Henry Lawson, sedition and 'Blood on the wattle'

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120 years ago today Henry Lawson was accused of sedition in the Queensland Parliament. Clarence House feared the Chaser Boys were about to use seditious language during the recent Royal Wedding and they were gagged for their efforts. Australian’s have a long tradition of taking the mickey out of each other – but when this involves the monarch, is it illegal? History editor Dr Glenn Davies looks at the history of seditious language in Australia.

Henry Lawson is among the best-known Australian poets and fiction writers of the colonial period. Lawson’s first published poem was ‘A Song of the Republic’ which appeared in The Republican, 1 October 1887.

Early in 1891, Lawson had been offered, as he put it, “the first, the last and the only chance I got in journalism”. The offer came from Gresley Lukin on the Brisbane Boomerang and was eagerly accepted. Lawson became a prolific contributor of prose and rhymes to the Boomerang and also to the Worker. Henry Lawson’s well-known poem ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’ was published by William Lane in the Worker in Brisbane on 16 May 1891. The poem was his comment on the 1891 shearers’ strike and represented the rebellious spirit of those times.

One of the first May Day marches in the world took place on 1 May 1891 in Barcaldine during the strike. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that 1340 men took part with 618 mounted on horse. Banners carried included those of the Australian Labor Federation, the Shearers’ and Carriers’ Unions, and one inscribed ‘Young Australia’. The leaders wore blue sashes and the Eureka Flag was carried. The Labor Bulletin reported that cheers were given for ‘the Union’, ‘the Eight-hour day’, ‘the Strike Committee’ and ‘the boys in gaol’.

Barcaldine is an 11 hour drive from Brisbane on the other side of the Great Dividing Range. In 1891, it would have taken nearly a week to travel the same distance. Dominating the main street is the remains of the ghost gum, known as the Tree of Knowledge. This is the site where the 1891 strikers met to nut out their strategy. The strike failed. The shearers were defeated after a near civil war, with soldiers and police shooting up the strikers’ camp site around the tree. Thirteen leaders of the union were put on trial in Rockhampton, found guilty of sedition and conspiracy and sent to break rocks on St Helena Island.

On 15 July 1891, Frederick Brentnall MP read the last two stanzas of Lawson’s poem in the Queensland Legislative Council during a ‘Vote of Thanks’ to the armed police who broke up the Barcaldine strike camp.

So we must fly a rebel flag
As others did before us.
And we must sing a rebel song,
And join a rebel chorus.
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
O’those they would throttle.
They needn’t say the fault was ours
If blood should stain the wattle.

As a result there were calls for Lawson’s arrest for sedition. In response Lawson wrote a bitter rejoinder to Brentnall, ‘The Vote of Thanks Debate’. By all accounts he was very concerned about being charged and took the first opportunity to retreat to Sydney. However, by September 1891 the Boomerang was in trouble and Lawson’s services were no longer needed anyway. When he returned to Sydney, Lawson continued to write for the Bulletin.

There have been many prosecutions for sedition in Australia, including the conviction of Henry Seekamp for seditious libel over the 1854 Eureka Rebellion, and the conviction of the 13 trade union leaders of the 1891 Australian shearers’ strike. In 1891, there were also the seditious libel trials of the Australian Republican editor, F.C.B. Vosper, and in 1909 the action against Henry (Harry) Holland when he was jailed for two years over his advocacy of violent revolution during the Broken Hill miners’ strike.

The bringing “into hatred or contempt” the Queen or her heirs through speeches and writings was not uncommon before Federation. However, in most cases it was done more in reference to ‘jack being as good as his master’; a levelling idea aimed more at the concept of British aristocracy and the class system than at an individual royal (although some comments by John Norton in the 1890s abut Queen Victoria and her son, the future King Edward VII were very pointed). Although sometimes violence may have been advocated as a means to introduce a republic, it was never seriously followed through. Lawson may have alluded to ‘blood on the wattle’ but was never a serious advocate of armed revolution. His was more a call to address a sense of injustice. Australians have never been a violent people and as such have never really been guilty of seditious activity. However, we sure do enjoy taking ‘the mickey’ out of each other.

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