Friday, March 18, 2011

John Douglas and Australian federation

John Douglas was born in London in 1828 and migrated to New South Wales in 1851 where he represented both the Darling Downs and Camden districts in the New South Wales parliament before embarking on a lengthy parliamentary career in Queensland, one that culminated in the premiership from 1877 to 1879.  He was subsequently appointed government resident for Thursday Island in 1885, a position he held until his death, nearly 20 years later, aged 76, in 1904.  During this period he also served as special commissioner for the protectorate of British New Guinea, administering the territory prior to it being formally proclaimed a crown colony.

Douglas’s involvement in Queensland public life was significant and encompassed the entire period from the colony’s formation in 1859 to the federation of the Australian colonies in 1901. 

This article discussed the role he played in advancing federation.
In 1899, Queensland, along with the other colonies, took part in a referendum on federation.  For John Douglas, the success of this referendum, and the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia on 1 January 1901, were the culmination of a life-long goal and one in which he played a significant, although largely unrecognised role.[1]  As Douglas informed Sir Samuel Griffith, who was one of the founding fathers of a federated Australia: “I lift up my voice for union.”[2]

To Douglas and most of his contemporaries, federation would occur under the umbrella of Great Britain.  Loyal to Great Britain, the Empire and the Queen, the colonies would remain so once united.[3]  Federation, insofar as Douglas was concerned, was not about republicanism, but about the colonies coming together for the greater good.  He saw a federated Australia as a bastion of ‘Britishness,’ something that was positive and beneficial, and where the sum was greater than its parts.

As early as 1859, even before the creation of the colony of Queensland, when standing for election to the New South Wales parliament, Douglas had boldly called for a “United Australia.”[4]  In 1868, when discussing how to persuade reluctant Englishmen to migrate to Australia rather then the United States of America, Douglas suggested that it:

could best be done by all the Australian colonies acting in concert.  Would it not be possible for them to appear in the home country as one people upon that question?  They must have their own interest, no doubt; at one time one colony might be able to absorb more than another, but, union upon that point, if properly worked, would prove beneficial to all the colonies. [5] 

Furthermore, Douglas hoped that before long there would be “united action on the part of the Australian colonies” to achieve this.[6]  His views on the desirability of federation was further influenced by the  Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870-71[7] and his trip to America in 1871, where, reading tombstone inscriptions of men who had died in the American Civil War brought home to him the power inherent in the “sentiment of union.”[8]

That same year Douglas again made a passionate, and, for the time, far-sighted plea for unity rather than disunity, for federation rather than separation, noting that the “different colonies should be united under a federal government.”[9]  It was, to his mind, “absurd that a country possessing such a geographical unity as Australia should be so divided into separate states.”[10]

It is evident that his time in London as agent-general had further influenced his thinking on this matter.  In 1874, in an address to the Darling Downs Caledonian Society in Toowoomba, Douglas again called for the creation of a “Dominion of Australia,” despite recognising that it was an idea whose time had not yet come:

Colonists seem to be content to continue their revolutions around the central source of power in England, rather than to effect a change in the centre of gravity among themselves.[11]

Douglas understood that in a land of opportunity, at peace with itself, federation would only be possible if championed by politicians, and he deeply regretted the lack of leadership on their part.[12]  He himself did what he could to advance the cause, but recognised all too well that:

It is not in times of difficulty or of danger that serious constitutional questions such as these are best considered.[13]

In 1879, when Sir Henry Parkes suggested that New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, but not Queensland, come together in a confederacy, Douglas had been quick to respond.  In an article in the Melbourne Review, he not only insisted that an Australian federation should include all the colonies, but also set out a model markedly different to Parkes’s minimalist “Dominion Parliament” approach:

A supreme legislature and administration is required in order to enable the united colonies to deal with those matters which are relegated to it by the provincial and dependent legislatures.[14]

Douglas recognised the importance of the colonies in any new arrangement, and the primacy of their rights.  He believed that while they would not readily relinquish these to form one legislature, the colonies would be willing to cede responsibility for foreign affairs and defence to a federal legislature provided they could retain responsibility for their day-to-day affairs.[15]

The disavowal in 1883 by Great Britain of Queensland’s annexation of New Guinea in an attempt to forestall German colonization there, coupled with the political activities of the French in the New Hebrides, provided a further impetus for supporters of federation and once again stirred Douglas to put the case for federation, this time in the Nineteenth Century magazine.[16]

By 1889, Douglas, from his perspective of now having spent several years in the tropics, called for the creation of an additional state, Northern Australia, comprising the northern part of Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and north Queensland, with its legislature at Port Darwin.[17]  As well, throughout his time in New Guinea and Torres Strait, Douglas consistently, if unsuccessfully, urged that the boundary between Queensland and British New Guinea be moved south to allow for the transfer of the northern Torres Strait islands to New Guinea.[18]

In the 1890s, Douglas again took an active role in promoting federation.  He wrote to both Griffith and Barton offering advice and comments,[19] and addressed a meeting on the subject at the Sydney Town Hall in 1896.[20]  However, Douglas’s influence was limited, as the idea of federation did not consume any significant public attention in Queensland until 1899.  Furthermore, the principal advocates in the federal movement were contemporary politicians and Douglas had by this time long since retired from active politics.

During the 1890s, Queenslanders displayed a complex mix of indifference, hostility and enthusiasm towards the idea of federation.  Indifference was widespread for, with the possible exception of Sir Samuel Griffith, there were no outstanding advocates for federation in the colony.[21]  The southern portions of the colony, fearing economic competition from New South Wales, was strongly opposed, while the central and northern districts, traditionally anti-Brisbane and pro-separation, were generally supportive of joining the proposed federation. [22]  Moreover, and much to Douglas’s disappointment, Queensland did not send delegates to the second ‘Constitutional Convention’ held in 1897 and 1898.[23]

Douglas campaigned tirelessly for a ‘yes’ vote on Thursday Island.  At a federation meeting held there in July 1899, he proudly claimed that, “Everybody here is in favour of it.”[24]  A week before the Queensland referendum, Douglas again addressed Thursday Islanders on this subject.  Here he passionately expressed his support for federation, and called on all Thursday Islanders to vote ‘yes’ with him.

What say you?  Are you for union or against it?  Are we to be one people from Cape Leeuwin to Cape York?  Is this great island continent of Australia to be one country?[25]

Douglas recognised what a significant achievement federation would be:

By far the greatest achievement which has yet been accomplished in our Australian history, and will be for us and our children a glorious consummation in the closing years of the Victorian era.[26]

In concluding his speech, Douglas demonstrated the depth of his passion and conviction for the federation cause and pleaded with his audience to vote likewise:

I, for my part, am going to vote “yes” with all my might; and I am thankful that I have lived long enough to see the day when it will become my privilege to do so.  If I had a thousand votes for referendum day they should all be cast in the same way.  And what are you going to do?  I will venture to say that you, too, will vote “yes.”[27]

Nevertheless, Douglas found the crowd’s response disheartening, and he confided to his son that:

They did not enthuse much over federation.  I tried to work them up about it, but really and truly I don’t think they care a snuff about it … I see that there is a good deal talked about it in the papers.  Still it does not look as if it was a live question.  It does not glow as it aught to.  I cannot understand why people seem to be so indifferent about it.[28]

The campaign for federation confirmed a pragmatic trait in Queenslanders, for they were largely unmoved by its idealism and instead cast their votes on economic and regional grounds.[29]  Nevertheless, Douglas need not have been concerned.  2 September 1899 - referendum day - was marked on Thursday Island “by a certain amount of enthusiasm”[30] which translated into overwhelming support for federation, with 91 votes in favour and only one against.[31]

The colony of Queensland as a whole also returned a ‘yes’ vote, but it was the lowest of any of the colonies, with only 55 per cent in favour.  Brisbane voted overwhelmingly against federation, but strong support for it in the central and northern districts ensured that Queensland joined.[32]  Queensland, acknowledging the power of the “crimson thread of kinship,” and despite Brisbane’s opposition, had agreed to federate with the other colonies and form a united Australia.[33]

Douglas was elated.  For 40 years, he had called for a united Australia, and had now lived long enough to see it become reality.  He, along with the rest of the Thursday Island community, joyfully celebrated the proclamation of the Commonwealth of Australia on 1 January 1901.  Douglas contributed £5 towards the festivities and, for the first time, proudly proposed a toast to the “Commonwealth of Australia.”[34]  He then sailed to the various Torres Strait Islands to hand out personally to the children their Commonwealth medals.[35]  At Murray Island he:

presented the children with their Commonwealth medals and explained to them what they signified.  The children were then assembled around the school flag staff and the Union Jack spread out, when he addressed them, telling them that it was their flag, and the symbol of the union of all the countries and states included in the British Empire.  The Jack was then hoisted, saluted, and three cheers given for it.  The children then sang God save the King.[36]

Douglas cut a commanding figure in Torres Strait.  In his public life, his word was law and his authority rarely questioned.  This was not the case in his private life, a life characterised by a stormy marriage, financial struggle and lengthy absences from his beloved children.  The next and final chapter explores Douglas’s personal life, the difficulties arising from his marriage, the education of his children, and, as he grew older and frailer, his failing health.

[1] As Katie McConnell, a PhD student on Queensland federation, points out, it is quite probable that Douglas was Queensland’s longest advocate for federation.  To Griffith the glory, but Douglas was always there making supportive speeches or statements.  It is interesting that Douglas advocated federation when it was not trendy or popular, yet when discussed in detail in the 1890s he was, with the exception of his work on Thursday Island, largely silent, preferring to work behind the scenes.  (Personal communication, June 2003.)  A resident of Thursday Island in 1900, George Smith, considered Douglas “almost as the father of this movement for federation.  When Mr. Douglas was first elected to parliament he spoke in favour of a United Australia.”  (“The Australian Commonwealth.”  Torres Straits Pilot and New Guinea Gazette, 22 December 1900)
[2] John Douglas to Samuel Griffith, 27 August 1896.  Griffith Papers, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, MSQ 189, pp. 503-8; For further examples of Douglas’s involvement see, John Douglas to Edmund Barton, 20 July 1897.  In, Letters and Handbills Relating to Australian Federation, 1897-1898.  National Library of Australia, MS 50; John Douglas to Samuel Griffith, 1 September 1900.  Griffith Papers, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, MSQ 190, pp. 35-44
[3] As Douglas informed Edmund Barton, he wished to see the preamble of the constitution containing “a declaration of indissoluble union founded upon an assumption of supreme authority vested in the name and person of the queen or king of Great Britain.”  (John Douglas to Edmund Barton, 20 July 1897.  In, Letters and Handbills Relating to Australian Federation, 1897-1898.  National Library of Australia, MS 50)
[4] Douglas (1900A), p. 12
[5] “Mr. Douglas at the Town Hall.”  Brisbane Courier, 23 September 1868, p. 3
[6] Ibid.
[7] Douglas observed the Franco-Prussian conflict at close quarters.  He, along with many others, keenly felt the need for a strong, united Australia had Britain joined the conflict.  (Douglas (1880), p. 4)
[8] Ibid., p. 13
[9] “Mr. Douglas at the Victoria Hall.”  Brisbane Courier, 24 October 1871, p. 2
[10] Ibid.
[11]  “Mr. Douglas and the Dominion of Australia.”  Brisbane Courier, 24 October 1874, pp. 5-6
[12] Douglas also recognised the challenges facing those who wished to see a federated Australia; “Any change in things as they are will always be resisted: and a change so great as this would, of course, be stoutly resisted.”  (John Douglas.  “Australian Federation.”  Brisbane Courier, 27 March 1875, pp. 5-6)
[13]  “Mr. Douglas and the Dominion of Australia.”  Brisbane Courier, 24 October 1874, pp. 5-6
[14] Douglas (1880), p. 12
[15] Ibid., pp. 7-8
[16] Douglas (1884)
[17] John Douglas.  “United Australia:  Memo Addressed to the Honourable B. D. Morehead, Chief Secretary, Queensland.”  Brisbane, Ferguson and Co., 1889
[18] John Douglas.  Thursday Island:  Report of the Government Resident for 1885.”  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol 1, 1886, p. 493.  However, despite the support of the Queensland government and the Colonial Office, the proposal was never implemented, and, following federation, was eventually abandoned.  For more information see, Douglas (1892), p. 1033; Douglas (1894), p. 913; Douglas (1896), p. 506; John Douglas.  “Maritime Boundary of Australia.”  Queensland Geographical Journal, vol 19, 1903, pp. 32-36; “Maritime Boundary of Queensland:  Paper by the Hon. John Douglas.”  Brisbane Courier, 26 December 1903, p. 14; Veur, (1966A), pp. 24-32; Douglas (1886), p. 80-82; Paul W van der Veur.  Documents and Correspondence on New Guinea’s Boundaries.  Canberra, Australian National University Press, 1996; James Griffin, ed.  The Torres Strait Border Issue:  Consolidation, Conflict or Compromise.  Townsville, Townsville College of Advanced Education, 1976, pp. xv-xviii; Farnfield, pp. 69-71; “The Hon. John Douglas.  Visit to Brisbane.  An Interesting Interview.”  Brisbane Courier, 11 December 1903, p. 5; The Torres Strait Boundary Report by the Sub Committee on Territorial Boundaries of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence.  Canberra, Government Printer, 1977, pp. 16-20
[19] John Douglas to Samuel Griffith, 27 August 1896.  Griffith Papers, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, MSQ 189, pp. 503-8.  Another example of Douglas’s involvement was that when James Thomas Walker, a New South Wales delegate to the 1897 and 1898 Australasian Federal Conventions visited Thursday Island in 1898, he gave Douglas “a lot of papers connected with the convention and the referendum vote which lately has been taken in New South Wales.”  (John Douglas to Edward Douglas, 13 June 1898.  Douglas Papers, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, OM 89-3/b/2/b/8)
[20] “A New View of Federation.”  Sydney Morning Herald, 2 October 1896, p. 5
[21] Duncan Waterson.  “The Absentees from North of the Tweed.”  The New Federalist, no 1, June 1998, p. 29
[22] See, Kay Saunders.  “The Freest Spirit of Australasian Democracy: The 1899 Constitutional Bill Referendum Campaign in New South Wales and Queensland.”  In, Patricia Clarke, ed.  Steps to Federation:  Lectures marking the Centenary of Federation.  Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2001, pp.  122-23.   Douglas, while an ardent advocate of federation, could only influence the vote in north Queensland.  He too was concerned over the indifference of the public, suggesting to Griffith that, “The public have still to be educated up to an understanding of the question in all its bearings.”  (John Douglas to Samuel Griffith, 27 August 1896.  Griffith Papers, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, MSQ 189, pp. 503-8)
[23] “A New View of Federation.”  Sydney Morning Herald, 2 October 1896, p. 5; Kay Saunders.  “‘By Chance and Divine Intervention:’ D B Waterson’s Contribution to Federation Studies.”  Journal of Australian Studies, no 69, 2001, p. 31
[24] John Douglas to Edward Douglas, 9 July 1899.  Douglas Papers, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, OM 89-3/b/2/c/13
[25] Douglas (1900A), p. 11; “Lecture by the Hon. John Douglas.”  Torres Straits Pilot and New Guinea Gazette, 19 August 1899, p. 2.  Douglas’s address was published in book form; (Douglas (1900A) and he sent a copy to Queen Victoria.  (Privy Purse Office, Buckingham Palace, to John Douglas, 15 May 1900.  Douglas Papers, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, OM 89-3/B/5(b))
[26] Douglas (1900A), p. 13
[27] Ibid., p. 15
[28] John Douglas to Edward Douglas, 30 August 1899.  Douglas Papers, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, OM 89-3/B/2(c)/17
[29] “The Federation Story.”  Internet file,
[30]Thursday Island.”  Brisbane Courier, 4 September 1899, p. 9
[31] “Federation.”  North Queensland Register, 18 September 1899, p. 16; Parish Gazette (Quetta Memorial Cathedral Thursday Island) vol 26 no 4, 2 April 1928, p. 4
[32] Saunders (2001), p. 109.  The south of the colony registered 14,285 ‘yes’ votes and 22,398 ‘no’ votes; the central district registered 12,132 ‘yes’ votes and 6,682 ‘no’ votes, while the north had 12,376 ‘yes’ votes to only 3,332 ‘no’ votes.  The Cook district, which included Thursday Island, returned 503 ‘yes’ votes, 54 ‘no’ votes and four informal votes.  (“Returns for Federation Referendum.”  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, 1899, second session, vol 1, p. 753)
[33] Waterson (1998), p. 37.  The ‘no’ vote for Brisbane was over 62 per cent, the highest ‘no’ vote of any capital city.  (Saunders (2001), p. 113
[34] “The Australian Commonwealth.”  Torres Straits Pilot and New Guinea Gazette, 22 December 1900; “Commonwealth and New Year Celebrations.”  Torres Straits Pilot and New Guinea Gazette, 5 January 1901, p. 2
[35] John Douglas to Edward Douglas, 7 March 1901.  McCourt Papers.  The Queensland government only supplied medals for European children, but Douglas objected, insisting that they be given to all children, “irrespective of class, colour or creed” and therefore procured additional medals for this purpose.  (“The Australian Commonwealth.”  Torres Straits Pilot and New Guinea Gazette, 22 December 1900)
[36] Williamson, p. 96