SYDNEY, Feb. 12 1901

THE NEW COMMONWEALTH.

AUSTRALIAN BUSH FIRES.

PACIFIC ISLAND TROUBLES.

FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT.
SYDNEY, Feb. 12 1901; Mar. 19 1901.

Perhaps the philosophers of the future may trace a relation between the physical surroundings or climate of Australia and the temperament of its people, but it will take a few generations to provide sufficient material for their generalisations, and many more before they are likely to arrive at an agreement. In the meantime the vast extent of the continent and the precariousness of the water supply over the greater part of it render its changeful weather and rainfall matters of the first importance and daily concern. The difference between a pros­perity diffused through all classes and a depression equally widespread and felt in all the channels of trade and in every aspect of public affairs is too marked to be ignored. Political and social develop­ments alike are immensely affected by the seasons, as is sometimes humorously illustrated to all the world. A Treasurer in one of the Colonies which collect large sums annually from duties on alcoholic liquors presented his budget last year in an alter­native form. If the summer should prove cool their consumption would be light, and he might be faced with a deficit of £50,000; if the people enjoyed an average temperature such as he expected he could just pay his way, while if the heat was severe and prolonged his receipts must mount with the mercury, and he would reckon on a surplus of perhaps £100,000. Thirst was his barometer of pinch or plenty, and his official prayers were necessarily such as must have affected temperance reformers. Some years ago one of our most famous Sydney clubs, much favoured by politicians, being discovered to have fallen dangerously into debt, a company of its oldest members set themselves deliberately and assiduously to the task of drinking it out of its difficulties, carrying out their self-imposed penance with so much zeal as to speedily restore it to affluence. Though none of our public financiers has dared to initiate so convivial a method of adjusting the State accounts, the rising thermometer is eagerly watched by all of them, and nowhere more anxiously than in New South Wales, as our duties on intoxicants are among the heaviest. Fortunately, the Commonwealth celebrations this year have rendered us comparatively indifferent to atmospheric influence. Our customs receipts from this source are so far most satisfactory.

CLIMATIC CONDITIONS.

In Sydney the oppressive weather customary in January and February has on the whole been less enervating than usual. A recent change was ac­companied by a thunderstorm of unprecedented severity. In the coastal area there has been nothing more notable than an unusual number of gales. New South Wales, however, is itself large enough to contain several climates. In the great plains of the extreme west the drought has been imperfectly overcome, while both north and south there have been the ordinary periods of in­tense heat. Among our southern neighbours still other climates have obtained. In Victoria, Tasmania, and South Australia the spring rains were plentiful and prolonged, with the result that over immense areas the grass sprang up rich and rank and knee-deep. It was often waist-deep where the timber had been removed or killed by “ring barking”, and left standing dead and dry over whole sections used for grazing. The summer in these regions has been gratefully varied but seasonably hot, and, as is invariably the case, the abundant harvest of grass has yellowed to hay and become tindery though still nutritious. In similar conditions tens of thousands of square miles of country in strips, belts, or broad areas lie every year inflammable, waiting for the half-burned match dropped by a thoughtless stock rider, the partially extinguished embers at which a swag man has boiled his “billy” of tea, or the sparks from a passing railway train using wood among its fuel. In every spell of extremely hot weather the common conditions of much of our pastoral and some of our agricultural areas lead to almost simultaneous outbreaks of “bush fires” in many directions. Nearly a fourth of the State of Victoria was wasted in this way on the never forgotten “Black Thursday” forty years ago, and almost to the day the visitation has been repeated.

ENORMOUS CONFLAGRATIONS.

An aeronaut last week, sufficiently elevated and gifted with exceptional vision, would have seen great parts of four States hidden from his view by dense clouds of smoke from enormous conflagra­tions. Where roads were visible he would have seen teamsters and horsemen with their maddened animals in frantic flight, households and settlements all at bay. Descending anywhere he would have been deafened by the roar of blazing forests and leagues of grass kindling instantaneously into tongues of flame that rose to the tree tops and fastened there. A stifling atmosphere, out of which all the life-giving oxygen seemed to be scorched, filled with flying flakes of flame and showering black cinders, enveloped the country for leagues in every direc­tion. Tens of thousands of trees glowed crimson all night, falling at last with crashes and causing great showers of sparks. Before this raging furnace thousands of miles of fencing, hundreds of homesteads, wool sheds, and outbuildings, scores of wooden bridges, hosts of haystacks or piles of grain, wool presses, machinery, implements, orchards, and crops disappear into blackened dust. Huge flocks of stupefied sheep and other stock, as well as uncounted wild animals, were rapidly roasted to death. Outlying chapels and meeting-houses were erased without resistance. Everywhere else the farmers fought at bay. Coaches almost cut off flew desperately through the burning forests, and families sought shelter in the creeks and open grassless spaces, where they lay almost suffocated. Some children and adults are known to have perished and others are missing. According to present returns at least twenty or thirty persons will never be seen alive. Some railways became untraversable where the sleepers, culverts, or bridges had been eaten out, and on others the trains crawled slowly through clouds of smoke across tracts of intolerable heat. The damage, as far as known, will probably total £250,000 for lost improvements, while there will be unknown amounts for thousands of valuable grass paddocks and forests of fine timber. The calamity to hundreds of families will be grave, and to many ruin.

THE WORK OF REPAIR.

Yet so immense are Australian areas that the same aeronaut looking down to-day could only discern in fifty or sixty places little patches of sooty blackness, which but for the contrast of colour would almost pass unnoticed. Everywhere else life proceeds in its old grooves. In a year hence the grass will grow more richly over the areas cleared and much land lately closed to cultivators will lie open to plough and pasture. The improvements will be made again, and on a greater scale. The lion-hearted settlers will re-begin their unending struggles with the wilderness. Save in special places the great fire of 1901 will soon be forgotten. Civilisation will go on pushing its outworks more afield. A people already inured to trial and accus­tomed to vicissitudes will have resumed their resolute task of subjecting a soil and a climate which, yielding them as a rule the service of a tamed ox bearing them rich burdens, are yet capable of turning on them at any instant with wild fury as if bent on their extinction. Australian experiences of this kind, while perhaps encouraging the ten­dency to take the chances of life in a gambling way and to foster a spirit of extravagant boldness and recklessness somewhat at the expense of the virtue of prudence, have probably compensating advantages. They may temper the race by such hours of trial until it becomes compact with strength and elasticity. At all events, thousands of both sexes are at times actually as well as metaphorically tried by fire.

THE PACIFIC ISLANDS.

One of the directions in which the Australian character is likely to manifest itself in an aggres­siveness that old-world observers may reckon un­reasonable is with regard to the Pacific Islands in our neighbourhood. It will be difficult for those who are not accustomed to think of distances as we do to realise in what proximity groups appear that are two or three thousand miles away. They are no further from Sydney than Perth or Kimberley, already part of our territory, and are in or close to those routes to Canada and the United States which are likely soon to be reckoned among the highways of our commerce with peoples of our own blood and stock. The existence of French or German Colonies in these neighbourhoods appears to an Australian nearly in the light of an intrusion on his property. They are at all events hostile points of observation on his proceedings. Again, the confidence in his powers of expansion and certitude of future progress are such that he already views the Continent behind him—though most of it unsettled, and much of it unknown—as too contracted for his operations, and by no means as confining his sphere of influence. An Australian looks ahead possibly much farther than he will ever travel, but his politics and pursuits are only to be understood when these elements which go to the making up of his opinions and sentiments are much better known than they ever have been by the Colonial Office. The ordinary Englishman, in contented ignorance of the out­lying segments of his Empire, allows that office to treat these vital and ineradicable ambi­tions of his spirited colonial fellows with un­sympathetic coldness and a deliberate delay which, in addition to being coy and reluctant, is never amorous. It is not even always amicable. Yet it requires little to arouse an outburst of feeling in regard to the Pacific Islands generally. The New Hebrides are the immediate centre of friction, but there is grave and growing dissatisfaction also at the position of affairs in Fiji and Tonga, in each of which a condition of instability undoubtedly pre­vails. The Commonwealth Government recently held a prolonged Cabinet meeting, for which the Victoria and Queensland members were specially summoned to Sydney, in regard to these issues. It was then decided that Mr. Chamberlain should be informed with blunt directness that the way in which the Foreign Office was subordinating itself to the French and ignoring the protests and appeals made from the larger States for the last two or three years was not at all to the taste of the Federal Ministry.

AUSTRALIAN PROTESTS.

Whatever may be said as to the missionary complaints, it is clear, as Mr. Barton told the Australian Natives Association in Melbourne, that unless a Joint Commission is authorised at once to deal with all land claims, past or present, the principal part of these islands will soon be settled by French immigrants, whom it may be impossible to dis­possess. Such a commission, clothed with autho­rity and composed of competent and experienced men, is essential to the maintenance of any reality in the joint control supposed to be exercised by the Mother Country. In addition there ought to be a British Resident, to whom the natives could always appeal, and more frequent visits from the High Commissioner and Deputy High Com­missioner. Apparently to leave the ground quite free for our rivals our cruisers have been rarely visitors, or when they have appeared their officers seem to be as anxious to give way to their French naval associates as the Foreign Office is to Parisian pressure. In cabling his protest Mr. Barton has the whole of Australia behind him, headed by the Australian Natives Association, and it will be well if Mr. Chamber­lain comes to recognise this when he makes his next effort to awaken his chief to a sense of the situation. So far the Sydney public are not aware of what the Ministry is doing, but having no division of sentiment among themselves they assume that their leaders are equally unanimous. Should Mr. Reid succeed Mr. Barton after the elections there will be no change of attitude in this regard and no relaxation of the determination to put an end to the present condition of things, not only as bad in itself, but because it is evidently being prolonged by the French in order to render it almost impossible for any capable tribunal which may be appointed to undo the mischief they are now doing, to replace the natives they are ejecting from their lands, or to upset the pretended titles they are fast accumulating to all the strategically valuable sites. The tricolour flies to-day on a line of islands stretching right across the ocean and ending close to our doors. Both in Noumea and in Australia the representatives of the French Government make no secret of the inten­tion of their countrymen to seize them immedi­ately so as to exclude British interests in fact and presently in name also. They claim to have the tacit consent of the British Foreign Office to these proceedings, and boast openly that the group is already practically surrendered to them by Lord Salisbury in defiance of Australian protests.

THE IMPERIAL SPIRIT.

The situation in Tonga, though critical, bears a different complexion from that in the New Hebrides. The British Protectorate has not been officially recognised by its so-called Parliament and there is a decided leakage in the Treasury, while the native factions are likely on any sufficient occasion to fly at each other’s throats in tribal warfare. What is needed is efficient British supervision and a control peremptory in prevention of violence,  theft, or in­justice. This we have not yet been able to secure, though it is as much in the interest of Downing Street as that of ourselves that a new centre of disturbance should not be created here. Australians are still sore at the unnecessary cession of Samoa, and certainly do not wish for another cause of alarm in the Tongan group. His Excellency the Governor of Fiji has been unwise enough to decry New Zealand and its native policy in a public speech which has earned him the antagonism of that extremely Imperialistic Colony and the animosity of its masterful Premier, Mr. Seddon. Though not a member of the Australian Union— and not likely to be—New Zealand is certain to make common cause with the Commonwealth with regard to all of these islands. Together they will then represent the whole of the popu­lation and interests of the Empire in these seas. We have not adopted any new policy. Recent events have only hastened what was an inevitable development. Every British subject on this hemisphere will both resist and resent any surrender of territory or authority in the Western Pacific, and will insist that it is imperative that a stronger policy should be adopted by the Imperial Govern­ment, and that a more efficient administration should be established. Gold discoveries in the interior of New Guinea are likely to lead to a larger settlement and a better opening up of that im­portant Dependency, only saved from Germany under Australian pressure, and since maintained at Australian cost. No one desires or aims at a foreign policy for Australasia merely for our local interests, which are as yet comparatively few and slight outside our own borders. Our aim is national. There are no keener Imperialists than are to be found here. Let the British Government take these islands in hand as it pleases and how it pleases. If they are preserved from foreign aggres­sion and internal disorder the methods or means adopted are no concern of ours. All Sydney seeks or any of our sister States desire is that the Union Jack shall be respected everywhere and lowered nowhere in the surrounding seas.

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