[Editor: This letter to the editor from “Warrigal Jack” (Joseph Furphy) was published in The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 5 October 1889. It was written in reply to an article which appeared in The Bulletin on 14 September 1889.]
“The Mythical Sundowner.”
Dear Bulletin, — I notice in your issue of September 14 a contribution entitled “The Mythical Sundowner,” which, I must say, is calculated to convey an impression erroneous as that which it is designed to correct.
In what part of the civilised world and in what grade of society, under circumstances and conditions favourable to his development, is the professional loafer and potential sundowner not found? ’Tis a spirit: sometimes it appears like a lord, sometimes like a lawyer, sometimes like a philosopher; he is very often like a knight, and, generally walks in all the shapes that man goes up and down in from fourscore to thirteen. Given the opportunity to loaf, and you can trust our poor, frail human nature to supply the loafer.
Great is laziness and she will prevail. Millions breathe but to inherit her forever-lounging spirit. This spirit may equally be tabernacled in the bedizened body of the heiress-hunting assassin-officer or in the rag-clad anatomy of the fragrant hanger-on at a country pub. Nothing short of the mutual police system of ideal Socialism will ever shift the beggar — I use the title not inadvertently, but advisedly and critically.
Never believe but that the Riverina shanty of the present day witnesses many a modified repetition of the scene at Pousie Nansie’s a century ago, when those tuneful sundowners held the splore, to drink their orra duddies. Ask any elderly and observant Irishman whether he ever saw a beggar-man, and mark his answer — mark his answer, I say, for you can thereby determine his religious persuasion: if he be a member of the dominant class, he will, whilst admitting the existence of the Irish sundowner, carefully impress on you that the individual in question is invariably “more Popery than fiscal.”
* * *
You will become giddy in attempting to trace the origin of the loafer — the blue-gown, gaberlunzie, beggar man, sundowner, sinecurist, &c., being, of course, sub-species, each developed by special conditions favourable to its particular growth. Members of this ancient order stretched their legs (saving reverence of the word) under Ulysses’ mahogany whilst the absent hero made history in a manner which reminds us of Baron Munchausen.
Back, back in dim epochs which have left but scanty relics, the pre-historic sundowner performed his diurnal journey from one lacustrine dwelling to another in his bark canoe, while the Swiss mountains — fit type of his own interminable continuance — catapulted avalanche after avalanche at his invulnerable head. Back, back in the very earliest of the perished civilisations — in fact, since the invention of laziness — the sundowner has been an institution; in this secondary sense, and in no other, he may be termed “mythical.” And wherever food is to be obtained without the vulgar equivalent of work, there the sundowner of the present day sits, like Patience on a monument, smiling at his unearned increment — namely, his pannikin of flour.
* * *
The social and economic conditions of Riverina being perhaps even more favourable to the perpetuation and advancement of this ancient and time-defying cult than are the traditional usages of the upper and upper-middle classes of Great Britain, it would be rather surprising if, as your contributor says, “The sundowner or Murrumbidgee whaler has no existence and never had.”
I grieve to say I have seen the sundowner in force — not merely seen him, for, being a nobleman at large rather than a Knight Companion of the Bath, he generally appeals to another sense — wasting his sweetness on the desert air anywhere and everywhere between the Murray and the Darling. He does not by any means “carry his swag from station to station, travelling a score of miles under a burning sun where water is often unobtainable.” Not at all; that is more like what an independent, self-respecting man would do. Your gentleman-sundowner does not disdain the simple hospitalities of the contractor’s or rabbiter’s or bullock-driver’s or drover’s camp; and true men will not insult the submissive, be he ever so worthless.
Do not imagine that he necessarily bakes his pannikin of station-flour at once; his constant care is to increase his slender store so that he may retire to some secluded bend where he can mend his diet with a few cod-fish (hence the name “Whaler”), and fleet the time carelessly as they did i’ the golden age. His wants are few and simple; he wears cast-off clothes; and eating is, in a great measure, an acquired habit.
The man who, in lieu of honest “callusses” on the palm of his hand, is distinguished by knuckles of aboriginal blackness, perennially lustrous with the gloss which blankets alone can give, is not easily starved. Starve? quotha! — starve a blackfellow.
* * *
Neither is it fair to the squatter to assume that his hospitality to travellers — which, by the way, is preposterously over-rated by every writer I have met with — is intended by him as a menace to his employees or is ever interpreted by them as such. It is simply a pastoral tradition which cannot be abruptly swept away.
The type squatter, in spite of his unkind and insolent attitude toward drovers, carriers, &c., and his unrelenting animosity to selectors, is by far the most considerate and indulgent employer in Australia; and, as might be expected, his employees are devoted, body and soul, to his interests. This is very beautiful in the present, but may be most disastrous in the future. It means unquestioned lordship and contented peonage — it means caste.
By and bye, a king arises who knows not Joseph; the population begin to press upon the means of support, and the canaille are counselled to eat grass. Ask history what follows.
* * *
But a drove of 300 sundowners is just the sort of mis-statement we should expect to find in an English magazine. The writer referred to by your contributor has ignorantly confounded with this base and helpless class the honest workers who, as the shearing season approaches, come from Victoria and eastern New South Wales like lions from the swelling of Jordan. These are the very antitheses of the sundowner — active, emulous, independent and capable men; they appear by hundreds in the early spring and disappear as summer approaches. Your true sundowner will scarcely accept the easiest work of a rouseabout in the shearing season: at any other time he will not work.
At Willandra, a few years ago, I saw 12 out of 13 sundowners refuse 15s. per week — with board, of course — for burr-cutting; the offer being made to them by the station storekeeper as he served out the traditional pannikin of flour and bit of raw mutton. To be sure, 15s. per week is far below the average revenue of royal or aristocratic loafers, but it is ample compensation for riding a quiet horse seven or eight hours per diem, while you carry across your saddle-bow the lightest hoe known to the hardware trade.
I felt interested in those 12 princes. I sought their society that evening in the rouse-abouts’ hut by the woolshed, and I can safely say that I have seldom spent three hours more pleasantly or profitably. The conversation, so far as I remember, ran entirely on the subject of station hospitality to “travellers.” In the darkness of the hut, gruff voices and squeaky voices and drawling voices and snuffling voices rose here and there from the bunks in championship or condemnation of names familiar to the pastoral ear as wicked words — Tyson and Landell and Locky, of course — Sammy Wilson, Ole Ric, Hungry This, Gentleman That, Charley Officer over on the Port Phillip side, &c.
As an evidence of Conservatism, I noticed that though these hidalgos necessarily associated daily, more or less, with the few inhabitants of those lonely plains, they always spoke of the Cabbage Garden as “Port Phillip,” of the Holy Land as “’tother side,” and of Australia as the “Sydney side.” It was the honest impression of every one of their Serene Highnesses that a squatter’s pastoral license contained a provision binding the feoffee to supply to each and every professional knight-errant, on demand, the traditional pannikin of flour.
So that, you see, the sundowner claims his tribute by imagined authority of law as well as by indefeasible divine right.
* * *
On the approach of intenser civilisation the true gentleman-sundowner folds up his tent like the mallee-hen, and as silently steals away.
I was on the Murrumbidgee when the north bank of the river became suddenly busy by reason of the construction of the Junee and Hay railway line, and I noticed, as one marked change in the old order of things, that the sundowner, for a time, ceased to peregrinate up and down the river eating Jacky Dow’s mutton.
* * *
We have already seen that the representative or typical sundowner never dies. It is questionable whether even the individual would die — seeing that he is never sick, never was any younger and never grows any older — but that he is subject to accident.
During the protracted floods of ’70, many of these unfortunate waifs — no one knows how many — perished miserably, marooned on insulated patches of higher ground along the rivers or drowned as their refuges became submerged. Casualties of many kinds thin their ranks, and recruits are not so plentiful now as 20 or 30 years ago.
The old economic systems which produce and tolerate social extremes are dying out — dying hard, certainly, after the manner of abuses, but dying, nevertheless.
* * *
Still, while human nature sports into so many varieties and degrees of laziness, the sundowner proper will never fail; men may come and men may go, but he goes on for ever.
Pastoral interests may wax and wane: stations may be incorporated, divided, sold, or foreclosed; managers may die, resign, be sacked, or received into partnership; the Mantchoorian boundary-man may supersede the Indo-Germanic, but while there exists a circuit of stations as a basis of operations the phoenix-like sundowner shall flourish in immortal youth.
The Bulletin (Sydney, NSW), 5 October 1889, p. 8 (columns 1-2)
Furphy’s line “Never believe but that the Riverina shanty of the present day witnesses many a modified repetition of the scene at Pousie Nansie’s a century ago, when those tuneful sundowners held the splore, to drink their orra duddies.” is a reference to the poem “The Jolly Beggars” by the Scottish poet Robert Burns, which includes the lines:
Ae night at e’en a merry core
O’ randie, gangrel bodies,
In Poosie-Nansie’s held the splore,
To drink their orra duddies;
Wi’ quaffing an’ laughing,
They ranted an’ they sang,
Wi’ jumping an’ thumping,
The vera girdle rang.
Normally, “orra duddies” would refer to ragged clothes (or spare clothes); however, it is unclear what Furphy and Burns are referring to in the context of drinking. Presumably the patrons of the inn would not be “drinking their ragged clothes”; however, the phrase may be an analogy.
See: 1) “80. The Jolly Beggars: A Cantata”, Bartleby.com
2) “XIV. The Jolly Beggars. A Cantata”, in: Allan Cunningham (editor), The Complete Works of Robert Burns: Containing his Poems, Songs, and Correspondence, London: George Virtue, [1842?], p. 10
Note: A “gangrel”, as referred to by Burns in “The Jolly Beggars”, is a tramp, vagabond, or vagrant.
See: “Gangrel”, Dictionaries of the Scots Language
Baron Munchausen = a fictional character who was the narrator of tall tales, telling stories of his unlikely and truth-defying adventures; the character was based upon a German nobleman, Baron von Münchhausen (1720-1797)
base = ignoble, lacking decent moral values, lacking good personal qualities, lacking honour; contemptible; cowardly; dishonest; infamous; selfish; corrupt, evil, terrible; regarding someone from a low socio-economic class, of or relating to a peasant; born outside of marriage; born as a slave; coinage not made from valuable metal or having a low proportion of valuable metal; counterfeit; lacking value, of inferior quality or worth, worthless
bedizen = to dress, decorate, or adorn in gaudy or showy manner
Cabbage Garden = a derisive term for Victoria (derived from the small size of the state, compared to New South Wales)
canaille = the common people, the masses, ordinary people; the proletariat, the working class; rabble, riffraff
diem = (Latin) day
diurnal = daily, happening every day; occurring in a 24-hour period; of or during the day, active during the day (e.g. flowers which open during the daytime, animals which are mostly active during the daytime) (archaic meanings: diary, daybook, journal; daily newspaper)
emulous = desiring to emulate someone or something, to equal or excel the abilities or talents of another person, being ambitious in a desire to reach the level of another (an archaic meaning is: to be envious or jealous)
epoch = a long period of time in history, characterised by particular events, distinctive features, or certain conditions (may be characterised by changes in culture, leadership, politics, society, technology, etc.)
feoffee = a vassal or trustee who controls a fief (a land holding) which has been granted by his lord, for which the land holder was obliged to provide certain services
fourscore = eighty; four times twenty; based upon the word “score” meaning “twenty” (sometimes used in conjunction with a cardinal number, e.g. “threescore”, “fourscore”)
gaberlunzie = (Scottish) wandering beggar or vagrant; a licensed beggar (also known as a “gaberlunzie-man”)
hidalgo = a member of the Spanish and Portuguese nobility; in popular usage, the term has come to mean the non-titled nobility
i’ = (vernacular) in
Jacky Dow = Jacky Dow was a squatter (farmer) in the Riverina (NSW), who was well-known for his tight-fisted and skinflint ways, his sometimes peculiar or eccentric manner, and his harsh dealings with those swagmen who were looking for a handout whilst simultaneously trying to avoid work; the phrase “Jacky Dow’s mutton” refers to living off the country (including eating a farmer’s sheep without permission or purchase)
Joseph = the eleventh son of Jacob, who became Vizier of Egypt (his story is told in the book of Genesis, in the Bible)
lacustrine = of or relating to lakes; growing in, or living in, a lake (or on the shore of a lake)
Mantchoorian = (vernacular) Manchurian (regarding Manchuria, in north-east China)
Murrumbidgee whaler = [see: whaler]
mutton = the meat of an adult sheep (as used for food)
orra duddies = (Scottish) spare or superfluous clothes; ragged or tattered clothes; superfluous rags (from “orra”, meaning “spare” or “superfluous”, and “duddies”, meaning “clothes”)
pannikin = a small metal pan, or a small metal cup
peonage = (also known as “debt slavery” or “debt servitude”) a system whereby people are kept in servitude whilst they work in order to pay off a debt, or debts, to their employer (in some cases, in order to provide for themselves, workers would have to buy supplies from their employer, or from the company store, often at high prices, thus keeping them in an ongoing cycle of debt); the condition of a peon (someone working for a creditor or employer to pay off their debt to them); a system whereby convicts are leased to contractors to work for them
per diem = (Latin) per day; in each day, for each day (in financial terms, an amount that is earned, paid, received, sold, spent, or used each day)
peregrinate = to travel or wander, especially walking
Popery = of or relating to Roman Catholicism (the Christian church led by a Pope); the Roman Catholic Church; the ceremonies, doctrines, practices, and rituals of the Roman Catholic Church (usually considered to be a derogatory term)
Pousie Nansie’s = Poosie Nansie’s Inn (an inn, or pub, located in Mauchline, East Ayrshire, Scotland)
quotha = (archaic) an expression used to demonstrate sarcasm, contempt, irony, or surprise, when quoting or repeating a word or phrase used by someone else (derived from “quoth a”, meaning “quoth he”, i.e. “said he”), used in the sense of saying “Indeed!”
rouseabout = an unskilled worker, someone employed to carry out odd jobs or unskilled tasks, especially used regarding someone working in a shearing shed
s. = a reference to a shilling, or shillings; the “s” was an abbreviation of “solidi”, e.g. as used in “L.S.D.” or “£sd” (pounds, shillings, and pence), which refers to coins used by the Romans, as per the Latin words “librae” (or “libra”), “solidi” (singular “solidus”), and “denarii” (singular “denarius”)
score = twenty (sometimes used in conjunction with a cardinal number, e.g. “threescore”, “fourscore”) (may also refer to an undefined large number)
selector = the purchaser of an area of land obtained by free-selection; land legislation in Australia in the1860s was passed by several colonies which enabled people to obtain land for farming, whereby they could nominate a limited area of land to rent or buy, being able to select land which had not yet been surveyed (hence the phrase “free selection before survey”) and even obtain land previously leased by squatters (although squatters were able to buy sections of their land, up to a designated limit; with many of them buying up further sections under the names of family members, friends, and employees)
shanty = a small roughly-built cabin or hut; may also refer to a pub, especially an unlicensed pub
sinecurist = someone who holds a sinecure: a position that requires the holder to do little or no work, but from which the holder gains an income, financial benefit, or social status
splore = (Scottish) an escapade, a frolic, a merry meeting, a revel; a commotion or disturbance
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)
tabernacled = (archaic) housed in (from the archaic meaning of “tabernacle” as a dwelling, or a temporary shelter, especially a tent)
’tis = (archaic) a contraction of “it is”
waif = an item found but not claimed by its owner (such as something washed up by the sea); a stray person or animal, especially an abandoned, homeless, or orphaned child
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.]
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