Realities behind Australia’s national myths

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by Neil Godfrey

The things they never taught us in school!

Two works I have read recently have been eye-openers for me.

When visiting Macquarie University (Sydney) a few years ago I was struck by a rather untypical statue on campus:

I could never figure out why or what it was about until I saw a photo of the same on the back cover of a book, Selling Sex: A Hidden History of Prostitution by Raelene Frances. Professor Frances’s opening paragraph explains:

In the pages of this book you will meet many women who have sold sex at some stage of their lives. The first is called simply ‘Joy’. For eighteen months in 1995-97 her larger-than-life figure leant against a red door-frame on the corner of Yurong and Stanley Streets in East Sydney. Being a statue, she is not really a sex worker. Or is she? The story of Joy became something of sensation in the mid-1990s, not just because she was said to be the only statue of a prostitute on display in public anywhere in the world, and not just because she personified the seedier side of Sydney. Surrounding the creation ofjoy was a quite extraordinary mystery. . . . 

The story of Joy, as well as the history of her statue, follows.

The above is just introduction to what particularly “struck” me, something that had never crossed my mind in my sheltered innocence and protective armour of national myths. Australian myth-peddlers and exploiters love to play on our belief in the “hard country” in which we have managed through toughness of character to survive. The “outback” is life-threatening and cannot be tamed, but it presence has been a major factor in the moulding of our “national character”. Tough, resourceful, loyal to mates — traits we associate with the pioneers who settled there to plant cattle stations and with those who worked for them. Writers like Henry Lawson helped to grow the myth.

So it comes something of a . . . surprise, let’s say, to read what apparently enticed men from the city to seek adventure and a financial start there and “build our nation”:

A woman like Japanese prostitute Matsuwe Otana would no doubt have had many European and Chinese customers who were engaged in the pastoral industry, as well as the mines and the ports. Drovers or pastoralists in town on business or for a rest welcomed the services provided by the karayuki-san. More commonly, Europeans took Lheir sexual pleasures closer to the stations on which they worked. Here they had access to a plentiful and cheap, if not always willing, supply of Aboriginal women.

The use of Aboriginal women as ‘stud gins’ is a recurring theme across the northern frontiers, from the late nineteenth century in Western Australia and Queensland, and until the 1920s and 1930s in the Northern Territory. . . . .

In the Northern Territory, too, young Aboriginal women were used as ‘bait’ to attract or hold European men to station jobs. Writer Xavier Herbert maintained that the women had to be there: without available women, men would refuse to work on remote stations.

Oh. Suddenly puts the myth in a different light. Best not tell the children.

Then there’s the Anzac myth. Our national identity was forged by the courage and self-sacrifice of our men at Gallipoli, is how it goes. “We” proved ourselves to be outstanding fighters, so superior to the British privates who were said not to be able to find their way around a hill or have any idea how to read a map. We “did our duty”, “fought for the flag”, and proved by “our incredible heroism” how unworthy were British commanders who “pigheadedly made stupid decisions” causing so many needless casualties. Australians today are making a religious-like pilgrimage to the Gallipoli peninsula in greater numbers than ever before.

Charles Bean, our famous war correspondent, is often credited with significant responsibility for creating this myth. But then along comes Charles Bean by Ross Coulthart.

And ugly details like this . . . .

Though I yield to no-one in my admiration for what Australians did on 25h April, I have found that unless one does point to confusion in the rear, one is doing less than justice to the superlatively brave men in front who, but for that confusion, would have been strongly reinforced …. to deal with the comparatively small numbers of Turks who were opposing them….

And the nature of that confusion in the rear?

‘stragglers’ on the beach . . . “straggling did reach serious proportions” . . . . “soldiers pointedly refused to move when ordered . . . said they were crook” . . . also witnessed troops walking away from the front-line battle . . . “one going up and the other coming back, almost brushing one another as a steamer might pass another steamer at sea. Evidently the man going forward had enough determination to say to himself — ‘My job is to go forward and I’m going forward whatever the other chap does.’ . . . the troops on occasion refused to fight . . . .

Many who returned from the front to the beach did have legitimate reasons — to fetch water; it was the only place to get orders, for instance — but many were also looking for excuses to get out of harms way. Sometimes up to six healthy men could be seen accompanying a wounded soldier.

And beside the dead were their packs, opened and ransacked by their “mates” for any items of interest or use.

Bean also recorded a claim that never made it into his news stories on the battle which appears to suggest that some Australian troops, who mistakenly shot at other Australian units believing them to be the enemy, were then themselves deliberately shot at in retaliation.

Then there is the account of 2nd Lieutenant George Moor who was awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation declares,

“When a detachment of a battalion . . . which had lost all its officers, was rapidly retiring before a heavy Turkish attack, . . . Moor . . . dashed back some two hundred yards, stemmed the retirement, led back the men, and recaptured the lost trench. This young officer . . . by his personal bravery and presence of mind saved a dangerous situation.”

The citation glosses over the fact that Moor saved the situation by taking his pistol and killing possibly as many as four of his own retreating men.


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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Realities behind Australia’s national myths”

  1. But then, of course, many of the early female convicts had been to a greater or lesser extent prostitutes, either openly or of necessity. See for example The FLoating Brothel by Sian Lees. Anyone who, like myself, has delved into their convict ancestry in the early 19th century, is likely to have discerned a background of prostitution.

  2. For me, it was Pierre Burton’s book, Vimy, that opened my eyes about WWI. There was the same kind of confusion you discuss at Galipoli, which saw so many troops needlessly sacrificed. Burtons blames ” their haughty superiors, who failed to understand the nature of the first modern war and went on needlessly sacrificing soldiers whom they regarded as social inferiors.”

  3. When I was a [very] young fella we were visiting my aunt and uncle and I was mooching around and found an interesting looking book.
    “History of Australian Regiment …” something or other.
    Flicking through it I found a lot of it was about Gallipoli and all that and then I came across my Uncle Frank’s name.
    “Mentioned in dispatches”.
    So I took the book to my Uncle Frank and asked what it was all about.
    He silently took the book from me, took it back to the bookshelf and walked away.
    I was a bit puzzled, so I went to mum and dad and asked what was going on.
    “Frank doesn’t talk about that” they explained.

    Here we are many decades on and last week the media and all the usual suspects seemed to be blathering non-stop about that.

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