The Buying of Commissions. News from Australia

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London, March 3. At the sitting the day before yesterday the House of Commons, as everybody knows, rejected Lord Goderich's motion allowing non-commissioned officers to reach the rank of captain. Palmerston used the old dilemma: a partial reform is impossible because one part of the old system depends upon the other[1]. Individual practical reforms are thus impossible because they are theoretically impossible. The total reform of the system is impossible because that is not reform but revolution. Theoretical reform therefore is impossible because it is not practical. This House of Commons—a House which takes to heart the principle principiis obsta[2] was eager to be convinced, or rather it did not need convincing as it had passed sentence before the trial. Palmerston argued on this occasion that the system of selling officers' commissions was old, and he was right there. As we indicated earlier[3], it began with the "glorious" revolution of 1688[4], with the introduction of the National Debt, banknotes, and the Dutch succession. Already in the Mutiny Act of 1694[5] the necessity is stated of forestalling

"the great mischief of buying and selling Military Employment in his Majesties Armies", and it is enacted that "every commissioned officer" (only non-commissioned officers have no commissions) should swear that he has not bought his commission.

This restriction was, however, not carried into effect; on the contrary, in 1702 Sir Nathan Wright, the Lord Keeper[6], decided in the opposite sense. On May 1, 1711, a statute of Queen Anne expressly recognised the system by decreeing

"that commissions shall no longer be sold without royal confirmation and that no officer may buy himself off unless he has served 20 years or has become incapacitated in the service, etc."

From this official recognition of the trade in military commissions it was but one step to officially regulating the market price of commissions. Accordingly, in 1719-20 market prices were fixed for the first time. The prices of officers' commissions were renewed in 1766, 1772, 1773, 1783, and finally in 1821, when the present prices were fixed. As early as 1766 War Minister Barrington published a letter which states:

"The consequence of this trade in officers' commissions frequently is that men who enter the army with the most ardent desire to serve, who have distinguished themselves at every opportunity, are kept for their whole lives in the lowest rank because they are poor. These deserving officers suffer the most cruel humiliation of being under the command of youths from wealthy families who entered the service much later but whose fortune enabled them to find entertainment outside the service, while the others, who are constantly at service quarters, carry out the duties of these gentlemen and have learnt their own."

It is true that England's common law declares it illegal to give a present or a "broker's fee" for any public office, just as the Rules of the Established Church place a ban on simony[7]. Historical development, however, shows that the law does not determine practice nor does practice remove a contradictory law.

The latest news from Australia adds a new element to the general discomfort, unrest and insecurity. We must distinguish between the riot in Ballarat (near Melbourne) and the general revolutionary movement in the State of Victoria[8]. The former will by this time have been suppressed; the latter can only be suppressed by far-reaching concessions. The former is merely a symptom and an incidental outbreak of the latter. Concerning the Ballarat riot, the facts are simply these: A certain Bentley, owner of the Eureka Hotel at the Ballarat goldfields, had got into all sorts of conflicts with the gold diggers. A murder which occurred at his house increased the hatred of him. At the coroner's inquest Bentley was discharged as innocent. Ten of the twelve jurymen, who functioned at the inquest, however, published a protest against the partiality of the coroner[9], who had attempted to suppress witnesses' evidence disadvantageous to the prisoner. At the demand of the people a second inquest was held. Bentley was again discharged despite very suspicious evidence by some witnesses. It became known, however, that one of the judges had financial interests in the hotel. Many earlier and later complaints show the dubious character of the government officials of the Ballarat district. On the day Bentley was discharged for the second time, the gold diggers held a tremendous demonstration, set his hotel on fire and then withdrew. Three of the ringleaders were arrested on a warrant issued by Sir Charles Hotham, the Governor-General of Victoria State. On November 27 a deputation of gold diggers demanded their release. Hotham rejected the demand. The gold diggers held a monster meeting. The Governor sent police and troops from Melbourne. It came to a clash, several dead remained on the scene, and according to the latest news, up to December 1, the gold diggers have hoisted the flag of independence.

Even this story, which is in the main taken from a government paper, does not put the English judges and government officials in a favourable light. It shows the prevailing distrust. There are actually two big issues around which the revolutionary movement in Victoria State is revolving. The gold diggers are demanding the abolition of the gold digging licences, i.e. of a tax directly imposed on labour; secondly, they demand the abolition of the property qualification for Members of the Chamber of Representatives, in order themselves to obtain control over taxes and legislation. Here we see, in essence, motives similar to those which led to the Declaration of Independence of the United States[10], except that in Australia the conflict is initiated by the workers against the monopolists linked with the colonial bureaucracy. In the Mel-bourne Argus we read of big reform meetings and, on the other hand, of large-scale military preparations on the part of the Government. It says among other things:

"At a meeting of 4,000 persons it was decided that the [...] license-fee is an imposition and an unjustifiable tax on free labour. This meeting therefore pledges itself to take immediate steps to abolish the same, by at once burning all their licenses. That in the event of any party being arrested for having no licenses, [...] the united people will [...] defend and protect them"[11]

On 30 November Commissioners Rede and Johnson appeared with cavalry and police at Ballarat and demanded with drawn swords and fixed bayonets that the gold diggers show their licences. These, mostly armed, held a mass meeting and resolved to resist the collection of the hated tax to the utmost. They refused to show their licences; they declared they had burnt them; the Riot Act[12] was read, and so the revolt was complete.

To describe the joint actions of the monopolists lording it in the local legislatures and the colonial bureaucracy in league with them, it is sufficient to mention that in 1854 government expenditures in Victoria amounted to £3,564,258 sterling, including a deficit of £1,085,896, that is of more than one-third of the total income. And in face of the present crisis, of the general bankruptcy, Sir Charles Hotham demands for the year 1855 a sum of £4,801,292 sterling. Victoria has barely 300,000 inhabitants, and of the above sum £1,860,830 sterling, that is £6 sterling per head, are intended for public works, namely roads, docks, quays, barracks, government buildings, customs offices, botanical gardens, government stables, etc. At this rate of £6 per head, the population of Great Britain would have to pay £168,000,000 sterling annually for public works alone, i.e. three times as much as their total tax. It is understandable that the working population is indignant at this supertaxation. It is likewise evident what good business the bureaucracy and the monopolists between them must make with such extensive public works defrayed at other people's expense.

  1. Palmerston's speech was reported in The Times, No. 21991, March 2, 1855.—Ed.
  2. Resist temptation (Ovidius, Remedia amoris, 91).—Ed.
  3. See Marx's article "Parliamentary News".—Ed.
  4. The sale of commissions in the English army dated back to the late seventeenth century and was maintained up to 1871. It ensured that members of the English aristocracy held a dominant position in the army.
  5. The Mutiny Act was passed by Parliament annually from 1689 to 1881, empowering the Crown to maintain a standing army and navy of a fixed size, prescribe manuals and regulations for the army and navy, set up courts martial and establish a system of punishment for mutiny, refusal to obey orders, infringements of discipline, etc. The first Mutiny Act was passed in connection with riots in the British Army.
  6. Marx uses the English expression.—Ed.
  7. Simony (from Simon Magus, an allusion to his offer of money to the Apostles, Acts 8, 9:24)—the practice of selling or buying ecclesiastical preferments, etc. in the Middle Ages. Advocates of ecclesiastical reform challenged it as early as the twelfth century.
  8. Revolutionary action by gold-diggers took place in Victoria in November and December 1854. On November 29, licences were burnt at a gold-diggers' meeting. On December 2, an armed clash occurred between the insurgents and troops. Also in December the Ballarat Reform League was set up which formulated the insurgents' demands: abolition of gold-digging licences, release of the gold-diggers arrested for setting fire to the hotel, and political reforms including four of the six Chartist points. Although the uprising was suppressed and martial law introduced, some of the insurgents' demands had to be granted.
  9. Marx uses the English term, with the German equivalent in brackets.—Ed.
  10. An allusion to the system of extortionate taxes levied by the British Parliament and Government on the North American colonies—the high tariff on sugar imports (introduced in 1764), the stamp duty (1765), the exorbitant customs duties on imports from England, etc. It was bitterly resented by the local bourgeoisie and the masses in the colonies and was one of the factors that led to the War of Independence (1775-83) in the course of which the United States of America was formed.
  11. "Ballaarat. Wednesday, November 29th, 1854", The Argus (Melbourne), No. 2359, December 1, 1854.—Ed.
  12. The Riot Act—an Act passed in 1715 on the maintenance of public peace and order. It empowered the local authorities to disperse assemblages of "trouble-makers" by force and charge them with felony. The Act obliged the authorities to read part of it to those assembled and to open fire if the latter refused to disperse within an hour.