On this date in 1903, Irish MP Arthur Alfred Lynch waited 26 minutes for a jury to convict him, then heard the sentence of a British court for having fought against the British Empire in the Boer War.
[T]he jury have found you guilty of the crime of high treason, a crime happily so rare that in the present day a trial for treason seems to be almost an anachronism — a thing of the past. There can be no doubt that in times gone by there was great abuse, and many persons were indicted, convicted, and punished for matters which would not now be thought worthy of serious or, perhaps, any notice. There has been a kind of national reaction by which many persons have been disposed to treat serious crimes against the State as if the name of treason, and as if the thing, no longer existed. One moment of reflection will show you how erroneous is such a conception …
Yes, even if the black cap gave away the ending, the judge was going to take his time getting to it.
The misdeeds which have been done in this case, and which have brought you to the lamentable pass in which you stand, must surely convince the most sceptical and apathetic of the gravity and reality of the crime. What was your action in the darkest hour of your country’s fortunes, when she was engaged in the deadly struggle from which she has just emerged? You joined the ranks of your country’s foes. Born in Australia, a land which has nobly shown its devotion to its parent country, you have indeed taken a different course from that which was adopted by her sons. You have fought against your country, not with it. You have sought, as far as you could, to dethrone Great Britain from her place among the nations, to make her name a byword and a reproach, a synonym for weakness and irresolution. …
Even allowing that this sentence was pronounced before either of the coming century’s world wars, calling the Boer War to conquer South Africa for the crown England’s “darkest hour” only underscores how very long Britannia had stayed in the sun. Were the early shadows of empire’s twilight visible from here … or was it just standard issue judicial showboating?
[Y]ou thought it safe, no doubt, to lift the parricidal hand against your country. You thought she would shrink from the costly struggle wearied out by her gigantic efforts, and that, at the worst, a general peace would be made which would comprehend a general amnesty and cover up such acts as yours and save you from personal peril. You misjudged your country and failed to appreciate that though slow to enter into a quarrel, however slow to take up arms, it has yet been her wont that in the quarrel she shall bear herself so that the opposer may beware of her, and that she is seldom so dangerous to her enemies as when the hour of national calamity has raised the dormant energies of her people — knit together every nerve and fibre of the body politic and has made her sons determined to do all, to bear all, to sacrifice all on behalf of the country that gave them birth.
The only — I will not say excuse, but palliation that I can find for conduct like yours is that it has been for some years past the fashion to treat lightly matters of this kind, so that men have been perhaps encouraged to play with sedition and to toy with treason, wrapt in a certain proud consciousness of strength begotten of the deep-seated and well-founded conviction that the loyalty of her people is supreme, and true authority in this country has slumbered or has treated with contemptuous indifference speeches and acts of sedition.
There’s some relish here, the kind you’d hear if Antonin Scalia had an opportunity to pass sentence on Cynthia McKinney.
This ponderous bombast was the culmination of a highly-anticipated, highly-publicized trial of a man who had returned to London and arrest as an elected Irish parliamentarian after upholding the Boer cause in print throughout Europe, and enrolling an Irish unit in the fight.*
Col. Lynch’s Irish Brigade, from this South African military history page.
Incidentally, this is the same judge who sentenced Oscar Wilde for the love that dare not speak its name, intoning on that occasion that “people who can do these things must be dead to all senses of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them.” (Mr. Justice Wills’ update of his father’s classic treatise on circumstantial evidence is available from Google books, as is Wanderings Among the High Alps, which he wrote in his capacity as mountaineering hobbyist.)
But had you and those with whom you associated yourself succeeded, what fatal mischief might have been done to … that inheritance of power which it must be our work to use nobly and for good things; an inheritance of influence which will be of little effect even for good unless backed by power, and of duty which cannot be effectually performed if our power be shattered and our influence impaired. He who has attempted to do his country such irreparable wrong must be prepared to submit to the sentence which it is now my duty to pronounce upon you … that you be taken hence to the place from which you came and from thence to a place of execution there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead.
For all this sound and fury, one would hardly know that it was generally and publicly understood the sentence would be swiftly commuted — as it was, a few days later.
Arthur Lynch received a free pardon in 1907, and in 1909 was returned to parliament as an Irish nationalist delegate to resume his remarkable career as writer, physician, engineer and all-around polymath.
* Lynch’s part in the war is included in The Boer Fight for Freedom, another century-old tome in the public domain and available on Google Books.