Tag Archives: Maritime Strike 1890

An absence of eloqence? Australian speech in the 1890s

18 Feb

Once again I’ve been reading Don Watson’s exquisite diatribe, Death Sentence (2003). It’s an important book. It rails against the mangling of language by big companies – and even worse, the adoption of their managerial verbiage by politicians and public servants. It’s also a rollicking book. “This is a clag sandwich with the lot”, he writes after citing a particularly mealy example of corporate-speak. I laughed out loud at that one. 


Now that I’ve been reading back over reportage of the Maritime Strike of 1890 for my chapter in Crucial Moments, however, I’ve found myself questioning some of the historical arguments Watson makes. Australians were never bred to be eloquent, he says. Across our history since 1788, we’ve been taught not to enjoy the sounds of our own voices, to avoid flights of sentimentality, to shy away from verbal extravagance. At the turn of the twentieth century in particular, no animating ideals appeared on which to base a sense of Australian nationhood: ‘none at least that were articulated’.

Even a quick glance at the speeches of trade unionists during the Maritime Strike, or the histories of it written by Labor leaders over the following years, suggests that this was not always the case. Here is the New South Wales Labor leader George Black, for example, writing in 1915:

‘The magnificent loyalty of the strikers… and the splendid self-denial of their martyred wives, were equal in heroism to the undying deeds which are blazoned in the glowing pages of history’. 

And what about William Guthrie Spence, a union leader and Labor MP?:

‘The trades unionist workers – men and women – are the true heroes and heroines of the world. Their names are unrecorded in history, but their work lives after them and has given colour and force to a Movement which cannot die, but is becoming more powerful and better understood as time goes on. After all, names matter not; it is deeds that count’.

What, too, about the manifesto issued by Queensland’s Maritime Council in August 1890, calling on unionists to support a group of marine officers on strike: ‘The same spirit of union courses through their veins which thrills in ours’? 

Historian John Hirst writes about the sentimental language accompanying the ideal of federation in late 1890s Australia. We hear a lot about the pared-back prose of bush poets in this era, he says. But most Australians did not take the work of Henry Lawson or Banjo Paterson all that seriously at the time. They saw it as light and ephemeral verse, lacking ‘the nobility, the profundity, and moral elevation thought proper to poetry’. Real poetry was of the kind William Gay wrote, so high-faluted it is liable to induce altitude sickness in those unaccustomed to the style:

‘From all division let our land be free / For God has made her one: complete she lies / Within the unbroken circle of the skies…

O let us rise, united, penitent / And be one people – mighty, serving God!’

So it seems that the absence of a rhetorical tradition in Australia is actually a matter of historical forgetting: more of a lack of eloquence in subsequent historians and publicists, perhaps, than at that formative time.

What if not a military language?

11 Jan


I’m currently writing a chapter for a book to be called Crucial Moments in Australian History (edited by David Roberts and Martin Crotty for UNSW Press). My “moment” is the Maritime Strike of 1890, when 60,000 unionists went on strike for a few months across a large part of Australasia.

One of the things I’m grappling with is the fact that it’s difficult to talk about the Strike without replicating the kind of military cliches beloved of labour historians. During the 1940s and beyond, the Marxist-inspired historians of Australia’s Old Left wrote about the Strike as war. Here is Brian Fitzpatrick, for example: “class warfare on the scale of 1890 … had never taken place in Australia before, and has not been repeated”.

The phrase “the sinews of war”, used by union leaders in 1890, and the command of an anti-union militiaman to “fire low and lay them out”, are quoted over and over again in the literature. Everywhere, you find the Stendhalian tints of red and black: intimations of blood, fear of after-dark violence, the treachery of the “black-legs” (non-union workers who refused to strike). And as the ever-empathetic historian Bruce Scates points out, the whole story of the Strike is skewed because it focuses on the struggles of the men at the picket-lines to the exclusion of those who scrounged for food to keep the pickets going. There are no women in the history of the Strike (except in Scates’ article, that is) – both the focus and military language of labour historians exclude them.

Having said this, I don’t want to downplay the potency of the Strike, and the sense that it was indeed cast in warlike terms among many who participated at the time. The Strike was a gripping conflict for the men and women involved. And the issues which animated them – the extent to which “freedom of contract” should replace collective bargaining by unions with employers – obviously remains pressing today.

My problem at the outset is, then: how to convey a sense of the moment of the Strike, of the effort and conviction and other passions involved, and also the urgency of the industrial issues underlying it, without falling back on the same tired vocabulary? How to find a language to describe labour conflicts which does not trundle out the same metaphors of war, and the same heroic tonality?

(See Brian Fitzpatrick, A Short History of the Australian Labour Movement; Stuart Svenson, The Sinews of War, and Bruce Scates’ chapter in Jim Hagan and Andrew Wells, eds, The Maritime Strike: A Centennial Retrospective).