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The making of a nation

12 November 2011 866 views No Comment

A FASCINATING history of Australia unfolds in a prolific author’s grand narrative.

In the largest massacre of Europeans on the Australian frontier, in October 1861, rampaging Aborigines killed 19 European men, women and children who were encroaching on their tribal lands. This occurred on Cullin-La-Ringo, near the present town of Springsure, inland from Rockhampton. Predictably, the Aboriginal people paid many times over for these murders.

As the prolific Thomas Keneally makes clear, the leading slain settler, Horatio Wills, was the father of Rugby-educated cricket star Tom Wills who, fortuitously, was 80 kilometres away when the massacre occurred. This was the same Tom Wills who, in May 1859, helped codify what is now known as Australian Rules football. Advising against ”a slavish imitation of the game then known as rugby”, Wills insisted on establishing ”a game of our own” to be played with an ovoid ball. Remarkably, given his family’s fate, in the summer of 1866-67, Wills gathered and led a team of Aboriginal cricketers from the Western District of Victoria in a path-breaking tour of England.

This highly readable general history, which has benefited immensely from the work of chief researcher Jo Kildea, follows on from Keneally’s powerful work Australians: Origins to Eureka.

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It is pleasing to note that, as well as focusing on the heavy-drinking lyricist Henry Kendall, pride of Australian 19th-century literary place is given to Adam Lindsay Gordon, whose poetry contributed mightily to making the wattle our national flower. Yet as Keneally argues, Gordon was ”no tender philosopher-poet”. He was a boxer, a mounted trooper, a politician and an extraordinary horseman who once won three steeplechase races on one afternoon, two on his own horse.

In March 1870, Gordon fell badly in another chase, suffering a severe head injury. Although some contemporary critics, most notably Michael Wilding, now dispute Gordon’s alcoholism, it is certainly the case that in June 1870, Gordon committed suicide on Brighton beach by shooting himself in the head. This was just before a favourable review of his Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes appeared. Although no fan of Australian poetry in general, Oscar Wilde said Gordon was ”one of the finest poetic singers the English race had ever known”, while the Euro-centric Kendall described him as, ”A shining soul with syllables of fire who sang the first songs this land can claim to be its own.”

As Keneally points out, in 1934, Gordon’s bust was ”placed in Westminster Cathedral to represent Australian poetry”.

Moreover, for many Britons, the following lines from Gordon exemplified the moral force of what it meant to be a stoic Australian:

Life is mainly froth and bubble,

Two things stand like stone,

Kindness in another’s trouble,

Courage in your own.

In demonstrating how ”the Australian harshness and otherness could permit poetry”, Keneally also features the radical-nationalist writer Henry Lawson and, later on, the serious-minded Sydney poet Christopher Brennan, both of whom undeniably shared ”a tragic thirst for liquor”.

Keneally explores the influence of the popular balladist Andrew Barton (”Banjo”) Paterson, who played such a pivotal role in the creation of Waltzing Matilda. In stark contrast to the proletarian Lawson, Paterson was educated at Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney and worked for much of his life as a city solicitor.

Keneally rightly stresses the centrality of the search for gold in the psyche of 19th-century Australia. Intriguingly, he points out that the mining town of Charters Towers, south-west of Townsville, had, by the late 1880s, become ”so massive a source of gold that its proud miners and citizens referred to it as ‘The World”’. Throughout the early 1890s, Charters Towers was arguably Australia’s richest goldfield and, apart from Brisbane, Queensland’s most important city.

Indeed, it was the dual-electorate of Charters Towers that produced Anderson Dawson, who, for a week in December 1899, led the first Labor government in the world. After then becoming Queensland’s first senator and the minister for defence in Australia’s first federal Labor government, Dawson died impoverished and alone, yet another victim of alcoholism.

Yet despite such individual tragedies, many thinkers still continued to regard Australia as ”the workers’ paradise”, at least until the outbreak of the so-called ”Great War”.

As befits the No. 1 ticket-holder of this year’s NRL premiers, Manly-Warringah, it is no accident that Keneally writes so knowledgeably, not just about politics, culture, economics, religion and warfare but also about the intimate and intricate connections of Australian society and sport, including horse racing and cricket, as well as all four codes of football.

In such a grand narrative as Australians: Eureka to the Diggers, there are inevitably occasional mistakes. For example, the radical/reformist Queensland Labor premier from 1915 to 1919 and later Sydney-based federal MP T.J. Ryan is wrongly rendered as P.J. Ryan in the text and also in the endnotes.

It is, however, pleasing to note that Keneally rightly stresses the major role played by the Australian Natives Association in the creation of Australia’s federation, which occurred on January 1, 1901, and which is arguably the most appropriate date to celebrate ”Australia Day”.

Founded in 1871, the ANA was a largely Victorian group of citizens, born in Australia, who, from the early 1880s, actively engaged in promoting Australia as a single nation made up of all the previously diverse colonies.

Keneally also gives due prominence to the temperance movement. Although it largely came to advocate total abstinence, the ”temperance movement” was one of the major forces to mobilise women politically and was also at the forefront of the campaign to afford Australian women the vote.

The making of a nation, Review By Ross Fitzgerald, November 12, 2011
AUSTRALIANS: EUREKA TO THE DIGGERS, Thomas Keneally, Allen & Unwin, 464pp, $59.99