Pasteur, rabbits and the working class – a case study in the politics of science

Harry Holland and the early labour movement in Australia and New Zealand Part 7

The gold rush of the nineteenth century had brought large numbers of free immigrants to the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales, but as the easily-extracted alluvial gold was quickly exhausted, the centre of gravity of the colonial economy shifted to pastoral farming. In the first instance this meant extensive farming of sheep for wool to export, supplying the textile mills of Manchester.

Champion Merino ram at 1905 Sydney Sheep Show Photo: Gooreen collection

But in the early years of the twentieth century, Australian pastoral farming was itself in a dire crisis. The last decade of the nineteenth century had seen the long boom fuelled by land speculation come crashing to an end, with the most severe economic depression the colonies had ever endured. In 1893, eleven commercial banks collapsed in the space of a few weeks. Then, just as a recovery of sorts was beginning, farming was hit by a seven-year-long drought across most of the continent. To make matters worse, introduced rabbits had multiplied to plague proportions, causing incalculable ecological damage, and further devastating pastoral farming. In great concentrations, rabbits eat the grassy vegetation to the point of totally destroying it, leaving only inedible weeds.

Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh rabbit shooting at Barwon Park, Victoria, Australia in the 1860s.
Pic: Illustrated Sydney News (20 March 1869)

Rabbits had been introduced as a food source with the first fleet that established the penal colonies in 1788. By the late 1820s rabbits released from these first stocks had already reached problem numbers in Tasmania. In the 1850s further introductions took place in Victoria and South Australia for recreational hunting and food, and some attempts were made to farm them commercially for both skins and meat. Within ten years rabbit numbers were out of control across the Australian continent.

Advertisement for reward offered for method of exterminating rabbits, Sydney Morning Herald 1887

In 1887 the New South Wales government offered a reward of £25,000 [roughly equivalent to 6 million Australian dollars today] for anyone who could devise an effective method for controlling or eradicating the pest. This reward attracted the attention of bacteriologists at the newly-established Pasteur Institute in Paris. Louis Pasteur himself proposed using a contagious chicken cholera bacillus, but although in the initial trials it proved effective in killing the rabbits, it was not sufficiently contagious to be used as a control measure.

Bacteriologist Louis Pasteur, about 1895. Photo: Felix Nadar

Other scientists at the Institute continued to trial possible bacterial diseases. One of these was Jean Danysz, a pathologist who had isolated the bacterial rabbit disease known as Pasteurella. In 1906-07 Danysz was brought to Australia to trial the use of this disease on Broughton Island, 60 kilometres north of Newcastle. Publicity surrounding these trials and the efforts by Danysz to have the disease introduced on the mainland generated a sharp public debate.

Rabbits in large numbers destroy all the vegetation they can reach. Photo: Rabbit Free Australia

One of the documents in this debate was an article written by Harry Holland in the International Socialist Review for Australasia. The article provides an example of the penetrating class analysis that Holland was applying to political questions by this time. But beyond that, it is also interesting as an example of the way in which questions which seem at first glance to be purely scientific and technical matters are often influenced by conflicting class interests.

Holland, along with many workers, strenuously opposed what he called “the abominable, filthy disease cultivated by Dr Danysz.” He placed advocacy of the method firmly in the context of the class conflicts in the Australian countryside. “That the rabbits constitute a destroying pest none would be so foolish as to deny; but there is an economic reason, from the capitalist-class viewpoint, for the general favouring of the Danysz horror by the squatter class and the men who control the banks and other large mortgage institutions.”


Bert Mann with a load of rabbit skins, Walcha, NSW, 1905 Photo: Gooreen collection.

“During the winter months, especially in the country districts adjoining railway lines, working men are able to earn far better money as trappers than they ever received as station [farm] employees. This notwithstanding the disadvantages which belong to any business necessitating the employment of the Sydney agent and the local middlemen. In scores of small country centres many thousands of pounds have been earned in this way every winter, while during the summer months numbers of men secure a fair income by trapping for the skins only. The inevitable result of this has been to diminish the supply of station labor hitherto available, and to force upwards the wages of “station hands.”

Rabbit shooting in New South Wales, early twentieth century. Photo: Herb Unger, State Library of NSW

“The station laborer generally works from starlight to starlight – and if his wages exceed fifteen shillings a week and rations he may regard himself as a more specially-favoured individual than many of his fellows; for it is an astounding fact that the capitalist system of production makes our great primary industries the vilest sweating concerns. The man for whom the rabbit pest provides employment secures far better remuneration than does he who, as a wages worker, tills the land and harvests the crop in the great agricultural centres or he who tends the flocks and herds and rides the long boundary-miles on the stock-raising and wool-growing holdings. That the long hours, low pay, and servile conditions should be willingly abandoned for the much more highly remunerated and comparatively freer calling of the trapper is easily understandable. There is a dearth of “hands” at the old sweated wage rate, but the offer of a decent living wage would find a ready response. …

“The small landholders are generally opposed to the Danysz method because the small holders are mostly wage-workers as well.”

“The large holders and mortgagees who favour its adoption unanimously recognise that… it cannot under any circumstances totally eradicate the rabbit pest, that it can only at the very best only prove a means of partial destruction. But what they do most emphatically know is that, once the disease is introduced to the mainland, the vile nature of it will immediately remove the rabbit as an article of diet. The rabbit as a pest will remain; as a very large contributor towards the cost of his own destruction, as a raiser of wages and a finder of employment for the country workers in the bitter winter months, he will disappear…”

Holland goes on to consider alternative solutions to the problem of the rabbit pest.

Old rabbit poison cart, Woolbrook, NSW. Photo: C Goodwin

“Closer settlement is suggested as a means of driving back the rabbit; and it is quite true that when Australia is a thickly populated country, the pest will totally disappear. But we all know that it will be many long years before Australia can be thickly populated. Closer settlement is immediately possible along the coast-line and within the rain-belt area; but, under whatever system of government, before there can be anything like populous settlement in the Central and Western districts, an expenditure of millions of money and years of labor must be incurred in extensive works of water conservation and irrigation, and in the tapping of the great underground rivers in the artesian country. In the meantime, there is only one sane method of dealing with the rabbit as a pest; and that is the method which makes the rabbit pay for the cost of his own destruction.

Boundary-rider in camel-drawn cart inspects rabbit-proof fence in Western Australia. Fence was completed in 1907

“The compulsory and costly wire-netting of holdings is limited in its efficacy as a rabbit-destroying method; its real tendency is to drive the smallholder off the land and into the ranks of the proletarians… the vast amounts spent yearly on poison-carts and poisoning, and also on police court prosecutions, have a tendency in the same direction.”

“A working-class administration faced with a problem like this would institute freezing-works in all the thickly-infested centres, would systematically organise the work of trapping and carriage to the freezing-houses, and after satisfying local demand would organise a great export trade. There would be no wasted expenditure on wire-netting fences at £40 per mile as there is today, no thousands of pounds spent on laying poison which destroys valuable bird life and many animals as well; no piles of rabbits decaying in the fields and thus menacing public health; no men and women and children starving in the great cities. And there would be no suggestion of scattering broadcast the seeds of one of the filthiest, vile diseases for the purpose of getting rid of a pest which is easily capable of being transformed into an article of use.”

“For economic reasons – principally wage-reducing reasons – stated above, the voice of Australian capitalism has declared in favour of Dr Danysz and his precious disease. The workers of Australia are the people most directly affected, and these should offer every possible opposition to the proposal, and their representative should throw every possible obstacle in the way of its infamy being carried into effect.”

In the end, the trials on Broughton Island indicated that the disease was not a viable method of control, and Danysz returned to France without collecting the reward. Further trials continued with related bacilli, but before long Federal government funding for the trials ended. It is likely that the strong working class opposition to the method was a factor in this decision. Not until nearly fifty years later – with the rabbit plague continuing to worsen – was using disease attempted again, this time with the Myxoma virus, which proved effective in the short term, until the rabbits developed a resistance.


Brush-tailed possums, a marsupial species native to Australia, were introduced to New Zealand in the late 1850s

Postscript: Reading about this discussion in New Zealand today, one can’t help but be reminded of some parallels in a contemporary discussion about the measures to combat the possum pest in this country. Australian brush-tailed possums were introduced to New Zealand in the mid-19th century – about the same time as the rabbit pest was running out of control in Australia – as a basis for a possible fur industry. The fur industry never got off the ground at that time, and the possums multiplied – unchecked by either predators or the defences against browsing animals that Australian tree species have evolved.

Native forest in Warawara in 2015 showing canopy severely damaged by possums (grey leafless trees) Photo: Reconnecting Northland

Many New Zealand native tree species, especially broadleaf trees such as pohutukawa and rata, have been devastated by the pest. Entire forest areas have suffered canopy collapse.  Native birds are also adversely affected, since possums will also eat birds eggs and chicks given the opportunity. Possums also colonise pasturelands, where they are vectors for bovine tuberculosis, a threat to the dairy and beef industries.

1080 poison warning. Photo: Greg O’Beirne

Control measures have been undertaken since the 1940s, including trapping and shooting. In recent years, vast sums have been spent on aerial poison drops of sodium fluoroacetate, known as 1080, especially in remote regions where trapping and shooting are more difficult. As with the rabbit pest in Australia, these control measures have been controversial. Opponents of aerial 1080 drops have been accused of carrying out life-threatening acts of sabotage against Department of Conservation rangers and others involved in the poison drops.

Anti-1080 march in Nelson October 2016. Photo: Nelson Mail

1080 poison is particularly lethal to mammals, and much less so to birds, making it especially useful in New Zealand forests, where there are almost no native mammal species. New Zealand accounts for about 80% of worldwide use of 1080 poison. The Department of Conservation carries out aerial drops of 1080 poison across about 440,000 hectares of conservation land each year. Around half of the vegetated land area in New Zealand is under some form of possum control today.

Progressive spread of the possum pest from time of introduction to present.

There are important differences with the rabbit plague Holland wrote about. While a major focus of the governments possum-control measures (and the major motivation for it) has been the eradication of bovine tuberculosis from the national cattle herd, the effects of possums on farming have been far less devastating than the effects of rabbits on Australian (and New Zealand) farming. The greatest destruction wreaked by the possum pest has been largely outside of the capitalist economy, in the native forests that constitute the Conservation estate.

And while possum trapping for furs does provide a source of winter income to some rural workers, their numbers are small compared to the large numbers of rural workers whose livelihoods were threatened by the Danysz disease in Holland’s time, and therefore the effect on rural workers’ wages negligible. Opposition to the 1080 drops has come mostly from animal rights activists and recreational hunters of deer (another introduced species which destroys the native forests) because occasionally deer, and hunters’ dogs, are killed by the poison drops. The effectiveness of the poison on both possums and rats, and the consequent benefits for the forests and birds, have been proven beyond doubt.

For all these reasons, most scientists and conservationists (including this writer) support the continued and expanded use of 1080 poison, at least as a temporary measure in the face of imminent destruction of the forests.

A chopper delivers its deadly load of 1080 Photo: Clyde Graf

At the same time, it is clear that the constant bombardment of the forests with poison is not a viable long-term solution to the pest. Some solution along the lines of Holland’s proposal for dealing with the rabbit pest, by making economic use of the possum’s value as a source of meat and furs, makes more sense, and could provide employment to many rural workers.

Possum fur made into clothing has very good heat-retention qualities. There are parts of the world where animal furs as clothing are not a luxury item, but a necessity, and a trade in these furs could relieve the pressure on local species in those regions that are being hunted to extinction for their furs. Possum meat is also good for human consumption – although not, obviously, if it has been poisoned; there is already a small export trade to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia, where it is appreciated as a delicacy. It is also processed into pet food.

Although small-scale industries based on possum fur and meat already exist, and the number of possums killed for furs is now close to the number poisoned by aerial 1080 drops, the labour needed to eradicate or even manage the pest in this way cannot be mobilised by the booms and busts of the capitalist market. Suffice it to recall that the most recent big worsening of the possum problem took place in the 1970s and 80s, when worldwide protests against all use of animal furs pushed the price of possum furs so low that it was uneconomic for trappers to continue, and the animals multiplied unchecked.

Exactly as was the case in Holland’s time, the ‘solutions’ considered by the bourgeoisie neglect the greatest possible source of ‘solutions’, namely, the experience, labour and creativity of working people. The prime condition for really coming to grips with this problem is, as it was in Holland’s time, a “working class administration.”




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