As I traverse the years of memories that were stored behind those old cupboard doors, I search the contents of the shelves and drawers for a sign or a clue that William was indeed involved in the shearers’ war. There is no physical evidence to indicate that he was, however, I question how the subject first came to light. Perhaps he’s whispering in my ears, planting ideas, guiding my fingers on my computer keys. Is it he who is telling the story?
The more I ask myself, “was William actually one of the 43 soldiers sent to the West from Mackay?”, I keep hearing a voice in my head saying “it doesn’t matter my dear. Don’t just tell the story for me, tell it for all the men, my friends, who lived and breathed that piece of history. It needs to be told.”
Today, only ghosts remain of what was cited as a potential revolution. The war drums that once beat so loudly have faded to an almost inaudible whisper, loud enough to remind us that the warring parties of that era have now taken their places in our history books, along with the old ghost gum tree. It was the only surviving witness to the event, until a few years ago, when it succumbed to the poisonous hand of a murderer. The dark clouds that gathered over the West in 1891 have dissipated into sunny blue skies and murderous calls for scalps have long been silenced, returning the outback to its usual state of quietness.
For those of you who are left wondering how the warring parties came to a peaceful resolution, I urge you to visit the sleepy western town of Barcaldine and stand before what remains of that old ghost gum tree. Its guards the station in readiness to disperse its knowledge upon anyone who wishes to listen. Above the sound of whistling winds, the hum of passing cars and the cacophony of squawking cockatoos and crying crows, listen closely for the whispers and groans of that old man tree.
“That was a troubling year,” he says, shaking his head of leafless limbs.
“When faced with all those mounted troopers, cannons and machine guns,” the old ghost gum sighs. “It was a relief to my ears when the shearers lay down their sticks and stones and were silenced of their hateful cries.”
But a shadow of his former self, he shudders when he recalls what could have been.
“I waved my arms in celebration when the unionists chose to follow their cause via political means.”
“That was indeed a happy day for me,” the old tree grins, before his voice is carried away by the passing winds.
You might also hear the ghostly taunts and jeers of the riotous mob who swarmed the prisoners on that April day in 1891. Listen for William’s mumbling prayers, the laboured snorts of his frightened prancing horse, and the deafening rhythm of his heartbeat as he prepared to cross the unknown divide of that battleground. You may also hear him say,”Thank God, my prayers were answered that day.”
For the soldiers who nervously rode out the waves of rising tension, the expected imminent orders to charge or shoot never came. Despite an arsenal of cannons and gatling guns, that were capable of firing 800 bullets a minute, their full potential was never demonstrated. Despite some parties who criticized the army for not firing upon rioters and disruptive strikers, the army showed great restraint and appeased any incidents of unrest by conciliatory means, making many arrests. And despite, the bloody threats of the strikers, by June of that year, union funding was running low, men were hungry and the onset of rain made conditions in their camps untenable. Thus, a “ballot” rather than “bullet” approach was adopted and beneath that old ghost gum tree, the Australian Labour Party was born.
Perhaps, that was not the end of the story for the military men who were told they were to prove themselves as real soldiers. It was an opportunity to dispel the military’s reputation for being pretend soldiers. It was a time to demonstrate their full potential. As they entrained across the burning western plains, knowledge of the fires and riots that had already unfolded in the preceding days would have stoked a fire in their own bellies. They were ready to prove themselves, to their families and above all to their country.
Dear Great Grandfather, I am listening to your whispers, as I finally understand why you wish for this piece of history to be told. I cannot comprehend why anyone would enlist for a war that is not yours to fight. But now I know why, a decade later, you answered the call of war drums that began to boom across the deep blue seas. I understand why you allowed Mother England to gather you into the clutches of her Imperial fold. You and your fellow soldiers had unfinished business to attend to; you had an undying need to demonstrate to yourselves, to your country and the world, your full military worth.