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The Angel Isafrel: A Story of Prohibition in New Zealand

Chapter VI. — Just Before the Battle

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Chapter VI.
Just Before the Battle.

The long-expected day was at hand and every preparation had been made on both sides for the coming conflict. It had been provided in the Act that a majority of three-fifths of the votes cast should be requisite in order to warrant the adoption of absolute national Prohibition, and from end to end of the colony the rolls had been diligently “pricked” by both sides, resulting in a conviction on one side as on the other that victory was sure.

Still the uncertainties that must always attend a popular struggle at the ballot box had left no room for neglecting any means that might be available for turning the balance, and on the previous Sunday the pulpits of the Colony had rung with denunciations of the liquor traffic, and with appeals to the congregations to stand strong on the side of humanity.

In hundreds of places the children of the Sunday schools had been organised into singing bands, so that with temperance hymns ringing around the polling booths the last influence brought to bear on the voters when recording their votes might be the appeal of the children of the colony to deliver them and the country from the demon of drink.

During the previous week, and for some weeks before, the children had been everywhere engaged in distributing millions of fly leaves and every kind of literature bearing on the question at issue, and the little workers had developed as much enthusiasm among themselves as if the decision was to be determined by their efforts. In fact, the movement had come to take the form of a religious war; and even the few clergymen who had had the daring to declare themselves on the side of the liquor traffic, cowered before the burst of public fervour.

Nor was it the teetotallers alone, or even mainly, that had led in the agitation; but among the great body of moderate drinkers a spirit of altruism had asserted itself, under which they recognised the obligation of making sacrifice of their own tastes and comforts for the sake of the benefits that would come to the great mass of the people.

But of all the forces that were in movement in anticipation of the coming struggle, the mainspring was in the womanhood of page 59 the colony. Some four years before, the women of New Zealand had been given the electoral franchise, and though great anticipations had been formed by those who had for many years championed the movement, the result of the enfranchisement had been a considerable disappointment.

The women had shown the weakness of the sex in frittering away their opportunities for great social reforms, having been split up into all kinds of political and social organizations, neutralising each others' influence for good by their divisions. They had dropped into the old political grooves; and as liberal associations and conservative associations, and leagues and societies for all kinds of imaginary and conflicting objects, they had from their inexperience allowed themselves to be used by political wirepullers, with the result that politics had become more degrading and degraded than in any previous period of the colony's history and instead of being, as was expected, a “great moral force” for good, their distinctive influence had been practically nil, or worse.

But here had arisen a question, for once standing apart from all other questions, and for the first time in the country the women of the colony grasped the idea that it was distinctly their own. It was a question on which no political party in the State had distinctive interests. It involved neither the rise nor the fall of governments, so that neither Conservative nor Liberal, Radical nor Labour man, Socialist, nor Single-taxer had occasion or desire for pulling the old party wires, or reviving the old battle cries.

The Act that had been passed empowering the Referendum had been supported, as it had been resisted, by members of all parties; and whatever might be the result of the appeal to the country it would be accepted by the existing Government, whatever that Government might be, and by the existing Opposition, whoever was the leader, as the ultimate determination of the country, and would be put into effect without in any way involving or touching the position of parties in Parliament.

More important even than this, there would be no competing personal candidates in this contest, so that the susceptible female heart, so easily moved by personal predilections in favour of individual suitors for its favours, and so much inclined to stand by its chosen candidate whether he was right or wrong, had nothing here of a personal form to unsettle the fealty of its worship of the right.

Freed for the first time from these disturbing influences the womanhood of New Zealand seemed to have swung round for Prohibition. Enabled to look on the issue stripped of every confusing and embarrassing side issue, as a simple question of “drink” or “no drink,” the instinctive feeling of woman seemed at once and everywhere to have recognised that drinking was her enemy, the principle disturber of the peace of her realm—which is page 60 home—and the shatterer of the prospects of those that go forth into the world freighted with her love and hopes.

So long as it was mixed up in the ruck of politics there were thousands of women who stood aside and said that they did not think it was woman's work to meddle in politics. But now when the question stood forth in all its nakedness, the most indifferent, andretiring, and domesticated woman said, “Yes, I have something to do with that;” and so it came that except the baser and more degraded class of women, whose names and social standing placed them outside that charmed circle which contains “respectable women,” there was hardly a woman in New Zealand that was not stirred to life by the approaching Referendum.

Even the thoughtless class, whose highest concern was ordinarily about dress and dances and the mere enjoyment of life, had caught the spirit in the air; and a woman who had it not on the tip of her tongue to say that she was “Prohibition,” was looked on as being not quite what she ought to be.

But far deeper than this had been the movement among the more thoughtful women of the colony, who had imbibed the spirit of earnestness to the full, and felt that the moment had come when the women of New Zealand were called to the grandest effort that had ever fallen to the lot of women, and that it was theirs to justify to the whole world the wisdom of entrusting women with the electoral franchise, and to set an example that might prove a blessing to the whole Anglo-Saxon race.

At one of her earlier meetings, Isafrel, under the inspiration of her mission, had thrown out the suggestion that the women should use the personal influence which every woman has at least over one man, to bring the whole of the male sex to their side in achieving this great triumph for their common good.

She said that if every woman having an interest in the cause pledged herself to have the vote and co-operation of one man the work would be effected. It was not urged that the work of any woman should be confined to this—everyone should expand her influence to the widest extent—but that she should distinctly charge herself with responsibility for one man, whether husband, brother, lover, friend, or acquaintance, for whose voting and voting right she should pledge her word; that she should report to the association, and register the name of the one she had in keeping, and that she should endeavor to utilise his influence over all his acquaintances for the extension of the cause.

She based her suggestion on the principle that nature seemed, as she said, to have so ordered it that woman's most powerful influence on man was in his personal and not his collective capacity, and though she might sway a multitude as man might, there was a potent charm in the personal influence which a woman may page 61 exercise over one man, who has her confidence and esteem, that if rightly used was irresistible.

This idea took the meeting with amusement, but it was adopted, and, more than that, it was communicated to the other women associations throughout the colony, and as promptly adopted in their marching orders, and it threw an air of pleasantry and humour over a campaign that had enough of seriousness. Every woman was unwilling to confess that she could not find a cavalier who was prepared to stand by her side in the day of battle, while the men were tickled at the idea of being thus unceremoniously taken into their charge by their fair sisters, and with gallant good humour lent themselves to this novel phase of feminine strategy.

But the movement in anticipation of the Referendum had not been confined to women. The various temperance and prohibition organisations throughout the colony had been energetically at work, and, besides what they were doing themselves, they had served as a rallying point to the large body of those who though not teetotallers themselves, and many of them not even practisers of temperance principles, had been awaked to the gravity of the occasion. Thousands of these had been in the habit of using drink all their lives. They had enjoyed it, nor could they be persuaded even yet that ever it had done them any harm. It had revived them when they were exhausted, and had enabled them at times to get through work which they felt they could not have so well done without it. It had been the means of many a pleasant hour, and of social jollification, and it seemed to them hard that they should be deprived of their little enjoyments because other people made beasts of themselves. Still they did not conceal from themselves that they could live without it, and that after all it was a terrible nuisance, besides whatever it might be of a danger to other people.

If the thing could only be regulated, they said, so that people could get their little comforts in moderation without their being abused, all would be right; but, bother the thing, it looked as if it couldn't be regulated, and regulate it as they might it had a nasty habit of bringing people into trouble. There were those dozen or so of drownings that had taken place in the harbour and district within the last couple of months. The fellows perhaps were just as well drowned for all the good they were to the world. But then they would not have been drowned, but might have been useful to themselves and others, if the drink had not been in the country. And there are the wives and children, poor things; they did not drink, but they paid the penalty. It's a bad business altogether, and I'm not going to bother myself to keep it going.

Others, again, took a judicial view of the case. The thing had to be decided one way or another, and the question is, should we page 62 strengthen the position of the traffic or have the experiment made of doing without it. Nobody will be killed by its going, and sure enough some people will be killed if it stays. It will not do me any harm. But nobody knows. Some of my children might turn out drunkards. None of them will if it goes. That is something. If the vote banishes the thing from the country I can at least feel that my children will be made safe against the cursedest curse that ever fell to a child. Besides, there are other people's children. And plenty of them will be lost if it stays. I am not to blame if they are. But may be I am if my vote helps to keep the thing here. Is it worth my while, for the little enjoyment I have in my grog, to be the means of bringing such trouble on other people? I don't like the idea at all. I'm not a religious man, but I don't like doing a harm to others; and it is only my own little comfort that stands in the way. I could do without it, and after a bit I would never miss it. Miss it or not, confound me if I cannot make this little sacrifice for other people. This would then be the happiest country under God's sun and I'll not be the one to spoil it.

The general feeling appeared to be that the thing was a nuisance; that all the regulations that had been made to amend it had not lessened the nuisance a jot; and that the only way of regulating it would be to regulate it out of existence.

And it made a hard fight for life. Paid and clever lecturers had been travelling about the country showing the intolerable tyranny of the Prohibitionists trying to rob a poor man of his beer. The testimony of eminent physicians was adduced to show the wholesomeness of alcohol in its several forms, and its necessity to the human constitution; and the testimony of eminent doctors of divinity, and bishops, and elergymen, to show that Jesus Christ was a supporter of the liquor traffic, and that if He and His apostles were here at the present juncture they would be enrolled on the side of the brewers and publicans, and would be the most earnest in denouncing the hypocrisy of the fanatics who were misleading the people, and attacking the trade only for their own selfish interest, and in a spirit of Pharisaic hypocrisy. They appealed to the colonists of New Zealand, as the sons of martyred sires who had bled in defence of their liberties, to not have their glorious privileges of civil and personal liberty taken away by a lot of low fellows who, because they could not drink themselves, wanted to take away the liberty of drinking from others.

What was it that made England great? they cried. What had given to her that civil and religious liberty which had made her the envy of the world? It was beer. What had made the throne of England secure amid the crash of dynasties, and the raging of the nations? It was beer. What had made the name of a British citizen respected and feared in every land, so that a page 63 man had but to utter Civis Britannicus sum in the ear of the despot, and he was safe? It was beer. What had spread civilization, and education, and religion to the uttermost ends of the earth, so that wherever the British ensign waved there was liberty? It was beer. Where would England be without beer? She would be but a fifth-rate nation, condemned and sat upon, without her glorious past and her still more glorious future, but for beer.

They had heard of the Armenian atrocities. Who had perpetrated those horrors, at which the blood of the world was running cold? It was the Turks, who were total abstainers and prohibitionists. Had they been drinkers of alcoholic stimulants they would never have committed those atrocities; and if the nations of Europe, instead of sending fleets and armies, and worrying with diplomacy, would only load their vessels with British beer, and land it in Turkish ports, and imbue the people with the principles of free drinking, propagating among the Turks the glorious evangel of beer, the Eastern question would be solved, and teetotal prohibition-ridden Turkey would be raised to the comity of nations.

And think what we are coming to, they said. If by the coming Referendum vote you are mad enough to drive from the country that which has humanised the ferocity of the Anglo-Saxon, and made England great, see what you have to reckon with. Depend upon it, there will be a New Zealand question which will rival, if it does not overshadow, the atrocities in Armenia. Under the baleful influence of the absence of beer, the pakeha will develop polygamous proclivities, and, raiding the Maori districts for wives, will enact scenes of carnage at which the world will stand aghast. Instead of this, see the beneficent influences we are exercising among the Maori race through the agency of grog. In the King country more particularly, the work of humanisation is proceeding apace, and through the free importation of spirits into that prohibited and protected country we shall soon have the Maoris as humanised as we want.