A few columns ago I cited a story often told among journalists, for fun and to caution against self-importance, usually in vain. Variously attributed to small newspapers in remote locations at some time in the 19th century, an editorial discussing Russian foreign policy is said to have thundered: “We warn the Tsar!”
The source is sometimes said to have been a newspaper in Tasmania, the Mercury, and sometimes a paper in Nelson, New Zealand. In the column I said the story might be apocryphal. As often happens, readers and researchers mobilised, so here is an update.
One suggested source was the Skibbereen Eagle, in West Cork, Ireland, which proclaimed in a leader published in September 1898 that the paper would “keep its eye on the Emperor of Russia, and all such despotic enemies – whether at home or abroad – of human progression, and man’s natural rights, which undoubtedly include a nation’s claim to self-government”.
Fame attached and endured, so much so that the paper that absorbed the Eagle, the Southern Star, could confidently publish in 1946 a cartoon of Ireland’s then taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, in one-to-one talks with the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who murmurs through pipe smoke: “Between ourselves, Dev, Russia has never quite forgotten that article in the Skibbereen Eagle.”
Without denying the Eagle’s vision and influence, another source can be proposed. On 30 March 1882, under the headline “The Emperor of Russia Warned”, Melbourne Punch attributed to the “Croajingergoalong Gazette” these words: “For the last time our duty as public journalists calls on us to warn the present Emperor, the Czar of all the Russias, against the course he is deliberately pursuing, ie in endeavouring to destroy the peace of Europe. In all human probability, that despotic monarch will never see these lines which we now pen, but our duty, as public journalists, demands that we should write them. The pen, a great writer has wisely said, is mightier than the sword, and we feel that the humble nib which we now grasp outweighs the present Emperor’s blade, although he may never know it.”
It is not conclusive proof of a spoof that this excerpt appeared in a humour journal modelled on London’s Punch. As Private Eye still regularly shows, actual newspapers remain capable of similar grandiloquence. So, was Melbourne Punch quoting from an actual small-town newspaper? No – the initial clue is in the masthead’s tweak to Croajingolong, a beautiful and remote part of the far south-eastern tip of mainland Australia.
Perhaps it was a fashionable form of mockery in the period, to chide others about their “we warn the tsar” moments. That could explain the cluster.
The plucky Gazette was not deterred. Two copies of the paper would be mailed to the Tsar, “if they are not filched in their passage through the Russian post office”, and although warmongering advisers might “dash the current number of the Croajingergoalong Gazette from His Majesty’s irresolute hand … we may yet hear of him walking into the council of the assembled heads of the nation, and holding the Croajingergoalong Gazette aloft in his hand, ‘There shall be no war; this little print has pointed out to me my duty’.”
• Paul Chadwick is the Guardian’s readers’ editor