[Editor: An article by Rolf Boldrewood. Published in The Argus (Melbourne), 31 December 1910.]
The Australian-born type.
By Rolf Boldrewood.
Numberless speculations, dogmatisms, and prophecies have found utterance, in and out of Australia, touching the characteristics and destiny of the children of the soil. Colonial critics sitting in judgment upon their own, and other peoples, offspring, have chiefly felt moved to deliver a verdict of inferiority to the sacred British type. Not noticeably diverse has been that of the untravelled European philosopher, or social student. In nearly all cases, the mildest verdict indicated some degree of physical, or mental differentiation; another term for degeneration. If in the former greater height and length of limb were conceded, to be neutralised by lack of muscle and vitality. Worse again, if in the latter category a savage precocity and perceptive intelligence were admitted, it was rarely if ever supported by persistency, application, or broad mental grasp.
In the very early days of New South Wales, which I am old enough, alas! to remember, my boyish experience familiarised me with various products, animate and inanimate, of the Cape of Good Hope, then a handy store-house of necessaries for this far, and oft-forgotten, continent. The mention of “Cape” geese, “Cape” wine, “Cape” horses, “Cape” gooseberries, was unceasing. Indeed, I once heard the pied pee-wit — a bird familiar to all observing youth — referred to as a “Cape magpie.” This was, of course, natural enough. But the logical outcome of all this simple nomenclature which puzzled me at the time, was, that “Cape” used in that sense, was another name for almost any article resembling, but inferior, to a prized original. Thus the “Cape” wine was what we still, perhaps erroneously, consider that inspiriting, but less delicate beverage to be; the “Cape” geese were smaller, and marketably less valuable than their thick-necked, solemn English cousins; the Cape gooseberries were sweet with a mawkish sweetness, how far below the rough richness of the English fruit! The Cape horses, not devoid of pace, were weedy, and low-caste, while the Cape pigeon was not a pigeon at all, but a gull; and even the Cape magpie was held to be a species of lark, dressed up in the parti-coloured plumes of his august relative, the herald of the dawn.
Can my readers recall a period in which the adjectives “colonial” or “native” were not held to express very similar ideas as contrasted with “European” or “imported”? Along with the “Cape”, associations, I acquired from many sources a fixed idea that an indefinable, climatic process was somehow at work in Australia preventing like from producing like. It applied equally to men and women, horses and cattle, sheep and goats, plants and flowers, qualities and manners. Over this anomaly, dooming the unconscious “currency lads and lasses” to perpetual “Creolism,” I marvelled greatly. My sympathies meantime were loyally enlisted with the “native” party. Years rolled on, I visited other colonies, and roamed over tracts of broad Australia, far from my boyhood’s home. Yet I never lost sight of the question which so troubled my youth. I neglected no opportunity of making observations, recording facts, or instituting comparisons, connected with this mysterious subtle Australian degeneration theory.
I enjoyed the privilege — of which I desire to speak reverently and gratefully — of revisiting the dear old land, whence came the fathers and mothers, and grandparents, the ancestors of all Australian-born men and women. The land of the real, veritable “old masters” before any like-seeming, but disappointing “Cape” copies of the glorious originals were thought of. I enjoyed thus certain opportunities of which I did not fail to make reasonable use. I mention personal facts merely to show that, having early in life apprehended the magnitude of the question, I set myself, not without certain facilities for generalisation, or reasonable time devoted to the inquiry (about 50 years — ah, me!) to do battle with the error, now, as then, possessing vitality and power, of propagation. The first primary fact, which appealed to my reasoning powers, as subversive of the “Cape,” or degeneration doctrine, was that of the high and increasing value of the fleece of the Australian merino sheep. This astonishing animal, bred from individuals of selected cabanas of the highest Spanish lineage, was landed in New South Wales in the early years of settlement, and tenderly cherished by the Macarthurs, Rileys, Coxes, and other leading colonists, more enthusiastic for the welfare of the land than their own aggrandisement. Kept free from “improvement” (?) by heterogeneous imported blood, it was actually proved by Shaw, of Victoria, and other clear-visioned pastoral prophets, to be equal, nay superior, to the best imported sheep. It was contended for him that the calumniated climate and pastures of Australia had, in the acclimatised merino, produced a fleece delicately soft, free, lustrous; withal so highly adapted for the finer fabrics, that nothing European could compare with it. That from that type, now securely fixed, and capable of reproducing itself inimitably, had been evolved the most valuable fleece-producing animal, reared in the open air, and under natural conditions, in the whole world. That so far from the infusion of the best Spanish and Gascon blood improving the Camden merino, as it began to be called, marked deterioration followed. Horror of horrors! imported blood injurious — what heresy was this? Yet, incontestably, the prices of the Havilah, Mount Hope, Larra, and Ercildoune clips would seem to have triumphantly established Mr. Shaw’s daring proposition.
As to horses — slowly, and yet surely — it began to be asserted, if not believed, that any stud-master in possession of a family of Australian thoroughbreds originally imported and bred uncrossed for generations beneath the bright Australian sky, reared on the crisp Australian pastures, had probably better pause before he introduced English blood, unless he knew it to be absolutely superior and likely to assimilate successfully. Later on men were found to say, that, given pure pedigree, speed, and soundness on the part of sire and dam, Australian blood-horses, though reared for generations under the fibre-relaxing climatic influences of the Great South Land, were as grandly grown, as speedy, as sound in wind and limb, as full of vigour and vitality, as any of the “terribly high-bred cattle” which at Newmarket represent the ne plus ultra of equine perfection. To this latter-day heresy speculations as to what might have come to the reputation of the racecourses of the land if evil had chanced to the son of Cap-a-pie and Paraguay (Australian “Sir Hercules”) lent considerable force.
Gradually also uprose a bucolic protesting party, who denied that the unqualified supremacy of the British-bred shorthorn was to last for all time. Second Hubback cows, and bulls of the blood of Belvidere and Mussulman, Favourite and Comet, had landed here before the rival names of Bates and Booth were household words from the Hawkesbury to the Sylvester. Careful breeders, enthusiasts for pedigree, had jealously kept the blood pure. Size and beauty, hair, colour, and handling, constitution, and flesh-amassing power were equal or even exceeded in their descendants. Though sorely trammelled by the “Cape” orthodoxy, these even at length ventured to raise their flag and proclaim a revolutionary epic of fullest colonial brotherhood, other things being equal. Following them came the champions of Devon and Hereford cattle. Lastly the Suez mail brought news that certain Bates Duchesses, born and bred in Australia, America, in the United States, where the “Cape” theory as regarding man and beast to this day doth flourish luxuriantly, were re-exported and sold in England for dream-prices before an idolatrous audience! It irks one to recall how rigidly comprehensive was the elastic network of the “Cape” theory. By no means would the bulldog fight, nor die in battle the close-trimmed cock, nor sing the bird, nor flowers perfume the breeze in Australia, as did their prototypes in “Merrie England.” Long years since this prejudicial indictment has been laid to rest amid the limbo of forgotten absurdities.
Man, the most highly organised animal, suffered of course the most injurious disparagement; he has but slowly been able to clear himself from these damaging aspersions. Yet methinks old Time, his “whirli-gigs,” and “revenges,” is even now uplifting the personal character of the Southern Briton, no longer forced to resent the damaging accusation. In the lower forms of the great School of Effort our champions have arisen, and done battle with many a dux of the old world. They have abundantly demonstrated that they could “make the pace,” and yet exhibit the “staying power,” which is the great heritage of the breed. Lofty of stature and lithe of limb as they may be — though all are not so — they have shown that they inherited the stark sinews, the unyielding muscles, the indomitable, dogged energy of those terrible “beef-fed islanders,” from whom we are all descended. In the boat, on the cricket field, at the rifle targets, and in the saddle, the Australian-born has shown that he can hold his own with his European relatives.
It remains to be seen whether, in the more aesthetic departments, he has exhibited the same power of competing on equal terms with his northern kinsman. I now venture to assert, considering the limited number of families relatively from whom choice could be made that a very large proportion of Australian born persons, of both sexes have exhibited a high degree of talent and, in some cases, unquestioned genius in the literary, forensic, or scientific arena. That small and distant English-speaking population which in a single generation produced such men as Wentworth, Robertson, Martin, Dalley, Stephen, Forster, Halloran, Deniehy, Kendall, and Harper — Australians by birth and rearing — may fairly lay claim to the highest intellectual proclivities in a moral atmosphere favourable to mental development.
It is inexpedient to mention names in a limited community, but I may assert, without laying myself open to that accusation of boasting for which a colonial synonym has been adopted, that in the learned professions Australians may be found, if not at the acknowledged pinnacle, so near as to be worthily striving for pre-eminence. Among the fair daughters of the land we know that there are numbered singers, painters, musicians, histrionic artists, and writers of an eminence which fits them worthily to compete with European celebrities. Pledged to observing with deep interest the native Australian type so far as it has been presented to me, I have rarely missed an opportunity of testing not only the general characteristics of the individuals examined — I have even pushed my inquiries almost to the verge of rudeness, as to the nationality of parents and grandparents from the Parramatta River to the Clarence, from the Moyne to the Murrumbidgee, from the Yarra to the Mataura, I have noticed “natives” of all ranks, ages, and sexes. The eager ethnological reader will naturally require my conclusive opinion — a prosaic, possibly a disappointing one. Australian-born persons, with trifling exceptions, are very like everyone else born of British blood, anywhere.
So far from all being run into one mould, as it pleases strangers to believe, they present as many instances of individual divergence from the ordinary Anglo-Saxon or Celtic types — mentally and physically — as are to be found in Europe, or elsewhere. Then the heat, the constant eating of meat, the locomotive, speculative habit of the land — do these not produce a variation of type? How can they be like people born in the green motherland? is eagerly asked. My answer is, that “race is everything.” A little heat more or less, a little extra wayfaring, the prevalence of the orange and banana, of abundant food — these things do not suffice to relax the fibre and lower the stamina of the bold sea-roving breed which has never counted the cost of the deadliest climate, or the wildest sea, where honour was to be satisfied, thirst for adventure to be slaked, or even that lower, but essential, desideratum, a full purse to be secured. If the air be hot, there sighs the ocean breeze to temper it withal. On the great interior plateaux, the pure, dry atmosphere which invigorates the invilid rears up uninjured the hardy broods of the farmer, the stockrider and the shepherd.
Stalwart men and wholesome, stirring lasses do they make. The profusely used beef and mutton diet, due to our countless flocks and herds, though it does not tend to produce grossness of habit, is a muscle-producing food, best fitted for those who are compelled to travel far and fast. The ordinary bush-labourer, reared on a farm or station, is generally a tall, rather graceful person. He may be comparatively slight-looking but if you test or measure him you will find that the spareness is more apparent than real. His limbs are muscular and sinewy; his chest is broad; his shoulders well spread; he is extremely active, and either on foot or horseback can hold his own with any nationality. Wiry and athletic, he is much stronger than he looks. He will generally do manual labour after a fashion, and at a pace that would astonish a Kent or Sussex yokel. If he have not the abnormally broad frame of an English navvy or farm labourer, neither has he the bowed frame, the bent back, the shorter limbs of the European hind. With all his faults he is much more as nature made him, unwarped by ceaseless labour, and more capable of the rational enjoyment of life.
With regard to mental characteristics. It has been the fashion to assert that a certain want of thoroughness is observable in the Australian-born youths. “They will not fag at their books to the same extent as a Britisher. They are superficial, light-minded, unstable, whatnot.” I well believe this to be an unfounded charge. When will people cease to talk of “Australians” doing this or that and permit colonists to differ among themselves from birth, as elsewhere? Here, under the Southern Cross, as under Ursa Major, are born the imaginative and the practical, the energetic, the dreamy, the slow and the brilliant, the cautious and the rash, the persevering and the fickle. As the inscrutable human unit enters the world, so must he or she remain, I hold, but partially modified by human agency until the day of death. Change of abode or of circumstances will not perceptibly alter the mysteriously persistent entity.
The eager British or other critic sums up the inhabitants of five distinct States, living in five hundred different ways — as “typical colonists.” “The Australian” (saith he) “does this or looks like that, dislikes formality or abhors uniformity. He is quick, but not persevering, he is not so profound, so long-enduring, so ‘thorough,’ as the Englishman.” Such reasoners surely assume that all Australians “to the manner born” were hewn out of one primeval eucalyptus log, instead of, as I had the honour to remark before, possessing in full abundance the endless differentiations and divergences from the parent type, and from each other, so noticeable in Great Britain. Know, O friendly generaliser, that there be tall Australians, and short Australians, lean Australians and those to whom the increase of adipose tissue is a sore trial. There be fair-haired and dark-haired, brown and auburn-haired youths and maidens, and ever as the outward man or woman ripens diverse under the same sun, do the invisible forces of the mind wax faint or fierce, feeble-clinging or deathless strong.
There are speculative, rash Australians; also cautious, very wary Australians. Some to whom gold is but dross peculiarly difficult to “pocket” in life’s billiard-table, and wofully given to the losing hazard; others to whom pence and half pence are dear as the rarest coins to the collector, prone to fight for or hoard them with desperate tenacity. “Natives” who are ready to accept the gravest charge without a grain of self-distrust; “natives” to whom responsibility is a misery and a burden. Some there are who from childhood to old age scarcely glance at any literary product except a newspaper. Born on the same stream, or tending the same herds, shall be those whose every waking thought is more or less connected with books; to whom the unvisited regions of the old world, through such glorious guides, are rendered common and familiar.
There is no generic Australian definition, such as we carelessly apply to Englishmen, Americans, Frenchmen, or Germans, when we call the first practical, the second “go-ahead,” the third gay, the fourth solid. The Australian, perhaps, more nearly resembles the Briton, from whom he has chiefly sprung, than any other sub-variety of mankind. There may be a slight, but noticeable, tendency to variation, but it smacks of progressive development rather than of retrogression.
Let it be remembered that the inhabitants of the principal subdivisions of Britain have mingled and intermarried in Australia to a greater degree than is possible in the mother country. Doubtless, English and Scottish, Scottish and Irish, and so on, continuously form alliances in Britain, but there can scarcely have been such a thorough sifting up together, such intermixture of blood there, as where the three divisions, having been imported in ratably even quantities, have intermarried for nearly a century. The thorough welding of Celt and Saxon, Dane and Norseman, ancient Britain, Scoto-Celt and Hiberno-Saxon strains is hardly possible except in a colony. Hence Australia may eventually produce a type of the highest physical and mental vigour possible to the race. It has been conceded that borderers — presumably mixed — have always excelled in stature and mental calibre the pure races. As much may be asserted in days to come of the Australian-born. As it is, instances are not wanting of a type of manhood combining harmoniously those qualities of which English, Irish, and Scottish have from time immemorial been accustomed to boast.
I conclude this outline of a deeply important question by recording my deliberate conviction that in the essentials of character the southern British race truly resembles, and in none falls short of, the parent stock. Apparent physical peculiarities may be explained as the results of a higher average standard of living, a less stationary habit, and the unshared freshness of a glorious atmosphere. The great south land, in extent and variety of climate and soil, offers a more fruitful field for the development of the root-qualities of the race than did any former abiding place of the great Aryan stock. And though the average stature be exceeded, and the rugged lineaments, no longer ocean-striving, but fanned by softer airs, approximate more closely to the chiselled features of the Greek, ever and forevermore will Australia “keep unchanged the strong heart of her sons;” for ages yet to come jealously claiming the proud title of “Britons of the South,” and, as such, when the world’s war dogs bay around the sacred standard of the Empire, eagerly emulous to be enrolled among the “Soldiers of the King.”
The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), 31 December 1910, p. 4
The question mark in brackets is part of the original text: “Kept free from “improvement” (?) by heterogeneous imported blood”.
adipose = animal fat, or containing, resembling, or relating to animal fat; may also refer to fat in general
fag = hard work (hence “fagged” for exhausted) (possibly from the archaic meaning of “fag”, meaning “to droop”)
navvy = an unskilled labourer, especially one employed on major civil engineering projects; from navigations (canals), as many construction workers were employed on widespread canal-building schemes in 18th century Britain (thus, navigation workers came to be colloquially known as “navvies”)
wofully = (an alternative spelling of “woefully”)
[Editor: Corrected “disapointing” to “disappointing”; “ben evolved” to “been evolved”.]