Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sunday Essay - reflections on culture, society and early Australian history

When I first read A C V Melbourne's Early Constitutional Development in Australia (First published 1934. My copy edited by R B Joyce, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1963), I thought that it was as dull as bat shit. Yes, I am sure that there are specialists in bat shit who find the substance quite fascinating, but you know what I mean!

The difference now is that I know just so much more. The names and events are familiar, that certainly helps, but I also have patterns in my mind that are deepened or sometimes challenged by the new material I read. No doubt you will hear more of Melbourne, but tonight I want to use it as an entry point to another discussion, the importance of culture. Not "high" culture, but culture in the sense of patterns and dynamics in society.

I'm not sure when I first became interested in culture. Growing up in Armidale sensitized you very quickly to social structures. Armidale and the surrounding district had at least six quite distinctive social groups that mixed and overlapped in complex ways.

You had the basic divisions of town, gown and country. But they were subdivided in turn. In country, you had the division between farmer and grazier. Gown was the academics, but you also had the large number of non-academic staff who were not gown, formed part of town, but were also distinct. In town, you had social and economic divides linked to what people did, to their education and social status. Some of the wealthier merchants or professionals, for example, interlinked with the grazing community or with gown.

Religion and politics sat as a layer over all this. Where you went to church or to school reflected, affected, the groups that you belonged to. There were considerable sectarian divides, not just Roman Catholic versus protestant, but within the protestant churches themselves. Then there was another layer linked to community activism. There is almost a universal truth in smaller communities where cooperation is central to the maintenance of the fabric of life that involvement brings acceptance and recognition that crosses divides. The CWA (Country Women's Association) is a good example.

I straddled divisions, but was obviously very aware of them since I had to navigate my way through. It gave me a good understanding of social analysis.

The first academic sociology work that I can remember reading, I was still at school, was a book I plucked from my father's shelves. It was, I think by an American sociologist called Harrison White. I think that it was White. It certainly sounds like him. According to the Wikipedia piece linked above, White emphasised the importance of networks and social interaction in the formation and working of culture.

The book in question included the story of two new American suburbs founded about the same time drawing from similar demographics. The residents in one formed bonds, welcoming new comers, creating a positive culture. The residents in the second, partly because of urban design failures, became fragmented, isolated, creating a very different culture. Decades later, the first suburb had grown in cohesion, prestige and wealth, the second suffered from problems of crime and social disunity and was in economic and social decline, slipping into social decay.

New South Wales began as a penal colony. It was partly, in fact, a large scale penal reform experiment and one that proved to be a considerable success. The institutions and cultures that we know today formed during the earlier colonial period. Some were not so good, certain aspects of the Rum Corp come to mind, but others were. The sheer exigencies of running an open penal colony created a higher degree of local freedom, greater possibilities of  advancement, than was the case in the United Kingdom. The strong executive power exercised by the earlier governors may have been necessary just because it was a penal colony, but it also acted to check the power of emerging wealth and status based on the civil and military officialdom.

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Early politics in the colony centred on two emerging groups, the emancipists or ex-convicts and the exclusives, the civil and military officials who had built their own private wealth largely from their official positions.

Initially the exclusives lead by people like John (image) and James Macarthur had power and especially the access to London provided by their wealth. They were active in promoting their interests including their access to land. But the emancipists were also becoming wealthy and, with time, proved reasonably capable lobbyists with both sides using employed agents within the House of Commons.

In the beginning, there were few free settlers in the new colony. As early as 1792 Governor Phillip, anxious about the food supply, had asked for some free settlers. The first group arrived on the Bellona on 6 January 1793 attracted by inducements that included a free passage, grants of land, tools and implements from the public stores and the services of assigned convicts, fed by the Government for two years and clothed for one.

The number of free settlers increased slowly from that point, but by the time Governor Macquarie arrived in 1810 there were perhaps still only 1,000 as compared to 1,700 officials in the civil and military departments and perhaps 5,000 convicts. There were also some 2,500 children.

Macquarie did not favour free settlement. He saw NSW as a place of redemption where offenders might re-establish their place in society. He did not mind men with capital who might establish themselves in agriculture, but was vehemently opposed to those with connections who expected to acquire wealth from the exploitation of Government privilege. This made him a natural target for the exclusives who campaigned against him in London.

The exclusives gained their name from the way they excluded people, even most free settlers, from their society. They had position and wished to protect it. In so doing, they created a bond between the ex-convicts who were achieving success and free settlers, between merchants and artisans who might otherwise have been drawn to the order and social hierarchy the exclusives represented. This gave the emancipists added numbers and, in time, influence.

The political divide between exclusive and emancipist was inherently unstable because it was based on social class, on concepts of order and status, in a rapidly evolving colony. The accumulation of wealth by the emancipists, ex-convict and free, could not be ignored. The tipping point came with the pastoral expansion.

On their estates on the outskirts of Sydney and in the Hunter, exclusives were attempting to recreate the social order of a home country that was itself undergoing fundamental change. They had a vision of broad estates farmed by tenant farmers, of country houses and an ordered country side. Their wealth was based on land acquired by grant and purchase, on farming and the sale of farm produce.

The explosion of settlement outside the boundaries of settlement – the nineteen counties - imposed by Governors concerned about the management of a penal colony changed everything. Initially the squatting rush was opposed by many exclusives. It threatened the value of their estates within the settled areas, it threatened their life style and position, but they soon joined in. There was money to be made.

One product, wool, was central to the rush. It was a high value product that could bear the very high shipping costs associated with slow land transport. But once the pastoral expansion began, other factors came into play. The pastoral rush created a demand for horses, for sheep, for cattle, to stock the new properties.

Beyond the frontier, land had no direct value because there was no ownership. The value lay in the value of the increasing stock of animals, of the returns that might be gained from those animals. The wool clip provided an external source of income that underpinned the whole process, but it was the animals that were important. You didn’t have to sell your stock to the final point of sale such as the abattoir, you could sell them to the squatters moving to the next point of occupation who needed stock to do so.

The end result was a long boom that finally culminated in the crash of the early 1840s. Both exclusives and emancipists participated in this rush. In so doing, the old divisions disappeared, new ones emerged.  

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