Australia Unlimited · Prologue

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The glow of his campfire framed a simple tableau of pioneer life. Across this ‘untenanted land’, Edwin Brady mused, ‘little companies’, such as his own, sat by their ‘solitary fires’. ‘They smoked pipes and talked, or watched the coals reflectively’. Around them, the ‘shadowy outlines’ of the bush merged into the dark northern night, and ‘the whispers’ of this ‘unknown’ land gathered about. It seemed to Brady that this camp, this night, represented the ‘actual life’ of the Northern Territory as he had known it. But the future weighed heavily upon that quiet, nostalgic scene. The moment would soon fade, Brady reflected, as the ‘cinematograph of Time’ rolled on. It was 1912, and something new was coming. 1

Staring into the flames of the campfire, Brady imagined he heard ‘the whistle of the Trans-continental Express’. The ‘rumble of freight trains’ followed, and the sound of water churning in the wake of ‘fast coastal steamers’. The night was filled with movement as Brady perceived an end to the north’s crippling isolation, the conquest of its ‘lonesome distances’. New industries too! The ‘chug-chug’ of sugar mills, ‘the buzzing of cotton jinnys’, ‘the clinking of harvesters’, ‘the hissing of refrigerators’—as Brady listened, ‘the thousand homely sounds of human progress’ joined in a triumphant ‘hymn of the Future’. The night’s subtle whispers were lost amidst the clamor of technology on the move. Not mere campfires, but ‘young cities’, ‘electric lit and alive with enterprise’, would soon arise to defeat the darkness. 2 This was Brady’s dream. This was progress.

Edwin James Brady, poet and journalist, visited the Northern Territory in September 1912, gathering material for his ambitious compendium of Australian developmental opportunities, Australia Unlimited. 3 Brady was travelling the country, charting the outlines of Australia’s future with his typical optimistic zeal. His trip north was drawing to a close and, as he relaxed by his last campfire, he began to ponder the transformation of the Territory. The sounds and images conjured from the night reveal much about the spirit that invigorated his work. He imagined an end to isolation and emptiness, the growth of both population and production. The future was rising like a flood, lapping at the frontiers of settlement, ready to redeem Australia’s waste lands with the regenerative flow of human ingenuity and enthusiasm. Australia’s unlimited prospects lay both in the conquest of space and the fulfillment of time. Plotted against these two axes, the upward course of progress was clear.

Progress is conceived in spatial terms, as a journey of improvement, as the march of civilisation. In a continent whose most valuable resource seemed to be its ‘emptiness’, the possibilities of space have figured prominently in assessments of Australia’s potential. Brady’s vision of ‘Australia Unlimited’ provides a useful starting point in exploring the way that ideas about space and movement have entered into the rhetoric of national progress. But just as Northern Australia’s future impinged upon Brady’s lonely campsite, so the meaning of progress can also be glimpsed in personal experience—in the life and hopes of an individual. This chapter explores Brady’s passion for travel, his love of nature, his political idealism, and his concerns for his family—for these are also part of the vision of ‘Australia unlimited’. A broader understanding of Brady’s beliefs, and of the circumstances surrounding the production of his book, provides an opportunity to examine some of the complexities of progress.



Notes:

  1. Edwin James Brady, Australia Unlimited, George Robertson and Company, Melbourne, 1918, p. 570.
  2. ibid., pp. 570-1.
  3. ibid., pp. 515ff. Some details of Brady’s travel arrangements, facilitated by the Commonwealth, are contained in NAA: A659/1, 1943/1/3907.

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