Section 3 [Because Men Went Hungry, by Rex Ingamells]

[Editor: This is a chapter from Because Men Went Hungry: An Essay on the Uncertainty of Australian Prestige (1951) by Rex Ingamells.]

§ 3. The Short-circuit of Tradition

Immigrants who, in a raw colonial society, maintain, as well as they can, the cultural refinements of the parent country are notably civilizing influences in a wilderness. Literate immigrants into early New South Wales were conscious of the rich English heritage, and were naturally concerned that children of theirs, born in the new country, should maintain the traditions of the old. In the face of crude colonial manners and conditions, it was natural to experience a special pride in sustaining polite distinction. This would be so in any colonial society, but the special features attaching to the foundation of New South Wales has, from the early days, added a special urgency to this pride.

To feel inferiority on the score of Australian birth was — because of convictism and the excess publicity of the Smear — particularly easy during Australia’s colonial infancy for persons whose English connections or colonial record might be in doubt unless advertised as the best. So long as the community was alertly conscious of itself as possessing a decided admixture of lag families, unequivocal respectability in matters of social acceptance was a pearl of great price; and a recent or clear record of respectable British connection was the most satisfactory evidence any individual could produce. Both the Botany Bay Smear and the Exclusive, “pure merino,” tradition, which the Smear shepherded into consolidation, and which was a perpetuator of certain Smear attitudes within the Colonies, charged the social atmosphere with a sense of colonial disreputability except as Australia might be blessed with the balm of British gentility. As the days of transportation receded and the surgings of colonial life blurred many family records, the Emancipist and Exclusive camps both lost their visible solidarity and explicit importance; but, if Emancipists were glad of a certain social confusion, the Exclusives had long memories, and the Exclusive tradition lived on in what may be called the Continuous Australian Short-circuit of Tradition.

A sense of immediacy with British society was the most cherished social distinction of the original Exclusives. From this society, and therefore from Exclusive society, the Emancipists were outcasts. Those Emancipists who were able fought hard to rehabilitate themselves socially; and, where they acquired some real satisfaction, they felt vindicated. With them, and with their descendents, no less than with the Exclusives, the social sense of immediacy with British society was ineffably desirable. Assuredly, one fruit of the Botany Bay Smear, because it had so straitened colonial affairs into this particular class struggle, was an extreme impregnation of colonial life in Australia with this urgent desire for immediacy in the British connection. The desire was competitive in society. To the Exclusive — long after the terms “Exclusive” and “Emancipist” had become minor ones to most of the community — rehabilitated Emancipist families appeared as frauds; and to many an Emancipist family the long memories of Exclusives, and the certainty that occasional stories were retailed against it by Exclusives, were anathema.

The elite and the would-be elite of the Australian Colonies courted educated arrivals from Britain with excessive attention. To be immigrant from England, and literate, was to have the best opportunities for social consequence in Australia. Many immigrants were quick to sense the advantage to themselves; but, unless they possessed or made fortunes, the superior attitudes which they were encouraged to adopt towards things colonial cheated their issue. The immediacy which the parents enjoyed in Britishism did not, in the same degree, belong to their Australian born offspring. With each new generation, the sense of British immediacy became more of an affectation.

Through Emancipist families, and also many other Australians who were conscious of society’s grim and special disparagement of Australian colonies, there was quickly conditioned an instinct of national pretence. Convictism did not belong to this world of colonial British makebelief. It was as if, except for unpleasant reminders, the System was something that could be repudiated even from history. Its days were past, and society was different after the Gold Rushes, and under self-government. The System meant nothing in the colonial experience of new immigrants. Newcomers continuously kept fresh the sense of immediacy with Britain; and, in some undefined way, Australian tradition became idealistically concurrent with contemporary British. The ideal colours were brought out in Australian tradition, and the dark shadows glazed over as far as possible. This makebelief became increasingly a national characteristic during the second half of the nineteenth century, when new immigrants kept coming in. The battle with the land was on in good earnest; the noble pioneers were at their tasks — as, people liked to think, they had always been since 1788. The Australian Colonies, advancing in a conception of nationhood, were touchy on the national past. Even South Australia, originally boasting of her free establishment, and quickly awakened to the fact that ex-convicts played their part in her development, felt the desirability of dismissing the convict past of Australia. South Australia was very little distinguished, in fashionable opinion, from other Australian Colonies; she was one of them.

Australian Federation was finally achieved in an atmosphere of national aspiration, firm in hope for the future under the Crown, oblivious as might be of the unhappy aspects of the past. When the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the landing at Sydney Cove was celebrated, the broad arrow was not in evidence. Such self-illusion about our real traditions renders Australia’s national prestige the more obviously vulnerable to observers, even though they humour us.

The national short-circuit of tradition is the only force which Australians can depend upon to sustain the pretence. Our immediacy with Britain, always to the fore on official occasions, usurps our notice of that nasty element of true tradition which could not fail to appear clearly were we nationally courageous and honest about our beginnings.

Our kinship with Britain is in our blood, and needs no pretence to bolster it. The pretence, the false sense of immediacy, can be neither to British nor Australian interest in the long run, because it clouds perception of truth. Our true relationship with Britain is both historic and immediate. The pretence that it is immediate in the sense that our most vital historic connections, because not entirely wholesome, do not exist is fraught with perils to Australian national dignity and British understanding. Facts should be clearly faced and acknowledged. Grounds for recrimination are sticky for both parties, and should be recognized so. History, in the largest sense, is the objective study of human evolution, of human nature, and, realized thus, is mightily conducive to intelligent human sympathy.

Rex Ingamells, Because Men Went Hungry: An Essay on the Uncertainty of Australian Prestige, Jindyworobak, Melbourne, 1951, pages 19-23

Editor’s notes:
affectation = taking on a style of appearance, behaviour, conduct, or speech which is not genuine, to give a false impression, especially so as to increase social standing

broad arrow = a reference to convict times, when the clothing of convicts bore a symbol of a large arrow (the broad arrow was used as a symbol to denote government property in Britain since at least the 1600s; it has also been used for the same purpose in Australia, such as on military clothing)

ineffable = indescribable (ineffably = indescribably)

lag = a convict or ex-convict; an “old lag” may refer to an older “lag”, or to someone who has been in jail several times

makebelief = make believe, a pretence, to make a belief in something that is not real

[Editor: Added a full stop after “bolster it”.]

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