Friday, September 05, 2008

Ethnicity, ideology and the sometimes slippery concept of Australian "independence" - Part Two: Australian Identity

Graphic: Castle Hill Rebellion, 1804.

In the first post in this series, Ethnicity, ideology and the sometimes slippery concept of Australian "independence" - Part One: "Independence", I explored the evolution of the Australian independence from a historical perspective. I suggested that this had evolved in ways not always well presented in current histories with their us (Australia)/them (British, London)focus.

The second part of this series discusses the evolving sense of Australian nationalism and the relationship between this and different streams in Australian thought. This is a far harder task.

The term independence itself is capable of many definitions and is in any event a continuum. However, it is framed by, and can at least be assessed in terms of, specific historical events. By contrast, the evolution of our sense of identity and of the changing nature of Australian nationalism is far harder to assess because it centres not just on symbols, but on the changing way Australians think of themselves. We are what we think. But what have we thought?

The problem is made more complex because current modes of thought always create a barrier to our understanding of our past.

Take, as an example, the current use of the terms "Anglo" and "Anglo-Celtic." These modern labels have no validity in a historical sense, although their use may be of interest to later historians. Coined for current purposes, they actually create a mental barrier to our understanding of the past.

The popularity of the term "Celtic" is quite recent. The joining of "Anglo" with "Celtic" is even more recent, creating a combination that conceals one of the great divides of Australian history.

In historical terms, the islands from which Australia's first European settlers came were a melting pot marked over millennia by invasion after invasion of new settlers. Despite this, perhaps because of it, the principalities and kingdoms that emerged in historical terms were stubbornly separate, often at war with each other. The history of the Isles is littered with war.

Religious divides added to tensions. Here the Reformation is central because of the divide it created between the Roman Catholic Church on one side, the rise of Protestantism on the other. This played out within and between the kingdoms within the Isles, set within a broader framework of Western European religious and political conflict.

The place that would become Australia was settled from 1788 by people from various parts of the Isles. Others would come and make their individual contribution, but it was the people from the Isles who dominated especially in the first period.

I make this point because Australia was a mixed ethnic and religious society from the beginning, bringing together in one place people from homelands and especially England, Ireland and Scotland that were very different. People carried their history, religion and culture with them - they did not cease to be who they were just because of their transhipment.

There had been deep divides in Scotland between Roman Catholic and Protestant. The Presbyterian Church itself displayed a remarkable tendency to schism, a capacity and fury for theological debate that would be carried over to the new colony. The defeat of the Jacobite uprising in 1745 and the reprisals that followed were still recent history at the time that Sydney was settled.

In Ireland, too, national and religious divides were powerful. The political tensions associated with the English Reformation, fears about the loyalty of Irish vassals, led to a series of military campaigns to assert English control over Ireland. New settlers were planted from England and Scotland to form loyal Protestant communities.

By 1788, Ireland was governed by a local parliament whose electors excluded the 85 per cent Roman Catholic population, helping further strengthen bitter sectarian divides. In 1798 rebellion at Wexford culminated in the Battle of Vinegar Hill when 10,000 British troops successfully attacked the rebel headquarters. A number of the defeated rebels were sent to Australia as convicts.

In 1801, the Irish Parliament was abolished and Ireland became an integral part of a new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland under the Act of Union. However, Roman Catholics were still banned from the Westminster Parliament. It would be 1829 before this restriction was lifted.

Far away in the remote convict settlement at Sydney, maintenance of order was a key official concern. This was no easy task.

In 1804 rebellion broke out among the Irish convicts.

Led by Phillip Cunningham, a veteran of the 1798 Wexford rebellion, and William Johnston, another Irish convict at Castle Hill, the intent was for the 500 convicts at Castle Hill to rise, meet with with nearly 1,000 convicts from the Hawkesbury River area then March on Parramatta and Sydney. The rebellion began on 4 March 1804. Ineptly led, it was crushed a week later.

This early period of Australian history established three key features of Australia and the Australian character.

The need to maintain order among a divided population, along with the politically influential Scots Presbyterian presence, effectively mandated a secular society. The Church of England might be the church of the establishment, but it would never be the established church.

The need to maintain order, the colony's manpower needs, as well as the rise of the emancipist (ex-convict) class, required a pragmatic approach. Society could not be as rigidly organised, the laws could not be as rigidly enforced, things had to be done just to get by. By modern standards, these were harsh times. However, convict NSW also had a freedom, a social license, that is completely alien to today's three strikes and you are out mentality.

This introduces the third feature, the desire for order itself, especially among the emerging middle classes. Here one of the enduring features of Australian history have been the attempts of the middle classes to impose order on the broader population. In many ways Australia is a very conformist society.

All this affected language and society. Australia has never been a classless society. However, the egalitarianism of language and attitude, what John Hurst has called a democracy of manners, dates I think from this early period.

While NSW may have been a secular society, the sectarian divide between Roman Catholic and Anglican or Protestant continued, due in part to the carefully maintained dominance of the Irish Church over the the Australian Church. This meant that Irish attitudes and issues continued to play out in Australia. There was a clear and in many ways ghettoed divide between the majority population and the separate Catholic minority, a divide that was mirrored across education, social, cultural and economic and political life, that still exercises a powerful influence in Australia today.

The existence of an Australian dialect is one feature of the Australian character on which all can agree. This emerged among the currency lads and lasses, the locally born, quite early. A tri-partite language subdivision emerged, later described in terms of English-Australian, educated Australian, broad Australian.

It is not clear to me why the variations in the Australian dialect should have become socially and education based, with so little regional variation. As a historian and social analyst with a particular interest in regional history, I know just how deep the variations are between different parts of Australia.

Part of the answer lies in the then mobility of the Australian population. The Australian population, especially the working class population, was in a state of constant flux across Australia searching for new opportunities. The educated elites were also mobile within Australia and the broader Empire.

Part of the answer probably lies as well in the emergence of centralised education systems. Later, the spread of radio was important because of the way that the ABC in particular mandated a certain type of spoken English.

Part of answer also lies in the evolving Australian social structures that gave rise to the tri-partite division in the first place.

English-Australian was the domain of the new public (public in the English sense) and private schools that emerged over the nineteenth century to provide education to the wealthier elites. Especially in girl's schools, elocution (the speaking of proper English) was very important.

Educated Australian became the domain of school teachers and the small but growing number of university graduates.

Broad Australian was the language of the working class and of the bush.

The evolving concepts of Australia and Australian were inextricably entwined with ethnicity and social class, as was the evolution of the political parties. In turn, both played out in the evolution of Australian thought.

I will discuss this in my next post.

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