C.H. Norman May 1906

Empire and Murder


Source: Social Democrat, Vol. X No. 5 May, 1906, pp. 264-273;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


Many are the times when, while strolling through the gloomy streets of London Town, we are conscious of a mad anger against those responsible for the filthy squalor and saddening misery that we see and feel around us; yet, notwithstanding the ghastly horror of the London night, we English can claim one advantage over the teeming millions crushed under the Juggernaut car of Empire – the inviolability of our life. The life of a human being cannot be taken in this country for non-payment of taxes, or refusing to obey the laws, except when some wretch, driven insane by the terror of living, lays violent and fatal hands on a fellow human. In contemplating our own sorrows, we are prone to forget that some of our fellow-sufferers from capitalist rule languish under worse oppression than ourselves; in particular, we refer to those races who have escaped the curse of civilisation plus modernity by remaining secluded in their own territories, but whose lands and lives are liable to confiscation if they dare to resist acts of tyrannic injustice.

As it is directed to-day, the march of civilisation coincides with the degradation of human kind, rather than its ennoblement, for it carries in its train unspeakable injustices and monstrous iniquities. Civilisation merely conceals our barbarism; it does not root out, but rather encourages the growth of barbarism. In the history of the world of Humanity, civilisation is what the Liberal Party is in the political history of England – a sham. Do not let us be misunderstood; we are speaking of modern civilisation, not the civilisation of previous centuries. Those who boast of “civilising” the native races to-day apply the term to hide the fact that they are imposing on those races a system of torture and assassination, worthy of the Spanish Inquisition or the Chinese Boxers; they are busily engaged in murdering, not men, but the souls of men; not a few heretics, but the souls of races. We are told that the aim of civilisation is to teach the ignorant the high ideals to which mankind should aspire – especially to impress on the heathen mind the magnificence of the spectacle of all men receiving even-handed justice – British justice! We admire the courage of those who contend that this is the chief justification for the civilisation process, and we accept the implied challenge, knowing only too well the strength of our case.

There are two colonies (Natal and West Australia) which impress us as striking and painful exemplifications of the utter hypocrisy of the plea that civilisation postulates the banishing of injustice. In Natal, at the moment of writing, there is being enacted a stern tragedy for which that accursed doctrine “the survival of the fittest” may, perhaps, be largely responsible; a tragedy in which there are no stage tricks, no feeble actors playing with a strange unreality, in a puppet drama of sham life, but real players demanding attention from an unwilling and sated audience.

Our colonial system is supposed to be founded on the great political principle of “no taxation without representation”; but, curiously enough, the first people to repudiate this policy are the colonial States. For instance, the Natal natives pay 268,128 in taxes, but only 266 have been put on the register of voters. Moreover, as the Natalians were not satisfied with a quarter of a million revenue derived from the natives, they sought to raise further sums by putting on a poll tax. Then, as the natives declined to pay this further tax, a body of police was despatched to enforce payment on the recalcitrants. This corps of police was met by a number of natives, and, according to Mr. Jellicoe[1], what happened was this: “Sergeant Stephens reported that in the fog and dust he could not see anything except a native seizing the bridle of Inspector Hunt’s horse, whereupon the inspector lifted a revolver and shot the native dead.” Following on this, it appears a struggle took place, the result of which was that, unfortunately, Inspector Hunt and a policeman were assegaied. For committing this crime the two actual criminals were tried and shot; but twelve others were arrested as accessories before and after the fact. In due course they were brought to trial and sentenced to death. It must be noted that these men were not tried by the ordinary courts, but by a court-martial, an arbitrary tribunal, admitted to be, usually, a mere travesty of justice.

The Privy Council was appealed to on the ground that the court-martial had no jurisdiction to sentence prisoners for an offence which had been committed before the court-martial superseded the civil jurisdiction. The fight in which Inspector Hunt was killed occurred on February 8, 1906. The proclamation of the Governor of Natal, instituting martial law, contained these words, “I do hereby proclaim and make known that the colony of Natal is placed and shall be under martial law from the date hereof until this proclamation shall be revoked or amended.” The proclamation was dated February 9th, so “the date hereof” was the 9th; thus the “cause or matter” in reference to which the natives were put to death arose at a time when civil law operated, and before the military tribunal could legally act. It is laid down, distinctly, in Clode’s “Military and Martial Law,” that “a proclamation of martial law cannot have a retrospective operation.” The Privy Council refused to grant leave to appeal from a decision of a court that, clearly, had no jurisdiction to take cognisance of this particular crime, on the ground that the sentence had been confirmed by the Minister of Justice for Natal, and, therefore, the appeal was “not an appeal from a court, but in substance from an act of the Executive.” Apparently, if this reasoning of the learned lords be sound, when the Court of Criminal Appeal is established in this country, if the Home Secretary happens to confirm a sentence of the Court of First Instance before an appeal is lodged, then the superior Court will have no jurisdiction, the Home Secretary’s act in confirming the sentence being “an act of the Executive.” What an astounding proposition of law to be laid down by our highest Court when invited to intervene on a matter of life and death!

The reason for this inexplicable decision will be seen at once when the circumstances under which the Petition came before the Privy Council are examined. The news that the twelve natives were to be executed was received in London on Wednesday, March 28. On Thursday it was announced that the Colonial Secretary had stayed the carrying out of the extreme penalty until he received fuller information. On Friday, March 3o, the further statement was circulated that Lord Elgin had withdrawn his veto, and had allowed the law to take its usual course, so that the sentences would be carried out on Monday morning. The Petition for leave to appeal was argued before the Privy Council on Monday morning, but the condemned men were shot shortly after 11a.m. Therefore, any order that the Privy Council might have caused to issue would have arrived too late to stop the executions. In this state of facts, is it to be wondered at that the Privy Council evaded the main point, namely, whether or not the court-martial had retrospective jurisdiction – as to which, we submit, there could have been only one decision – and dismissed the appeal on an entirely unsubstantial and irrelevant ground? Our imagination cannot conjure up a more painful predicament for our governing classes to extricate themselves from – either they must condemn the Natal Government, or they must refuse to administer justice. Needless to add, they chose the ignoble course, and the weak went to their grave, and the strong to their dinner. The scriptural doctrine of “an eye for an eye” was extended to “seven eyes for an eye.” Fancy half-a-dozen of the most eminent judges in England solemnly assembling, as the highest judicial tribunal of the country, and listening to arguments of learned counsel on a question affecting the lives of a dozen British subjects, all the time well aware that they dared not arrive at an equitable decision, for fear that their so doing would cover the Natal Executive with everlasting shame for their indecent haste in ordaining that these twelve men should die!

The spectacle is so loathsome and disgusting that we turn from it with relief, only pointing out that the whole history of this incident throws a strong light on the lengths to which our governing classes are prepared to go in supporting one another. What matters Justice or Honour, so long as we have “continuity.”

Another aspect of this affair is equally discouraging to a lover of his country – the remarkable outburst of anger from the Conservative members of Parliament and Press against Lord Elgin because he ventured to postpone an execution for 24 hours, a disgraceful exhibition which, by its violence, contributed more than anything else to the Colonial Secretary finally sanctioning this judicial murder. We remember reading an account of a staghunt in Somerset describing how, after the stag had been brought to bay, then mangled and worried by dogs, – we even brutalise “the friend of man,” nothing is immune from our polluting touch, – the huntresses dipped their kerchiefs in its warm blood, thus securing a trophy of the chase with which to adorn their boudoirs, or, more horrible still, their children’s nurseries. We, for our own part, place such women on a much lower plane of inhumanity (far nearer the reptiles) than Lady Macbeth, Regan or Goneril; because they debase their womanhood[2] to obtain an hour of amusement. Judging from the “leaders” in the Conservative press, it seems probable that only considerations of time and distance prevented the Conservative editors dashing helter-skelter to the scene of the Natal executions, and dipping their handkerchiefs in the blood of the sacrifices on the altar of civilisation, as a proof that they were “in at the death.” Such are the ladies and gentlemen of England!

There remains Western Australia. We have no love for this sickening task of dwelling on the shortcomings of our countrymen; nevertheless, there are occasions when an enforced tolerance of bestial outrages is strained beyond endurance. During the last few years, charges of every sort and kind have been hurled against the West Australian Government for the abominable maltreatment of the aboriginal natives committed to its care. Protests of local humanitarians had no effect on official optimism. At last, the outcry and clamour became so loud that the West Australian Government, while denying everything, consented, in 1904, to accept the services of Dr. Roth, who undertook to investigate the working of the administration which controlled the destinies of the West Australian aborigine. Dr. Roth’s report and the evidence of the witnesses, who submitted themselves for examination, were embodied in a White Paper of 121 pages, which was published in Australia last year. From the evidence we propose to select a few passages, abstaining from comment, as we are content to let them speak for themselves. Mr. Octavius Burt, Sheriff and Comptroller of Prisons, was asked: “Are neck-chains used in prisons? – Yes. Are these chains used continuously during the whole length of the sentence? – Yes. Kindly let me know what is your authority for the use of them? – There is no legal authority. I can only say it is one of those things so universally adopted that it is never questioned. Are neck-chains ever used for Europeans? – Not that I know of.” Observe that the tribunal established by civilisation punishes the uncivilised man in an uncivilised way, while the civilised man is punished in a civilised way – a curious inconsistency which we leave others to reconcile, if they can. To resume: “You have no regulations as to the use of neck-chains? – No. Have you any regulations as to the weight and size? – There is nothing laid down .... The weights of the chains in use are, Roebourne, from 2 lb. 12 oz. to 5 lb. 14 oz.; Broome, 2 lb. 2 oz.; Wyndham, 51/4b. with Yale lock and everything complete. Has the chain a collar and padlock? – The chain encircles the neck and is fastened with a small Yale lock.” Then Mr. Woodroffe, branch manager, Adelaide Steamship Company: “When blacks are accused of a crime you do not think they have a fair trial? – I am satisfied in my own mind that they never have a fair trial .... Are the female witnesses chained? – No. I have never seen them chained. I may state that I have seen old and feeble men brought in by the police driven in front of the horses .... In the cases that you saw in Wyndham did the blacks ever get any justice? – During the years that I was in Wyndham I did not see one case of justice .... I guarantee that if the depositions were gone carefully into no man could be convicted on them. I have walked out of the Court disgusted at what is called British justice.” Next we come to Constable John Wilson: “Will you swear that each prisoner thoroughly understands what he is charged with when you arrest him? – Not at the time. Do you arrest those in whose actual possession you find beef? – Yes.” The principal charge against these Australian blacks appears to be that they have a mania for cattle-killing. “Do you ever arrest the gins (native women). – Yes. Do you accuse them of cattle-killing? – No. Do you arrest them as witnesses? – Yes. Have you any legal authority to arrest these women as unwilling witnesses? – No. How do you detain them? – They are chained by the ankles. Do you mean that their two legs are chained together? – No; I fasten the gin to a tree with a handcuff, and then fix the chain to one ankle with another handcuff .... These women are practically asked to turn informers? – Yes.” Then: “Do you allow your trackers, or the assisting stockmen, to have sexual intercourse with the gins whose relatives or friends you have arrested? They may do it without my knowing it. Does such intercourse go on? – I suppose it does.” Mr. Jeffery Scott, Gaoler, examined: “What do you consider the youngest ages of the prisoners you have at present? Judging by appearances, between eleven and 13 years of age. What punishment have these children received? – Sentences from six months to two years with hard labour. What proportion of these aboriginal prisoners do you honestly believe know what they are in prison for? – Their idea was that they were here for road-making.” The last gentleman we desire to quote is Mr. R.H. Wace, Resident Magistrate and District Medical Officer: “Have you any information to give this Commission on the effects of this pearling industry upon the coastal blacks? – It is most thoroughly demoralising to the blacks. In the laying-up season of this year, several pearling luggers laid up at Cygnet Bay. Several cases of supplying liquor to the blacks were brought down here. In every case I asked why the defendants had given the liquor, and in every case I was informed that the reason was that they wanted one of the women. I think that liquor is seldom given to the aboriginals except for that specific purpose. It is the recognised payment. I have treated several cases this year of specific diseases amongst the pearling boats, and I know from my own knowledge that it is extremely prevalent among these crews and cannot but have an extremely bad effect amongst the blacks. It is readily communicable, and its worst point is that it is hereditary. It has a morally and physically deteriorating effect both on the one who contracts it and the one to whom it is communicated by descent. To my own knowledge, girls have been taken from a mission station in accordance with the tribal marriage customs – young girls of 14 or 15 years, who have only just arrived at maturity, and in perfect health – taken away and prostituted amongst the crews of the luggers, returning after some time suffering from specific disease. One of the main reasons of the dying out of the black race is that, through prostitution, the women become infertile. This, by the way, applies throughout that district. I know also that members of lugger crews go ashore with guns, ostensibly for self-protection against the blacks.”

These passages may explain to some of our readers why we headed this article “Empire and Murder.” Such are the foundations on which this great empire rests. No doubt, we shall be accused of the direst treachery for attempting to revive interest in the fate of the West Australian blacks; yet, in denouncing lecherous wickedness, we are confident that we are rendering the Empire more valuable service than those who would draw a discreet veil over these misdeeds. The disregarding of this canker eating at the body politic will not avert the oncoming disaster which non-punishment of lechery in all parts of the Empire is hastening. We devoutly hope that the Labour Party will strive to obtain the appointment of an eminent Commission which may inquire into all matters affecting the welfare of the natives owing allegiance to the King-Emperor. There is sure to rise a chorus of lamentation and howls of virtuous indignation from our various Colonies. However, do not let us be deterred by these yappings, lest we are engulfed by the breaking of the storm clouds which are already gathering thick and fast in the distance.

C. H. Norman


1. Address to the Privy Council. – “The Times,” April 3.

2. Surely the most precious jewel in the world, but how sadly misused. In attempting to paint the lily, or to increase their natural beauty, women do not hesitate to inflict the most awful tortures on helpless animals. It is a melancholy thought that our admiration for the charm of our wives, sisters, and women friends must be tempered with the vision of the orgy of blood which has contributed towards the unnecessary furnishing and embellishing of Nature’s superbest work – Woman.