Who reads Captain Marryat today? Certainly, with his rousing adventure stories in which good trumps evil under the wise hand of Providence, he is not the kind of author who would make it onto the national curriculum. And he was writing at a time (he retired from the sea to write in 1830 and died in 1848) when the British Empire was in full expansion mode, with all the disastrous consequences that that is said to have inflicted on the planet, among them, according to post-colonialist historians in our own country, the white settlement of Australia. If you consulted some kind of cosmic central casting saying you needed a racist-imperialist author to hold up as an example of all that correct opinion now considers reprehensible in nineteenth-century British attitudes, and Kipling was already booked, Frederick Marryat would do just as well.
And yet, one wonders. Did British empire-builders and explorers really hold the arrogant and superior attitudes to other races and nations commonly imputed to them in the modern academy? Or is that an Aunt Sally thought up by the academy itself to mock and deride the patriotism and pride in our history that is so uncongenial to the dealers in Marxist-lite platitudes whose views constitute contemporary intellectual orthodoxy?
Perhaps some did hold those attitudes, though I suspect that it is unlikely any servant of the empire with the liberal classical education of the day did. Could an arrogant believer in the unique virtue of Britishness have written the lucid and realistic account of the rise and fall of his own country's fortunes that Marryat offers in Chapter XXVII of his Masterman Ready, the novel I have been reading?
It is clear from the conclusion but not from the text that Marryat intended Masterman Ready as a children's book, in which case either my taste is infantile or it is one of those happy children's books which appeal just as much if not more to adults, such as Richmal Crompton's William stories. In any event, the tale tells of a shipwrecked family, the Seagraves, marooned on an uninhabited South Seas island in the company of the second mate of the lost ship, the eponymous Masterman Ready. The book was published in 1841 but set probably 25 years earlier.
Mr Seagrave is a cultivated man, a colonial official who was bringing his family back to Sydney after home leave in England when their ship was wrecked. During the days the family and Ready work from dawn to dusk building a house and cultivating a garden in expectation of a long sojourn on the island. Ready is the acknowledged leader of the group, a class inversion of the sort later examined by J. M. Barrie in his play The Admirable Crichton. Mr and Mrs Seagrave and Ready are by today's standards unfashionably devout and give thanks to God morning and night for their preservation. Before evening prayers, Mr Seagrave spends some time on the instruction of his eldest son, William, a twelve-year-old full of such nowadays outmoded attributes as character and self-help, and it is in the course of one of these lessons that the account I refer to is given.
Mr Seagrave has explained to William what colonies are and how they are acquired, and how the most successful of the colonising nations since the days of the Romans was "Portugal, that was once the most enterprising nation in the world [but] is now a mere cipher." "'Now, father, answer me another question,'" says William. "'Will England ever fall, and be of no more importance than Portugal is now?'
"'We can only decide that question by looking into history,'" replies Mr Seagrave, "'and history tells us that such is the fate of all nations. We must, therefore, expect that it will be the fate of our own dear country. At present we see no appearance of it, any more than we perceive the latent seeds of death in our own bodies; but still the time arrives when man must die, and so it must be with nations. Did the Portuguese, in the height of their prosperity, ever think that they would be reduced to what they are now? Would they have believed it? Yes, my boy, the English nation must in time meet with the fate of all others. There are various causes which may hasten or protract the period: but, sooner or later, England will be no more mistress of the seas, or boast of her possessions all over the world.'"
Queen Victoria had been on the throne for four years when those words were written. Was not that the height of an era in which Britain is now generally supposed to have been in the full flood of its rapacity, its greed masquerading as a mission to civilise as it aggressively expropriated other people's wealth and territories to establish an empire on which the sun would never set? If so, Captain Marryat, through Mr Seagrave, would seem to have been atypical in taking a more realistic view of his country's imperial prospects.
As to the number one evil in today's canon of wrongdoing, "racism", Mr Seagrave has no illusions about the intrinsic superiority of any national or ethnic group. "'Recollect," he tells his son, "'that when the Roman Empire was in the height of its power Great Britain was peopled by mere barbarians and savages. Now Rome has disappeared, and is only known in history and by the relics of its former greatness, while England ranks among the highest of nations. How is the major portion of the continent of Africa peopled - by barbarians and savages: and who knows what they may become some future day?'
"'What!'" says William, in a reaction more in conformity with the modern stereotype, "'the negroes become a great nation?'
"'That,'" replies his father, "'is exactly what the Romans might have said in former days. What? the British barbarians become a great nation? And yet they have become so.'" Colour, Mr Seagrave goes on to explain, is no barrier to civilisation and accomplishment. "'As to the darkness of the skin, the majority of the Moors are quite as black as the negroes, yet they were once a great nation, and, moreover, the most enlightened nation of their time, with a great many excellent qualities - full of honour, generosity, politeness and chivalry. They conquered and held the major part of Spain for many hundred years, introduced arts and sciences then unknown, and were as brave and heroic as they were virtuous and honourable.'" (Perhaps Mr Seagrave would not have regarded a second Islamification of parts of Europe predicted by the writer Mark Steyn and others as anything to be alarmed about.)
If the racial terminology is a little strong for contemporary sensibilities the sentiments are impeccable. As impeccable as those of the maligned Kipling at the other end of Victoria's reign when, in Recessional, the hymn he wrote for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, he foresaw a time when Britain would have to face the fact that
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Perhaps in one way Marryat and Mr Seagrave were wrong that there was nothing historically out of the ordinary about the British. Must there not be a quality beyond the commonplace in a culture whose most articulate voices, at the height of their country's prosperity and attainment, understand that decay inevitably awaits and who can express their awareness in words that still speak to anyone with ears to listen in an era of rising and declining global powers?
13 March 2014
In these times when we are all concerned about national reconciliation it's sad to see there's been a bit of a spat in the Welcome to Country industry. A lady invited to deliver the welcome for the opening of Parliament in Canberra has been told she is not of the right persuasion. The lady, with the quintessentially Aboriginal name of Matilda House, was to have welcomed MPs to Parliament on behalf of the Ngunnawal people, on whose land, supposedly, our national capital stands. But Matilda has now identified herself with a different tribal group, the Ngambri, with whom the Ngunnawal folk are in dispute about Canberra's pre-colonial proprietorship. A spokeswoman for the latter, one "Auntie" (what's Auntie in Ngunnawal?) Agnes Shea, says she is "distressed" by the thought that what she dismisses as "a Ngambri person" should "speak for her people".
So much for national unity. But whether her gig goes ahead or not, Matilda can console herself that she's done quite nicely out of the Welcome industry already. Last November she collected $10,500 for graciously welcoming legislators into her country for the opening of the 44th parliament. Nice work if you can get it.
Perhaps more interesting is the payment category into which Matilda's welcome fell. It is listed in the parliamentary accounts as "Entertainment services".
What a prospect this opens up. If Welcomes to Country are entertainment, here's a wonderful opportunity to get away from the stale unvarying ritual of aunties and elders reminding the whitefella that he's a guest on their land and brighten up the ceremonies with some real show business. Hitherto being welcomed to their own country has been a supererogatory penance bien-pensants engage in to liberate their wishy-washy consciences from self-generated guilt - one of those dreary things, along with walks for reconciliation, that do nothing to benefit any Aboriginal other than the well remunerated welcomers, who must be the only people to enjoy them. But turn them into entertainment and everyone can have a happy time.
Matilda and Auntie Agnes themselves have a perfect opportunity to start the process of livening things up. Why don't they both share the Welcome to the next parliamentary opening and turn it into a floor show, taking as a cue their difference over who should be conducting the event, and slug their way to a resolution of the dispute by means of traditional ritual combat? If spears and nulla nullas are disallowed on Health & Safety grounds, there's always handbags and high heels or slapping and hair-pulling - as long as the two ladies remember that this is entertainment and don't get carried away into pursuing their claims to the point of spilling blood. Parliament is not the Colosseum. That other traditional method of female contest, mud-wrestling, might also be going too far, even if there must be plenty of male MPs who like watching feminine pastimes of this sort on the Internet. One doesn't want to offend the dignity of the legislature. Just an old-fashioned scratch-and-bite, the kind that used to take place outside the ladies' lounges of working-class pubs after too many shandies, is all that's needed.
For more wholesome entertainment, how about whichever of the aunties emerges victorious from the contest hosting a karaoke Welcome with Pat Dodson in his hat as celebrity guest and MPs singing along? There may not be an extensive repertoire of Aboriginal songs to sing along to but everyone loves "I've been everywhere, man" and "Tie me kangaroo down" - indeed one could think of inviting Rolf and his third leg as additional performers but perhaps not just now when he has so much on his mind.
If Matilda and Agnes are not themselves entertainers, professional that is, thought should be given to widening the entertainment potential of Welcomes to Country by signing up some genuine troupers as welcomers. It doesn't matter if they're not Aboriginal - the degree of Aboriginality in the current corps of welcomers seems pretty exiguous at times. It is a pity that Joan Sutherland is no longer available to sing a soprano Welcome, or Peter Allen to give us his popular patriotic "I Still Call Australia Home" (should Matilda could take singing lessons and adapt his words to: "You Can't Call Australia Your Home"?) A Welcome with pretty Marieke Hardy and her hilarious wit would be a treat - though not in front of children - or for those who prefer the more mature entertainer, Bert Newton.
Entertainer-welcomers seeking artistic inspiration could do worse than follow the prescriptions set out by Judy Garland in the 1952 MGM song-and-dance number "That's Entertainment". Among the things that entertain people there's
A clown with his pants falling down
Who better than Mr Thompson to fill that role? Though sadly no longer in Parliament, there's nothing to stop him being commissioned as a welcomer. Or from the same song:
Some great Shakespearian scene
Where a ghost and a prince meet and everyone ends in mincemeat
Change Shakespearian to colonial and a ghost and a prince to invader and invaded and you'd have a dramatic charade straight out of Henry Reynolds.
A chorus number would be fun, with
The lights on the lady in tights
and a full spangles-and-ostrich-feathers line-up of Matilda and the Welcomettes, the latter recruited from the Children's Coalition Against Climate Change, whose terpsichorean talents were on display in their recent YouTube publicity clip.
A further source of inspiration is the world of gender politics, where, to avoid sexual "stereotypes", role reversal is much in vogue (small boys playing with dolls, lesbians as fathers). Instead of always being welcomed, why shouldn't MPs welcome the welcomers and lecture them on the number of massacres of Anglo settlers by Matilda's forebears?
That mightn't get much of a laugh, but what Welcome to Country does? We need the popular touch of the impresario to lift these events of salutary national self-awareness out of a rut. Till now the only entertaining thing ever known to happen at one of them was at the Melbourne Function Centre last year when the Welcome smoking ceremony set off the fire alarms. But treat them as the entertainment the House of Representatives accounts department obviously thinks they are and every Welcome could be an event to look forward to, rather than to sit through and feel half-guilty half virtuous about.
And if show-biz Welcomes to Country become hot hits, the commercially intelligent next step is to bring them to a wider audience via TV. This would be a natural for the Seven Network. Stand by for My Welcome Rules with Matilda and Agnes as first contenders.
31 January 2014