Dancing on a volcano
Thomas Burt and his friend reached Pine Creek on April 6; exhausted and dishevelled. Their news created such an impression locally that a railway engine was placed at their disposal to take them on to Palmerston without delay, and they arrived there about noon the following day. The resident was away, over the Easter holidays, on a shooting excursion. His understudy, full of the importance of his temporary responsibility, granted them a patient hearing. When the bald statement of invasion burst upon his comprehension, he paled visibly. But the more the story was unfolded to his mental gaze, the calmer he grew. It was so palpably impossible. By the time it came to an end he had ceased to weigh its purport. Instead, he was quietly bethinking himself who among his kind friends could have invented and enacted this hoax. Therefore, to the surprise of his interviewers, the Acting-Resident preserved stoic calmness. He satisfied his official conscience by taking a preliminary record. As it was long after tea-time when he had done, he dismissed the friends for the night with thanks and a promise that the matter would be thoroughly investigated.
This diplomatic postponement gave the Acting-Resident leisure to collect his wits. The result of his reflections was that he called, on the morning of Easter Tuesday, a council of his leading brother officials. Bitterly he rued the action. What was a bold and improbable story when told first hand by men who seemed to believe in it, appeared a preposterous joke when recited in a doubting, colourless voice from depositions. It was a merry conference. The listeners tried to surpass each other in sarcastic comments. Was it likely that two men on a holiday trip should penetrate several hundred miles of country only partly charted? Was not game plentiful nearer home? It was, and so was also the opportunity of buying liquid poison from Chinamen or low whites, or, at any rate, opium, which would account for all sorts of raving hallucinations. What about the persons who brought the news? Nothing unfavourable was known of the Yorkshireman. But Thomas Burt had on previous visits incurred the displeasure of the ruling set by his Australian outspokenness and very personal criticism of existing conditions.
The meeting broke up when the two friends were announced. They met with a chilly reception. Nothing daunted, they began the arduous task over again of convincing a prejudiced bureaucrat against his will. Such was their earnestness that he began to waver and their patriotic hopes to rise proportionally, when an unforeseen development finally sealed the official ear against them.
That morning, April 9, an auxiliary schooner entered Port Darwin. Its owner, and captain of its Malay crew, was a Chinaman named Ah Ting, a well-known identity on the north coast, along which he had been trading for years. People regarded him as one of the few decent Mongolians in the Territory. On several occasions he had been of some service to the authorities, with whom he was consequently on good terms. Yet he was never obtrusive, but went quietly about his own business. However, it so happened that the police inspector had gone down to the water-front after the conference, and, quite casually, he encountered Ah Ting. He came from the East. How fortunate! Did he see any steamers? No. Here the dignitary felt justified to mention the strange rumours. Ah Ting laughed outright. Junction Bay, he explained, was his last stopping-place four days ago. He searched the trepang grounds of that neighbourhood. His eyesight, alas, must be considerably worse than that of his white friends, for he saw nothing. Of course they would send the fleet up. The Inspector hurried away to parade his special information before the Acting-Resident, with the effect that Burt and his friend were hustled off the premises, and were told to be glad that nothing worse happened to them.
The two friends took the only course left open to them. They appealed to the man in the street by spreading the alarming reports broadcast. Out of courtesy they had studiously refrained from doing so before, considering that the Resident should have the privilege of publication. This tactfulness placed them at a further disadvantage. For the members of the conference had meanwhile forestalled them by giving the story from their humorous point of view. And when the explorers came to supply the genuine version, the mythical rendering had already been mentally enjoyed and digested. The pre-requisite of sensation is shocked astonishment. This they had failed to rouse. Instead, they confronted critical appreciation. This joke — to hold up the Government, to bring about a solemn conclave of the chief bosses — was voted excellent. Some of the audience applauded them for having invented a new variation of an old bogey. Till then, the prophets had always pictured a Japanese Armada sweeping down from the north and dictating terms of equality while big guns were trained on the Australian capitals. It was something to hear a different account for once. Others, of a grumbling disposition, objected to being made the victims of an April joke. Even granted that it might have been conceived on the first of the month, still that was no excuse for ramming it down their throats after a week’s delay. In short, the laugh had been against the warners, and from that moment all their efforts to awake Port Darwin to a sense of the real danger were doomed to disappointment.
Two days later the Resident returned. He was a a level-headed man, and if he could have heard the report first-hand and could have been a witness of the earnest sincerity in which it was delivered, things might have gone different. Unfortunately, he heard it from the understudy, together with Ah Ting’s denial, and this combination convinced him so thoroughly of the preposterousness of the assertion that an interview with the two discoverers could not change his mind.
Burt and his friend were now officially hall-marked as “jokers of promise, but whose present attempt had failed rather badly.” As they persisted in voicing warnings, the languid Palmerstonians voted them bores, and forgot about them. So they were pretty much left alone. They diverted themselves by keeping a close watch on Ah Ting. But that, too, came to naught. There were no conspirators sneaking about the back door of that worthy at night. Just as he piled his goods, Chinese tit-bits and knick-knacks, into the front window of his neat cottage in the main street to announce his business, even so he seemed to wear his unblemished character in a glass case open for inspection, with his mingled air of childlike blandness and dignified patriarchalism. Nothing was known of his antecedents; that was in no way remarkable, for the same can be said of all his countrymen up north. But he had resided, on and off, for several years in the place, and was respected even by the many-hued scum. The friends quickly got tired of contemplating so much virtue, while painfully conscious that their own reputations were under a cloud.
They determined to take the first steamer to the south-east. None was due for some time. So they had plenty of leisure to study the peculiar conditions of which they had become the victims. The fact was that tropical Australia was suffering from a surfeit of warnings against the Asiatic menace. Its white inhabitants had one dominant desire: to hear no more about it. The position had been looked at from all possible points of view, and had been pronounced hopeless from every one. Yet nothing happened. There stretched the vast wastes of fertile lands, uncontrolled, open from year’s end to year’s end, at the very threshold of the over-crowded North. Nevertheless, only stray individuals crossed over, mostly to repent of it afterwards. Mongols and Malays who had entered quickly declined to the lowest levels of degeneration. And wherever they came into contact with the aborigines, it meant rapid, complete ruin to the latter. The vilest corruption spread to them. The death-rate of all the coloured races was terrible.
Sometimes an enthusiast would arrive from civilized Australia, and would talk for awhile. But nobody ever did anything. Soon the microbe of drift permeated his blood, and he would become as languid as the others. The white population of Port Darwin consisted of a set of officials and of those who catered for their wants. A few shipping agents and South Sea produce dealers constituted the independent citizen class. All considered themselves exiles. The years rolled by, and the procession of new faces went on, but the same stagnation prevailed for ever. Once it had been broken when the great effort was made, and a railway was pushed south as far as Pine Creek. As if in revenge, stagnation had settled on that very railway thicker than elsewhere, if that were possible. Under the law no coloured alien could own mining rights. As the Chinese who did not subsist on trade, vegetable cultivation or laundry work were miners, they had to rent claims for working from the white proprietors, who received anything above 10 per cent. of the gross yield for dummying. Such practices naturally lead to parasitism on the one hand, to presumptuousness on the other. Rusting mining machinery and a few cattle runs in the interior represented the highest attainment of the white race; cabbage gardens that of the yellow race.
It has been said that the Northern Territory was not a white man’s land. With far greater accuracy it could have been called No Man’s Land. For it is undeniable that the white inhabitants maintained their standard wonderfully well, compared to the physical and moral debasement of the immigrants of all other races. The truth is that it was, and is, the land of the worker; only to the loafer is the climate enervating. And the curse upon it was that no race ever set itself to subjugate the soil, to force from it the richest yield by honest toil. Up to April, 1912, the Northern Territory was really the Country of Hope-Deferred, awaiting its conqueror, and the race — white, yellow, brown, or black — which would first solve its problem by organizing laborious, intelligent cultivation, was destined to rule.
Were the Japanese to be its masters? The two friends had gloomy forebodings. Quite unexpectedly, however, their hopes revived. There was a smart shipping agent in Port Darwin. As it happened, he personated the Opposition, which meant that he had fallen out with the official bosses. Also, he was occasional correspondent for a pushful Melbourne daily. He heard the story. Probably he did not set much store by it, but he chose, as a true Oppositionist, to differ from the authorities. It occurred to him that if they had not reported to headquarters about the affair, he might catch them napping. So, after a conversation with Thomas Burt, he condensed the news into a stirring summary, which he telegraphed to his paper. The editor on receipt was worried by grave doubts. The sensational character of the copy appealed to his journalistic instincts, but he was not sure whether its publication would not offend his readers. For he catered for a highly respectable merchant community, who might resent an attempt to scare them which bore the stamp of impossibility. In this dilemma he decided to bring the message under the notice of the Federal Government. Next day the Resident at Palmerston received an official inquiry by wire, and after the exchange of several more telegrams, he was instructed to carry out a search. The Federal Government had come to the conclusion that a cargo of Chinamen might have been dumped somewhere upon the coast in evasion of immigration restrictions, as had often been rumoured before.
Two days were spent at Port Darwin fitting the Government yacht for the cruise. A heavy rainstrom delayed her departure for another might, but at last she got away (April 15). All on board, from the police inspector (who was specially entrusted with the investigation) downwards, felt convinced that they were going on a fool’s errand. The friends had offered to accompany the party. But the captain ironically insisted that they would not be safe if nothing should be discovered, as his crew were only human after all. So they were compelled to stay behind. On April 22 the yacht returned. The results of the mission were wholly negative. According to the official report, they had steamed along the coast beyond the longitude of Junction Bay, and had landed at convenient points. At Junction Bay a bush fire had raged recently; miles of forest had been destroyed, and the damage done extended far inland. Probably it had been extinguished only by the late rainstorm, which evidently was very severe in that neighbourhood, for fresh water was still found near the mouth of creeks. Neither ashore nor awash were any traces or signs met with betraying that any landing had occurred, or that a large number of men had been in those waters. No human being was seen, not even an aboriginal. They passed no vessels, and only once a solitary column of smoke showed on the horizon, far out towards the ordinary track of navigation.
The two friends were now completely discredited. They did not dare to throw doubt on the thoroughness of the search, for fear of antagonizing the local dignitaries still more. At any moment legal action might be taken against them to wring part of the considerable expenses out of them. Official scepticism had been justified so signally that even the Opposition did not care to associate any further with them. There was a general feeling of relief when the ss. Changsha steamed into port, and it became known that they had booked passage by her to the south. Her commander was, of course, duly regaled with the sarcastic version of the story. So he was quite prepared when his newly-acquired passengers boldly appealed to him to swerve off his proper course for the purpose of another investigation, and he blandly informed them that it was really carrying a joke too far to ask that he should risk his ship and his certificate on a dangerous coast. Thus the last hope vanished. Day and night the friends remained on deck anxiously scanning the waste of waters, until the longitude of Junction Bay had been left behind. Then they hid themselves from bantering fellow-travellers in their cabin, defeated, despairing men.
Their retirement did not last long. On the following afternoon the outlook sighted some wreckage floating by. Further on swarms of sea birds were noticed hovering over some undistinguishable, nearly submerged shapes. The steamer slowed down, a boat was lowered. Those submerged forms were found to be bodies of drowned men; of what nationality it was impossible to say, as their features had been largely eaten away. It was certain, however, that they were of either Mongolian or Malayan stock. The ss. Changsha was now approaching the wilderness of islands, intermingled with sandbanks and sunken reefs, endangering the western entrance of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Night fell, and she stood by awaiting the dawn. Evidently a ship had come to grief somewhere near, and it was seamen’s duty to bring relief, if it were not yet too late. The morning revealed a wreck, driven on the rocks behind Cape Wessel. The captain decided to go over by boat to see for himself. Thomas Burt was permitted to accompany him. The wreck consisted of the fore-part of an iron steamer, firmly wedged in between the rocks. It presented a most singular appearance. The stern of the vessel had broken off, and the sea had swallowed it. But where it had parted from the bows the plates were twisted and rent strangely; fragments of hull and cargo lay scattered for a considerable distance along the line of reef; all the combustible material was charred or scorched, and the metal showed everywhere the peculiar discoloration which follows subjection to sudden enormous heat. No human being, alive or dead, was discovered. Probably the crew had escaped in the boats, which were all missing, and had taken the most valuable cargo away, while the remainder, for some reason, had been flung into the water. At any rate, there was no intact cargo left, though it was possible, by turning over loose heaps of wreckage, to gain a fair idea what it had been made up of. Quite a quantity of modern rifle ammunition was collected, and many broken parts of guns, some bayonets, tools, pieces of agricultural implements, shreds of blankets and of a clothing material similar to khaki, also tinned foods — in short, all the necessaries of life and defence for an isolated settlement in the Northern Territory, as Thomas Burt pointed out. Whoever the mysterious wrecked mariners had been, and whatever might have been their intentions, it was plain that they had tried to obliterate all traces of their misfortune. There could be no doubt about it — the vessel had been blasted asunder deliberately by means of explosives. The work of destruction had not been finished; why, nobody was able to tell for certain. Was it because the supply of explosives had become exhausted?
There were two heroes aboard the Changsha as she sped across the gulf to make up for lost time. She arrived at Thursday Island on May 1. Next morning Australia awoke to profound sensation. The Press sported scareheads. At last, after the delay of a precious, irretrievable month, the warning was heeded.
C. H. Kirmess, The Australian Crisis, Melbourne: George Robertson & Company, 1909
nothing daunted = not being daunted despite poor odds (i.e. still confident and enthusiastic, despite a failure or problem)
[Editor: Changed “nothing dounted” to “nothing daunted”.]