Essay

Dreams of freedom

I'M LYING PROPPED up on one elbow at Kyeemagh beach, looking out over Botany Bay. I love this utterly urban seascape; less than a kilometre away, planes taxi out to the water's edge, turn and lumber into the air, in steady, unbroken lines. A tanker eases its way through the mouth of the bay and heads for mooring; on the north side of the bay, the red cranes of Botany docks raise their arms in salute to the Kurnell refinery across the water, not far from where the Endeavour dropped anchor in 1770.

A dry, gritty easterly is blowing up. There's hardly anyone on the beach on this Saturday morning, but on stiller days teenage Lebanese girls swim in jeans, long sleeved tops and hijab, while family groups sit in circles in the park behind the sandhills, eating and smoking scented tobacco from a hookah. A little further inland, in the market gardens along the Cooks River canal, Chinese and Vietnamese women bend over long beds of herbs and vegetables. No doubt Sir Joseph Banks would approve if he were to amble along the canal path today; he and the Swedish naturalist Solander gathered between three and four hundred specimens of previously unknown plants during their sojourn here, and persuaded Cook to change the name of their anchorage from Stingray Harbour to Botany Bay, assuming (wrongly) that the soil must be fertile and would make good farmland.

Perhaps few people would let their eyes rove over the bay today and imagine they were living in utopia. But that's pretty well how Europeans imagined the colony of New Holland in its earliest years. Take this essay published in 1787 - a year before the establishment of the colony - by the German traveller, writer and revolutionary Georg Forster:

The British authorities see themselves with no other choice but to return to the long-accustomed method of transportation, and and to populate the new land with convicts and the unfortunate victims of lust who shame the streets of the capital ... Much, perhaps everything depends on the vision of the wise man who can discover even in the most vulgar and depraved persons the sparks of a higher purpose, and who knows how to gather and concentrate them in order to shape and perfect their humanity.

As a young man, Forster had accompanied Captain Cook on his second voyage around the world on theResolution. Under orders from the Admiralty, Cook took his ship further south than any man had sailed before, deep into the Antarctic Ocean, in order to determine whether or not the great southern continent about whose existence many explorers had speculated actually existed. Cook was convinced that it did not and, having satisfied himself that he was right, spent another two years exploring the islands of the South Pacific, from New Zealand to Easter Island. A year after the Resolution returned to England, the young Georg Forster published A Voyage Round the World, which rapidly became a bestseller across Europe. The Voyageis one of the first modern works of travel literature, combining meticulous observation of the natural and human world with philosophical speculation.

It is also the first great ethnography of the Pacific; there is no comparable work that records the earliest encounters between Europeans and the the cultures of the Pacific Islands with such a keen and dispassionate eye.

Forster himself never saw Australia; on his second voyage, Cook chose to sail past the continent he had claimed for Britain. But it's clear that he was fascinated by the promise which the new colony held out - of a kind of social laboratory, where the wrongs and injustices of the old world could be wiped away, and men and women could be remade:

It may be true to say that the first settlers of New Holland are a depraved pile, whom neither the law nor the fear of punishment could hold in check in their homeland. But that would be to ignore the fact that the thief is more often than not the victim of deficient education, a blind adherence to the letter of the law, and a lack of proper care by the state. Both ancient and modern history tell us that such a man will cease to be an enemy of society once he is reinstated in the full rights of a human being, and allowed to become a landowner and a tiller of the soil.

AS HISTORIAN JOHN Gascoigne shows in his book The Enlightenment and the Origins of European Australia (Cambridge University Press, 2002), the quest for moral improvement became an increasingly central theme in colonial Australia in the nineteenth century. But Georg Forster was one of the earliest writers to state it so explicitly, before the First Fleet had even set sail. Forster's is one of the most radical early visions of what Australia might become, and how humanity might develop, in what he imagines - fatally - as an almost empty land.

In the 1780s, he was already one of the more radical voices of the European Enlightenment. When the French Revolution broke out, he greeted it enthusiastically - like many of the German intellengentsia. But unlike most of them, he continued to support it after the French captured the German territories west of the Rhine in 1792. Forster became one of the founders of the first republic on German soil in his home city of Mainz, and was declared a traitor and officially banished. His faith in human perfectibility was shaken to the core by the Terror of 1793, which he experiencd at first hand in Paris, but he never abandoned his faith that men and women could become truly human only if they were free; freedom was the beginning of the process of moral improvement, not its end-point.

 

IN RECENT YEARS, the notion that Australia is the product of an age of revolution, or that Australian society was seen in its early years as a laboratory of freedom, has hardly been a popular one. In 100 Years: The Australian Story, ABC Television's five-part series on the centenary of federation, Paul Kelly presented an essentially conservative view of Australian history and the political instincts of Australians, arguing that independence from Britain came ‘slowly, often reluctantly', and that the defeat of the referendum on the republic in 1999 was ‘a victory for the conservative tradition that has been so strong for much of this century'.

More recently, David Marr claimed in Quarterly Essay that, contrary to popular belief, ‘Australians are an orderly people who love authority', and that we have ‘only the patchiest record of becoming passionate about great abstractions - even the greatest of them, liberty'. The thumbnail sketch of Australian history with which Marr follows this claim - including the assertion that ‘shorn of the colour, Eureka was a bunch of miners who didn't want to pay tax' - wilfully suppresses a more radical, utopian tradition in Australian political culture.

This tradition is part of our birthright, part of our national imagination. If we want to re-imagine Australia at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we could start with our roots in the radical Enlightenment, exemplified by Georg Forster and his writings.

I first heard Forster's name when I was studying in Germany twenty-five years ago. The sheer coincidence that he'd sailed with Cook and passed so close to Australia fascinated me. When I learnt he later become embroiled in the French Revolution, I was even more intrigued.

At the time, I was discovering my own Australianness from the vantage-point of a foreign country. Growing up in Adelaide during the '60s and '70s, I had been desperate to escape. A German government scholarship to study at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg was my ticket to a Europe I felt instinctively was somewhere I could feel at home.

I arrived at the height of the second phase of the Cold War, a week after Ronald Reagan had said that it might be necessary to fight a limited nuclear war in Europe in order to save the world from communism. A million people demonstrated in Bonn. At the same time, squatters were fighting pitched battles with police in Berlin for the right to practise a radically autonomous, anarchic lifestyle in the squats of Kreuzberg. I was only dimly aware of what it was all about, but was caught up in the raw excitement of living in a place where politics actually mattered. By comparison, safe, comfortable South Australia seemed an insipid sort of place.

Over the next couple of years, however, I became more curious about the country I'd left. Over my dinner in the student home, I read Patrick White, Xavier Herbert, David Ireland. On the ceiling of my tiny room I taped a map of Australia; when I sat at my desk by the window at night, the reflection of the map hovered upside down in the dark sky outside.

This ghostly image began to suggest its own possibilities: of an unfinished country, a place - unlike Europe - not wholly caught up in what David Ireland had called in A Woman of the Future ‘the rage of history', a place where people might be free to reinvent themselves. Years later I wrote a novel about Forster and became interested in the history of South Australia. I discovered that it, more than anywhere else, embodies the divided self of Australian politics.

SOUTH AUSTRALIA WAS conceived quite explicitly by its founders as a rational utopia, a planned colony which would exemplify the virtues of the middle class. It would also encourage the moral improvement of the deserving poor. A pamphlet written by Robert Gouger in 1831 to promote support for a colony on St Vincent's Gulf envisaged a model community free from the convict stain: ‘The population consisting entirely of voluntary emigrants will, it is hoped, be a virtuous community and thus be desirous of ministering, not only to the outward comforts of their children ... but to their moral culture and improvement.'

From its beginning, South Australia had a strong streak of social radicalism. As Douglas Pike wrote in his pioneering history of the state, Paradise of Dissent (Longmans Green, 1957), it ‘was settled by men whose professed ideals were civil liberty, social opportunity and equality for all religions'. The last of these was especially important; most of the founders were religious dissenters, Quakers, Unitarians and non-conformists of various denominations, men of energy and ambition, barred from high office in Britain because they were not members of the Church of England. In the new colony, says Pike, they hoped to create a land ‘free from political patronage and the evils of a privileged church'.

By contrast with the settlements in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia, the guiding principle in the creation of South Australia was the idea of ‘systematic colonisation' championed by Edward Wakefield. Wakefield believed passionately in ‘concentration of settlement', rather than the unplanned distribution of large tracts of land to squatters which had occurred in the older colonies. The explicit purpose of this system was to create a society of self-sufficient small farmers, a kind of transplanted British yeomanry.

The members of this new society would be drawn, at least in part, from the deserving poor of the old country. An Emigration Fund and a London Female Colonisation Society were set up in England to provide assisted passages to South Australia for poor families and single men and women judged, in the words of Governor Gawler, to be sufficiently ‘industrious, thrifty and temperate'. These immigrants were not always welcomed by the more established and well off of the settlers. A letter to the Adelaide Register in 1850 complained that the colony was being deluged with ‘Irish orphans, workhouse sweepings, Ragged School children, respectable spinsters, decayed governesses and fag-ends of broken down families ... backed up by a corps of reserve consisting of worn out soldiers, chartist spies, government informers and pentitent thieves'.

The mention of ‘Chartist spies' points to another important element in the political makeup of the early colony. Along with liberal reformers such as Wakefield and Angas, who believed above all in the power of private property to turn ‘workhouse sweepings' into virtuous citizens, but were wary of allowing them the vote, there were more radical voices who argued for universal suffrage and a more egalitarian social and economic order. Chartism, the forerunner of the trade union movement, emerged in London and the north of England in the late 1830s in response to an economic depression and political disaffection with the Reform Act of 1832. The Chartists were mainly artisans - typically, as Edward Royle has put it, ‘destitute weavers who were self-educated, widely read, and yearned for rights as well as bread'. The Charter drafted by the London Working Men's Association in 1837 called for universal male suffrage, a secret ballot, the abolition of the property qualification for Members of Parliament, and payment for MPs, as well as annual elections and equal numbers of voters in each electorate.

Amongst the new settlers in South Australia in the 1840s there were many of the same artisans who had been active in this movement. Chartists played an important role in the Eureka rebellion of 1854; contrary to David Marr's depiction of Eureka as ‘a bunch of miners who didn't want to pay tax', the Ballarat Reform League and the Stockade itself were, as Marion Sawer has argued, both inspired by the six points of the People's Charter.

It was in South Australia, however, that some of the key elements of the Charter were first enshrined in law. The South Australian Constitution provided for universal adult male suffrage, a secret ballot, and the abolition of property qualifications for MPs. Sawer describes the introduction of the secret ballot there and in Victoria in the same year as the beginning of a ‘global revolution' in the way elections were conducted. Interestingly enough, however, Geoffrey Blainey has argued that South Australia was the true pioneer of what we understand today as modern liberal democracy. In 2001, on the ABC's Lateline program, Blainey said that, ‘South Australia was really the leader in democracy ... if democracy is born in Australia, I think you'd have to say it was born in Adelaide or the Adelaide plains.'

It would be a mistake to exaggerate the revolutionary fervour of South Australia's founders, or idealise the actual nature of the society which took shape there in the second half of the nineteenth century. As Pike notes, Wakefield and the systematic colonisers did not promise economic equality, but rather the opportunity to better oneself economically and socially through hard work and enterprise.

Many of them were deeply suspicious of the more radical aspirations of the Chartists. The Constitution of 1856 enshrined the principles of civil and religious liberty, but it seems to have marked the end, rather than the beginning, of a period of popular mobilisation and political activity. South Australia evolved, in Pike's words, from a radical utopia into a respectable society: ‘after its lusty youth Adelaide became sedate, gentle and unenterprising'.

THERE IS, MOREOVER, a darker side to the Enlightenment heritage to which both the systematic colonisers and the Chartists, in differing ways, are heirs. It is there in Georg Forster's essay on the colony in Botany Bay: ‘There can be no doubt that the presence of a handful of original inhabitants in a land of such vast proportions presents no obstacle to the planting of a European seed in its soil. They are no more of a danger to the colony than it is to them.'

Relying on Cook's account of his encounters with the Aboriginal people of Botany Bay, Forster describes Indigenous Australians as the most destitute race on earth, existing without clothing, shelter or crops for food. The notion that agriculture was the beginning of the historical evolution of human societies was already well established in the eighteenth century. Forster speculates on the benefits that the planting of crops may bring to the natives of Australia: ‘Who can know what happy influence the example of the European settlers may have on these uneducated, but by no means barbaric people?'

Forster's rhetorical question anticipates one of the underlying themes of our early history: the notion that the improvement of the land and the moral improvement of its occupants are closely linked. As John Gascoigne argues, Australia ‘came under European domination in an age energised by the possibilities of improvement - primarily improvement of the land, but by extension, improvement of institutions and human nature itself'. For the exponents of systematic colonisation, exploitation of the ‘waste lands' of the new continent was not only an economic imperative, but a moral duty as well.

The tragic consequences of this notion of improvement for Australia's Indigenous people persist into the present. The European Enlightenment was not only a project of liberation, but of domination as well. Beyond our own shores, the history of the twentieth century is littered with the ruins of radical utopias, and the corpses of their victims. A belief that human beings are perfectible led to the gulag and the killing fields. When Stalin described himself as an engineer of human souls, he was echoing the view that human nature is malleable, susceptible to improvement by those who know what is good for us.

None of these caveats should, however, deter us as a nation from recognising and re-engaging with its Enlightenment heritage, and its continuing role in shaping our history and our national identity.

Looking back over the last decade, it is easy enough to see the continuities between the vision of the systematic colonisers and the version of Australian society which John Howard was, for a time, so successful in propagating. Just as land ownership was the keystone of a stable and prosperous society for the founders of South Australia, home ownership was the foundation of Howard's neo-liberal utopia. Howard championed the pursuit of opportunity against equality, aspiration against redistribution. But the election suggested resoundingly that this circumscribed view of possibilities as a nation is no longer enough. I believe that Australians have rejected the narrowing of national imagination and the disfigurement of moral consciousness which have marked the last decade.

The rhythms of our history suggest that, from the beginning, there have been times when we have felt able as a society to take risks, to give space to imagination, to allow hope precedence over fear. The phrase ‘Wake Up Australia' has become part of our national vocabulary; perhaps right now we are in a prewaking state, and can dream new dreams of freedom.

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