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The Angel Isafrel: A Story of Prohibition in New Zealand

Chapter XI. — New Zealand Under Prohibition

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Chapter XI.
New Zealand Under Prohibition.

The popular will in relation to the exclusion of alcoholic drinks from the colony having been so unmistakably shown by the national option vote, it remained but for the Legislature and the Government to carry that determination into effect. The friends of the liquor traffic affected to treat the idea with scorn, and openly declared their intention of evading the law. The response of the popular voice was, practically, “Come on!”

An Act of Parliament was requisite, in terms of the Referendum Act, to give shape to the national vote; and as the Government as well as the Legislature recognised the necessity of placing the matter once for all on a firm basis, the measure was framed accordingly. The provisions were not numerous. A date was fixed up to which the sale and consumption of liquor were allowed, and thereafter its possession within the coasts of the colony, or the waters or islands within the jurisdiction of New Zealand, was made penal.

It was said that smuggling would be rife, and that illicit stills would spring up all over the country. But the Act took no account of such possibilities, and contemplated neither the building of revenue cutters nor the appointment of excise officers. It simply provided that any person found in the possession of alcoholic liquor should be imprisoned with hard labour for a term not exceeding two years, unless for a second offence; and not less than twelve months, and without option of fine. It was thought to be more humane to grapple with the matter at once, and not leave the temptation open for any person to foolishly set himself to the task of defying the popular will.

A clause had been proposed making a fine optional, but so that in order to make it equal to rich and poor the amount should not be a fixed sum, but proportioned to the offender's property, income, or earnings, the forfeiture not exceeding a fourth or less than a tenth of a man's property; with the alternative, at the option of the Court, of accepting the past average income or earnings of the prisoner for a period double the term of imprisonment to which the man had been sentenced.

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It was considered, however, that this might lead to confusion and embarrassment, and it was accordingly fixed that the penalty should be simply imprisonment with hard labour, and without the option of money compensation.

Provision was made for the sale of alcohol for medicinal purposes by chemists holding license from the Customs, liable to forfeiture, with other penalties, in the event of any trifling or any attempted evasion of the law.

The simplicity of the Act—aided by a standing offer of rewards varying from £100 to £1000 for information leading to conviction for the possession of alcoholic liquor, and leviable on the property or goods of the person convicted—made unnecessary any other means for protecting the colony, smugglers or illicit distillers having no longer any places where their contraband goods could be sold, and the possession of such goods, even in the smallest quantity, involving so great risks that neither profit nor pleasure could attend the defiance of the law.

An incident occurred in the earlier part of the Prohibition era, which, by the attention it caused, not only in the colony, but throughout the empire, greatly facilitated the operations of the Act.

A Minister of the Crown of a neighbouring colony, who had some years before made a tour in New Zealand, and boasted in the press on his return to his colony that he had obtained alcoholic liquor in a Prohibition district in New Zealand—then under the protection of local option—was induced to make another experiment so as to turn the laugh against New Zealand. He came over taking spirituous liquor in his luggage, and having partaken of it on his tour up the country was imprudent enough to make a boast of what he had done. As a result the drink was found in his possession, and he was arrested and committed for trial.

It was shown that the action had been done defiantly, and that he had previously boasted of having broken the law. With these aggravating circumstances he was found guilty and received the full penalty of two years' imprisonment with hard labour.

It created a profound impression throughout the colonies, and his own Government made the strongest representations to the New Zealand Government on the subject; it was urged that he was only a tourist, and that his high position as a Minister of the Crown should lead to exceptional consideration of his case. But it was replied that even as a visitor he must conform to the laws of the country in which he was for the time being, and that in New Zealand there was not one law for the rich and another for the poor, and that, therefore, the law must take its course.

Representations were even made to the Imperial Government, which were seconded by the Governments of several others of the Australian colonies, but the Secretary of State replied that the page 95 Imperial Government could not interfere with a matter so entirely within the jurisdiction of a self-governing colony like New Zealand; and the erring Minister was obliged to put in the full term of his sentence, with the exception of a few months taken off for his good conduct in the gaol.

This incident, the details of which were published in every part of the empire, had a salutary effect in showing the determination of the people of New Zealand to enforce the law; and as a matter of fact there was no smuggling attempted, and there was no private distillation by illicit stills. By this firmness of the Legislature in enacting a practical and intelligible law at once, and of the Government in recognising and enforcing the will of the people, all the fancied difficulties of carrying out the law proved mythical, and the public calmly settled down to the fact that Prohibition in New Zealand was an actuality.

And the salutary effect of this stringency was speedily apparent; for alcoholic drinks being absolutely absent, the semimorbid condition that prompted the craving or taste for them was gradually removed, and within six months—except in the case of those who, making a visit to the neighbouring colonies, “prolonged the agony” by the consumption of drink there—a desire or a craving for drink was practically unknown in the colony.

Coincident with this was the remarkable development in the production of wholesome and pleasant drinks of a non-alcoholic character. In the drinking period it had frequently been complained that there were no palatable drinks provided to take the place of the alcoholic beverages, and that people were driven to the latter because of the absence of any acceptable substitute. This was because of the competition of the established alcoholic beverages, which, being everywhere available and ready to hand, made it not worth the while of scientists and experimenters to discover an innocuous beverage.

Now, the field was open, and the demand for drinks from a whole population suddenly deprived of its tipple proved a powerful incentive. It was known that the one great merit of alcohol was its preservative power over the beverages in which it was contained. Through that power the juice of the grape was kept from further fermentation; and the business now was to preserve by some other means the juice of the grape, one of the wholesomest and most refreshing substances in nature, so that it might be available for general use. One means that proved particularly successful had as its basis the evaporation in vacuo of the expressed grape juice, so that it was reduced to a powder; and its restoration to a fluid state when required for drinking, under certain conditions, made it absolutely identical in elements, flavour, and taste with the juice as first expressed from the grape. Various other means for rendering fruit-juice of different kinds available for beverages were devised, and necessity being the mother of invention an page 96 extraordinary stimulus was given to the production of whole-some beverages. Of course, there were some with habits and tastes so confirmed that it was found necessary for a time to provide them with something that would grip and rasp the throat, so as to remind them of old times. For some of these old topers the demand created a supply of a decoction of tobacco and dilute sulphuric acid, which proved an excellent substitute for what they had been customarily drinking, and made them almost feel they were again in the days before Prohibition. This beverage was colloquially called “The Doctor,” and was very palatable to those who liked it; and from the grip which it took on the throat it was popular for a while, till the drinkers of it found that they were getting “no forrader,” and gave it up in despair.

But these were only subsidiary considerations by the side of the vast changes that occurred in the social and moral, as well as the physical condition of the people.

The statement made by a magistrate in Auckland, in the drink period, that nine out of ten cases that came before him were caused by drink, was singularly verified by the results of Prohibition; for crimes of violence in all its varied forms almost ceased throughout the colony. Not only so, but a large number of other classes of crime arising out of the destitution which drink had entailed on individuals and families also ceased, and the greater self-respect, not less than the mental vitality and physical vigour which sobriety gave, went far to lift men over the liability to dishonesty and immorality.

But there was a more notable change than this, and one more intimately bearing on domestic life. It had been always known that irritability was a reactionary effect of alcohol, and that just as the stimulated vigour of the moment had its complement in equal depression subsequently so the temporary geniality and bonhommie which drink gave had their complement in the irritability and fretfulness, and even moroseness, which supervened.

In the families, more particularly of the working classes, where the father was brought into closer contact with his household, the result in this respect was very marked. There was a patience, an equability of temper, in the relations of the working man and his wife and children, that had never been known in the period when he was liable to temporary excitation of good nature under alcohol, and its corresponding crossness when the fumes of the drink had left his brain; and the pleasurable companionship which that equable temper established between a man and his children and his wife seemed to restore that parental influence which had been often noted as singularly wanting in New Zealand.

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It was not merely that brutal scenes of cruelty to wives and children became absolutely unknown in the colony, but the ungentleness and cross purposes, that are at the root of so much domestic unhappiness, disappeared, and the dwelling-places of men and their families became really home. Not only had the great rival of home, the bar parlour, disappeared, but home had a happiness that made men not even wish to wander.

Again, instead of a large portion of a man's wages being left at a public house, his earnings were all brought home; and comforts for the children, unknown before, not only brought gladness to the little ones, but a sense of proud satisfaction to the father, that made him feel more of a man than ever he had felt before.

But there was another direction which this saving of earnings took. The workers having now to spare all the earnings formerly wasted on drink, were looking out for investments that were found in the multiplication of co-operative institutions of every kind, both in trade and industry, in which shares were purchasable by small instalments. At the same time the habit had grown up of employers encouraging their employees to put in their spare cash into the business of the firm, and so to acquire substantial interests, which not only brought in a share of the profits but secured the employee from ever being thrown out of employment. It was found by employers that this not only benefited employees, but enhanced the value and the trust worthiness of their services to an extent beyond anything they had ever seen in workers before.

In this way there was not a working man in the colony but had an opportunity of rising into the position of being his own employer, while this presented such a nucleus for his family that a man was enabled to always keep his children by him.

The extent to which this co-operation between capital and labour was carried, when all the workers were sober and reliable, constituted one of the most remarkable developments in the colony, and became the admiration of all the rest of the world.

But it was not merely in its social aspects that the change that had come over the colony was notable. It was hardly less remarkable in the health of the community. It had been known, of course, to actuaries that the lives of abstainers ranked higher than those of drinkers, and such lives were taken at smaller premiums by life assurance companies. But the effect of a whole country becoming at once sober revolutionised the entire system of life assurance. It had been known that alcohol had affected the liver, the kidneys, the heart, the brain, and all the vital organs, but it was only fully recognised in New Zealand now how much those vitiated organs had contributed to the general susceptibility to disease

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Epidemics seemed to have lost their power of ravaging the community, and many diseases to which people had been subject almost disappeared, the restored vitality of the whole physical system making it defiant to attacks, and when attacked the recuperative power of the body making it throw of disease without fatal results. The vital statistics of the colony became a study that attracted the attention of scientists everywhere, until the salubrity of the New Zealand climate became to thousands of people far away, familiar to the ear as household words.

Lunacy, that scourge of the Anglo-Saxon race, the outcome of its intensity of life aggravated by the shattering effects of alcohol on the nervous system, showed a record that proved true the statement often made, that three-fourths of the lunacy of the colonies were induced or developed by drink. The annual additions to the buildings for lunatic patients which had appeared continually on the estimates in Parliament, for the first time ceased, and the institutions existing were more than adequate to the requirements; and though the existing number of inmates showed no immediate diminution, the change appeared in the remarkable decrease in the number of new committals.

The records of immorality—well known to be stimulated by the inflammatory effects of the habitual influence of alcohol on the human organism—showed a similar change; while destitution, no largely resulting from drink, with all the evils in its train, virtually disappeared from the country, except in the case of those who were actually disabled, or enfeebled by disease or old age.

In fact, it was found after only two years of Prohibition that the savings on the annual cost of the criminal department, the gaols and the police, with the hospitals and lunatic asylums, and the various charitable aid boards throughout the colony, considerably more than recouped the loss of revenue resulting from the abrupt stoppage of all the duties on alcoholic drinks.

To all these social, moral, and physical blessings must be added the stoppage of the annual drink bill, which had been for years over two millions sterling a year, an amount which, left unwasted in the hands of the people from year to year, and diverted into various channels of enterprise, was of itself almost sufficient to account for the extraordinary industrial and commercial prosperity which had dawned on the country.

But while there was not an interest in the country—social, moral, religious, commercial, or political—that did not feel the influence of the disappearance of the greatest disturber of the happiness and the peace of life, nowhere was the change felt so much as in the relations of domestic life.

Under the baleful influence of alcohol the lives of men and women had been drawn apart, “conviviality” meaning the page 99 “viviality” of the one part of the family, while the other was left too often to the lonely monotony of mere existence.

Now, home had generally become the sweetest of all places to man; and was enjoyment was to be taken abroad there was nothing either at the banqueting table, or anywhere else where men were wont to congregate, that forbade the presence of women.

The great enemy of home having now ceased to come between man and wife, and brother and sister, the true power of womanhood was felt over all the relations of life, and the women of New Zealand found themselves rewarded for their heroic efforts in expelling the demon of discord in the enjoyment of a power of influencing the character and the conduct of men, such as they had never anticipated in their brightest visions of the coming time.

The story of what they had done, and of what a condition of things had resulted in New Zealand, had gone through all the earth, and from every quarter of the civilized world these little islands in the far southern sea became invested with a halo of interest to the women and the families who were still groaning under the bondage and the misery of the demon of drink.

Parents, whose sons or other relatives showed a tendency to go to ruin, fled with them to New Zealand, as to a city of refuge; and some very touching tales came to light from time to time of those who, flying from danger, expressed their feelings on touching the shores of the colony as if they had entered with their children within the gates of heaven.

There was one case of a lady in Plymouth, in England, whose husband had fallen from honor to disgrace, and from love and devotion to neglect and even cruelty. She had read the story of New Zealand's emancipation and regeneration, and connected as every account had made this, with the name and labours of the young girl who had laboured and died in the cause, she had conceived intense devotion to the memory of “the Angel Isafrel.”

With great difficulty she had got her husband conveyed on board a New Zealand bound vessel, and with her little children she had left for the “land of the leal.”

She had not landed an hour in Auckland, when, with her two little girls, she passed over to the North Shore and sought out the grave of Isafrel, where, falling on her knees, she bent down and reverently kissed the grave, and with tears streaming down her cheeks, she raised her face to heaven, and with her two little girls kneeling beside her, thanked God that she was herself now a “woman of New Zealand,” and that she had reached a land where her husband and her little ones would be free for ever from the destroyer of their happiness.

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Incidents of this kind were of frequent occurrence, and were among the most touching illustrations of the results of the rescue of the colony from the thraldom of drink.

Isafrel had told the women, in one of her inspired addresses to them, that the time would come when “the glory of the women of New Zealand would be in every land.” That time had come, and the women were not forgetful of what they owed to the young girl who, as their Joan of Arc, had led them on to victory, although she had fallen herself on the field.

Immediately after the triumph of the cause, a movement had been set on foot to erect a memorial worthy of the services which she had rendered to the cause of “God, and Home, and Humanity:” and, in recognition of the blessings she had been one of the principal agents in bringing to the people of the country, a subscription amounting to over ten thousand pounds had been raised in a few months, and a beautiful statue of Carrara marble from the hands of an eminent Italian sculptor had arrived in the colony.

The second anniversary of the taking of the national option vote on Referendum Day was fixed as the date for unveiling the statue, and as all feelings of controversy as to the benefits the incident had brought to the community had died out, the quiet and sequestered little cemetery at the foot of Mount Victoria was the scene of the assemblage of one of the largest body of people, and of the most touching ceremonial that had ever been known in the colony.

The statue, which was of pure white marble, represented Isafrel as she appeared when addressing the National Convention of Women at the City Hall, and as in face and figure, and drapery, even to the little rose which she held in her hand, the statue was a speaking likeness, and a perfect representation of the young girl as she had appeared on that interesting and momentous occasion, the feelings of the women, thousands of whom had come from all parts of the colony to witness the ceremony, were deeply moved.

The tablets on the sides of the basement gave the dates of birth and death, and some appropriate texts from Scripture. But the tablet on the front conveyed a volume of history in its few words; for it bore the simple legend—

The Angel Isafrel.

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