Copyright © Australian War Diary (World War One)



Thursday, 2 July 1914

As Munro Ferguson's cabled condolences of 30 June to Austria-Hungary's Emperor, Franz Joseph, made its circuitous journey through the Colonial and Foreign offices, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador in London and, finally, to Vienna, both Commonwealth and some state governments expressed more immediately their sentiments--to the Austro-Hungarian consular officers in Australia.

NSW and Tasmania had begun accrediting foreign consuls from the 1830s, when they started to emerge from a purely penal-colony status to commercial enterprises with early forms of responsible government. The USA and France were first, followed by some of the several German states. In the 1850s, all the by-now seven Australasian colonies, except Western Australia, were granted constitutions; transportation was ending. A surge of new consular appointments followed.  By Federation, Europe and the Americas, plus Japan but not China (who had been rebuffed) were well-represented to varying degrees in all the colonies, depending how each foreign country saw the importance the specific colony in trade or immigration terms. All of these appointments were accredited to that colony's (after 1901, state) government. In the late 1870s,  Austria-Hungary established a consulate in Adelaide, near the largest Austrian migrant population, and also Sydney.

Federation complicated this status quo. There was conflict between the Commonwealth and states over the procedure for further appointments--specifically whether the states or Commonwealth controlled the process of appointment of consuls, vice consuls and honorary consuls to the state only. At 1911's premiers' conference, reaffirmed in April 1914, the states jointly insisted on retaining authority over consular officials accredited to them alone. Foreign countries, aware of significant constitutional change in Australia as a result of Federation, sought to accredit to the Commonwealth consuls, where it had no other consular representative accredited to a state, or consul-generals, where it already did. 

By 1914 the Commonwealth, had accepted trade commissioners from Canada and New Zealand and accredited consular officers from 35 foreign countries: sixteen each from Europe and the Americas; from other the still mostly colonised parts of the world, two from Asia (Siam's approach had been rebuffed) and one from Africa. Despite the Federal government being located in Melbourne at this time, by far the largest number (22) of these officials, including Austria-Hungary, Germany, France and Serbia, were based in Sydney (Americas: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua & Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru, the USA; other Europe: Denmark, Greece, Norway, Portugal, Sweden; Asia: Japan, China; Africa: Liberia). Melbourne hosted only twelve Commonwealth-accredited consulates (Americas: Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama; Europe: Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey). Auckland hosted Uruguay's consul for both dominions. In many cases where the foreign interests in the respective Australasian colony were limited, trusted local persons, including both British subjects and resident aliens, not always of the country's nationality, were appointed as consular officers at lower levels.

At Federation there were six Austro-Hungarian consulates in Australia, New Zealand and their associated Pacific Islands. Some officials were Australians and some Austro-Hungarian career officers. Their work was not demanding. Whereas Canada received a wave of Austrian migrants from the late 19th century, amounting to about a quarter-of-a-million, Australia had only 3,000 persons of Austrian birth just before 1914. The Commonwealth was automatically bound to a new Declaration in late 1901 between the two Imperial governments on their existing 1873 extradition treaty.The only major issue which arose was Western Australian complaints, which led to a formal Commonwealth inquiry, into a supposed surge of Austrian, Italian and Greek migrants on the goldfields. Commercial relations were not extensive although the colonies were bound to an 1876 Imperial commercial treaty from which the Commonwealth withdrew in 1912. Unlike Germany, the Dual Monarchy did not have Pacific colonies. An Austrian commercial mission visited immediately after Federation as part of a tour from Persia to Asia but no great developments resulted for Australia. Nonetheless, Austria-Hungary soon appointed a consul-general for the Commonwealth and New Zealand. thus effectively in charge of all these six consulates. This position was reserved for career officers from Austria-Hungary.

At the end of September 1913 Austria-Hungary appointed Ferdinand Freyesleben as the new consul-general. Holding a doctor of laws from Prague University, he spoke several languages including English fluently. He entered the consular service at age 27 and, two years later, in 1893, took up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, his first of five successive US appointments. After these he went to Montreal in 1903, Calcutta in 1907 and, finally, to Darling Point, Sydney, where he was assisted by the experienced, formerly Auckland-based, career secretary, Carl Klette.

The role of consuls was not yet formally defined but it was well-accepted it was limited representation of their nationals in the host country and commercial relations. This was a blurred line easily crossed. Further complicating their job was a lack of clarity as to the largely unwritten Imperial constitution of the British Empire, including specifically the constitutional significance of Federation in 1901. The Belgian consul-general in Melbourne clearly did not understand the situation correctly immediately after Federation when he pressed prime minister Barton to adhere to a multilateral treaty sponsored by Belgium. The Commonwealth government, almost as confused, formally agreed, only years later when the Colonial Office discovered the procedural mistake, to be admonished by the Imperial government which retained sole authority over treaties.

Barton's irritation with the consuls, particularly Japan's on race issues and France's on protocol, quickly developed. The German consul-general's complaint directly to him, in late 1901, over treatment of a German merchant ship, was the last straw. He asked the Governor-General to relay to the Colonial Office exactly how he saw the limited role of consuls and their relationship with the Commonwealth government. 

'The Consul-General appears to assume that there are some analogies between his functions and those of an Ambassador. No such assumption can be admitted on the part of the Commonwealth, the Government of which is, of course, precluded from the discussion with external authorities representing Foreign Nations, of matters involving the relations between the British Empire and those Nations, excepting with the express authority of His Majesty's Imperial Government. . . . representations of a diplomatic character made by the Consuls in Australia to the Commonwealth Government should be referred' to the Colonial Office. 'Your Ministers have no intention or desire to set up a correlative practice by communications in the first instance, with Consuls on matters which ought to be the subject of communication with His Majesty's Government and those of Foreign Powers.'

This remained essentially the position under all Commonwealth prime ministers. After these initial problems arising from some consuls not fully understanding the limited independence Australia was granted under its Imperial constitution, no great friction continued. In 1906 the prime minister's office commented that the consuls 'give very little trouble' and with them there were 'good, pleasant relations.' So there was nothing but genuine sympathy in the seven Australian governments for the Austro-Hungarian officials when the news of Sarajevo broke in June 1914.    

Australia's press, copying photographs in British magazines & newspapers imported by ship earlier, emphasised, as the week went on, the personal human tragedy of the assassinations, especially that the three royal children had been made orphans.

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