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At the time of the rebellion, Darwin was little more than shantytown of the lost and the deliberately missing. But it was the escalation of beer prices that was the match which set last straws alight.
This week, it will be exactly one hundred years ago that the Darwin Rebellion started. Yes, I know: incredible to believe that Eureka was not the only time people stood up to the powers-that-be in this country. Regrettably, like Eureka, it had some unfortunate racist undertones to it. Nevertheless, it is interesting, part of our history and almost unknown, so I thought it would be a good idea to refresh your memory; also, because it tells us something about the Northern Territory, a place most of us have never been and know very little about. That is a pity, because it is a fascinating, and weird, and wonderful story. So let’s start there. Darwin had a few false starts before it properly got off the ground. It was first “discovered” by white people in 1839, when the Beagle (yes, the ship that had brought Charles Darwin to Australia a few years before) came across what would become Darwin harbour. A few Europeans had been here before, but it had been unpleasantly hot and they had turned away as soon as possible. But lieutenant John Lort Stokes got off his ship, slept on the beach for a night and while he had a good look at the “slippery grits between his fingers…he mused that this was just the sort of material his old friend the naturalist would have been excited by.” So he called it Port Darwin, ignoring that the Larakia and other Aboriginal groups had been living there for quite some time already.
Over the next couple of decades, there were a few attempts to set up a town here. But every time, the new societies were thwarted by cyclones, heat and insects, and, after 1843, introduced malaria and horrible fevers that killed. There were also alligators in the harbour, stray buffalo, marshes, brackish inland deltas, bushrangers and Aboriginal people who were not happy with the white-noses taking over their land. It took until the end of the 1850s for the South Australian government to send in explorers to survey the country. Because they invested money, they thought they owned it, and in 1863 they annexed it as part of their state. They put sheep on the land, that died, and cattle, that did a little better, but not much. They tried tobacco, breadfruit, rice and sugar cane, but in the end it was wheat and cattle that (sort-of) survived. That did not stop the land-speculation, because there was the idea that trade with Indonesia would soon become very profitable, and that you needed to be in it to win it. There were a few trickles of gold that came to nothing but brought a whole lot of Chinese miners in, and even more dispossessing of the traditional owners, who called the South Australian era “the killing times”.
One of the few good things that the South Australians brought, just after Federation, was voting rights. First for men, then for women. They were briefly enjoyed, though, because when the Federal government took over the Northern Territory in 1911 (at the request of SA, who was sick of it), the inhabitants of the state lost their franchise, only to get it back in the 1970s. Crazy, isn’t it? Darwin, at the time, was little more than shantytown full of frontiersmen: “thieves, outlaws, divers, capitalists, dreamers, drunks, schemers – men escaping their own histories,” thus the Federal government decided to send it a ruler it thought it deserved: ex-veterinary surgeon Dr John Gilruth. Expectations were high. The local paper described him as the man who “held the magic wand that is to transform the Territory, the Cinderella of Australia, into the most beautiful princess among the Australian states.” Unfortunately, Gilruth “had no talent for democracy,” as one of his critics would later write, and that would eventually lead to what is now called the Darwin Rebellion.
The local paper spoke of “something rotten in the state”. A few weeks later, the Northern Territory Times published extracts from the American Declaration of Independence, a clear sign of sedition boiling.
One of the first things Gilruth did when he arrived was abolish the last vestige of democracy, the Palmerston District Council. Then he took over the pubs, hotels and other outlets that sold grog. Officially, it was to curb alcohol abuse, but Gilruth was also honest enough to say that his administration needed the money these establishments brought in. As if that wasn’t sufficient, he also decided to change the hours of work of whole groups, so that people had to start their jobs at seven in the morning instead of eight. Which sounded reasonable enough, seeing the heat of the afternoon. But Gilruth had not involved the unions in any of his decisions, and that became a problem when a man named Harold Nelson moved to town in 1914. Nelson had been born in Queensland, was an engine driver employed by the Department of Railways, had a wife and five children and one enormous gift of the gab. He could, one historian said, “make the English language a weapon, a well-honed sabre or a darting rapier.” Once he settled down in Darwin, he started to use that weapon to organise the fledging union, and within a year or so almost every white man was a member. According to the mores of the time and the rules of the White Australia Policy, Nelson was a racist, though. The Chinese were not allowed to join the union, and neither were the Greeks, the Italians, the Malays or any other non-white people. Nevertheless, his union grew and became a force to be reckoned with.
Every time Gilruth put in another restriction, Nelson’s union went on strike. And that became more and more of a problem. WWI was now raging and British meatworks Vesteys needed a stable work environment, because they had just signed a lovely big contract with the government to supply beef to the troops. Wages were high in Darwin, because not a lot of workers wanted to live here, so there was always a shortage. And Nelson made sure that he kept the pressure up. Together, the union and the employers would probably have managed to sort out their differences. But Gilruth decided to behave like “an uncrowned king”, as Nelson roared at a meeting of his men. After nationalising the supply of liquor (neatly taken over by Chinese sly-groggers), the strike that followed it closed the hotels in town. And that was a problem, because most people in Darwin were single men who lived in those hotels for the short period they were engaged to work here. Now they had no beds and nothing to eat or drink. It ramped up the pressure, and when Nelson called off the strike a few months later, he hoped that Gilruth had learned his lesson and recognised that “Jack is as good as his master”.
Gilruth relented, but a few days later announced that a quantity of imported gin would only be dispensed for medicinal purposes. And there was a sudden rise of the price of beer. This was the last straw…
But Gilruth was deaf and blind to what was going on around him. In 1917 he started arresting union-members, accusing them of treason and working with the enemy. A Russian immigrant was detained for posting a letter to his brother in Germany, then Nelson himself was put in gaol. In the meantime, the government-run grog shops had started mixing the alcohol with water and dishing up horrible food. The union went on strike again, and then, on the morning of September 9th, 1918, Harold Nelson introduced a number of resolutions at a meeting of the Darwin Town Council that he controlled. They were condemning the Administration and again asked for the removal of Gilruth. The local paper supported Nelson. It spoke of “something rotten in the state” and of a “community smarting under a sense of injustice”. A few weeks later, the Northern Territory Times published extracts from the American Declaration of Independence, a clear sign of sedition boiling. Gilruth, now completely tone-deaf, responded by overstepping the mark again. As the town got ready to celebrate the end of the war, the girls employed in the state hotels asked for a few hours off to join the party. Gilruth refused, the girls took off the afternoon anyway, after which they were sacked.
Nelson’s union was furious, calling Gilruth “His Obstinacy, the Big Boss Blunderer”. Gilruth relented, but a few days later announced that a quantity of imported gin would only be dispensed for medicinal purposes. And there was a sudden rise of the price of beer. This was the last straw. In early December, Nelson called for a march on government house, where he asked Gilruth to address the people. Gilruth refused. Nelson then asked the men if they were satisfied with the Administrator’s reply and the crowd roared “no”. Five seconds later people went over the fence, swarming the grounds and disarming the constables on duty. Within minutes Nelson had restored order, but Gilruth was rightfully scared. While the Federal government took a few months to make up its mind what to do, the Administrator was holed up at government house with his family, under siege. Then, on February 20, 1919, the Gilruths left the residency at night and embarked on HMAS Encounter, a warship armed with eleven six-inch guns, “sent by the Federal government in a theatrical and wholly unnecessary gesture to protect its representative”. A few months later, Gilruth’s three officials were forced from the Territory in a similar way. They were taken hostage and a large crowd made sure they left the state onboard the SS Bambra. It was October 19, 1919 and the Darwin Rebellion was officially over. Gilruth went back to his old job as a Professor of Veterinary Science. Nelson was elected as the Territory’s first federal parliamentarian, although he could not vote. Many decades later one of his sons, John, would become Administrator of the NT, the job that his father’s adversary Gilruth had held. That is how that goes sometimes. The sins of the fathers and all that…