Iran and the West: a tale of oil and Mohammad Mossadegh

Mohmmad,Mosaddegh2Iran’s nuclear deal has big ramifications for the county’s other major source of energy: oil. Iran has the fourth largest proven reserves of oil in the world but production has halved since 2011 when US and European sanctions took hold. Iran faces many challenges to double its output back to two million barrels a day, not least due to its ageing infrastructure, but the country has long history in the oil game and was the first country in the middle east to drill for oil in 1901. But Iran also has a long history of interference from the west and if suspicious Americans look back in anger to the hostage drama of 1979, Iranians look back further to the way the Americans and British sabotaged their young democracy in 1953.

Iran had been of massive interest to the Allied Powers in the Second World War and the site of one of that war’s most famous meetings. In December 1943 Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met on a sunny Tehran morning to discuss how to divvy up the post-Nazi world. They pledged to work together “in war and the peace that will follow”. After the photographers searched their faces for smiles on the veranda, the three great men retired to a hall for a more private conversation. Before they discussed weighty matters of empire, Roosevelt asked Churchill what became of Iran’s former Shah Reza, adding, “if I’m pronouncing it correctly”. Churchill told Roosevelt he became a Nazi and denied Britain and Russia the use of oil and a supplies railway. They invaded Iran in 1941 and Shah Reza was forced to abdicate in favour of his son Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. The father moved to a comfortable life in Johannesburg where he died not long after the Tehran conference. Roosevelt’s question showed up US ignorance of Iranian affairs.

Yet the choice of Tehran to hold the meeting was no accident. Iran had been zone of influence for Britain and Russia since a 1907 treaty shared the country’s spoils between them. The terms of the 1907 and 1941 conquests allowed Iranians to rule as long as they did not act against their powerful guests. An officially neutral Iran was of vital strategic importance to both. Roosevelt was happy to let the two fight it out over Iranian oil while the US maintained control of the bigger fields in Saudi Arabia.

The turmoil of the 1917 Russian revolution left Iran almost entirely a British colony. AIOC, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (then nationalised by Churchill, now corporatised as BP) was Britain’s main supplier of oil. Another Churchill decision, to convert the British Navy from coal to oil in 1913, saw AIOC become one of the world’s leading producers supplying Britain in two world wars. In 1947 it reported an after tax profit of £40 million and gave the young Shah’s country just seven million. It reneged on a 1933 deal with his hard-nosed father to provide the workers with better pay, more schools, roads, telephones and job advancement. The young Shah was a playboy and had little interests for his people’s problems but as long as he kept control of the military, Britain didn’t care how badly his country fared.

Mohammad Mossadegh was less sanguine. He knew Iranians chafed bitterly about their abject poverty. Born in 1882, he was a parliamentarian for over three decades, implacably opposed to foreign influence. In a wave of fervour, he was elected Prime Minister in 1951 with a mandate to throw AIOC out of Iran, reclaim the oil reserves and end the British influence. Mossadegh was in his seventies and in the manner of Proust, did much of his business in bed. But when he nationalised Anglo-Iranian, he became a national hero. Shortly after, Iran took control of the refinery.

The British were outraged. British Labour prime minister Clement Attlee was conducting mass nationalisation of British assets but would not grant Iran the same licence. His government declared Mossadegh a thief and demanded he be punished by the UN and the World Court. When neither would support Britain, they imposed an embargo that devastated the Iranian economy. Mossadegh was unmoved and said he “would rather be fried in Persian oil than make the slightest concession”. Mossadegh became a third world hero and delighted his admirers further when he ridiculed Britain at the World Court saying it was trying “to persuade world opinion that the lamb had devoured the wolf”.

Time Magazine made him their man of the year in 1951 saying he “put Scheherazade in the petroleum business and oiled the wheels of chaos”. They called him a “strange old wizard” in a region where, importantly, the US had no policy. Attlee warned President Truman not to interfere with the dealings of “an ally.” The US complied but would not support a British military invasion of Iran.

Events changed dramatically when Britain and the US turned to the right. In autumn 1951 the old warhorse Churchill denounced Attlee in several speeches on the election trail for failing to confront Mossadegh firmly. Churchill said the Prime Minister had betrayed “solemn undertakings” not to abandon Abadan. He saw the loss of Iranian oil as the loss of empire and considered Mossadegh “an elderly lunatic bent on wrecking his country and handing it over to the Communists.” Britain’s position toughened when Churchill won the election.

Truman was also up for re-election in 1952 but decided not to contest. As in Britain, a Second World War hero won and Dwight Eisenhower became the new Republican president. The Cold War was Eisenhower’s biggest focus and Iran was one of his first challenges. Britain cleverly played up to the new regime in Washington claiming Iran was in crisis under Mossadegh and could easily fall to the Communist Party backed by Moscow.

Eisenhower’s new team prepared to organise a coup in Iran. Eisenhower’s former wartime chief-of-staff and now undersecretary of state General Walter Bedell Smith linked the campaign with the State Department and the CIA. At the head of these organisations were a pair of remarkable brothers. John Foster Dulles was a world-class international lawyer now turned Secretary of State while Allen Dulles now ran the intelligence organisation. The brothers had a special interest in Iran and Allen went to Tehran in 1949 where he met the Shah and Mossadegh. The Dulles brothers were ideological warriors determined to prevent Communism in Iran.

Eisenhower gave implicit approval for Operation Ajax but presented a front of plausible deniability. Behind the scenes the two Dulles and Smith had full authority to proceed. They appointed secret agent Kermit Roosevelt to bring the coup together. Kermit, who preferred to be called Kim, was a grandson of the first Roosevelt president Theodore. Independently wealthy, he was a history professor at Harvard until he joined the newly established Office of Strategic Services in the war. His work in the OSS remains shrouded in mystery but he stayed on in peacetime when it was rebadged as the CIA.

Working from the US embassy in Tehran (a fact angry Iranians remembered in 1979) Roosevelt quickly liaised with his British counterparts in the Secret Intelligence Service – MI6. Iranian tribal leaders on the British payroll launched a short-lived uprising. Roosevelt met with anti-Mossadegh politicians and persuaded the Shah to sign a “firman” (a document of doubtful legality sacking the Prime Minister). By mid-August 1953 Roosevelt and his local agents were ready. He paid newspapers and religious leaders to scream for Mossadegh’s head and organised protests and riots turning the streets into battlegrounds.

But at the last minute Operation Ajax failed. On August 15 an officer arrived at Mossadegh’s house to present the firman only to find the Prime Minister was tipped off in advance. The Shah fled the country while units loyal to Mossadegh surged through Tehran. Roosevelt did not quit and three days later he organised a second attempt. Once again he launched a massive mob in the capital. Crucially Mossadegh did not call out the police to stop them. Armed units loyal to the Shah launched a gun-battle against Mossadegh’s supporters. The following morning Tehran Radio announced “the Government of Mossadegh has been defeated!”

Mossadegh was under arrest and the Shah flew home from Italy in stunned triumph. The New York Times wrote “the sudden reversal was nothing more than a mutiny by the lower ranks against pro-Mossadegh officers”. Roosevelt was understandably delighted. Barely a day earlier he had been ordered home, now he would be returning in triumph. Mossadegh was given a three year prison sentence. He served it until 1956 and was confined to home in Ahmad Abad until his death, aged 85 in 1967.

The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company tried to return to their old monopoly position after his overthrow. But the US had invested too much in the coup to let that happen. They organised an international consortium to assume control of the oil. AOIC held 40 percent, five American companies held 40 percent and the remainder was split between Royal Dutch Shell and Compagnie Francaise de Petroles. The consortium agreed to split the profits fifty-fifty with the Shah but never allowed Iranians to examine the books.

Though Mossadegh was a forbidden topic in Iran, new enemies emerged within. By the late 1970s the Shah had crushed all legitimate political parties and a new religious force filled the void. When he was forced to flee the country in 1979 as a reviled tyrant, the first government to replace him was determined to invoke Mossadegh’s legacy. New Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan had been dispatched by Mossadegh to Abadan after the British fled in 1951. Another Mossadegh admirer Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was elected president. But behind the scenes Ayatollah Khomeini was consolidating power. Before long he was arresting all his enemies. Mossadegh had been defeated again, this time in death.

The Mossadegh coup had profound impact on America. Overnight the CIA became a central part of foreign policy apparatus. While Roosevelt went home in quiet retirement, the Dulles brothers used the new template to overthrow other rulers such as Arbenz in Guatemala (1954) and Allende in Chile (1973). The incident also changed how Iranians viewed the US. Before 1953, Britain was the rapacious and greedy enemy. Now the US was the sinister party, manipulating quietly in the background. The 1979 embassy hostage was a direct result of Carter’s decision to allow the Shah into America. But the reason the crisis last 14 months was a distrust going back to 1953.

This week’s nuclear deal between the countries won’t immediately heal half a century of hurt. But it is crucial it is ratified despite hardliners in both countries. The bleatings of Israel should be ignored as a country with its own nuclear arsenal can look after itself no matter what happens in Iran. Mohammad Mossadegh offered a template of what Iran might have been, had the west not been blinkered by its own suspicions. Now is the time to make good on his legacy and bring Iran in from the cold.

The Black and Tans: British police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence

This photo of Black and Tans interrogating a Sinn Fein suspect was on the cover of DM Leeson's book.  Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
This photo of Black and Tans interrogating a Sinn Fein suspect was on the cover of DM Leeson’s book. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

Anyone familiar with 20th century Irish history will know of the notorious reputation of the Black and Tans, the British paramilitary organisation who fought against the IRA in Ireland’s War of Independence. The British Government equipped them as soldiers but pretended they were police so they could continue the charade there was no war in Ireland. Their distinctive uniform (dark police green mixed with army khaki) blurred the line between police and military and gave them their nickname. Irish historians paint the Tans as a violent, thuggish and murderous organisations whose members emptied British prisons before running riot in Ireland. However a book called The Black and Tans by Canadian historian David Leeson questions this narrative.

Between 1920 and 1921, 10,000 British men, most of them First World War veterans, enlisted in the Royal Irish Constabulary. A second group of former war officers joined a temporary force called the Auxiliary Division (ADRIC). The Black and Tans were garrison troops defending strongpoints while the Auxiliary Division were mobile and offensive. Both the Tans and Auxiliaries quickly became known for undisciplined violence and their tactic of widespread reprisals which earned them comparisons with other notorious paramilitary organisations such as Turkish bashi-bazouks and German Freikorps.

Leeson’s villains however are not the soldiers pretending to be policemen but their bumbling paymasters in London, the British Government – the “two-headed ass” of David Low’s cartoons. Prime Minister David Lloyd George insisted Ireland’s problem was a policing one. Despite being a Liberal, his Coalition was dominated by Conservatives and Unionists with little sympathy for Irish nationalism and could only offer, in Leeson’s words, “limited repression with limited concessions”.

Irish policy had been the bane of British governments since Gladstone lost power twice over the Home Rule bill in 1886 and again in 1893. Successive Tory and post-Gladstone Liberal governments showed no appetite to reintroduce Home Rule, but the Irish Party kept the pressure up till it re-gained the balance of power after the second election of 1910.

A Home Rule bill finally passed the House of Commons in 1912 and the House of Lords could only delay it to 1914. The Northern Irish Protestants demanded Ulster’s exclusion from the bill and civil war seemed inevitable until the First World War pushed the issue to one side. The republican Easter rising of 1916 was put down but the Irish public was dismayed by the heavy-handed British response. Opinions hardened on the Catholic and Protestant sides with Sinn Fein and the Unionists dominating the 1918 election in Ireland. Herbert Asquith’s Liberals were also crushed; Lloyd George’s Coalition Unionists having a majority of 478 seats in a 707-seat parliament. Lloyd George wouldn’t consider Ireland while the Paris peace negotiations went on in 1919 but Irish MPs refused to sit in Westminster. Rebels began a campaign against Irish police, killing 15 by year end.

The undeclared war escalated in 1920 as the army arrested Irish leaders. Lloyd George introduced a new Irish bill splitting the country into two parliaments (a model of partition later used in India). The rebels intensified their campaign and Dublin Castle released republican hunger-striking prisoners in a gesture of appeasement. It didn’t work and police casualties increased; 28 died between April and June, 55 between July and September. Ireland became ungovernable with boycotts and strikes. Republicans began building an alternative state holding their own courts, as the British system of assizes failed.

Police were demoralised and Dublin Castle asked for the military intervention, saying only martial law or an agreement with Sinn Fein could end the crisis. Conservative and Unionist members of cabinet could not bring themselves to negotiate with the “murder gang”. “The disgrace would deepen to infamy,” Arthur Balfour wrote. Despite misgivings of British officials in Dublin the hawks prevailed and Sinn Fein were declared a criminal organisation as parliament passed the Restoration of Order in Ireland bill. Lloyd George said Ireland had to “sacrifice extravagant demands and too extravagant ideas.”

The Irish Constabulary was responsible for policing Ireland except Dublin. It earned the name Royal for its part suppressing the Fenian uprising of 1867. It had a force of 10,000 men, all Irish and mostly Catholic. It was armed and with ordinary crime rare in Ireland, political surveillance was its most important role. They were hated by Republicans who called them England’s Janissaries: “a force of traitors and spies”. When the War of Independence started, many quit the RIC, angered at being forced to act as soldiers. Facing a manpower crisis, government minister Walter Long suggested some of the 167,000 British ex-servicemen receiving unemployment benefits might fit the gap. Their reputation as criminals was undeserved. Most were discharged with honour from the army and few had criminal records. The first Black and Tans arrived in Ireland in January 1920. A shortage of police clothing led to their mixed costumes which attracted great attention as they marched to their barracks.

Recruiting was slow but picked up as the RIC received a substantial pay rise in June 1920. Numbers really took off after September 1920 when police sacked the county Dublin town of Balbriggan. The sack was discussed in parliament and made national headlines and despite the notoriety the publicity alerted many ex-servicemen about employment with the RIC. Despite the good pay, conditions were hard and dangerous and they were shunned and resented by fellow Irish police.

They had no love for the ADRIC either. Auxiliaries were officially temporary cadets but paid as sergeants, a rank it might take decades for Irish police to reach. The division was Churchill’s idea to raise a “special emergency gendarmerie” of war veterans enlisted for one year. ADRIC’s leader Major General Henry Tudor said their role was to “crush the present campaign of outrage” using military tribunals, deporting prisoners, collective punishment and “a special penalty of flogging imposed for the cutting of girls’ hair and outrages against women”. ADRIC became known as Tudor’s Toughs and remained a separate force spending much of their time conducting raids, earning a more fearsome reputation than the Tans. When faced with resistance they lost restraint and committed atrocities which seemed to crush the IRA but in the longer term only hardened republican resolve and turned the Irish against them.

As the struggle intensified, Ireland descended into a reign of terror. The guerrillas resorted to ambush and assassination which the Tans and Auxiliaries met with group reprisals and murder. Suspects and prisoners were summarily executed, homes and shops of IRA volunteer families and supporters were burned. In the summer of 1921 an election was held according to the Government of Ireland Act for the House of Commons of southern Ireland (a separate election was held in the north). Republicans triumphed with Sinn Fein treating it as an election for a new revolutionary parliament. When elected members refused to take their seats in a House of Commons, London threatened to govern Ireland as a crown colony. On June 21, Lord Chancellor Birkenhead finally admitted Britain was at war in Ireland – a war it was determined to win.

The war was not popular in England and King George V made a more conciliatory speech opening Belfast’s new parliament which was welcomed in Britain and Ireland. When republican leader de Valera indicated he might compromise, and with many of the hard-line Unionists finally out of cabinet, Lloyd George was persuaded to negotiate. A truce was arranged on July 8 and came into force three days later. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 6 kept Ulster separate and Ireland within the realm but Britain conceded the dominion status it fought resolutely against 12 months earlier.

While Ireland descended into its own self-inflicted horror of the Civil War, the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries went home to England (there were very few Scottish or Welsh in either force). Both forces entered the infamy of Irish history but they consisted of mostly ordinary men. The Auxiliaries behaved worse, but this Leeson says, was merely a privilege of rank. Their cruelties were overlooked by the British government anxious to pretend the insurgency was “a policeman’s job”.

Leeson compares how the British in Ireland behaved with Brazilian death squads of the 1964-1985 period. “Violence workers” were ordinary people who were trained to confine their violence against known or suspected enemies. However the margin of tolerated illegality was wide and helped insulate them from the impact of their crimes. Leeson says during the war Ireland was transformed into “a looking-glass world of crimes without criminals, police without laws, trials without judges or juries and sentences without appeal.” Lloyd George’s government must take most of the blame for turning Ireland, at least temporarily, into Devil’s Island.

First World War visions: Remembering Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points

Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson

Centenary commemorations are forming a constant First World War reminder between now and 2018. Those who see the war as four years of senseless capitalistic carnage will 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 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 month in Laidley, near Brisbane, where the local historical society had re-enacted a 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 while the recruits held signs 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 a fetish of history? The most important legacy of the First World War is the mess of the Middle East, where Australian forces are still sent on a regular basis. That fact is not noticeable in commemorations in Australia where spending on First World War centennial celebrations outstrips every other country.

It will reach a crescendo when Gallipoli approaches its centenary in April 2015. The motifs will be about mateship, honour and sacrifice and there will be similar breast-beating when it comes to remembering the Somme, Villers-Bretonneux 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 disagreed but didn’t think it polite to argue the point. How, I wondered, did Australians dying in European trenches preserve “our” way of life?

I thought his words were simplistic, but I couldn’t get them out of my head. What 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 were culpable of warmongering. There were no figures of evil as stark as Hitler and Stalin and there were no scapegoats like the Jews. Yet millions died between 1914 and 1918 for a war that seemed to have no reason for beginning and no excuse to end. No nation bothered to tell the world what its aims were in fighting the war.

Well, none but one. That 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 1918 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 resistance by many Americans wanting neutrality. Wilson 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 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 was about reducing arms and the fifth about balance in resolving colonial disputes. The next seven points addressed the world’s trouble spots. Six called for an independent Russia, seven a free Belgium, eight a restored France, nine a genuine Italian nation, 10 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 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 international order 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. A former president of Princeton, the professorial 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. He was re-elected in 1916 on the promise to keep America neutral. German U-boats dragged him into the war in 1917. In December 1918 he became the first serving US president to travel abroad and was treated in London and Paris like the Second Coming.

The Fourteen Points were delivered when the impact of the American war involvement was beginning to be felt. The Germans fought the allies on two fronts for three years into a gigantic stalemate. American manpower finally breached the trenches. It was a Russian victory though that turned the war into defeat. Though the Russians lost much when they surrendered at Brest-Litovsk, they spread revolutionary ideas 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 among the people of the Central Powers: everyone was war-weary after four years. But the plan had many enemies, particularly among Wilson’s supposed allies who thought he was entrenching American hegemony. French president Clemenceau 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 contradicted French and British secret plans for management of the world in the post-war period and they offered no clue how to deal with Germany.

In October 1918, Germany offered peace on the terms of the Fourteen Points and the Points 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, the Fourteen Points stand alone as a justification for the war. The points were Eurocentric, flawed and opaque – the former Ottoman countries are still working through an achievable form of government and democracy – but Wilson articulated 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 history’s turning points. His death ended the 19th century, and led to the great carnage and chaos of the First World War. There is a good primer on the ABC on Archduke Franz Ferdinand, why he was killed and why his death was so important. Britain’s Duke of Portland invited Ferdinand to shoot pheasant at his estate in November 1913. One of Portland’s men loading the shotguns tripped over and accidentally 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.”

As the word ‘postponed’ hints, the First World War was always coming. Franz Ferdinand’s death was the excuse, not the 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. European nationalism was a demon the great empires could no longer control. Franz Ferdinand, the 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. Gavrilo Princip shot the archduke and his wife after several failed attempts that day.

It was only time before a Slav nationalist would take out their grievances on a Hapsburg bringing down the delicate house of alliances that European monarchs built.

It was fitting an Austrian’s death brought the greater 19th century to an end, as it was another Austrian, Prince Metternich, who started it one hundred years earlier in 1815. Europe was emerging from the chaos of Napoleon’s hegemony. Metternich hosted the Congress of Vienna where diplomats could decide borders in salons not on 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. Those powers got together again in genteel surrounds of Berlin in 1878 to re-adjust world borders on European terms.

The fate of Bosnia was a key plank of the Berlin Treaty. A de jure part of the tottering Ottoman Empire, the 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 recognised the independence of next door Serbia. Serbia had its own designs on Bosnia, conscious of its strong Serb minority. When Bulgaria declared independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1906, Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia. The powderkeg erupted again in 1912, as Montenegro, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria formed the Balkan League to end Ottoman’s interests in continental Europe. An alarmed Austria-Hungary pushed for a continental war to resolve the matter but German generals were not ready to mobilise until the summer of 1914.

It was inevitable the Balkans was the matchstick for war. But the desire was Europe-wide. Fukuyama said an “intangible but crucial factor” was the dullness and lack of community in European life in 1914. The Archduke’s assassination was greeted with frenzied pro-Austrian demonstrations in Berlin. Modris Eckstein’s Rites of Spring 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 an anti-war German law student, 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. Duty was a moral imperative regardless of reasons to abstain. “The decisive issue,” the student 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. Hobsbawn said the shorter 20th century spanned from the 1917 Russian Revolution to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But it effectively began with the Peace of Versailles, a treaty as cynical (despite Wilson’s 14 points) as the Congress of Vienna 100 years earlier. France’s Marshal Foch 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. But 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. 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 scant media exposure, with SBS the honourable exception. While we remember overseas wars in intimate detail, there is little appetite to commemorate a massacre of 100 deaths on Australian soil across many sites 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 fine a pastoral hill country as a man could wish to possess”. The Overland Telegraph Line brought more whites into this difficult country in the 1870s as well as the first cattle. 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 after World War I and stocked with cattle in 1923. It remains 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 its 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 a much harsher environment and the last frontier between British and Aboriginal law.

Today the nearest Aboriginal town to Coniston is Yuendumu established 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 the Kaytetye. They watched uneasily as properties like Coniston began to use waterholes for stock. To the Warlpiri, the prospectors, pastoralists and other travellers were ruthless trespassers who damaged sacred sites and stole waterholes, and sometimes, like Stafford, their women.

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

Problems with difficult cattlemen were worsened by a drought that crippled central Australia from 1924. Aboriginals gravitated to the few remaining good waterholes such as at Coniston and Broadmeadows, spearing cattle to supplement their meagre diet. In August 1928, Charles Young, a pastoralist on Cockatoo Creek reported things were bad Coniston way and “the niggers seemed to be out of control”. Young said they came to his camp demanding food and tobacco. “They all had spears and boomerangs and were semi-civilised blacks,” Young said. “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 Indigines competing for the same resources, central Australia was a tinderbox ready to ignite.

The spark was Fred Brooks, a veteran cattle hand at Coniston, 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 he supplemented 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 Warlpiri families Fred probably knew from seasonal work at Coniston.

Bullfrog Japanangka was one of a sizeable group of Warlpiri at Yurrkuru and he had three wives. At gunpoint, Brooks demanded he loan him two wives to help gather firewood and act as camp assistants. Brooks promised Bullfrog 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 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 hit him with boomerangs and axes. Brooks died and was hastily buried with one foot sticking out of a shallow grave. His Aboriginal helpers raced 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 said mounted constable George Murray was on his way to the region to investigate cattle killings in Pine Hill and Coniston 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 avoid violence where possible. But it was tacitly understood Murray would “teach them a lesson”. Murray arrived at Coniston on August 12 and 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 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 not to shoot unless necessary, he rushed in ahead causing consternation in the camp. When he tried to make arrests, 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, 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”. The patrol returned to Coniston station and Stafford took no further part in the remaining killing.

The next encounter was at Six Mile Soak where Saxby said they surrounded a camp. He was 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.” Lock reported some telling her there were eighty killed, others had a smaller total. “At the official enquiry, some months later, the number given was seventeen, but seventy was the number generally believed in the bush,” she said.

An Aboriginal war party then attacked Nugget Morton thinking he too was about to start a massacre (this may have been based on a misunderstanding he was about to kill a beast). Morton escaped by horse. Murray’s party was sent to Pine Hill to investigate cattle thefts. They met a sizeable group of Kaytetye warriors in three encounters and although no record survives, it is likely there were considerable Aboriginal casualties. While there was acceptance in frontier society of “an eye for an eye”, unease was growing over Murray’s bloodthirsty rampage. On September 11, the first account of the slaughter appeared in an Adelaide newspaper.

Commissioner Cawood needed to someone to investigate Morton’s attackers but Murray had gone too far. Yet because of a shortage of manpower, Murray was instructed 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 “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 ended when Murray had to go to Darwin for the trial of two men accused Brooks’ murder.

The trial of Padygar and Arkirkra was brief. It started on November 7, 1928, three months after Brooks’ death. Murray summarised the first patrol where Padygar was arrested at the start and Arkirka at the end. But the one white, Bruce Chapman, who had seen Brooks’ body, was himself dead. Murray admitted 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 was Methodist lay minister Athol McGregor of Katherine. McGregor heard 17 Aboriginals were shot dead in one punitive raid at Stuart Town. He confronted Commissioner Cawood who defended the killing. Cawood became worried when McGregor wanted a Board of Inquiry. McGregor 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 inquiry though most Stuart Town residents though they were “do-gooders” who did not understand frontier conditions.

Bruce chose the Board with a whitewash in mind, over the considerable protests of McGregor and others. The chairman was a Cairns police magistrate, the second a SA police inspector and the third was Commissioner Cawood. The inquiry went from December 30, 1928 to January 16, 1929, with a closure summary February 7. It called 30 witnesses but skimmed over the issue of settlers taking Aboriginal wives apart from a few denials by bushmen. They blamed the Missionaries for preaching a doctrine of equality, even though none were in the Coniston area before 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 a policeman doing his job. Policeman Paddy from Murray’s party was the only Aboriginal witness called. He lied about seeing Brooks’ body and was never cross-examined.

The findings were inevitable. Murray accepted responsibility for most 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. 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.

A friend of historian Dick Kimber once ask Murray, “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. 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 access to Murray as well as Luck and other pastors. He said 70 to 105 is “the more correct number”. Kimber thinks it was 70 to 80 but “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 spread far from their lands, Coniston’s consequences continue to this day. 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 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 this week. Ugandan rebel group Allied Democratic Forces, driven into the jungle after a violent campaign in the late 1990s, overran the town of Kamangu on Thursday. The ADF are one of many foreign proxy groups causing mayhem in eastern DR Congo for over 20 years.

The country survived two devastating wars after 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 European who never visited it. Congo was created out of nothing 120 years ago by the greed of one infamous energetic monarch: 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 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 influenced by Portuguese traders plying his coast bringing in European ideas including the church, literature, medicine and trade skills. Afonso didn’t want European rule of law nor mineral prospectors invading his lands but could not prevent the slave trade for coffee plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean.

When Afonso died, Kongo’s power diminished. In 1665 the Portuguese beheaded his successor though European domination was slow to grow. For 200 years, the vast inland remained mostly off-limits to white eyes. The only route through the thick malarial jungle was the fearsome Congo River. Most of the river lies over 300 metres high on the African plateau. It descends to sea level in 350 kms tumbling down 32 waterfalls.

The white man who crossed this natural barrier was born 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 get a job. Rowlands also changed his name to Henry Morton Stanley. He reinvented his past and passed himself off as a native-born American.

Stanley signed up for the Confederates in the civil war but Union soldiers captured him after two days at the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee. To escape a disease-ridden POW life, Stanley enlisted with the Union Army and then the Navy until he deserted in 1865. He 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 to cover the British war in Abyssinia. Stanley was resourceful and bribed a Suez telegraph clerk to give his reports priority, scooping his rivals with news of the conflict. In London, Stanley thirsted for more success. Bennett 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 Livingstone went missing on a long expedition and hadn’t been heard from in 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, as David Livingstone died shortly afterwards. Stanley’s version of events became history and it made him an American hero. His book “How I found Livingstone” was an international best seller and one man in Brussels eagerly read every piece of news about Stanley’s African adventures. That man was 37-year-old Leopold II.

When younger Leopold travelled across Europe, Egypt, India and the Dutch East Indies whetting his appetite for empire. When Leopold took the throne in 1865 he was determined Belgium would take part in Europe’s colonial adventures. He convened a conference in Brussels which founded the International African Association. It purported to be dedicated to African exploration and the exposure of the slave trade. In reality it was a front for Belgian expansion in Africa. It tried to buy an African colony but none were for sale. It would have to claim its own.

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 in both sides of the equator. The arc exposed the river to a continuous rainy season that contributed to voluminous water flow.

Leopold avidly followed Stanley’s journey. He was especially interested in his descriptions of 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 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. It took two years to haul boats and equipment to the top of the plateau before sailing inland. Stanley was a hard taskmaster and treated Africans with contempt. When he arrived at the opening in the river later called Stanley Pool (now Malebo Pool), he was shocked to find the French had beaten him and had 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” 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 for Belgium. Leopold needed to get the world to recognise the claim.

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

The new empire 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 which Leopold controlled outside 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 rainforest. By the time they reached Pasha, the crisis was over and Pasha was no longer eager for help.

Despite this, Leopold’s empire was slowly consolidating. He established military bases along the river and sent Belgians to administer his new kingdom and tap into the rubber trade. It relied on slavery and shot 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 ignored.

Leopold declared “all vacant land” in the Congo as crown property. He ignored the free trade edict and his administrators collected tariffs along the river. They conscripted porters to carry 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 (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 to see the horrors of white occupation first hand. The visit shattered his belief in Leopold’s ennobling mission. He spent six months in the Congo and transformed it under the pen-name of Joseph Conrad as the scene of his great short novel “Heart of Darkness”. Conrad’s unforgettable portrait of the deranged Kurtz was based on 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 developed an insatiable appetite for rubber. Wild rubber vines were abundant in the equatorial rain forests of the Congo and Leopold went into partnership 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 to the state’s wealth and power. But it also exposed his empire to truth. Missionaries spoke of the price locals paid for Leopold’s enormous wealth. The king always denied 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 noticed the only trade into the country was arms while all the material coming out was hardly ever paid for. He realised only forced labour could account for this. Morel 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 punitive expeditions and massacres were commonplace. Thousands were held as hostages and many died of starvation. Smallpox and sleeping sickness killed many more and the birth rate dropped considerably. Morel exposed it all.

In 1903, his cause was helped by Irish diplomat Roger Casement. Casement travelled to the Congo as British Consul to understand the problem. He spoke to overseers, missionaries and natives and documented his findings in a parliamentary report. The report showed abuse, slavery and murder were commonplace. Belgium put pressure on an embarrassed British government to delay publication of the damaging report. Morel kept up the pressure on Britain to act. The world’s press began to turn on Leopold and 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 into 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 died a year later, unmourned and booed at his own funeral. He never set foot in the colony he ruled despotically for over two decades. Forced labour in the Congo continued under the civil administration though there was some improvement. Belgium tried to brush Leopold’s misdeeds under the carpet.

The winds of change were blowing in the 1950s as the native population began building tribal political bases. In 1960 Congo won 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 dead 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 American presidents.

His importance to the US ended when the Cold War ended in 1991. His corrupt rule was 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 $5 billion he had embezzled. Congo descended into eight years of wars involving all 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 was appropriate 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 was a labour party and Blackall and Barcaldine are crucial to that story. The western Queensland towns showed it wasn’t just the Australian economy that rode on the sheep’s back, so did the trade union movement.

It seems absurd to think conservative and remote rural Queensland might be key to labour politics. Blackall and Barcaldine have populations of no more than a couple of thousand each, are a thousand kilometres from Brisbane and are part of 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 it wasn’t always this way in the Gregory electorate. The Country/Nationals first grabbed the seat after the long-term Queensland Labor government imploded in 1957. It had been a Labor stronghold since 1899 when trade unionist William Hamilton took the seat. Hamilton was a miner and a shearer who found himself in the shearing sheds at Clermont in 1891.

Australia was starting 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 dry up in Australia with large-scale unemployment as public works programs scaled back. There was a run on overextended banks and building societies several which collapsed. In rural areas, the problem was worsened by a fall in the wool price.

Shearing was a demanding occupation and poorly paid. In 1890 the Australian Shearers Union prohibited members from working at non-union sheds. Blackall’s top 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. Barcaldine was the focus of the trouble as the western railway line terminus. Howe brought a Blackall contingent to Barcaldine in 1891 for one of the world’s earliest May Day rallies commemorating the 1886 Chicago Haymarket Affair when anarchists bombed police after a riot.

Pastoralists hit 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 camped at the edge of town and plotted a course of “moral suasion” which their opponents called intimidation. The shearers burnt grass, set fire to woolsheds and attacked scab labourers. After four months, the state called in the army to break up the strike. 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 it they gathered under a well-known ghost gum called the Tree of Knowledge at Barcaldine railway station. Historians Peter and Sheila Forrest debunked that theory in their book Bush Battleground saying 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 the tree grabbed the mythology.

The party grew after strike leaders emerged from prison. William Hamilton returned to western Queensland to take Gregory in 1899. Queensland Governor Samuel Griffith invited Labor leader Anderson Dawson to take office, becoming the first socialist government in the world. It was kicked out after six days, but it showed Labor had arrived.

Several Labor governments followed with Blackall prominent in the strongest of them. In 1909 Jackie Howe was president of the local labour association and a friends of solicitor Thomas Joseph Ryan who dealt with union cases in the west. He invited Ryan to stand for the local seat of Barcoo which he won that year. By 1915, Ryan was Premier of Queensland with a large majority to institute sweeping change and the first Australian Labor government to rule without a coalition. Ryan’s government nationalised many industries and allowed women to stand for parliament. His opposition to 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 the 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 Kevin Rudd’s rise to Labor leader, also in 2006. But Labor’s industrial values had long died by then. From the time the Hawke-Keating Government floated the dollar and removed tariffs in the mid-1980s, Labor was no longer a party of labour, but of capital with a social democratic veneer. The veneer was disguised by the skill and towering egos of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. By the 21st century they were gone and like the tree in Barcaldine, Labor survives only by the decreasing force of its own mythmaking.