AUSTRALIAN HISTORY - Forword to "The Bracegirdle Incident"

Foreword to

"The Bracegirdle Incident: How an Australian Communist ignited Celon's independence struggle"

 Encountering Mark Bracegirdle’s experiences in Ceylon during 1936-37, readers might suspect that they have strayed into a script-development session for an episode of ‘No!, Minister’. Readers with a more literary bent will be put in mind of Joyce Cary’s 1939 tragic-comic novel about the British administration in Nigeria, Mister Johnson, in which information about native tobacco is filed under ‘Elephants’ because the white officers complain that it tastes like elephant dung. As helpful as these flights of fancy are in making what might be called ‘sense’ in the Bracegirdle case, a surer guide through the contretemps is the secret cherished by litigation lawyers: in order to act, a bureaucracy must break one of its own rules. In the charges against Bracegirdle, the broken rule concerned his deportation.

Bracegirdle’s deportation was one incident in a world-wide pattern of expelling subversives. Lenin sent a boatload of reactionary intellectuals into exile in 1919 while U.S. Attorney-General Palmer was dumping hundreds of anarchists, notably Emma Goldman, back into Eastern Europe. From 1939, Australian-born leader of the West Coast Longshoremen, Harry Bridges, defied deportation from the United States. The Australian High Court had prevented the expulsion of the foreign-born leaders of the Seamen’s Union, Tom Walsh and Jacob Johnson (Johnansen) in 1925; ten years later the Court saved the Hungarian Communist journalist Egon Kisch from deportation on a Nazi-flagged ship.

Authorities everywhere promoted the notion that workers and peasants were content unless stirred up by agitators, frequently foreigners. Propagandists drew parallels with pandemics and plagues, insisting on a quarantine culture against the Bolshevik bacillus. They alleged that the infection came from inferior races, frequently Jews. Bracegirdle rang a change on this stereotype. Not only was he a white man but came from a respectable English family with connections to high culture. As Alan Fewster observes, his gravest offence was not being a Red but going Native after losing his position as an apprentice planter for fraternising with the pickers.

In Australia, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution panicked the propertied classes but also split the labour movement. By 1927, one group of unions had set up a Pan-Pacific Trade Union Congress which committed them to oppose White Australia as inimical to proletarian internationalism. Also on that principle, the far Left favoured independence struggles throughout the British Empire. Australian Communists carried instructions and  funds to the barely legal and miniscule Party in Japan. The Australian Party took up the cause of China after the renewal of Japanese incursions in 1931.These engagements with Asia were one of the contexts from which Mark Bracegirdle was thrust onto a political stage far larger than the speakers’ platform at Nawalapitiya in April 1937 from which he urged the exploited to resist the whip of their employers and the yoke of Empire.

Since historians are engaged with the risky business of predicting the past, we face the danger of reading causation backwards. The repercussions from Bracegirdle’s arrival were so wide that it is tempting to suppose that someone must have planned for this single spark to start a prairie fire. Alan’s meticulous tracking of the case establishes that Bracegirdle’s impact bounded far beyond what anyone could have imagined when the twenty-four year old set sail from Australia. Was Bracegirdle a pawn, and, if so, whose? Local Trotskyites came to believe that he had been a Stalinist plant. The Comintern did send agents to straighten out local Communist Parties, for example, the U.S. American H.W. Wicks arrived in Sydney in 1930 to proletarianise and Bolshevise the Australian Party which Mark had recently joined. During the Spanish Civil War, its leaders were reluctant to let too many militants volunteer so it is doubtful that they would have encouraged Bracegirdle to quit the struggle here; moreover, Moscow would have looked for a more mature agent, one who had been schooled in the Soviet Union.

Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet Imperialism, the latest stage of capitalism, a popular outline had a half-life far greater than its author could have imagined as he grappled to understand why the German Social Democrats were supporting the Great War. Although the short title, Imperialism, is regularly confused with colonialism, the late nineteenth-century grab for more colonies is but an appendage to Lenin’s investigation of monopolising inside the metropolitan powers. Hence, Ceylon fits into his analysis because of the cartel that global tea producers set up in 1933 more than because of the island’s several hundred years of European domination by the Portuguese, Dutch and English.

            Lenin’s analysis appealed far beyond the revolutionary Left, its conclusions confirming Japan’s leaders in their view that, in order to avoid foreign domination, they must imitate the European powers by centralising their domestic economy and acquiring possessions abroad. After 1941, other Asians, including Ceylonese, allied themselves with the Imperial Japanese Army as the shortest escape route from their European overlords.

To carry through the call for ‘Workers of the World to Unite’, the Bolsheviks established three organisations: the Comintern for political parties, the Profintern as the Red International of Labour Unions, and a Krestintern for peasant parties. Lenin’s political economy posed dilemmas for his comrades. The Comintern did not put the interests of revolutionaries in the colonies above those of the ‘bourgeois–democratic’ movements for independence until the Indian delegate M.N. Roy effected a policy switch in 1920. This line gained significance in Ceylon after the granting of universal suffrage in 1931 for a State Council with considerable influence over domestic politics, added to an independent judiciary. The question facing the island’s Communists became one of how to match this constitutional liberality with the impoverishment of the tea-pickets, many of whom were recently arrived Tamils.

A Director of the East India Company in 1796 had called for an end to compulsory labour, ‘for slaves cannot work so cheap as free men, and we ought to give all our subjects liberty.’ From 1827, Indian Tamils were brought to establish plantations, foreshadowing the bonded labour that replaced chattel-slavery across  the British Empire after 1833, what scholars identify as ‘a new system of slavery’ through contracts and indenture. Indians also went to Fiji for the sugar as did Pacific Islanders to Queensland. The woes of Indians in South Africa gave Gandhi his training as a campaigner for labour rights.

The Tamils were not peasants like those whom Mao Zedong investigated in Hunan in 1927, though they were landless. The conditions under which they worked were as disciplined as those on one of Henry Ford’s production lines yet plantation workers were not exactly factory proletarians. Ceylon’s Reds had little success at juggling class, ethnicity and religion.

Lenin had come to power with the demand for ‘Peace, Land and Bread’. By the 1930s, the latter pair had most relevance for Ceylon. Some adjustment to incomes would ameliorate the demand for bread without driving the wealthier supporters of independence into the arms of Whitehall. The struggle for land could not be so easily compromised. Imported labourers raised the question one of whether nationalised plantations should be transferred to Singhalese or to Tamils? It was easy enough for Bracegirdle and his backers to stir up demands for higher wages and improved living conditions. It was quite a different matter to resolve land ownership and political power.

In yet another of the tangles that this story picks up, Australia’s Attorney-General throughout the Bracegirdle case was Robert Gordon Menzies who, from 1936, strove for a Royal Australian Academy of Art to ’set certain standards of art’ and to direct ‘attention to good work.’ As a trained artist, Bracegirdle’s mother introduced him to bohemia in Australia, notably the Left-leaning Sunday Reed who, with her wealthy husband John, sponsored Modernism here for several decades. Traditionalists like Menzies loathed that subversive style, seeing it as Bolshevism, even when touched by the Theosophy that Annie Besant had picked up in India, along with her support for its independence.

Menzies resisted independence for the sub-continent but was consoled that Ceylon did not follow India by becoming a Republic (until 1972). Two actors in the Bracegirdle affair courted his good-will in the councils of the new Empire-Commonwealth. Ceylon’s first prime minister, Don Stewart Senanayake, sent him mangoes in July 1950, while during the Coronation in 1953, his son and successor, Sir Dudley, dispatched tea from the Dorchester to his Australian counterpart at the Savoy.  

Seventy-five years after the Bracegirdle case reached the Privy Council in London, ASIO was before the High Court in Canberra about Tamils with refugee status being kept in indefinite detention as threats to our security. To where will this wheel of misfortune have turned in a further seventy-five years?

Before then, let’s trust that the Bracegirdle story reaches the widest possible audience with a television program jointly from Australian, British and Sri Lankan production houses. Alan Fewster provides all the materials needed for script development. Meanwhile, we have the chance to glean insights from this ripping yarn into the clashes that continue to shape our lives through what Thomas Mann in 1940 called a ‘world civil war in which everyone must choose sides.’

 Humphrey McQueen  



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