Thursday, 10 February 2011

Post#170 Advance Australia Fair

I read an interview recently with Thomas Keneally in one of my history periodicals. The author of the Booker Prize-winning Schindler’s Ark, the basis for Stephen Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List, last year he published Australians: Origins to Eureka, volume one of a history of his native land. I’ve not read this –yet – so I can’t comment, though I was beguiled and intrigued by some of the points he made in the discussion.

A lot of people in England have silly preconceptions about Australia and its history. If they think of it at all it’s really just as a dumping ground for convicts, undesirables of all sorts! But as Keneally quite rightly says, many of those sentenced to transportation were condemned simply for embracing radical causes, not welcomed in an England dominated by a reactionary aristocratic clique. It was their sense of social justice, their sense of determination that allowed Australia, conceived as a penal colony, to become something much greater;

One of the reasons why Australia survives was that there were many social protestors among the convicts. These were people who did not consider themselves criminals. They were people like poachers who acted in protest against the enclosure of estates. Then there were the Luddites, Swing rioters, Irish Ribbonmen and Jacobite martyrs. You had these fairly robust, stroppy people alongside the professional thieves and prostitutes.

These people were later joined by others simply looking for a better life, those who, for one reason or another, were unable to establish themselves in the Old Country. Here for me Charles Dickens’ Wilkins Micawber springs to mind, the genial and impecunious rogue in David Copperfield, always waiting for something to turn up. Well, it did – Australia turned up! It was there that he finally made a go of things after a lifetime of failure. What I did not know is that Dickens actually sent two of his sons there, despairing of their prospects at home. Anthony Trollope sent a son there as well.

So, the land was settled by people with a sense of grievance, people for whom England offered little or nothing. This seems to me, perhaps looking at things through rosy spectacles, to account for a quality I’ve always admired in Australians – a mood of egalitarianism and an almost complete lack of the finer forms of English snobbery.

All of the elements of a new consciousness were there; it only needed one spark to allow them to coalesce. This came in 1854 with the rising at the Eureka goldfield at Ballerat by a group of miners disgruntled by prohibitive fees levied by the authorities. In itself it was nothing, a revolution quickly squashed, an episode of seemingly transitory importance. But, as Keneally argues, it had an extraordinary impact in the long-term, beginning a process that helped turn an old penal colony into a modern democracy, the final harvesting of the progressive tradition.

So far a very positive story, but the writer finishes on a note of caution;

As a settler society Australia 1788-1860 was prodigiously successful. I don’t say this with a jingoistic glow in my cheeks because I don’t think I can say the same about the past 50 years, and ultimately I’m going to have to write about that period as well.

Alas, nowhere is perfect; not even Australia. :-)


Lauren said...

Thanks for the post, It's always nice when you see a mention of actual Australian History. I've been reading Bryson's "Down Under" and was amazed to discover how little is written and seemingly known about Australia in the rest of the world. In sociology we learnt that Australia was founded with the enlightenment ideals and "modernity" already well established...however, the colonialisation of Australia is still pretty nasty, and "Terra Nulius" was pretty stupid...Anywho, I think in general large parts of Australia are missing the snobbery as you say...Sydney perhaps not so much though...(especially the Eastern Suburbs, see:

Thanks again!

Lauren K

Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont said...

Thanks, Lauren. I'm glad to see that you found your way here. :-)

Retarius said...

Thanks, Anastasia. A very nice piece.

I don't know what I would choose if I had to recommend one work on Australian history to give the best overview. I haven't read this work yet; I usually enjoy Tom Keneally's writing. However, for the period you're referring to here, one really can't do better than Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore.

Lauren K said...

I've been meaning to read "The Fatal Shore"! I've heard great things about it!

Retarius said...

Lauren, thanks for your comments.

Yes, we have a strange history in this country; straight from the Neolithic to the mid-Industrial Revolution. And plenty of genocide and colonial exploitation and all the rest of it.

I'll have to read Bryson's book. I'm interested to know what he made of the place.

Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont said...

Thanks to both of you. I'll look out for that book too.

Michael J McCormick said...

I would also recommend The Fatal Shore - no punches are pulled. I read it whilst on holiday in Australia. One of my ancestors was a convict ship guard - not quite as popular as a convict these days.........

Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont said...

I'll have a look at that, Michael. Thanks.

Count Sneaky said...

Enlightening post. We in America, also know almost nothing of Australian history. Indeed ,as polls have demonstrated repeatedly, we know very little about the history of our own country.
We did see something of the country on tv because of the floods, but we do need to know much more about a country which is one of our staunchest friends and a most interesting place in its own right.

Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont said...

Thanks, Count Sneaky. Yes, it is.