[Editor: This is a chapter from Because Men Went Hungry: An Essay on the Uncertainty of Australian Prestige (1951) by Rex Ingamells.]
§ 6. The certainty of Australian prestige
Because of the Hunger Period at Sydney Cove, the Botany Bay Smear was applied so strongly to New South Wales that it began the British fashion of discredit for Australian Colonies before colonization was well begun here. The Smear, in acting as “a serious discouragement” to free settlement in early New South Wales, was a determining factor with regard to the constitution of society, and to it was due, in some considerable measure, the excess of crime and other notorious aspects of early colonial development. The Smear was, in some considerable measure, responsible for the straitening of society into the restricted Exclusive-Emancipist character which intensified, under fashionable British disfavour of Australia, the colonial craving for immediacy with British society. This hypersensitively conditioned urge for British immediacy — as an escape from and compensation for factors of colonial disreputability — became jealously competitive in colonial society, and was assisted by British immigration. The phenomenon of the Continuous Short-circuit of Tradition was established, making the road of sycophantism easy in Australia right up until our own day. This phenomenon has effectively inhibited Australian individualism, so that it has been kept at a level of social inferiority within the Australian community itself.
Australian cultural achievement, in the creative arts, and appreciation of this by the Australian community as a whole, is a major and indispensable condition to be fulfilled if the Australian people are to gain an assured national character, the sublimation of mere (however laudable) national characteristics. Upon assured character alone must depend the endurance and certainty of national prestige.
It would be to misread this essay for the reader to assume that I attribute all shortcomings of Australian communities, all snobbery and its social reverse of larrikinism, all the disappointments of creative artists, to the evil effects of the Botany Bay Smear. Such an interpretation will be inferred by some critics, in an effort to discredit my main argument by representing it as ridiculous. Australians obviously share, with the rest of humanity, general qualities of human weaknesses and virtues. My argument is that the Botany Bay Smear has, indeed, materially and strongly conditioned our whole national development, and has inhibited Australian perception in the mass of Australians, chiefly through the social and cultural disparagement of things Australian. A restricted sycophantism, on the one hand, and our notorious touchiness, on the other, are vitally associated, in the Great Australian Inferiority Complex, through that historical makebelief, the Short-circuit of Tradition.
The uncertainty of our prestige is passing, and the certainty, whether further prejudiced or not, cannot be far in the future. I am emboldened to this prophecy in the sure and certain knowledge that Australians, although few of them yet appreciate the fact, actually possess already a distinctive culture of their own, a worthy one, built up slowly in the very face of the unkind covenant of fate outlined in these pages. That our creative writers and artists and social historians have achieved what they have in the circumstances, and made what difficult impressions they have, is evidence of the necessity and vitality of their inspiration.
Australian sentiment, at its best, is something more profound than its acclaimed political manifestations — abolition of transportation, the Eureka Rebellion, advance through self-government to Federation, the appointment of Australian Governors. In all these things, we Australians have proved our British heritage, saying, in effect, “Australians never, never will be slaves.” Culturally, however, our unique distinction must arise from the realization of our oneness with our own continent. For the most part, we have been discouraged from such realization, and those who have proclaimed it have been made objects of disparagement.
Through a much stronger public appreciation of indigenous cultural factors must be found that sublimation of national characteristics into an unequivocal national soul and character, upon which must depend the rich realization of Australian life. The eventual outcome is beyond doubt, although trammels remain.
The Australian Continent, which has so frequently been described as barren, has proved to be a principal source of food and clothing for the world’s millions. Our landscapes, from being castigated as monotonous and drab, are sought and exploited by scenic photographers of oversea film corporations. Our Aborigines, from being regarded as so low a form of humanity as to be more like beasts than men, are renowned for intelligence and morality which our materialism has been slow to appreciate. Yet, in spite of all this, the people of Australia are glibly advised, again and again, not to trouble about an Australian culture! They cannot be fooled for ever. Australian pride and intelligence, the very hearts of the people, will surely, and soon now, set such unpatriotic counsel to nought.
We have progressed some distance since, almost a century ago, Henry Parkes looked into the future and wrote prophetically:
“ . . . in my dreaming , Australia has met
Her malignants with patriot ardour.”
Deep in the integrating nation a current has run true, despite wastage; and it is coming to its strength.
Rex Ingamells, Because Men Went Hungry: An Essay on the Uncertainty of Australian Prestige, Jindyworobak, Melbourne, 1951, pages 31-34
makebelief = make believe, a pretence, to make a belief in something that is not real
trammel = something that hinders or restricts activity, expression, movement, or progress