Friday, 6 November 2015

The Origins of Archibald Baxter’s Pacifism - part one

Over the past couple of months I have been working on an article provisionally titled 'The Origins of Archibald Baxter's Pacifism'. It's going to cover the period between the Boer war (1899 - 1902) and 1916 (conscription), with a focus on the young Archibald Baxter and the Otago region. There will be three main sections:

  • 1899 - 1902: Alfred Richard Barclay and the Boer war
  • Keir Hardie's visit to New Zealand in 1908
  • Compulsory Military Training and the Passive Resister's Union (1912) 

I’m hoping to have this article up to a publishable standard by early next year, but until then here is a draft version of the first part on A R Barclay and the Boer war. This is just a blog, so I can theoretically say anything I want, but with this sort of thing I strive for factual accuracy. If anyone reading this can spot a mistake, or would like to make any comment at all, please leave a comment or email me.       

The Origins of Archibald Baxter’s Pacifism

PART ONE: Alfred Richard Barclay and the Boer war

Archibald Baxter’s We Will Not Cease is rightly famous as an incredibly powerful pacifist statement. Of the fourteen conscientious objectors who were forced on board the troopship Waitemata in 1917 and taken to the trenches, Baxter is the only one who wrote a memoir. Out of the thousands of New Zealanders who resisted the pressures of the hegemonic pro – war forces in the years between 1914 and 1918, Baxter was one of a small handful who actually experienced the horrors and brutality of the trenches in Europe.

Reading We Will Not Cease you cannot help but be impressed by the awesome determination of Baxter’s pacifist stance. As he withstands punishment after punishment, and endures the condescending and humiliating attention of the military authorities, his resolve and resilience never falters. We feel his discomfort, hunger, pain and outrage; at the same time it is hard for us to understand where this comes from, and how it is that he remains so strong. When you read the section where he is offered a role as a stretcher bearer, and maintains his stance, Baxter confronts us with an incredibly challenging test of moral imagination: would you do the same if you were in his position?

This ‘hard core’ kernel of Archibald Baxter’s moral character is beautifully evoked by his son James in the poem ‘To My Father’:

…. I have loved

You more than my own good, because you stand

For country pride and gentleness, engraved

In forehead lines, veins swollen on the hand;

Also, behind slow speech and quiet eye

The rock of passionate integrity[i].

Contemplating this unique and steadfast example of a man of principle, we might be led to the question: where does this ‘passionate integrity’ come from? Is it a rare genetic anomaly, or some kind of divine gift? A cynic might ask whether or not it was after all a matter of pride on Baxter’s part, or perhaps suggest that he was simply an extremely stubborn sort of person.

Rather than engaging with these philosophical questions about Baxter’s moral character, I will instead pose the question of his pacifism as one to do with his beliefs and values: what process of thought and reflection led Baxter to adopt his incredibly unyielding pacifist stance? Without in any way denying the reality of Baxter’s uniqueness and strength of character, framing the question in this way opens up for examination the period of time before WW1. A close reading of We Will Not Cease will readily reveal a number of arguments for pacifism. Far from being a simple-minded moralist who simply has an aversion to violence, Baxter is very clearly someone who has arrived at certain conclusions through a process of thinking critically about the world of his time. These conclusions are both moral and political, and they most certainly have a history and a context.

Unfortunately, the text of We Will Not Cease offers us an incredibly brief summation of this history:

Many years before the war of 1914–18, I had reached the point of view that war—all war—was wrong, futile, and destructive alike to victor and vanquished. My first step on that path was taken in my early manhood, when I happened to listen to an address on and against war by a Dunedin lawyer, a brave and upright man, whose voice was as of one crying in the wilderness, so unlikely did it seem that his point of view would ever be accepted by more than the very few. However, the newspapers thought it worthwhile to attack him, and as proof that anti-militarist views were not, even then, altogether unpopular with the common people, he was returned to Parliament at the next election with a greatly increased majority.

For many a day I was without a single supporter, either in my pacifism or in the socialism which I looked on as a necessary part of it. There was no Labour Party. Only isolated radicals in and out of Parliament upheld what would now be the Labour point of view. We were geographically so far removed from Britain that we only had meagre accounts of the rise of the Labour Party there. It was not until Keir Hardie came out to us in 1912 that the workers' party in Britain really meant very much to me.

I ploughed a lonely furrow and for a long time did not even get the support of my own family. Gradually, however, they came to see there was something in what I said, all the more as they began to hear the same sort of thing from some of the members of the rising Labour Party.

I was of course, outside the scope of the Act for the compulsory military training of boys and youths from fourteen upwards, which was introduced in New Zealand in 1911, but the strong and increasing opposition to it on the part of the boys themselves—in 1913 there were over 7000 prosecutions under the Act—encouraged me in thinking that there was an underlying objection to militarism amongst the people[ii].

David Grant clarifies the picture and fills in a few gaps:

Indeed, he [Baxter] seriously considered volunteering for the New Zealand forces in the South African war of 1899 – 1902. Months earlier, however, he heard a pacifist plea from Dunedin lawyer and MP, Alfred Barclay (a Fabian and admirer of Karl Marx), that changed his life. He was soon reading socialist and pacifist journals and was much influenced by the words of Scottish left-wing labour leader (James) Keir Hardie when he visited Dunedin in 1912[iii].

Born in December 1881, Baxter would have been aged just 17 when the second Boer war started in October 1899, and 20 years old when it finished in May 1902. Contemplating this period of Baxter’s life raises a number of questions: What exactly did Barclay say in his speech that had such a dramatic impact on the young Archibald Baxter? Why and how did Baxter come to hear Barclay speak in Dunedin, considering the fact that the twelve mile journey from Brighton (where he farmed) to Dunedin would have taken a considerable amount of time and effort? If Barclay’s speech had such an impact on Baxter, did it have a similar kind of impact on other people?

Curiosity about this influential yet obscure speech led me to search through the ‘Papers Past’ internet archive for any details or information about Alfred Richard Barclay giving a public speech sometime between the years 1899 and 1902. Given that Baxter would have turned 18 in December 1899, I expected to find mention of such a speech some time in either 1899 or 1900. Although there are references to Barclay during this period (he was one of a small number of New Zealanders who opposed the Boer war, and was regularly and loudly condemned by the jingoistic newspapers), there is no reference to any public speech.

The only record I could find of Barclay giving a public speech in the years between 1899 and 1902 was a newspaper article reporting on an address he gave at the Hillside Railway workshops on Saturday 25th January, 1902. There is no way of being certain that this was the speech Baxter heard, but there is a fairly plausible reason behind this apparently late date. Archibald Baxter was lucky enough to win a small parcel of farmland on Scroggs Hill (Brighton) from a government ballot sometime in 1898. Unfortunately Archibald’s father John was an alcoholic who wasn’t up to the job, and the farm was soon heavily in debt. According to Frank Mckay (James K Baxter’s biographer),

He [Archibald] stocked it with cattle, sheep, pigs, and fowls and handed it over to his father. But John was no manager and he was soon heavily in debt. Bailiffs were brought in and the whole place sold up. When the news reached Archie in Central Otago, where he was rabbiting, he came home, bought back the farm and began to work it himself. It soon became profitable; of the whole Baxter- McColl clan, Archie was the most successful with money[iv].

Even if Archibald was keen to enlist soon after he turned 18[v] in December 1899, it is very likely that he was too busy to do so. The events referred to above could easily have occurred over a two to three year time period, meaning that the January 1902 speech could have been the speech that Baxter heard. In any case, it is the only such speech that I could find, and I think it still gives us a good sense of the political atmosphere of New Zealand during the Boer war years, and very clearly explains why A R Barclay was opposed to the war.

Without being 100% certain that this was the speech, let’s imagine what it was like for Archibald to listen to Alfred Barclay. He would have turned 20 just over a month ago, it was a Saturday in mid – summer. Hillside is located on the southern side of Dunedin, so if he was travelling to (or more likely from, as the speech took place in the afternoon) the city centre from Brighton (18km south), he would have passed close by. Just how much, if anything, he knew about the speech or the speaker is hard to guess. He could have been tipped off by a friend or acquaintance about the talk, and probably already had an interest in labour issues and politics at this time. It’s also possible to imagine a 20 year old coming into town on a Saturday for other reasons, the attractions of a crowd and a public speaker a strong pull for a young man from an isolated and lonely rural outpost. My sense here though is that Archibald would have been a very responsible and mature 20 year old, and most likely far from being hedonistic or ‘care-free’. His alcoholic father and responsibility for his family would have shaped his outlook on life, even if he was still a very young man.

Much more speculatively, there is another reason Baxter might have visited the Hillside Railway workshop: it had a really good library. According to this (very reputable looking) blog, Hillside was something of progressive beacon. Workers were encouraged and even subsidised to attend night classes, and the workshop itself had a massive library. The books contained on its shelves were mostly fiction, but there was also a ‘Miscellaneous Subjects’ sections which contained books about things like worker’s rights and politics. 

Hillside Railway workshop library in 1928

So, what about the speech itself?

If we believe in the accuracy of the newspaper report, the speech Barclay gave was in itself a sort of minor miracle. Rescheduled because of bad weather from earlier in the week, the notice advertising the talk was torn down early on Saturday morning. People didn’t just disagree with what Barclay had to say, they didn’t want him to speak at all:

Shortly before knock-off time Mr Barclay made his appearance in the yard, where he intended to address the men. He was officially informed, however, that a rule in the shops was that every man must leave the grounds immediately the whistle sounds, and that consequently he could not be granted permission to hold a meeting within the gates. Nothing daunted, the junior member for the City, when the men streamed out, announced that he would deliver his address in a vacant paddock opposite the main entrance. He invited the 'men to follow him, and with such cries as "Where's Barclay?” "Dinner's more important” “Come along, Bill no time for him," they proceeded to follow him. The reception was not wholly hostile, however. One man went up and shook hands with the representative and said he was glad to see him another also expressed his goodwill, which evoked the remark from a comrade that he was ashamed of him. However, Mr Barclay mounted a little eminence and asked the men to get into the paddock (which was a low-lying one) in front of him. The request was complied with by the majority, although a good many lingered on the footpath, as if to devoted a few moments of idle curiosity to the subsequent proceedings Not a few of the men, however, disdained to do this, but, ignoring the visitor, walked sharply away, calling out to their fellow workers to come along home. When Mr Barclay got on to his vantage-point he had hardly time to produce his notes when Mr John Barnett the foreman of the shops, sprang to his side, and in a loud voice said: Gentlemen, I have been asked to preside over this assembly. I am not sure you all know the object of the meeting. I am not sure I know it myself. But we'll soon find out, for I'm going to call on the most venerable and the most highly respected man in the workshops to move a resolution. I call on Mr Daniel Lowden. (Applause and Hear, hears.) Mr D. C. Lowden thereupon moved “That this meeting desire to express their pride and confidence in the Christian statesmanship of the Right Hon. Joseph Chamberlain (applause), with special reference to his Transvaal war policy." The mover, in speaking to the motion, eulogised Mr Chamberlain, who, he said, had the confidence of the nation and the British Empire throughout the world – a statement which evoked an enthusiastic cheer. The sentiment of the gathering in regard to the resolution being unmistakably favourable, The Chairman said: I think we are all in favour of the resolution. You know that we all support the British Government (cheers), and I don't think there's a man here who is afraid to say so. (Renewed cheers.) The chairman's remarks were interrupted by the appearance of a party of men carrying a huge banner, consisting of the Union Jack spread between two poles, and several others carried small flags. The appearance of the national and patriotic emblem evoked a demonstration of enthusiasm, and in response to a cry of “Three cheers for the Right Hon. Joseph Chamberlain” three lusty cheers were given. A call of “Three hoots for Barclay” was responded to with equal vigour.

A Boer war concentration camp

The chairman then puts forward a motion that Barclay has had enough opportunities to air his views in the newspapers, and that ‘the time has arrived when a loyal community should refuse to listen further to his traitorous utterances’. A lone voice objects that Barclay should at least get the chance to explain himself, but the motion is carried and the meeting is concluded by a hearty singing of the national anthem. The chairman then declares the meeting closed and walks away, along with most of the men. About 60 remain to listen to Barclay, defying the immense pressures of patriotic conformism. It’s late afternoon in summer, 1902. Thousands of miles away New Zealand soldiers are assisting the British Empire extend its territory in South Africa. The Boer soldiers are hiding in the hills while their wives and children suffer and die in the appalling conditions of the world’s first ever concentration camps. A curious 20 year old from Brighton may well have wondered: what was it that Barclay wanted to say? Why did the chairman and others try so strenuously to silence him? These are Barclay’s words:

Now perhaps, I'll get a show. I did not come here to try to alter your opinions on the subject of the controversy that is going on. I have not the slightest objection to take on my shoulders all the responsibility that ought to lie there. But I come here to say that the attempt to cast odium upon me is unfair, and that the vilification and abuse that have been heaped upon me are not what I have deserved. I come here for the purpose of telling you what my position is, to tell you what I think, and to ask you not to believe the slanders and abuse that many have tried to shower upon me. The only point of difference between my opponents and myself is this: I have supported every contingent I have always argued that this war having been begun should be fought out. I have never suggested anything to the contrary. The only difference between me and some men who hold opinions about the war is that I do not agree that the war should have taken place at all. I say that it was avoidable. Nothing has given me greater pain than the attempt to throw odium upon me by trying to make it appear that I have cast reflections upon the men whom we have sent to fight. I repeat that this has given me great pain. I have never said a word that could be construed to mean anything against our men. On the contrary, I know that the conduct and valour of the army have been, the redeeming features of this war. And I tell you again that the attempt to make the contrary appear as coming from me is not fair fighting, it is not a proper thing to do, and I repudiate it with all my heart. Another unfortunate thing is what has happened in the excitement about the slanders and lies concerning our army that have appeared in the German newspapers. I repudiate them from the bottom of my heart. I agree that Dr Leyds is the greatest liar unhung. It is a very simple matter to show you by an illustration how unfair it is to make use of these things as a reflection on me. Supposing the management of the workshops told you to build a locomotive and carriages, and proposed to run that as a train on a certain bit of line that was unsafe. If that were done and an accident happened, who would be to blame? Would you think, if the management were attacked for the result, that it would be fair to say that it cast a reflection on the men who built the locomotive and the carriages, or on the driver or the porters or the firemen? What nonsense it would be to say that they were in any way to blame. That is my point, and you will see it at once. I repeat that so far as the soldiers are concerned the war is no affair of theirs. "Theirs not to reason why." But it is a different thing with the politicians. If the politicians have gone off the rails and done what is wrong, it is our duty to check them, and point out where their errors have been. I do not want to take one bit of blame off my shoulders if I am entitled to blame, but I do object to being blamed for what I have not done. I put it to you this way: I ask you to suppose that I am wrong. We will suppose that for a moment. It would take too long to argue that question now, and I did not come here for that purpose, nor, by the way, did I come here to ask you to let me go to the picnic. Supposing I am wrong, I say that the workers ought to be the very last persons in the world to find fault with me. If I am wrong, I am honestly and honourably wrong. I have told you my ideas honestly, and have made no attempt to bottle up what I believe on the subject, and if I am wrong, as I shall show you directly, I am wrong in very excellent company. Since my letters were written a document which I hold here has been placed in my hand. It is a remarkable document, but I never saw it until after writing those letters. It is a document signed by 84 labour leaders in England. You know their names, or the names of many of them. You have all heard of Joseph Arch, who has done more for the agricultural labourers in England than anyone else, and Henry Broadhurst and Tom Burt and George Barnes and Keir Hardie and John Burns. These names are familiar to you. They are the names of men who for years past have been identified with the cause of labour the most honest and honourable men in England. I would sooner trust them in labour matters than any other men in England. This document was signed, as I have said, by Joseph Arch and 83 others. I will read you part of what that document cays. It is a document dealing with labour leaders and the war:

Fellow Countrymen: You have been led to believe that the present war against the Boers is being waged on behalf of justice and freedom for industrious Britons. As a matter of fact, President Kruger offered to concede to the Uitlanders as much as the British Government demanded for them. The outbreak of the war, made it clear that a large proportion of them were not British subjects at all. According to Lord Hosmead, the late Governor of the Cape, more than half the Uitlanders were on the side of the Transvaal Government.

You will naturally exclaim “There must have been some real object in the war” Yes, there was; it is a war waged by capitalists with the object of gaining greater profits through cheap nigger labour. We shall prove this out of their own mouths. A meeting of the Consolidated Goldfields Company, of South Africa, was held at the Cannon street Hotel, London, on November 14, 1899, and is fully reported in the Financial News of November 21. Lord Hams, the chairman, stated that upon the working capital of £2,147,000 the profit for the year had been £1,006,000! But this enormous profit does not satisfy these people. They want more, and they mean to have more. In the Kimberley mines, controlled by Mr Rhodes, the ordinary wage of Kaffirs is from 1s to 2s per day for a day of 10 hours, and the law allows them, to be worked seven days a week. The ordinary wage of Kaffirs in the Transvaal is Is 3d to 2s 6d per day. They only work eight hours per day, and by the Transvaal law six days in the week. It is clear that the owners of the Transvaal gold mines hope by means of war to reduce their Kaffirs to the same conditions as those of Kimberley. Away, then, with the delusion that this war is waged in order to open up new territory to British colonists. The capitalists who bought up or hired the press both in South Africa and England to clamour for war are largely foreigners. The cry which they raised about the Uitlanders' grievances, the arming of the Boers, a Dutch conspiracy, etc., were mere pretexts to deceive you. The enormous sums which they made out of the Rhodesian diamond mines emboldened them to become absolute masters of the Transvaal gold mines also. They have all along wanted war to double their profits by cheap forced native labour. This is now proved out of the mouths of the capitalists themselves. Continuing, Mr Barclay said I have only now to conclude by saying that I hope you will enjoy your picnic and have a good day, and though I shall not be there myself, I shall probably manage to get a bit of grub somewhere. Yes, by the way, there is one other thing. My attention has been called to a letter that appeared in last night's star - a letter signed “Loyalist." What it urges is that the Workshops hands should not give me a hearing. The writer says: "If we don't want to hear Mr Barclay there is no need for us to attend his meeting. Unfortunately, although the majority of the workmen are patriotic and loyal, there are undoubtedly an insignificant few who would gladly give him a patient hearing, and possibly a vote of confidence." Now, is this fair? Why, the blackest criminal ever placed in the dock has a right to be heard in his defence. And the man who writes this letter wants to make out that he is a Britisher! Is this fair play on his part? ls it right? To my mind it is a slur and an insult to the Workshops hands. And, bless my soul, he would wish you to think that the whole world is listening to this tempest in a teapot, and looking on what the Workshops and myself are doing. If it is necessary to give you such an assurance, I assure you that I have never heard a word of this tempest in a teapot in any newspaper outside New Zealand. I have never communicated a word of it to a living soul. The thing is ridiculous and absurd. I may also cay that when I came out here I never intended to ask you for a vote of any kind. I really am done now, and in conclusion would say I only wish to impress upon you that my object in coming was to deny the lies and foul calumnies which have been heaped upon me. The men I have attacked are the politicians, and the politicians only, and that I am not ashamed of. I thought it right to come here and make this explanation, and, having done so, I now wish you good-day, and hope that you will have fine weather and a good picnic. The meeting, which had dwindled down somewhat in the course of the speaker's remarks, then dispersed[vi].

[i] Quoted by Millicent Baxter as her favourite James K Baxter poem, ‘The Memoirs of Millicent Baxter’, Cape Catley Ltd, 1981, p. 110

[ii] Baxter, Archibald. ‘We Will Not Cease’, Caxton Press, 1968, p.9

[iii] Grant, David. P.42 Field Punishment No.1. There is actually a small error here – Keir Hardie visited New Zealand in 1908, not 1912. Archibald Baxter is the first to make this error, which is reproduced in Millicent Baxter’s Memoirs and again here in David Grant’s book. There is a very detailed article in the Otago Daily Times (10 January 1908) which describes Hardie’s speech here:

[iv] Mckay, Frank. ‘The Life of James K Baxter’, p.6

[v] I am assuming that the age of enlistment was 18.


For more interesting information about the Hillside Railway workshop's library, check out this 1928 article from the the New Zealand Railways magazine:

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