Continued from – Dawn to Dusk – reminiscences of a rebel: childhood and youth
[Part three of the series ‘Dawn to Dusk – reminiscences of a rebel’ by Ernie Lane]
One of the most epochal events in all Labour history, the trial, conviction and execution and life imprisonment of the so-called “Chicago Anarchists,” at the latter end of 1886, deeply stirred me and profoundly accelerated my rapidly growing revolutionaryism.
There have been many famous, or rather infamous trials of working class leaders, whereat in desperate endeavours the capitalist class by “frame-ups” and other devious methods have crucified those who have dared to challenge the power of the workers’ exploiters. With the possible exception of the trial of Dimitrov and his comrades in Berlin on a charge of burning the Reichstag, the trial of the eight Chicago “anarchists” is the most dramatic in all Labour history. Arising from the nation-wide strike for an eight-hour day in which the workers were apparently going to win, a bomb was thrown at an open air meeting at Chicago. Several police were killed and the most “dangerous of the workers” were charged with murder. Like the Tom Mooney “frame-up” there was no bona-fide evidence to show that any of the eight men charged had any knowledge or connection whatever with the outrage. But their doom was sealed before the trial began. Five were condemned to be hanged, three to life imprisonment. After their conviction these martyrs in speeches from the dock, with the shadow of death over them, placed the whole capitalist system in the dock, and with burning words gloried in their agitational work and defied their blood-thirsty persecutors.
These speeches have an immortal place in working-class history. After a lapse of over 40 years their message – an echo from the grave – still rings true, irrefutable in their scathing exposure of capitalist society. One of them said: “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle to-day.” Standing on the scaffold, Parsons said: “Let me speak, Oh men of America, will you let me speak Sheriff! Let the voice of the people be heard. Oh –” but the hangman immediately silenced him. In his speech from the dock Parsons, for eight hours and a half, analysed the capitalist system and gave a brilliant exposition of Socialism which will stand for all time. The three who escaped the hangman were pardoned in 1893 by Governor Altgeld, who, in the face of the bitterest opposition of the capitalists and their press, bravely declared that the Chicago “anarchists” had been the victims of a judicial outrage.
The passage of years, the ever-changing kaleidoscope of world affairs, inevitably brings forgetfulness of the dead past. But there are some events, some deeds that must, and will, be remembered for all time. That of the Chicago martyrs of 1886, their heroic stand in a world then indifferent and bitterly hostile to all revolutionary changes, has earned for them a proud niche in the Pantheon of Humanity.
A vivid, gripping record of this epoch in the development of the working-class fight against capitalist domination is contained in Frank Harris’s novel of revolt and passion, “The Bomb.” It is the most powerful product of his prolific and trenchant pen. He truly says, in the preface, that the cause for which the Chicago martyrs died, though hopeless to-day, must sooner or later be victorious, if humanity is to grow in pity and love.
I have dwelt on this event in working class history because it became for years the rallying centre for the revolutionary Socialist movement – a shrine where one found inspiration and hope for a better realisation of the immorality of capitalism and the inevitability of Socialism.
With the Paris Communists of 1871, the Chicago Martyrs were a beam of light to many weary souls in these far off days.
From that starting point I became a convinced revolutionary and have found no reason since to change my attitude. To the contrary, my experience of men and life makes it impossible to visualise any honest, intelligent, individual repudiating revolution. It was in a speech of one of the Chicago Martyrs, Fielden, that I first read that great poem “Revolution,” by Freiligrath. It embodied all my restless aspirations, my searchings for expression and solace. This inspiring poem covers the whole gamut of revolutionary thought, action, and ultimate. To me nothing as fine has been written on this pre-eminent phase of working-class progress.
It has never yet failed to bring me hope, exaltation, and certainty of ultimate victory. As one of the earliest factors guiding my life, then, and all through the years down to the present day, no memoir of my life would be complete without it. Here it is:
By Ferdinand Freiligrath.
And though ye caught your noble prey within your hangman’s sordid thrall,
And though your captive was led forth beneath your city’s rampart wall;
And though the grass lies o’er her green, where at the morning’s early red,
The peasant girl brings funeral wreaths – I tell ye still – she is not dead!
And though from off the lofty brow ye cut the ringlets flowing long,
And though ye’ve chained her ‘mid the thieves’ and murderers’ hideous throng,
And though ye gave her felon fare-bade felon garb her livery be,
And though ye set the oakum task – I tell ye all – she still is free!
And though compelled to banishment, ye hunt her down through distant lands,
And though she seeks a foreign hearth, and silent ‘mid its ashes stands;
And though she bathes her wounded feet where foreign streams seek foreign seas,
Yet – yet – she never more will hang her harp on Babel’s willow tree!
Ah no! She strikes it stronger yet, and bids its loud defiance swell,
And, as she mocked your scaffold erst, she mocks your banishment as well,
She sings a song that starts ye up astounded from your slumbrous seat,
Until your hearts, your craven hearts, your traitor hearts, with terror beat!
No song of plaint, no song of sighs for those who perished unsubdued,
Nor yet a song of irony at wrong’s fantastic interlude –
Your “Beggar’s Opera” that ye try to drag out through its lingering scenes,
Moth-eaten though the purple be that decks your tinsel kings and queens.
Ah, no! The song those waters hear is not of sorrow or dismay –
’tis triumph’s song – courageous song – the paeans of the Future’s day –
The Future – distant now no more – her prophet voice is sounding free,
As well as once your Godhead spake: – “I was, I am, and I shall be!”
“Yea, yet shall be, and once again before my people I shall go,
Shall plant my foot upon your necks, and lay your thrones and kingdoms low!
Shall free the slave, and right the wrong, with sword unsheathed and flag unfurled,
And strong with outstretched arm of might cry
Freedom’s birth to all the world!
Ye see me only in your cells; ye see me only in the grave;
Ye see me only wandering lone beside the exile’s sullen wave –
Ye fools! Do I not live where ye have tried full oft to pierce in vain?
Rests not a nook for me to dwell in every heart and every brain?
“In every brow that boldly thinks, erect with manhood’s honest pride –
Does not each bosom shelter me that beats with honour’s generous tide?
Not every workshop, brooding woe? Not every hut that harbours grief?
Ha! Am I not the Breath of Life that pants and struggles for relief?
“Day dawns apace; yet once again before my people I shall go,
Shall plant my foot upon your necks, and lay your crowns and kingships low!
It is no boast – it is no threat – thus history’s iron law decrees
The day grows hot, O Babylon! ‘Tis cool beneath thy willow trees!”
About this time I met Henry Lawson, who was then having a hard struggle to eke out an existence. A member of the Social Democratic Federation in London, G. Chandler, where he had known Yewen, was a painter, and through him, Lawson, Yewen and W. A. Holman, also struggling for an existence, secured a few painting jobs round Sydney. It was mostly sub-contract work at the munificent wage of sixpence per hour.
Lawson had inspiringly written “Faces in the Street,” a revolutionary poem that thrilled every rebel and marked this poet of the common people of Australia as a vital force in the fierce battle of life which was to rage fiercer than ever. His mother, Mrs. Louisa Lawson, was a woman of strong personality, and, as an uncompromising advocate of women’s rights, was a dour pioneer of the feminist movement in Australia, then in its infancy.
While her son was of a dreamy, gentle nature, Mrs. Lawson was particularly fitted to lead a hard and bitter fight against an indifferent or hostile public who regarded women as chattels and rightly subject to man.
After experiencing the hellish search for employment which is one of the inevitable prices the workers have to pay for the luxury of living in a capitalist society, I obtained a job at a store at the Glebe. The wages were low and the hours long. Three months later I went to Newcastle in the course of my desire to adventure to other parts. I worked my way on a sailing ship to San Francisco, and whatever romantic ideas I had regarding the exhilarating joys of a sailor’s life were rapidly dissipated. The romance of the sea exists only in the pages of books, and the beauty of the white sails that has inspired countless writers, is far removed from the hardship and monotony of the sailor’s life.
Leaving ‘Frisco, I worked on a wheat ranch in the Sacramento Valley, on a fruit ranch in the foothills of the Coast range, and then took a long hop to Texas, where, after the usual heartbreaking search I got a job on a cattle ranch. While there I received the tragic news of the death by drowning in the Brisbane River of my elder brother, Jim. The shock upset all my pre-arranged plans to go to Europe before returning to Australia, and I decided to return to Brisbane. Staying at El Paso at a boarding house overnight I had a young fellow as room-mate. Retiring to our room early we chatted for a couple of hours until it was time to go to bed. I thought, “Well, I had better keep my money (50 dollars) under the pillow or my room-mate might rob me.” Instantly I called myself a contemptible cad for suspecting such evil from an innocent man, and asked myself how I would like him to be thinking the same of me. So as a penance I deliberately left the money in my trousers pocket and dropped them on the floor between the two beds and went to sleep. I awoke at daybreak to find that my friend and my money were gone.
I relate this incident as indicative of my attitude towards my fellows. It involves a phase of life that we all have to face. In our social relationships and contact with people, one must follow one or other of two policies. Either accept the bona-fides of the other fellow, giving him or her the credit of being as decent and honest as yourself, or regard every man as a rogue – until you find them to be innocent. Well, I have always followed the former course. I have through life accepted people on their face value and shall continue to do so. True, as in the related instance, I have often been deceived and disillusioned, but far better to meet this result than to suspiciously regard every unknown as a scoundrel and a potential criminal.
So here I was stranded penniless and 1200 miles from my destination, “ ‘Frisco,” or rather California, where I intended to work for a mouth prior to leaving for Sydney. In a desperate position I determined to “beat my way” on the trains and carry out my plan to be back in Australia within two months. So I set out on this new and wild adventure. I have many times thanked whatever gods there be for that robbery which compelled me to have a most interesting experience which I should never otherwise have had. Across the Arizona desert, to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles in Southern California on the top of wagons, on the brake beam under trucks, even on an engine over one section, it was an adventure well worth encountering. I developed during that journey a resourcefulness and pertinacity that amazed me and brought me to a triumphant journey’s end in quick time. Utterly fatigued for want of sleep, I was fortunate enough to at once strike a job driving the horses on a travelling hay-press. Stayed a month, went to ‘Frisco and secured a job on the Zealundia, one of the mail boats running between ‘Frisco and Sydney. On arrival at Auckland, August 1, 1890, we found the great maritime strike in full swing.
* * *
Two or three years previously the Sydney Waterside Workers and Seamen’s Unions had, by direct action, compelled the owners of the Sydney – ‘Frisco mail steamers, (Sprecles, an American company), to discharge their Chinese crews and employ members of the Californian Seamen’s Union. On the way over to Sydney from Auckland, the seamen on the Zealundia decided that on arrival in Sydney they could not scab on the Australian unionists by unloading the cargo. The boat berthed at Wooloomooloo and the men refused to “turn to” and work the cargo. The captain immediately sent for the military to take action and as I walked off the wharf, as I was not signed on, three of the “ringleaders” of the seamen were marched off to Victoria Barracks or Darlinghurst gaol under a military escort with fixed bayonets. Thus was I welcomed back to Australia!
As I was proceeding to the Socialist League rooms in George Street, the first lot of “scab” wool was on its way from Darling Harbour railway station to Circular Quay via George Street. It was an historic event and Sydney seethed with excitement and dread. The lorries loaded with bales of wool were heavily guarded by mounted police, with special constables riding on the lorries and on the tops of the bales. Many thousands of angry workers demonstrated against this blatant show of force and the feeling ran high. The first lorry in the procession was challengingly driven by Lamb, one of the most bitter squatters fighting the unions. On the way to Circular Quay stones were thrown and at the corner of George and Market Streets the police arrested a man and rushed him into a waiting cab. In a minute the crowd had smashed the cab to splinters and the police were fleeing in terror. The hostility of the crowd was accentuated and became alarmingly threatening when the wool arrived at the Quay. The Riot Act was read by a magistrate standing on the gangway of a wool store, but had no effect in dispersing the people. The mounted troopers then furiously charged and by this means law and order triumphed and another defeat administered to the workers.
The failure of the maritime and shearers’ strikes brought in their train a stern realisation to the defeated workers of the power and callousness of organised employerdom. With the unrestricted support of all the State governments, the entire machinery of the law was eagerly placed at the disposal of the squatters and shipping companies to crush the unions and teach the workers a lesson.
Scabbery was exalted by the blatant capitalist press as the sacred duty of every freedom-loving Australian worker. To Queensland, where the fight raged most fiercely, shiploads of “scabs” were brought from Victoria and Tasmania. Military and police were used to protect the “right” of employers to do as they desired with their ill-gotten gains. Union officials were arrested, oft-times chained like convicts and viciously sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.
Such was the treatment gleefully meted out to the workers of Australia throughout the nineties, when, with a newly-awakened determination to obtain a place in the sun, unionists united their forces and vainly attempted to break through the ring of steel that surrounded them. The stark reality of the unceasing and inevitable conflict between capitalism and labour was, in the strikes of the nineties, brought into the full knowledge of all who dared to face the truth.
To-day, that inescapable battle of the two divergent forces of capitalist society still rages as bitterly as in the historic nineties. Neither Arbitration Courts nor subservient Labour politicians can alter that fact one iota, or turn from its course the rapidly approaching climax of a revolutionary change in the whole economic system.
* * *
Living in that period of storm and stress, of capitalist brutality and scorn of the workers, I came seized with a burning hatred and detestation of the evil system that has remained unabated through all the long years. It is this knowledge, is undying hatred, that makes me intolerant and impatient with those Labour leaders who, forgetting or ignoring the history and wrongs of the workers, have betrayed their trust. These supporters and apologists for the capitalist system might, with advantage, delve into the history of the Labour movement. Then they might (though this is extremely doubtful) gather a gleam of light and inspiration to shame them into some action in the interests of the workers.
The aftermath of the strikes resulted in unemployment and all-round gloom. I was unable to secure any permanent work in Brisbane and in May, 1891, returned to Sydney. Prior to that, on Saturday afternoon, A. G. Yewen and Henry Lawson, who were both employed on the “Boomerang,” then owned by Gresley Lukin, father of Judge Lukin, and I used to “hike” into the hills round Brisbane. It was on one of these walks that Lawson read the “Cambaroora Star,” which he had just written. One Saturday we walked to Mount Cootha. Yewen and I desired to wait and see the sunset, but Lawson, the poet, strongly objected as it would mean missing the bus at the foot of the hill and a long walk back to Brisbane. As Yewen and Lawson were boarding at Spring Hill they would be too late to get any tea. However Yewen and I were obdurate, and Lawson, with a very bad grace, had to submit and do without his tea. But it was a glorious sunset.
On April 7th, 1891, the foundation stone of the Old Trades Hall, Turbot Street, was laid by the Chief Justice, Sir Charles Lilley. Annis Montague, from the Montague-Turner Opera Company, sang the “Marseillaise” the then international revolutionary song of the world’s workers. Defeated, but not subdued, in the strikes, the Brisbane workers rallied to this function, with hopeful hearts that the future would see the ultimate victory of the working class.
Despite the fact that unionism and all appertaining to the Labour movement was anathema to the Government, and to employers generally, Sir Charles Lilley and Annis Montague gladly identified themselves with this workers function. It would be very difficult to conceive later operatic prima donnas, Melba, Florence Austral, or High Court judges, Detheridge, Lukin, Beeby holding out the hand of fellowship to the workers and participating in laying the foundation stone of Trade Union Building.
The Trade Union leaders often met at my borther Will’s house and it was there that I first met Dave Bowman, whose winning smile and genial personality I never forgot.
W. P. Colborne, secretary of the Printing Industry Union, Queensland Branch, with others also came under the magnetic influence of Will and with enlarged vision, helped to lay the foundation of a newer and better unionism. Colborne was one of the first Labour candidates for Parliament (the Valley electorate), but under a property franchise was badly defeated.
With the shearers’ and maritime strikes raging and almost a civil war prevailing, Will was threatened with all the dire penalties of an outraged capitalist society. The Brisbane “Daily Telegraph’’ howled for his arrest as the head and front of the whole strike activities. So when he left home in the morning to go to the “Worker” office, we never knew whether he would be a free man to return at night. During this period I taught Will chess and he was seized with the fever and became a chess fiend. I, with my brothers John and Frank, were inveterate chess devotees. Acting as a necessary relaxation from the serious responsibilities he bore, Will found chess playing with me during the midnight and early morning hours entertaining and soothing.
At the Ballarat Interstate Trade Union Congress, the Australian Labour Federation Scheme as drafted by my brother, was the outstanding feature of the conference. It was adopted, but, unfortunately for the welfare of the Australian ‘Workers, was never put into operation. If it had been, the whole of the unions throughout the Commonwealth would have been consolidated and had a basis and revolutionary outlook altogether absent in most unions to-day.
The delegates from Queensland and New South Wales formed the left wing of the congress, in contrast to the Victorian, South Australian and Tasmanian representatives. It was the custom in those days to toast “The Queen.” At the Ballarat social function it was arranged that Charlie McDonald, who was known in Queensland as the “Fire Eater,” should jump up and propose “Not the Queen, but the People!” When the tense moment arrived, H. Trenwith, Labour member of the old conservative school, rose to toast “the Queen.” McDonald, with one foot on his chair. the other on the table, lifted up his glass, trembling with excitement, and shouted, “Comrades, not the People, but the Queen!” His comrades looked at him aghast and called him harsh names. It was half a minute before McDonald realised the error he had made. He quickly rectified it and the toasts of “The People” was drunk enthusiastically. It was an historic congress in which the ill-starred toast had its worthy part…
[Next Week: Sydney Activities]