Steve Harris, The Prince and the Assassin: Australia’s first royal tour and portent of world terror, Melbourne Books, Melbourne 2017
Paperback, 326 pages, 12 pages of illustrations, acknowledgements, table of contents, references, index, online price range $A4-$A78. ISBN 9 781925 556131.
This is an abridged version of a review, written in April 2018, published in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol 104, Part 2, December 2018: 205-206.
Disclaimer: I will soon publish a cultural history of the Crown in Australia, in which my chapter on the attempted assassination comes from an altogether different historical perspective.
Some years ago, a RAHS reviewer of a history book written by an art critic assessed it as “a novel loosely based on history”. Unfortunately, I am compelled to similarly assess this history book, written by a retired newspaper editor, as somewhat like the curate’s egg, history in parts.
The Prince and the Assassin begins with a page of testimonials abounding in adjectives such as brilliant, compelling, gripping and fascinating, matched with a second page of testimonials for the author’s previous book. The main work consists of nine sections, each but one divided into two sub-sections for a total of 17 chapters. An introduction and a postscript bound the chapters, with the usual reference and finding sections closing the book’s structure. The pages of photographs sit roughly in the middle of the book, and there are also some images printed on other pages.
The topic of the book, as referenced in its title, is the assassination attempt made by a supposed Fenian on the life of Prince Alfred in Sydney in 1868 and locating this event as a founding moment in the development of early 21st century global terrorism. The author gives each of the principal characters, Prince Alfred and Henry O’Farrell, an almost mathematically precise amount of equal coverage, an equilibrium somewhat countered by melodramatic chapter titles such as ‘Alfred, The Un-princely’, ‘Royal Debauchery’, ‘Prince, Prostitute, Picnic’, ‘Godly Delusion’ and ‘Delusion and Deception’. This structure points to the work’s journalistic origins.
On the one hand …
The book does have some good points. Among these are a slightly more serious treatment of the Alfred for King of Australia movement of the 1860s than previous writers, although without any real comprehension of its depth or longevity. There is some attention to Aboriginal engagement with the royal tour, but more a repeating of newspaper stories than an attempt to understand their significance. There is some awareness of the contemporaneous assassination, claimed to also be by a Fenian, of Canadian politician D’Arcy McGee, but only as coincidental timing. There is some exposure of notable ‘Father of Federation’ Sir Henry Parkes’ cynical bigotry and political exploitation of colonial sectarianism, but little awareness that this was as strongly contested by other politicians and community leaders at the time, and Parkes’ malfeasance was later exposed in the Kiama Ghost affair.
And on the other
However, these ‘historical’ points, from which so much could have been developed, are lost to the reader in favour, as two of the testimonials say, of “a gripping tale”.
Some errors, such as spelling mistakes, are simply distracting, and unexpected from a former editor. Factual errors are rather more egregious. Prince Albert was a Saxon or Coburger, not a Bavarian (page 11). The Ides of March does not fall on 12 March (190). Prince Alfred could never have given his “vice-regal imprimatur” as he was not the governor (273). Canada is not a republic (280). Errors in reasoning raise questions of critical thinking. Anachronistic references are annoying, such as claiming (16) Queen Victoria was ‘not amused’ in about 1858, a saying attributed by biographer Caroline Holland in 1919, and still subject to contention over whether it was ever uttered. Unattributed statements add to the annoyance, such as stating (74) Queen Victoria “knew” the British public still felt let down that George III had failed to protect British interests in America – nearly a century after the event. Attributed motivations are unreliable, such as an assertion (78) that Prince Alfred avoided visiting Perth in 1867 because the colonists were outraged by the imminent arrival of Fenian convicts. The tour journal, cited elsewhere by the author, suggests another explanation in a damaging cyclone in the Indian Ocean that forced a more southerly route from Cape Town and a consequent desire to proceed to Adelaide as quickly as possible.
Nevertheless, perhaps I am too pedantic and these shortcomings are overcome by strong arguments advanced by the writer. What are those arguments? Three appear to be advanced. Firstly, that Prince Alfred was a privileged, debauched youth typical of royal and upper-class men, secondly that colonial republicanism was the dominant political force in 1860s New South Wales, and thirdly that political reactions to terrorism today are largely unchanged from the template set by Sydney’s colonial politicians.
The debauched prince is a favoured old trope, especially in the limited Australian historiography about Prince Alfred. This is never questioned by the writer. The press reports of Alfred’s partying, hunting and general loucheness need to be unpacked and not accepted at face value. Who wrote these reports, and why? The supposedly callow prince’s apparent change of heart, when he seeks clemency for O’Farrell, is touched upon but no insight is advanced as to why he appealed, or why Parkes’ refused. The Victorian-Irish politician, John O’Shanassy, is a key figure in the King Alfred movement, but this is not recognised by the writer, and interesting questions about Irish Catholic monarchism in a colonial environment are therefore ignored. Colonial-born politician William Bede Dalley, also important in this story, is reduced to a mono-dimensional character. Instead, four chapters are devoted to titillating drinkin’ rootin’ shootin’ stories of a party-hardened prince, with no awareness of recent scholarship on, for instance, the role of hunting in maintaining royal and courtly networks, and how they play out in colonial settings. Generally, The Prince and the Assassin fails to take any account of new histories of monarchism and royal tours across empires and colonies.
Several good historians have written on colonial republicanism in New South Wales, but none that I am aware of have claimed it as the only or the dominant political force of the period. A few quotes from JD Lang or Daniel Deniehy, or Parkes’ early exhortations against the “dung-hill aristocracy of Botany Bay”, are not evidence of a widespread popular and political movement that resisted or resented the royal tour. By the same token, the writer’s implicit acceptance of universal Catholic-Protestant sectarian conflict needs to be questioned and not accepted from Parkes’ cynical and calculating responses to the shooting. There were other community and religious leaders who argued against Parkes’ sectarianism. Their accounts could have provided a more complex understanding of responses to the shooting and deterred an uncritical conflating of colonial republicanism and Irish Catholicism – a blurring of boundaries by the writer that actually maintains Parkes’ arguments.
The Fenians are known as an Irish group, but there is little awareness in The Prince and the Assassin that in late 1860s-early 1870s New South Wales (and elsewhere) they were often regarded as being as much American as Irish, an unwelcome outcome of the American Civil War, armed with surplus weaponry and covertly supported by US authorities against British North America in its transition to Canada. Even when such a view is cited by the writer (153), it is passed-over without reflection. The argument that the Fenians were the first modern, intercontinental terrorists, regarded as al Qaida or Da’esh is today, or that fear of Fenianism has morphed into fear of non-whites or Muslims is rhetorically attractive but, ultimately, tenuous and not supported by the arguments in The Prince and the Assassin.
Sketch of the attempted assassination by Edward Calvert, in the style of Goya’s ‘The Second of May 1808’. Image National Library of Australia
A question therefore arises of how such arguments and conclusions have been reached. Partly this arises from an uncritical use of the wealth of historical newspapers now available. Most sources in most chapters are historical press reports, and ‘troving’ is no doubt a valuable tool for historical research, but all such materials need to be read against the grain. The historical press was just as biased as the contemporary media. Any researcher using such sources needs to understand who writes what, why they write it, what interests they represent. Tocsin, Truth, Freemans Journal, Empire, Punch are all (amongst others) cited by the writer, and they also represent particular ideological points of view and owner’s interests. Historical media is no more impartial or ‘truthful’ than media today.
The Prince and the Assassin also reflects much of 20th century Australian nationalist historiography. Most secondary Australian sources are 30-50 years old. The writer takes a whole book to say what Manning Clark said in three pages, just with extra detail. It is not clear to this reviewer why that needs reiterating in 2017. This is confirmed by the usual sort of index found in an Australian history book, with entries for ‘republic’ and ‘anti-monarchism’ but none for monarchy or crown. The huge public turn-outs for the royal visit, the numerous and richly symbolic public displays of affection and royal ritual, are reduced to background ‘white noise’, not even worth index entries for the politics and emotions of those involved.
Historical research and interpretation has moved on, and there is a whole new field of research and scholarship on crowns and monarchies, not just in Europe but in former colonies and in countries that were never colonised. The questions this new research poses directly challenge many of the nationalist historiographies of the last century, and not just in Australia. The Prince and the Assassin could have been an exciting platform from which to enter this new arena of research, a field of historical inquiry that transcends national boundaries and old separations. The Prince and the Assassin, instead, reads like another apologia for the failure of 1990s republicanism, handily summarised in the Postscript. How many more are needed?
In the end
The writer concludes the “big lesson” from the shooting is that the ‘tyranny of distance’ offers no protection from terror. But in the age of the world wide web, geography is increasingly trumped by technology. The technology underlying Trove gives us access to seemingly unlimited historical sources that demonstrate colonial New South Walers lived in a word so much bigger and transoceanic than 20th century historians imagined. The archive, material or online, takes us beyond geographical distance, and is best navigated by experienced historians. The Prince and the Assassin has, as another testimony says, “the excitement of a racy political crime thriller”. What is doesn’t have is all that much historical or philosophical analysis and insight, and today we need that a lot more than another racy thriller.
 Anne-Maree Whitaker, ‘From Norfolk Island to Foveaux Strait: Joseph Foveaux’s role in the Expansion of Whaling and Sealing in Early Nineteenth Century Australasia’, The Great Circle, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2004: 51-59. The reference was to Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore (1986).
 These logical fallacies are known as the ‘fallacy of anachronism’, or interpreting past events according to frameworks that did not exist at the time, the ‘fallacy of reference’, or ascribing a belief or view to a time when it could not have been held, and the ‘fallacy of availability’, or using knowledge or schemes which were unavailable from the evidence of the time: Paul Newall, ‘Logical Fallacies of Historians’, and Carlos Spoerhase and Colin King, ‘Historical Fallacies of Historians’, in Aviezner Tucker (ed), A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography, Willey-Blackwell, Chichester 2011: 262-273, 274-284
 Charles Manning Clark, A History of Australia, Volume IV: The Earth Abideth For Ever, 1851-1888, Melbourne University Press, Carlton 1978: 252-255; a key source for Clark’s account is newspaper reports in The Brisbane Courier, owned by radical Primitive Baptist JT Stephens.