The Poetry of Reaction

By Mark Steven

September 1884. Battle Mountain, Queensland. 100 kilometers northeast of Mount Isa, deep in the Cloncurry Ranges. Land-owning stationmaster Alexander Kennedy and Sub Inspector Frederick Charles Urquhart lead a mounted assault against the region’s indigenous inhabitants, the Kalkadoon. While the stated motivation for their attack was the spearing of Kennedy’s station co-owner, James Powell, the massacre is wholly explicable within the broader history of colonization. Because of their well-documented resistance to the settlers, as manifest in a commitment to guerrilla warfare, the Kalkadoon registered as human collateral to the advancement of capital – mere fetters on the profits to be had from mining interests, pastoral claims, and cattle drives. “The Kalkadoons have gone down to history as one of the few native tribes in Australia that have stood up to the whites in open battle,” wrote the racist historian Sidney Pearson in a spirited defense of their extermination. “They clashed with Urquhart’s force of Native Mounted Police on Prospector’s Creek, some sixty miles north-west of the little township of Cloncurry, in September, 1884, and a number of their best warriors were slain.” While Pearson reframes genocide as something from a Wordsworthian pastoral – “Like the mists that lift from those ranges in the early mornings, the ancient tribespeople have melted away” – the reality is far more prosaic; from the standpoint of colonization, the 200 murdered tribespersons were nothing more than the unwelcoming custodians of an unclaimed investment property.

Nevertheless, Battle Hill would become subject to a uniquely bad kind of verse – a poetry whose aesthetic impotence competes for attention against its political grotesquery. Urquhart was not just a paramilitary thug, he was also a self-styled rhymester – and soon after Battle Hill, in 1891, he released his first collection of poems, the bizarrely titled Camp Canzonettes, a volume that opens with the prefatory humble-brag: “I have been so frequently asked for copies of my humble compositions, that, with many misgivings, I have decided to print them.” This collection – freely available via the National Library of Australia – comprises bathetic odes to experience, jingoistic meditations of imperial power, and more than a few bush-set murder ballads. On the whole, it reads like a chronicle of war crimes as recorded by a high-school student. That aesthetic is what we encounter in its purest distillation with “Powell’s Revenge,” an occasional poem from 1884 that narrates the massacre of the Kalkadoons.

These lines mark the burial of the eponymous settler, impaled by the Kalkadoon, and pledge retribution:

Grimly the troopers stood around
That new-made forest grave,
And to their eyes that fresh heap mound
For vengeance seemed to crave.

And one spoke out in deep stern tones,
And raised his hand on high
For every one of these poor bones,
A Kalkadoon shall die.

It will be worth suppressing revulsion to read these lines closely. Most remarkable is how the two quatrains hold perfectly to common measure, alternating between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. Remarkable not only because they inhabit the very same prosody as the national anthem, which was first performed two years before the massacre, but also because they give the poem a juvenile nursery-rhyme quality – a balladic jauntiness, even, that works against the tragic self-importance of the content to render the presentation altogether bathetic. The masculine rhymes and the end-stops contribute to this bathos at the level of sound but also in the sense of predestination, which has less to do with tragic fate than with a diction made predictable in its resolute simplicity. All of this is what a newspaper reporter inferred when, in 1884, the poem was criticized for precisely the disconnect between form and function: “it is bad enough to know that such a cursed stain on the country exists as a Native Police force; but it is diabolical to have its unhallowed work chronicled in idiotic rhyme,” in verse that “clothe brutality and cowardice with a mantle of glory and heroism.” The rhyme is certainly poor, lazy, uninventive, and maybe even “idiotic,” and so too is the meter, but it must nevertheless be conceded that a certain kind of literary or perhaps even mathematical intelligence asserts itself in the numerical apposition of the final two lines. That is to say, the adult body is said to have 206 bones and that is roughly how many tribespersons were murdered at Battle Hill. But this is, of course, precisely how capital thinks through its dispensation, as an equation: with systems of equivalence, forcing human bodies through the technical abstraction of exchange. Recasting the manifest horror of that abstraction as a nursery rhyme is politically repugnant, certainly, but it’s also unwittingly clever. It enacts at the level of prosody the very process of economic reification described therein, converting the lived experience of atrocity into something that can be enumerated in 2s and 4s and 4s and 3s. If colonization has a voice then surely this is it.

After Urquhart’s tenure in the Native Police at Cloncurry, he transferred to general service in Brisbane. In 1898, he was placed in charge of criminal investigation, only to be censured one year later and under royal commission for his “impulsive and exacting temperament” and his “vindictive and tyrannical nature.” In 1905 he was appointed Chief Inspector and, on the 1st of January 1917, he was promoted to Queensland Police Commissioner. In that chronology we have our annus mirabilis, 1917, and it probably goes without saying that on either side of this date Urquhart served the interests of capital (“the police everywhere,” Lenin would write seven decades before summary by N.W.A., “in every republic, however democratic, where the bourgeoisie is in power, always remains the unfailing weapon, the chief support and protection of the bourgeoisie”). Indeed, Urquhart helped rout the workers in the general strike of 1912, he allied with loyalists in World War One, and – significantly, for us – he fought on the wrong side of history during the Red Flag Riots of March 1919.

Here’s what happened. Opposition to war met with national chauvinism, trade union militancy took hold alongside mass unemployment, and immigration fluctuated amid collective xenophobia: these things combined, in 1918, for a political climate rife with agitation, coming from both the radicals and the reactionaries. In September that year, the War Precautions Act prohibited the flying of Red Flags and, though the War ended in November, the Act remained in effect through 1919 and into 1920. And of course, come 1917, the association between red and revolution had already been strengthened to the point of essentialism. “I overheard a socialist saying he was sure that the red flag meant the worker’s blood,” reflected Kazimir Malevich in 1918. “I thought otherwise. If the worker’s blood were blue or green the revolution would still have taken place under the red flag.” On the afternoon of 23 March 1919, then, 400 communists, socialists, trade militants, and fellow travellers marched through Brisbane, together protesting the Act. Their mass was blazoned in red – they carried three large flags as well as hundreds of smaller banners, ribbons, sashes, handkerchiefs, and insignia.

This march was met, one day later, by counterrevolutionary reaction. The following night, 8,000 men – including armed ex-servicemen – paraded under the Australian flag, taken to the streets with the intention of vandalizing South Brisbane’s Russian Hall, home to the Russian Workers Association. While Urquhart – in his official capacity as Police Commissioner – had been recommending both interment and deportation “to decrease the influx of an undesirable class of Russians into this State,” he was forced to put down those that took him at his word and armed themselves accordingly. The police charged the reactionaries with horses and stabbed them with bayonets. “As these mounted police wheeled to charge again,” writes Raymond Evans, “enraged loyalists began tearing hundreds of palings from surrounding fences which they then hurled at the horses, galloping back towards them. From this point onwards, revolver shots continually rang out, as bricks, bottles and fence-pickets flew through the air, striking the rearing horses, bringing one of them down and sending three others plunging in panic into the lines of the foot-police, knocking several officers and men to the street.” Herein we can enjoy a truly wondrous irony: amongst the casualties of this clash was Commissioner Urquhart. As though following some well-nigh Maoist logic of contradiction, Urquhart was – in an echo of the method used for James Powell’s execution – bayonetted through the left shoulder whilst trying to put down the vigilantes he helped unleash, presumably stabbed by his own men.

Urquhart penned a response to the Riots whilst licking his wounds in hospital. “Until this plague spot of pestilent Russian revolutionaries is eliminated in Brisbane,” he cautioned, “there can be no peace or safety for this community.” This year, too, he published his second collection of poems, this time with a more candid title: Blood Stains. A note issued in 2016 by the Friends of the Queensland Police Museum explains the collection’s apparent omission from literary and cultural history: “A copy of his publication Camp Cazonettes is held the Queensland Police Museum. The search for the second volume of poems, Blood Stains, has so far been unsuccessful. If members or readers are aware of this publication, please contact the FQPM or Queensland Police Museum curator Lisa Jones.” I can’t help but wonder what this volume could have taught us about Australia’s response to 1917, and specifically about the way that counterrevolutionary reaction wound itself virus-like through language both public and private. Of course, poetry written by the “fascist beasts” (to borrow a term from Basil Bunting) has always been profoundly sensitive to the force of socialist revolution – that’s what we encounter, for instance, in “The Second Coming,” The Waste Land, and The Cantos. But what might we have encountered in the poems of Urquhart, a fascist beast whose prosody responds so preternaturally to the logics and experience of capitalism, at least in its colonization phase? Probably stupid rhymes, and maybe even a brace of couplets, but perhaps in the formal reckoning of stupefaction is the truth of political discourse in Australia.

1 thought on “The Poetry of Reaction

  1. Sidney Evan Pearson was my Grandfather. He was a man who fought in the First World War in France and returned to live a haunted, ultimately solitary life and who would be surprised to hear himself described a “racist historian “.

    I have a book he wrote in the 30s and 40s as an old, uneducated man, where he denigrates the treatment white men meted out to Aborigines and although he was writing eighty years or so ago and he may have waxed lyrical about “mists of time”, Wordsworth isn’t a fair comparison of literature since my Grandfather had a rudimentary education.

    In the book I have, with regard to battles between Aborigines and white settlers, he states they were were appalling and that “Men who were unreasonably harsh towards the natives never made any real progress. Call it a coincidence or what you like but apparently the Avenger was on their trail!” Naive by today’s standards to be sure but not the words of a racist.

    He had lived as a young man in Victoria and lamented the dreadful treatment at Glenelg which his Grandfather did not take part in and who befriended the locals so Sidney had learned respect for differences at a young age and was actually a kind and tolerant man who found racism abhorrent.

    Therefore to describe Sidney Evan Pearson as a “racist historian” is not a true assessment of the man and I’m sorry you have described him thus.

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