Don David Pacifico was a Portuguese Jew, born in Gibraltar of Moorish stock in 1784. At birth, he acquired the rights, privileges and obligations of all British citizens the world over under Pax Britannica and good Queen Victoria. At that time half the globe was coloured in British red.

The Rock of Gibraltar, one of the Pillars of Hercules, was part of Spain until 1704. The empire-building British scoured the seas, forever on the lookout for bargains and were never afraid to pick a fight, particularly with the former might of Spain. Maybe it was complacency on the part of the grandees, or dreams of former dominance, or just plain inattention that allowed Spain to lose Gibraltar, but its strategic position straddling the Mediterranean trade route was not lost on the scavenging British.

So the English, without a ‘beg your pardon’, seized it and painted it red yet another dot on the map.

In fairness, it must be said that Spain was, by then, a crumbling empire with its attention diverted by The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), and Europe was on the boil with various Hapsburgs, Bourbons and, of course England’s Queen Anne, all jostling for power. Throughout all this parleying and campaigning, why would the otiose Spanish regime notice the theft of another bit of rock dangling off the end of their map? But it had not gone unnoticed by the British that a naval station at Gibraltar presented an unqualified opportunity to defend their global maritime trade. By 1713 all this had been formalised and Gibraltar (as well as Minorca) was ceded to the British crown by the Treaty of Utrecht.

In 1847, Don Pacifico, our Gibraltarian of commerce is a resident of Athens going about his business and acting in his capacity as Portuguese Consul-General. Some declared that money lending was one of his games and that may well have been true. But, as could be expected, rumours of this nature were circulated by his detractors, not his friends.

At this time anti-Semitic riots broke out in Athens. Don Pacifico’s house was wrecked and he was forced to flee with his family, barely escaping injury. The grown sons of a Minister of the Greek Government were known to have taken part in the outrage. When the Greek Government refused his demand for compensation he asked the British Government to intervene on his behalf, as was the right of any British citizen domiciled in Athens or elsewhere.

Despite scurrilous reports maliciously circulated about Don Pacifico’s dealings, the British Government, under the redoubtable Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, leapt to his defence. When negotiation failed, a British naval squadron was despatched toAthens’s port of Piraeus in 1850 where it seized Greek shipping as hostage. France and Russia, as co-sponsors with Britain of Greece’s independence (in 1832) from the Ottoman Empire, protested this action with threatening gestures, condemning England’s high-handed action.

Palmerston was roundly abused in the Parliament by the more timid Members and censured by the House of Lords. It was said by some that the Foreign Secretary had exposed the country to danger by his precipitate action in bringing his country to the brink of war for the sake of an outlandish subject of Jewish origin. But the people of England were loud in their outrage when they learned of Don Pacifico’s treatment at the hands of the perfidious Greeks.

Nothing deterred, in a long speech to House of Commons, Palmerston invoked the principle that any citizen of Britain has the right to be protected by his government from injustice within the realm or in foreign parts, and he ended with the words:

whether the principles on which the foreign policy of Her Majesty’s Government has been conducted, and the sense of duty which has led us to think ourselves bound to afford protection to our fellow subjects abroad, are proper and fitting guides for those who are charged with the Government of England; and whether, as the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity [my italics], when he could say civis Romanus sum; so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice and wrong.

Mark it well! The word appears again … dignity!

Perhaps we in Australia today should pause and reflect on a page of history and wonder if we have not abandoned entirely the principle of civis Romanus sum. We have only to look at Guantánamo Bay to find depressing evidence of our national pride turned to joke and set at nought; where our citizens lie detained, confined and fettered by a foreign power without charge or due process. Australia, meanwhile, looks on with sick humility. Where, one wonders, should we invest our national heritage when we find ourselves in such servitude to foreign interests and burdened with shame?

What was that word again? Dignity! Faintly, even self-consciously, I hear the cry re-echo through the corridors of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra … otium cum dignitate (idleness with dignity)!

It makes you wonder though, doesn’t it? Surely you would have to think twice before calmly despatching your dear old Mum to foreign parts with only an Australian passport to protect her. Her well-being and dignity, not to mention life and limb, are at great risk in these troubled times. And if I referred to her passport as that ‘scrap of paper’ issued by a guardian angel, you’d know instantly to whom I refer if I mentioned fish-net stockings, twinkling eyes and chubby cheeks our standard bearer of human rights.

Time was, if you can remember, when this ‘scrap of paper’ came with a comforting assurance ‘to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.’ Then it was bound, like a promise, in thick pasteboard with flowing copperplate, looking like a million dollars.

In those days it read well, didn’t it? No matter where your dear old Mum travelled in the world, one felt she could hold her head high and depend upon living aid and breathing sustenance at her right hand. It conferred dignity and substance!

Dignity! The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary definition includes words such as, ‘self-respect, bearing, honour, nobility.’ Now the citizens of Rome in its days of glory had a great feeling for their own worthiness and summed it up in a public declaration, civis Romanus sum. And woe betide anyone daring to take liberties with a son of Rome making this just claim.

Until recently these self-same characteristics were modestly assumed by our travelling public, secure in the knowledge that we were the sons and daughters of a proud Australia. How things have changed!

Now we rush to war on dubious alliances, scamper around the high table sweeping up the crumbs of Free Trade Agreements, realising too late that all along we should have taken much longer spoons before supping with the Devil. So, as a consequence, our national freedoms become submerged under the deadening weight of expedient diplomacy, our spirit of independence seriously endangered and civis Australius sum turned to ridicule!

No, I don’t think it’s such a good idea to send your dear old Mum overseas these days.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.