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Australia gave a welcome to the Paris Communards

Written by: George Farwell on 20 April 2023


(Above: Original illustration for the Tribune article by H. McClintock)

(We are reprinting in its entirety an article from Tribune, newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia, published on 22 March 1945. One hundred and fifty years ago, on March 19, 1873, in Melbourne, the steamship "L’Orne" was called into port for fresh provisions and medicine. It's purpose was to transport revolutionaries from the Paris Commune to New Caledonia. The incident was recalled by Czech Communist and anti-fascist Egon Kisch in his book Australian Landfall, describing his fight to enter Australia on a speaking tour, despite the Australian government’s attempts to keep him out. George Farwell was a progressively minded writer who published more than 20 books, mostly about the Australian Ourback. We thank the Australian Communist History Twitter account for drawing our attention to this interesting article – eds)

During a reception in Perth to Egon Kisch back in 1935, an old, grey-headed man took him aside, asked if he were interested in the Paris Commune. Kisch was surprised at the question, sixty-four years after the first workers' state had been suppressed in one of the most violent reigns of terror the world has known.

But he was not the man to assume, as some have assumed, that the Commune did not concern us intimately here. He said he was extremely interested.
The old man carefully produced a box, took off the lid. Inside was a red flag inscribed in French: "Commune of Paris 1871. Liberty, Fraternity, Equality or Death."

The story of this flag reveals only one of many links with the heroic struggle of the French people which began on March 18, seventy-four years ago.

For close on three months the Commune administered the popular republic, creating new standards of democratic achievement so that after 1917, Lenin was able to declare "the Commune was the first stage of the proletarian revolution, as the Russian Revolution was the second."

The working class movement had learnt vital strategic lessons from the Commune, even though this republic was put down in less than three months with the final coldblooded shooting of a hundred and forty-seven fighters on the Hill of Martyrs. One hundred thousand Parisians were killed, imprisoned, exiled or transported. Many of these were sent to the devilish penal colony of New Caledonia. They were chained inside iron cages on the convict ships and forced to endure shocking and barbarous conditions in the islands.

Roger Grenier, the old man who had treasured the red flag all those years, was the son of a man who had fought on the barricades, Paul Grenier. Only ten when his father was shipped away in chains, he loyally observed his promise to keep the flag in safety.

Like hundreds of other families, the Greniers were persecuted and humiliated for the "crimes" of their parents, husbands, brothers. But not even the promised reward of a 1,000 francs and a free pardon could persuade the possessors of many of these flags to surrender them to the terrorist General Gallifet.

TWO years later, after considerable agitation, the French Government agreed to send the exiles' families out to New Caledonia. Roger Grenier was one of 600 women and children whose ship anchored in Sydney Harbor in 1873. They were given a mass welcome, given flowers, presents, invitations. A banquet was held for them in the Town Hall. Hundreds of progressive Sydney-siders set out to entertain at least one family in their homes. It was a moving tribute to the Communards and to the cause of international liberty.

Roger Grenier was so impressed with the spirit of freedom he discovered in Australia that he determined to return one day.

When sixteen years later the exiles were reprieved, they passed through Sydney again. Pierre Grenier sailed on to France. Roger remained in Australia.

"Even today," Egon Kisch wrote in his book, Australian Landfall, "Roger Grenier feels himself a son of the Paris Commune, and his daughter and her daughter, who came with him to the reception, must show how well they can speak French."

"'I am a Labor Party man," he told Kisch, still holding the precious flag. 'But my children stand closer to you.'"

WHEN one of the convict ships bearing the Communards to their devil's island reached Melbourne in 1871, the workers demonstrated their sympathy and admiration. News went round that shipboard conditions were so appalling that half of the prisoners were down with scurvy.

Melbourne's trade unionists at once raised £1,500, but they were forbidden by the authorities to help. Henri Rochefort, writer and one of the intellectual leaders of the Commune, was among a party of five who escaped from the solitary New Caledonian Isle of Pines, andreached Newcastle, with the aid of the sympathetic Australian skipper of a coal ship, Captain Low.

"In our beautiful country," Rochefort wrote later, "we would have been arrested, searched and thrown into the nearest prison as pirates and slaves." Instead, because there was then no extradition agreement between France and Australia, they were allowed to go free. 

Democratic Newcastle gave them a fine reception. Rochefort returned eventually to France with his four comrades, one of whom has been foreign affairs delegate to the Commune, another finance minister and a third, editor of the revolutionary Pere Duchesne (the name was revived by one of the illegal underground newspapers during the Nazi occupation of France).

Among the prisoners who passed through Australia was the immortal Louise Michel, a schoolteacher who carried a rifle with the 61st battalion of the National Guard and fought on the barricades.

"I do not wish to defend myself," she declared proudly at her trial. "I belong entirely to the social revolution and I accept full responsibility for everything I have done. If you let me live, I shall never cease to shout vengeance on you who have killed my brothers."

She returned to France, was gaoled again for six years, struggled on earning for herself a revolutionary reputation close to that of women like Vera Figner and Rosa Luxembourg.

ANOTHER Communard who contributed greatly to Australian progress was Lucien Henry, who became the first lecturer in art at the Sydney Technical College, and designed one of the stained glass windows still in the Town Hall. Politically active, he was one of the pioneers of the Socialist Movement in Australia, one of the first Socialist books here being dedicated to him. As an old man he returned to France, joining in Labor's struggle to build a second and more enduring Commune.

Early in the 1880's the Sydney poet, Francis Adams stood in the Pere la Chaise cemetery where the murdered Communards were buried, and wrote:

Is it for nothing, now and evermore,
O you whose sin in life had death in ease,
The murder of your victims beats the door
Wherein your careless carrion lies at peace?


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