Hirst, John: Oddity from the start

Hirst, John

An oddity from the start: convicts and national character‘, The Monthly, July 2008

Argues against the idea that our convict heritage made us an anti-authoritarian people. Includes criticism of the Russel Ward thesis in his The Australian Legend (radicalism and independence derived from itinerant bush workers) and discussion of the supposed anti-authoritarian influence of Irish convicts. He considers also the rise of urban ‘larrikins’. He notes embarrassment about Australia’s ‘convict stain’ but resentment that Englishmen drew attention to it. He notes a trope of purity and whiteness in the later nineteenth century, perhaps as a reaction to convictism; ‘White Australia’ had shades of meaning.

Here is another speculative connection between convict shame and national history. The landing at Gallipoli is being honoured more and more fervently in recent years but the claim, made at the time, that the nation was born at Gallipoli is a puzzle to modern Australians. Did Gallipoli mean so much because it was a supreme test of Australian mateship? No. Did Australians honour it because they have a perverse delight in defeat? No. Gallipoli did make the nation because it freed Australia from the self-doubt about whether it had the mettle to be a proper nation. Australian soldiers had been put to the supreme test and they had come through magnificently. Landed at the wrong place, facing almost perpendicular cliffs, with the Turks firing on them from above, they got ashore and scrambled up and hung on. All the military experts proclaimed their success; the British, most importantly, praised them. Once that had happened the outcome of the venture, whether defeat or victory, did not matter. And what was the deepest source of self-doubt? The convict stain.

Hirst believes the events at Gallipoli made Australia respectable, particularly in the eyes of the Australian middle class, and overcame its convict origins.

The bourgeoisie, sharing the shame of the nation, looked for respectability through White Australia and military prowess, and the forms these took had a strong proletarian cast; the working man was elevated by one and was the most notable embodiment of the other.

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