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An oddity from the start

Convicts and national character

Cover: July 2008July 2008Medium length read
 

What to me seems the most challenging question in Australian history receives commonly a very confident answer. What effect did the convicts have on our national character? Answer: they made us an anti-authoritarian people.

The best antidote to this view is still an article written 40 years ago by Henry Reynolds, before he turned his attention to Aboriginal history. He deals with the aftermath of convict transportation in Tasmania and, unusually in historical enquiry, argues with the simplicity and conclusiveness of a syllogism. In Tasmania the convicts represented a higher proportion of the population than on the mainland. If convicts are responsible for an anti-authoritarian attitude it should be particularly prevalent there. In fact, Tasmania after transportation was the most conservative, the most traditional and Anglophile of the colonies, the most un-Australian in outlook, with a working class submissive, unprotesting and apolitical. Therefore convicts cannot be responsible for anti-authoritarianism.

Reynolds had in his sights the classic work on the national character by Russel Ward: The Australian Legend, published in 1958. Long before Australian society generally accepted and even boasted of its convict foundations, Ward took pleasure in insisting that convicts are our "founding fathers" and from them he derives our independence, anti-authoritarianism and the group solidarity of men, which became mateship. But he also outlined other factors which accentuated and embedded these characteristics. In the colonies generally and in particular "up the country" where the old hands (convicts and ex-convicts) were concentrated, there was a shortage of labour which removed from workers the fear of the boss. In the pastoral country outback men wandered independently from station to station, not bound to one employer, known often by only a nickname and not needing references to land a job. The sparseness of settlement and the isolation from civilised society led men to depend on each other. Their bonds were more intense because there were few white women in the bush; the pattern of these men's lives was to work hard, drink away their earnings, swear outrageously and find sexual release with Aboriginal women.

It is said that a good history book will carry the evidence to refute its own argument. Perhaps all these other factors that Ward presents were enough to produce the national characteristics? And so convicts can be dropped from the explanation? The Tasmanian case seems to support such a conclusion because it did not have a labour shortage, settlement was closer, and governments and the employing class exercised a firm control on the lower orders.

However, convict influence might be saved by arguing that Australia inherited convict characteristics but they needed certain circumstances in which to flourish - New South Wales had them; Tasmania did not. But doubt can be thrown on this supposition and with an argument that Ward half recognises. Australia in its foundation years acquired free British workers as well as convicts, and both came from a Britain where the old social bonds of deference were weakening with the disturbances brought by rapid economic growth and industrialisation. In the late eighteenth century the working people of the towns were known as the "loose disorderly sort" and were notorious in Europe for their unruliness. By the early nineteenth century working people were beginning to organise to claim political rights, to be part of the nation and not merely to be the poor or the lower orders. If we find stroppy workers in Australia we don't have to look for convict influence.

William Howitt, a traveller to the goldfields in the 1850s, was alert for rude behaviour from the lower orders. In England he was a radical but a gentleman, and in Australia he travelled heavy and dressed as a gentleman. On one occasion a group of diggers threatened him and his son by continuing to play a game of cricket in which the stumps were pitched in the middle of the main road. The bowler hurled the ball just past the ear of Howitt's horse and the batsman stuck it back so that it nearly hit Howitt's son in the face. Some mounted police had just ridden by and they had made no attempt to stop the game. Howitt quietly remonstrated with the men on the danger they were causing, but they heaped abuse on him and yelled, "We do as we like here. You are not in England, remember." These men were almost certainly fresh off the boat, as was Howitt himself. Though he was annoyed, he was calm in his explanation of their behaviour, which made no reference to convicts and their influence. He saw them as Englishmen crudely asserting their freedom after being held in more restraint at home.

It is possible in Britain itself to find a workforce with the ‘Australian' characteristics but without any convict influence. The navvies who built the railways in the early nineteenth century were high-paid, roving men, often known only by a nickname, spending their monthly wages in a great burst of drinking and being a great terror to decent society. They were a tribe apart, with strong loyalty to each other: a navvy on the tramp between jobs would camp with other navvies, who were honour bound to contribute funds to see him on his way. Like the Australian sundowners, some of these trampers were suspected of never wanting to find a job.

Are we done with convicts? Not quite, because we need to consider the quintessential anti-authority figure, the Irish convict. Ward puts much stress on him. Since the Irish were rebels against foreign domination and tyrannical landlords they seem natural candidates for contributors to Australian anti-authoritarianism. But this mistakes the nature of the anti-authority attitude we are discussing. We are not looking for explanations for open, violent rebellion. There has been little of that in Australia and when it did occur, at Castle Hill and Eureka, the Irish were prominent. We are looking for the origins of a street-smart, irreverent attitude, mocking or evading authority but with no sense of controlling or replacing it. The origins of this are English, late-eighteenth-century, working-class, urban; not pre-modern, rural Ireland. The Irish were more communal and tribal, more combative and loyal, less interested in independence and swagger, and pleased to find a patron who would protect them: "God bless you, your honour."

The Australian national character is always presented as a marked departure from the character of the English. When Australians make these comparisons they are thinking of the toffy upper-crust Englishman in a bowler hat. When George Orwell described the English national character in 1940 he wrote of the working class and the lower-middle class - the very people who came to Australia:

... another English characteristic which is so much a part of us that we barely notice it ... is the addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life. We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official - the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea'. The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above.

One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world.

Much of this is true of Australians and true of Australians who are no longer working-class. The drinking, gambling and swearing are part of the national stereotype that Ward identified and explored; he did not recognise as part of the national character the desire for the back garden and the home of your own, but that has been highlighted by those who have labelled Australia the first suburban nation. Nationalists writing of national character look for distinctiveness of local origin; we are better off thinking that Australian characteristics are those of the English working class writ large.

Ward considers that the outback workers - shearers, stockmen, drovers - adopted in the purest form the national characteristics that interest him. Yet it was the city larrikins, whom he does not mention, that made anti-authority an art form and who set a style which has become nationally admired. Larrikins flourished in the last decades of the nineteenth century and at first were not loveable people. Their pushes operated openly; they blocked the footpaths, jostled passers by, made obscene remarks to respectable girls and women, and spat on the clothes of well-dressed men. They beat up and robbed drunks and Chinese. But they were different from the roughs of European towns. The Melbourne journalist John Stanley James described them in this way:

One marked difference between the Melbourne larrikin and his compeers elsewhere is his extreme boldness and contempt of authorities. In Europe, the ‘rough' avoids the neighbourhood of police courts. He loves not to be known by magistrates or detectives. But here, the larrikin not only chaffs and annoys the policemen on his beat, but daily crowds the police court, and manifests the liveliest interest in the fate of male or female friends who may be on trial ... Another marked difference, which is in the larrikin's favour, is his generally better-fed and better-clothed appearance. The rowdy and thief in the old world, after all, lead a miserable life, and generally their profession does not appear to be a lucrative one; but here, in the first stage, they seem physically in good shape.

When tough measures against larrikins were called for, the larrikins were often found to be the children of respectable parents and in work. When they were prosecuted they could raise the money to employ a lawyer in their defence. The larrikin spirit is still a mysterious phenomenon. It was not the defiance of the damaged and excluded; it was the boldness that came from self-confidence, of young men who would not be confined. A prosperous working class, free of old-world condescension, had spawned in its native-born youth this baroque display of independence. In Sydney it was possible to argue that the larrikins were a residue from convict times, but larrikins flourished in all cities, particularly in Melbourne, the largest, which had only a faint convict heritage.


The strongest influence of the convicts is not to be sought in the anti-authoritarian attitudes in a segment of the people, but in the trauma of a nation which had to come to terms with its shameful origins. How was Australia to cope with the world's bad opinion? The one thing that everyone knew about Australia was that it was founded with convicts, which continued to make it morally suspect. As an 1850 British verse had it: "There vice is virtue, virtue vice / And all that's vile is voted nice."

The world would not forget the convict past, though Australians had themselves disowned it with the anti-transportation movement of the 1840s. When the crowd at the Sydney Cricket Ground invaded the pitch in 1879 an Englishman at the crease called out, "You sons of convicts." In 1942 Winston Churchill was tired of John Curtin's requests about the need for British reinforcements for Australia and blamed this panic on "bad stock".

For more than a century Australians observed a taboo of not mentioning the convicts. This covered the shame; it did not remove it. My exploration of the consequences of this repression is necessarily speculative, but there is no doubt about how raw the wound was. In 1899 a well-intentioned governor of New South Wales en route to take up his post sent this message ahead: "Greetings, your birth stain have you turned to good." There was an uproar; the governor had to retreat from such an offensive remark.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, as the national image began to take shape, Australia was presented by Australians in verse and picture as a young virginal girl, absolutely pure. The purity came from being free of old-world ills of caste, inequality and class prejudice; Australians were one people on a single continent living in harmony, with no civil strife, with opportunity for all, isolated from the rest of the world by the encircling sea, a nation made with no blood spilt (the battles with the Aborigines being entirely overlooked).

The best poem on these themes was written in 1883 by the Sydney journalist John Farrell. It concludes in this way about the British settlers of Australia:

They found a gracious amplitude of soil,

Unsown with memories, like poison weeds,

Of far-forefathers' wrongs and vengeful deeds,

Where was no crown, save that of earnest toil.

                             

They reared a sunnier England, where the pain

Of bitter yesterdays might not arise:

They said - ‘The past is past, and all its cries,

Of time-long hatred are beyond the main ...

 

And, with fair peace's white, pure flag unfurled,

Our children shall, upon this new-won shore -

Warned by all sorrows that have gone before -

Build up the glory of a grand New World.

As was common, the poet depicts the flag as white, because this is the badge of peace and purity.

I think this stress on the nation's purity was the Australian response to the impure origins of the nation. You think we are polluted, the poets are saying to the world, but we are developing a nation that is superior to all others. The purity and the whiteness did not at first refer to race. This image was developed before Asian migration was taken to be a threat. It was not until the late 1880s that the nation-to-be was taking a racial form; the colonies first co-operated to limit Chinese migration in 1888. We can now better understand why that policy gets its name, White Australia, which first came into use in the 1890s. Whiteness was already established as a symbol of the nation; the purity of Australia was then distilled into a purity of race. Thereafter the slogan of White Australia carried all the hopes for the young nation: pure, progressive, enlightened.

Other nations excluded Asian immigrants but not under a slogan of the Australian type - a ‘White New Zealand' or a ‘White Canada' did not become the panoply of nationhood. Racial purity was more desperately sought and proclaimed in Australia. Around the world purity of race increasingly mattered, and on that test Australia could rate high; Australians boasted they were 99% British, free of the mixture of other races. The insistence on this, the boastfulness about this, was the way to show the world that the convict stain was washed away. Except, of course, in racial thought blood went on counting; so in hitching Australia's destiny to a purity of race the Australians did not escape their origins - as Churchill's jibe about bad blood showed.

Purity of race is no longer a progressive cause, as it was in 1900, but democracy still is. In disowning the racism of White Australia, we can overlook that it advanced the cause of a more democratic Australia, in two senses. First, a racial identity obliterates the differences of class within the nation. All men are ‘white men', a common bond of masculinity, which took on a moral dimension as a white man became one who was true-hearted, loyal, reliable. Secondly, racial exclusion had been demanded most vociferously by working people, their trade unions and the early Labor Party. Workers would be the ones to suffer most directly if cheap coloured labour became prevalent. The acceptance of their demand for the exclusion of Asians was a commitment from the nation to the dignity of labour and its proper reward.

Here is another speculative connection between convict shame and national history. The landing at Gallipoli is being honoured more and more fervently in recent years but the claim, made at the time, that the nation was born at Gallipoli is a puzzle to modern Australians. Did Gallipoli mean so much because it was a supreme test of Australian mateship? No. Did Australians honour it because they have a perverse delight in defeat? No. Gallipoli did make the nation because it freed Australia from the self-doubt about whether it had the mettle to be a proper nation. Australian soldiers had been put to the supreme test and they had come through magnificently. Landed at the wrong place, facing almost perpendicular cliffs, with the Turks firing on them from above, they got ashore and scrambled up and hung on. All the military experts proclaimed their success; the British, most importantly, praised them. Once that had happened the outcome of the venture, whether defeat or victory, did not matter. And what was the deepest source of self-doubt? The convict stain.

New Zealanders landed with the Australians but not in the first wave at dawn on 25 April. The feats of their soldiers led to a growth of national consciousness but no one ever said that the New Zealand nation was born at Gallipoli. New Zealand was not so desperate for the world's approval. Though a British colony with strong connections to its neighbours in Australia, she declined to join them in the Commonwealth in 1901, often giving spurious reasons for doing so because one of the strongest reasons could not, without giving offence, be mentioned: she did not want to join the déclassé Australians and be identified with their shame.

As the war progressed the Australian soldiers became more proficient and they played a large part in the final battles against Germany on the Western Front. The soldiers had cemented Australia's reputation before the world and Australia then had to accept its soldier, warts and all. Respectable people could be proud of him as a warrior for the Empire; however, there were other aspects of his character - his refusal to show respect to officers, his tendency to larrikinism - which were harder to swallow but had now to be indulged. They became willy-nilly acceptable national characteristics because they were characteristics of the digger. Every Anzac Day both parts of the character were on display: the warrior in the formal celebrations in the morning; the drunk two-up player in the afternoon, when the police turned a blind eye so that the digger as larrikin could have free rein.

This is not Ward's account of how an anti-authoritarian attitude was accepted or tolerated by the nation at large. He claims that the attitude came from the outback workers and in the 1890s spread to the rest of the population, chiefly through the nationalist literature of Paterson and Lawson. In the long term this literature did have an influence but there were many people around 1900 not yet ready to embrace a shearer or a swagman as an iconic national figure. The bourgeoisie was more immediately and completely won over by the digger because he had suddenly made the nation and themselves respectable.

Ward explains that the nationalist literature had tidied up and ennobled the outback worker. The same thing also happened to the larrikin. As the real larrikins were becoming less of a menace, CJ Dennis published The Sentimental Bloke, a series of verses about a larrikin who puts behind him the loutish behaviour of his push after he is smitten with love for Doreen. The book was an instant popular success when it was published, in 1915. The larrikin had already been redeemed by love when his deeds in war put him in the pantheon. But the larrikinism still had a hard edge. Australian soldiers trashed and burnt the red light district of Cairo, the Wazzir, before they left for Gallipoli. CJ Dennis defended them in verse as innocents who had come from the "cleanest land on earth", a claim that should not surprise.

It was part of their native carelessness; an' part their native skite;

Fer they kids themselves they know the Devil well,

'Aving met 'im, kind uv casu'l, on some wild Australian night -

Wine an' women at a secon'-rate 'otel.

But the Devil uv Australia 'e's a little woolly sheep

To the devils wot the desert children keep.

 

So they mooches round the drink-shops, an' the Wazzir took their eye,

An' they found old Pharoah's daughters pleasin' Janes;

An' they wouldn't be Australian 'less they give the game a fly ...

An' Egyp' smiled an' totted up 'is gains.

'E doped their drinks, an' breathed on them 'is aged evil breath ...

An' more than one woke up to long fer death.

 

When they wandered frum the newest an' the cleanest land on earth,

An' the filth uv ages met 'em, it was 'ard.

Fer there may be sin an' sorer in the country uv their birth;

But the dirt uv centuries ain't in the yard.

They was children, playin' wiv an asp, an' never fearin' it,

An' they took it very sore when they wus bit.

 

'Ave yeh seen a crowd uv fellers takin' chances on a game,

Crackin' 'ardy while they thought it on the square?

'Ave yeh 'eard their owl uv anguish whey they tumbled to the same,

'Avin' found they wus the victims uv a snare?

It was jist that sort uv anger when they fell to Egyp's stunt;

An', remember, they wus trainin' fer the front.

Training for the front was the best of excuses but for a time the censor blocked publication of these verses. They did appear later in the war after the soldiers at the front had made the nation proud.

It was always something of a puzzle to observers of Australia to explain the high standing of working men and the prevalence of their values in the culture. The easy answer was to say the middle-class was numerically weak. But in a capitalist society their values should be predominant whatever their numbers. So was it that they lacked the will to rule? I have suggested here that convict origins help to explain this puzzle. The bourgeoisie, sharing the shame of the nation, looked for respectability through White Australia and military prowess, and the forms these took had a strong proletarian cast; the working man was elevated by one and was the most notable embodiment of the other.

Australia has now emerged from the long era of repression about its origins. But it is still a distinctive nation because Australians are now proud of their convict ancestry. To find a convict ancestor is no longer a matter of shame but cause for celebration. This is a puzzle to the world at large, which thinks that slurs about ancestry will still hurt - witness the Barmy Army at the cricket who chant, "You all come from a convict colony, a convict colony ..." Suppressed or embraced, convict origins must have an effect. At the very least a nation pleased about its convict ancestry cannot take itself too seriously.

Those who think that national character is an unnecessary, oppressive and dangerous contrivance will have found this whole discussion otiose. If you are tired of this old theme, read the poet Les Murray's treatment of it in ‘Some Religious Stuff I Know About Australia' (in The Quality of Sprawl). Religion? And Australian national character? Yes. Murray suggests: "The ability to laugh at venerated things, and at awesome and deadly things, may, in time, prove to be one of Australia's great gifts to mankind. It is, at bottom, a spiritual laughter, a mirth that puts tragedy, futility and vanity alike in their place."

Murray finds the origins of this spiritual laughter in the underground traditions of working-people's irony, of the poor who came to Australia from the old world. In line with the suggestions I have made above, he calls Australia a "proletarian evolution". But how does working-class irony become and remain a national attitude? It can happen in a nation which knows itself to be an oddity from the start.

About the author John Hirst

John Hirst is a historian, social commentator and emiritus scholar in the history program at La Trobe University. His books include The Australians: Insiders and outsiders on the national character since 1770, Freedom on the Fatal Shore: Australia’s first colony and The Shortest History of Europe.

 
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