(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)
(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)

Guy Rundle’s gag last week, asking the management of Crikey and the Launceston Examiner to join him in “warning Mr Putin”, got us thinking. “We Warn the Tsar” has long been a go-to phrase for mocking ineffectual rhetoric. The story goes that a small paper — maybe Tasmania’s The Mercury — at some point in the 1800s opened an editorial raging against Russian foreign policy by telling the Tsar to watch his step.

First, we headed to the archives of The Mercury: the earliest instance we can find comes from September 1892, but, alas, it’s not The Mercury delivering the warning.

As it turns out, it’s a throw-away joke in a story about New Zealand’s Woodville Examiner whose editor has been jailed for criminal libel. They describe the Examiner, perhaps harshly, as the kind of paper that “seems to imagine itself more powerful that the law”. It goes on, “It is recorded that one of his kind who edited a little weekly rag with a circulation of a hundred copies began a terrific editorial fulmination with the words ‘we warn the Czar of Russia’.”

So we headed to the New Zealand archive service Past Papers, and with the much-appreciated help of history professor Michael Belgrave at the University of Massey we found some tantalising details. There is the 1907 speech in New Zealand Parliament by Thomas Wilford. In amiably listing his ill treatment by the press, he attributes the phrase to the Nelson Colonist:

Alas, we can find no record of the phrase in the Colonist. Indeed the earliest instance from a New Zealand paper comes from 1894 in the North Otago Times, where they… attribute the origin to Ireland:

The closest we could find to a warning for the Czar from Ireland was in 1898 when The Skibberdeen Eagle promised to “Keep an eye on the Czar”, but obviously that time frame doesn’t work at all.

We suspect its origin in its current form is a pisstake from the start. On March 30, 1882, under the headline “The Emperor of Russia Warned”, Australian satire mag 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, i.e. in endeavouring to destroy the peace of Europe …”

Thing is, there was a Croajingergoalong Gazette. Well, to be exact there was a The Snowy River Mail and Tambo and Croajingolong Gazette. However, they don’t appear to have commenced publishing until 1890, and while they did not shy away from covering matter pertaining to Russia we can find no record of them warning the Tsar.

Have we missed something? Do you know who first warned the Tsar? Let us know.