Australia’s place in the world - Glorious Days lecture
Nicholas Brown and Michelle Hetherington, National Museum of Australia, 26 March 2013
MICHELLE: Hello, my name is Michelle Hetherington, and I am a senior curator here at the National Museum of Australia and one of the team who worked on the exhibition. I would like to welcome you all to the Museum’s 1913 lecture series and also I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people past and present on whose land we meet today.
The 1913 lecture series has been devised by our public programs team to augment and support the Glorious Days: Australia 1913 exhibition on display at the Museum until 13 October this year. There will be eight lectures in the series delivered by contributors to the exhibition book, which is also called Glorious Days: Australia 1913. The 1913 lecture series is being recorded, and your presence here today is taken as your consent for that recording.
Glorious Days: Australia 1913 is the Museum’s contribution to the centenary celebrations for Canberra this year. But the exhibition looks beyond the events on that day on 12 March when Lady Denman named the future capital city as Canberra. Instead, the exhibition looks at what was happening in Australia in that year: the ideas, the events, the beliefs, the hopes. When we were doing the initial research for the exhibition, we were struck by how extraordinarily optimistic people were about the future in 1913. Indeed, the creation of Canberra was one measure of that great optimism for the future that they felt Australia had.
Of course, what they weren’t to know was the devastation of the world war that was rapidly approaching, and in a way the shadow cast by that dreadful event has hidden the glories of 1913 from us. This is our opportunity to revisit them and to see what Australia was like as a nation back then, what things they were interested in that we would heartily support, what things have failed to materialise, and what things we can perhaps hope that we are doing a little better now.
An exhibition has only so much space, and the constraints of design and people’s attention spans mean we can never put in as much information as we would like. In this case, we feel that the lecture series provides us with an opportunity to fill in some of the rich and extraordinary detail. With the book we were able to draw upon the services of some of Australia’s leading historians to contribute, and the first of those is Nick Brown.
Dr Nicholas Brown is a senior research fellow here at the National Museum of Australia in our Research Centre and he is also associate professor at the School of History at the Australian National University. His research interests span twentieth century Australian environmental and social history, with a particular focus on biographical approaches. He also plays an important role teaching and mentoring at the ANU, and I must say at the National Museum as well.
Nick is widely published with an impressive range of topics to his name. His most recent book, A Way Through: the life of Rick Farley, is co-authored with Dr Susan Boden. It typically combines his breadth of knowledge, a complex and nuanced understanding of history, and the role of biography in furthering our understanding of history and lucid writing. Nick.
NICHOLAS BROWN: What a wonderful introduction and thank you, Michelle. Just if I can say this front up: it is a truly spectacular exhibition. I do encourage you not just after this lecture but several times during the next couple of months to go and look at that exhibition, because part of its joy is really recovering the optimism of a period that is largely erased from history. That is partly what I am talking about today precisely because of all that 1913 meant.
The opening of Glorious Days on 6 March 2013 downstairs was preceded by several couples dancing the tango in the main hall. It was a really elegant way to set the scene for the exhibition. Even though I am supposed to be an historian, I must admit it surprised me too. It provoked me to question assumptions that I had about 1913 as well as drawing me into the exhibition which has one of the strongest and rarest explored themes in our history: that idea of pleasure and that idea of optimism. That is one of the really strong themes that comes through the exhibition - pleasure and optimism - and it is why beginning with that tango was such a riveting idea.
The title for the exhibition itself comes from a poem by Henry Lawson, collected in a volume published in 1913. I suppose my thoughts, left to myself, might have turned in that direction if prompted to evoke the time: to the assertive nationalism we associate with the 1890s and the following years, and of course the bush. 1913 - as we are coming to appreciate - was the foundation year of Canberra and the increasingly familiar images of those ceremonies - of the bush capital - and also of the incongruity of pomp in the dust surrounded, as Manning Clark evoked it, by ‘the very vast sky and majesty of the mountains’ of the Limestone Plains, is another way in which I often found myself thinking about 1913 - the bush - that kind of incongruity. In 1913, for example, Henry Lawson had also written:
Admittedly, that is probably not Lawson at his best, but 1913 was a hard year for him. He was restless around Sydney, near destitute, struggling with alcoholism, lobbying for some form of pension and about to return to his own roots in the bush around Mudgee and Eurundee in search of recovery. The 1890s, with which we so often associate Lawson, were perhaps fading as fast as Lawson himself. Another poem of his from around 1913 has a definite tone of lament for all that was being lost, even despair, if perhaps when I looked this up last week given recent events across the lake a certain resonance. It goes like this:
It would have been an interesting message to echo around Parliament House last week. The tango stands in some contrast to such sentiments, but that really is what 1913 was all about and why as a year it’s such a challenge to capture, but such an arresting year with which to think, to question and to imagine. Again, those are things that I think the exhibition downstairs makes us do: it’s an interesting year with which to think, to question and to imagine - and on that basis such a riveting theme for an exhibition.
Old loyalties and identities of the late nineteenth century, if only 20 years old – ‘I am too old to rat’, as Lawson put it - were already under strain. In 1913, as Jill Matthews, who will be talking to you later in this series, reminds us, the tango was all the rage in Sydney, with all that it expressed in terms of a confident modernity, a sense of excitement and sensuality, a distinctly energising closing of the space between men and women of pleasure. In 1913, the Palais de Danse also opened at St Kilda in Melbourne - near Luna Park which had opened the previous year - where roving spotlights picked out couples dancing in ways the righteous declared would lead surely to ‘chambering and wantonness’ - interesting words to look up.
Not only was the tango was being danced, as Matthews adds, but it had arrived in Australia very quickly, and that in some ways is almost the most important part of her point. It was not just that it was being danced but it had arrived in Australia very quickly on a rapid journey that began in South America, surged north into the United States, seized Paris, and then came rapidly to Australia with all those layerings in a surge of cosmopolitan culture and the consignment of images, including the moving images of cinema, magazines, phonographs and advertisements that were all a part of an emerging mass market evident in 1913. The tango was not only a perfect image to evoke the year but also the ways in which in that year Australia was part of the world and a very sensitive world and conscious of it. And that, of course, is my theme today.
My argument is essentially this: 1913 gives us in Australia that year was surprisingly integrated into a world much wider than we might customarily expect, and that that world is seen, understood and consumed in ways that repay attention for two main reasons. First, this is a world being profoundly shaped by modernity and all it represented. The tango was part of this but, to take another quick example, so was the increasing prominence of international cable-based news services which contributed to recasting journalism around the excitement of the headline and the breaking story. Go back and look at the ways in which newspapers changed fundamentally in this period, or at least the most classy newspapers, not just having the classified advertisements on the front page but international news - cable services pretty quickly from the world on the front pages of the press.
This was a modernity in which 1913 captures those transformations in remarkably pure terms. This was a modernity in which Australia was at the time often seen to have a distinctive place: as a ‘new society’, a point at which worlds are technology, science, social engineering, personal expression and institutional innovation found an unusually rich intersection relative to the rest of the world - the unfolding, as it was often said at the time, ‘social laboratory of the world’ as declared by the French diplomat Albert Metin at the beginning of the century when he looked at the kinds of social welfare that Australian governments were introducing, that we were leading the social laboratory of the world. Or more appositely those ‘bold, radical steps in economics and politics’ associated with government in Australia that inspired Walter Burley Griffin from Chicago in 1911 to risk his ideals in planning a capital that could express, as he put it, ‘a democratic language’ rather than serve an ‘aristocratic cult’. What was it about Australia in 1911 that made a Chicago architect say, ‘That is the place that will build my dream’?
Not only was Australia seen through the lens of modernity but Australians embraced - if selectively, as I will explain today - and used elements of that modernity and its international dimensions in their own national project at that time. It is important that we recover this conversation with the world as a point of balance between the polarities of national distinctiveness - Lawson and dependency - and his ways of understanding choices made about the nature of our society at a time of great change and initiative. That’s my first point - the world of modernity in 1913.
But secondly, as Michelle has already argued, it is impossible to think about 1913 without the brain automatically tripping over the calendar to 1914. My second point is because 1913 also captures a lost world. In 1914, the world contracted, if ironically, under the pressures of the First World War - or the Great War as it was called at the time, because of course they didn’t know it was one of several massive conflagrations. From one perspective, as the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawn has argued, the nineteenth century as an international project finally unravelled in the bloody trenches of Flanders that the nineteenth century ended in 1914. Assumptions then collapsed about the destiny of liberal European civilisation; about the inherent virtue of its economy, capitalism, wealth; about the duty of soldiers to carry the promise of order to every frontier; and about the prospect that European sciences, arts, politics and industry could embrace all humanity in their ascendancy. 1914 put all of those assumptions into deep questioning.
I think there is much to commend Hobsbawn’s argument that in 1913 the world was still living with the confidence of the nineteenth century rather than the modernity of the twentieth century. But I think it’s an argument made from an old world vantage. Equally from a new world perspective, and especially that of a nation formed in 1914, the twentieth century itself can be seen as defined at a rising point in 1913. Another historian, the Italian Giovanni Arrighi, argues that the ‘long twentieth century’ - the long rather than the short twentieth century - began with America in the 1870s, and its shift in the dynamics of commerce to those of finance had a marked imprint on the investment-led boom of the Australian colonies around the same time; that Australia was part of that twentieth century that transformed America as a new society; and which in Australia in the last 30 years of the nineteenth century saw per capita incomes here reach the highest in the world by the end of the nineteenth century- a not insignificant statistic or standing to be carried forward. So that the twentieth century, if we argued that it begins with that kind of massive transformation of investment from the 1870s onwards, sees Australia going into the twentieth century in many ways the most affluent country in the world at least in terms of per capita income.
One of the most important strands in Australian writing over the past decade or so has also been the recovery of the rich participant recovery of the rich participant culture that drove the Australian campaign for Federation - a campaign that is never really caught in tired old images of Queen Victoria - but nonetheless, if you look at the popular debates that shaped the Australian constitution through processes of referendum, you get a sense of how fundamental the kinds of questions Australians were asking about the nature of their nation were at the end of the twentieth century, the rich participant culture that drove Australia’s campaign for Federation and the consultation and referenda envisaged in the Constitution of that nation.
I am arguing there are ways in which you can see the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as expanding years for Australia. But by 1914, reflecting on a suddenly defeated optimism - as much as we commemorate Gallipoli, if you go back to the time what goes so quickly is the optimism - a more sober Henry Lawson concluded a poem The Fantasy of War in 1914 with these lines:
For these two reasons - the emerging world of modernity of 1913 and the lost world of 1913 - it is a particularly peculiarly important year on which we should reflect. As much as we should return to these reflections in this city founded in that year, it is also important to look more broadly on how Australians then understood their place in the world.
Some aspects of our understanding can seem at first - that is the iconic image of 1914 [image shown] - familiar enough but they are worth looking at more closely. The concept of Britishness is one. The map of Britishness is familiar [image shown] but look at it again in terms of Australia’s place in the world as it seemed at that time. In 1913 the new nation was increasingly comforted, commentators noted, by a very real, if vague, sense of the British Empire and Australia’s status together with Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland and after 1910 South Africa as a dominion within it.
In 1901, Edmund Barton as Prime Minister had placed Australia centrally in what he called the ‘new imperialism of equal and kindred nations’ which he forecast to stand solidly in defending their claims and calling wherever required - and he did mean ‘wherever’ - and that Australians should be prepared to go overseas and fight for Empire. By 1913, Australians, who then numbered just over 3.7 million - Aborigines being estimated at about 94,000 but of course they were not officially counted - Australians were informed, in looking at that map, that more than 400 million people owed allegiance to King George V and among those ranks they could claim pre-eminence as white self-governing nation standing at the head of a company including the great dependency of India and large tracts of Africa - 400 million people were estimated to constitute the Empire in 1913.
That is the map - those bits famously painted red - in which Australians saw themselves having an equal, if not superior claim, as British subjects. You can write that off as dependence on London and all of that kind of derivative way in which it is often regarded, but it is also important to think what kind of map did Australians have of what it meant to be a part of the Empire in the world of 1913. That expansiveness of Empire is worth pausing on. It is a pretty big map of who you are in the world to carry in your head and heart. It’s perhaps worth while bearing that in mind when we think about images like that - who is calling whom to do what?
When Australia’s Governor-General, Lord Denman, declared India in 1913 to be ‘the key to the British Empire’ , he meant no slight to Australia but more to map out the terms in which the Empire embraced a worldwide project that was then extending beyond the interests of soldiers, traders and missionaries to address the prospects of delicately engineering the human and physical resources of modern frontiers and modern government for the betterment of all - admittedly defined in British terms. The coincidence that both New Delhi and Canberra were, as planned national capitals, both declared in 1914 was often noted at the time, but I haven’t heard anybody say it this year. The Australian press even voiced sympathy with the indignities endured by Indian indentured workers in South Africa or Fiji. Coloured British subjects they might be but, by virtue of that claim alone, they had their rights and on that basis the British government had even exerted influence on the young Australian nation to soften the overt racism of its immigration restriction policies. Empire as a concept, I am suggesting, was capable of generating reflection on such issues with an international compass just as much as it was capable of closing it down with a defiant racial nationalism. So in this context, a sense of Britishness was more than merely territorial or a yearning for the mother country - although arguably I would say after 1914, after the First World War, it became that and it was fed by trends that were building rather than perennial.
This is not a lecture in economic history, but I am going to give you a couple of numbers now just to think about what they mean. The year 1913, for example, saw the return of high levels of immigration from the United Kingdom to Australia. They reached about 20 new arrivals every year for every 1,000 citizens. At the time this population increase was shared across the world only with Canada and New Zealand. So the Empire is growing faster in its footprint than anywhere else.
But it is worth noting that this surge followed nearly two decades of slump and even between 1900 and 1906 an excess of departures over arrivals. Therefore this surge of British immigration around 1911 and 1912 is actually redressing a period in which we had lost more people than we had gained, reflecting the prolonged impact of the 1890s drought and depression. Such a demographic surge was matched by concerted attempts to restore economic and investment ties with Britain that had also lagged since Federation - partly due to the rise of competition in the Australian market from countries such as the United States in machinery, fuels and so on and from Germany and textiles and metals and so on.
It is not just that Australia is trading on the long-established coat tails of British dependency in 1913, it is actually catching a wave of expanding British investment and migration. That is an important point to bear in mind. In 1912, however, a sudden spike in government loans raised in London matched that surge in immigration, and private British capital sought to take advantage of the increasing regulation and tariff protection of Australian industries and wages since 1908. So precisely because Australia is a nation and protected, British migrants and British money is flowing in at an expanding rate. These connections bolster the prospect of Australia becoming a more fully dimensioned modern economy, if one necessarily sheltered from the competition of others and with preferences given to Britain.
In 1913 one of my first icons of the decade [image shown], a forfeited consignment of Californian motor spirit, which was snapped up by a local entrepreneur Harold Sleigh, badged ‘Golden Fleece’ and sold in innovative single branded service stations, began putting a national stamp on the coming age of the automobile and all that it represented. A more industrialised, consumption-oriented and protected economy and society within the broader ambit of British migration and investment.
Already we can glimpse some elements of the wider map within which Australians saw themselves in 1913. Not all might have endorsed the Commonwealth Statistician, GH Knibbs, in his interpretation of Australia’s growing solidarity as a nation in 1913, but his terms are revealing. I am not going to barrage you with a lot of text, but this is an interesting formulation of 1913 as how a senior official saw Australians developing:
That is an interesting way in which a senior government official defined the coming Australian type - a ‘distinct Australian type’, Knibbs added, in ‘physical, mental, moral and social’ characteristics was still three to four generations away. But he argued a process of adaptation was in train and under careful direction. Some, of course, brought their own perspectives to what that adaptation should achieve.
Here is my second icon of 1913. Daniel Mannix - tall, austere, cunning and deliberately confrontationalist - arrived from Dublin in 1913 to become the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne,- amid the nagging irresolution of what was still termed the Irish question. Over the coming years Mannix would remind many Australians that not all was settled within the Empire and was soon campaigning that, at least among his own flock, Empire Day would be more appropriately celebrated as Australia Day. I think Mannix gives a very interesting slant to the way in which a sense of Irishness, and all that that represented in Australia, was reborn in 1913.
But what could be encompassed in that larger scheme of demographic adaptation was evident when again in 1913 - it’s a wonderful year for dates - the first consignment of 35 British orphans arrived in Perth under the Fairbridge Child Migration Scheme, itself one element of a much larger imperial program that would bring more than 7,000 children under the age of 19 through this scheme alone to Australia. Such faith in the mix of good stock and social engineering that you could take the orphaned children of Britain and turn them into solid Australian citizens would characterise Australian migration policy until the prospect of relying on British purity collapsed in the decades after the Second World War. Again, as we have recently seen, the impacts were deep and enduring. So the world in 1913 is being crossed by children in the hope that they would make a better nation here.
It’s important, however, to add to this sense of expansiveness in 1913 - however dubious we might be about some of the assumptions on which it is based - a sense that the world was also already seen as a place of looming conflict. So the optimism is certainly balanced by a sense of possible threat. The two elements, I would argue, existed in a mutually reinforcing dynamic which was energising in itself, the sense of threat was an energy running through society in 1914 before it was turned into the kind of constricted channels of loyalty, duty and sacrifice by 1914.
In 1913 it was observed that the Empire was not really looking for new territory or new markets but could defend its place in what was already being spoken of as a global balance of power. Readers of Melbourne’s Table Talk magazine were assured that the unfolding tragedy of the Balkans would ‘not slip over into civilised Europe’ and must be left to play itself out. Celebrating the start of 1913 the Age was blunt:
The men and the money we’ve already noted, and I suppose I have argued that the men and the money are an expanding dynamic of this period rather than simply a residue of old British loyalties. The ships were to be symbolised in the much-awaited delivery of Australia’s first battle cruiser, HMAS Australia, to lock in place both the ideal of an Australian Navy but also the reality, as it was put at the time, of strengthening the Empire by strengthening the weaker defences at its outposts.
When you go down to the Glorious Days exhibition, it is worth pausing before the model of the Australia and reflecting on what it as a marvellous ship, a stupendous ship for the time, represented when it led the Australian fleet for the first time into Sydney Harbour in October 1913. With a good deal more sophistication than the Argus, at the 1913 Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science Congress in Melbourne, the eminent geologist Professor Edgeworth David made a similar point about strengthening the outposts of Empire. Concluding his survey of the new frontiers of Australian exploration in Papua and Antarctica - frontiers emphatically of science - David linked these frontiers of scientific stoicism to the ‘war which we hope may never come, though come it surely will, unless we watch continually as a strong man armed’
Even in the embrace of Empire, those frontiers of Australian interest, David mentioned, had a striking significance in 1913, as is also evident downstairs and as Tom Griffiths will explore in relation to Antarctica in his lecture here in May. Australians increasingly at this time saw their place in the world in the distinctive frame provided by the Pacific, as a matter of security but also a wide reflection on that central challenge of modernity: how to engage with its obverse image - the primitive; How to account for the possibilities for and forms of progress - political, social and economic - that might not neatly fit with accepted precepts?
In the Glorious Days book that Michelle has mentioned, Anna Edmundson deals with this fusion in relation to the Pacific Islands. In 1913, Prime Minister Andrew Fisher reflected something of the ways in which Australians were beginning to contemplate a role beyond their shores. I haven’t got this quote for you [as a slide] but I will just read it to you - it’s short. This is the Prime Minister in 1913 reflecting on what role might Australia have in its place:
Empire was an infectious tool with which to think - to map out a destiny for Australia and the Pacific. If clearly with implicit uncertainty, Fisher’s remarks are worth noting. What did it mean for Australians in 1913 to follow a Pacific destiny? It’s a question again which is posed very powerfully in the exhibition downstairs.
The calls of the American Great White Fleet at Australian ports in 1908 during its circumnavigation of the globe offered a measure of kinship - based reassurance - even if its goodwill message was already tinged with both intimations of the unfolding American century. What did it mean to have American power gently shouldering aside British power but also uncertainty about what an American foreign policy might look like - America being the enigma in 1913 rather than the superpower.
You only have to look at the 1901 Constitution of the Australian nation to see how deeply informed it was by American influences, if also cautious to avoid any of the Republican overtones that might be taken from America. So the word ‘citizen’, for example, is nowhere used in our constitution. Australians were emphatically subjects. But the bonds with America were clear and reciprocal. ‘Next to my own country’, Theodore Roosevelt declared as President of the United States in 1905, ‘I am interested in the progress, success and safety of Australia, that great democratic island continent’ - a fellow spirit. A ‘Pacific’ shaped with reference to America had great promise, beyond the influence of ragtime and what was already being spoken of as ‘Americanisation’. That idea of the Pacific and all that it represented was part of a way in which Australians mapped their sense of the world in 1913. But that is looking north-east.
Looking north-west other uncertainties prevailed. Japan was clearly a rising power. Its defeat of Russia in 1905 has been seen as ‘the first great war of the twentieth century’ and to have boosted a Japanese claim to be regarded - as an Australian commentator put it in 1913 - ‘not only with the nations of the Old World, but with the rising nations of the Pacific’. What are we going to do about Japan?
Britain, again, was not slow to recognise and accommodate Japan’s emergence on these terms. But in 1913 – the same year in which he made the bucolic film On Our Selection - the young Raymond Longford’s silent feature Australia Calls, filmed with the assistance of the Australian Department of Defence, envisaged an invasion of Australia by generic Mongolians - but they were clearly Japanese - that put to the test Australian capacities and loyalties and centred on the transformation of at least strategic maps of the world offered by aviation. Longford’s film is remarkable to the extent that he prefigures aerial bombardment of Australian cities not by big naval ships but by planes. So even there in 1913 there is this tension.
Clearly the Pacific was a place on the map Australians regarded with a mix of aspiration and uncertainty, precisely because it seemed so much to be a part of their own still emerging world. With the outbreak of World War I and the announcement of Britain’s formal alliance with Japan, this doggerel was quick to emerge:
That image [image shown] as much as progressive Australians kind of embrace it as ‘this could be the future’ also seemed to some extent what on earth is Britain doing with our space with our security?
The central point I have wanted to make so far is that, in 1913, Australians were evidently aware of a world that was more extensive and more engaging than simple assumptions of our place within an old-fashioned Empire or a defined sense of nationalism à la Henry Lawson.
One of the most fertile strands of recent historical writing about this period centres on the argument that the concepts of nation and empire were in fact mutually reinforcing, and as creative as restrictive in posing questions to be addressed at the time. The same might be said of engagement with the United States - an exchange which, as much recent writing has suggested, was more dependent on the initiative of individuals in search of new ideas than on old loyalties. I now want to conclude by looking a little more closely at what those questions that people were seeking answers to were, with a similar attention to the ways in which the world of Australians in 1913 was perhaps a larger place than we usually allow.
In much that I have quoted so far it will be evident that the notion that race defined people was clearly a concept that deeply informed and structured Australians’ views of the world - the brown man is a brother. But it is important to underscore that they were far from alone in this. Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds have described a ‘global colour line’ as a quasi-scientific demarcation between the white and the black races that was observed at the turn of the twentieth century internationally in ideas, politics and policy, in the movement of people and the agendas of institutions. As members of a ‘white nation’ on one side of the global colour line – a line not so much of geography but of principle - Australians saw themselves in relation to the pressures building in South Africa, for example, and North America and set themselves apart.
The lessons of racial segregation were to be learnt internationally than in local issues, especially given Professor Baldwin Spencer’s eminent endorsement in 1913 that ‘rapid decadence’ would be the short and only future of Australia’s Aboriginal peoples. In that year in a contribution to a leading international forum, a prominent group of Australians placed their national policy of racial exclusion in a comparative perspective. I don’t want to go all academic on you but I do want to pause to consider what assumptions and judgments are being reflected in this passage. This is a group of leading Australian ‘intellectuals’ - for want of a better word - reflecting on what to do about the problem of race:
It’s old-fashioned language but I think you will have heard sentiments like this in more recent political debate. But then look at this last inflection:
This world-wide reference was not merely rhetorical or defensive sophistry, it took into consideration the forces of economic, political and demographic change that seemed to mark the times and the tensions emerging in other nations. Australia wanted no civil war. It was in the fortunate position, it felt, of being able to avoid any such division. As framed by those Australian commentators, this position was also based on the premise that the commercial interests that had once served the British Empire so well and brought into its colonial field a racial mixture in the guise of colonies of trade and production, such as India, had now to comprehend the personal interests - those of happiness, well being and national sympathy - among the special, settled, white populations of its far-flung dominions whose bonds were ones of sentiment.
But not just sentiment. The world was also being framed for Australians by a remarkable cosmopolitanism in their education, one which to some extent was also swept aside by the Great War and the fears and prejudices towards Europe it entrenched. To look at the staff of Australian universities before the war was to see ranks of professors who had studied for their higher degrees often at continental universities, if not being recent immigrants themselves. The same might be said of Australian artists about whom Andrew Sayers will talk to you in April. These figures often wore a broad continental experience with ease or, perhaps more appropriately, with pride as a badge of culture but with no sense of the cultural cringe of the interwar years and the 1950s, with its narrower deference to the ‘Home’ or ‘Oxbridge’.
They also often drew on experience working in Europe or America, India or the Philippines, even in Papua in fields such as engineering, preventative and tropical health, town planning and architecture, and in social sciences that often had firmer bases in European universities - sociology, law and so on. Such cosmopolitan education brought with it an enthusiasm that these disciplines could be applied to the new national project of Australia itself. You only need to look at the idealism surrounding the prospect of a designed national capital and the commitment to an international competition to secure for it the best possible scheme to appreciate the vitality of those syntheses.
In 1911, the top three designs for the as yet unnamed capital capture something of that infusion - one too easily overlooked when the Burley Griffin design is kind of taken for granted. [Images shown] Up the top there alongside Marion Mahoney and Walter Burley Griffin’s organicism was in second place Eliel Saarinen’s pure Finnish romanticism or Donat-Alfred Agache’s Parisian urbanism. In retrospect, we tend to express relief that the competition fell out as it did, without pausing to reflect what kind of alternative syntheses of ideas and aspirations gathered in 1911 around Australia’s national capital. What lies behind envisaging a capital for Australia in those terms by a Finnish architect?
And underpinning such ideas of race and destiny, and forms of understanding shaped by education, there was a more fundamental sense of a world shaped by experience and a sense of shared interest. Again, it’s that theme of experience, which I think comes through so powerfully in the exhibition downstairs. Central to my argument today is not that there was any settled or uniform sense of the world beyond Australia and its relevance to us but, more importantly, that various interests, idealists, innovators as well as conservatives and reactionaries sampled widely in finding those international connections and using them to tell a story of the nation they felt they were building. Their sampling tells us much about their understanding of Australia at this vital juncture in its history.
I will give three quick examples. Australian pastoralists, restless with the world’s first majority Labor government - again, another world first for Australia in that period - and the power of the trade unions it represented, found their message in South America. The Pastoralists Review began in 1913 by appointing Argentina in particular as ‘a country which was surprising the world in its marvellous prosperity’. There, unlike Australia, government was not run by ‘carpet baggers’. There private enterprise had freedom, building railways, for example, as an efficient business promotion and a means for civilisation - clearly pushing aside the Indians - rather than an impost by unaccountable socialist governments. There, they argued - and in Uruguay and in Chile - was a better model for the ways in which those massive transfers of investment and migration associated with the long twentieth century could turn a profit, coupled to the growth of international trade as improvements in shipping – in reliability, speed, refrigeration and competition - and the penetration of the inland by railways brought capital to wealth. These forces for pastoralists were redefining the world, and South America was where you should go to see a better model for Australia. Here was one map of the world in 1913 defined by capital.
By contrast, the Brisbane Worker began 1913 by looking elsewhere. The Danes, it recorded, lived in a ‘pioneer country of scientific farming’ where, as they put it, ‘the farmer buys nothing individually’, ‘uses no seeds until they have been tested by experts’, and takes advice from scientists who are engaged by a cooperative and visited farms every 18 days. Not for the last time, the Scandinavian model was exulted as a better way to manage the interests of labour. So pastoralists are looking to South America; labour is looking to Scandinavia.
Perhaps, most importantly, personal connections underpinned these ideas. I say most importantly because we need to understand the extent to which ideas of the world in 1913 were often unmediated by the formalities of nationalisms, organisations, governments, mass media or mass mobility we now take for granted. Like the tango, they were experienced directly, often with the sensations of pioneering and the personal consciousness of broaching new areas of experience and relationships. For the labour movement, for example, socialists such as Tom Mann, Tom Barker and Frank Anstey were part of an international traffic in ideals and tactics that build bonds of class identity between nations and above nations.
Mann, here addressing a May Day rally in Melbourne in 1910 (image shown), travelled the world preaching the gospel of the solidarity of labour irrespective of its nation. His invective personal zeal for revolution during his time in Australia from 1902 to 1910 galvanised followers such as the future Prime Minister, John Curtin: the world was encapsulated in speeches in a sense of solidarity that brought those men together that crossed borders, in a movement, in rituals of song, solidarity, pledge and debate. Before they thought about themselves as Australians, they thought about themselves as workers. For all the immensity of distance and the time of travel, those bonds could make the world a more immediate place than we perhaps realise today - when the virtual world is both everywhere and nowhere, disembodied as well as graphically intimate. Tom Mann brought the world of struggle to every popular meeting he addressed. Workers identified with that international message.
Early feminists were driven by similar constructions of the world, and Australian women in particular by a sense of the gains in enfranchisement they had made in advance of most others. Intrepid feminist leaders crossed the globe in building up such links. That is [a photo of] a suffragette meeting in London. Interestingly one, of those figures is the Prime Minister’s wife attending an international meeting of suffragettes along with other Australian delegates – Vida Goldstein most particularly - women who travelled the world with a message about the solidarity of women. Their travel was revealing in itself: of the resources, the opportunities and the networks that made it possible, and the common interests it expressed.
In late 1912, as Angela Woollacott shows us, Australian school teachers Harriet Newcomb and Margaret Hodge returned to Australia via South Africa, before travelling on to New Zealand and Canada, making contacts with feminist groups wherever they went, and building what they established as the British Dominion’s Woman Suffrage Union on those interpersonal networks - meeting after meeting, solidarity, pledge, faith, rise above national interests for the sake of a larger cause, although they were never entirely sure how to accommodate the rights of Indian women in their campaign. Again, Indian women were British subjects but did they have the same rights as white women?
The Victorian-born and highly successful novelist Mary Gaunt [image shown] turned her travel in West Africa and Jamaica, often alone but for her servants, to drive home in the years before World War I the message that white women were not only central to the success of the imperial mission, but that the white women formed in the crucible of new nations such as Australia – ‘quiet, brave, sensible women’, as she put it - were furthest advanced in meeting this need, whether in offering the foundations of companionate marriage to isolated husbands or the resilience of ‘an intelligent view of life’. This was also pioneering of a kind, and women like Mary Gaunt crossed the world and drew from their travels a powerful message about what the solidarity in the cause of women might represent.
My point in giving you these examples - just like the power of the tango at the opening of Glorious Days - is not only to note the kinds of issues or ideals that were under debate in 1913, and the extent to which those issues were framed by an awareness of the world beyond Australia - that is important; the world was wide then - it is also to prompt reflection on how those issues or ideals came into people’s lives, were experienced and shaped maps of the world and Australia’s place within it. It is those maps of the world which are an integral part of the significance of that period. If I wanted to leave you with a little exercise to take away with you this afternoon: if you were to draw your own mud map of the world now, what first comes to mind when you think about the world? How would you draw that world? What kind of connections would you make? What kind of boundaries, borders or links would define your sense of the world now?
The world for none of us is simply ‘out there’; it is conditioned by who we are, how we experience it, how we make sense of its relationships often as an expression of how we think we should act, and how we think others should act in return and with whom we feel we have common ground. Glorious Days is powerful in helping us to re-imagine that world, and in doing so I hope it also prompts us to reflect on our own. I think the power of 1913 is, as I suggested at the beginning, both because it gives us the world of emerging modernity but it also gives us a lost world. 1914 may well have changed everything. I will quote again that poem from Henry Lawson that I began with:
Plenty of people experienced that sudden narrowing of the world from 1913 to 1914: just think of Walter Burley Griffin, who arrived in Sydney in August 1913 to save a project that for the next five years would build more in distrust than bricks and never recognised his contribution and whose vision, many would argue, remains unfilled. We will not understand the ‘narrowing’ with which subsequent generations lived until we appreciate how ‘wide’ the world could be in 1913. Thank you. [applause]
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Date published: 12 April 2013