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The Angel Isafrel: A Story of Prohibition in New Zealand

Chapter VIII. — The Monster Meeting

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Chapter VIII.
The Monster Meeting.

At the junction of three streets a platform had been erected, which was crowded with intending speakers and others who were foremost in the cause. They were confronted by a sea of faces of the largest assemblage that had ever come together in the province. It was computed that from twenty to thirty thousand had congregated together from the city and suburbs and surrounding districts, and the silence of the vast crowd spoke eloquently of the solemn awe with which the public mind approached a question fraught with the gravest crisis in the history of the colony. The speakers were understood to be limited to ten minutes each for the expression of their views, though this was liberally interpreted in the case of the more notable speakers.

After the chairman had taken his place, the proceedings opened with a speaker submitting the questions whether the liquor traffic was a great evil, whether the means in operation had been sufficient to restrain its mischief to the community, and if not, what was it their duty to do. He enumerated at considerable length the instances that had occurred to his own knowledge of drownings, and deaths, and suicides, which it had caused; of domestic misery, of the ruin of character and prospects, and of the expense to which the community was put in dealing with the crimes and sufferings which were, directly or indirectly due to the presence of drink in the country. Mostly every means that ingenuity and wisdom on the part both of the friends and the enemies of drink could devise, had been tried to restrain the evil within bounds, but it had been seen that the ingenuity of those who lived by the traffic, and made large profits out of the losses and the sufferings of the people, had been more than a match for these safeguards and precautions.

“What, then,” he asked, “are we to do with an evil which we can neither restrain nor control? Is it not our duty, if we cannot mend it, to end it? It has been said by those who are fighting for their own cruel gains that to banish the drink from the colony will be interfering with human liberty. Oh, liberty! liberty! How many crimes have been committed in thy name? Call you that liberty which permits men, a minority of the people, to force on the presence of the rest that which brings to thousands the cruellest slavery ever known on earth. And what curtailment of page 73 liberty will it be to anyone when the temptation is entirely removed? Which, I ask you, will be the greater liberty: now, when we are obliged to tell them in the presence of temptation, you must not take it now, you must not take it then, you must not take it here, you must not take it there? Or then, when the evil and the temptation will be utterly removed beyond the bounds of the colony, and when every man will be absolutely free from restraint? Which will be the greater sense of liberty among the people, then or now? I tell you that within three months from the banishment of liquor from the country the morbid state of the system which gives the craving for drink will have died out; and, freed from the presence of the temptation, the drinker, the drunkard, and the community will enjoy a sense of liberty that they never knew before.”

“They tell you,” said another speaker, “that all the great and vigorous nations have been consumers of strong drinks, and that the weak and inferior races have been total abstainers; and they would have you conclude that it is alcohol that has given that vigour and greatness to the progressive nations, and the want of it that has sunk the others into inferiority, and they point you to the Mahometans and the degraded state of Turkey as illustration of the theory.

“Now just glance a little back in history and see what part total abstinence has played in the rise and spread of Islam. Mahomet in many things showed himself to be one of the wisest and ablest leaders of men the world has ever known, and when he was starting a religion that he meant to dominate the world by fire and sword, he well knew that if his Arabs, who are children of the sun, were to be exposed to the debauching and enfeebling influences of strong drink, their conquering career would rapidly come to a close, as many a conquering race had fallen before. And it was worldly wisdom of the wisest kind that made the prophet leader impose abstinence on his warriors. And the sequel proved the truth of this. For from Morocco to the furthest Ind, from the heart of Africa to the centre of Europe, with all its power and civilization, the sword of Islam became a terror; and the strength, the vigour, the success of Islam was its total abstinence. Without it those warriors from the wilds of Arabia would have found many a Capua, and before the seductive influences of the wines of the conquered nations the crescent would have been lowered in the dust. And even now, non-progressive and degraded as the Moslem is, it is his abstinence that is the preserving element that has saved Mahometanism from the thousand disintegrating forces that have been working for its destruction. Had Mahomet not imposed total abstinence on his Arabs and their successors we should never have heard of Islam but as an ephemeral outbreak of fanaticism that had died as soon as it was born.

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“And as to the effect which alcohol might have in raising the lower races to the level of the higher, we have evidence sufficient to form an opinion. What has it done with the natives of the South Sea Islands, with the natives of central Africa, with our own Maoris—the noblest aboriginal race with which civilization has come in contact? Has it raised them to the level of the higher race? Has it infused that vigor which it is said to have infused into the Anglo-Saxon? No; but it has been sweeping them away with the besom of destruction, and in doing so it has written a dark chapter of cruelty and shame in the history of the Anglo-Saxon race.

“But coming to that race itself. It is true that the vigorous constitution given it by its climate, as well as by heredity, has made it more proof against the destructive influences of alcohol, and it has become great in spite of drink. But why is it that a progressive, earnest, vigorous race is drunken? It is just because of the excessive exercise of those qualities which have made it great. The Anglo-Saxon race is probably the most energetic of all races, and that energy of nature drives it forward at a pace at which no other nation travels. The nervous tension and brain-fag which that pace produces are a disturbance of the moral as well as the physical equilibrium, and constitute, in fact, an unnatural and morbid condition, under which a man is tempted, as more quiet-living races are not tempted, to resort to artificial measures for relief. The remedy is sought in alcoholic drinks. Those drinks do not produce the energy of the race; but it is that energy driven to excess, and consequent exhaustion, that produces the craving for drink, and that is the reason why the greatest and most progressive of races is addicted to drink.

“If that alcoholic drink really gave back the strength that was exhausted it would be good, but as it only draws on man's reserve of strength, and defers to another hour, and then intensifies, the exhaustion, it can have no effect in maintaining the aggregate energy of the race. But under every circumstance it is not the drinking that gives energy to the race, but the energy of the race, driving to exhaustion, that entails the morbid craving for drink; and instead of drunkenness being either productive of healthful energy in the race, or the sign of it, it is merely the product of a morbid condition, in the same way as we find all plants and animals that have ‘run down’ or are in a morbid condition, subject to the attack of parasitic disease.

“How often,” he went on to say “have we seen a talented and brilliant man a drunkard? We have seen the brilliant journalist, whose writings the world perused with delight, subject to periodical fits of drinking. It was the energy of his mind, the nervous tension of his thoughts straining the physical system, that produced that morbid state which craved for artificial stimulant. It was not the drinking that had given him genius, but it was genius page 75 that had made him a drunkard and thereby driven him to an early and unhonoured grave. And as it is with individuals so it is with races; the more intense and vigorous a race the more is it driven to unnatural tension, developing a morbid state that craves for what only intensifies that tension and brings it evil and not good. And when have the progress and glory of the Anglo-Saxon race been the greatest? Is it not within the last fifty years, during which, through the incessant efforts of the temperance reformers under every variety of name, drunkenness has been growing less habitual, and has come to be regarded as a shame? And just in proportion as the Anglo-Saxon race has become more sober the more rapid and phenomenal has been the growth of its greatness.

“Citizens of Auckland,” exclaimed the speaker, “be it our noble work to-morrow, in common with our brothers and our sisters throughout New Zealand, to lead the whole British empire by driving for ever from our shores what has ever been the bane and the shame of the Anglo-Saxon race.”

After the applause which this appeal evoked had ceased, the stand was taken by a working man, who considered the subject from a working man's point of view. He showed how, in proportion to his earnings, the working man who drank even moderately spent far more than the rich; and while the rich people could indulge in the luxury without its preventing their riches from growing to wealth, the poor man spent exactly that which could raise him out of the position of dependence and poverty to which his life seemed consigned by the hand of fate. It was mainly this, he said, which created a class of working men, with their children and children's children remaining hereditary bondsmen of labour, and dependant on others as hewers of wood and drawers of water. He admitted that with the fewer enjoyments in life which a poor man had he was more tempted to take a glass to cheer him in his troubles, and though the temporary excitement did him no good in the end, it was hard for him, so long as the liquor was round him on every side and forced on his attention, to resist the inclination to drink. It was on that account, he said, it would be better, and easier, and pleasanter if he could once for all have the evil removed from his presence, and the temptation out of his way, by banishing the drink from the country.

“They say a man,” he went on, “ought to taper off and become temperate, and that by taking less every time he can come to want to take none, and so he will have less of a wrench to his feelings than if his grog was stopped of a sudden. Now I'll tell you a little story I've heard,” he continued. “There was a lady once that was disturbed every morning in her sleep by the pitiful howling of a dog in her neighbour's back yard. Day after day as soon as the daylight was coming, the howling began; and after this had gone on for a week or so, and she could stand it no longer, she called on her neighbour to complain, and to ask him to page 76 stop the howling of the dog, as she could get no sleep in the morning. And ‘what was wrong with the dog?’ she asked, that he howled in that dismal way every morning. ‘Well, mum,’ says the neighbour, ‘the truth of it is we are cutting off the poor animal's tail, and you see, mum, we're kind-hearted people, my missus and me, and we don't like to put the poor brute to too much pain by cutting off the whole of his tail at once, so we take off a little bit of it every day.”

The man was spared the necessity of applying the story by the burst of laughter and applause from the crowd.

“They tell you,” said another speaker, “that the teetotallers are extremists and fanatics in asking for the exclusion of drink from the country. They tell you that there is no reason for such extreme measures—that the people are becoming more temperate every day; and the friends of the drink traffic tell you so as if they were glad of it. Well, assuming that they are, or assuming more correctly that the public has reason to be glad of it, whom have we to thank for it? Certainly not the friends of the trade, but we have to thank the teetotallers and the temperance party for the agitation that they have kept up for forty or fifty years, by the force of which public opinion has been so moulded that drunkenness is now a disgrace to a man as it was not in the days of my youth. They have taught the young and they have taught the old that strong drink is not a necessity of life, as it was thought to be in the days of my youth; and they have created a public sentiment that abstinence is good, and wise, and honourable, which nobody thought when I was a boy. And during all that time they were abused for their ‘intemperance’ of language as they are abused to-day.

“It is all very well to say that this has all come about by the natural growth of public morality. Such social revolutions never develop spontaneously, and this great and wholesome change in public morals has been mainly produced by the constant pressure on the public mind kept up by the advocacy of the teetotallers. And how dare any one that rejoices in this great social improvement denounce or revile those who have effected it and call them extremists and fanatics! And now, when the teetotallers wish to take a further step in advance, who can deny that they are entitled to do so by the successful achievements of the past? We have already local option by which, as you know, the residents can suppress the sale of drink in their district. You know that this has been in successful operation, and everybody but those who live by the trade rejoices in the result, and recognises that it has vastly lessened the sufferings that are caused by drink. And what is the difference of principle in changing local option into national option, and in the whole people of the state doing for the colony what they can severally do for their districts? This cry of ‘extremism’ is only page 77 a parrot cry set a-fashion by those who profit by the traffic, and is unworthy of intelligent men.”

Another speaker addressed himself to the bearing which Prohibition would have on the commercial enterprise of the country. “I do not refer merely to the influence on trade from the absence of drink from the country,” he said, “or the trust which business men could repose in their clerks and servants generally, or to the ruin, personal as well as commercial, that has been due to drink, but to the effect on the commercial enterprise of the whole community. I was in Melbourne,” he went on to say, “during that wonderful boom, from the collapse of which that city is after this lapse of years in a state of comparative commercial ruin; and I declare from personal observation that that boom was in the main one long alcoholic debauch. You have heard of how lots worth a few hundreds of pounds were taken up by a syndicate for perhaps a thousand, and sold to a company for ten thousand, and afterwards retailed for perhaps fifty thousand, and the world stands aghast at the frenzy. But at the bar of one public-house after another I have seen men with heated faces, and excited gestures, formulating and proposing to one another the terms of those startling transactions, and I had reason to know that it was in the clubs and in the bar-rooms, and in places generally where drink was freely passing, and while men were excited by drink, that these astonishing transactions were conceived and started. And I know, for I have seen it in every case where I was a spectator, that at the auction sales, at which the thousands of dupes were drawn into wild and ruinous purchases of land, champagne and alcoholic drinks of all kinds were flowing like ditch-water every time. It was in an atmosphere of alcohol that men lived, and breathed, and boomed during that amazing outbreak of commercial frenzy, and that city, once the foremost of all the cities of Australasia, is still suffering prostration from that alcoholic debauch. And I maintain, fellow-citizens, that the fumes of alcohol may have as much to do in unsettling the equilibrium of a community as of an individual, and in producing those commercial will-o'-the-wisps that lead both communities and individuals to ruin.”

After a number of other speakers had addressed the meeting on various aspects of the question, a medical man essayed to treat the matter in a popular way from a medical point of view. “It is needless for me,” he said, “at this time of day to tell you that there is no nutriment in alcohol. There may be nutriment in the substances with which it may be in solution—in the extract of malt, in the juice of grapes or other fruit—but none but a charlatan will try to delude you by pretending that there is any nutriment in alcohol. Neither is there any extraneous strength imparted by it, and its only function seems to be to concentrate as it were the reserve of strength in the page 78 human system for a particular crisis or a particular period. This is not the place for discussing whether or not that concentration of force enables nature to combat and overcome a crisis. But feel assured that whatever this concentration of strength for a crisis or a period, there is corresponding depression, and if it fails in triumphing over the crisis the collapse will be correspondingly great.

“You are told that for aged people with failing strength a stimulant is necessary. It certainly rouses the flagging energies, but exactly to the extent it does so, much or little, there will be the corresponding depression. It is just as it is with an old and jaded horse; you can plunge in the rowels into his flanks and keep up the gallop, but it would be wiser and more humane to let the poor animal walk at his natural pace to the end of the journey. Depend on it you are giving no fresh strength to the old horse as you plunge the spurs into his side, and the spurt that you gave him will have to be paid for by subsequent exhaustion.

“But however it may be as a medicine or for a crisis, the usefulness of alcohol as a beverage in ordinary health and strength is a myth in the nature of things. For as it imparts no extraneous strength and only displaces the reserves of force in a man, giving to him at one moment what it takes from him in another, it is only playing with his powers and shattering the delicate mechanism of his whole body in the process. It hepatises his liver, diseases his kidneys, gives irregularity to his heart action, inflames the delicate tissues of his brain, and plays the devil with his nerves; and all this in an age and in circumstances in which the nervous system of the race is on the rack, and when, if ever in the history of the world, the nerves should be left to such natural repose and recuperation as the whirlwind of civilization may permit.”

It was drawing near to midnight, at which hour it was understood that the meeting would close, and the doctor was followed by an aged and venerable man who stepped to the front of the platform and briefly addressed the meeting.

“Fellow citizens,” he said, “and Christian men and women of Auckland, I have followed with much interest the indictment laid by the various speakers to-night against the demon of drink, whose execution as a murderer we hope to secure by the popular verdict of New Zealand to-morrow. But to my mind the most terrible of all its crimes is that which it commits, and has always committed, against religion and the souls of men. You are told by its friends that our Lord and Saviour never uttered a word against the drink traffic. And never did he utter a word against polygamy, or gambling at horse races, nor yet even against slavery. Are we, therefore, to conclude that Jesus approved of multiplicity of wives, that He would lay odds with the bookmakers, or that He would have been opposed to the liberation of page 79 the slaves in America? But in all these cases the spirit which He inspired in His teaching has been regarded as being as fatal to their existence among all that revere His will as if He had denounced them by name.

“And do you think if, when Jesus was below, He had been confronted by a public house flaring at every street corner in Jerusalem; and if he had seen as many deaths, and suicides, and drownings, and even murders as we have seen or read of within the last few months at Auckland, as the direct result of those public houses; and if he had heard the anguished cry of children, and the sobs of broken-hearted wives, do you think that He would have refrained from action as expressive and distinct as when He tumbled over the swindlers' tables in the temple and whipped the swindlers themselves out of the place with a scourge. The whole spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who came to bind up the broken-hearted, is opposed to that which is the great breaker of hearts to the Anglo-Saxon race.

“Do you remember how when our Saviour was on earth He was so frequently employed in turning the devils out of men? Brothers and fellow-citizens, alcohol is the devil of possession to the Anglo-Saxon race—the cause of more cutting with stones, and rending of garments, and tearing of hair, and cryings night and day, than ever were caused by the demons of possession in Hebrew times.

“Do you remember that Eastern story of romance about the genii that rose like a mist before the traveller's eyes in a valley, and was gathered together with all his potency and power of working wonders, and put into a bottle or something? And I have sometimes thought that the great enemy of human happiness, and ruiner of human souls, who can transform himself into an angel of light, must have the power of transforming himself into the vapour of fermentation, and condensed and bottled he is borne into human homes to work his will in human misery.

“He goes into one home, and the husband breaks his wife's head in with an axe, and splits open the skull of her companion. He goes into another home, and the mother poisons herself with rat poison, leaving her helpless infants to the mercy of the world. He goes into another family, and the husband and father bludgeons and cuts the throats of his wife and children. Or he goes into one man, and like the swine of Gadara that ran down a steep hill into the sea, the man tumbles over the end of the wharf and he is drowned. He goes into another man, and he drives the ship on the rocks, and horror-stricken men and women sink into the boiling waves. He goes into another man, and he turns or neglects the railroad points that bring two flying trains into collision, with all the piles resulting of broken limbs and mangled bodies. He goes into the minister of the gospel, and the loved, the honored, and the useful becomes a shame and a bye-word, and page 80 a disgrace to religion; and go where he may he leaves bleeding hearts and ruined lives.”

The old man raised his hands with his face toward heaven, and “Oh, Saviour of mankind,” he cried, “that didst drive out the devils by whom men were possessed in Palestine, save, oh! save us; save our country from this demon! By Thine agony and bloody sweat! by Thy Cross and passion! by Thy precious death and burial! by Thy glorious resurrection and ascension—!” His voice was drowned as by the noise of thunder, the sound of many voices, rolling up from that vast assembly, “Good Lord, deliver us!”

The aged man bowed his head on his hands on the rail of the platform, and every head was bowed in silence; and over the awful hush of stillness there pealed forth from the neighbouring clock tower the midnight chimes that tolled in the advent of the Referendum day.