In Bad Company, and other Stories/The Australian Native Born Type


Numberless speculations, dogmatisms, and prophecies have found utterance, in and out of Australia, touching the characteristics and destiny of the Children of the Soil. Colonial critics sitting in judgment upon their own and other people's offspring have chiefly felt moved to deliver a verdict of inferiority to the sacred British type. Not noticeably diverse has been that of the untravelled European philosopher or social student. In nearly all cases, the mildest judgment indicated some degree of physical or mental differentiation; another term, for degeneration. If in the former greater height and length of limb were conceded, to be neutralised by lack of muscle and vitality. Worse again, if in the latter category a savage precocity and perceptive intelligence were admitted, it was rarely if ever supported by persistency, application, or broad mental grasp.

In the very early days of New South Wales, which I am old enough, alas! to remember, my boyish experience familiarised me with various products, animate and inanimate, of the Cape of Good Hope, then a handy storehouse of necessaries, for this far and oft-forgotten continent. The mention of 'Cape' geese, 'Cape' wine, 'Cape' horses, 'Cape' gooseberries, was unceasing. Indeed I once heard the pied peewit—a bird familiar to all observing youth—referred to as a Cape 'magpie.' This was, of course, natural enough. But the logical outcome of this simple nomenclature, which puzzled me at the time, was that 'Cape,' used in that sense, was another name for almost any article resembling but inferior to a prized original. Thus the Cape wine was what we still, perhaps erroneously, consider that inspiriting but less delicate beverage to be; the Cape geese were smaller and marketably less valuable than their thick-necked solemn English cousins; the Cape gooseberries were sweet with a mawkish sweetness, how far below the rough richness of the English fruit! The Cape horses, not devoid of pace, were weedy and low-caste; while the Cape pigeon was not a pigeon at all, but a gull; and even the Cape magpie was held to be a species of lark, dressed up in the parti-coloured plumes of his august relative, the herald of the dawn.

Can my readers recall a period in which the adjectives 'colonial' or 'native' were not held to express very similar ideas as contrasted with 'European' or 'imported'? Along with the 'Cape' associations, I acquired, from many sources, a fixed idea that an indefinable, climatic process was somehow at work in Australia, preventing like from producing like. It applied equally to men and women, horses and cattle, sheep and goats, plants and flowers, qualities and manners. Over this anomaly, dooming the unconscious 'currency lads and lasses' to perpetual 'Cape' creolism, I marvelled greatly. My sympathies, meantime, were loyally enlisted with the 'native' party.

Years rolled on. I visited other colonies and roamed over tracts of broad Australia, far from my boyhood's home. Yet I never lost sight of the question which so troubled my youth. I neglected no opportunity of making observations, recording facts, or instituting comparisons connected with this mysterious subtle Australian degeneration theory.

I even enjoyed the privilege—of which I desire to speak reverently and gratefully—of visiting the dear old land, whence came the ancestors of all Australians, the land of the real, veritable 'old masters,' before any like-seeming but disappointing 'Cape' copies of the glorious originals were thought of. I enjoyed thus certain opportunities, of which I did not fail to make reasonable use.

I mention personal facts merely to show that, having early in life apprehended the magnitude of the question, I set myself, not without certain facilities for generalisation, or reasonable time devoted to the inquiry (about fifty years—ah me!), to do battle with the error, now as then, possessing vitality and power of propagation.

The first primary fact which appealed to my reasoning powers as subversive of the 'Cape' or degeneration doctrine was that of the high and increasing value of the fleece of the Australian merino sheep. This astonishing animal, bred from individuals of selected cabanas of the highest Spanish lineage, was landed in New South Wales in the early years of settlement, and tenderly cherished by the Macarthurs, Rileys, Coxes, and other leading colonists, more enthusiastic for the welfare of the land than their own aggrandisement. Kept free from 'improvement' (?) by heterogeneous imported blood, it was actually declared by Shaw of Victoria and other clear-visioned pastoral prophets to be equal, nay superior, to the best imported sheep. It was contended for him that the calumniated climate and pastures of Australia had in the acclimatised merino produced a fleece delicately soft, free, lustrous; withal, so highly adapted for the finer fabrics that nothing European could compare with it. That from the type, now securely fixed, and capable of reproducing itself illimitably, had been evolved the most valuable fleece-producing animal, reared in the open air and under natural conditions, in the whole world. That so far from the infusion of the best Spanish and Gascon blood improving the Camden merino, as it commenced to be called, marked deterioration followed. Horror of horrors! imported blood injurious—what heresy was this? Yet, incontestably, the prices of the Havilah, Mount Hope, Larra, and Ercildoune clips would seem to have triumphantly established Mr. Shaw's daring proposition.

As to horses, slowly and yet surely it began to be asserted, if not believed, that any stud-master in possession of a family of Australian thoroughbreds, originally imported and bred uncrossed for generations beneath the bright Australian sky, reared on the crisp Australian pastures, had probably better pause before he introduced English blood, unless he knew it to be absolutely superior and likely to assimilate successfully. Later on men were found to say that, given pure pedigree, speed, and soundness on the part of sire and dam, Australian blood-horses, though reared for generations under the fibre-relaxing climatic influences of the Great South Land, were as grandly grown, as speedy, as sound in wind and limb, as full of vigour and vitality, as any of the 'terribly high-bred cattle' which at Newmarket represent the ne plus ultra of equine perfection,

To this latter-day heresy, speculations as to what might have come to the reputation of the race-courses of the land if evil hap had chanced to the son of Cap-à-pie and Paraguay, lent considerable force.

Gradually, also, uprose a bucolic, protesting party, who denied that the unqualified supremacy of the British-bred shorthorn was to last for all time. Second Hubback cows and bulls of the blood of Belvidere and Mussulman, Favourite and Comet, had landed here before the rival names of Bates and Booth were household words, from the Hawkesbury to the Sylvester. Careful breeders, enthusiasts for pedigree, had jealously kept the blood pure. Size and beauty, hair, colour and handling, constitution and flesh-amassing power were equalled or even exceeded in their descendants. Though sorely trammelled by the 'Cape' orthodoxy, these even at length ventured to raise their flag and proclaim a revolutionary epic of fullest colonial brotherhood, other things being equal. Following them came the champions of Devon and Hereford cattle. Lastly, the Suez mail brought news that certain Bates' Duchesses, born and bred in America, in the United States, where the 'Cape' theory as regarding man and beast to this day doth flourish luxuriantly, were re-exported and sold in England for dream-prices before an idolatrous audience. 'So mote it be,' argued the bolder reasoner—'even yet in Australia preserve we but our pure tribes inviolate!'

It irks one to recall how rigidly comprehensive was the elastic network of the 'Cape' theory. By no means would the bull-dog fight, nor die in battle the close-trimmed cock, nor sing the bird, nor flower perfume the breeze in Australia, as did their prototypes in 'Merrie England.' Long years since this prejudicial indictment has been laid to rest amid the limbo of forgotten absurdities. Man, the most highly-organised animal, suffered of course the most injurious disparagement; he has but slowly been able to clear himself from these damaging aspersions.

Yet, methinks, old Time, his 'whirligigs and revenges,' is even now uplifting the personal character of the Southern Briton, no longer forced to resent the damaging accusation. In the lower forms of the great School of Effort our champions have arisen and done battle with many a dux of the Old World. They have abundantly demonstrated that they could 'make the pace' and yet exhibit the 'staying power,' which is the great heritage of the breed. Lofty of stature and lithe of limb as they may be—though all are not so—they have shown that they inherited the stark sinews, the unyielding muscles, the indomitable, dogged energy of those 'terrible beef-fed islanders' from whom we are all descended. In the boat, on the cricket-field, at the rifle-targets, and in the saddle, the Australian has shown that he can hold his own with his European relatives.

It remains to be seen whether in the more æsthetic departments he has exhibited the same power of competing on equal terms with his Northern kinsmen. I now venture to assert, considering the limited number of families relatively from which choice could be made, that a very large proportion of Australian-born persons, of both sexes, have exhibited a high degree of talent, and, in some cases, unquestioned genius in the literary, forensic, or scientific arena. That small and distant English-speaking population, which in a single generation produced such men as Wentworth, Robertson, Martin, Dalley, Stephen, Forster, Halloran, Deniehy, Kendall, and Harper—Australians by birth or rearing—may fairly lay claim to the highest intellectual proclivities, to a moral atmosphere favourable to mental development. It is inexpedient to mention names in a limited community, but I may assert, without laying myself open to that accusation of boasting for which a colonial synonym has been adopted, that in the learned professions Australians may be found, if not at the acknowledged pinnacle, so near as to be worthily striving for pre-eminence. Among the fair daughters of the land we know that there are numbered singers, painters, musicians, histrionic artists, and writers, of an eminence which fits them worthily to compete with European celebrities.

Pledged to observing, with deep interest, the native Australian type, so far as it has been presented to me, I have rarely missed an opportunity of testing not only the general characteristics of the individuals examined,—I have even pushed my inquiries almost to the verge of rudeness as to the nationality of parents and grandparents; from the Parramatta River to the Clarence, from the Moyne to the Murrumbidgee, from the Yarra to the Mataura, I have noticed 'natives' of all ranks, ages, and sexes. The eager ethnological reader will naturally require my conclusive opinion—a prosaic, possibly a disappointing one. Australian-born persons, with trifling exceptions, are very like everybody else, born of British blood, anywhere. So far from all being run into one mould, as it pleases strangers to believe, they present as many instances of individual divergence from the ordinary Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Celtic types—mentally and physically—as are to be found in Europe or elsewhere. Then the heat, the constant eating of meat, the locomotive, speculative habit of the land—do these not produce a variation of type? How can they be like people born in the green Motherland? is eagerly asked. My answer is—that 'race is everything.' A little heat more or less, a little extra wayfaring, the prevalence of the orange and banana, of abundant food—these things do not suffice to relax the fibre and lower the stamina of the bold sea-roving breed which has never counted the cost of the deadliest climate or the wildest sea where honour was to be satisfied, thirst for adventure to be slaked, or even that lower but essential desideratum, a full purse to be secured. If the air be hot, there sighs the ocean breeze to temper it withal. On the great interior plateaux, the pure, dry atmosphere, which invigorates the invalid, rears up uninjured the hardy broods of the farmer, the stock-rider, and the shepherd. Stalwart men and wholesome, stirring lasses do they make. The profusely-used beef and mutton diet, due to our countless flocks and herds, though it does not tend to produce grossness of habit, is a muscle-producing food, best fitted for those who are compelled to travel far and fast. The ordinary bush-labourer, reared on a farm or a station, is generally a tall, rather graceful personage. He may be comparatively slight-looking, but if you test or measure him, you will find that the spareness is more apparent than real. His limbs are muscular and sinewy; his chest is broad; his shoulders well spread; he is extremely active, and, either on foot or horseback, can hold his own with any nationality. Wiry and athletic, he is much stronger than he looks. He will generally do manual labour after a fashion and at a pace that would astonish a Kent or Sussex yokel. If he have not the abnormally broad frame of the English navvy or farm-labourer, neither has he the bowed frame, the bent back, the shorter limbs of the European hind. With all his faults he is much more as Nature made him, unwarped by ceaseless compulsory labour, and more capable of the rational enjoyment of life.

With regard to mental characteristics. It has been the fashion to assert that a certain want of thoroughness is observable in the native Australian youths. 'They will not fag at their books to the same extent as a Britisher. They are superficial, light-minded, unstable, what not.'

I well believe this to be an unfounded charge. When will people cease to talk of 'Australians' doing this and that, or permit colonists to differ among themselves from birth, as elsewhere? Here, under the Southern Cross as under Ursa Major, are born the imaginative and the practical, the energetic, the dreamy, the slow and the brilliant, the cautious and the rash, the persevering and the fickle. As the inscrutable human unit enters the world, so must he or she remain, I hold, but partially modified by human agency, until the day of death. Change of abode or circumstance will not perceptibly alter the mysteriously-persistent entity. The eager British or other critic sums up the inhabitants living in five hundred different ways as typical colonists. 'The Australian' (saith he) 'does this, or looks like that, dislikes formality, or abhors uniformity. He is quick, but not persevering; he is not so profound, so long enduring, so "thorough" as the Englishman.' Such reasoners surely assume that all Australians 'to the manner born' were hewn out of one primeval eucalyptus log, instead of, as I had the honour to remark before, possessing in full abundance the endless differentiations and divergences from the parent type, and from each other, so noticeable in Great Britain.

Know, O friendly generaliser, that there be tall Australians and short Australians, lean Australians, and those to whom the increase of adipose tissue is a sore trial. There be fair-haired and dark-haired, brown- and auburn-haired youths and maidens, and ever, as the outward man or woman ripens diverse under the same sun, do the invisible forces of the mind wax faint or fierce, feeble-clinging or deathless-strong. There are speculative, rash Australians; also cautious, very wary Australians. Some to whom gold is but dross, peculiarly difficult to 'pocket' in life's billiard-table, and woefully given to the losing hazard; others to whom pence and half-pence are dear as the rarest coins of the collector, prone to fight for or hoard them with desperate tenacity. 'Natives' who are ready to accept the gravest charge without a grain of self-distrust; 'natives' to whom responsibility is a misery and a burden. Some there are who from childhood to old age scarcely glance at any literary product except a newspaper. Born on the same stream, or tending the same herds, shall be those whose every waking thought is more or less connected with books; to whom the unvisited regions of the Old World, through such glorious guides, are rendered common and familiar. There is no generic native Australian definition, such as we carelessly apply to Englishmen, Americans, Frenchmen, or Germans, when we call the first practical, the second 'go-ahead,' the third gay, the fourth solid. The Australian, perhaps, more nearly resembles the Briton, from whom he has chiefly sprung, than any other sub-variety of mankind.

There may be a slight but noticeable tendency to variation, but it smacks of progressive development rather than of retrogression. Let it be remembered that the inhabitants of the principal subdivisions of Britain have mingled and intermarried in Australia to a greater degree than is possible in the mother-country. Doubtless English and Scotch, Scotch and Irish, and so on, continuously form alliances in Britain; but there scarcely can have been such a thorough sifting up together, such intermixture of blood there, as where the three divisions, having been imported in rateably even quantities, have intermarried, for nearly a century. The thorough welding of Celt and Saxon, Dane and Norseman, Ancient Briton, Scoto-Celt, and Hiberno-Saxon strains, is hardly possible except in a colony. Hence Australia may eventually produce a type of the highest physical and mental vigour possible to the race. It has been conceded that borderers—presumably mixed—have always excelled in stature and mental calibre the pure races. As much may be asserted in days to come of Australians. As it is, instances are not wanting of a type of manhood combining harmoniously those qualities of which English, Irish, and Scotch have from time immemorial been accustomed to boast.

I conclude this outline of a deeply-important question by recording my deliberate conviction, that in the essentials of character, the Southern British race truly resembles and in none falls short of the parent stock. Apparent physical peculiarities may be explained, as the results of a higher average standard of living, a less stationary habit, and the unshared freshness of a glorious atmosphere.

The Great South Land, in extent and variety of climate and soil, offers a more fruitful field for the development of the root-qualities of the race than did any former abiding-place of the great Aryan stock. And though the average stature be exceeded, and the rugged lineaments, no longer ocean-striving, but fanned by softer airs, approximate more closely to the chiselled features of the Greek, ever and for ever more will Australia 'keep unchanged the strong heart of her sons'; for ages yet to come jealously claiming the proud title of 'Britons of the South,' and as such, when the world's war-dogs bay around the sacred standard of the Empire, eagerly emulous to be enrolled among the 'Soldiers of the Queen.'