Chapter 31 [A Short History of Australia, by Ernest Scott]

[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]

Chapter XXXI

Imperial relations and the Australian spirit

British colonial policy — Grey — Disraeli — ‘A person named Rogers’ — ‘The crimson thread of kinship’ — Colonial Conference of 1887 — Second Colonial Conference — Preferential duties — The old colonial system and the new — Soudan contingent — Australia and the South African War — Anzac — Race sentiment among Australians — Poetry and Painting.

The constitutions conferred upon the Australian colonies in 1855 contained the most liberal endowment of self-government that had ever been secured in the history of colonization by dependencies from a mother-country. The attitude of British statesmen towards oversea dominions had recently undergone a rapid and sweeping change. Only a few years before, Lord Grey had maintained that Great Britain had a perfect right to ship her felonry to the colonies despite their reluctance to receive them. He could not understand the resistance offered by the Cape of Good Hope, by Victoria, and by New South Wales. But the same Lord Grey, having failed to perpetuate transportation, became the sponsor of measures which left the Australian colonies free to do as they pleased within very wide limits, while affording them complete protection.

Not all British statesmen agreed with this liberal policy. Disraeli, for example, said some years later in a public speech, that self-government in the colonies ought to have been conceded as part of a great policy of Imperial consolidation. ‘It ought to have been accompanied,’ he said, ‘by an Imperial tariff, by securities for the people of England for the enjoyment of the unappropriated lands which belonged to the Sovereign as their trustee, and by a military code which should have precisely defined the means and the responsibilities by which the colonies should have been defended and by which, if necessary, this country should call for aid from the colonies themselves.’ But Disraeli, who had also spoken of ‘these wretched colonies’ as millstones hanging round the neck of the mother-country, never understood the problem or the people whom it affected; and it is certain that attempts to control either the land or the economic policy of Australia from London would have resulted in failure. The colonies had to be free to work out their own destiny — making mistakes, perhaps, but paying for those mistakes themselves, and able to rectify them by their own means.

A school of English political thought, which had representatives in high official places, believed that self-government would work towards the separation of the colonies from the mother-country, and that it would be no lamentable occurrence if such were the case. Frederic Rogers, afterwards Lord Blachford, who was Permanent Under-Secretary of the Colonial Office from 1869 to 1871, wrote, in a piece of autobiography: ‘I had always believed — and this belief has so confirmed and consolidated itself that I can hardly realize the possibility of any one seriously thinking the contrary — that the destiny of our colonies is independence, and that in this point of view the function of the Colonial Office is to secure that our connexion, while it lasts, shall be as profitable to both parties and our separation, when it comes, as amicable, as possible.’ The views of Rogers were quite commonly entertained in England, though they have often been falsely attributed to some eminent men who both repudiated and worked against them — to Gladstone, for example. But that they were the views of the official who was mainly responsible for guiding British colonial policy during a critical period indicates that relations were not likely to be maintained on very sympathetic lines. Higinbotham’s scornful reference to the Colonial Office and its permanent chief during the exciting Darling Grant crisis in Victoria, was a castigation of the official attitude in terms that were meant to scorch, and did. ‘It was said of the Athenian republic in its best days,’ said Higinbotham, ‘that it was governed by the poodle dog of a courtesan, and the bon mot was made out with great ingenuity. It was said that the poodle dog engrossed the attentions of its mistress, the mistress engrossed her lover, and the lover ruled the fierce democracy and controlled its policy. I believe that a similar remark might be applied with far more truth to the present relations between the Colonial Office and these countries. I believe it might be said with perfect truth that the million and a half of Englishmen who inhabit these colonies, and who during the last fifteen years have believed they possessed self-government, have been really governed during the whole of that time by a person named Rogers. He is the chief clerk in the Colonial Office. Of course he inspires every minister who enters the department, year after year, with Colonial Office traditions, Colonial Office policy, Colonial Office ideas.’

Yet, despite the frequently strained relations between ministers in Australia and the Colonial Office officials, there never was any antagonism between the Australian people and the mother-country. There was always, on the contrary, a deep and sincere bond of affection between them. Henry Parkes’s famous and vivid phrase, ‘the crimson thread of kinship runs through us all,’ was no mere piece of rhetorical decoration. It was an expression of the living faith of the man and of those for whom he spoke. How thoroughly British the population of Australia has always been, how trifling has been the foreign admixture, is a great fact in the history and in the psychology of the country which has been all too inadequately appreciated. In an earlier chapter it was pointed out that every name of those who framed the Commonwealth constitution was a name of British origin. A related fact of much significance is that from the very beginning of responsible government, the head of every Government which has held office in any of the six States, and in the Commonwealth, bore a British name. The names of nearly all the judges and ministers of State answer to the same test of origin.

Over thirty years after responsible government was initiated it occurred to the Imperial Government that it might be advantageous to confer with representatives of those oversea countries which had been allowed to go their own way, and had not, to the surprise of many, become independent republics. A new spirit began to make itself manifest in the speeches of British public men. Lord Goschen told his countrymen that ‘statesmanship had never found a home at the Colonial Office,’ and that it was time that the relations between the parts of the British Empire were seriously considered. The summoning of the first Colonial Conference in 1887 marked the beginning of a new era.

Yet it is doubtful whether there would have been a Conference then had it not been that in 1887 Queen Victoria attained the Jubilee of her accession, and representatives of the colonies had to be invited to take part in the celebrations. To that circumstance in part, at all events, is to be attributed the holding of the first of a series of gatherings which opened the eyes of British politicians to the fact that the colonies had grown into political communities whose opinions must be regarded. ‘There was a time perhaps,’ said Deakin, one of the Victorian representatives, at the first day’s sitting, ‘when an invitation to a conference such as this would not have been sent from the mother-country; but there has never been a time when such an invitation would not have been cordially responded to by the Australian colonies.’ A purely consultative conference it necessarily was, but some practical results nevertheless flowed from it, and it served above all to awaken British ministers to the fact that these distant English-speaking populations must be treated in a fashion different from the old practice.

There was a second Conference in 1897, when the Colonial Secretary happened to be a statesman who took his office seriously, and entertained broad imperial views. He concurred in the opinion that such gatherings ought to be held periodically, and not be dependent upon the occurrence of such an event as a jubilee or a coronation. Ten years between the first and the second Conference was too long a gap. In 1902, therefore, Chamberlain summoned a third Conference. By that time Australia was a federation, and was represented by her Prime Minister, Barton. A fourth — now called an Imperial, not a colonial — conference was held in 1907, when again the Prime Minister (Deakin) was present; and a fifth in 1911, when Fisher represented the Commonwealth. In addition there have been special conferences for special purposes, notably that on Imperial Defence in 1909, and that relating to the European War in 1916. On these occasions the dominions and the mother-country have conferred on subjects of common interest, and their statesmen have met on equal terms in the trusteeship of a great imperial heritage. The conferences completely dissipated the old suspicion on the one side and official obtuseness on the other, and removed the once prevalent feeling of inevitable dissolution. Constructive statesmanship set its gaze on ideals of growth towards closer union and complete co-operation.

The personal link between Australia and Great Britain since the dawn of responsible government was the colonial Governor; since federation the Governor-General has been an additional source of strength. The Australian States have not followed the Canadian example, in choosing provincial governors within the country. There has been no serious demand that the practice of the Crown appointing the Governor should be discontinued. A large number of men have held the Sovereign’s commission in Australia, before and since the era of responsible government, and many of them have been men of exceptional ability and high character. Some have had very difficult situations to handle, and could not avoid giving offence to one party or the other. But the rules which a Governor should follow are well defined, and a man who follows them firmly, tactfully, and with as little to say as need be, cannot go far wrong.

A step in the direction of closer trade relations with the mother-country was made by the tariff of 1908, which gave a preference of 5 per cent. to British goods over those of foreign origin. This policy was one upon which Deakin felt keenly. The preference affected British goods to the total of over £20,000,000, and the diminished duty upon them amounted to over one million pounds per annum. The preferential rate was maintained in subsequent amendments of the tariff, and represents part of what is called the ‘settled policy of the country.’

The student of British colonial history who makes a comparison between the relations of the mother-country and her oversea possessions under the old system, and those prevailing under the new, must be struck with the violent contrast. When in the seventeenth century England was fighting the French for dominion in North America, the war was one in which the colonies themselves were vitally interested. If the French had secured the waterway of the Mississippi and the Ohio, and had connected Canada with Louisiana by a chain of forts, the westward expansion of the English colonies stretched along the Atlantic seaboard would have been blocked. The war was in behalf of the colonies. Yet we find them not only reluctant to aid, haggling in jealous distrust of each other, having to be bought, coaxed, and bullied to supply men and equipment, but positively making money by supplying goods to the enemy. We find the contrary result under free institutions.

The first indication that Australia meant to play a part in Imperial affairs on the wider field of world politics, occurred in 1885, when W. B. Dalley, then acting-Premier of New South Wales, raised and equipped an expedition for service alongside the British Army in the Egyptian campaign. When the South African War broke out in 1899, Australia was not yet federated, but each of the six States despatched contingents which took part in the two-and-a-half years’ fighting, and earned for themselves a brilliant reputation for valour, initiative, and resource. Before the South African War was finished another Australian expedition took part in British operations in China (1900) connected with the suppression of the Boxer rebellion.

Upon the outbreak of the great European War in August 1914, Australia flew to arms on the instant. German military and political writers had predicted that, if a great war occurred, Australia would declare her independence, and set up a republic. They might as truthfully have prophesied that Yorkshire would declare its independence, or that Manchester would become a republic.

It has stood for very much in the development of Australia that her people have been proud of their race and sensitive to maintain its best traditions. British history is their history, with its failings to be guarded against and its glories to be emulated. British in origin, they can at this distance of time survey the causes of the foundation of settlement in their country, and be without regrets that for want of better ones those proved fruitful, because this land thus became a field for the exercise of their racial genius for adaptation and for conquering difficulties.

To this country of fertility, sunshine, and vast spaciousness they have brought whatever civilization Europe had to give them, and have added to it the fruits of their own inventiveness. So it has also been with their literature. The riches of English letters are theirs, and the best things are read with no deeper zest anywhere than here. But new scope for life, the spirit of an ancient race flourishing in fresh conditions, call for new interpreters; and have found them. Tellers of stories, writers of poems, painters of landscape — of these Australia has had her own.

Henry Kingsley, in Geoffrey Hamlyn (1859) wrote a tale of squatting life which has pleased many thousands of readers during half a century, and is likely to stand the test of time. Marcus Clarke, drawing his basic facts from authentic sources, produced the classic novel of the convict days in his grim and powerful For the Term of his Natural Life (1874). ‘Rolf Boldrewood’ (T. A. Browne) knew intimately the life which he described in his tales, Robbery Under Arms (1888), The Miner’s Right (1890), Nevermore (1892), The Squatter’s Dream (1892), and others; and their fidelity will give them endurance, though some readers may grow impatient with the author’s slipshod style. When Robbery Under Arms first appeared as a serial in the Sydney Mail it proved to be of thrilling interest to readers in the farthest corners of Australia; and Browne used to relate that, when it was nearing its conclusion, a party of shearers in a far-out sheep station, to whom the instalments had been read, impatient to know the fate of ‘Starlight,’ sent a messenger on horseback to the nearest telegraph office many miles away, to telegraph to Sydney for the conclusion.

Henry Lawson wrote stories of ‘back-blocks’ life that are full of vigour, vividness, and humour, especially those in his first prose volume, While the Billy Boils. Louis Becke’s many tales of the Pacific Islands are pastels by a beach-comber whose talent for story-telling and wealth of experience were discovered by J. F. Archibald, the first editor of the Sydney Bulletin. Even the very far interior has found an author to describe its way of living, in Mrs. Gunn’s truthful and entertaining We of the Never-Never.

Australia has never run short of poets. The rain may sometimes fail to fall when it should, and the rivers may dry up in their glistening beds, but the Pierian spring flows constantly and copiously. There are things in verse which each generation can produce for itself, and things which can only be the work of one man at one time. Of the former kind there is very much in Australian literature, of the latter not a large quantity. Amongst earlier generations of writers Henry Clarence Kendall (1841-82), Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833-70) and James Brunton Stephens (1835-1901) are worthily held in remembrance, but only the first named of the three was Australian born. Kendall possessed a rich and limpid lyric gift, loving the quiet places where meditation brought forth flowers; and his verses breathe an atmosphere of ‘unfooted dells and secret hollows dear to noontide dew.’ Gordon, horse-breaker, steeple-chase rider, dreamer and ne’er-do-well, friend of jockeys and shepherds, came to Australia in 1853. Educated at Cheltenham and the Woolwich Military College, he never lost the mark of the scholar and gentleman there impressed upon him; and the memory of his sporting life in England coloured several of the poems he wrote in Australia:

I remember the lowering wintry morn,
And the mist on the Cotswold Hills
Where I once heard the blast of the huntsman’s horn,
Not far from the seven rills.

But his main inspiration was Australian. Here he wrote things which are known by heart and repeated in camps and shearing-sheds. It is the kind of immortality that he would have liked. His horse ballads, with the hoofs clattering along the lines, are his best guarantee of popularity. He read his Horace by candle-light in redolent stables, and scribbled his poems in pencil on odd scraps of paper. To Swinburne, whose fiery genius was in full efflorescence during Gordon’s writing period, he owed much, as is apparent in such lines as these:

In the spring when the wattle gold trembles
Twixt shadow and shine,
When each dew-laden air-draught resembles
A long draught of wine
When the sky-line’s blue burnished resistance
Makes deeper the dreamiest distance,
Some song in all hearts hath existence —
Such songs have been mine.

There is a fine vein of romance and an atmosphere of wide expanses in Gordon, mingling with his native melancholy. He loved the life he wrote about, and he loved writing about it.

Brunton Stephens was a scholarly clerk in a Government office in Brisbane, with his Dante never very far from his elbow; and he wrote some very noble verse, sincere in spirit, chaste in diction, and charged with emotion. His best piece is his prophetic ode on ‘The Dominion of Australia’ (1877):

She is not yet; but he whose ear
Thrills to that finer atmosphere —

he, the seer, knew that she must come to be, and that in the attainment of unity —

Our bounds shall be the girdling seas alone.

In a younger generation Australia has found a fresh band of poets to sing her songs and chant her ballads of the life that is her own — of the mines and the cattle camps, the forests and the mountains, of the great wide expanses where the stockman,

Sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.

A deeper spiritual note, too, has been struck in the chants of Bernard O’Dowd, who has woven into rhythms the thought of a complex and swiftly changing age. Andrew Paterson (‘The Banjo’) has given his countrymen, in ‘The Man from Snowy River,’ perhaps the most popular poem that has ever been written in Australia, a piece of picturesque ballad-writing that is known by heart by many a man who only knows greater poets by name. Henry Lawson’s often rough but very real poetry is hot from the heart of a man of temperament and experience. There are passages in his virile ‘Star of Australasia’ that ring like the authentic message of prophecy, written as this poem was nearly a quarter of a century before the name of Anzac blazed into being:

We boast no more of our bloodless flag, that rose from a nation’s slime;
Better a shred of deep-dyed rag from the storms of the olden time.
From grander clouds in our ‘peaceful skies’ than ever were there before
I tell you the Star of the South shall rise — in the lurid clouds of war.

* * * * *

There are boys out there by the western creeks who hurry away from school
To climb the sides of the breezy peaks or dive in the shaded pool,
Who’ll stick to their guns when the mountains quake to the tread of a mighty war —
And fight for a Right or a Great Mistake as men never fought before;
When the peaks are scarred and the sea-walls crack till the furthest hills vibrate,
And the world for a while goes rolling back in a storm of love and hate.

Victor Daley was the most finished artist who wrote verse in this country; and there is strong feeling in the often haggard stanzas of Barcroft Boake.

Perhaps not many of the writings of these men are well known outside Australia; but what of that? She has her own life, and it is good; they wrote for her about the things that are hers; and they have helped her people to understand their country, their destiny, and themselves.

The things which are most characteristic of Australia, in landscape as in life, have only been truly seen by those who have steeped themselves in the atmosphere of the land. It is interesting to observe that pictures painted by artists of real merit in the early years seem to-day to be not Australian pictures, so much as pictures of European scenes ‘with a difference.’ The light, the colour, and above all the character, are not Australian. To some observers, indeed, it seemed that Australian scenery could never be attractive to the landscape painter. A writer in an early edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica said that this was ‘no very beautiful or picturesque country, such as is likely to form or to inspire a poet.’ There was nothing in the scenery, the writer thought, ‘to expand the heart or fancy.’ Barron Field, Charles Lamb’s friend, in his Memories of New South Wales, laid it down that ‘no tree to my taste can be beautiful that is not deciduous. What can a painter do with one cold olive green?’

But a later school of painters, born in the country, knowing its moods and familiar with its most intimate spirit, have found an infinite diversity and depth of beauty where earlier comers saw only sameness and dullness. The rich colour of the eucalypts makes the canvases of Hans Heysen glow with a warmth that is transmitted to them by a painter who loves the great trees of the forest. Such pictures as Arthur Streeton’s ‘The Purple Noon’s Transparent Might,’ in the Melbourne Gallery, and George Lambert’s ‘Black Soil Plains’ in the Sydney Gallery — both landscapes of striking beauty and power — are the work of men who, having grown up amidst Australian scenery, have afterwards studied abroad and brought to the interpretation of the characteristics of their own country a technical accomplishment acquired in the best schools.

In the creation of an Australian spirit the poets and the painters have had their part; and in the days to come their service will be esteemed hardly less than the excellence of their achievement.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 357-368

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