Who Are the Australians?

Article excerpt

An Australian historian looks at his country's development in the 200 years since European settlement

AUSTRALIA has always seemed a bit of a paradox in the eyes of the rest of the world. Medieval navigators talked of a Great South Land of gold and monsters. Jonathan Swift situated his imaginary land of Lilliput off Australia's southwest coast. After European settlement began In 1788, reports still spoke of a land where the trees shed their bark but not their leaves, and where Christmas was celebrated in a heatwave. It was the home of the pouched kangaroo, and the furry platypus which laid eggs, and the swagman with corks around the brim of his hat to discourage the everpresent flies. A rich country to be sure, productive of minerals and wool, brave soldiers and impressive sporting personalities, but in the last resort, perhaps, not a nation to be taken quite seriously. Overseas critics, particularly English critics, too often look for traces of colonial immaturity. Australians, they say, are nice enough people but they lack culture and sophistication. They are, in a word, provincial.

Australians are also more aware than most peoples of the shaping influence of the environment. The Aborigines, who inhabited Australia for at least 40,000 years before the coming of white domination, adapted skilfully to their surroundings. They lacked cereals, and remained a hunting and gathering society which did not disrupt the ecological balance. By 1788 there were perhaps 750,000 of them, one for every ten square kilometres of the continent. Captain James Cook, navigating the east coast before claiming the land for Britain, thought them "far more happier than we Europeans ... The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life". But the white newcomers were not prepared to learn from Aboriginal culture, and the Aborigines succumbed to disease and dispossession.

Various strategic and commercial motives have been suggested for the British settlement of Australia. It was a unique expertment. Australia must be the only significant nation in the world to have been founded as a prison. Between 1788 and 1868 about 160,000 convicts, largely male, were sentenced by British courts to transportation to Australia. English writers commented on the "thief colony" with amused fascination. "They don't thieve all day long, do they?' the essayist Charles Lamb asked a friend who was visiting Sydney in 1817. It is impossible that vice should not become more intense in such society," shuddered the Reverend Sydney Smith.

The first generation of Australians saw it differently. Some compared New South Wales with ancient Rome, which according to the standard histories of the day was founded by a band of outlaws under Romulus and Remus. Others proclaimed the superiority of the Australian colonies over the United States of America. Thefirst Presbyterian minister, John Dunmore Lang, wrote: "as a penal settlement the history of New South Wales is unquestionably much more interesting to the general reader than that of any other colonies of the Empire. That colony has been the scene of an expertment in the capabilities of man." Australia was a test of the capacity of human material to respond to improved environment and economic opportunity.

By the 1830s, Australia was becoming one of the world's major wool producers. In 1851 the discovery of gold in New South Wales and Victoria brought half a million immigrants within a few years, so that exconvicts became an ageing minority among the newcomers and the native-born. There were important regional differences in the pattern of settlement. New South Wales was always regarded as retaining the rough-andready politics of its Georgian origins. Victoria, where the gold rushes had the greatest impact, was seen as dominated by Scots investors and respectable but radical Chartists.' Both had a substantial IrishCatholic element, perhaps 25 per cent of the population, whose Catholicism and strong sense of national identity ensured that Australia could never grow into a second England. …