24 Jan 2014

Captain Jack 'Our job is to gnaw through the shark, to make no terms with British Imperialism'

During the 1945 General Election an unusual political event occurred in the constituency of Antrim.  An election meeting held in the local Orange Hall, was booked in the name of Jack White standing as a republican socialist.  Captain White denounced the union, the British Royal Family, capitalism and a number of other icons, using strong language. The Orange Order, a sectarian organisation based on opposition to Irish Unity, must have had a shock hiring the hall to an opponent of everything they stood for.  Sadly Captain Jack failed to make it on to the ballot paper, because of his last battle, where bullets had not defeated him, cancer did and he died in a Belfast nursing home in 1946.
The strange story of Captain Jack, the transformation from a British Imperialist who fought in the Boer War, and whose father was Governor of Gibraltar, to that of a republican socialist who founded the Irish Citizens Army is both colourful and inspiring.
Born in 1879, White stares from the history books looking in his photos like Indiana Jones or, as he once was,  a strong jawed British Army officer.  The story of how he he converted to socialism, joined a commune in Stroud , became a medic in Spain and fought the British Empire, is the stuff of films but flawed hero as he was, I doubt that Hollywood would celebrate him.
He was born in County Antrim in 1879, a member of the Protestant farming community, like his father Sir George Stuart White, he was educated at Winchester College and Sandhurst. He fought in the Boer War, where he was decorated with the Distinguish Service Order for his bravery. It was also during the Boer War that he first became disillusioned with British imperialism.  A commanding officer told him to shoot a scared teenage solidier to frightened to fight. Jack responded by aiming his pistol at the officer and telling him ‘Do so, and I’ll shoot you’. Disillusioned he left the army and undertook a variety of adventures including joining the Whiteway commune in Stroud and travelling in Bohemia. Founded on Tolstoy’s principles it still exists in a modified form today as part of the town’s green and socialist tradition.  The 1905 Russian Revolution, along with Tolstoy,  was also an influence on this transition to socialism.
He returned to Ireland to find Sir Edward Carson, recruiting the local Protestant community to the Unionist cause. Jack believed in Irish independence, describing unionism as based on ‘bigotry and stagnation.’  He organised a meeting in Ballymoney to support home rule, one of the other speakers was Sir Roger Casement.  There is an often forgotten tradition of republicans from a protestant tradition stretching from Wolf Tone in the 18th century to Erskine Childers, Casement and Captain White. During the 20th century Irish revolutionaries from a Protestant tradition were active in the the Civil Rights campaigns in the 1960s including my fellow Green Party member Roy Johnston.  Such a tradition is too easily forgotten and shows that sectarian opposition to emancipatory politics can be overcome.
Because of the Ballymoney meeting Jack was invited to Dublin, where he met the great Scottish revolutionary James Connolly, known for his participation in the Easter Uprising of 1916. Connolley converted Jack to socialism.  This summer sees the hundredth anniversary of the Dublin lockout, where workers battle for trade union rights. After brutal police attacks on the workers, Captain Jack offered his services in the fight for workers rights. He and James Larkin founded the Irish Citizens Army, the volunteers were drilled and trained by Jack, who later recalled that their appearance ‘put manners on the police’.
He believed that Irish people should organise for self-defence against Britain and was active in the struggle for self-rule. When after the Easter rising Connolly was sentenced to death in 1916, Jack travelled to South Wales to try to bring the miners out on strike to save Connolly’s life. Jack failed and Connolly was executed, tied to a chair, because he was too weak from his injuries to stand up.  Jack was imprisoned for three months and was in Pentonville on the day that his friend Roger Casement was hung.
The dislocation of the Irish Civil War left him politically isolated but he remained an active revolutionary.  He considered joining the Communist Party of Ireland, became involved with Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation and later the Republican Congress. In fact in 1934 he organised a Dublin branch of the Republican Congress made up of other like himself who had once been in the British military.  Republican politics was complex and splintered and White was by no means a consistent or disciplined political thinker, but his activism continued.  He identified increasingly with anarchism and volunteered in the Spanish Civil War as a medic.
He was not I suspect an easy man to work with, life in the British military and a background as a member of an upper class loyalist family, no doubt may have reduced his ability to act cooperatively.  Its a bit difficult to think of him making the lentil stew at Whiteway Coloney and he fell out with many former comrades including Larkin.  However he reminds us that people can cross the line and reject their own elite class to stand with the workers.  It is remarkable that the son of the governor of Gibraltar could become an implacable opponent of empire. In a 1936 pamphlet entitle Where Casement Would Stand Today, he wrote ‘Our job is to gnaw through the shark, to make no terms with British Imperialism, not to gain our unity and a deceptive pretence of freedom by lying down quietly in-side the shark's belly.’ Embarrassed by his revolutionary legacy, after his death his family burnt his political papers including a study of the Cork soviet and he was buried in the family plot with no mention of his role in the republican socialist tradition.
His story cannot of course be distilled into a couple of paragraphs and some simple political lessons. His autobiography ‘Misfit: A Revolutionary Life’ has recently been recently republished and is available from Carlton Books the Glasgow based socialist book shop and publishers, if you would like a copy you can email them on shop@calton-books.co.uk.  

 I guess if I had ever met the good Captain I would have argued with him vigorously but he is one of my heroes, not quite Che, but a reactionary gamekeeper turned peoples poacher. So lets drink to his memory and all the other defenders of the Dublin workers like Connolly and Larkin.

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