The Photos of John Burtovich in Police Custody by Suchetana Chattopadhyay

In 1919, a British merchant vessel SS Boveric reached Calcutta. The ship carried a mixed crew ‘of all nations’. On board were Frank Bilboa and John Burtovich, two workers in their twenties. They had previously participated in strikes led by the Industrial Workers of the World at Broken Hill, New South Wales in 1917. Having been sentenced to and served six months in jail, they were detained until November 1918 by the Australian authorities who considered the best ways to get rid of them. After ten months in prison, they received deportation orders to Chile but the Chilean government refused to receive them, having also adopted anti-radical measures. The British colonial police in Calcutta were aware that they were coming and, though sympathetic to the officers of a British vessel, informed them that the ship could not land. According to a statement of the ship’s officers, they had tried unsuccessfully to put the men on other steamers belonging to the same shipping line and had already separated them from the rest of the crew to prevent the spread of revolutionary ideas. The same statement branded the two as ‘well known bad characters’ forcibly placed on their vessel by the Australian authorities and complained that the ship had been refused entry at every port because of them. The Deputy Commissioner of the Port Police consequently arrested them under the war-time Defence of India Act, for allegedly carrying on Bolshevik propaganda and given the ‘impossibility of allowing them to remain at large in India’.

Following interrogations and a close examination of their papers, the colonial authorities readily concluded that the two were influenced by Bolshevism and confirmed the claim of the ship’s officers that they were ‘dangerous and a menace to the ship.’ The papers indicated anarchist and anti-authoritarian links rather than any clear ‘Bolshevik’ position, reflecting the wide interpretation made of the term at this point. They were incarcerated at Alipore Central Jail, a familiar destination of political prisoners in the city, though the authorities pressed for their transfer to the Ahmednagar military internment camp; they argued the latter was more suitable since it held ‘prisoners of this type of Bolshevists’. Ultimately, in August, Balboa was put on a ship sailing to Port Said, and Burtovich on one sailing for Shanghai, from which the British authorities intended to deport him to White Russia. Apparently Burtovich resisted this course of action, getting off the ship at Singapore. After their deportation, the trail of the two radical strikers faded from official reports preserved in Calcutta. The circumstances of their arrival and departure nevertheless suggest that local authorities in the port cities of the colonial and semi-colonial world were becoming increasingly vigilant regarding the ‘Bolshevik Menace’. As Britain and its allies attacked the nascent Soviet Republic immediately after the First World War ended, a powerful and effective network of surveillance against political dissidents which had already existed, was further expanded to look out for the so-called Bolshevik agents travelling by sea. A colonial ‘hydrophobia’, underlined by a heightened anxiety over imperialist control over the ocean-scape of the world, determined British official thinking; sailors, ships, sea-routes and port cities were seen as entry-points of an enemy with ever-changing, liquid physiognomy.

The 25-year-old Burtovich, a godless member of ‘an unlawful association’, looks grim and defiant in the photos taken by the Australian police and preserved in the government records of New South Wales. The front and side shots are accompanied with the following note:

‘The Bathurst Gaol photograph description sheet for John Burtovich native of Russia, born 15 September 1892 records that he was convicted at Broken Hill Police Court on 3 September 1917 for being a member of an unlawful association and sentenced to 6 months hard labour. His description notes that he arrived in New South Wales per the ship Eliza in 1915 and was a labourer by trade.’

References: Suchetana Chattopadhyay, ‘The myth of the outsider: from Whitehall to Elysium Row, 1917-21’, Twentieth Century Communism 6(6) (2014)
Source of image (with accompanying note):
Acknowledgements: Devleena Ghosh, Heather Goodall, Bonnie Wildie