Grand Gestures

Janette Turner Hospital

  • A River Town by Thomas Keneally
    Sceptre, 330 pp, £15.99, March 1995, ISBN 0 340 61093 X

There is something about a millennium, something about the clicking-over of zeros on the odometer of history that sends a frowsy doomsday swell welling up from under. Good round numbers beget both end-of-an-age unease and unreasonable hopes. They breed signs and wonders. They inspire large gestures towards New Beginnings.

In 1900, the year in which Thomas Keneally’s most recent novel situates itself, the separate Australian colonies were reeling from economic depression and the worst drought since European settlement began in 1788. There were catastrophic losses of cattle and sheep, wheat plummeted to less than one-tenth of pre-drought yield, dustbowl conditions prevailed, bushfires raged, farmers and squatters were forced to abandon their land. Far away, the sons of these hard-pressed farmers were dying under British generals in other people’s wars: the Boer War in South Africa, the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China. And above and beyond all this, most ominous of doomsday signs in that apocalyptic year, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in Sydney.

In 1900, in short, death was swift and common in the six Australian colonies: from drought, bushfire, battle, accident, disease. And yet for most settlers, compared to what was left behind – the dreary lives of the impoverished and the excluded of London, Glasgow, rural Ireland – Australia was still the promised land. Indeed, the revellers of 26 January 1900, celebrating the centenary of the First Fleet’s arrival, had a jubilant and self-confident view of themselves, not as the transplanted pawns of empire in exile at the ‘world’s worse end’, but as Australians, a lucky people, fiercely independent, with hope and initiative in their tucker bags.

In spite of plague and hard times, grand gestures toward a new age were definitely in order, and on 1 January 1901, federation of the six colonies as the Commonwealth of Australia took place. An editorial in the Worker (Brisbane) on 5 January 1901 reflected the messianic optimism:

For good or ill the several Australian colonies now constitute what is known as the Australian Commonwealth ... and what was a group of colonies steps upwards and onwards to the dignity of a Nation. Victorians, Queenslanders, or Westralians will be unknown, and every child born of the soil, or approved and naturalised colonist, will in future be an Australian. An Australian; a citizen of a nation whose realm is a continent and whose destiny is – what? ...

   Australia has ever been an exemplar to the old lands. From the first establishment of responsible government within its borders it has steadily forged ahead, initiating and perfecting, experimenting and legislating, on new lines. By a happy fortune it sprang up free of most of the superstitions, traditions, class distinctions, and sanctified fables and fallacies of the older nations. What few of them were bound about it it has shaken itself free of, and stands on the threshold of the future with its fate in its own hands.

Nevertheless there were, in the small bastions of transplanted gentry, fierce voices raised against ‘disloyalty’ to Britain. Irish settlers were deemed particularly culpable, their motives and their Australian patriotism suspect. No one, needless to say, so much as consulted the indigenous population on the question. The dark underside of 1900 has been powerfully explored in another Keneally novel set in the same millennial year, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.

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