In June 1887 came news that Sir Henry Parkes on behalf of the New South Wales Government had ordered that no meetings, concerts or theatre entertainments be held on Sunday evenings. This created a sensation. On the evening of Sunday 12 June a large crowd assembled in Macquarie Street, Sydney, next to St. James’ Church, to hear speakers condemn the order of prohibition. The Sydney Morning Herald estimated that some six thousand people were present. One of the speakers, Mr. J. Norton, seconding a motion which condemned the action of Sir Henry as a ‘tyrannous usurpation of power’, said that he was there as a Christian, that Christians and secularists had to combine to fight some things, and that this was a crisis when ‘liberty of opinion, speech, and action were threatened.’ He believed the occasion would be ‘the democratic awakening of this country’ and that ‘The people would remind those men who were casting their eyes back to the days of the convict chain and the prison gang that the principle of democracy had developed, and the old order of things had passed away.’
Prison chains were a particularly powerful symbol in a colony founded on convictism, representing a loss of liberty and dignity and arousing feelings of shame and resentment. When a photograph of aborigines in chains appeared in the Herald in 1927, there was a quick response from J.W. Ferrier, General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, condemning the police practice of chaining aborigines, even innocent ones brought in for questioning. The method had been described in an article which appeared earlier that year entitled ‘Cattle spearing: How natives are captured’. The writer explained that, after a long and difficult chase in the desert, ‘The police arrest the men, chain them together, neck to neck, about six feet apart, with a dog chain, and take them to the nearest magistrate.’
Mr. Ferrier referred to two books by the nineteenth-century missionary Rev. J.B. Gribble (1847-1893), Black but Comely, or, Glimpses of Aboriginal Life in Australia (1884) and Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land, or, Blacks and Whites in North-west Australia (1886). Gribble had been furious in his condemnation of white treatment of the native population, but he had come to grief through launching an unsuccessful court case against some of his detractors (June – July 1887). The case and its outcome emboldened those who were unsympathetic towards the indigenous population, and influenced debate for decades. In 1896, for example, a letter-writer to the West Australian (the newspaper Gribble had taken to court) discussed the case and argued that reducing aborigines to semi-slavery was a matter of practicality and taking away their country was ‘merely another instance of the survival of the fittest.’
Indigenous inhabitants were thus faced with a population from abroad that could rejoice in its own rights to liberty and democracy while failing to extend these rights fully to those whom it found inconvenient. The ‘crisis’ of June 1887 was a shocking moment to those who valued the freedom to spend Sunday evenings the way they wanted. But out of sight, away from the concerts and theatres, there was a far more tragic and long-lasting crisis in the affairs of inhabitants whose cause was easily forgotten and repeatedly neglected.
Prohibition protest: Sydney Morning Herald 13/6/1887, p. 4. Photo of two aboriginal men in chains: Sydney Morning Herald 12/3/1927, p. 13. Letter of J.W. Ferrier: Sydney Morning Herald 19/3/1927, p. 11. ‘Cattle spearing’: Sydney Morning Herald Saturday 12/2/1927, p. 11. Gribble case: cf. ‘Anglican history in Australia’, sub-section ‘A white church’, Anglican Diocese of Perth website. Enslavement: West Australian 27/10/1896, p. 10.