Australia and the Empire/Lord Beaconsfield and Young Australia



In recently overhauling a chaotic accumulation of colonial books, pamphlets, and political documents, I lighted upon a suggestive out-of-the-way chapter in the brief annals of "Young Australia," which, I think, should not be suffered to pass without the tribute of an ephemeral sketch. It seems to me that the mere fact of Lord Beaconsfield exercising so potent a fascination on a number of young men born, or at least bred, in our remote antipodean colonies, alone gives to my reminiscence an element of some general interest. Australia is now in direct hourly communication with the Motherland by means of the magic submarine cable, and nothing transpires of importance from day to day without its being known within twenty-four hours in the far-off Island Continent. Lord Carnarvon asserts that recently, when in Melbourne and Sydney, be could follow the variations of "home" politics almost as well as if he had been in London. But my readers may remember that when the cable broke, some little time ago, the Victorian Government utilised the misfortune by an experimental mobilisation of their naval and military forces. They wisely wanted to test how they would have been placed if the breakage had been the work of a hostile power. Yet so quickly do we grow accustomed to the miracles of science, and take them as ordinary matters of course, that Australians require such temporary interruptions of telegraphic communication to realise the time when they knew what was going on in Europe only by means of the monthly mail steamer. It was not so long ago, yet it seems like another era—like the division between ancient and modern colonial history. We were in this condition of all but outer darkness, when the great struggle between France and Germany was fought out. Just picture the excitement when the English mails came in bearing their burden of accumulated news! On August 22, 1872, Mr. Charles Todd, Postmaster-General of South Australia, announced that we were in telegraphic communication with England. When, therefore, the next European convulsion occurred—the Russo-Turkish War—we experienced the unwonted excitement of following the campaign from day to day. It was a time of intense excitement in our remote regions To us, as to most Englishmen, since the Crimean War, Russia, with her Asiatic armies and North Pacific squadron, loomed as the natural enemy of the British Empire.[1] For years past, to such a pitch of overwrought excitement had we brought ourselves, that rarely did a Russian cruiser enter one of our harbours, but we attributed the visit to some deep-laid treacherous design. The unwelcome visitor had come in order to take soundings, to map down the position of our ineffective defences, and to note where his shells would most effectively burst in our streets. I am not justifying, but merely recording, what may often have been most unwarranted, and perhaps ignoble, suspicions. But this being the prevailing colonial sentiment with regard to Russia, it is not difficult to imagine how eagerly we followed the struggle between Muscovite and Mussulman, and the varying European complications resulting therefrom. Thus it was that Disraeli, whose career had always possessed for many cultured young Australians the glamour of a strange fascination, suddenly began to loom from out the mist of English party politics, as the great patriotic statesman of the English-speaking world. Plain prose was found at times inadequate to the expression of our admiration, and "patriotic sonneteering" in honour of Beaconsfield was not unknown among us. But the ablest of these political young Australians eschewed the tinklings of verse, preferring to compose weighty articles on "the Political Future of Europe," and to plead for Colonial representation in the so-called Imperial Parliament.

The verses, though inferior in political grasp and intellectual ability, serve best to show the fervour with which "Young Australia" regarded the wonderful man who was then guiding the helm of State. I transcribe from the Melbourne Review, where they originally appeared, two Sonnets, which, so lasting has been my admiration for Lord Beaconsfield, I do not altogether blush to own, after the cooling lapse of years:—

ENGLAND, 1877.

Thou hast not played the braggart in our time,
  land of Commerce, foremost once in War!
  Among the guardians of thy sacred shore
Are those who preach to all that War is crime,
"Sweet peace," they cry, "should reign from clime to clime."
  But look abroad! The Cossack wades through gore
  To stretch his wide dominions more and more,
Muttering his prayers, meantime, like some base mime.
While, as of old, glorious Mother Isle!
  Thou hast arrayed thyself in warlike might,
  Waiting expectant to uphold the right.
Thy battle-ships are at the envied gates;
And thy brief words in scorn of Russia's guile
  Have won respect from cold and alien States.

Melbourne, September 1877.

The second Sonnet was even more bellicose; for it was composed on receipt of the stirring intelligence that Indian troops had been despatched to Malta.

ENGLAND, 1878.

Before the nations once again she stands
 In all the glory of pre-eminence!
 Her mighty Empire, with its millions dense,
Spread o'er the earth in far divided lands,
Yet all resolved to do her stern commands—
 Like Rome, in her world-wide magnificence.
Shall she then brook the Russian's dire offence,
Nor strive to stay his fell remorseless hands?
 Let other powers watch in impotence,
Our England shall not basely stand aside.
 While the despoiler robs his hapless prey:
Her armoured ships in Moslem waters ride.
 Her swarthy Sepoys swarm in war's array
And English hearts throb strong with patriot pride.

Melbourne, August 1878.

After the result of the Berlin Congress was declared, it was felt that the hour had come when Australia should testify to her sense of the worth and patriotism of Lord Beaconsfield. So far as Melbourne was concerned, this idea originated with the knot of enthusiastic young Australians to whom I have referred. But it would have been impossible to organise a vast public meeting such as that which took place at the Melbourne Town-hall on July 29, 1878, "to express public appreciation of the services of the Earl of Beaconsfield in the settlement of the Eastern Question," unless there had been a very large amount of public sentiment in support of it. This was undoubtedly the case. Nearly every grown man in the place was an admirer of Lord Beaconsfield, the only exceptions being those who had no patriotic feeling, and were too utterly stupid to have any opinions on Imperial politics, and those "cranks" (to use an admirable American term) whose cleverness furnishes them with paradoxical reasons for differing with their fellow-creatures. Such being the condition of the public mind, it was not difficult to organise a Beaconsfield demonstration in Melbourne. The necessary preliminary formalities having been observed, the Mayor called a public meeting, which, although held in the afternoon, was attended by some 3000 persons, and the two chief speakers had both been Premiers of the colony. The Melbourne Argus was quite justified in asserting that it was "one of the most interesting and enthusiastic that Melbourne has ever witnessed." The speech of Mr. James Service,[2] the ex-Premier of Victoria (who won golden opinions from English statesmen as one of the Victorian delegates at the Colonial Conference held at Downing Street last year), in praise of the extraordinary man who had brought us "Peace with Honour," was worthy of a great occasion. With thorough personal conviction, and that power of restrained enthusiasm so effective with an Australian as well as with an English audience, Mr. Service impressed upon that huge Melbourne meeting that it was entirely "through the energy, the judgment, the resolution, and the still strong power manifested by Lord Beaconsfield that we have secured for ourselves the blessings of peace, and that we have secured those blessings without an imputation upon the honour of England." It is not necessary to dwell on the rest of the proceedings further than to say that the oratory of the lesser lights was equally enthusiastic; but it is worthy of special note that by far the most able and eloquent of Mr. Service's supporters on this occasion was Mr. David Gaunson, who was then the leading young Native Victorian politician. Mr. Gaunson fairly aroused the enthusiasm of that monster colonial gathering by what used to be nick-named in England "Jingoism." The meeting unanimously decided that the Governor of the colony should be requested to transmit the principal resolution by telegraph to the Earl of Beaconsfield; and an illuminated Address was fitly prepared and forwarded by the outgoing; mail. Nor did Melbourne stand alone. Throughout the length and breadth of Australia the name of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, made the sunburnt settler glow with an unwonted pride of patriotism, A similar meeting to our Melbourne one was held in Sydney, while the two municipal councils of Ballarat—commercially the second city of Victoria, with a political vigour and activity second to none in Australia—sent congratulatory telegrams to the great English statesman. Adelaide, the metropolis of South Australia, and Newcastle, the second city in New South Wales, helped to swell this pæan of truly Imperial praise.

In an admirable leading article which appeared in the Melbourne Argus, the writer aptly observed: "The veteran statesman can scarcely fail to experience a lively sense of satisfaction in finding that the courage and wisdom of his conduct have met with the cordial approbation of his countrymen at the Antipodes; for we are so far removed from the influences which disturb men's views and warp their judgments upon questions of foreign policy in the mother country, that the opinions expressed here and in Sydney resemble, in some respects, the verdict of history, both in its impartiality and its deliberateness." Lord Beaconsfield duly acknowledged our patriotic tributes in the customary way, but, perhaps, we shall some day know how he was really affected by this singular outburst of personal, not less than public, admiration from outlying dependencies of the Empire, the like of which no other English statesman has ever evoked. It may be worth inquiring why this is so. If we consider the elements out of which an Australian colony is mainly composed, we find hardly anything analogous to the old Tory party in Church and State of which Disraeli became the leader—and educator—in this country. A colony is simply composed of a vigorous, wage-earning, or working class, and an equally hard-working, though more wealthy, employer or professional class, the latter corresponding to the "middle class" in Great Britain. In other words, there are no landed gentry, no aristocracy, and no "leisured class." If we consider such a community as that of Victoria, we shall find that the preponderating majority of the more earnest-minded men—that is, of those who have the making of political leaders and influential citizens—carried with them from the mother country strong working-class or middle-class opinions and prejudices. What could be more alien to such people than much of the political philosophy of Disraeli's novels? Yet it is a fatal mistake for the ordinary English Liberal or Radical to assert that we democratic colonists were simply fascinated and deluded by Lord Beaconsfield's "showy foreign policy," and what they used to term his "sham Imperialism." It is doubtless the want of all Imperial sentiment, which has marked the English Liberals under the long papacy of Mr. Gladstone, that in the first instance alienated the colonists from a leader whose genius works most smoothly on the broad but perilous path of political disintegration.[3] Nothing is so distasteful to loyal colonists as the idea that Britain would voluntarily abdicate her pride of place among the nations. Their reading of history convinces them that they are in peaceful possession of their vast island-continent, simply because Nelson and Wellington defeated and overwhelmed the navies and armies of Napoleon. And in this light Lord Beaconsfield seemed a worthier successor of Pitt than Mr. Gladstone. But even beyond this they judged this remarkable man more correctly than the mass of his countryman at "home," more, us the Colonial editor remarked, with the "impartiality and deliberateness of posterity." At all events, whatever may be the cause, these so-called democratic colonies felt a much greater admiration for, and a much stronger personal interest in. Lord Beaconsfield towards the close of his wonderful career than ever they have felt for his distinguished opponent. The colonial newspaper from which I have already quoted went on to say: "These meetings will also convince the Earl of Beaconsfield and his colleagues of the strength of the Imperial sentiment, even in the most distant portions of the Empire, and will help, we hope, to invigorate the feeling in England in favour of a closer union between all its members, and of the transformation of Great into Greater Britain."

These words were written more than ten years ago. How far have we travelled the Imperial highway then pointed out? Not far, I fear. Since then the Australian colonists have had frequent opportunities of gauging the political aims and aspirations of Mr. Gladstone as head of the State, with the inevitable result of deepening their admiration of Lord Beaconsfield. The foreign and domestic policy of Great Britain since 1880 has been more minutely submitted to colonial critics, thanks to the cable, than was ever before possible. As a result, nowhere is Mr. Gladstone so completely discarded as in Australia and New Zealand. The crowning disgrace—as the majority of colonists regard it—was, of course, his Irish Home Rule Bill. If anything could have destroyed their loyalty, and made them despair of the Empire, it was this deplorable measure of disintegration.

  1. I have lived long enough to think that this is the greatest condemnation of the policy of that war into which we were mainly led by the restless artifices of Napoleon iii., who also by his timidity prevented us from reaping any advantages from our nominal success.
  2. See Appendix F, "A Typical Australian Statesman."
  3. A much-esteemed friend deprecates this harsh criticism of Mr. Gladstone, and quotes the Rev. Dr. West, "the revered Vicar of St. Mary Magdalene, Paddington," to the effect that the Liberal Premier bestowed his Church patronage wisely; my correspondent adding, "like a loyal Churchman and true Statesman," whereas "Mr. Disraeli's appointments were purely on political or personal grounds. "I am, however, not dealing with Mr. Gladstone as an English Churchman, but as an English Statesman. Even in the former capacity I do not see that he has exhibited a distressing loyalty to his religious ideals; nor will his name be linked with any measure of ecclesiastical policy except the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. This may have been a necessary, but it was an iconoclastic act.