Monday 31 March 2014

The republican debate in late nineteenth century Australia

Tony Abbott’s anachronistic reintroduction of the imperial honours system last week has reignited the republican debate in Australia. David Morris, national director of the Australian Republican Movement, has gone so far as to declare that the prime minister's announcement has ‘given us a big shot in the arm’. While Morris admits ‘we won't get a republic while Tony Abbott is prime minister… he may help us get there’; and points out that ARM membership has grown steadily since Abbott swore allegiance to the Queen when he became Prime Minister in 2013.

One of the biggest challenges facing the republican movement is the consistently strong support for Queen Elizabeth and the continuing fascination with the ‘celebrity monarchy’ appeal of William, Kate and baby George. Nevertheless, Malcolm Turnbull and other republicans are confident that there are far more Elizabethans than monarchists in Australia and that once the Queen dies the republic will become a reality.

Yet regardless of one’s position on the republican debate, it would be foolhardy to underestimate the tenacious persistence of the monarchy in Australia. There is nothing inevitable about the path leading towards a republic, as this excerpt from the Goulburn Evening Penny Post makes clear. Although this opinion piece was written in 1888, its arguments in favour of a republic are remarkably similar to those used today, over 125 years later. Perhaps most sobering for contemporary opponents of constitutional monarchy is the Post’s belief in the persuasive power of these arguments as well as its optimism in 1888 that an Australian republic was just around the corner.

Goulburn Evening Penny Post 26 May 1888

‘…[T]he mysterious influence, the occult restraining power, designated in euphonious phrase by Lord Carrington as loyalty to her gracious Majesty's throne and person, is waning rapidly. As it dies away the oppressing influence of republicanism grows….

Quite recently it was perilous to mention the British throne in any other terms than those of unqualified adoration…. We ourselves have been roundly condemned for hinting that the Queen was only a woman and subject to all the infirmities and disabilities of fallible mortals. Times have changed, and any criticism, so long as it did not trench on coarseness, would pass muster to-day. This is not mere carelessness, though even that would prove that the general sentiment was undergoing an alteration, but may be traced to the development of a fixed idea that we have outgrown the time of colonial office apron strings and that our course lies in an altogether different direction.

Her Majesty may be all that she is said to be, may be anxious to concede all that a democratic people really requires, may be the soul of honour and the quintessence of charity, may, in short, have no thought or care apart from the welfare of the millions in many lands over whom an accident has called her to exercise the rights of sovereignty…but whether she is a paragon of excellence or not matters very little to Australians. The increasing objection is not to the person but to the system  - not to Victoria but to Monarchy….

[A]nd when we reckon up the changed utterances in the press, and note the obvious reversal in public thought generally, we are quite justified in believing that loyalty is waning very rapidly in this colony. It is not so much a strong antagonism to the present system of government as a belief that there is a better system. So freedom grows. The Australian national spirit cannot develop healthily so long as we are subject to Downing-street. In peaceful times the cramping process is not readily apparent; but when a crisis arrives and serious questions involving vast issues come to the front the hampering influences of the Colonial Office are very perceptible….

These matters, apart from their immediate influence, naturally tend to make Australians ask themselves whether, all things considered, they would not gain rather than lose by politely and in a friendly manner substituting the national flag for the British standard on Government House. No ill will against England or English interests actuates them in propounding this and similar questions. As children grow towards maturity they unconsciously withdraw from the go-carts of maternal care. Their respect and affection undergo no organic change; but circumstances alter cases, and independence both of thought and action is inherent in true manhood….

In the nonchalant attitude displayed by the masses here towards the English throne is the germ of the true Australian national party, and it must grow into form and power. We are not yet a republic, but a very slight ruffling of our feelings would precipitate the crisis and transform us into one. All the elements, in a crude state, are with us, and the rest will follow in due time.’

The Goulburn Penny Post was accessed via Trove (

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Amahashi: African rickshaw pullers in early twentieth century Durban

African rickshaw pullers, or amahashi (horses), were an indispensible part of Durban’s transport system in the early twentieth century; and by the time this postcard was produced by Sallo Epstein & Co in about 1907 their distinctive and elaborate costumes had already become a tourist attraction.

Rickshaws were first imported into Natal in 1892 and from the outset were hired out to African pullers. Their popularity as a means of transport is reflected in the dramatic rise in the numbers of new vehicles and pullers on Durban’s streets: in 1899 about 740 rickshaws were in daily use, and 11 445 pullers were registered; by 1902 there were 2170 rickshaws and over 24 000 pullers. At the turn of the twentieth century it was estimated that some 3400 people spent an average of 9d daily on rickshaw travel in Durban alone.

As Ros Posel points out, African rickshawmen occupied an anomalous position within Durban’s African labour market for they were ‘freelance’ operators who hired their vehicles from rickshaw-owning businesses. While it was a flexible occupation and could be remunerative, it was also hazardous; in 1904 Durban’s superintendent of police Richard Alexander testified to the South African Native Affairs Commission that most rickshawmen only worked for between two and three months either because of ill health (especially pneumonia) brought on by the gruelling nature of the job, or because they quickly tired of pulling.

Although vulnerable to exploitation, the dependence of Durban’s transport system on rickshaws meant that collective action by pullers could help to protect employment conditions. When in 1918 the city’s largest rickshaw company, Durban Rickshas Ltd, raised its hiring fees from 10s to 12s per week, pullers successfully went on strike. However, subsequent industrial action and protests, such as those in 1930, were less effective.

Shortly after rickshaws were introduced, Superintendent Alexander proposed that pullers should wear a distinctive uniform to facilitate their identification by police. This uniform was originally an unbleached calico ‘kitchen suit’ trimmed with a single row of red braid; rickshawmen, however, soon modified it by adding other rows and allowing the braids to hang down on each side. They also patterned their legs with whitewash, wore reed bangles, and tied boxes of seeds around their ankles that rattled as they moved. They also adopted decorative headdresses, which usually consisted of ox horns, through which it was believed the ox’s strength would be imparted to the puller.

The rise of motorized transport throughout the twentieth century meant that there were only ten operating rickshaws left in Durban by the early 1980s. Six of the rickshawmen interviewed by Ros Posel around this time had been pulling for over thirty years. Five were members of the Mandlakazi clan from Nongoma, which by tradition supplied pullers; and four of these men had followed their fathers into the business, including Shampiyise Nxumalo, whose grandfather ‘began that tradition’.


Sallo Epstein & Co. ‘A Riksha boy’, circa 1907. Postcard in JM’s possession.

Ros Posel, ‘The Durban Ricksha Pullers’ “Strikes” of 1918 and 1930’ in Journal of Natal and Zulu History VIII, 1985, pp. 85-106; ‘Amahashi: Durban’s Ricksha Pullers’ in Journal of Natal and Zulu History XIII, 1990-91, pp. 51-70.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Drunkenness and disorder in early nineteenth century Sydney

Sydney's binge-drinking culture and its implications for public order and safety have been making headline news since the beginning of the year; and the O'Farrell government's new alcohol lockout laws are the just the latest in a long line of state-led initiatives to curb public drunkenness and alcohol-related violence.

And yet excessive alcohol consumption has been a feature of Sydney's night life since the beginnings of European settlement, and the law has long been used to punish the drunk and disorderly, as the following police reports from the early 1830s make clear:

POLICE INCIDENTS (The Sydney Herald, 9 August 1832)

Ann Smith, found on Sunday evening rather queer in the Market-place, dancing a Dutch horn-pipe in the middle of a score of men, who were whistling in concert, as she jigged, was placed at the bar. By way of defence, she said she merely went in there out of the rain, and to keep her blood in circulation, she certainly did trip it on the light fantastic toe. The Bench ordered her to pay five shillings. "No, no," said Ann, " I know a trick worth two of that." In consequence, she was escorted by one of the politest Charleys to the stocks.

POLICE INCIDENTS (The Sydney Herald, 1 October 1832)

Maria Sparkes, puffing and blowing from obesity, was placed at the bar, after some slight show of resistance, charged with being over valorous the previous night, under the influence of a good draft of Dutch courage, and threatening, while in that state, to decimate the charleys at the very least, and brandishing a cudgel, told them to come on, she did not care a fig for them; this request was complied with, and after a little skirmishing, they were obliged to carry her to the lock-up, as she refused to walk.
Bench. - What defence have you to make ?
Maria. - Defence, eh ! what apology are those fellows going to make, who sculldragged me through the streets last night; was that the way to treat a decent woman like me.
Bench. - You should not have got drunk. You must go to the stocks for two hours.
Maria. - Ah, well, that's the way of the world. I don't much like the stocks, but I'll put up with it, rather than dump up; good bye.

POLICE INCIDENTS (The Sydney Herald, 17 October 1833)

Two seamen belonging to a vessel in the harbour, were amusing themselves on Sunday night last, about the hour of eleven, in George-street, by roaring out in unison, at the top of their lungs, "Tom Starboard's a lad you'd delight in;" when an officer of Police interrupted their harmony, by his interrogatories. They stated they were clerks in the Secretary's Office, and begged to be allowed to withdraw; their tarry hands, and beard bedizened muzzles, however, were too conspicuous to allow them to pass for clerks in so respectable an office, and they were lodged in the watch-house, to allow them time to give a better account of themselves.

These newspaper reports were accessed via Trove (

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Snapshot: vignettes from the Australian and South African past

Welcome to Snapshot!

This blog is devoted to publicising short historical snippets from 19th and 20th C Australia and South Africa. In the coming months I'll be posting and commenting on a wide range of old newspaper stories, photographs, archival documents and associated ephemera. As a novice blogger I'd appreciate any comments, questions and suggestions you may have. Enjoy!