Jack Johnson and the White Pacific
This battle may in the future be looked back upon as the first great battle of an inevitable race war ... there is more in this fight to be considered than the mere title of pugilistic champion of the world.
Australian Star on Burns versus Johnson, 5 December 1908
On 26 December 1906 Jack Johnson left San Francisco for his first journey overseas, traveling to Australia aboard the steamship Sonoma. At twenty-nine years of age, the African American heavyweight was by no means a rookie; he was already well known in professional prizefight circles and had traveled throughout the United States. He was also very well versed in the racist ways of Jim Crow America. What Johnson knew less was the kind of reception that awaited him beyond U.S. borders. As his manager, Alec McLean, assured him, Australia could not be any worse than America.1 Not in need of much convincing, the ambitious Johnson agreed to try his luck abroad.
Johnson's initial experiences matched his optimism. Although he battled seasickness throughout the trip, he was sad to leave the "charming friends" he had met aboard the Sonoma. Johnson later recalled, "For the first time in my life, I was pleased to find myself in a group in which we did not take into account people's color."2 When he arrived in Sydney on 24 January 1907, the city's white sportsmen embraced him with open arms, and local newspapers declared that he would not be forced to confront a Jim Crow color line in Australia.
Despite this warm welcome, Australian fans had more in common with their white American counterparts than they cared to admit. As they viewed Johnson through the distorted lens of blackface minstrelsy, he appeared more an exotic curiosity than a man. " He has a genial face," the Sydney Truth described, "somewhat babyish looking and of the type of the little coons who may be seen devouring watermelons in a well-known American picture."3 Since the mid-nineteenth century, minstrelsy had been a staple in Australian theaters, providing white settlers with a glimpse of U.S. racial politics. Australians had eagerly embraced this U.S. import, adapting both its imagery and its language to their local scene. So-called "nigger" bands played on Australian steamers, and street minstrels paraded outside neighborhood pubs dressed in loud suits complete with oversized collars and coattails.4 When the dandified heavyweight arrived, white Australians immediately cast him as a minstrel. Wrapped up in the sentimental tropes of blackface comedy, Johnson, for the time being, seemed harmless.
Over the next two years the black heavyweight transformed from an amusing spectacle to a serious threat in the eyes of many white Australians. They discovered that he was the farthest thing from a submissive stage darky. Much like in the United States, Johnson's conquest of white men in the ring and white women in the bedroom did not go over well Down Under. These were serious violations of racial protocol at a time when preserving the strength and purity of white bodies was central to white supremacist thought. The public uproar over his relationship with a white Australian woman in 1907 and the subsequent backlash against his 1908 world championship victory over the Canadian Tommy Burns in Sydney were essentially two sides of the same coin.
Though geographically distant and demographically different, the two nations shared the same underlying logics of race and the body. First forged in the performances of blackface minstrels, these links proliferated with the expansion of mass sporting culture at the turn of the twentieth century. By the time Johnson reached Sydney, the athletic body had become an important medium through which white men expressed their mutual interest in the maintenance of global white domination. The image of an ideal citizen was a muscular white male. This focus on the physical provided an easy justification for the exclusion of people of color from mainstream politics and society. Their dark skin and exotic bodies became the tangible proof of their unworthiness for full citizenship rights and self-determination. It marked them as contaminating threats to the health of the white body politic.
The rise of rationalized physical training and organized sport also helped to naturalize social Darwinist theories about the survival of the fittest. "Man is and always will be, a fighting animal," declared the famed white American and former world heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries.5 Countless articles in U.S., British, and French sporting magazines reflected the widespread idea that how a group of people (a race, ethnicity, or nation, for example) fought provided a clear demonstration of its relative cultural and political status.6 Like many of his contemporaries, Jeffries believed that "the better fighter a nation was, the more quickly did it become civilised, because it tackled and downed the things which bound it to savagery more speedily." Conquering nations "were those that had learned the advantages of scientific fighting."7 Boxing was especially suited to the needs of white men and white nations, for it promised to improve their productivity, self-discipline, courage, and self-reliance in the face of growing challenges to their authority in the modern world.
White men, however, could never fully contain the fluid meanings of sport and physical culture. Wherever they traveled, Johnson and other black boxers publicly disrupted not only the prevailing ideals of the white male body and the white body politic but also the racial fictions of the degenerate stage darky. Thanks in part to the growing popularity of prizefighting, their powerful black bodies became the visual portents of racial Armageddon, at once feared and desired by white sporting audiences and celebrated by people of color around the world.
The White Body Politic
Theodore Roosevelt maintained a longstanding fascination with boxing throughout his life in public office, first as the governor of New York (1899-1900) and later as the president of the United States (1901-9). The sport played a big role in Roosevelt's political self-fashioning as a rugged proponent of the "strenuous life." He often credited boxing with his early success as a colonel in the Spanish-American War. "A good deal of whatever it was that carried me through the San Juan business," Roosevelt once wrote, "I owed to the lessons I had learned as regards [to] temper and courage in the days when I used to box."8 The heroic myths about his charge up Cuba's San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders had helped transform him from an effeminate "Jane-Dandy" to an icon of white American manhood.9 Roosevelt actively cultivated this image, surrounding himself with professional pugilists like John L. Sullivan, Oscar "Battling" Nelson, and Robert Fitzsimmons. He even hired "Professor" Mike Donovan, a former bare-knuckle fighter and the head instructor at the New York Athletic Club, as his family's official boxing trainer. A regular fixture at both the governor's mansion and the White House, Donovan often sparred with Roosevelt. "I have noted his career in politics, [and] seen him go for the mark there with the same pertinacity that he shows when boxing," Donovan later recalled. "Resistance, discomfiture, [and] hard knocks in one domain as in the other serve only to make him keener."10
Roosevelt's pairing of physical fitness and political affairs was more than just an idiosyncratic trait. It was indicative of the rising importance of the body as a modern social construction at the turn of the twentieth century. The Muscular Christianity movement had first appeared in 1850s England, and by the early 1900s it had spread throughout the United States.11 Its proponents argued that Christians needed to cultivate not only their spiritual and mental strength but also their physical health. To glorify the body was to glorify God, and white Anglo-Saxon Christian men had a special responsibility to develop their physiques for the battles of modern life. Over time this body culture became increasingly secularized.
The acceleration of industrialization, improvements in printing, photography, and cinematography, and the rise of consumerism contributed to this cultural reconfiguration of the body. The emergence of music halls, saloons, sporting papers, the penny press, and movie houses fostered a bachelor culture of mass spectatorship and readership in the growing cities of Europe, the United States, and their empires.12 Physical strength and vigor became favorite topics of discussion in these homosocial spaces. Athletes and bodybuilders also became sought-after entertainers and heroes among the masses. Alongside traveling pugilists, physical culturists like Eugen Sandow of East Prussia and Bernarr MacFadden of the United States developed touring shows and established publishing empires. As these sports celebrities mingled with heads of state in the United States and Europe, the line between physical and political fitness blurred.13
The Hobbesian idea of a "body politic" had become much more literal in the minds of Roosevelt and his contemporaries.14 According to popular belief, a nation's political and cultural dominance was directly linked to the physical condition of its citizens. In a speech before the Hamilton Club of Chicago in 1899 Roosevelt declared that "a healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives."15
This focus on physical training also exposed an underlying sense of anxiety about the decline of white men's control in the world. During the height of Roosevelt's popularity many believed that the shifting circumstances of modernity-industrialization, urbanization, immigration, white women's social and political agitation, and imperialism-were wreaking havoc on the health of white nations. Since the 1870s fears of race suicide had been a part of public discussions in most Western countries, and by the early twentieth century some alarmists warned that the white race would die out.16 The spread of tuberculosis among the white working class and the growing decadence of the white elite seemed ample proof of this impending racial downfall.17 The flood of white ethnic immigrants and nonwhites into the cities (both metropolitan and colonial) also sparked new worries about racial competition and miscegenation, while white defeats in the first Italo-Ethiopian War (1895-96) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) demonstrated the vulnerability of European powers. From New York to New South Wales, many imagined that whiteness was literally under assault.
Not even the United States' recent economic success could insulate it from the dangers of degeneration. Doomsayers like Bernarr MacFadden believed "old-time Americans" not only were dying out but were also being replaced by the substandard progeny of immigrants.18 Europe seemed to provide a cautionary tale. As one white American physical culturist argued, "The threatened extinction of the French as a race and France as a nation, should warn us on this side of the water of the dread possibilities which are to be found in a prosperity and a civilization which stifle the natural and encourage the abnormal in man." In 1907 the number of deaths exceeded the number of births in France.19 Britain also appeared to be in decline. The lackluster performances of British soldiers and sportsmen on the world stage epitomized this national crisis. Britain's massive casualties during the Boer Wars had brought things to a head, inspiring numerous public projects for racial improvement.20
Regenerating the white body politic became tightly entwined with the social engineering of progressivism, the pseudoscience of eugenics, the discipline of anthropology, and the expansion of the state. Many physical culturists believed that crime, disease, and degeneration were related phenomena, particularly among the poor and working class.21 The inclusion of sport and outdoor activity in formal education and in the programs of organizations such as the Boy Scouts and the Young Men's Christian Association was supposed to minimize this triple threat. With the help of rationalized record keeping and growing bureaucracies, governments began to play a bigger role in the classification and disciplining of their citizen's bodies. With measures like Britain's Contagious Diseases Acts, certain physical "abnormalities" became criminalized. The United States also pioneered laws requiring the sterilization of so-called degenerates.22
The rise of racial segregation at home and in the colonies accompanied these efforts at white regeneration. New imaging technologies and the development of physical anthropology inspired the racial categorization of humans along a sliding scale of civilization. The intensification of Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. South, the codification of racial segregation in South Africa, and the rise of restrictive immigration legislation in Australia were just some of the ways in which these distinctions were put into practice.
Boxing seemed to offer some solace in these troubled times. Roosevelt and many of his sporting contemporaries believed that pugilism was the perfect antidote to the escalating problems of national degeneration and white race suicide. In his popular manual How to Box to Win, How to Build Muscle, the white American featherweight champion "Terrible" Terry McGovern claimed that boxing was one of the best ways for "any schoolboy or newsboy or office boy" to acquire a sound body and the skills of self-defense. The sport was not only inexpensive, but it was also easily practiced in the comfort of one's own home. McGovern maintained that knowing how to protect oneself was "not only a convenience, but a duty." After all, General George Dewey and the U.S. Navy could never have conquered Manila "with a rotten, leaky fleet," let alone a bunch of effete and flabby recruits.23 Boxing melded well with the modern demands of white supremacy both at home and abroad.
Johnson and White Australia
The haunting specter of Johnson's strong and virile black body came to connect these white anxieties across the Pacific. Commenting on the black heavyweight's recent departure for the antipodes in December 1906, one white American journalist exclaimed, "He will go across and see how they look upon dark meat over in one of King Edward's lands."24 Although undoubtedly filled with sarcasm, the writer's metaphorical use of the phrase "dark meat" rightly emphasized the physical dimensions of the color line that Johnson would soon be forced to face.
The most telling event of the African American boxer's first foray abroad was not a ring fight but a court fight stemming from his relationship with a white Australian woman named Alma Adelaide Lillian Toy. Lola Toy, as her friends and family called her, was a twenty-one-year-old traveling pianist whose mother owned the Grand Pacific Hotel, a popular pub in the Sydney suburb of Watsons Bay. The fact that Johnson and Toy's alleged intimacy provoked a public uproar in Australia is not surprising. Given the widespread belief that a nation was only ever as powerful as its citizens' individual bodies, the mounting efforts to maintain white men's physical fitness and white women's sexual purity were fundamentally intertwined. By the early twentieth century the bedroom, much like the boxing ring, was becoming a space of heightened white surveillance in a number of metropolitan and colonial locales.
When Johnson arrived in Sydney his commanding presence inspired white Australians to reflect on their own ongoing debate about the racial contours of citizenship, for he carried with him the freight of the United States' "negro problem." In 1901 the Australian Parliament had passed the Immigration Restriction Act. This legislation formed the centerpiece of what was popularly known as the White Australia Policy, or the collective political will to exclude nonwhite people, particularly Asians, from immigrating to the continent.25 While fears of a "yellow invasion" from nearby Asian countries definitely drove the formulation of this policy, Australian politicians also looked to the United States' democratic experiment as a lesson in race and nation building. As the Free Trade Party opposition leader George Reid declared, "We have all seen the problem caused by coloured people in the United States. We do not want that to happen here. The Opposition wants the new Australia to be a land for the finest products of the Anglo Saxon race. This [immigration restriction] Bill will make that happen."26 With this legislation they hoped to "whiten" the continent by deporting and preventing the entry of nonwhites and by encouraging white settlement.
Some Australian officials also envisioned interracial marriages between European men and indigenous women as "conduits of whiteness."27 They believed that this particular process of miscegenation would allow for the genetic absorption of Aboriginal people into the nation. Grounded in the principle of white men's sexual privilege as well as the desire to seize Aboriginal lands and eradicate Aboriginal peoples' special entitlements, this view by no means extended to sexual or marital relations between black men and white women. As Johnson and Toy soon discovered, much like their white American counterparts, many white Australians were passionate about preserving the purity of their women.
The two met in February 1907, when Toy went to Johnson's stage performance at Queen's Hall to inquire about her mother's missing gold pin. Someone in the heavyweight's entourage had apparently walked off with it during a drunken night at the Grand Pacific. Pressed for time, Johnson invited Toy to drop by his training headquarters at the Sir Joseph Banks Hotel in Botany so that they could resolve the matter. Toy first went to Johnson's hotel accompanied by her stepfather. However, it took a second trip out to Botany with her mother to retrieve the pin. During their visit Johnson invited the two women to watch him train. At just over six feet tall and two hundred pounds, Johnson's taut physique left both Toy and her mother mesmerized as they watched him, stripped to the waist, sparring in the ring. Despite the social taboo against the intermingling of black men and white women, Toy took a liking to Johnson, calling him "a great pugilist and a well-made man." Even Toy's mother had to admit that he was "a beautiful man." When Johnson offered to escort the two ladies home, Toy's mother allowed him to ride along in their sulky.28
Enamored with Johnson, Toy visited his hotel numerous times. She reportedly accompanied him on carriage rides, watched him spar, and waved mosquitoes away from him as the two nestled together on the hotel veranda. He gave her the pet name "Baby" and she called him "Jack." When the Tivolians, a group of Aussie chorus girls from the Tivoli Music Hall, visited Johnson's training camp, Toy stood next to the pugilist in a group photo. Johnson had his arm around her shoulder while she held his walking stick. Rumors began circulating about Johnson's escapades with Toy and the Tivolians.29
They continued to meet. Toy apparently visited Johnson's hotel room at all hours of the day and night-so much so that her stepfather accused her of disgracing the family and kicked her out of the house, locking the door behind her. She finally had to call on a local constable to convince her stepfather to let her return home.30
Johnson's encounters with Toy had taken place during the lead-up to his match against the white Australian fighter Bill Lang in Melbourne. When Johnson stepped into the ring on 4 March, the white Australian spectators greeted him with a mixture of curiosity, derision, and downright awe. As one sportswriter claimed, Johnson looked like the "'Old Mammy' out of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' in his noisy dressing gown and wraps."31 The consummate dandy, Johnson had arrived in a shiny robe decorated with flowers and frills. Despite the writer's obvious contempt for the black heavyweight's flamboyant and somewhat effeminate fashion sense, he could not disguise his admiration for Johnson's physique: "He is the finest black I have ever seen, and is just about as near physical perfection as mortal man can expect to get." With his superior strength and skill, Johnson dominated the match, and it soon became apparent to all in attendance that "White Australia was fighting a hopeless battle."
Even though Johnson knocked out Lang in the ninth round, this particular conquest of "White Australia" did not stir up much controversy. After the match Johnson toured throughout Victoria, exhibiting fight films and demonstrating shadowboxing in the small towns of Ballarat, Bendigo, and Geelong. He also garnered the praise of the Coloured Progressive Association (CPA) of New South Wales, a multicultural organization comprised of about forty to fifty African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Aboriginal men who crossed paths as sailors and stevedores on Sydney's docks. Johnson was an obvious choice of hero for the CPA, for he was part of the same rough-and-tumble maritime world as its members, having spent his formative years on Galveston's waterfront. Despite this warm reception, Johnson was frustrated with his inability to coax the white Australian champion "Boshter" Bill Squires into the ring for a big-money match, and he soon resolved to return to the United States.32
The CPA decided to host a farewell party in honor of the African American pugilist, announcing it "throughout the length and breadth of the land." Although this activist organization had been in existence for about four years, it was their celebration of Johnson that brought them into mainstream view. Held at Sydney's Leigh House, the CPA's farewell program featured performances by several prominent artists from the Tivoli and the National Amphitheatre, along with Johnson's own ball-punching routine.33
The white Australian press looked upon the whole affair with disdain, describing it as a kind of minstrel show. A reporter for the Sydney Truth called the party a veritable "coon corroboree"-corroboree being the European term for a ceremonial gathering of Aboriginal people.34 "The gorgeous mirrors of the dance room reflected the gyrations of the coloured cult of the city," the reporter observed. "At the ballroom entrance several natty young coons attired in faultless raiment, passed in the guests. Just inside the door there was a typical Uncle Tom in evening dress." Women both "white and coloured" were also in attendance, including Toy and the Tivolians. At one point a group of "coloured damsels" danced a "captivating cakewalk" to the sounds of a "rattling good nigger song." When the guest of honor finally arrived in a stylish light tweed suit, the "big and little coons" greeted him with "admiring ejaculations of 'Mistah' Johnson." In one of the denigrating cartoons that accompanied the report, a blackface caricature of Johnson strolled by while a crowd of "coons" looked on in awe.
With the Tivolian Cassie Walmer on his "ebon wing," Johnson later ducked upstairs for a more exclusive party. The reporter for the Truth peeked in on the festivities, catching a glimpse of the "upper-crust coons" in attendance. Regardless of their class pretensions, Johnson's guests were apparently "going great game" and "chicken was disappearing at a fast bat." As the reporter recounted, "The sight of Mistah Johnsing picking his gold tooth with the wish-bone of a baked turkey was too reminiscent of a Cannibal Island King and stewed missionary." In the minds of many Australians the dissolute stage darky had come to epitomize all nonwhites, no matter their ethnicity or social status. As the reporter implied, their colored excess was not just a matter of individual decline but also posed a threat to the white body politic.
These attempts to downplay the significance of this "coon corroboree" betrayed the reporter's underlying anxiety about the presence of this motley crowd of revelers in White Australia. Johnson's farewell party embodied white Australians' worst nightmares, from the interracial mixing of nonwhite men and white women to the open expression of a colored consciousness that transcended national borders. During the event the president of the CPA, "a former steamtug skipper" named Captain W. Grant, had expressed some of the group's political objectives. Although described as an "elderly colored gentleman" who appeared to have "struggled into a dress suit," Captain Grant "let it be distinctly understood that the Black Progressives didn't like the Commonwealth restrictive [immigration] legislation." As the correspondent for the Truth scoffed, "They want an open black door, which coons can enter at their own sweet will."35 For years white Australian officials had tried their best to keep sailors of African and East Indian descent from entering the nation, forcing them to go through customs at every port, subjecting them to strip searches, and even preventing them from leaving their ships to come ashore.36 As the CPA honored Johnson it supported the defeat of White Australia both in the boxing ring and at the border.
A surviving photo of the party further contradicts the white reporter's dismissive account of both the CPA and its celebration of Johnson. In actuality the event appears to have been a rather refined affair, with most of the men dressed in dark suits with white shirts and seated around tables. While the Truth's reporter claimed that the "coloured gentlemen and ladies were almost entirely of the American type," Aboriginals were definitely in attendance, including Fred Maynard, who later cofounded the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association in the 1920s. Johnson's farewell celebration encapsulated the CPA's integral role in exposing the locals to the political ferment of the African diaspora, thereby paving the way for the influence of Marcus Garvey and other black internationalists on subsequent Aboriginal activism.37 His iconic status united these men of color in a common cause, pushing their grievances into public view. [Place figure 3 near here.]
Along with his political contacts, the rumors of Johnson's romantic connections were making him increasingly suspect in the eyes of White Australia. Just before his scheduled voyage home a violent confrontation and ensuing court battle with his former manager McLean forced him to remain in Sydney longer than expected. McLean claimed that the heavyweight still owed him money, but Johnson refused to pay. As he awaited trial Johnson told the Sunday Sun, "I expect to get married shortly, and I'm liable to make this my home.... I like the people here and I'm going to stop; and I'll go into business after I'm here a while."38 "I hope," Johnson concluded, "that the people of Australia will have the same opinion of me now as they had before this trouble." Even though his problems with McLean did little to damage his reputation, his choice of fiancΘe did raise the ire of white Australians.
Contrary to what he claimed in his interview with the Sun, when Johnson lost his case to McLean he set sail for California aboard the steamship Sonoma in late April 1907. Shortly after his return Johnson's wedding plans made their way into several white American newspapers. A journalist in Oakland, California, asked the champion to confirm or deny the rumors circulating about his engagement to Toy. "Yes, it is true that I am to marry Miss Toy and I expect to marry her in November," Johnson reportedly affirmed. "She will come from Sydney, Australia, and I expect that our wedding will take place in this country."39
Though almost a year had passed since this story appeared in U.S. newspapers, when the Sydney Referee reprinted Johnson's words in March 1908 it caused an instant controversy. Although white Australians had tolerated Johnson's defeat of Lang and merely mocked his connections to the CPA, they now railed at the idea that he was romantically involved with one of their women. Johnson may have been safely tucked away in the United States, but Toy received abuse from all sides. Strangers screamed at her in the street and in the boardinghouses where she stayed while on tour as a pianist. Anonymous letters and postcards with Johnson's photograph arrived by mail, chock-full of condemnations for her rumored racial and sexual transgressions. In desperation Toy sent her attorney to the Referee to demand a printed retraction. She denied ever cavorting with Johnson, let alone agreeing to marry him. The Referee published a halfhearted disclaimer. "If the paragraph has caused Miss Troy [sic] any pain or annoyance we regret it," they wrote.40 Despite this printed apology White Australia's abuse of Toy continued.
Determined to clear her name, Toy fought back in the courts. She sued the publisher of the Referee for libel, asking for ú2,000 in damages. The publisher's attorney, G. H. Reid, called for the case to be dropped. He argued that it was not inherently "libelous to say that a white woman was willing to marry a black man" since no such color line had officially been drawn in Australia's courts.41 As Reid emphasized, "The noblest woman in the world could marry a colored man without the slightest imputation being made against her morality, charity or modesty." Yet this was certainly not the case in practical terms. Regardless of Australia's laws, customary ideas about the natural laws governing race and the body made Toy a guilty party in the court of public opinion. Much like the discussions surrounding the CPA's farewell party for Johnson, the ensuing court case exposed the prevailing fears of interracial mixing and racial subversion in Australia's port cities. Toy, a single white working woman, had freely participated in Sydney's social life, opening herself up to illicit encounters with nonwhite men.
Reid cross-examined Toy in front of Chief Justice Sir Frederick Darley and a jury of four men. Strategically clad in white, the young pianist repeated under oath that she had never been in any kind of relationship with Johnson. Reid tried to break Toy on the stand using as evidence the group photo that showed Johnson's arm around her, but she refused to recant her story. Claiming to be "the unconscious victim of a harmless conjunction of events," Toy said she was unaware of Johnson's arm on her shoulder and that the photographer had given her the walking stick to hold. As she left the witness stand Toy fainted from the stress of Reid's scathing cross-examination and had to be escorted away.42
The defense then put Johnson's white trainers, Steven Hyland and David Stuart, on the stand. They provided some of the most damning testimony of Toy's racial and sexual wrongdoing, depicting her as a disreputable woman. Hyland had supposedly threatened to resign if Johnson continued to allow Toy to visit his hotel room. "I saw her there three or four times," Hyland told the court. "Her mother was only there once. At other times, when the mother was not there, the two were in the room by themselves."43 He even alleged that one night Johnson and Toy had been in the room alone with the lights turned low. In cross-examining Hyland, Toy's lawyer, J. C. Gannon, asked, "Do you suggest anything improper between Johnson and Miss Toy?" While Hyland maintained he was not aware that anything "improper" had happened between them, he remembered hearing Toy say, "Here are all my rings. Come into town and marry me to-morrow morning!" Stuart added insult to injury when he claimed to have seen Johnson and Toy dancing together at a party. He also stated that he saw them cavorting one evening at the Commercial Hotel, where Toy had been drinking "a brandy and soda" at the bar. The two had left together in a cab.
Toy's side called upon two witnesses, one a single woman named Ellen Gertrude Brown. Brown did her best to defend her friend's respectability, declaring that they had stayed together on the nights that Toy had visited the Sir Joseph Banks Hotel. She also maintained that she had never seen Toy dance with Johnson, nor, for that matter, had she witnessed "any familiarity at all" between the two. Still, Reid managed to reduce the young woman to a sobbing mess during his blistering cross-examination.
In a last-ditch effort to demonstrate Toy's "innocence," Gannon asked his client if she would be willing to submit herself to a chastity test and Toy said yes. Both the defense and the judge agreed that this measure was extreme given the parameters of the case, yet Gannon realized there was much at stake in proving Toy's sexual-and, by extension, racial-purity. In his closing remarks Gannon pleaded on Toy's behalf. He argued that if the public continued to believe that Toy had been intimate with Johnson she "would be stamped as an abandoned strumpet."44
His entreaty must have struck a chord, for the four-man jury reached a guilty verdict after two hours of deliberation, awarding Toy ú500 plus court costs. Five years before Johnson's Mann Act conviction for white slave trafficking in the United States, his penchant for white women had already come under attack in Sydney. The Australian court had refused to endorse the idea that a white woman could desire a romantic or sexual relationship with a black man. This policing of the bedroom was part and parcel of the period's larger concerns about the preservation of white nations and the maintenance of white imperial control. It was also just the beginning of Johnson's numerous fights over the global color line, both in and out of the boxing ring.
White Power in the Pacific
A few months after Toy's lawsuit was settled a regular contributor to Health Strength named Yorick Gradeley published a fictional piece about an interracial boxing match for the "championship of the Pacific" between John Jackson of Cuba and Tom Perkin of England.45 This imaginary match, featured in the twelfth episode of Gradeley's serial story "The Battle to the Strong," closely resembled the potential meeting of Johnson and Burns in Sydney-a prizefight in the midst of negotiations and much discussed in the international press. Billed as "A Powerful and Exciting Physical Regeneration Story," Gradeley's "Battle to the Strong" was a manly tale of life in the British colonies.46 Surviving natural disasters and savage battles, Perkin was a white protagonist tailor-made for the troubles of the day. He had fought in the Boer War and later founded a settlement in the far west of Canada. After learning that Jackson had decided to put his boxing title on the line, Perkin challenged the black champion to a match.47
Gradeley's fictional fight follows a familiar narrative of the period, as it pits a burly and brutish black man against a much smaller yet skilled white man. Jackson is a "mountain of mahogany." At six foot three and 210 pounds, his body seems "to positively vibrate with strength."48 Though slight in stature, Perkin is the ultimate frontiersman and imperial soldier. "The natural whiteness of his skin had been tinted a picturesque bronze by the caresses of sun and wind," Gradeley writes, "and there were scars that were not disfigurements, but rather stripes of honour conferred upon him by the god of War."
Although the powerful yet dim-witted Jackson dominates the first few rounds of the fight, the quick and scientific Perkin makes a mighty comeback to win by knockout. "Massa Perkin you am dasht clebber!" the fallen Jackson exclaims as he looks up at his white vanquisher.49 Through this utterance Gradeley manages to turn the "mountain of mahogany" into a stereotypical darky. Even if black men were physically strong, they were nevertheless mentally unfit for citizenship and self-government. In the months that followed, the publicity surrounding the impending match between Burns and Johnson echoed many of the same themes.
Though not as dashing or daring as his alter ego Perkin, Burns emerged as a popular embodiment of white manhood in the late imperial age. Born Noah Brusso on 17 June 1881 in a rural Ontario town, Burns personified Anglo-Saxon cooperation. Though technically French Canadian, Burns was still a citizen of a British dominion. Moreover, he spent so much of his fighting career in the United States that many mistook him for a Yankee.
Burns received his first knocks in the rough-and-tumble world of Canadian hockey and lacrosse. Known for his short fuse and his tendency to fight, he honed his boxing skills for self-defense on the ice and the field. Typical of most other pugilists at the time, Burns grew up working class, holding a number of different jobs, from house painter to factory laborer to tavern doorman. The young scrapper later found work aboard a Great Lakes steamship. In 1900, after a fight with the ship's steward, Burns lost his job and decided to stay in Detroit, Michigan, where he began his prizefighting career.50
At five foot seven and 175 pounds, Burns was relatively small for a heavyweight, yet he routinely beat men much larger than him. In 1905 when the reigning world heavyweight champion Jeffries retired undefeated, he handed his crown to Marvin Hart. A year later Burns beat Hart to claim the world title. Feeling the need to step out of Jeffries's shadow and legitimize himself as a bona fide champion, Burns declared, "I will defend my title as heavyweight champion of the world against all comers, none barred. By this I mean white, black, Mexican, Indian, or any other nationality without regard to color, size, or nativity."51 Regardless of his bold claim, Burns ignored Johnson's many challenges, refusing to fight the rising African American star for anything less than ú6,000 or $30,000, a prohibitively expensive purse for the time.
Undeterred, Johnson followed Burns first to Europe and then to Australia, trying to entice him into the ring. In August 1908, hordes of fans cheered for the white world champion as he moved through the streets of Perth. In Adelaide a large crowd greeted him outside the cathedral of St. Francis Xavier. The people of Melbourne even organized an official welcome for him at a local hotel, complete with speeches and free champagne. The prominent sportsman John Wren gave the keynote address, inviting Burns to "make himself at home" on the continent, promising him the "good-will" of the Australian people, "win or lose."52
Both Burns and boxing embodied Australia's way forward in challenging times. A correspondent for the conservative Lone Hand called his body "an exquisite fighting engine," akin to that of Hercules.53 With his "clean-cut profile" and "gentlemanly manner," Burns also possessed the air of a statesman.54 Some even claimed that he bore a striking resemblance to Napoleon Bonaparte. As Burns continued his travels across the continent by rail, fans greeted him at every depot. By the time he reached Sydney's Central Station eight thousand onlookers had gathered in anticipation of his arrival. Just outside the Crystal Hotel on George Street, a local alderman and two members of the legislative assembly, Edward William O'Sullivan and Colonel Granville De Laune Ryrie, greeted Burns with celebratory speeches. The physically fit O'Sullivan proclaimed that rugged activities like boxing had made England a great nation.55 A veteran of the Boer War and a former amateur boxer, Ryrie also trumpeted the sport as "an important element in the bringing up of Australians." Given the ominous threat of a "yellow invasion," Ryrie argued, they needed "a sturdy young Australia to protect their hearths and homes."56 Much like the Asians who seemed to be inundating the continent, Johnson would soon follow, forcing Burns to prove his mettle.
In the meantime another North American fighting wonder, the United States' Great White Fleet, arrived on the heels of the white world heavyweight champion. Ordered by President Roosevelt, the fleet's circumnavigation of the globe from December 1907 to February 1909 was designed to demonstrate the United States' rising military power. The correspondence of the Burns-Johnson match with the Pacific leg of the fleet's voyage was more than just a mere coincidence. These two spectacles of white male strength were linked both literally and figuratively. Given the deep-seated connections between boxing, militarism, and the white man's burden, they became an early exercise in cross-promotion.
The proposed interracial match must have seemed like it would provide the perfect climax to the U.S. fleet's Pacific tour, for boxing had long followed the transoceanic flows of U.S. imperialism. By the turn of the twentieth century pugilism and other forms of physical training had become popular pastimes aboard U.S. naval ships. Sailors honed their bodies with dumbbells and boxing bouts on vessels like the USS Brooklyn and the USS Oregon, both of which participated in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba during the Spanish-American War.57
When Admiral Dewey entered Manila Bay aboard the USS Olympia in 1898, boxing went along for the ride. Many of Dewey's personnel were ardent followers of John L. Sullivan, and throughout the ensuing Philippine-American War and U.S. occupation, scores of U.S. soldiers carried boxing gloves with them. Faced with alarming rates of desertion, suicide, venereal disease, and substance abuse among their troops, U.S. military officials began to see the utility of the sport as a means to prevent servicemen from degenerating and "going native" in the tropics. After all, boxers in training were supposed to avoid tobacco, alcohol, and sexual activity to help fortify their bodies for battle. By 1902 Major Elijah Halford had requested $200,000 of philanthropic funds to build a YMCA training facility in Manila.58 Yet this imperial project of physical training was not without its own set of contradictions. African American soldiers stationed in the Philippines won a disproportionate number of the U.S. Army's athletic competitions. Boxing also brought together black Americans and Filipino rebels, encouraging camaraderie and collusion. Despite these ironies, pugilism and the practice of imperial control clearly went hand in hand.
The gleaming metal bodies of the Great White Fleet became traveling symbols of the U.S. nation's strength as a policeman of global white supremacy. Led by Rear Admiral Charles Stillman Sperry's flagship Connecticut, the U.S. fleet of sixteen battleships left San Francisco on the afternoon of 7 July 1908.59 The fleet had already journeyed around South America, and as it set out for the Pacific region, each of its "white and buff ships glistened in new paint."60 Thousands of onlookers had gathered in the hills to watch as America's very own armada departed for a long list of destinations, including Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, China, Japan, and the Philippines.
The men onboard were just as important as the ships as representatives of the nation. In a special telegram to the fleet's crew President Roosevelt declared, "You have in a peculiar sense the honor of the United States in your keeping, and therefore no body of men in the world enjoys at this moment a greater privilege or carries a heavier responsibility."61 Physical Culture published a feature article on the fleet's Pacific tour that included a detailed discussion of the crew's health.62 Apparently the young sailors' exposure to "fresh air," "plenty of exercise," and "manly virtues" was ideal for the development of physical fitness and mental fortitude. The practice of empire was making them stronger. In this moment of imagined white degeneration, the fleet was not only a demonstration of U.S. imperial might, but it was also a floating representation of the white American body politic.
British colonial officials were also keenly aware of the cultural and strategic importance of the Great White Fleet's voyage. To them, the fleet symbolized a developing body of white Anglo-Saxon collaboration, and they planned to do everything possible to make their U.S. allies feel the warmth of white brotherhood in the Pacific. New Zealand was the first British territory to roll out the red carpet on 9 August. Around fifty thousand Kiwis were on hand to witness the fleet's arrival in Auckland. Countless British and U.S. flags covered the city in a sea of red, white, and blue. New Zealand's prime minister Joseph Ward spared no expense on the public addresses, parades, military reviews, Maori pageants, banquets, tours, and sporting exhibitions held in honor of the U.S. servicemen.63 "The day will come when a great fight will be necessary for the supremacy of the white races in the Pacific," Ward declared, "and when this time comes, Great Britain can have the assistance of the American fleet, and the two nations will be found fighting shoulder to shoulder to preserve to future generations the rights and privileges due to all classes."64
Several months before the fleet's arrival in the antipodes Australia's postmaster general had already commissioned a set of postcards featuring the British and American flags entwined. A squadron of British-Australian warships was also scheduled to greet the U.S. fleet in the port of Suva, Fiji. "It will be a picturesque gathering, when the Stars and Stripes and the union jack meet in the tropical seas and thundering guns awake the echoes in the recent haunts of the cannibal," one Washington Post reporter exclaimed. "There will be pomp in the great procession that moves onward to Australia, there to revive and strengthen the ties of friendship between far-separated white races."65
Despite this outpouring of support, some Aussies worried that the Great White Fleet would not be so white. Rumors circulated that the U.S. warships would be manned almost entirely by African Americans, who would inevitably chafe against the White Australia policy. Given that many of the sailors who passed through the country's port cities were men of color, these fears were far from surprising. As the Melbourne Age tried to reassure its readers, "It is not at all probable ... that a very large proportion of the crews will be found to be coloured. There will be some on the battleships, but they will not be nearly as numerous as rumour is suggesting just now."66
The impressive sight of the Great White Fleet and its British-Australian naval escort cruising into Sydney's harbor on 20 August helped to dispel any remaining reservations. The imposing vessels ranged from battleships to torpedoers, with a reported sixteen thousand men manning 850 guns.67 An estimated forty thousand people, including Burns and his wife Jewel, converged on Watson's Bay to greet the U.S. sailors. As a report in the Chicago Daily Tribune boasted, "Fleetitis is raging all over the antipodes just now."68 Punch magazine's special fleet edition broke all of its previous sales records.69 There was also a record demand for U.S. flags and hand-carved replicas of American eagles. Many of these decorations graced the specially designated "America Avenue," which extended down Sydney's main street to the gates of the Federal Government House, symbolically traversing Australia's first white settlement.70
When the Sydney Morning Herald held a parade in honor of the U.S. Navy men, half the city's population attended, forming the largest crowd ever assembled on the continent. The Great White Fleet's men marched alongside ten thousand Australian troops. The festivities continued with a friendly game of baseball between the two nations, while Australian school children entertained their U.S. visitors with grand pageants.71 As one white American correspondent declared, "Balls, parties, luncheons, and smoke nights are sandwiched between gala fetes, water carnivals, military and naval reviews, and processions in a fashion calculated to turn the heads of the most callous cynics."72
These spectacles and social gatherings highlighted the cultural and political bonds between the two white settler nations. Metaphors of familial relation permeated the public discourse. Melbourne's Punch published a cartoon depicting an Australian man asking a white American sailor, "Are we not brothers?" as the two stood side by side in front of a poster with the caption "One People, One Destiny, One Speech."73 The popular stereotype of the obnoxious American who "spoke through his nose, made frequent use of a cuspidor, consumed vast quantities of cocktails, smoked green cigars, swore horribly, and was always in such a violent hurry" seemed to melt away as white Australians mingled with the visiting U.S. seamen. "They have the same ideals, the same habits of thought, the same ways of living as we have," one Australian editorialist observed.74 He had even come to view the white American sailors as men of his "own blood" and his "own race."
For white Americans back in the United States, the numerous reports and photos from the fleet's Pacific voyage inspired both a growing interest in and affinity for their Australian counterparts. "There is much in the history of the island continent that resembles our own," one white American journalist observed.75 As relatively young nations comprised of diverse populations, the two countries confronted many of "the same problems" and shared similar state structures. The Great White Fleet's travels to the antipodes even invigorated public demand for melodramatic plays featuring "Oriental and Pacific adventures" on the stages of New York City's Great White Way.76 Amid all the pomp and circumstance, these distant strangers had come to feel a sense of common purpose.
The U.S. fleet's Australian stopover helped to cement the two nations as "partners in the business of dictating the white man's policy in the Pacific."77 Some Australian commentators hoped that this partnership would soon replace the unstable and ill-advised Anglo-Japanese Alliance orchestrated by Britain, thereby uniting white men in control of the region.78 On both sides of the Pacific alarmist articles about the so-called Asiatic menace coincided with the fleet's voyage. Not only did many white Australians and Americans worry that Japan was developing imperialistic designs, but they also feared that China would "awaken" and begin actively to resist the intervention of Western powers.79 Australians felt especially vulnerable, for they did not possess their own army or navy to secure their isolated white outpost.
This regional fight for white dominance was also tied to a much broader sense of global white destiny. "If there is one clear principle amidst the welter of wrongs and reprisals and deceits called 'international politics,' it is the supremacy of the white man must be maintained," a writer for Australia's Lone Hand declared. "'My country, right or wrong,' may be questioned as a maxim of conduct, but most will confirm without a moment's doubt, 'The White Race Right or Wrong.'"80 Keeping the world's dwindling resources for the exclusive use of white men was one of the major concerns driving this Anglo-Saxon cooperation. As President Roosevelt warned, the nonwhites of the world would certainly put up a fight, especially since they had learned about "the making of guns and other elements of progress" thanks to the Western civilizing missions.81
The immediate crisis for Australia was a national one. The continued influx of Chinese laborers to the continent seemed to threaten the goal of a White Australia.82 Local journalists turned to gendered metaphors of the body to describe this ongoing interracial struggle. An editorial cartoon in Sydney's Bulletin depicted a massive rock in the shape of an Asian man's head towering perilously over a white Australian maiden.83 Moreover, there were anxious calls to reinvigorate Australia as a white body politic. As one reporter cautioned, if Australians "wanted to have the muscles of a body that could stand and defend the country in her hour of need they could not hope to secure it in sufficient numbers by the ordinary growth of population within their boundaries."84 In order to remain "a clean-blooded limb of Greater Britain," Australia needed to restrict nonwhite immigration and also to encourage white immigration, preferably of Anglo-Saxon men.85 In this moment of racial instability, it is hardly surprising that white Australians welcomed the arrival of Burns and the Great White Fleet. They also cooled toward Johnson. His penchant for white women and public grandstanding no longer seemed innocuous or entertaining, and with the possibility of a Burns-Johnson prizefight on the horizon, white men from across the Pacific closed ranks.
Burns versus Johnson
Months after the U.S. fleet had moved on to its next destination, the Australian impresario Hugh Donald "Huge Deal" McIntosh found another way to reap the rewards of his nation's rush of Anglo-Saxon feeling. He finagled a deal to lease a large tract of land in Rushcutter's Bay for just ú4 a week. This vacant lot would soon be the site of a symbolic race war between Burns and Johnson. McIntosh had managed to drum up enough money to lure the white champion into the ring for a twenty-round title match. At the same time Johnson had obtained an official exemption from the White Australia Policy, which allowed him to enter the country for the fight.86 Win or lose, Burns would receive ú6,000, while Johnson would earn just ú1,000 in cash.87 McIntosh scheduled the match for the day after Christmas, a statutory British holiday otherwise known as Boxing Day.
McIntosh understood the rough sporting culture of white working-class men, and he had developed a knack for getting them to spend their hard-earned money. Born in Sydney in 1876, McIntosh was the son of a Scottish veteran of the Indian Mutiny who died when he was just four years old. As a young boy he supported himself through an eclectic mix of jobs. He was a miner, a surgeon's assistant, a dairy worker, and even a chorus boy. By the 1890s he had switched to entrepreneurial pursuits. He started off as a caterer, selling pies at parks and sporting events. He then segued into sports promotion, first managing a physical culture club and several prizefighters and later organizing international cycling events.88 Most recently McIntosh had transformed the Great White Fleet's visit into a profitable venture. He speculated that boxing matches involving the white world champion Burns and the local fighters Bill Squires and Bill Lang would prove a lucrative complement to the fleet's Australian stopover. He believed these fights would attract both U.S. seamen and local boxing fans. Although few of the Yankee sailors actually turned out for the Burns-Squires fight on 24 August, McIntosh's gamble still paid off, since fifteen thousand eager Australians filled the stadium seats.89
Much like the fleet's visit, the upcoming Burns-Johnson prizefight presented the Australian public with another chance to ease their fears of interracial conflict in the region. The color line appeared to be disintegrating right in front of White Australia's eyes. Chinese laborers continued to flood the continent.90 In the week before the fight a mutiny of Lascars (East Indian sailors) onboard a British ship generated enough consternation to warrant a political cartoon on the front page of the Bulletin. Titled "More Perils of the Sea," it depicted white women armed with rifles, shovels, and spears boarding a ship staffed by Indian men while their families bid them a tearful goodbye from the docks.91 One Australian editorialist blamed the "Anglo-jap alliance" for the Lascars' newfound belligerence.92 Because of the treaty Lascars could now see "Japs playing cards in the smoking-room with British soldiers, flirting on deck with British maidens, [and] waited on and valeted by British servants." The writer complained, "He [the Lascar] reckons that if a Jap nigger is as good as a white man, a Lascar nigger ought to be the same." Whether Japanese or Indian, these "niggers" no longer seemed to know their place.
White Australians had also noticed the Aborigines' growing admiration for Johnson. Titled "A Man and a Brother," one political cartoon showed a group of Aboriginal men watching the African American heavyweight speed by in a sports car. "That pfeller puts on heap plurry side, my wurrd," one of the men exclaimed. "What tribe that pfeller belonga?"93 Johnson had apparently been treating the local Aboriginals to rousing demonstrations of his driving skills as he raced around the Sydney suburbs of La Perouse and Botany in his roadster. The African American heavyweight also expressed his admiration of Aboriginal culture, playing on white Australian fears of overcivilization and interracial conflict. "When I visit your museum and see the numerous specimens of prehistoric man's art, your boomerangs of many varieties, your stone axes from various States and the many examples of Palaeolithic and Neolithic man's skill-I simply envy you," Johnson told a group of Australian journalists. "Your central Australian natives must have been men of genius," he added, "to have turned out such artistic and ideal weapons."94 For Johnson, Australia's greatness came from its "primitive" Aboriginal culture rather than the so-called "civilization" of its recent white immigrants. [Place figure 4 near here.]
Many white Australians came to see the Burns-Johnson fight through the lens of social Darwinism as a fierce evolutionary competition between racial representatives in which only the fittest would survive. One journalist called the match "a racial study," claiming that most Australian fans hoped "to see the triumph of the white race enacted under their eyes."95 From a publicity standpoint, it certainly helped that the two boxers engaged in several public confrontations. "There is bad blood between the men. They positively hate each other," one sportswriter declared. "Burns does not draw, as it is termed, the color line, but all the same the sight of a black man displeases him."96
Australian newspapers published physical and mental comparisons of the two fighters that conformed to the period's popular science of race. Burns was the thinking man, the "scientific" fighter, and an astute businessman, while Johnson was the physical man, the simpleminded savage and "over-grown boy."97 The Bulletin even featured a contemptuous cartoon of the black heavyweight gazing at a gibbon skeleton in a museum. Johnson's caricature exclaimed, "My golly dem undersized niggers must have had a beautiful reach."98 Since Johnson was supposedly bred from a "lower" species, most white fans believed he had a weak stomach as well as a "yellow streak" or lack of courage. They advised Burns to pummel Johnson with body shots in order to tire him out rather than going straight for his head with the hope of knocking him out.99 According to popular belief, black men possessed thicker skulls and a higher pain threshold than their white counterparts. "A nigger has such a thick hide that no white man could make any impression on him, unless he went at him with a sledge hammer," one Australian woman explained in a letter to the Tasmanian Mail.100 Consequently, if Burns won, his victory would demonstrate White Australia's readiness and resolve to defend its body politic from the incursion of nonwhites.
Yet there were no guarantees. On the eve of the great fight a visibly nervous Burns tried to assure reporters, "I am fit to fight the battle of my life, if it be necessary."101 Much more confident in his prospects, Johnson had spent Christmas day on a hunting trip. "I'm going into the ring firmly intent upon winning," the black heavyweight announced, "and if I don't succeed, well, none will be more surprised than myself, and that's all there is to it."
Thanks to both the promotional wizardry of "Huge Deal" McIntosh and the racial angst of the white Australian public, the Burns-Johnson fight quickly became a huge event. The open-air stadium at Rushcutter's Bay was enormous, with a seating capacity of sixteen thousand, not including its standing room. The number of tickets sold surpassed all expectations, far outpacing the box office of the recent Burns-Squires fight. For crowd control McIntosh planned to have two hundred policemen on patrol along with a staff of 222 gatekeepers, ushers, and ticket takers.102
To snag the best seats some fans spent Christmas night camped out in a park beside the stadium. Early the next morning special trams packed with fight-goers began to arrive in Rushcutter's Bay. When the stadium doors opened at 6 AM, thousands of people rushed in, filling the seats in the cheaper sections, and by 10 AM the venue had reached its maximum capacity of twenty thousand spectators. Next to famous sportsmen and entertainers, numerous Australian politicians from the federal, state, and local level sat ringside. The famed white American writer Jack London and his wife Charmian were also in attendance, making it the first time a woman had ever been admitted to an important fight in Australia. Both a longtime boxing enthusiast and amateur ethnologist, London had abandoned his South Pacific voyage aboard the Snark to cover the match for the New York Herald.103 Another twenty thousand fans crowded outside the stadium, while several thousand more clustered on a hillside overlooking the ring. People even "swarmed up telegraph poles" hoping to catch a glimpse of the match.104 Thanks to the railways and tramways, approximately forty to fifty thousand people from all across Australia had converged on Rushcutter's Bay, generating a fight gate of ú26,000, or roughly $130,000.105
Meshing with the racial concerns of boxing fans in a variety of places, the Johnson-Burns match became an international phenomenon.106 The telegraph cables remained busy the entire day, conveying updates of the fight to anxious fans in the United States and across the British Empire. Australia's deputy postmaster general later released the official figures on wire transfers: 22,061 messages were sent and 21,047 received. Including all other cables and messages in connection with the match, a total of 46,362 communications took place over the course of the day.107
By the time the two pugilists made their way into the stadium, "the tension was screwed up almost to breaking point."108 The Australian fight crowd "was aggressively white in its sympathy," expecting to see the black challenger "beaten to his knees and counted out." Nevertheless, their anxiety was palpable, as dark storm clouds hovered on the horizon like "an omen of disaster."109
As Johnson entered the ring the Aussie spectators greeted him "with mingled cheers and hoots," calling him a "coon" and a "nigger."110 Undaunted, the black heavyweight bowed, making the most of his moment in the spotlight. When Burns climbed through the ropes he "was nearly blown out of the Stadium by the crash of applause that thundered from 20,000 throats."111 The stadium crowd "yelled itself hoarse" for five minutes straight, and just as they quieted down the thousands of fans outside the arena began cheering for Burns.112 Yet as the white world champion stripped to his fighting togs, he looked far from majestic. Not only did he appear puny next to Johnson, "but he looked fat, and his muscles seemed flabby, and his face was of the strange yellow hue that bespeaks the sick man."113
Burns also wore large elastic bandages to protect his elbows. Citing an unfair advantage, Johnson demanded that Burns's armbands be removed before the start of the match. The white champion's Australian supporters began to chant, "Good boy, Tommy! Good boy, Tommy!" with a rhythm redolent of a "tremendous battle-song."114 Above "the bass roar" of the crowd "came shrill voices adjuring Burns not to give way to the 'black cow,' and other animals."115 Although McIntosh ruled the armbands admissible, Johnson remained in his corner, refusing to fight. Eventually Burns relented, and as he ripped off his bandages with righteous indignation, he received yet another noisy ovation from the Australian crowd.
Burns found himself hopelessly outclassed by Johnson. The black heavyweight was not only physically imposing but also highly skilled. As one correspondent recounted, "Burns looked like a small boy beside the beautifully-modelled giant."116 Others argued that the match was akin to "a gorilla toying with a small meal," "a grown man cuffing a naughty child," or even "a gentle schoolmaster administering benevolent chastisement to a rude and fractious urchin."117 Johnson remained "the personification of coolness and confidence," while Burns appeared "high-strung and nervous."118 Burns's talent for infighting was simply no match for Johnson's combination of solid defense and blinding quickness. [Place figure 5 near here.]
The match displayed a frightening role reversal that challenged the racial logic of the white man's burden. As one Australian correspondent recalled, "With his native 'flashness,' Johnson grated all quarters of the amphitheatre just as a cannibal king might condescend to humor his most humble subjects."119 Going against boxing's unwritten rule of silence in the ring, Johnson openly trash-talked his opponent. Adding insult to injury, Johnson treated the crowd to his gold-toothed smile as he pummeled Burns.120
Johnson's audacious performance was especially troubling given that the match was being recorded on film for international distribution. Adept at the art of self-promotion, Johnson consciously constructed an image of defiance that would not only rile white spectators but would also speak to the concerns of his far-off African American fans. "Johnson, in his contempt for Burns, thought only of the cinematograph-thought only of the black thousands of the Southern States," one Australian journalist recounted. "Mentally, he saw the coloured audiences crowding to see the pictures, and he gave them what they would love and applaud."121 He deliberately "postured and mouthed" for the cameras, as if to provide "a festival for the men of his own colour." Johnson knew that his black American supporters would be closely following his feats in the ring. In the lead up to the match, many of them had bet heavily on him, including the likes of the famed vaudeville duo of Bert Williams and George Walker.122
As the fight began Johnson goaded Burns, "Come on Tahmy ... you've got to get it."123 In the first round it took him just fifteen seconds to knock the white champion to the canvas. Johnson continued his wisecracking as he blasted Burns with powerful shots to the body and head. "Ah, poor little Tahmy," he teased. "Don't you know how to fight, Tahmy? They said you were a champion." When Burns attempted to defend his swollen face, Johnson simply laughed, "That's right, Tahmy, feint away." Every so often Johnson even dropped his fists and stood up straight "in an attitude of indolent arrogance," daring Burns to take his best shot.
The subsequent rounds offered the increasingly dejected Australian crowd more of the same. During a particularly bad stretch of fighting in the third round, the spectators reprised their battle cry of "Good boy, Tommy; good boy, Tommy," as if their voices could convey their collective strength to the ailing white champion.124 In the fourth round Burns called Johnson a "cur" and other choice names in a desperate attempt to get back into the fight. These epithets only served to inspire a more vicious attack from the black heavyweight. While Burns's condition deteriorated, his face bulging and eyes blackened, Johnson remained fresh, confident, and at ease.
In the final rounds of the match Johnson kept up his physical and verbal assault. At times it looked as if Johnson were actually holding up Burns so that he could prolong his opponent's punishment in front of the Australian crowd. "Jewel won't know you when she gets you back from this fight," Johnson taunted at the opening of the eighth round. In the ninth, he struck Burns repeatedly while shouting, "I'll teach you something.... Look at this, and this.... And this."125 By the twelfth round it was obvious that the battered white fighter had absolutely no chance of winning, and many of the spectators began shouting for police intervention.
Fearing that Burns was on the verge of being knocked out, the police inspector entered the ring to stop the match in the fourteenth round, and McIntosh declared Johnson the winner by points. Johnson became the first-ever black heavyweight champion of the world. With an exuberant mix of joy and bravado, he jumped up and shadowboxed for the moving picture cameras. One Australian sportswriter likened Johnson's impromptu celebration to "a triumphant war dance-like the dance after the battle, before the cannibal feast began."126 It was as if Johnson's "way-back ancestors" were "calling aloud their exultation through the muscles of their descendant." Johnson's body had become the public conduit for their longstanding grievances.
Every postfight report described the white spectators' quiet dejection. "Johnson waved his hands to the crowd that did not cheer him," one Australian sportswriter recounted. "A few straggling voices were raised but they were mere flecks of sound in an ocean of silence."127 It took just twelve minutes for the stands to empty. Outside the stadium the "big crowd shook its head sadly, spat into the roadway, and silently dispersed. It hadn't a cheer in it."128 Amid the hush one despondent fan muttered, "When a white man lowers himself to fight with a nigger it's time he got a licking."129 An overwhelming sense of disappointment also permeated Melbourne, Wollongong, and Broken Hill, where throngs of the white fighter's supporters stopped traffic as they milled around outside newspaper headquarters and post offices in a state of shock.130 Intended as a public spectacle of white supremacy, the Burns-Johnson match had gone horribly awry.
While the reaction of white Americans was predictably one of anger and disappointment, African American fans rejoiced at the news of Johnson's victory. As Lester Walton of the New York Age declared, "Every Negro, from the lad large enough to sell papers to the old man who is able to read the papers (if he can read) is happy to-day."131 Some hoped that Johnson's display of skill and courage in the ring would help to redeem black people in the eyes of the world. "Every time Johnson knocked down Burns a bunch of prejudice fell," Walton exclaimed, "and at the same time the white man's respect for the Negro race went up a notch." Johnson's black supporters looked forward to his next fight against a white man. As Bert Williams told the Indianapolis Freeman, "If it is held outside the United States the colored people will migrate for a while to see it, but if it is held here it will bring together the largest single collection of colored sports ever assembled."132 It was only natural for African Americans to assume a proud "peacock pose," since a black man from Galveston was now the "champion over land and sea."133
For Johnson's black fans, his triumph was more than just cathartic. They seized this opportunity to challenge established ideas about white men's physical, and therefore geopolitical, supremacy. As one African American editorialist maintained, Johnson's pugilistic success had forced the "unwilling civilized world" to acknowledge "the physical prowess of the black race."134 If blacks and whites could compete on equal terms, it would undoubtedly threaten the racial and imperial status quo. The editorialist warned, "Let a wise world remember that the Negro race has an untouched store of physical perfection in Africa, as among the Zulus." Turning the disparaging discourses of black barbarism on their head, he argued that Johnson's victory proved that the "Negro's closeness to nature" was actually an asset rather than a drawback. The black man's "inherited strength and endurance, his ability to endure pain and punishment, his resource and ever presence of mind, [and] his confidence and courage" all combined to make him "the physical superior of the white man." J. Bernie Barbour, a well-known black composer and producer from Chicago, crafted an ode to the new champion titled "The Black Gladiator." Barbour placed Johnson within the classical tradition of ancient imperial warriors, calling him a "Black Spartacus" and a "Black Alexander." For Barbour, Johnson was "A proof that all men are the same / In muscle sinew and in brain."135 Contrary to popular belief, the black man possessed not only the physical ability but also the mental acuity and the strength of character to make him an important player on the world stage.
Johnson's victory, coupled with his black fans' newfound confidence, clearly rattled white boxing fans on both sides of the Pacific. One African American journalist predicted that if the black race managed to maintain its hold on the world championship for at least a year or two, "a few thousand prejudiced 'pugs' and sports" would end up "as inmates of insane asylums."136 White Americans had already become increasingly sensitive to the apparent "uppishness" of their black counterparts in the wake of the fight. Walton provided a few tongue-in-cheek rules for his African American readers to follow: "Don't accidently [sic] jostle a Caucasian in the street car or on the street. Don't talk about prize fighting in public. Don't speak to your white brother other than in a quiet inoffensive manner." White Americans seemed to have little tolerance for any black assertions of "a spirit of manhood and independence."137
Back in Australia white sportsmen took out their frustrations on Johnson. As the African American boxer complained to the Sydney Morning Herald, "Since I beat Burns ... the people of New South Wales have suddenly taken a great dislike to me.... Burns is more popular here than I am, and all because he does what you Australians call the 'penitent smoodge.'"138 Disgruntled white sports fans booed Johnson at postfight appearances and defaced his image in advertisements for the prizefight film. As one reporter wrote, "Johnson's brown picture is invariably mud-bespattered or torn, and, wherever in reach, it is decked with such written legends as 'The Black Cow,' 'The big black skite,' and worse-far worse."139 Some Australian vandals even used crayons to color in the black champion's so-called yellow streak.
Burns's pictures bore "no signs of disfigurement." Most white Australians remained loyal to their defeated hero, plastering his images with encouraging phrases like "Good old white man" and "You'll out him next time, Tommy."140 As they sought to restore Burns's damaged reputation, the stock narrative of a courageous white man in the face of an overpowering black brute began to emerge. Burns encouraged this view of the match in the press. "I did my best," the white fighter reassured his fans. "I fought hard, but Johnson was too big, and his reach was too much for me.... I could do no more."141 Australian reporters agreed. "However poor a showing Burns made as a boxer and hitter, he proved himself a man of extraordinary pluck and stamina," one sportswriter claimed. "His capacity for taking punishment is something altogether remarkable. His gameness is beyond all question."142 Absolved of his pugilistic sins, Burns maintained his popularity, and his exhibitions continued to draw large crowds at theaters throughout Australia and New Zealand.143
The depth of Australia's racial partisanship surprised some. An editorialist for the Australasian declared, "In a population where the negro is not an ugly ever-present problem, as in the [United] States, it is impossible to concede that there was justification for the manifestation of this feeling."144 Yet in making such a statement the writer conveniently overlooked his own nation's history of racial discrimination, from Aboriginal dispossession to immigration restrictions. Although one Melburnian accused her fellow citizens of being poor sports, she was careful to qualify her criticism. "I am not a sympathizer with coloured people," she reassured the readers of Punch. "I hate them, and I should die of disgust if I had to sit in the same compartment of a tram or train with one."145 Despite any protestations to the contrary, white Australians were certainly no strangers to the concept of racial segregation.
The fallout of the Burns-Johnson fight made African Americans painfully aware of this fact, and it provoked discussions about the real stakes of the White Australia policy. As a journalist for the Indianapolis Freeman observed, "While the [immigration restriction] act applies generally, it was brought about as a prohibition against the hordes of yellows and blacks that menace Australia on every side."146 Even though relatively few African Americans traveled to the antipodes, this knowledge certainly helped to put their local problems of racial prejudice in a broader perspective. "We," the journalist avowed, "may take courage of the thought that the 'colored' people of America are not so bad off as a race when compared with what is issued out to 'colored' people anywhere-everywhere." The white race's tendency to meddle with and steal from the darker races had created a global powder keg that threatened to explode. Western imperialism had effectively relegated people of color to the status of mere "nomads, fitting only as parasites on society-no real part of it." The writer warned, "Dispossessed peoples wandering over the face of the earth, evicted by brute force will smoulder-but not always." If whites continued to draw their own color line, he reasoned that blacks should be able to do the same in their own geographic domains. What was good for White Australia was good for Black Africa.
White Australians worried that the match foreshadowed a disturbing future of interracial mixing and conflict on both a local and a global scale. For some, Johnson's victory called to mind the terrifying image of "a grinning savage with his foot on the neck of White Australia."147 They also feared that Burns's humiliating loss at the hands of the African American heavyweight would be "told, sung, and cinematographed everywhere where there is a black skin," thereby helping to promote widespread "unrest and sedition."
Johnson's victory could not have had more inauspicious timing. As a writer for Health Strength noted, "We have at last a coloured champion at a white man's sport, following closely on the heels of a coloured race becoming recognized as one of the most formidable of the world's Powers."148 The writer was undoubtedly referring to the rising fortunes of Japan in the Pacific region. Amid this geopolitical instability, the prizefight's significance could not be underestimated. "It was an ethnological study as well as a boxing contest," one postfight report declared, "and the white man's burden was too great for Burns to carry."149 Much like Japan's military defeat of Russia just a few years earlier, Johnson's triumph over Burns had put white degeneration on full display, not only in Australia but all around the globe.
It certainly did not help that Johnson himself used his special access to the press to comment on the apparent decline of white world supremacy. As he told one Melburnian reporter, "While my people-the descendants of my ancestors in Africa-are increasing in numbers, the white man is decreasing all over the earth. Read the figures-those of your own country, of the United States, of England, of France, of all the white world."150 Pointing to the burgeoning birth rates of "the colored peoples of India, Japan and China" and those of his "own race," he challenged, "Do you think it is to go on forever, this domination of the millions of the people of color by a handful of white folks? I think it is not." Johnson warned, "It may not come in my time or in yours, but the time will come when the black and yellow man will hold the earth, and the white man will be regarded just as the colored man is now." He was more than happy to play on the widespread fears of white race suicide.
Given these political and demographic realities, some white Australians called for the maintenance of a strict color line separating whites from all nonwhites, whether they be the "brownish-yellow brothers / Up in China and Japan," the "Hindoo and Afghan," the "gentle Soudanese," or even the "smiling picaninny."151 Assumed to be pagans, polygamists, and cannibals, these "colored brethren" were supposedly unfit to live alongside civilized whites. Taking up the banner of the white man's burden in the wake of Burns's downfall, the Australian poet Tom Beasley declared:
It is only right and proper,
It is only just and fair,
That our brethren, black and copper,
Who are scattered here and there,
Should receive our old belltopper
And the thrippence we can spare.
But they're nicely isolated
In their islands oversea,
And, as God has segregated
Them with care from you and me,
Let us keep them as they're rated
By Eternity's decree.152
White men were morally obligated to assist their colored subjects; however, to mingle with them went against God's divine plan.
White Australian writers often couched this general fear of race mixing in sexual terms as a dangerous contamination of the white body politic. Henry Lawson, a nationalist author whose writings addressed themes of interracial conflict and the need to construct a White Australia, penned a passionate poem about the interracial fight's potentially negative effects. Echoing the words of John L. Sullivan, Lawson proclaimed, "For 'money' and 'sporting' madness-and here, in a land that was white! / You mated a black-man and white-man to stand up before you and fight." Lawson cautioned:
You paid and you cheered and you hooted, and this is your need of disgrace;
It was not Burns that was beaten-for a nigger has smacked your face.
Take heed-I am tired of writing-but O my people take heed.
For the time may be near for the mating of the Black and the White to breed.153
Lawson was not alone in his concerns. There was a sense that the Burns-Johnson prizefight had violated the boundaries of White Australia and that, with this violation, a race war inevitably would erupt. As a clergyman from Bendigo prayed, "God grant that the defeat may not be the sullen and solemn prophecy that Australia is to be outclassed and finally vanquished by these dark-skinned people."154 An ominous Punch cartoon depicted the African American champion's silhouette casting a shadow across the entire continent.155
Johnson's pugilistic victory seemed to presage a despotic future of colored control beyond the ring. His supposedly unsportsmanlike conduct became a horrifying example of what would happen if political power ever fell into the hands of nonwhite men. Johnson had "gasconaded in anticipation of the contest," "indulged in cheap, irritating airs during its progress," and then, afterward, "exulted exuberantly over his beaten foe." This behavior hardly represented "the bearing of a generous victor." Alongside the political failure of black self-determination in Haiti, Johnson's antics provided further proof that "the negro in the ascendant is not a very taking personality."156
White Australians poked fun at Johnson's unwarranted air of self-importance. Punch's boxing correspondent mockingly called him the "Champion of the Universe and All Dependencies."157 Another caricature showed Johnson challenging the world to a host of contests, from riding to jumping to flirting to preaching.158 Although some sportswriters excused Johnson's bravado, they still believed that his blustering behavior confirmed that black men were simply unfit for self-rule. "Johnson's conduct cannot be judged by white standards," argued one reporter. "He is great big, buck negro, very little removed by a thin veneer of civilisation from the fetish-worshipping savages of wildest Africa. He is not a white man in colour, thought, sentiment, or anything else."159 Johnson's grandstanding had convinced many white Australians "how very necessary" it was "in a country like America to keep 'the black trash' under."160 The well-known Australian adventurer and writer Randolph Bedford declared, "Blessings on the Immigration Restriction Act! I am forced to believe that much is to be said for Simon Legree."161
Yet Johnson clearly represented a new kind of negro, one much bolder than the brutal planter Legree's long-suffering slave Uncle Tom. Writing about a proposed production of Uncle Tom's Cabin that was to feature Johnson, one theater critic argued that the play would have to be "re-written to suit the principal's strength." "To expect Johnson to sit and humbly suffer while Simon Legree flogs him, would be preposterous," he contended. It would be "altogether too great a strain upon the public imagination." The critic also suggested that Johnson be allowed to "arise in his might and 'pass Legree out,'" for Johnson was neither hapless nor helpless like his predecessor Uncle Tom.162
Johnson's breach of the pugilistic color bar appeared to have unleashed a flood of colored ambitions in the Pacific. "Already the insolent black's victory causes skin troubles in Woolloomoolo," Bedford despaired.163 An hour after the fight he had witnessed a Lascar publicly pontificating on the Marquess of Queensberry rules in front of two white men. Native Fijians had also become more rebellious with the arrival of press reports describing Johnson's victory. A white policeman in Suva recalled the inflammatory words of one native: "White man he no use; black man he knock him down every time."164 Faced with such open defiance, the officer felt obliged to show the native that "not every coloured man is a Johnson."
In recounting his South Sea voyage in the aftermath of the fight, the Australian travel writer Jack McLaren acknowledged that maintaining an aura of white superiority sometimes "called for great ingenuity."165 McLaren pointed to the collective efforts of white planters to keep the many reports and photos of the interracial match "away from native eyes" in the Solomon Islands. Despite this vigorous campaign of censorship, news of Johnson's triumph quickly spread throughout the native community, and, as McLaren recalled, "Our prestige began to rock!" To regain control of the situation, one of the planters called the native chiefs to an emergency meeting at which he tried to convince them that, all photographic evidence aside, Burns had actually made a courageous comeback to win the fight. The planter hoped that the chiefs would relay this story to their people, thereby reinforcing the idea that "no matter how big and strong a black man was he could not triumph over the strength and cunning of a white." Whether or not this scheme ultimately was successful, the white planters clearly understood that their political power rested on prevailing notions of white men's physical supremacy-especially since the natives greatly outnumbered them.
The Burns-Johnson match highlighted the need for continued white vigilance in the region. One boxing fan declared, "Let young Australia take heed, and when the black man (by black man I mean all coloured races) at last looks this way with a yearning to revenge the many insults, may we have many thousands of men of the Burns type to oppose their oncoming."166 "It will be a 'degrading spectacle,'" he warned, "but must be faced, nevertheless."
In the meantime, boxing fans turned to the former champion Jim Jeffries to restore white dignity in the ring and beyond. "Does anyone imagine for a moment that Johnson's success is without its political influence, an influence which has only been checked ... by the personality of Jem Jeffries?" one sportswriter asked. "It is not so much a matter of racial pride as one of racial existence which urges us so ardently to desire the ex-boilermaker's [Jeffries's] triumph."167 Jeffries agreed, rallying his fellow physical culturists: "Unless we propose to become a nation of weaklings, it is about time that we woke up athletically speaking."168>
Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more