The day of small things endeth

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‘Wars, revolutions, earthquakes…the invention of the motor car and airplane, the discovery of X-Rays, radium, and Tutankhamen’s tomb’; these, Brady noted, were regarded as some of the ‘major events’ of his time. ‘But what about the major events of our individual lives?’, he pondered. What are the key moments, the turning points, that make us who we are? Standing with his father on a cliff-top near Watson’s Bay, the young Edwin Brady experienced such a moment. There, for the first time, was the sea: ‘Out to the horizon, to the edge of the world, to the Beyond where other countries, islands and continents lay, it spread like a level blue plain—the Sea’. 1

Brady’s lifelong fascination with the sea had begun, but there was something more. The feeling of space, of distant horizons, of places and experiences that lay ‘beyond’: these were obsessions that fed his restless journeying, and shaped his understanding of land as well as sea. The possibilities of space were central to the creed of ‘Australia unlimited’. ‘From sea to sea’, Australia was ‘one vast continent of undeveloped riches’. 2 The so-called ‘waste spaces’ would power the nation’s future, providing ample resources for at least 100 million people. It was, Brady argued, ‘a matter of simple arithmetic’: ‘if a Mildura will carry 5,000 people on 10,000 acres, 200,000 acres of equivalent land, on the banks of the Darling River, will carry 100,000 people’. 3

Calculations based on ‘comparative statistics’ were a popular means of assessing the value of Australia’s continental possession. In his guise as correspondent for the Morning Post, Alfred Deakin described how the achievement of Federation brought much earnest discussion of the new nation’s ‘future potentialities’. ‘One most vivid illustration’, he reported, ‘consists of a map of our Continent, within whose great extent are pictured all Europe—except Russia and Scandinavia—with a large surplus margin’. 4 Others noted that Australia’s spatial endowments compared favourably with those of their American cousins. Surely, then, the new nation’s prospects could be foreseen in the rapid growth and development of the United States.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, size mattered. With the nations of Europe jostling for land and colonial possessions, space became an index of power. Expansion was assumed to be a natural process, essential for the continued health of the modern state, and those countries with room to spare, like Russia, were warily marked down as the ones to watch. 5 In the USA, the significance of space found expression in the frontier thesis. Continued expansion along an open frontier, it was argued, had shaped the very qualities of American democracy. 6 But even as politicians and historians pointed to the value of ‘empty’ space, they filled it with hope and vitality. It was, as Joel Kern argues, ‘positive negative space’, full of activity, full of potential, full of the future. 7 Amongst the greetings and well-wishes that greeted the achievement of Federation was a message from the US Vice-President and frontier ideologue, Theodore Roosevelt. Those who were ‘awake to the great movements of our time’, he commented, would ‘watch with keen interest’ the activities of ‘the giant young Commonwealth of the South Seas’. 8 Australia was big with promise.

Space carried with it the weight of destiny, driving the colonies onwards to union, and thereafter to greatness. Australia’s vast land mass made Federation seem a natural, evolutionary change. ‘Girt by sea’ and united by soil, the colonies were merely following the call of geography. 9 Edmund Barton’s famous rallying-cry—‘a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation’—highlighted Australia’s spatial mission. 10 A united Australia would fill its continental boundaries, expanding its activities and influence, and enlarging the lives of its citizenry. In this, ‘the day of great nationalities’, commented the Age in 1895, small communities were inevitably giving way to ‘large aggregations’. 11 Bigger was better. In ‘The Psalm of United Australia’, Morgan Hawkes proclaimed that Australia’s history had entered upon ‘a higher, grander stage’: ‘Broad, far-reaching vistas open, and the day of small things endeth!’. 12

On 1 January 1901, the people of Sydney celebrated the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia with marching and maps. ‘How many people during the last few weeks have been drawing maps?’, asked the Age’s correspondent, ‘The public buildings are placarded with acres of them.’ 13 Maps portrayed both the achievement of Federation and the challenge of nationhood. Within its new boundaries, this much praised union remained mostly empty. The maps were blank. While, as Deakin noted, this emptiness could serve as a measure of Australia’s ‘potentialities’, it was also, the Sydney Morning Herald remarked, something of a ‘puzzle’. 14 Australia’s destiny lay in the fulfilment of its vast, empty spaces, but how?

The tramp of marching feet signalled part of the answer. The procession that wound its way through Sydney streets was of largely traditional fare—soldiers and dignitaries—but as marchers battled oppressive heat to cover the allotted distance, they were playing out a larger story. It was a story Banjo Paterson had told in his ‘Song of the future’; a story of pioneers, a ‘ westward marching host’, who battled through drought and suffering to answer the call ‘Of “better country further out”’. 15 It was the march of progress, a journey both real and symbolic. If Australia was to achieve its destiny, its distances had to be known and conquered.



Notes:

  1. Edwin James Brady, ‘Life’s highway – extracts (continued)’, Southerly, vol. 14, no. 1, 1953, pp. 25-6.
  2. Brady, Australia Unlimited, p. 636.
  3. Brady, ‘Can the dead heart of Australia be revived?’, p. 5.
  4. Alfred Deakin, Federated Australia: selections from letters to the Morning Post, 1900-1910, ed. JA La Nauze, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1968, p. 19.
  5. Stephen Kern, The culture of time and space, 1880-1918, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1983, pp. 224-55
  6. Kern, The culture of time and space, 1880-1918, pp. 164-6, 238-9.
  7. ibid., p. 153.
  8. The Review of Reviews for Australasia, vol. 18, no. 4, 20 April 1901, p. 408.
  9. John Hirst, The sentimental nation: the making of the Australian Commonwealth, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2000, pp. 15-19; Helen Irving, To constitute a nation: a cultural history of Australia’s constitution, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 31-2.
  10. Quoted in Irving, To constitute a nation, p. 32.
  11. ibid., pp. 28-9.
  12. In Richard Jordan and Peter Pierce (eds), The poets’ discovery: nineteenth-century Australia in verse, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1990, p. 433.
  13. Age, 1 January 1901, p. 5.
  14. Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), 1 January 1901, p. 8.
  15. AB (Banjo) Paterson, ‘Song of the future’, in Rosamund Campbell and Phillipa Harvie (eds), Singer of the bush, AB Paterson complete works, 1885-1900, Lansdowne, Sydney, 1983, pp. 95-8.

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