Con­se­quences of a close call

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Al­gate

The Prince and the As­sas­sin re­counts the at­tempted as­sas­si­na­tion of Queen Vic­to­ria’s favourite son, Prince Al­fred, dur­ing the first royal tour of Aus­tralia in 1867-68. Author Steve Har­ris, a for­mer news­pa­per edi­tor, has delved deeply into royal, Bri­tish and Aus­tralian ar­chives to retell an event that had a dra­matic and last­ing im­pact on our coun­try.

It is re­mark­able how much of this story was avail­able in the of­fi­cial records, royal let­ters and per­sonal di­aries, interviews and state­ments by the pro­tag­o­nists and other wit­nesses. Har­ris mas­ter­fully ap­plies his jour­nal­is­tic craft to weave their words into a com­pelling tale of con­tem­po­rary in­ter­est.

The royal tour and the as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt are set against the back­drop of colo­nial in­se­cu­ri­ties, royal deca­dence, the rise of the Fe­nian move­ment and the sec­tar­i­an­ism that so marked the first two cen­turies of Aus­tralian set­tle­ment. In the Aus­tralian colonies, Har­ris writes: ‘‘The shoot­ing ig­nited the first ex­pe­ri­ence of the fear of in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal ter­ror, of be­ing in the front-line of a new global crim­i­nal con­spir­acy.’’

Within this frame­work he ex­plores the par­al­lel lives of two young men, one a Bri­tish royal lead­ing a life of ease and priv­i­lege, the other an Ir­ish Catholic im­mi­grant, Henry O’Far­rell, who came to Aus­tralia at a young age. His fam­ily en­joyed some busi­ness suc­cess and with his par­ents’ sup­port Henry en­tered the priest­hood but didn’t take fi­nal vows. In­stead he went into busi­ness and when that failed turned to al­co­hol, suf­fered a se­ries of men­tal break­downs and em­braced the Fe­nian cause and its revo­lu­tion­ary am­bi­tions to over­throw English rule in Ire­land.

Sec­tar­i­an­ism was at flash­point and shad­owed Al­fred’s tour from Ade­laide to Mel­bourne, where he ‘‘so en­joyed him­self … that a sched­uled 12-day stay be­came six weeks’’. The so­cial and sex­ual in­dis­cre­tions of the young prince and his clique so of­fended lo­cal sen­si­bil­i­ties that the ini­tial pub­lic rap­ture quickly turned to dis­plea­sure and even ridicule. One par­tic­u­larly favoured cour­te­san, Sarah Saqui, gained last­ing fame as the ‘‘of­fi­cial wife’’ of the duke of Ed­in­burgh while ‘‘the duke’s bed’’ they sup­pos­edly shared be­came a fa­mous land­mark in a Mel­bourne brothel.

Then on to Ho­bart and Syd­ney (with a side visit to Bris­bane), thereby fly­ing the royal ban­ner in five colo­nial cap­i­tals. Sec­tar­ian ten­sions were ev­ery­where. A planned stopover in Perth had been aban­doned ‘‘per­haps be­cause of Naval ner­vous­ness about un­rest from lo­cals out­raged that 62 Fe­nian pris­on­ers’’ were about to be dis­patched to West­ern Aus­tralia. In Mel­bourne, dur­ing an of­fi­cial ball ball, word cam came through of the fa­tal shoot­ing of a 13-year old Ir­ish lad in a clash be­tween Catholics and Orange­men.

Even as Al­fred made his way to a pic­nic at Clon­tarf on Syd­ney’s north shore on the af­ter­noon of March 12, 1868, ‘‘ru­mours of pos­si­ble sec­tar­ian strife were in the air’’. The lives of our pro­tag­o­nists were set to con­verge through one’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to kill the other.

As the prince walked to­wards Clon­tarf beach to watch a planned cor­ro­boree, the Ir­ish zealot pushed through the crowd, raised a pis­tol and fired from close range.

Whether by ‘‘prov­i­dence’’, as Al­fred later de­scribed it, or rank good for­tune, the bul­let de­flected away from Al­fred’s vi­tal or­gans, though he fell wounded and bleed­ing to the ground. The crowd sprang on O’Far­rell, who was crushed un­der its weight, beaten and threat­ened with lynch­ing.

While the prince made a speedy re­cov­ery once the bul­let was re­moved, O’Far­rell faced a bleaker fu­ture. He con­fessed his crime, still a cap­i­tal of­fence in NSW (though not in Bri­tain), and claimed to be part of a Fe­nian con­spir­acy. Spurred on by this con­fes­sion the au­thor­i­ties over­re­acted with con­sid­er­able zeal. Colo­nial sec­re­tary Henry Parkes pushed through the Trea­son Felony Act with a par­cel of dra­co­nian, anti-Catholic laws that trig­gered what some have dubbed Aus­tralia’s ‘‘reign of ter­ror’’.

Free­dom of speech and other ba­sic rights were sup­pressed; you could even be pros­e­cuted for ‘‘re­fus­ing to join in any royal toast’’. Parkes also en­listed agents to crack the Fe­nian code of se­crecy in what Har­ris calls ‘‘the ge­n­e­sis of counter-ter­ror­ism in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing’’. Even at the time “it was not clear whether O’Far­rell was part of a broader Ir­ish Fe­nian con­spir­acy or what the Rus­sians re­ferred to as a ‘lone wolf’ ”.

It is also ques­tion­able whether O’Far­rell, with his long his­tory of men­tal ill­ness and the un­doubted bias of the time, re­ceived a fair trial. In­ter­est­ingly, the roy­als, both Queen Vic­to­ria and her son Al­fred, showed greater com­pas­sion for the would-be as­sas­sin then the colo­nials and wished him to be spared the noose.

Har­ris aims to be more than sim­ply a teller of his­tory. He also wants us to learn from his­tory and uses many quotes from the ar­chives that are re­mark­ably sim­i­lar in tone and tem­per to the anti-for­eigner, anti-Mus­lim lan­guage of to­day. In his post­script he notes that: “The de­mon­i­sa­tion of the Ir­ish Catholic ‘them’ has pro­gres­sively mor­phed into suc­ces­sive fears of ‘non-whites’, com­mu­nists, Asians and now Mus­lims.”

It is just on 150 years since Prince Al­bert’s ‘‘roy­alty for loy­alty’’ tour. Then, as now, para­noia lev­els were high.

Per­haps only time will tell whether we are more suc­cess­ful than our pre­de­ces­sors in set­ting the right bal­ance be­tween fear and se­cu­rity, reli­gious ex­pres­sion and broader com­mu­nity val­ues, so­cial co­he­sion and counter-ter­ror­ism ini­tia­tives. If this his­tory is any guide, we may well over­step the mark. writer. is a Bris­bane-based jour­nal­ist and

Con­tem­po­rary sketch shows Henry O’Far­rell’s cap­ture af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.