Section 18 [The Foundations of Culture in Australia, by P. R. Stephensen, 1936]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) by P. R. Stephensen.]

§ 18

Convict writers

I have spoken to an old man who had joined in the gold rush from Sydney to Bathurst and thence to Araluen in the 1850’s. I asked him about the convicts and bushrangers of the early days.

“Convicts?” he said. “Bushrangers? I never saw any. There were a few Old Lags and criminals and rough characters on the diggings, but they did not amount to much. There’s worse characters about nowadays, or just as bad. The diggers were a decent, law-abiding and hardworking lot.”

I asked him if he had ever read Marcus Clarke and Rolf Boldrewood. “Those writers!” he said. “They only make up a tale to astonish the public, that’s all. There are just as many convicts and criminals about now. Read the newspapers! Also just as many thieves. Bushrangers were only thieves — nothing to get excited about. The police caught them, just the same as now.”

I could not make the old man budge from this point of view, which to me at that time was novel.

“Why make a song about flogging and convicts?” he said. “It is silly to write a book about that. The early days were great fun, not all horrors.” And he repeated that the diggers, pioneers, and early colonists were for the most part decent, hardworking people, who knew how to enjoy life, and lived well on the fat of the land.

I had the curiosity to check up from the statistics of transportation the old man’s point of view that convicts were a minority. It appears that, in the year 1855, when transportation had virtually ceased, the population of Australia was 800,000. Altogether, from the first convict ship to the last, not more than 150,000 convicts had been transported here. A large number of the convicts may be presumed to have died without issue (the percentage of females among them being very small), or to have returned, upon expiry of their sentences, to the Land of the Free from which they came. Effectively, by the year 1855, the proportion of convicts in the population could not have been much higher than one person in twenty, even if all the surviving convicts had been released from prison.

Then came the tremendous influx of immigrants, free persons, seeking gold, which raised the population to a million-and-a-half by 1865, to two millions by 1880, and to over three millions by 1900. What had happened to the convict proportion of one in twenty in the year 1855? It must have dwindled to not more than one per cent. by 1880, and to zero by the year 1900. To-day the population of Australia exceeds six millions, very few of them, indeed, descended from the dolorous English convicts, poor miserable creatures that these were to inspire such a doleful quantum of literature.

On these lines of thought there is no need to falsify history or whitewash Australia’s “shameful” convict past. The falsification of history has arisen from a wrong emphasis by the convict school of writers, who seek an obvious drama in the historical crudities, and cannot see the subtler facets of our growth to nationhood, cannot see, as material for literature, the pioneering and nation-building feats of the overwhelming majority of the Australian people, the free people.

“There are just as many convicts and criminals now as in the early days,” insisted my old pioneer friend, and I take his word for it. The American colonies received immeasurably more convicts from England than ever were sent to Australia, and they have lived down the “stigma” — probably because, about the time that Australia was “discovered,” the American colonists declared their independence of English rule, and a fortiari, of the Englishman’s interpretation of their history!

It would not have been necessary for me to make this excursus into convictism as a literary theme if the subject had been allowed to die with Marcus Clarke, Boldrewood, and Price Warung. But it has not been allowed to die. Their books have become “classics,” and their theme is being repeated, down to the present day, by journalists such as J. H. M. Abbott and B. Penton. Landtakers, an historical novel by Penton, which wallows in the sensationalism of convictism and flogging, has been published in Sydney by The Bulletin as recently as 1934, and subsequently became a newspaper reviewer’s “Book-of-the-Month” boosted in Britain by the book critic of The Daily Mail, a journal of the moron millions published under the motto of “For King & Country.” Thus, the legend of convictism and flogging is perpetuated both in Australia and in Britain down to the present day; while a finer, less sensational, less journalistic, Australian literature still has to make its way in both countries.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 63-66

Speak Your Mind