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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Port Arthur: Australia's Convict Past and Present

If there is one thing about Australians that I have noticed, it is that they are independent minded and egalitarian. Once, I talked to an Australian academic who bluntly told me that it didn't matter that Singapore produced top of the top academic results, Australians just didn't wanna be like anybody else but themselves.

Not till yesterday did I realise why this country, settled by the British, is so un-British in the way it embraces life. Skilled trades are respected in this country. Snobbishness is not. And the notion of classes just does not cut it here. Here too, men are respected for their ruggedness and ability to live with nature. And women here are no shrinking violets.

Australians live with the painful memory of convict transportation. Many of the people who settled in Australia were from the classes of Britain hemmed in by extreme poverty. Mothers of children stole in order to feed their little ones. Fathers too stole to keep their families alive. Mothers prostituted themselves. Fathers and Mothers drank away their stress and were arrested for drunkenness. For these transgressins, they were transported to the other side of the world... unwillingly... and made to work for free in timber and quarry industries (sometimes in chains). These were people who knew exactly what it felt like to be the under class. As time passed, the strongest in mind and spirit gained their liberty and in their new continent with fertile soil and large open spaces, many ex-convicts prospered lawfully. Since a man could earn a good living through hard work, there really was no more need to steal. Some ex-convicts produced grandchildren and great grandchildren who rose to sit in courts of law as judges. Other ex-convicts reimbursed those that they stole from to expiate a sin that they had no choice but to commit because the underclass was cut off from every opportunity in life.

It has thus been seared into the Australian cultural psyche that all men are equal. No underclass for Australians thank you very much!!

The idyllic paysage in the photo above is that of Port Arthur, former penal colony wherein men were whipped with the cat o' nine tails. The cat o' nine tails inflicts far more damage with every stroke than a cane. It was also in this place where psychological torture was used that rendered many convicts insane. Things got so bad that an insane asylum had to be built on the premises. It is a place haunted by great cruelty... a place that has seen complete human degradation... a place where death was a welcome release.

So much historical pain leaves something in the soul of a country, and it is possible that the most admirable aspect of the Australian psyche is the result of this pain. Australians don't follow the crowd. They don't care. The unconscious memory of their own pain conquered gave them the confidence to do what THEY thought right. In a world where the USA was in ascendance, the Australians did what they wanted, never for a moment following the US lead slavishly. Today, Australia is alone amongst all Western countries to be relatively unscathed by the global financial meltdown.


Anonymous said...

The Australian spirit is a wonderful thing, hard won, yet deservedly won! There were two elements behind the colonizing of the USA, religious freedom and the desire to make money. I find it interesting to be a citizen of a country that is so freely and often criticized! We are young, the difficult lessons we learn everyday will either make us or break us as the years march on!

petunialee said...

Theanne - I think the USA will pull through in time. It too knows itself well enough to be independent in thought and action. I wish my own country had that faith in itself.

We used to have the intellectual courage to think independently and create solutions for our own needs. In the past 10 years however, we've been following US experts around like puppies.

petunialee said...

Theanne - US experts are well and good... and exerts on USA, but we are different and should not blindly follow fads that worked well for USA.

Blur Ting said...

Well written.

Anonymous said...

Petunia I agree with you totally...the world does not need to be a gigantic USA...nations need to retain their individuality and what has worked for them for centuries!