Academic journal article Outskirts

Bury Me Deep Down Below: Masculine Sentimentality on the Turn-of-the-Century Australian Frontier

Academic journal article Outskirts

Bury Me Deep Down Below: Masculine Sentimentality on the Turn-of-the-Century Australian Frontier

Article excerpt

Introduction

'Unfortunately there has always been a sentimental section of people who can indulge in the rhetoric of the rodomontade, but this class never allies itself ... to the practical party of action'. So wrote a South Australian journalist in 1891 in defence of William Willshire, a member of the colony's Native Police corps charged with killing two Aboriginal men. Willshire was the first white man to be brought to trial over the murder of Aboriginal people in South Australia. Since the murders occurred while he was acting in his capacity as a member of the Native Police (a force consisting of white officers in command of Aboriginal constables), the case was hugely controversial. According to this journalist, the civilians who supported the charges against Willshire were of a kind that rarely strayed from comfortable parlours in the cities. They criticised his actions from a position of cosy ignorance, preferring 'a policy of Quaker-like meekness, or of unmanly impotence' to purposeful law enforcement on the frontier ('The Tempe Downs Tragedy'; Nettelbeck and Foster).

An opposition between sentimentality and practicality appeared repeatedly in debates over humanitarian issues in turn-of-the-century Australia. This was especially the case when the debates were about settlers' treatment of Aborigines (e.g. 'The Blackfellow's Luck'; 'Missions to Blacks'; 'The Aborigines Bill' 1892; 'The Aborigines Bill' 1899). Sometimes both sides accused the other of 'sentimentality', by which they meant a combination of impracticality and effeminacy (Kaladelfos 200, 205). Those who most often used 'sentimental' as an insult were rugged conservatives with experience of Australia's frontier districts, which by the late 1800s were located in the centre and north of the continent (Banivanua-Mar et al 358-65). These men prided themselves on being no-nonsense, get-down-to-business types. Many believed in taking firm measures with Aboriginal people, even if it meant doing so with a rifle in hand.

Gendered attacks on the 'sentimental humanitarianism of rose-water idealists' were not confined to Australia ('Britain in Africa'). They could be found in debates over the treatment of colonised people, among other humanitarian issues, in a range of colonial and imperial settings. Nonetheless, they were particularly prominent in Britain's settler colonies: the United States, New Zealand, parts of Canada and South Africa, and Australia. Many white men linked their masculinity to a rigorous assertion of racial superiority over 'blacks' or 'natives' in these societies. They also mocked those members of the British imperial administration who insisted on racial equality (Lake and Reynolds 124-5). Like right-wing politicians ridiculing 'inner-city elites' today, they suggested that this 'Exeter Hall set' only held its liberal views because they lived molly-coddled lives (e.g. 'The Aborigines Bill' 1892).

It would be tempting to present the anti-sentimental rhetoric used by sturdy colonists as part of a 'feminisation of sentimentality' taking place over the course of the long nineteenth century. As Mary Chapman and Glenn Hendler show, this term (or its equivalent) has been used by a range of scholars over the years. American feminist historians and literary scholars once wrote about mid nineteenth-century sentimentality as if it became 'ensconced solely in a feminine "world of love and ritual"' or an '"empire of the mother"' (3). Conversely, scholars of masculine adventure novels have stressed the fact that their authors pitted themselves against the feminine 'world of love and ritual' in the late nineteenth century and valorised aggression over sentimentality (e.g. Phillips 1996; Crotty ch. 5). Historians of masculinity such as Gail Bederman, John Tosh, Robert Morrell and Jock Phillips have further claimed that military fervour, physical strength, racial competitiveness and/or sexual aggression were white masculine ideals by the end of the century. …

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