First World War visions: Remembering the Fourteen Points

Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson

Centenary commemorations of individual events are already forming a constant First World War reminder between now and 2018. Those who see the war as four years of senseless capitalistic carnage will no doubt be depressed by the litany of ceremonies but that won’t make them disappear any quicker. For better or worse, the First World War is an important marker of human history and one that cannot be ignored. A better question to ask than ‘why are we marking this anniversary?” is “what is the legacy of the First World War and why is it relevant 100 years later?”

I was confronted by that question last monyh in Laidley, near Brisbane, where the local historical society had re-enacted the recruitment march through the town. There in 1914 like many other towns across the world, young men enthusiastically signed up for “the cause”. As they marched up the main street to the music of the Salvation Army band, they were cheered on by townspeople who were greeted by signs the men held which asked “Will you Join Us?”.

The 2014 march had the band and a cheering audience and even the sign. But what were the 21st century crowd being asked to join if not in a fetish of history? Arguably the most important legacy is the mess that is the Middle East, a direct consequence of the war and a place where Australian forces are still sent to on a regular basis. But that fact is not noticeable in commemorations in Australia where spending on First World War centennial celebrations outstrips any other country.

That will reach a crescendo as Gallipoli approaches its anniversary in April 2015. The motifs will be about mateship, honour and sacrifice and there will be similar breast-beating when it comes to remembering Ypres, the Somme, Villers-Bretennoux and other places where Aussies died in large numbers. I asked the Laidley organiser why he was arranging their commemoration. “Because,” he said, “they died to preserve our way of life.” I didn’t say anything in response because I disagreed with him but didn’t think it polite to argue the point. How exactly, I wondered, did Australians dying in European trenches preserve “our” way of life?

I may have thought his words were simplistic, but I couldn’t get them out of my head. I’ve been thinking about them ever since: What was it in the world that was worth preserving in 1914? The First World War has never had the emotional capacity to engage like the Second World War. It wasn’t a fight against totalitarian evil and all parties seemed equally culpable of warmongering. There were no figures of evil as stark as Hitler and Stalin and there were no scapegoats like the Jews with which to heap homage on. Yet millions would die between 1914 and 1918 for a war that seemed to have no reason for beginning and no excuse to end. No nation in that war bothered to tell the world what its aims were in fighting the war.

Well, none but one. That one was America and it was done in president Woodrow Wilson’s extraordinary Fourteen Points. America was a latecomer to the war but by 1918 had proven it was the world’s superpower in economic capability. The words of its president were listened to as the prognostications of an all-conquering Caesar. In January that year Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress to publicly declare America’s war aims. Wilson was reacting to political pressure not moral obligation. The US had entered the war nine months earlier and there was still some resistance by many Americans wanting neutrality. Wilson had formed a group of experts he called The Inquiry to produce a report of the aims of all countries in the war and determine what America’s goals should be. Their report formed the basis of the Fourteen Points.

The points are almost completely forgotten today but they were hugely influential at the time as a wide-ranging and optimistic blueprint of how a 20th century democratic world might look. The first five points were about general conduct: The first point called for open diplomacy and no secret treaties, the second for freedom of the seas, the third for removal of economic barriers, the fourth about reducing arms and the fifth about balance in resolving colonial disputes. The next seven points delved deeper in the world’s trouble spots. Six called for an independent Russia, seven a free Belgium, eight a restored France, nine a genuine Italian nation, ten the dismantling of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, 11 independence for the Slav countries and Serbian access to the sea, 12 the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire (the point that still reverberates today) and 13 the re-establishment of Poland. The last point called for a new general association of nations to guarantee “political independence and territorial integrity”.

Wilson’s speeches of a new international order had captured the imagination of people across the world desperate for new ideas after the cynicism and destruction of the war. Wilson, said his biographer John Thompson, had the authority of a pope and the might of an emperor. Yet he was a reluctant warrior. A former president of Princeton, Wilson was an unlikely president of America. Elected in 1912, he played a major part in keeping the US out of the war that followed. Indeed, he was re-elected in 1916 on the express promise to keep America neutral. German U-boats dragged him into the war in 1917. But when in December 1918 he became the first serving US president to travel abroad he was treated in London and Paris like the Second Coming.

The Fourteen Points was delivered in January 1918 when the impact of the American war involvement was beginning to be felt. The Germanic centre had fought the allies on two fronts into a gigantic stalemate for three years. American manpower meant they were finally breeching the trenches. It was a Russian victory though that turned the war into defeat. Though the Russians lost much at Brest-Litovsk, they spread ideas of revolution into Germany. To protect its own political flank, Germany agreed to end the war and the country itself was never invaded.

The idealism of Wilson’s points struck an immediate chord, even Lenin applauded its vision as he returned to a disintegrating Russia. Wilson was offering not just peace but a new beginning. The plan was popular in Allied countries and even among the people in the Central Powers: everyone was war-weary after four years.  But the plan had many enemies too, particularly among Wilson’s supposed allies who thought he was trying to entrench American hegemony. French president Clemenceau spoke for them when he supposedly said “The Good Lord only gave us Ten Commandments; the American president has given us fourteen.” Clemenceau had reason for his snark. The Points directly contradicted French and British secret plans for management of the world in the post-war period and they offered no clue as to how to deal with Germany.

In October 1918, Germany offered peace on the terms of the Fourteen Points and they later formed the basis for discussion in the Paris Peace Conference. Though Britain and France outfoxed Wilson in Paris and a hostile Senate defeated him in Washington when he returned, the Fourteen Points stand alone as a justification for the war. The points were Euro-centric, flawed and opaque – the former Ottoman countries are still working through an achievable form of government and democracy – but Wilson stands alone in articulating some vision from four years of carnage. I’m still not sure what “our” way of life is, but Wilson’s Points aren’t a bad start for discussion. They deserve better than to be forgotten in the rush of military commemoration.

Franz Ferdinand and the end of the 19th century: a time for thought

Archduke FerdinandYesterday 100th anniversary of the death in Sarajevo of the heir to Austria-Hungary’s throne Franz Ferdinand provides an apt moment to consider the turning points of history. His death effectively ended the 19th century, and led to the great carnage and chaos of the First World War. There is a good primer up on the ABC on who Archduke Franz Ferdinand was, why he was killed and why his death was so important to history.  It contains a quote from Britain’s Duke of Portland of which I was unaware. Ferdinand was visiting Portland in November 1913 and the pair were shooting pheasant on the latter’s estate. One of Portland’s men loading the shotguns tripped over and accidently discharged the guns narrowly missing the two dukes. Portland later said, “I have often wondered whether the Great War might not have been averted, or at least postponed, had the archduke met his death there and not at Sarajevo the following year.”

Portland musings make for a delightful counterfactual but as even his own ‘postponed’ clause hints, the First World War was always coming and Franz Ferdinand’s death was merely the excuse, not its cause. German militarism had been on the rise for 20 years, the delicate European balance of power was tottering and individual leaders were reckless and stupid. There was also the rising demon of European nationalism which the great powers could no longer control, to which Franz Ferdinand, as an imposed Hapsburg leader of a patchwork of Slav nations, was especially vulnerable. There were six assassins waiting for him in Bosnia on the day of his death. They almost failed that day, but sooner or later, some Slav nationalist would take their grievances to him or another Hapsburg. And the inevitable consequences would be that the delicate house of cards European monarchs built to spread the colonial largesse evenly would coming crashing down.

It was fitting that an Austrian’s death would bring the 19th century to an end, as it was another Austrian, Prince Metternich who started it one hundred years earlier in 1815. European was emerging from the chaos of Napoleon’s wars and his attempt to become a European hegemon. Metternich hosted the Congress of Vienna where diplomats could decide borders in salons not on European battlefields. As Europe industrialised and a growing middle class became prosperous, the patchwork peace enabled the major powers to concentrate on building colonial empires in other parts of the world.  Occasionally those powers would get together again in genteel surrounds as they did in Berlin in 1878 to re-adjust the borders of the world on European terms.

The fate of Bosnia was a key plank of that Berlin Treaty. Still a de jure part of the tottering Ottoman Empire, the major powers agreed it would be de facto part of the Austria-Hungary Empire which occupied and administered Sarajevo. Bosnian Slavs were unhappy to have their masters changed without their say, especially as the Treaty also recognised the independence of next door Serbia. For its part Serbia had its own designs on Bosnia, conscious of its strong Serb minority. When Bulgaria declared its independence in 1906 from the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary moved to formally annex Bosnia. But as the Ottomans displayed more symptoms of the Sick Man of Europe, the Balkan powderkeg erupted again in 1912, as Montenegro, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria formed the Balkan League to end the empire’s interests in continental Europe. An alarmed Austria-Hungary pushed for what would have been an earlier start to a World War but the German generals on whom they relied said they were not ready to be mobilised until the summer of 1914.

So it was inevitable that the Balkan region of the Austria-Hungarian empire would be where the match for war would be lit. However, Fukuyama wrote of another “intangible but crucial factor”, the dullness and lack of community in European life in 1914. The Archduke’s assassination was greeted with frenzied pro Austrian demonstrations in Berlin despite Germany’s lack of skin in the game. Modris Eckstein’s Rites of Spring captured the mood in Europe in the summer of 1914 and Eckstein quoted a worker in the Berlin crowds who said they were all seized by one earnest emotion “War, war and a sense of togetherness”. Eckstein quotes anti-war German law student who was drafted when hostilities broke out in September. The war was “dreadful, unworthy of human beings, stupid, outmoded and in every sense destructive,” the student said. Yet he willingly enlisted, understanding duty as a moral imperative regardless of the dubious reasons. “The decisive issue,” he said, ” is surely always one’s readiness to sacrifice and not the object of sacrifice.” This notion of “Pficht” was echoed across Europe and across British dominions around the world as a sense of duty and excitement for action proved a potent brew.

If the Archduke’s death was the end of the 19th century, then the First World War was a bloody interregnum, where as Churchill wrote, the life-energy of the greatest nations were poured in wrath and slaughter. The 20th century, as Hobsbawm argues, began with the 1917 Russian Revolution and ended with the storming of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But it could also be argued it effectively began with the Peace of Versailles, a treaty just as cynical and plundering of the world’s riches as the Congress of Vienna 100 years earlier. France’s Marshal Foch accurately summed up Versailles: “This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years.” Similar hopes for the end of all wars were held in 1946 and institutions like Bretton-Woods seemed to keep an entente cordiale at least in the western world. Then when the Wall fell, hopes again rose of ending all wars.

Writing in 1991 Fukuyama following Hegel and Marx, hailed what he called “the end of history”, a period where the dignity of democracy would rule triumphant. The real history shows the ‘new world order’ didn’t last long at all. China and Russia adopted capitalism without the democratic trimmings while Versailles creations like Iraq began to fracture. Bosnia and the Balkan map looks familiar again to Franz Ferdinand while 1930s style ultra-nationalism has returned to a frightened and lost Europe. Religious zealotry has made many parts of Asia and Africa no go zones for moderates. Now more than ever it is crucial to seek answers from the past, to understand our present. Arnold Toynbee may be right in saying history was ‘one damn thing after another’ but that is no reason not to understand its consequences.  Anniversaries like Franz Ferdinand’s death provide a time for thought we should not miss.

Remembering the Coniston Massacre 85 years on

“It was not so long in the history of the Australian nation that this terrible thing happened. It is a part of Australian history we cannot ignore, let alone forget and for the Warlpiri people it is a history of irreplaceable loss” – John Ah Kit NT parliament 2003

Yurrkuru Soakage, NT. Photo: George Serras.
Yurrkuru Soakage, NT. Photo: George Serras.

Around now, we should be commemorating the 85th anniversary of the Coniston massacre in the Northern Territory, the last major act in the 140 year war of occupation for Australia. I say “around now” because the killing went on for over six weeks between August and October 1928 and I say “should” because it has received almost no media exposure, with SBS the only honourable exception.  While we remember overseas wars in intimate detail, there is little appetite to commemorate a massacre on Australian soil that spread out over a number of sites killing up to 100 people that happened well into the 20th century. The trigger was a black on white murder, because as native bush worker Paddy Tucker said matter-of-factly “No Aboriginal could be allowed to get away with shooting a white man on the frontier, whatever the circumstances.”

Aboriginals had lived in Central Australia for thousands of years but it had only been a frontier for last 70. The first white man in the region was John McDouall Stuart who launched several expeditions of discovery north from Adelaide in the 1850s and 60s. On his fourth journey in April 15, 1860 he described the valleys of the MacDonnell Ranges as “as fine a pastoral hill country as a man could wish to possess”. Possession was indeed the name of the game and the Overland Telegraph Line brought more whites into this difficult country in the 1870s as well as the first cattle. As they did in every other part of Australia, the native tribes resisted this invasion, but the whites kept coming. The trickle became a flood inspired by gold finds at Hall’s Creek in 1909 and the federal push to develop the Northern Territory after taking it over from South Australia in 1911.

Coniston cattle station was founded in the wake of World War I and stocked with cattle in 1923. It exists today as a working cattle station on the edge of the Tanami Desert 300km north west of Alice Springs. Its advantage in a very dry area is that it has a sustainable natural water supply fed by a huge underground basin. Founding pastoralist Randal Stafford named Coniston for his native town in the English Lake District at Cumbria. The Australian Coniston was much harsher environment. In fact it was the last frontier between British and Aboriginal law.

Today the nearest Aboriginal town to Coniston is at Yuendumu established in 1946 by the Australian Government Native Affairs Branch for Anmatyerre and Warlpiri people.  Before Yuendumu, the Anmatyerre and Warlpiri people lived scattered lives through the region as did a third group known as Kaytetye.  These people watched uneasily as properties like Coniston began to take access to their waterholes for their stock. To the Warlpiri people, the prospectors, pastoralists and other travellers were ruthless trespassers who damaged sacred sites and took their waterholes, and sometimes their women. Stafford himself took an Aboriginal wife.

Stafford’s neighbour was William John (“Nugget”) Morton who took up Broadmeadows. Morton held the Aborigines in disdain always sitting with his back to them in any camp. He was also ruthless and sadistic, and thought nothing of stealing the wives of hands that came to work for him. Morton ruled by fear and with the whip he dealt out to whites and blacks alike.

Native problems with difficult cattlemen were worsened by a growing drought that crippled central Australia from 1924. Aboriginals gravitated to the few remaining good waterholes such as those on Coniston and Broadmeadows, spearing cattle to supplement their meagre diet. In August 1928, Charles Young, a pastoralist on Cockatoo Creek reported that things were bad out Coniston way and “the niggers seemed to be out of control”.  Young said they came to his camp and demanded food and tobacco. “They all had spears and boomerangs and were semi-civilised blacks. We were armed with Winchester rifles all the time. I fired over the heads of the blacks several times with the result that they cleared out.” With settlers and Aboriginal people competing for the same resources, central Australia was a tinderbox ready to ignite.

The spark was Fred Brooks, a veteran cattle hand at Coniston station, aged 67 in 1928. Brooks had known Stafford for many years and helped him establish Coniston. However there was no money for wages during the drought so supplemented his income by dingo trapping. He bought two camels and took two Aboriginal boys on an expedition.  Brooks knew the local Aborigines and was not worried by growing tensions. The party set up camp at Yurrkuru Soakage near a number of Warlpiri families whom Fred probably knew from their seasonal work at Coniston.

Bullfrog Japanangka   was one of a sizeable group of Warlpiri camped at Yurrkuru and he had three wives. At gunpoint, Brooks demanded he loan him two wives to help him gather firewood and generally act as camp assistants.  Brooks promised Bullfrog payment of food and tobacco in return.  A few days later, Bullfrog was still waiting for his payment and now his third wife also ended up in Brooks’ camp.  Enraged he attacked Brooks’ camp with the help of other warriors.  He commanded his wives to hold Fred’s hand behind his back. One warrior hit Brooks on the head with a yamstick, while Bullfrog hit him several times on the head with an axe. Other men also hit him with boomerangs and axes.  Brooks was hastily buried with one foot sticking out of a shallow grave. Brooks’ two Aboriginal helpers fled to Coniston to raise the alarm. Bullfrog and his family escaped to the mountains and played no further part in the following events.

Once Stafford found out about Brooks’ murder, he rang Police Commissioner John Cawood in Alice Springs. Cawood told Stafford mounted constable George Murray was already on his way to the region to investigate cattle killings in the Pine Hill and Coniston station country. Murray was the local “Protector of Aborigines” and was driving to Stafford’s property hoping to borrow horses for patrols.  Murray was a war veteran and Cawood’s formal instructions were to arrest the culprits and to avoid violence where possible. But it wasn’t protection that Cawood or Murray had in mind for the Aborigines, instead it was tacitly understood he would “teach them a lesson”. Murray arrived at Coniston on August 12 where he interviewed Brooks’ black accomplices. He was there three days later when two warriors arrived. After a scuffle Murray shot and wounded one and chained them to a tree overnight.  The two men were on a list of over 20 people Murray believed were involved in the murder. The following day Murray led a patrol of seven including Stafford and his two prisoners to a Warlpiri camp 18km west of Coniston.

Though Murray told the posse there was to be no shooting unless necessary, he rushed in ahead causing consternation in the camp. When he tried to arrest a native they fought back. Murray fired two shots and several of the posse including Stafford also fired their guns.  One of the posse, Jack Saxby was later to say, “You cannot arrest these bush blacks.” At least five Aborigines died in this first act of reprisal, according to the whites’ testimony at the later Board of Inquiry.  Further west of Coniston, the posse picked up more Warlpiri tracks and surrounded a party of blacks. At least eight, and possibly 14, warriors were shot dead. Two more were shot dead as they tried to escape at Cockatoo Spring with Murray proud of his revolver shot at “at least 150 yards distant”.  At this stage the patrol returned to Coniston station and Randal Stafford would take no further part in the remaining killing.

The next encounter was at Six Mile Soak where Saxby said they surrounded a camp. He was the marksman stationed at the back to see none escaped. “I could tell that the blacks were showing fight, by their talk and the rattle of their weapons,” Saxby said. He heard Murray telling them to put down their weapons then heard several shots. “The blacks saw me coming and threw a couple of spears at me,” he said. “I jumped off my horse and fired four or five shots with my rifle. I do not know whether I hit them or not. I certainly tried.” At least six more were dead. The killing party then spent several days following blacks towards the WA border where the spree continued. When later asked by the Board of Inquiry, “Did you shoot to kill Mr Murray?” he responded, “Every time.” When asked, “You did not want to be bothered with wounded blackfellows?” he responded, “Well, what could I do with wounded blackfellows?”

Missionary Annie Lock was one of many horrified by the tales she was hearing from natives. As she put it, it was “the story of one surprise visit after another to native camps by the police, each time resulting in the shooting and killing of natives. Some said there were eighty killed, others made the number less. At the official enquiry, some months later, the number given was seventeen, but seventy was the number generally believed in the bush.”

Whether it was 17 or 70, the killing wasn’t over.  An Aboriginal war party attacked Nugget Morton on the belief he too was about to start a massacre (though this may have been based on a misunderstanding he was about to kill a beast). Morton was attacked but gave as good as he got and escaped by horse. Meanwhile Murray’s party was now sent to Pine Hill to investigate cattle thefts there. They met a sizeable group of Kaytetye warriors in three encounters and although no record of the meeting survives, it is likely there were considerable Aboriginal casualties. While there was certain acceptance in frontier society of “an eye for an eye”, there was unease growing as the extent of Murray’s bloodthirsty rampage became known. On September 11, the first account of the slaughter appeared in an Adelaide newspaper.

Commissioner Cawood was now presented with a problem. He needed to someone to investigate Morton’s attackers but Murray had gone too far. Yet because of a shortage of manpower, Murray was instructed again to prepare for a third patrol to Morton’s Broadmeadows station. The killings continued  wherever Murray’s party encountered Aborigines. In one incident, Murray reported that “even after several shots were fired it did not steady them. When order was restored it was found there were eight killed.”  At the end of the patrol Murray and Morton estimated they had killed 14 warriors. The killing was finally ended when Murray had to go to Darwin for the trial of two men accused of killing Brooks.

The trial of Padygar and Arkirkra was brief. It started on November 7, 1928, three months after Brooks’ death. Murray summarised the first patrol in which Padygar was arrested at the start and Arkirka at the end. But the one white person, Bruce Chapman, who had seen Brooks’ body, was himself dead. Murray admitted openly he shot to kill in reprisal. The jury needed just 15 minutes to acquit the pair. The Darwin correspondent for the Adelaide newspaper said “Press, pulpit, and the general public unanimously agree with the jury’s verdict in the aboriginal trial, and are shocked by the candid admissions of the police that they shot to kill natives who showed fight when overtaken.”

A key figure in raising awareness of the killing was Methodist lay minister Athol McGregor of Katherine after he heard 17 Aboriginals were shot dead in one of the punitive raids at Stuart Town. He confronted Commissioner Cawood who defended the killing. Cawood became worried when McGregor wanted a Board of Inquiry. He encouraged journalists to cover the Darwin trial and Murray’s testimony gave them their headlines.  Even a League of Nations representative made negative comments. Prime Minister Stanley Bruce and Cabinet Ministers were inundated with letters and petitions demanding an enquiry though the majority of Stuart Town residents though they were “do-gooders” who did not understand conditions on the frontier.

Bruce chose the Board with a whitewash in mind. The chairman was a Cairns police magistrate, the second a SA police inspector and the third was Commissioner Cawood himself, over the considerable protests of McGregor and others.  The enquiry was held from December 30, 1928 to January 16, 1929, with a summary on closure February 7. It called 30 witnesses but skimmed over the issue of settlers taking Aboriginal women apart from a few denials by bushmen. Instead they blamed the Missionaries for preaching a doctrine of equality, even though none were in the Coniston area at the time of the attacks. Cawood instructed Murray to keep quiet about the second patrol in which he admitted 14 more had died, to add to the 17 officially admitted in the first patrol. Murray never conceded the combined 31 deaths constituted a massacre. He was just a policeman doing his job. Police Paddy from Murray’s party was the only Aboriginal witness called. He blatantly lied about seeing Brooks’ body and was never cross-examined.

The findings were inevitable. Murray accepted responsibility most of the deaths. The board accepted Murray’s evidence he had always called upon Aboriginal men to put down their weapons and that he only shot in self-defence when attacked.  The Board concluded the shootings were justified and they blamed “cheeky” Aborigines intent on driving whites from their country. Though the Board accepted there was a drought, it agreed with Murray’s comment: “There was no such thing as starvation in any part of the country I have travelled to.” The whitewash concluded.

So how many people died? A friend of historian Dick Kimber once had the temerity to ask Murray when he met him “Did you really kill 31 blackfellows?” Murray’s response was “that’s all they investigated.” The Central Land Council’s booklet, “Making Peace With The Past” (2003) said the toll was likely double that.  Missionary Annie Luck heard from eye-witnesses it was at least 70 dead. Douglas Lockwood’s 1964 book, “Up The Track” discussed the shootings with 70-year-old Anmatjira man George Japaljari. “All of old George’s friends and relatives were shot. The only survivor was George. They were bad … bad … times”.

Mervyn Hartwig’s “The Coniston Killings” (1960) had some access to Murray as well as talking to Luck and other pastors. His view that 70 to 105 is “the more correct number”. Kimber thinks it was 70 to 80 but a “a further 100 or more people, mostly men, were shot in the station country under consideration, and in a wider general area from Central Mount Wedge in a western arc through Mount Farewell to Tanami.”   For the Warlpiri, the consequences of Coniston continue to this day, spread far and wide from their native lands.  However for the majority of whites on the frontier, the frontier war was over and the bloodbath was justified to “teach the blacks a lesson”.  Over the years that conviction became unease and eventually descended into the stone wall of silence. Even today Coniston is peripheral, because it does not make us “feel comfortable and relaxed about  our history.”

King Leopold’s Ghost still haunts Congo

Over 30,000 people have fled eastern DR Congo into Uganda after a rebel group attacked a border town.  The Ugandan rebel group Allied Democratic Forces that was driven into the DRC jungle after a violent campaign in the late 1990s, overran the DRC town of Kamangu on Thursday.  ADF are just one of the many foreign proxy groups that have caused mayhem in eastern DRC for 20 years. 

The country survived two devastating wars in the wake of the Rwandan genocide and Rwanda still backs rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and his RCD-Goma faction. The ongoing eastern conflict since 2006 continues to destabilise this large, underdeveloped and fractious country.

The fact it is a country at all is the fault of a megalomaniac who never visited it. Congo was created out of nothing over 120 years ago by the greed of one of Europe’s most energetic and  infamous monarchs: King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold was responsible for the death of ten million Congolese as he built his private empire. The story of Congo and Leopold is best told in the book “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild published in 1998 and released in 2006 as a greatly condensed film.

The story starts with a different king: a black one. King Afonso I was ruler of Kongo (western Congo and parts of Angola) in the 16th century. Afonso was greatly influenced by the Portuguese traders that plied his coastline. He brought in European ideas such as the church, literature, medicine and trade skills. But he didn’t want European rule of law nor did he want mineral prospectors invading his lands. And he could not prevent the rising slave trade for coffee plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean.

When Afonso died, the power of Kongo diminished.  In 1665 the Portuguese beheaded the king that followed though European domination was slow to take hold.  For two hundred years, the vast  inland would remain mostly off-limits to white eyes. The only route through the thick malarial jungle was by the fearsome Congo River itself. Much of the river lies over three hundred metres high on the African plateau. It descends to sea level in just 350kms tumbling down over 32 waterfalls.

The white man who eventually crossed this natural barrier was born as John Rowlands in Denbigh, Wales in 1841. Rowlands was an orphan who grew up in the workhouse. He was a good scholar fascinated by geography. Aged 16, he sailed to New Orleans where he used his wits to quickly get a job. Rowlands also changed his name to Henry Morton Stanley.  He reinvented his past to go with his new name and passed himself off as a native-born American.

During the civil war, Stanley signed up for the Confederates but was captured after two days by Union soldiers at the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee. To escape a disease-ridden POW life, Stanley enlisted with the Union Army and finally the Navy until he deserted in 1865. He finally found his metier as a journalist when he covered the Indian wars for a St Louis newspaper. His vivid reports caught the eye of James Gordon Bennett Jr, publisher of the New York Herald.

Bennett sent him off to cover the British war in Abyssinia. Stanley was resourceful and he bribed a Suez telegraph clerk to give his reports priority. Stanley scooped his rivals with news of the conflict. Back in London, Stanley thirsted for more success. Bennett in New York gave him a new brief: Find David Livingstone.

Livingstone was a Scottish missionary driven by anti-slavery zeal whose wanderings took him across Africa for 30 years. He looked in vain for the source of the Nile, found Victoria Falls, preached the gospel and denounced slavery. In 1866 he went missing on a long expedition and he wasn’t heard from in almost three years.  It took Stanley two more years to get a 150 man party together and then another eight months before he found his man near Lake Tanganyika. Stanley supposedly greeted him with the immortal four words: “Dr Livingstone I Presume?

We have to take Stanley’s word on this, as David Livingstone died shortly afterwards. It was Stanley’s version of events that became history and Stanley became an American hero. His book “How I found Livingstone” was an international best seller and one man in Brussels eagerly read in every piece of news about Stanley’s African adventures. That man was 37-year-old Leopold II.

The younger Leopold had travelled to Europe, Egypt, India and the Dutch East Indies and his travels whetted his appetite for empire. When Leopold took the throne in 1865 he was determined for Belgium to take its part in Europe’s colonial adventures.  He convened a conference in Brussels which gave rise to the innocuous sounding International African Association. At face value it was an international organisation dedicated to exploration of Africa and the exposure of the slave trade. In reality it was a front for Belgian expansion in Africa. It made enquiries and tried to buy an African colony but none were for sale. It would have to claim one of its own.

Meanwhile, Stanley was also hunting for further African glory. In 1874 Bennett and the London Telegraph sponsored him to cross Africa east to west. His expedition set off from Zanzibar and arrived at Buma at the mouth of the Congo in 1877. His second best seller “Through the Dark Continent” described the great arc traversed by the Congo River that took it on both sides of the equator. The arc exposed the river to a continuous rainy season that contributed to its voluminous water flow.

Leopold avidly followed Stanley’s journey across Africa. He was especially interested in his descriptions of the Congo rich in rubber and ivory. On Stanley’s triumphant journey back to Europe, the king lured him to Brussels. Leopold signed Stanley onto a five year contract to lead a Belgian expedition back to the Congo and navigate the river. They would construct a road to get past the fearsome rapids and establish trading posts inland.

For the next five years, Stanley was Leopold’s man in the Congo. After two years they had hauled all their boats and equipment up to the top of the plateau and sailed inland. Stanley was a hard taskmaster and treated Africans with contempt. When he arrived at the opening in the river later called Stanley Pool (and now Malebo Pool), he was shocked to find the French had beaten him and signed a deal to take the lands north of the Pool. Count Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza had landed north of the river and made his way inland. That land became French Congo and is now the Republic of Congo with the capital Brazzaville.

Stanley redoubled his efforts on the south bank of the Congo where he signed deals with 450 Congolese chiefs. Each “treaty” those chiefs signed gave away sovereignty of their lands to the International African Association. The treaties also committed their people to “assist by labour or otherwise” any “improvements” the Association might suggest. When Stanley was finished bargaining in 1884, he had a million square miles in the bag. All Leopold needed was to get Europe to recognise his claim.

The king pulled American strings to lobby President Chester Arthur to recognise the new country. Arthur was a reluctant president. He was vice President to James Garfield in 1880 but Garfield was assassinated six months into office. Arthur himself was in poor health and ill prepared for the job ahead of him. He was flattered into recognising the International African Association’s ownership of Congo. The move was rubberstamped by the European powers in a congress in Berlin in 1884. Leopold sent Stanley as his representative to the congress where the explorer was the star attraction. Leopold got his way on the assumption that the Congo was to become a free trade zone.

Suddenly the Belgians had an empire that was 76 times the size of Belgium. Leopold called himself the “King Sovereign” of the Congo and by royal decree he renamed his asset the Congo Free State in 1885. It was a private asset and one which Leopold controlled without reference to the Belgian parliament. All profits went to him alone.

Leopold sent Stanley back to Africa on another mission. The governor of Sudan’s southernmost province, Emin Pasha, asked Europe for help against the threat of a Muslim fundamentalist group known as the Mahdists. Despite his exotic title, Pasha was a German Jewish doctor born as Eduard Schnitzer and a white hero in Africa. Stanley’s relief mission went through Leopold’s Congo through unexplored rain forest. By the time they reached Pasha, the crisis was over and Pasha was no longer eager for help.

Despite this failure, Leopold’s empire was slowly consolidating. He established military bases along the river and sent in Belgians to administer his new kingdom and tap into the riches of the rubber trade. It relied on slavery and used no compunction to shoot villagers if they didn’t obey orders. By the 1890s, American historian George Washington Williams condemned Leopold’s colony as an “oppressive and cruel government” guilty of crimes against humanity. But Williams was black and his warnings were largely ignored in Europe and the US.

Leopold declared “all vacant land” in the Congo as crown property. He also ignored the free trade edict and had his administrators collect tariffs along the river. They conscripted porters to carry the ivory past the treacherous rapids until the railway was built to the port. Thousands of porters died of overwork as white overseers enforced discipline with the dreaded chicotte (also known as sjambok) – a hippopotamus hide cut into a sharp-edged cork-screw whip.

When a curious  32-year-old Polish seaman named Konrad Korzeniowski visited the Congo in 1890, he sailed up the river where he saw the horrors of white occupation first hand. The visit shattered his  initial belief in Leopold’s ennobling mission.  He spent six months in the Congo and afterwards transformed it when under the name of Joseph Conrad, it was the scene of his great short novel “Heart of Darkness”.  Conrad’s unforgettable portrait of the deranged Kurtz was based on his experience of several Belgian overseers.

Matters worsened for the Congolese in 1890 after Belfast-man John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre. It set off a craze for bicycles and the world quickly developed an insatiable appetite for rubber. Wild rubber vines were abundant in the equatorial rain forests of the Congo and Leopold went into partnerships with rubber companies to extract the sap.

The rubber boom gave impetus to construction projects and Leopold finished the railway up the rapids which added enormously to the state’s wealth and power. But it also exposed his empire to the disinfectant of truth. Word was slowly emerging from missionaries of the price paid by locals for Leopold’s enormous wealth. The king was always quick to deny these claims. But he was undone by one of those that noticed something was wrong, from thousands of miles away. His name was E.D. Morel.

Morel was a clerk in Antwerp for a British trading company Elder Dempster. He soon noticed that the only trade into the country was arms and all the material coming out was hardly ever paid for. He realised only forced labour could account for this. Morel resigned and became a full time advocate against the slave trade in the Congo. He set up his own newspaper the West African Mail to expose the problem.

Through murder, starvation, disease and plummeting birth rate, Congo was the killing fields of the 1890s and early 1900s. Belgian soldiers launched many punitive expeditions against restless natives and massacres were commonplace. Thousands were held as hostages and died of starvation. Smallpox and sleeping sickness killed many more and as the men were forced into slavery the birth rate dropped considerably. Morel exposed all of these methods of killing.

In 1903, his cause was helped by Irish-born British diplomat Roger Casement. Casement travelled to the Congo in his role as British Consul to get a handle on the problem. He spoke to overseers, missionaries and natives and documented his findings in report to parliament. These showed abuse, slavery and murder were commonplace. Belgium put pressure on an embarrassed British government to delay publication of the damaging report. Morel meanwhile kept the pressure up for Britain to act for Congo reform. The world’s press began to turn on Leopold and his sexual indiscretions lost him popularity at home.

Leopold launched a massive counter operation against the growing evidence using a network of paid spies, politicians, businessmen and journalists. But when his effort to bribe a US congressman was exposed by Hearst’s New York American newspaper, his rule began to crumble. Under pressure, Leopold launched an independent Committee of Inquiry which issued a damning 150 page report of the state of the colony.

Leopold negotiated for the state to take the indebted and scandal ridden colony off his hands. In 1908 it was renamed “Belgian Congo”. Leopold himself died a year later, unmourned and booed at his own funeral. He had never set foot in the colony he ruled so despotically for over two decades. Forced labour in the Congo continued under the Belgian administration though there was some improvement. Belgium itself has tried to brush the whole episode of Leopold’s misdeeds under the carpet.

Like every other part of Africa, the winds of change were blowing in the 1950s as the native population began building mostly tribal political bases. In 1960 Congo finally won its independence. Patrice Lumumba, the country’s new leader,  wanted a national non-tribal approach.  But his words threatened western interests in the country. US President Eisenhower regarded him as a “mad dog” and CIA chief Allen Dulles authorised his assassination. They used Belgians in the Congolese army to support an anti-Lumumba faction and he was arrested, beaten and shot in 1961.

After a few years of chaos, the CIA installed army chief Joseph Desire Mobutu as Lumumba’s replacement. The anti-communist Mobutu renamed the country to Zaire and installed a cult of personality while hiving off billions to his Swiss bank accounts.  Mobutu was helped by the Organisation of African States charter that stated the borders at the end of colonialism would be maintained and he curried favour with successive American presidents.

His importance to the US ended when the Cold War ended in 1991. His corrupt rule was finally undone by hundreds of thousands Rwandan Tutsis who fled across the border to avoid the Hutu genocide. It led to the bloody revolution of 1997 supported by Uganda and Rwanda. Mobutu fled the country with the $5b he had embezzled. Congo then descended into eight years of wars involving of its neighbours and four million people died.  It remains one of the poorest countries in the world with 45,000 deaths a month.  A Congo peace deal signed in Ethiopia in February by 11 countries remains the best hope of exorcising King Leopold’s ghost.

Australian Labor and the Barcaldine tree of knowledge

The Barcaldine Tree of Knowledge is now a national monument
The Barcaldine Tree of Knowledge is now a national monument

It seemed to appropriate for me to be driving through Blackall and Barcaldine a day after Kevin Rudd’s return as Prime Minister. Rudd’s resurrection seems to confirm the death of difference between the two major parties in Australia. But there was a time when Labor really was a labour party and Blackall and Barcaldine are crucial to that story. The two western Queensland towns showed it wasn’t just the Australian economy that rode on the sheep’s back, so did the trade union movement.

Nowadays it seems absurd to think conservative and remote rural Queensland might be in any way key to the development of the labour politics. Blackall and Barcaldine have populations of no more than a couple of thousand each, are a thousand kilometres from the state capital Brisbane and are part of an electorate that is National Party (now Liberal National Party) heartland with two long-term members.  Federally Bruce Scott holds the second safest seat in the country in Maranoa since 1990 while the state member for Gregory Vaughn Johnson has been there a year longer and holds a two party-preferred margin of 75-25.

Yet a clue it wasn’t always this way is in the history of the Gregory electorate. The Country/Nationals only grabbed the seat after the long-term Queensland Labor government imploded in 1957. Before that it had been a Labor stronghold since 1899. That was the year trade unionist William Hamilton took the seat. Hamilton was a miner and a shearer who found himself in the shearing sheds at Clermont in central Queensland in 1891.

Australia was going into its worst ever depression that year due to a global financial crisis. A year earlier, the collapse of Baring’s finance house in London caused overseas investment to collapse in Australia which in turn led to large-scale unemployment as public works programs were scaled back.  There was a run on overextended banks and building societies several of which collapsed while in rural areas, the problem was worsened by a fall in the price of wool.

Shearing was one of the most demanding occupations of the era and one of the poorest paid. The Australian Shearers Union was spreading its influence and in 1890 prohibited its members from working at non-union sheds.  In 1890 Blackall’s gun shearer Jackie Howe (who would two years later break the world record for numbers of sheep shorn in one day) was instrumental in merging the local union with the Queensland union.  Nearby Barcaldine was the focus of the trouble as was then the terminus for the western railway line.  Howe brought a Blackall contingent up to Barcaldine in 1891 for one of the world’s earliest May Day rallies commemorating the 1886 Chicago Haymarket Affair.

By then pastoralists had struck back with anti-union contracts and the Australian Shearers Union called a national strike.  It was the first serious confrontation between capital and labour in Australia.   Shearers struck camp at the edge of town and plotted a course of action they called ‘moral suasion’ but to their opponents it was intimidation. The shearers burnt grass, set fire to the woolsheds and attacked scab labourers.  After four months of feuding, the state called in the army to break up the strike. The leaders were tried for conspiracy, rioting and sedition and sent to St Helena prison in Moreton Bay for three years.

While the strike was unsuccessful, it led to calls for a new political party. Legend has they gathered under a well-known ghost gum called the Tree of Knowledge outside Barcaldine railway station. Historians Peter and Sheila Forrest debunked that theory in their book Bush Battleground who said it was only the scene of angry confrontations as scab labourers arrived by train. The party was more likely to be developed in the camp sites but it was the tree that grabbed the mythology.

Myth or not, the party quickly after the leaders of the strike emerged from prison. One of those was William Hamilton who returned to western Queensland to take Gregory in 1899. In December that year, Queensland Governor Samuel Griffith invited Labor leader Anderson Dawson to take office, becoming the first Labor government in the world. It lasted just six days, but it showed Labor had arrived.

Several more Labor governments followed with Blackall prominent in the strongest of them. By 1909 shearer Jackie Howe was president of the local labour association and friends with a solicitor named Thomas Joseph Ryan who dealt with union cases in the western region.  He invited Ryan to stand for the local seat of Barcoo which he won that year. By 1915, he was Premier of Queensland with a large majority to institute sweeping change. His was the first Labor government to rule in Australia without the need for a coalition. He nationalised many industries and allowed women to stand for parliament. His opposition to Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes’s conscription campaign enraged Hughes and made Ryan a national figure.  Elected to federal parliament in 1919, he was touted as a future leader but died of pneumonia in 1921.

The Barcaldine Tree of Knowledge is also now dead, though its cause is less clear. It was mysteriously poisoned (the Forrests think it was done accidentally by railway workers) and died in 2006. It is tempting to draw a comparison with the rise to power as Labor leader of Kevin Rudd, also in 2006. But Labor’s industrial values had long since died before then. From the time the Hawke-Keating Government floated the dollar and removed tariffs in the mid-1980s, Labor proved it was no longer a party of labour, but of capital with a social democratic veneer. The veneer was disguised by the credibility of the towering egos of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.  But by the 21st century they were gone and like the tree in Barcaldine, Labor survives now only by the decreasing force of its own mythmaking.

Allan Macpherson and Mt Abundance

The first European in the Maranoa was likely either Thomas Mitchell or his son Roderick in 1846 (though Finney Eldershaw claims he beat both Mitchells by four years in his journey of 1842).

Roderick Mitchell was the deputy Crown Commissioner for Lands in NSW who charted several branches of the Balonne River and may have got as far as the Bungil and Bungeworgorai Creeks. His journeys, and probably his maps, undoubtedly helped his father Sir Thomas Mitchell, then surveyor-general of NSW on his trip to the Maranoa in 1846. Sir Thomas Mitchell took the same route up the Darling River system into Queensland. He was the first person to describe Mt Abundance and the rich area around it.  He called it the Fitz Roy Downs in honour of the then Governor of New South Wales, Sir Charles Fitz Roy.

It was no coincidence it was Mitchell followed his son, nor was there a coincidence about the man that followed Sir Thomas to become the first white settler of the Maranoa.

His name was Allan Macpherson.

Macpherson’s father William was the clerk of the NSW parliament and just as important as Mitchell. They were both from Scotland and good friends too. Mitchell was also fond of William’s son Allan, a determined and ambitious young man. Allan was an adventurer who ran cattle and sheep on his Keera property in the remote Gwydir district of northern NSW.  While the hilly country reminded him of his native Scotland, it wasn’t profitable. Macpherson was captivated by Mitchell’s description of Mt Abundance as “champaign country” and was determined to claim it for himself.

Knowing that “first come first served” meant possession under British law, he set off north-west along the river system for the promised land in July 1847. Macpherson had more than just Mitchell’s maps, he had an armada of help: ten thousand sheep, hundreds of cattle, dozens of horses and drays and twenty men. The going was slow – they travelled just 60km in the first two weeks – but by the end of September his team was at the natural ford or “rocky bar” on the Balonne that Mitchell (senior) called St George’s Bridge because he arrived there on the saint’s day,  April 23.

St George was not just the patron saint of England, it was also the last settled part of the English realm. Not a single white man or woman lived north of the bridge. MacPherson crossed his Rubicon but was forced to halt for lambing season. Leaving the sheep behind, he finally gazed on Mt Abundance on Friday, October 15, 1847. Macpherson found Mitchell had not exaggerated about the quality of the land. “A glorious prospect!” he enthused.

He claimed a farm 30km across from the Cogoon River (now Muckadilla Creek) in the west to Bungeworgorai Creek in the east. The sight of the first natives two weeks later scared his men witless. Macpherson shamed them as cowards and he spent the following months building huts, cattle and sheep yards and fencing. Macpherson built several outstations including a cattle station on the spot of what would later become Roma.

The distance to the port of Newcastle was forbidding and Macpherson hoped to find a closer route to Brisbane via the Darling Downs. Urgent farmwork tied him down at Mt Abundance and after Christmas he went back to Keera for more supplies and drays. In January 1848, Macpherson got caught up in what would be a formidable foe for all who would live in the area: summer floods. Macpherson was constantly wet and bogged in heavy and impassable country with swollen fast-moving creeks.

He eventually made it to Keera but his return to the Maranoa was also delayed by floods. It was again a fleeting visit as Keera and Sydney demanded his presence on urgent family business. It was on his third return to St George’s Bridge, Macpherson received the bad news Mt Abundance had been attacked.

Two men in outstations were speared to death and the rest were fleeing south.

Macpherson found them where the Cogoon met the Balonne but was able to convince only one of his men to accompany him back to Mt Abundance. The blacks were gone but there was a lot to be fixed. The experience redoubled his efforts to find a more direct route to the Darling Downs. The furthest he got was to a nearby station east of the Bungil owned by James Alexander Blythe.

Blythe was one of the earliest travellers to the Maranoa after Mitchell and had come back to establish a property between Roma and Wallumbilla. Macpherson was also fortunate to survive a skirmish with Aboriginals on his return home to Mt Abundance but his servant Charley was missing presumed dead.

By the end of 1848, Macpherson became convinced it was too unprofitable to run sheep due to “blacks, losses, native dogs and overcrowding.”

He turned Mt Abundance into a cattle property but the native attacks continued and three of his workers were speared in March 1849.After two more wool-carriers were killed, Macpherson and the new Commissioner of Crown Lands John Durbin patrolled the area with mounted troopers gathering the wool and taking it south. But Macpherson had had enough.

He went off to Scotland to get married and Mt Abundance remained an expensive and unprofitable out station. He sold it on his return “for a song”. As Macpherson said, “it was by no means the first pioneers that reaped the golden returns, but those who were prudent enough to follow in their wake.”