.  It’s reliance on big government intervention to meet targets is also stark contrast to the laissez-faire attitude the Coalition has to other areas of the economy. A market-based cap-and-trade approach seems a more logical approach but that would admit that it’s opposition to Labor policy for the last four years was wrong.

This extraordinary inaction to the world’s biggest problem can only be explained one way. This government has been captured by those who simply do not believe the climate change science. When the government repealed the carbon price legislation last July, Liberal Senator Ian McDonald said what many in his party room would agree with. “If there is global warming, notwithstanding that in Brisbane on Saturday morning we had the coldest day in 113 years – but I have always indicated,” McDonald said, “I have an open mind on this.”  What McDonald really meant is that he has a closed mind on this. Climate change is bunkum, he believes, or “crap” as his party leader once offered. Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, who was instrumental in wrecking bi-partisan agreement on carbon pricing, takes a similar view.

Joyce doesn’t have a vote on who should be the next party leader but it is safe to say he will be active behind the scenes. He continues to be a fan of Tony Abbott because he knows Abbott will continue the ‘do nothing’ approach. But even Abbott’s one and only speech on climate change in the last three months admits that is no longer an option. On December 14, 2014, Abbott was dragged kicking and screaming into pledging $200m over four years to UN’s Green Climate Fund, despite it being what he called “socialism masquerading as environmentalism”.  Abbott did this not only because he was friendless on the issue but because he knows Paris is looming. In the same release Abbott admitted he needed a taskforce “to propose possible new post-2020 targets for Australia to take to the Paris Conference of the UNCCC in December 2015.”

That taskforce is yet to materialise leaving Australia no closer to effective action. “Direct Action” may or may not fluke its way to achieving Australia’s miserly 2020 target but is utterly useless beyond that.  Abbott and his supporters can doubt the science all they like, but the world is moving on anyway. Australia needs a climate change policy before December. This is the problem Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and anyone else who would be prime minister needs to grapple with urgently.

How Isaac Isaacs pipped Baron Birdwood to Australia’s Governor-General

james scullin
James Scullin (Australian Prime Minister 1929-1932)

As the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli approaches, Baron William Birdwood will be one of many names feted. It was General Birdwood’s decision as the head of the A and NZ Army Corps to approve the acronym Anzac. Though not Australian he became known as the ‘Soul of Anzac’ and he risked shelling in his own headquarters at Gallipoli. This Indian-born officer was a true servant of Empire and served king and country in the Boer War, Turkey and France in the First World War, before returning to his native India where he was army commander in chief in difficult pre-independence times.

He was also an aide-de-camp to King George V and was still a favourite of His Majesty when he visited Sandringham in 1930. An important sinecure was becoming available and George had Birdwood in mind for the job. The British conservative politician Viscount Stonehaven’s term as Governor-General of Australia was expiring that year and George thought Birdwood would be a perfect fit. Not only was there the Anzac link but Birdwood’s daughter had married a WA grazier.

But the newly elected Labor prime minister of Australia James Scullin had other ideas. The working class son of Irish emigrants from Derry, Scullin was feted by the leaders of the Irish Free State on a visit to Europe that same year of 1930. Having emerged from civil war, Ireland was trying to distinguish itself from the British Commonwealth and Scullin supported her right to govern itself. It mirrored, he said, what was happening in Australia where they “were building up their own national ideals and to place Australia as the first nation in their hearts.”

Birdwood would pay for Scullin’s ideals and the prime minister advised King George to appoint Australian-born Isaac Isaacs as the next governor-general. The Jewish Isaacs had the calibre for the role as the chief justice of the High Court, but Scullin’s recommendation was an affront to the King who normally picked from a list of choices, of which Birdwood would surely have made the short list. Instead Scullin was presenting a take-it-or-leave it choice. The idea of an Australian born king’s representative was most unwelcome.

The unhappy King cut short Scullin’s visit to Ireland with a summons to the palace. Scullin told George he was determined to appoint Isaacs and would hold an election on issue of an Australian governor-general. There was also recent precedents of native-born Governors-General in Scullin’s own Ireland. The King was appalled but not prepared to risk a constitutional crisis. Isaacs, then aged 75, was appointed despite Australian opposition leader John Latham saying the appointment would diminish the “sentiment of attachment and loyalty to the Crown”.  The socialist newspaper Labor Call had no such worries. Scullin, they said, had shown the world “Australians are equal, if not superior, to any imported pooh-bah.”

Whether Labor Call had Birdwood in mind with their insult is not known, but the “soul of Anzac” had to make do with becoming the master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Meanwhile, with the depression in full swing, Isaacs was a frugal Governor-General and agreed to a pay cut. He was also the first to live permanently at Yarralumla. On his retirement in 1936, the new conservative government went back to appointing members of the British aristocracy in the Earl of Gowrie. Only one of the next six was Australian, William McKell, appointed by another Irish-heritage prime minister Ben Chifley. Since 1965 all Governors-General have been Australian born. It shouldn’t be a necessity – as the birthplace of two of the last three prime ministers can attest -but the idea that an Australian-born leader should be inferior to a foreigner is now a laughable oddity. Birdwood, the hero of Anzac, would probably have made a good governor-general but Scullin was right to stand firm.

Faith, hope and charity: Blackbirding Bandler

faith bandlerThe death of Faith Bandler last week has thrown light on two reasons how Australia got wealthy and why the country doesn’t like talking about its past.

Bandler was one of the key figures behind the 1967 referendum which insisted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders be counted in the census and also gave the Commonwealth power to legislate over Indigenous issues. These items seem small but the fact that the referendum passed with around 90% support shows the white guilt Bandler and others were able to tap into it in order to get this rare successful change to the Australian constitution.

The fact that Australia had stolen the land, killed the natives, used the survivors as sex slaves and cheap labour and then stole even those meagre wages was not openly spoken of by those promoting the change. But it existed as an undercurrent to Australia’s well-fed sense of self-satisfaction behind the white picket fences of the 1960s.

Bandler’s own obvious non-whiteness added to her stature as a spokesperson but she was not Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. She got her skin colour from her Melanesian dad but it’s fair to say her feistiness was in no small part to her Scottish-Indian mother. This mongrel pot-pourri of cultures made Bandler a true Australian of the later part of the 20th century. It was a time Australia “unforgot” its Indigenous people and quietly cast away the White Australia Policy, a policy capital and labour supported for 60 years.

Bandler’s Melanesian background was a reminder of another shameful part of Australian colonial capitalist history, a history ironically blown away by the White Australian Policy, though not for altruistic reasons.  Her father Wacvie Mussingkon was from Ambrym Island on the now independent nation of Vanuatu, an island affected by its brush with British and French colonial history.

Fresh from his triumph of “claiming” New South Wales for his British paymasters, Captain Cook was on his second tour of the South Pacific when he arrived at Vanuatu and named it New Hebrides. France also had designs on the region but it was the venture capitalism unleashed by the American Civil War that saw a carpetbagging Irishman named J.C. Byrne think of sending indentured labour to the farms of Peru.

In 1862 Byrne convinced one group of desperate New Hebridean farmers on the edge of famine to go to South America.  His success gave profiteers from other settler parts of the world the incentive to “convince” islanders to sign up to such ventures,  and coercion and trickery became common.

By the 1870s northern Australian canegrowers, unable to attract white labour from the south, got in on the act. By then the practice was called blackbirding, from the “blackbirds” Europeans agents caught in the wild.  The growers eagerly took these blackbirds from many islands across the western Pacific, including New Hebrides, as indentured labour.  Indenturing was a contract for a fixed term of three years and despite several laws designed to clean up the industry, the labourers were housed in primitive conditions, forced to work long hours and received little or no pay. One in five died during their contract.

About 60,000 south sea islanders came to Australia during the 40 years of blackbirding, tricked into a form of slavery to keep the Queensland economy pumping. The 1880 Pacific island Labourers Act (Queensland) gave some improvement by licensing the process but restricted Melanesians to menial jobs.  The end of the century was dominated by the Federation debate and the need to create a white Australia. The sugar industry fought for the right to continue to import cheap labour but were thwarted by one of the first laws passed by the new Commonwealth, the 1901 Pacific Island Labourers Act. The 10,000 islanders still in Australia were ordered to leave and 70% of them were deported. About 10% were granted residency on compassionate grounds and another 20% stayed on illegally.

Wacvie Mussingkon was among that latter group, who like Stockholm Syndrome sufferers, grew to love Australia despite its inhumane ways. The Federal Government stopped blackbirding not because of the humanitarian need of Ambrym Islanders but because they didn’t want people from Ambrym in the country at all.

Yet people like Mussingkon survived and his offspring thrived. Faith’s politics were shaped by the injustices that shaped her upbringing. She proved this by her choice of marriage to another outsider : Jewish refugee Hans Bandler. Hans left Vienna to escape the Nazis and shared Faith’s radical ideas about society. Faith suffered discrimination of her own due to her darker skin. Together Faith and Hans would fight for civil rights and economic justice for the rest of their lives. Faith Bandler’s fight ended when she died last week aged 97.  I can only agree with Prime Minister Tony Abbott when he said Bandler had spent her life “pointing the way to a better and fairer Australia”. It’s something Abbott himself should aspire to.