Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I've run this before, but every year when the talk returns to 'What Does It Mean To Be An Australian?' I usually think of this piece first, still relevant, still powerful, almost 100 years after it was written by C.E.W Bean on the eve of World War I :
In 1914, Australians were only 126 years from their first settlement in this continent...we were only 101 years from the first crossing of the Blue Mountains, only 63 (years) from the first gold rush, 58 (years) from the first establishment here of democratic self-government. Some Australian who went to the war had ancestors still alive who could remember some of the first generation of countrymen; many had grandparents or great grandparents who could tell them of the gold rush, the bushrangers, the later explorers and the imported convicts.

Yet, though many of the older men and women had actually lived in them, the colonial days were, by 1914, almost as extinct of those of William the Conqueror.

The people of the six colonies, which had federated only fourteen years before, regarded themselves as being in the forefront of human progress, and indeed, in some not unimportant respects they had reason to do so.

When emigrating from Britain most of their ancestors had half-consciously tried to cast off what they vaguely felt to be elements of inequality and injustice in the inherited social systems of Europe.

They were disrespectful of old methods, eager to try out new ones. They had of late deliberately changed the whole basis of their wage system, in an effort to adjust it to the public conscience in place of the uncontrolled results of supply and demand.

They had made many mistakes, due to vague thinking and inadequate study, but they had achieved something.

They had established at least one very great and successful industry - that of wool production - and had managed to so spread its profits that real wages were then possibly higher in Australia than anywhere else in the world; at all events the life of the ordinary man, woman and child contain probably more healthy recreation than anywhere else.

Public education then compared favourably with that of any people except perhaps those of Scandinavia; in the enjoyment of such modern material benefits as telephones and electric light Australians were ahead of the British though behind the Americans.

Probably nowhere were the less wealthy folk more truly free, or on such terms of genuine social equality with the rich, in dress, habits and intercourse....

It is true that in one respect living conditions in Australia - as in most newly-settled lands, even the United States - differed widely from those in older countries; a vast gap existed between the conditions in country and city. In the cities life was not markedly different from that of any great European or American town; but country life was in many parts still set in almost pioneering environment.

Yet the outback homesteads often contain surprising evidence of culture. It was much more than a superficial sign that the women who drove in to meet the mail train at a distant siding often dressed in the fashion of Paris, London, or New York.

And if in the bars and hostels even of the big cities at racetimes and on holidays there was sometimes evidence of the Wild West, there was little inferiority complex about the people of this particularly free country.

Its universities were in many ways progressive; its governments were launching into social experiments. Its business and political leaders thoroughly believed in its future and, with only 4 1/2 million white people (and perhaps 100,000 Australian blacks) in the continent, they borrowed freely from overseas to launch into industrial and social enterprises.

Many young Australians tended to condemn the English immigrant for his comparative slowness and lack of confidence in dealing with the unknown men and conditions, and were irritated by his certitude as to the superiority of the methods of the "old country".

The Australian ballad writers, Gordon, Lawson, Paterson, Ogilivie and others, were constantly read and quoted. The people were not formally religious, but there was a marked comradeliness in their outlook, and no degree of economic pressure could induce them to abandon it.

The people, newly federated, were at this stage very consciously intent upon building themselves into a great nation.

Without giving the matter much thought, most Australians assumed that the development of their country would be similar to that of the United States.

...with easy optimism, Australian anticipated that within a century or so her 5 million people would be increased to 60 if not 100 million.

The historian, who tries to to discover what motive most powerfully moved the Australian people at that interesting stage, will probably come to the conclusion that tradition - such as is consciously or unconsciously handed down in almost every word or action by parents and teachers to children, by priests and pastors, professional trades and business men to their successors, by witters to readers, even by older children to younger - was immensely strong and enduring.

The tradition was largely British...But with the British standards were mingled those of the pioneers - the backwoodsmen, and the men of the great ruins and the mining fields.

It was to these last that Australians owed their resourcefulness and readiness to grapple with their objectives even against authority, and also their basic creed, in industry as in war, that a man must at all costs stand by his mate.

...they clung to the principle of standing by the weaker brother.