Mythologising a Natural Disaster in Post-Industrial Australia: The Incorporation of Cyclone Tracy within Australian National Identity

By West, Brad | Journal of Australian Studies, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Mythologising a Natural Disaster in Post-Industrial Australia: The Incorporation of Cyclone Tracy within Australian National Identity


West, Brad, Journal of Australian Studies


Everywhere Australians -- individuals, companies, and agencies, private or governmental -- are responding spontaneously and generously to the call for help. They have recognised one essential fact about the Darwin disaster: that it is an Australian tragedy which transcends politics, State boundaries and personal differences.(1)

For perhaps the first time in 30 years, people are bonding together like a family. It makes me proud to have an Australian passport.(2)

In the early hours of Christmas Day 1974, Cyclone Tracy ripped through the city of Darwin. Fifty lives were lost in Darwin and sixteen at sea. It is popularly understood to be one of the most significant events in Australia's history and is referred to as Australia's most devastating natural disaster.(3) This paper analyses the collective interpretation of the Tracy catastrophe, comparing it with the discourse surrounding previous cyclonic destruction and other natural disasters. Cyclone Tracy was unique in that it was the first Australian cyclone to be interpreted as a national event. For that to occur in post-industrial society, the disaster had to be `imagined' through a national mythology that was distinct from the type that has traditionally been linked to the natural environment.

Natural disasters were core elements shaping Australia's national identity. While the nation economically rode on the sheep's back, we paradoxically loved a `sunburnt country', a land of `droughts and flooding rains'.(4) Natural disasters became rituals that facilitated the bonding of the national character with a natural environment far different from Britain's. They provided an outside enemy, acting as a surrogate for a nation that had not experienced warfare on its soil. In 1907, Charles Bean wrote of Australia's fighting spirit, not in combat, but with `drought, fires ... and with nature, fierce as any warfare, has made of the Australian as fine a fighting man as exists'.(5)

What are the contemporary interpretations of Australian natural disasters? Structural changes within Australian society would suggest that natural disasters should be of less cultural importance. Facilitated by later writing of Charles Bean, the battle at Gallipoli has been institutionalised as the national myth. Australia has become an urbanised and multicultural nation, increasingly severing ties with Britain. The dialectic interchange between culture and the natural environment has become disturbed with `natural' disasters being associated with human agency: either poor construction quality, governmental incompetence, or lack of adequate precautions.(6)

Despite such changes, in Australian natural disasters other than cyclones, we find a congruent discourse, due to their symbolic connection to national identity. Brad West and Philip Smith for example have recently shown that despite decline in the economic importance of the agricultural sector over the last 100 years, symbolic process has driven a consistent societal discourse on Australian drought.(7) In the case of cyclones, however, we find little previous connection with Australian national identity. Australia's traditional celebration of nature in bush poetry often talked of droughts, bushfires and flash flooding, but next to nothing is written of cyclones.

This absence is hardly due to any shortage of occurrence or destruction in the early years of non-indigenous Australia. For example, in 1867, Townsville, founded less than three years earlier, and Bowen, less than two, were wrecked by a cyclone; in 1879 trees were levelled for 160km south-west and 80km south of Darwin with many lives lost at sea; in 1899 Cyclone Mahina played havoc with a pearling fleet in Bathurst Bay, Queensland, sinking 55 vessels and killing 300 people; in 1916 Clermont in Queensland was washed away with at least 62 people drowning; and in March 1934 a cyclone struck the Queensland coast near Cape Tribulation, killing 76 people. …

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