Section 28 [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.]

§ 28

“History is bunk!”

The Aborigines, our admirable predecessors in sovereignty over the territory of Australia Felix, had their Bora ceremonies, their Initiation Corroborees; during which the seniors took the young men away into a sacred place, knocked out with a sacred stone a tooth from each candidate for knowledge (in order to test the youths’ resistance to hardship and pain), and then told them, with awe-inspiring circumstance, the holy secrets of the tribe. We white Australians should consider the advisability of doing something of the same kind.

Just as the sacred traditions and legends of an Aboriginal tribe provide that tribe with a collective soul and a continuity, so written history and literature provide a civilised nation with a national soul and a coherence. The recitation of national lore provides the foundation of a national survival-idea. Without this recitation of lore there can be no national centre: no nation. A nation is positively identified with its lore, which is actively handed down from generation to generation. This is the true meaning of culture in any Place — preservation of tribal or national experience in a memorable form; in holy scriptures, in churinga, in literature; because of the coherence-value, the discipline-value, the survival-value of that experience and lore.

Those who say that Australia “has no history” are merely talking utter, arrogant, academic nonsense.

Our history and pedigree prior to the nineteenth century is the whole history of England, or of Britain; a history which belongs to us as much as it does to any modern inhabitant of Bournemouth, Leeds, Glasgow, Cork, Llanelly, Tolpuddle, Margate, or Stow-in-the-Wold. We inherit, and are proud of inheriting, British history, legend, and lore — up to a certain point in British history: after that point we begin to diverge, we begin to have our own history.

We have a right to our own Australian nineteenth and twentieth centuries — our first and second centuries. . . . In particular, the seven decades from 1850 to 1920 are the foundation decades of the Australian nation; and, as such are of indelible interest to us.

Only an academic Mugwump, blinded by the formalities of learning, could contend that nothing much of importance, to Australians, occurred in Australia between 1850 and 1920.

During those seven decades the Merino sheep was bred, in Australia, from a mixed and dubious European ancestry, to the magnificent beast for his purpose that he is to-day — modesty prevents an analogy from being drawn too strongly: it is enough to say that seven decades of sheep experience was enough to produce a new kind of remarkable sheep in Australia, and possibly something of the same kind has happened to the humans here during the same period of time.

In the matter of pedigrees, as any sheep-breeder knows, recent history is always of more importance than remote ancestry.

A nation can change its entire calibre, outlook, characteristics, and quality in 150 years. The French nation, for example, since the date of James Cook’s “discovery” of our Australia, has experienced the enormous events of the French revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the Franco-Prussian War, and the “Great” War; has become industrialised, and has acquired a colonial empire. These comparatively recent events are of more profound significance to Frenchmen of to-day than the whole of previous French history from Charlemagne to Louis XV.

In the same way, the industrialisation and imperial expansion of Britain, during the reigns of Queen Victoria, of Edward VII. and of George V., have had a profounder mental effect upon the inhabitants of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales than all the events of previous British history from Alfred the Great to George the Fourth.

Recent events, very recent events, in Russia, Germany, and Italy, are certainly more significant to Russians, Germans, and Italians of to-day respectively than all their previous histories of a thousand years.

It is a nice point to decide at what period in retrospect history ceases to be a vital study, and becomes a mere academic exercise. It seems doubtful whether anything which occurred more than 150 years ago is of anything but academic interest for Australians of to-day, or for the people of any other nation of to-day. History took such a new and extraordinary trend everywhere throughout the world during the nineteenth century, with the coming of the machine-epoch, changing all human categories and values so profoundly, that the relative importance of everything which happened before that nineteenth century has dwindled.

National lore, in Australia particularly, but also in every other country on the globe, should be concerned with the recitation and digestion and vital study of what has happened during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The place for all history earlier than that is in dustbins — and universities.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 98-101

Editor’s notes:
churinga = (also spelt “tjurunga”) sacred amulets or artifacts of the Australian Aborigines, and may also refer to ceremonies and legends associated with those sacred objects; the objects may be regarded as being manifestations or representations of sacred beings

mugwump = someone who is arrogant, conceited, or vain, a swellhead ; also may refer to someone who takes an independent or neutral stance, particularly regarding party politics (historically, it referred to any Republican who refused to support the US presidential campaign of James G. Blaine in 1884), or to someone who is unable to make up their mind about an issue or topic, particularly regarding a political matter (however, its origin was from the American Indian word “mugquomp”, of the Algonquian languages, which meant “great man”, which was used by the early European settlers in that sense, but which then gained an inverse meaning regarding someone who thought themselves to be a “great man”)
See: 1) “Miscellanea”, Evening News (Sydney, NSW), 28 May 1884, p. 8
2) “Ballarat”, The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), 8 July 1884, p. 6
3) “The Biggest Statue Yet” [miscellaneous item following article], The Western Champion (Blackall/Barcaldine, Qld.), 5 September 1884, p. 3
4) “General news”, The Border Watch (Mount Gambier, SA), 21 February 1885, p. 3
5) “Mugwump”, Wikipedia (accessed 6 February 2014)

Speak Your Mind