[Editor: This article was published in The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 14 September 1889. A reply to this article was written by “Warrigal Jack” (Joseph Furphy) and published in The Bulletin on 5 October 1889.]
The Mythical Sundowner.
(For The Bulletin.)
In 1887 a paper on the “Australian Swagman” appeared in an English magazine, wherein the writer pointed out, among other things, that at certain periods of the year as many as 300 travellers — or “sundowners,” as he chose to call them — received free rations every evening at Sir Samuel Wilson’s Riverina station. This statement, though literally true, is sure to have been wrongly interpreted by people unacquainted with the conditions of Australian bush life.
No doubt Englishmen, reading the paper in question, entertained a feeling of contempt for the 300 recipients of Sir Samuel’s flour and mutton, though perhaps a cynical reader might have observed that the great man’s kindness was more gratefully received than is the hospitality extended by the Australian muttonocracy of London to an “old nobility” which, while condescending to dine with the self-made kings of Jumbuckdom, covertly sneer at the style in which the hosts handle knives and forks.
Then there is the difference of expense. It requires a good many pannikins of flour and pieces of mutton to make up for the cost of entertaining a royal sybarite or renting a deceased Earl’s dwelling for even a limited period.
* * *
Those acquainted with the conditions of Australian life will, however, look on the matter in a different light. There is no doubt that Sir Samuel Wilson is one of the most liberal squatters in Australia, but his liberality is purely of a negative kind. His conduct may appear generous in comparison with that of other sheep-owners, but for all that it proves remunerative. In fact, the hospitable donor figuratively throws a sprat to catch a mackerel.
Those acquainted with Riverina will know that only at one period of the year can many men be found on one station. We admit that just before shearing-time large numbers of men are fed on some of the stations; but does this result in loss to the squatter? Certainly not.
On Sir Samuel Wilson’s station 300 men or more are employed during shearing, and he would be indeed foolish were he to make no arrangements beforehand for procuring them. If the shearers and rouseabouts do not come to the squatter he must go out and search for them, and it is needless to point out which is his more economical course. The conveyance of 200 men from Sydney or Melbourne to a back-block station would cost a large sum, and the chances are that on arrival a large proportion would be found incompetent.
Therefore it is advantageous to the squatter to encourage the travelling of “hands” from station to station in search of work. Let him abolish free rations to travellers, and his procuring of labour will be attended by the disadvantages already noted. This, like every other concession from capital to labour, is only imaginary. Thoroughly sifting the matter we discover that it is the employer who really benefits by the process.
* * *
Then, again, the present system provides the squatter with a weapon for enforcing discipline, or, in other words, cowing employes. The station-hands would possibly be too independent were it difficult to replace them; now they are easily replaced, and are, as a rule, well-behaved. To contrast the loafing of the “sundowner” with the liberality of the squatter is thus mere moonshine.
We need only remember that the Murrumbidgee squatters have on several occasions considered the expediency of abolishing the system of giving rations to travellers, and have invariably decided to make it as economical as possible, but not to discontinue it. It pays the squatter to have a labour supply continually at his door, and he will take good care not to pay too dearly for the advantage.
* * *
The fact is that the “sundowner” is, and always has been, a myth. The genuine loafer is not the stamp of man to carry his swag from station to station, travelling a score miles under a broiling sun when water is often unobtainable. The ordinary swagman prefers working to travelling, especially since, in the latter case, he receives no rewards for his exertions beyond a pannikin of flour which he must bake himself after the sun has gone down.
It pays a genuine loafer better to hang around the big cities, and that few bushmen flock in from the country to join the ranks of the “unemployed” proves the force of this contention.
* * *
Of late years the amount of employment on stations has decreased. The squatters’ runs have been fenced in; labour, therefore, is now not so much required. To-day, almost every station is worked by a few boundary riders. The squatter being thus less anxious about the supply has reduced the scale of rations to a minimum.
The “sundowner,” “Murrumbidgee whaler,” has no existence and never had. Every bushman is only too glad to be afforded an opportunity for honest labour.
Meantime, as the country becomes more settled the race of swagsmen is dying out, and ere long one of Australia’s most picturesque figures will exist only as a tradition, and will be accounted as great a curiosity as the mythical bunyip.
The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 14 September 1889, p. 8 (columns 3-4)
back-block = of or pertaining to the “back blocks” (normally used as a plural): an area that is far from the city, or far from town; a remote sparsely-settled area out in the country; a reference to a far-flung rural area (the phrase “out in the back blocks” is similar to “out in the boondocks” or “out in the sticks”) (may be spelt with or without a hyphen, or as one word)
broil = to cook by using direct exposure to radiant heat; grill; to be subjected to great or oppressive heat
bunyip = an Australian mythological beast, said to be located in billabongs, creeks, lagoons, swamps, and other waterways
ere = (archaic) before (from the Middle English “er”, itself from the Old English “aer”, meaning early or soon)
hand = farmhand; employee; an agent; a servant, manual laborer (can also refer to someone who is skilled at a job or task, e.g. an old hand at the business)
Jumbuckdom = a reference to the sheep farming industry; the term is a humorous combination of “jumbuck” (a sheep) and “kingdom”
moonshine = nonsense, foolish talk, rot, rubbish, silly ideas (can also refer to: an alcoholic drink which has been illegally manufactured, especially whiskey; moonlight)
muttonocracy = bosses of the sheep farming industry and shareholders of sheep farming companies; the term is a humorous combination of “mutton” (meat from older sheep) and “aristocracy” (the nobility)
pannikin = a small metal pan, or a small metal cup
rouseabout = an unskilled worker, someone employed to carry out odd jobs or unskilled tasks, especially used regarding someone working in a shearing shed
run = a property on which stock are grazed, such as a “cattle run” or a “sheep run”
score = twenty (sometimes used in conjunction with a cardinal number, e.g. “threescore”, “fourscore”) (may also refer to an undefined large number)
squatter = in the context of Australian history, a squatter was originally someone who kept their livestock (mostly cattle and sheep) upon Crown land without permission to do so (thus illegally occupying land, or “squatting”); however, the practice became so widespread that eventually the authorities decided to formalise it by granting leases or licenses to occupy or use the land; and, with the growth of the Australian economy, many of the squatters became quite rich, and the term “squatter” came to refer to someone with a large amount of farm land (they were often regarded as rich and powerful)
station = a large rural holding for raising sheep or cattle; the term “property” is used for smaller holdings
sundowner = a swagman, or tramp, who walked from station to station, ostensibly to look for work, but with no intention of doing any, who would deliberately time his arrival at a farm or station late enough in the evening, or at sundown, so that he could ask for food and lodging, but with little to no risk of being asked to perform some work in exchange; can also refer to a swagman (in general terms, without the negative connotations regarding one who avoids work)
swag = a swagman’s bundle, being a number of personal belongings rolled up in a piece of calico, tent-fly, or blanket, secured tightly together (e.g. with rope or straps), or placed inside a cloth bag (such as a flour sack); swags were hung from the shoulder, making them easy to carry whilst their owners tramped many miles; a swag was also commonly referred to as a “Matilda”, “drum”, or “bluey” (from the colour of the blankets, which were often blue)
swagman = a roaming labourer who carries his personal belongings in a swag, or bundle, whilst traveling about in search of casual work; especially used to refer to itinerant labourers travelling around the country areas of Australia in the late 1800s to early 1900s (also known as a “swaggie”)
swagsmen = an alternative spelling of “swagmen”, plural of “swagman”
sybarite = someone who especially likes to have luxuries, expensive things, and opulence, and to engage in pleasurable pastimes, sensual vices, and outrageous pleasure-seeking; someone who is very self-indulgent regarding luxuries and sensual vices; an inhabitant of the ancient Greek city of Sybaris, which was located on the southern coast of modern-day Italy (Sybaris was a place renowned for being steeped in luxury and sensuality)
whaler = (also spelt “waler”) a swagman who survives without working; these swagmen would commonly travel up and down rivers, fishing to sustain themselves, as well as going from station to station for handouts, often timing their arrival at a homestead at sundown, so that they could ask for food and lodging, but with little to no risk of being asked to perform some work in exchange, which is why they were also known as “sundowners” (“whaler” may also refer to a whaling ship, or someone who works on a whaling ship)
[Editor: The original text has been separated into paragraphs.]