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


The idea of a 'feminisation of sentimentality' taking place over the long nineteenth century has a long currency in Anglophone scholarship. Many historians of masculinity have indeed argued that white masculinity was defined in opposition to sentimentality by the turn of the twentieth century: as sexually aggressive, militaristic, racially competitive, and characterised by a lack of sympathy for 'blacks'. White men certainly did use an anti-sentimental rhetoric to ridicule women and their political adversaries in this period. We can see this in turn-of-the-century Australia, where conservative settlers often juxtaposed masculine practicality and effeminate sentimentality in debates over the treatment of Aborigines. In this article, I challenge this rhetoric by showing that rugged white men engaged in many forms of sentimentality in this period. A key Australian example of this was the 'dying bushman' tradition. It made the suffering of rugged white men into a source of pathos. It also ensured that frontier violence and tender masculine feeling were interrelated, giving the lie to the notion of a 'feminisation of sentimentality'.


'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. …

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