Many Australians, and in fact many people the world over, are under the mistaken impression that “Terra Australis Incognita” was used to refer to Australia. In fact, the term terra australis goes back much further than the discovery of New Holland (Australia).

The concept that the Indian Ocean must be enclosed by a large, unknown land in the south which acted as a counter balance to the land mass of the north, was first posited by Aristotle and expanded upon later by Ptolemy (1st century AD). Cartographers argued that Aristotle’s theory was logical, and insisted that the south land must exist. Although explorative expeditions reduced the amount of area the great continent was meant to cover over time, it was still thought that New Zealand was certainly a part of the continent, as were Africa and Australia.

In 1615, Jacob le Maire and Willhelm Schouten rounded Cape Horn and proved that the southern land was in fact separated from South America, and Abel Tasman’s 1642 circumnavigation of New Holland proved that Australia was not a part of the mythical continent. Finally, Captain James Cook made a circumnavigation of the globe on a high, southerly latitude, proving that if such a continent did exist, it must lie well within the polar regions and could not possibly extend into temperate zones as previously thought.

The romantic in me, inspired me to take terra australis incognita as the title of this post, and I must beg forgiveness if it was misleading. I would love to believe that Australia is the ‘unknown land’ referred to in the old myth, but alas it is not so.

That doesn’t mean to say, however, that Australia is not a land of mystery and intrigue in her own right. In her short and often violent history since her discovery and settlement, there are a wealth of inspirational stories to be told.

From a ‘Macaroni’ perspective, Australia offers an abundance of opportunities for m/m historical stories just begging to be told. From the outset Australia’s male population greatly exceeded the female population, a situation that was not remedied for many years.

Australia’s history abounds with stories – true ones – of deep bonds of love and affection between male partners.

One such record, discovered in the archives office of Tasmania, has become known as the ‘Dear Lover’ letter. It was written by a male convict facing execution, to his male lover and is a remarkable document, not only in its content, but in the fact that it survived.

“Dear Lover,
I hope you won’t forget me when I am far away and all my bones is mouldered away. I have not closed an eye since I have lost sight of you. Your precious sight was always a welcome and loving charming spectacle. Dear Jack, I value death nothing but it is in leaving you my dear behind and no one to look after you….
Your true and loving
affectionate lover.”

Records from the Norfolk Island Penal settlement “speak of some 100-150 [same sex] couples who consorted together and were referred to as husband and wife.” (Robert French Historian/Archivist – The Hidden History of Homosexual Australia DVD distributed by Madman 2004)

There is evidence of lesbian activity in the records of the Tasmanian Women’s Factory. One such record relates to an incident in 1842 when superintendent John Hutchinson went to investigate a disturbance at around 8pm. Looking in at a window, he identified five women – Ellen Arnold, Elisabeth Armstrong, Frances Hutchinson, Eliza Smith and Mary Deverena – who were:

“dancing perfectly naked, and making obscene attitudes towards each other, they were also singing and shouting and making use of most disgusting language. There was a sixth woman but I could not positively swear to her, the disgusting attitudes towards each other were in imitation of men and women together.”
(http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-August-1997/damousi.html)

In the 1830’s, The Mouldsworth Inquiry into the colonies discussed the question of whether the colonies would be granted self-government. This inquiry turned up so much evidence of homosexual activity that the chief justice of the time called Australia a Sodom in the South Pacific. (The Hidden History of Homosexual Australia DVD distributed by Madman 2004)

Although caution in the evaluation of evidence from the report is advisable due to the fact that the reason for the inquiry was an attempt to stop convicts from being sent to Australia, it is also reasonable to think that because Australia was a penal colony, such activities could and did occur.

The stories I have referred to in this article are not even the tip of the iceberg of Australia’s homosexual history. From bushrangers to men of influence to ‘passing women,’ there is bound to be a story to suit every taste buried somewhere in the archives of this young, but unique southern land.

The Shearers’ strike of 1891 is a pivotal event in Australian history which was responsible for the inception of the Australian Labor party and is also commemorated in Queensland by Labor Day which falls in May.

Why it happened

There is a widely held, but erroneous view that the Shearers’ strike of 1891 started when, in response to falling wool prices, agriculturalists attempted to lower the shearers’ wage, which was already low enough at one pound per hundred shorn.

The average shearer today can shear between 200-250 sheep in a day, but he is working with the advantage of electric or ‘machine’ shears.

In 1891, shearers used hand operated shears. Imagine trying to shear 100 sheep using these:


Old Style Hand Shears


Hand Shearing

How it Started

On the 5th of January, 1891, Charles Fairbairn, the manager of Logan Downs Station near Clermont attempted to get shearers to sign a Pastoralists Association contract of free labor in an attempt to reduce the influence of the shearers’ union. None of the shearers would sign, and they all declined to work under any agreement other than the verbal agreement of their union which included “continuance of the existing rates of pay, protection of their rights and privileges under just and equitable agreements, and a “closed shop” to exclude scabs or Chinese labor.”[1]

The Worker A prominent republican paper of the time, issued by the famous William Lane, carried the following rallying line in one article: “you can take all social injustices and industrial inequalities and vested interests and strangle them one by one with your million muscled hands.” which reflected the radical republicanism of the times, especially in the city of Brisbane.

In February 1891, the center of the strike moved to Barcaldine, an advantageous place to mount a strike because it was the terminus of the railway line from Rockhampton and at the center of the Mitchell district, the richest pastoral area of the colony which held some thirty farms, including Beaconsfield Station, one of the largest sheep farms in Australia.

Within a very short time, the Shearers’ camps at Logan Creek and Blue Bush Swamp swelled to between 400-500 men.

By March of 1891 the battle lines were firmly drawn when the Pastoralists Association brought in ‘free laborers’. These free laborers were referred to as ‘scabs’* by the shearers’ and faced booing and jeers from the striking men, with many of them being persuaded to join the strike.

This was not to be tolerated, and the colonial authorities ordered troopers to protect the free laborers. Troopers rode from woolshed to woolshed, driving off the strikers. When striking unionists were arrested, woolsheds and crops were burned in retaliation.

Unionists marched at Clermont and Barcaldine under the proud Southern Cross flag of the Eureka Stockade Diggers and when the military mounted parades of their own in response, the situation grew so tense that shots were close to being fired.


The Eureka Flag

The End of the Strike

In June of 1891 troopers rode to the camp at Capella to arrest unionists involved in the jostling of George Fairbairn at Clermont Railway station. The Union office at Barcaldine was surrounded by 120 mounted infantry who arrested the strike committee.

The committee members were charged with sedition and conspiracy. They each received three year gaol terms, and the further punishment upon release of two hundred pound, twelve month good behaviour bonds.

It was a crushing blow to the movement, and by the end of June, the strike had collapsed.

The end of the strike, however, was not the end of the argument, so to speak. Calls for a political party to protect the interests of the Australian Worker became more insistent as time wore on, leading to the creation of The Australian Labor Party which still exists today and is currently the party holding majority in Australia with the election in late 2007 of Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.

Whether the Labor party as we know it today would pass muster with the proud and indomitable shearers of 1891, is a matter for conjecture and not within the scope of this article.

The actions of the shearers in 1891, though, are worthy of commemoration. May 6th marks the anniversary of this turbulent and pivotal time in Australian History remembering the men who fought to see all workers in Australia get a fair go.

Meg Leigh (C) 2008

Suggested Reading:

1. http://members.ozemail.com.au/~natinfo@ozemail.com.au/1shearer.htm

2. http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/1891-Australian-shearers%27-strike

3. http://jackhowe.com.au/index.htm

*Scab is a derogative term still used in Australia today, to refer to anyone who agrees to come in and work on a site that is affected by a strike.

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