October 15, 2016

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: Sweet Science

If you've heard it called the Sweet Science, that probably owes to Joe Liebling of The New Yorker. He's considered one of the great boxing writers.

But give the phrase its full context: "The Sweet Science is joined onto the past like a man's arm to his shoulder."
 
 

We walked through the suburb of Toowong, along narrow sidewalks that went high by the sides of the houses when the road followed a cutting. 
 
Eventually they brought us to the cemetery on the slopes of Mount Coot-tha.
 
 
 
"Portion 5, Section 28, Grave 1," we called to each other, traipsing back and forth around the cemetery's south-east corner. Portion 4 lay between 3 and 6, and was opposite Portion 10. Portion 9 abutted Portion 13.
 

"Check on your phone." We brought up a picture. "It's a big chunky thing. Shouldn't it be right here?"


Peter Jackson was just forty years old when he died in the Queensland town of Roma. The year was 1901. Some of his admirers arranged for his body to be embalmed and transported to Brisbane.

Peter Jackson's funeral procession, Sydney Sportsman, 24 July 1901

The Sydney Sportsman tells us that his horse-drawn hearse was followed by around thirty vehicles. Floral tributes came from all over Australia. There was a crowd of thousands, respects were paid by various athletic clubs, and a commemorative bike ride was held by the massed enthusiasts of the Queensland Cyclists' Union. 

They put a great pile of stone on top of his grave, with a sleeping lion of marble above and a bust on the front.

Underneath it, from Julius Caesar, they engraved: "This was a man."

Peter Jackson in 1889

Peter Jackson's career took him around the English-speaking world, from Caribbean shores to the club rooms of London, from Australian docks to a boxing ring in Vancouver. 

He'd been born on St. Croix in 1861, grandson of a freed slave. He went to sea and then worked on the waterfront in Sydney before drifting into the world of boxing.

He trained with Larry Foley, a publican who in his youth had led the Catholic street-fighting gangs of Sydney. Jackson became a boxing instructor at Foley's, all the while building his own reputation.

In 1888 he toured Britain and the US. He might have taken the world championship, but the title holder John Sullivan refused to fight a black man. Sullivan's successor was "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, another American. Corbett, too, avoided Jackson once he had the title: they had fought before, over sixty-one rounds, until a draw was declared, both boxers exhausted.

Jackson continued to box into his thirties, on both sides of the Atlantic, but he began to show signs of tuberculosis. There were stints as a publican and a performer in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Funds were raised to send him back to Queensland, where he proved too sick to fight in a travelling show. He died in the country town of Roma.

In 1907, the Referee commemorated six years since Jackson had passed:
...He was a gentleman, every inch of him, and in the very heat and fury of battle never lost his temper, or punished an opponent more than could be helped.

The Australians had claimed "Peter the Great" for their own. An all-but-indomitable black champion in a white world, he was scrupulously self-controlled and deferent. Sometimes they called him "the Black Prince."
 
*

Less than a decade after Jackson's death, Australia fought in the Great War, at the cost of thousands of lives.

When it came to secure the subsequent peace, Australia joined with other wartime powers to negotiate the charter of the new League of Nations.

The Japanese delegation sought to include a racial equality clause in the charter. This was resisted from many sides. The Americans suggested an article whereby any newly created nation states would guarantee to treat their ethnic minorities fairly, but this, too, was rejected. 

The United States and the European powers all had their reasons to resist such a call for fair dealing, built as their fortunes were on colonial violation. The Texan negotiator Edward House sought to water down Japanese proposals by avoiding the word "equality" and incorporating the words into the charter's preamble, rather than the enforceable body of the text.

But the strongest, bluntest calls to deny racial equality came from the same Australia that had adopted Peter Jackson. When British diplomats convened a meeting with representatives of South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia to seek a compromise, it was Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes who declared his absolute opposition to the Japanese proposal. He told the gathering that "ninety five out of one hundred Australians" rejected the very notion of racial equality, and walked out of the discussion.

This, too, was a man - and this, too, was Australia. As inseparable from the few black lives it chose to celebrate as a man's arm is from his shoulder.
 
*

"Sweet Science" didn't originate with Joe Liebling. He got it from an 1824 publication, Boxiana, which acknowledges that the purpose of this sport is always to injure: the full phrase is, "the Sweet Science of bruising." 
 
Peter Jackson's entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography is circumspect in its condemnation of Jackson's times:
Termed the 'darkey' or worse early on, Jackson became known as 'Peter the Great' or 'The Black Prince'. He was always deemed a 'gentleman' and a 'real whiteman'. His great sportsmanship and modesty reflected his nature, and also was a role forced on him by the exigencies of a black fighter in a white world. 
 
Jackson found a life for himself in the ring, but we know little of how he felt about it or whether he was free to steer it as he saw fit. We know his story now only through the decisions of the white men who trained and booked him as a fighter; who cheered him as an Australian, and mourned him as a gentleman, and paid for the hunk of marble which now rests all but forgotten on the slopes of Toowong Cemetery.

When they wrote "this was a man" on the base of that stone, you wonder what they really meant.