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  Issue No 81 Official Organ of LaborNet 08 December 2000  




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Fighting Words

By Neale Towart

The anti-conscription campaign of 1914-18 tore the ALP apart; but this was not the first time the labour movement took a militantly anti-war stance.


The anti-Sundanese campaign of 1885 was the first of many anti-imperialist campaigns fought by the Australian labour movement.

W.A. Wood in newsletter no. 3, November 1962 of the Bulletin of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History discusses the campaign against the Sudan Contingent of 1885. Writing during the Vietnam War, the importance of people power runs through his article.

British imperialism seized Egypt in 1883 and quickly moved to absorb also Egypt's southern neighbour, the Sudan. But the Sudanese rose in a patriotic-religious war in which they were led by the "Madhi". In February 1885 the Sudanese stormed into their capital city, Khartoum, and killed the British general, Gordon."

Jingoists in England and Australia clamoured for revenge, and the acting Premier of NSW, W.B. Dalley, cabled to London an offer of troops. The peace movement of the time succeeded in bringing the contingent home before they suffered or inflicted any damage. As F. Abigail, MLA at the time said;

"Soldiers for Sudan! Do you know what your mission is? To bolster our Egyptian bonds. To make Dalley Sir W.B. Dalley at the cost of half a million pounds. To make your wives widows; to make your children fatherless. To bring an unnecessary sorrow on your country, to cause Australia to be identified with England's quarrels and thus to bring a hostile army to your own shores."

The Contingent was raised in three weeks, whilst Parliament was not sitting, because Dalley knew full well that he would have great difficulty in persuading Parliament to back the move.

The government and its supporters congratulated themselves in committing the illegal act of raising the force. Respectable opinion supported the government. Some, such as Sir Henry Parkes, stood out against the action. However, Parkes' fear of standing alone were dispelled when much public opinion was with him, led by strong working class opposition.

This was first evident at a patriotic rally organised by government in support of the idea. One speaker, Henry Copeland MLA was attacking Parkes only to be howled down. Edmund Barton spoke at this meeting, in support of England and the troops. The Herald was in sympathy with the patriots, but had to report that the orators might as well have been talking to the winds and waves as to "a mass of humanity that cannot and will not hear and occupies the time in making a hideous noise." It went on to report that "the speakers were in a large measure unheard."

Dalley and supporters took the campaign on the road to raise funds, but often their meetings were take over by the opposition to the campaign. At one of the first meetings, a Mr Dawson "moved that Dalley resign... By crushing the rights and liberties and destroying the homes and religion of the Arabs - one of the freest people on the face of their earth - they would be committing a sin and "would be putting a blot which would for ever remain on the democratic character of this country."

The vote at most of the public meetings was firmly against the war party, at city and country meetings.

The working class attitude was expressed by Angus Cameron, financed in Parliament by the Sydney Labor Council (politicians were not paid the working people to participate).

From my conservation with the representative men I know that the majority of the working classes are against this movement.

Mr Buchanan from Mudgee declared that there had "probably never been a more contemptible war in all history than that in which England is engaged. England has no right in Egypt at all. She stands there in the same relation as a burglar stands to a private citizen and if she meets the same fate every upright, honest man will rejoice."

These representatives were responding to the mass movement for peace that grew rapidly.

In the war itself, as it developed "it began to display the particularly savage character of all colonialist wars from Ireland to Vietnam and protests increased in England as well as Australia.

The Herald editorial line throughout the conflict was pro war and in the end, as the campaign collapsed, it blamed the "whole fiasco on the people. But as its own columns abundantly showed, "popular sentiment" had been against the expedition from the very start. That was why it had been rushed out of Australia before Parliament could meet... The power of the people to stop a hateful war even after it has started has never been more strikingly demonstrated."

"The Sudanese showed that colonial peoples could fight the world's policemen and win. In that they had the help of the Australian workers, as later did the Chinese and the Indonesians in their anti-colinal struggles of 1938 and 1945.

"For Australia, that is not a matter of humiliation but of pride. We look back with admiration and gratitude to our forebears of 1885 who lit a torch that was passed on to the Anti-War League of 1889-1902, the No-conscription fighters of 1916-17 and the peace movement of today."


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 81 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Back to Work
After a stretch of unemployment following the 1996 election, former Keating Minister Robert Tickner is now helping others find work.
*  Media: Reality Check
Aiden White, head of the international journalists' union, argues that online journalism presents a new set of challenges for organising.
*  Economics: In the Same Boat
In an unprecedented move, a coalition of industry, community and trade union groups have joined forces to address long-trerm unemployment.
*  International: Nepalese Hotel Workers Ask for Support
Hotel workers in the small Himalayan nation of Nepal have finally decided to vent their anger and call a general strike for Monday - over a 21 year old dispute.
*  Unions: Speaking in Tongues
Labor Council's Mark Morey outlines the successful campaign by local government workers for a community language allowance.
*  History: Fighting Words
The anti-conscription campaign of 1914-18 tore the ALP apart; but this was not the first time the labour movement took a militantly anti-war stance.
*  Politics: A New Socialism
In an extract from his new book, political economist Frank Stilwell argues the need for a new radicalism to counter the Third Way
*  Satire: Roy Slaven on the Rampage
John Doyle's history of the ABC stretches back to a 1958 evening in Lithgow on which he was "scared shitless" by Blackboard on Mr Squiggle.
*  Review: Mauled in the Bear Pit
Vengeance may be sweet but it is always made better when you are able to write a book about yourself that also provides the opportunity to dump a bucket load on those who undertook your removal.

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