Never speak about the lower classes

Thinking about the Great Strike of 1917 and Australia’s convict heritage, had me thinking about The Luck of the Irish by Babette Smith. This is a great book to add to your reading list if you are interested in colonial Australia.

In 1835 the ship The Hive sank off the New South Wales coast, south of Jervis Bay. On board were 250 Irish convicts. Miraculously all survived. Babette tracked what happened to the survivors and found in their personal histories much that explains the Australian way of life.

One of Babette’s arguments is that Australia’s egalitarianism was founded in the work practices and attitudes that were required because the government, in the early years of the colony, were completely dependent on the convict workforce to sustain the colony. Babette explains it like this:

The penal colonies created a dilemma for leaders who were faced with extracting productivity from workers who had no predisposition to cooperation, let alone obedience. In fact, the opposite. They were likely to respond with subterranean ridicule or dumb insolence to someone in command. And they could counter harsh commands or coercion by reducing their productivity. While the lash might punish them, it could not deliver a workplace result.

According to Babette the desire for classlessness continued after the convict era. In 1902, Henry Montgomery, an English bishop wrote a manual for clergyman heading to the colonies. His advice included:

Never speak about “the lower classes”. Australians don’t like it.

Do you agree Australia’s egalitarianism is founded in Australia’s convict heritage?

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Chain gang, Hobart

 

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