The Shearers Strike and the 1891 ‘Bread or Blood?’ editorial

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Today is the 120th anniversary of F.C.B. Vosper’s ‘Bread or Blood?’ editorial in the Charters Towers Australian Republican, where he called for the establishment of an Australian republic at any cost. Written in support of the striking shearers, the editorial was to land Vosper with a charge of seditious libel. As the editor of the Australasian Republican Association’s (ARA) weekly journal he strongly advocated a revolutionary approach – as opposed to the ARA’s evolutionary approach – to the creation of an Australian republic. It is within this tension that the nature of nineteenth-century radical republicanism can be seen, writes Glenn Davies.

F.C.B. Vosper
(For a the complete text of the ‘Bread or Blood?’ editorial click here.)

IN LATE 1890, an intercolonial conference of pastoralists had drawn up a new shearing agreement that was to take effect from the beginning of 1891.  The agreement was intended as a thrown gauntlet rather than a serious case for discussion.  It ignored all previous arrangements between shearers and pastoralists regarding work hours, cut wages by between fifteen and thirty-three per cent and introduced the option of hiring non-union labour.

The shearers found these arrangements completely unacceptable, and on 5 January 1891 the rouseabouts at Oondooroo and Vindex stations, and the shearers at Logan Downs, all in western Queensland, refused to sign the pastoralists’ agreement. The crux of the dispute was the pastoralists’ insistence upon “freedom of contract”, and the refusal of their association to meet union delegates on the issue. During January 1891, union organisers had formed western strike camps at Wolfgang Creek, Capella and Mount Abundance. In early February 1891, non-union labour, or “blacklegs” began arriving.

At this time unionists in most western and northern districts were spontaneously walking off properties and forming strike camps. A meeting of unionists at Barcaldine on 15 February 1891 resolved to fight the agreements and to send all available horsemen to Clermont to assist their comrades. A party of about 180 men, many armed, proceeded to Clermont. The striking shearers at Barcaldine raised the Eureka Flag over their camp in a gesture of defiance of the police and government. Henry Lawson responded in revolutionary rhetoric:
So we must fly a rebel flag,

As others did before us;

And we must sing a rebel song,

And join in rebel chorus.

We'll make the tyrants feel the sting

O’ those that they would throttle;

They needn’t say the fault is ours

If blood should stain the wattle.

The shearers’ strike escalated in intensity until, on 21 February 1891, the Brisbane Courier asked nervously:
Are the revellers of the gay season in London and Paris to be told by the swift running tape of Morse transmitter that the industrial Armageddon has been fought in the heart of Australia, in a locality which a score of years ago was an undiscovered country?  Yet true it is that on our great Western plains the opposing forces of civilisation and revolution are gathering and...conflict is inevitable.

On the same day as the anti-unionist Brisbane Courier stated that “conflict is inevitable”, a leading article was published in the Australian Republican in support of the unionists’ view.  This was perhaps the most vehement support for the strikers’ position outside the union movement: the allegedly seditious editorial “Bread or Blood?” published by twenty-one year old F.C.B. Vosper in the Australian Republican at Charters Towers.

The “Bread or Blood?” editorial itself was highly provocative, had the stamp of an ardent haranguer, in places was overwhelmingly rhetorical, and was pervaded by the tone of a demagogue.  Vosper left no illusion about his advocating a violent upheaval in response to refusal of the shearers’ demands, “even should their action precipitate revolution throughout Australasia and lead to bloodshed”.  He argued that Australia was ripe for revolution and that the shearers were justified in answering coercive policy with armed resistance. In fact, he argued in the editorial that whether the Queensland Government was removed by constitutional means or by force of arms was irrelevant, as long as there was the establishment of an Australian republic. Throughout Vosper’s editorial were republican references such as “day of Independence”,rich heritage of citizenship”, and “history of our commonwealth”.  Vosper concluded this bitter diatribe by suggesting:
...if your oppressors will not listen to reason, let them feel cold hard lead and steel ... Better to see the last member of this hateful Government butchered than to see one jot or one tittle of the sacred rights of the people lost.”

The Queensland government’s actions were provoked by extremely violent and brutal language.  This was seen as republican language.

On Friday, 20 February 1891, a day before the publication of the editorial, an advertisement in the Charters Towers Times stated:
See Tomorrow’s ‘Republican’ for the latest official strike news, Liquidation hole and corner business, the divisional election and the article ‘Bread or Blood?’  Sixteen pages.

Next day, the Charters Towers Times advised its readers, the Australian Republican had been refused passage through the post as it carried a seditious editorial. Although potentially a volatile editorial, the authorities had moved so swiftly to suppress the offending publication that the impact of the editorial was confined to the Queensland legal community. This was achieved by confiscating, through the Charters Towers Postal Authorities, the editions of the Australian Republican that contained the editorial. The postal embargo effectively isolated the editorial to Charters Towers. Normally, the Australian Republican was available throughout the colony, including the troubled western areas. However, because of the postal embargo the editorial did not initially reach a wide audience.

The Worker reported on 21 March 1891 that John William Ward, an ex-secretary of the Australasian Republican Association and incumbent district secretary of the Australian Labour Federation, publicly supported Vosper and his banned paper: “if the Government and squatters fire on us, then I think the result will be a civil war”. As the mouthpiece for the status quo, the Brisbane Courier trembled at the prospect of containing a mass movement among the bush workers. That they saw conflict as inevitable perhaps demonstrated their lack of understanding of the bush workers. For in reality, the shearers’ threats were mostly bluff, as they were not bent on civil war. In fact, Australian republicans never seriously considered a violent overthrow of the government in order to create an Australian republic in the southern seas.

The Queensland government was fearful that the 1891 shearers’ strike might, as local republican John William Ward suggested, turn into a civil war.  On the Australian frontier, law and order seemed to rest on frail foundations. Indeed, Horace Tozer, Home Secretary and for several weeks Acting-Premier while Samuel Griffith was attending the National Australasian Convention in Sydney, was alarmed at the growing tensions in the autumn of 1891.  Why would the lawmakers in Brisbane believe that the frontiersmen of the inland were potentially uncontrollable? In the minds of the representatives of the urban middle-class there was a real danger of a violent confrontation with those makers of Russel Ward’s “bush legend”, the bush workers, Vosper’s “hardy shearers of the West”.  Vosper’s editorial urged the shearers to “equip yourselves, to bear arms in the coming fray”, and shouted in defiance, “the shearers have at last risen in open rebellion, and are making an armed march on Clermont fully determined to do or die in defence of their rights”. When the editorial was published, the Queensland Government would have no doubt had visions of armed citizenry overthrowing the government of France 100 years before—it was seriously concerned.

Thomas Paine

In 1891, the striking shearers of western Queensland adopted Thomas Paine’s American advice and tried change through the use of force. In retrospect, the strike was the highpoint of the radical movement and it was not long afterwards that the optimism for a “working-man’s paradise” faded.

Vosper was confident that the local community, and the union movement at large, supported his revolutionary radical republicanism. As he said in a letter to his father, Vosper saw himself as the “leader of republicanism” in the region. However, in consequence of the turmoil that followed publication of the “Bread or Blood?” editorial, he voluntarily relinquished his editorship of the Australian Republican at the Australasian Republican Association meeting on Sunday, 1 March 1891.  If government motives were readily apparent, Vosper’s behaviour was less susceptible to simple explanation. It appears there were four overlapping explanations for Vosper’s publication of the “Bread or Blood?” editorial: first, that it was the act of a rhetorician attempting to establish his republican credentials and to produce an effect from the safety of an editorial chair; second, that it was a contrived exercise to test the Queensland Government’s conviction in the shearers’ strike by seeing how far they could be provoked before they would prosecute; third, that it was a quixotic gesture to prove his fellowship with the strikers; and fourth, that it was the language of a youth wanting to show he was a man. The Queensland Government obliged Vosper’s challenge, and filed a charge of seditious libel against him. The case against Vosper was not just a local phenomenon but a prosecution guided personally by the Under-Secretary for Justice. Vosper seems to have desired his symbolic martyrdom and the Queensland Government was just as eager for the opportunity to implement a seditious libel trial as a showcase trial.

The “Bread or Blood?” editorial was a very early display of support for the shearers in the Clermont strike camp. Two days after its publication, military forces under Major Ricardo arrived in Clermont. The Queensland Government had been confrontational from the beginning of the shearers’ strike. Now, with the countryside sprinkled with militia, it moved directly against the unionists. On 3 March 1891, the Charters Towers Times received a telegram from Rockhampton stating that the Solicitor-General had prepared for the consideration of Cabinet a report on an editorial that incited the shearers to shoot the squatters unless the shearers’ demands were met. Vosper must have realised, or perhaps hoped, the Solicitor-General’s decision would be to prosecute, for he immediately set about obtaining the services of the lawyer Charles Powers before the prosecution had even been set in motion. Powers’ radical profile had just been boosted through the publication of a letter he had written on capital and labour that had been printed and distributed widely throughout Queensland by the Australian Labour Federation.

From the beginning the omens for the Queensland shearers’ strike were not good; its immediate precursor, the maritime strike, had failed. If the auguries for the strike were discouraging, those for the “sedition monger” were even less inspiring, for Vosper had willingly, or at least with full knowledge of the probable repercussions, engineered a head-on collision with the Queensland Government.  As an editor of a journal supported by the people he wished to represent, he appears to have considered his person untouchable, and yet to engineer a collision with such lack of subtlety with the Queensland Government was to invite prosecution and possible imprisonment. The moment the Queensland Government initiated legal proceedings over the publication of the editorial many observers considered the essence of the case to be “republicanism on trial”.  Only twice during this time of perceived rebellion did the Queensland Government have the opportunity to put the radical movement on trial.  These two trials, the shearers’ trial in the Rockhampton Supreme Court before Justice Harding in April and May 1891, and Vosper’s seditious libel trials in Charters Towers, were the showcase trials of the 1891 shearers’ strike.  The significance of the contemporaneity of Regina vs. Vosper and the Rockhampton shearers’ trial has been overlooked for the past one hundred years.

In Queensland, republicanism had more force in the 1890s than it did in other colonies. That is, ultimate separation from the Britain was more widely taken for granted in Queensland than in the southern colonies. Certainly, this was the exception rather than the rule. Although short-lived, the Australasian Republican Association filled a vacuum during 1890 and 1891 at a time when workingmen in Queensland were involved in industrial struggles. As a result, the overt radical republican intellectual ideas within the columns of the Australian Republican gained an ascendency within the political world of working-class Queenslanders. Indeed, the Australian Republican had a wider circulation and longer lifespan than the Lawsons’ Republican in Sydney.  However, for all their short-term success, the Charters Towers republicans were to have the same ending as all other radical republican groups in colonial Australia. Even the change from evolutionary radical republicanism of 1890 to revolutionary radical republicanism during the editorship of F.C.B. Vosper was not enough to sustain the political support of Australians in the longer term. The intellectual ideal of radical republicanism was not sufficiently convincing for Australians to “cut the painter” with Britain. 

The first half of Vosper’s 1891 “Bread or Blood?” editorial fell strongly within the oppositional, radical republican camp. However, in the second half of the editorial there were references to ideals supported by middle-class liberal republicans:
The liberty which you enjoy today, the rich heritage of citizenship … bequeathed to you the sacred responsibility of guarding those liberties … We believe that the time has arrived in the history of our commonwealth when its liberties are in danger.

When Vosper was found not guilty of seditious libel by a special jury made up of members of the Charters Towers middle-class on the grounds of freedom of speech the ideals of republicanism and liberal reform intersected.

The publication of the “Bread or Blood?” editorial occurred just one week before the National Federation Convention began in Sydney on 2 March 1891.  It is disappointing there are no extant editions of the Australian Republican for this period in order to determine the position of the Charters Towers republicans towards the federation debate. Certainly, the fact the 1891 National Convention was scheduled for 2 March 1891 was well known throughout the Australian colonies. Although the publication of Vosper’s editorial was timed to support the striking Queensland shearers’, it also struck a chord with immediate national discussions.  
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